With all of the focus on new tax rates after Congress green-lighted tax reform (you can see those new rates here), it’s easy to forget that some of the biggest changes don’t have anything to do with tax rates: They’re about deductions.
For 2018, the standard deduction amounts will increase from $6,500 for individuals, $9,550 for heads of households (HOH), and $13,000 for married couples filing jointly, to $12,000 for individuals, $18,000 for HOH, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly. Most taxpayers will claim the standard deduction.
Initially, the change in the standard deduction amounts was meant to simplify the deduction scheme. In other words, most of the itemized deductions would have simply disappeared, leaving behind (initially) the charitable donation deduction and the home mortgage interest deduction. Over the past few weeks, however, those itemized deductions – those found on a Schedule A – have been tweaked.
(For a full-sized version, which will download as a pdf, click here.)
Here’s how Schedule A will be affected for the 2018 tax year following tax reform (numbers correspond to the numbers in the blue circles on Schedule A):
Medical and Dental Expenses.Medical and dental expenses remain in place with a lower floor. We call it the “floor” because you can only deduct expenses over that number. The floor – before tax reform – was 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Here’s how it worked. Let’s say your AGI is $40,000 and your medical expenses were $5,000. Assuming you itemized, you could claim $1,000 as a deduction, or $5,000 in expenses less the floor (10% x $40,000 = $4,000).
Under tax reform, the 7.5% floor is back in place for two years beginning January 1, 2017 – that means that it applies to the 2017 tax year. So assuming the same facts above, you can claim $2,000 as a deduction, or $5,000 in expenses less the floor (7.5% x $40,000 = $3,000).
Again, unlike most of the provisions in the bill, the provision is effective retroactively to the beginning of this year – so you’ll see this change on your 2017 and your 2018 tax returns.
State and Local Taxes.Under tax reform, deductions for state and local sales, income, and property taxes normally deducted on a Schedule A remain in place but are limited (see #3 below). Foreign real property taxes may not be deducted under this exception.
SALT caps.While SALT deductions remain in place, there is a cap on the aggregate, meaning that the amount that you are claiming for all state and local sales, income, and property taxes together may not exceed $10,000 ($5,000 for married taxpayers filing separately).
State, local, and foreign property taxes, and sales taxes which are deductible on Schedule C, Schedule E, or Schedule F are not capped. This means that, for example, rental property – even if held individually and not in a separate entity – remains deductible and not subject to these limitations.
And yes, Congress already knows what you’re planning, so amounts paid in 2017 for state or local income tax which is imposed for the 2018 tax year will be treated as paid in 2018. In other words, you can’t pre-pay your 2018 state and local income taxes in 2017 to avoid the cap. There is not, to date, a similar restriction for property taxes.
Home Mortgage Interest.So, first, the home mortgage interest deduction didn’t disappear. But it did get modified. Here’s what you need to know. First, the definition of acquisition indebtedness is important: It’s indebtedness that is incurred in acquiring, constructing, or substantially improving a qualified residence of the taxpayer and which secures the residence. Home equity indebtedness is indebtedness other than acquisition indebtedness that is secured by a qualified residence. Those distinctions are important (more in a moment) no matter what they’re called by you or by the bank.
As of December 15, 2017, there’s a limit on acquisition indebtedness – your mortgage used to buy, build or improve your home – of $750,000 ($375,000 for married taxpayers filing separately). For mortgages taken out before December 15, 2017, the limit is $1,000,000 ($500,000 for married taxpayers filing separately). It’s even more complicated because beginning in 2026, the cap goes back up to $1,000,000, no matter when you took out the mortgage.
And here’s where that definition is super important: For tax years 2018 through 2025, there is no deduction available for interest on home equity indebtedness.
Charitable donations.Charitable donations remain deductible under tax reform. The rules are largely the same with a few changes. First, the percentage limit for charitable for cash donations by an individual taxpayer to public charities and certain other organizations increases from 50% to 60%. Two, taxpayers are no longer entitled to deduct payments made to a college or college athletic department (or similar) in exchange for college athletic event ticket or seating rights at a stadium. Those provisions are effective beginning in 2018.
Effective beginning in 2017, the provision which allows for an exception to the substantiation rule if the donee organization files a return is repealed. What this means to taxpayers: Always get a receipt.
And if you follow me on Twitter, you already know that for some inexplicable reason, the charitable standard mileage rate will not be adjusted for inflation under tax reform. It remains at a disappointing 14 cents per mile (for other mileage rates, click here).
Casualty and Theft Losses.The deduction for personal casualty and theft losses is repealed for the tax years 2018 through 2025 except for those losses attributable to a federal disaster as declared by the President (generally, this is meant to allow some relief for victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria).
For more on casualty losses after a disaster, click here.
Job Expenses and Miscellaneous Deductions subject to 2% floor.Miscellaneous deductions which exceed 2% of your AGI will be eliminated for the tax years 2018 through 2025. This includes deductions for unreimbursed employee expenses and tax preparation expenses. To be clear, it includes expenses that you incur in your job that are not reimbursed, like tools and supplies; required uniforms not suitable for ordinary wear (like those ABBA costumes); dues and subscriptions; and job search expenses. These expenses also include unreimbursed travel and mileage, as well as the home office deduction.
Please note that the elimination of unreimbursed employee expenses only affects taxpayers who claim an employee-related deduction on Schedule A. If, as a business owner, you typically file a Schedule C, your business-related deductions are not affected by the elimination of Schedule A deductions.
Itemized Deductions.The overall limit on itemized deductions is suspended for the tax years 2018 through 2025.
Hiking is undoubtably a Bay Area pastime. When we asked our readers to share their favorite trails for a post-Thanksgiving jaunt, we received a few hundred replies from every corner of the bay — Livermore to Pescadero, Muir Beach to Mountain View, San Jose to Sonoma.
The trails include Little Yosemite, Brushy Peak and Gray Whale Cove. Some of you didn’t want to share your secret, “quiet” getaway from the hiking hordes. (“Like I’m telling. I don’t want my place to get overrun like Mission Peak,” wrote Paula Baez.) Yeah, we get it. Others quipped that their “hike” was a stroll to the fridge (Jacque Sommers) or that “relatives might get lost” (Winston Fox Nelson). And yet others shared sweet memories of the trails. (“The 8-mile trail to Point Reyes [is my favorite], mostly because it was the first of many hikes I took with the woman I married,” wrote Mark Falstein.)
Many of you did share your top picks — and pics (some with horses, dogs and kids in tow) — as well as your own telling names for trails, such as “deer tick trail” in Mount Diablo State Park, and some insider tips on park gems, like a cow named Stella in Rancho San Antonio Preserve, the abundance of banana slugs in Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve, and historic Willson Camp in Henry Coe State Park.
“It’s so hard to choose; they’re all my favorites,” wrote Barbara Baksa. Yes, we agree. And we hope some of these hikes will become new favorites for you, too.
“It’s so hard to choose; they’re all my favorites! But I’m from Fremont, so I’m going to go with Coyote Hills Regional Wilderness (Fremont, Alameda County), taking the boardwalk through the marsh, out to Alameda Creek Regional Trail, and then looping back around to the visitor center. It’s an easy hike (really more of a walk in the park) and we always see lots of pelicans, egrets, cormorants, and so many other birds.” — Barbara Baksa
Moderate 7-mile Bay View trail (cover photo above). “It offers views of the Bay from the Marin Headlands to the Gabilan Range south of Gilroy, the Peninsula west and east to Mt. Diablo, as well as a Native American archiological site. Red Hill is a nice short climb and the levees are tranquil.” — Mark Wagner
“Start with the Sequoia Bayview Trail. Gorgeous views, flat, easy … add in Palos Colorados Trail in the same park for hills and waterfalls. Moderate-short, but some steep sections. This park and adjoining Redwood Regional Park are just a few miles from downtown Oakland, filled with streams and redwoods, ferns, single track and fire roads. It is an urban oasis, dog friendly, something for everyone!” — Joyce Hayes
“The Volvon Trail loop is a moderate 5-mile hike with plenty of options to make it longer (grab a map in the parking lot). This hike is my favorite because of the quiet, open space, rolling hills, expansive skies, distant views that go on forever, and dogs are allowed. There’s hardly a soul on the trail.” —Isabella, Girl With A Truck and a Dog
“Morgan Territory is one of my favorites because of the gorgeous views, wildflowers in the spring, and it’s relatively close to my home. The Coyote Trail is almost completely in the shade and has a lovely stream during late winter/spring. Coyote is steep — great for getting in shape for Yosemite.” — Linda Wingerd Meamber
The park “in Fairfield (Solano County) is the most accessible park and closest to where I live. Trails range from easy to moderately difficult with some short, steep inclines. There is little excuse not to hike every week when this little gem is right in my backyard!” — Erika Amaya
“Little Yosemite … near my hometown Fremont, Alameda County. Real easy amble; beautiful live oaks ending at semi-seasonal waterfalls. Good for the whole family to take a stroll no matter your hiking level!” — Irina Fox
“Difficult hike in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, from Muir Beach, California, head south up Coastal Trail to Pirates Cove, pick up Coastal again up Coyote Ridge, then back to the beach via Middle Green Gulch Trail.” — Shiloh Shaeffer
“For somewhat urban hiking, Point Bonita Lighthouse. Paved trails from a parking lot, quite a descent, and you do have to pass through a tunnel bored through the rocky hill, and then over a footbridge that sits high above waves crashing against the rocky cliff-face below. Not for those with a fear of heights (or crowds).” — Jessica Sorenson Mount Tamalpais State Park
“We love the Matt Davis-Steep Ravine-Dipsea loop on Mount Tamalpais! I’d give it an easy-medium difficulty level.” — John Vanschaemelhout
“Mount Tamalpais to Muir Woods: Start at Mountain Home Inn (parking and bus stop). Take the trail down to Muir Woods. Stop for lunch at the very organic cafe. Stroll along the stream under old-growth redwood trees. Surprise the tourists with your dusty ruggedness. Take a second trail back up to Mountain Home. Bring hiking poles: this is a steep walk both down and up. You’re hiking from a ridge down into a deep valley.” — Janet Basu
“This is a picture from our hike to Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Lagunitas. This park offers the most beautiful hiking trails from easy to hard and you can spend a full day of hiking, exploring, resting and picnicking. Great place for everyone.” — Claudia Mocis
“This particular area had been my place for escape, enjoyment and exercise for years. I have particularly used the following easy access trail entrance from Annadel Heights Road (no fee and easy parking). The main entrance is subtle with a bit of signage and a steep start. Once over the hill and through a quick ravine, the trail splinters to a forested beautiful ravine to the left, or to the right up a beloved mountain bike path/fire road. Depends on your mood. Both wind up at Lake Ilsanjo, which is quiet peaceful. Multiple options to extend your route via map trail posted at the lake. I would suggest printing the trail map out ahead of time. You can start from Spring Lake (Sonoma County park) as well, which is easy walking to slight difficulty after about a mile with a brief incline.” — Julianne Odell
“McNee Ranch’s Gray Whale Cove Trail has the best the Bay Area has to offer. It’s dog friendly, has mountain and scenic views of the ocean with a good 8-mile climb to the top and back. It is a great place to escape the summer heat and get in a cool hike. You can stop at the overlook bench and admire your surroundings.” — Tracey Myers and the dogs (see below) Maverick and Wyatt Myers
“Hard to believe it’s a real place — so close to civilization. It has everything: ocean views, redwoods, waterfalls, ferns, deer, banana slugs, and is really quiet if you can get there early or on a weekday. … My favorite hikes there have been super early morning in fog. I start at the top (Skyline Boulevard) hike down North Ridge to Whittenmore (Gulch Trail), back up Purisima, across Craig Britton, and then back up Harkins. … it’s best in fog if you ask me.” — Kate Leigh
“I would also vote for Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve in San Mateo County. You can start from the top at Skyline Boulevard in Redwood City or from the bottom at Higgins Canyon Road in Half Moon Bay. The last time I was there (a couple of weeks ago) I counted 436 banana slugs and 3 newts!” — Ed Miller
“This photo is from the end of July, and it was taken from Notch Trail (between Sweeney Ridge and Skyline College) looking southwest toward Pacifica/Linda Mar. There are several reasons why I like this hike: Its convenient location/proximity from anywhere in the Bay Area, its connection to history both old (SF Bay discovery site by Portola Expedition in 1769) and more recent (Nike missile control site), and its many great views (SFO, Pacific Ocean, San Andreas reservoir.” — Pavel Jirousek
“Moderate. Good on any day year-round as long as it’s not too rainy. We did it just two weeks back. Check the view from top in photo below. We can see from San Francisco/Oakland to South San Jose (whole Silicon Valley) and Mount Diablo range across. Very beautiful. Offering variety (nature, loops, dog/no dog, bikes/no bikes.)” — Shailesh Sahasrabuddhe
“It’s NOT my favorite. My favorite is a secret. This one is a gem as it’s accessible by BART yet hidden away and tucked away. While I was there, I talked to many people hiking it, and it sort of was known as a locals-only spot. What makes this nice is it has an amazing vibe, very interesting viewpoints. It offers a good workout, plus it has something that I really love when I hike, and that’s rock formations.” — Jeanette Marie
“Park Trail in the Presidio, SF (just outside the WWII cemetery) is gorgeous when you catch the light hitting the trees, easy hiking.” — Arjun Adamson
“There are so many great choices in Santa Clara County Parks: I recommend Sanborn County Park for north county residents (shady, hills, easiest is John Nicholas Trail); Santa Teresa Park for central county (park in the Pueblo Day Use area and walk in any direction); and Harvey Bear-Coyote Lake for south county. If you’re in the south, make a family trip to the Martin Murphy Trail — a 2-mile flat loop with free parking.” — Melissa Hippard
“The Mine Hill/Randol Trail Loop (10 mile) is my favorite. Diverse landscapes and fantastic views on both sides of the hills. The historic quicksilver mining sites along the way also make it interesting to learn about the past of the area.” — Dick Lambrechts
“This (below) is Willson house (camp) located at the intersection of Wagon and Bowl Trails. … There is a picnic table, running water and modern restroom; makes for a great lunch spot. The hike in is moderate to advanced depending on what trail you choose to get to the house. The main trail, Wagon, is rolling hills with awesome views, other fingers of Wagon can be steep. … Wildlife is everywhere if you stop, look and listen. Most of the time I ride/ hike with my horse and never see anther person the entire day!” — Cindy Seminatore
“It is difficult to pick just one! Let’s choose the most recent one …
Trail: Avenue of the Noble Giants
Park: Joseph D. Grant County Park – San Jose/Mount Hamilton
Difficulty: Moderate to hard (10.7 miles)
It has beautiful views at the top (Lick Observatory, Mount Umunhum, Loma Prieta, South Bay) and the wildlife there is amazing: feral pigs, deers, foxes, bobcats, rabbits.” — Frederic Garzon
“There are days when fog lends an ethereal look to Mission Peak. This picture was taken a couple of weeks before the first major storm hit the Bay Area. I love going up on the mission because besides being a great workout, it offers beautiful views. It’s this area’s most beautiful natural gym!” — Ruhi Mehta
“Can range from easy (Lower Meadow to Deer Hollow Farm walking trails) to moderate (Wildcat Loop Trail). There are farm animals, deer, creeks, pretty views, and lots of shade along the paths. And who doesn’t love checking in with Stella the cow after?” — Cate Smith
“Black Mountain — Rhus (Ridge) parking to top. 11 miles. Close by my hometown of Menlo Park. Light traffic. Good views. Hard hike.” — Vonnie Estes
The list could go on (and yes, we’ll add to it). But for the moment, a final thought from KQED reader Cathy Hagin: “Mount Diablo, Black Diamond Mines, Morgan Territory, Mount Tamalpais … so many in the Bay Area; we are very fortunate to have so much beauty surrounding us.”
Did we miss a trail/park? Share your hiking picks with the reporter: email@example.com
Miranda Leitsinger has worked in journalism as a reporter and editor since 2000, including seven years at The Associated Press in locales such as Cambodia and Puerto Rico, four years at NBC News Digital in New York and 2.5 years at CNN.com International in Hong Kong. Major stories she has covered included the aftermath of the 2004 and 2011 tsunamis, the initial military hearings at Guantanamo, the Aurora movie theater attack, the Newtown school shooting, Superstorm Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or https://www.facebook.com/mirandasleitsinger/
This was supposed to be the Ekblad family’s first Christmas in their new home, a four-bedroom near a park in Ventura, that they stretched their budget to buy.
Allie Ekblad, 32, says she was ready for the holiday: For once, she had finished Christmas shopping early for her husband, Matt, 2-year-old Jace and 8-month-old Ava.
“The one year I’m ahead of everything,” she says, sighing. “I had everyone done, including the kids, stockings, the extended family. All done.”
Now the Ekblads are scrambling to re-create this year’s Christmas preparations — and everything else in their lives — from scratch. Like hundreds of other families in Southern California, their house burned in the Thomas Fire, which has scorched an area larger than New York City and is on the verge of becoming the largest fire in California history.
I’ll Never Get That Back
When the family evacuated to Allie’s father’s house about 20 miles away, they thought they’d be coming right back.
“We lost everything,” Allie says. “We had an overnight bag, we had the monitors, my son’s teddy bear that he’s attached at the hip to, thank God.”
Her husband, Matt, would usually be working right now — he’s been a firefighter for over a decade, battling wildfires like the one that took their house. Instead, Matt’s colleagues are picking up his shifts while he and Allie scramble to mail insurance paperwork, find temporary housing, make calls about rebuilding and try to find their footing.
The Ekblads have seen a flood of support from strangers and friends as they try to figure out their next steps. A GoFundMe page set up by a friend has raised more than $50,000 — and the company where Allie works in marketing is matching the donations.
Allie is grateful and a bit embarrassed by all the help, she says. Even though the kids’ Christmas gifts are gone, they will get presents from donated toys. But she says the magnitude of the loss makes it hard to crack a smile.
“I wish this happened when we didn’t have kids,” she says. “Because there is stuff I can never replace for [Jace]. Little things like his first curl, his first piece of hair, his baby footprints. Stuff like that. I’ll never get that back.”
One piece of Christmas magic amid the rubble: Allie found the family safe, burned to a crisp. But a container inside it survived. Allie was just 18 when her mother died, leaving behind her jewelry, with a letter for each piece representing a milestone that they would not be able to celebrate together. Allie still has that precious jewelry container, and in it her mother’s pearls that she opened on her wedding day, seven years after her mother’s death.
Nancy and Jay Blomquist stand outside the Local Assistance Center in Ventura, with their twins, Alexander and Olivia. The family wears masks to protect themselves from the ash and smoke in the air from the Thomas Fire. (Leila Fadel/NPR)
The city of Ventura has set up a range of services to help families displaced by the Thomas Fire. There’s a website with information about evacuations, boil water orders and air quality. A Local Assistance Center is open seven days a week to help fire victims who have lost everything get their affairs in order. The recent disaster looms over the assistance center; the hillside behind the building is scorched. Inside, fire victims move from table to table, replacing burned licenses and asking about insurance, aid and when their neighborhood might be open again.
Single mom Wendy Hellstrom heads inside, feeling nervous.
“I asked my family for Christmas gifts of food and gas cards, so we can afford food,” she says.
Hellstrom is out of work for the next month because of the haze of smoke in the air. She’s an athletic coach and her work is outside. Without a paycheck, she can’t afford her rent this month, let alone buy Christmas presents for her two kids.
“I had a meeting with my kids two days ago, I sat down and met with them,” she says. “I told them, just understand that I’m not going to be able to get you anything but you’re going to get some gifts from our family members. And be patient and be a little bit more non-complaining and whining because mom’s stressed.”
Making a New Plan
In the Local Assistance Center’s parking lot, the Blomquist family gets out of their truck. They’re all wearing pink gas masks to protect from the smoke and ash in the air. The night before the fire, the family was making Christmas cookies. The gifts were nestled under the tree. Since they evacuated, they’ve changed hotels four times.
“We left with nothing — the dogs, the kids,” says Nancy Blomquist, motioning to her 10-year-old twins. “They grabbed a few things and my daughter was like, ‘Can we grab the Christmas presents?’ My husband said, ‘Come on, we’re going to be right back.’”
Recent legal Developments affect community association interests in a variety of ways. In 2017, the California Court of Appeal decided several cases concerning such issues as title to common area and board member liability. These cases may be instructive to board members and managers. Meanwhile, on the legislative front, new and pending laws affect association interests in the areas of governance, business dealing, FHA certification, annual notifications and use restrictions. Though not a complete or authoritative guide, we hope this article (published in the Winter 2017 Volume 10, Issue 1 of the Communicator, Community Association Institute/Bay Area/Central California Chapter’s news magazine) can be a useful resource for the most relevant legal updates this year. Follow this link or click here to download the article. Read the article………………..
Prior to the mid-1990s, before the age of the internet, the property management business was built on personal relationships. But with the dominance of online research, networking, and robust accounting technology, property management has evolved into a multifaceted engine characterized by smart business and profitability.
Most property managers entered the business almost by accident. They often owned a rental property or two and had fellow investors ask them to manage their properties. Soon, they had enough properties to form a legitimate business. Or, in other scenarios, a real estate agent managed a property as a favor to a client whose property would not sell. Soon other agents asked the person to do the same for their clients.
Personal word-of-mouth referrals was the way property management offices grew. Accounting was done on Excel spreadsheets and tasks and communications with residents were managed in Microsoft Outlook. Property management firms were – and many still are – “Ma and Pa” organizations with five or fewer employees driving the business.
Ushering in Change
However, in place of referrals, the internet has become the go-to place for investors and tenants to find a property manager or rental property. Google and Bing are now top sources for information about “who should I call?” Paid search and SEO for organic rankings are critical to getting a property management business visible to prospective customers. Online testimonials and online reputation ratings have supplanted much of the traditional person-to-person referral approach. Online directories, social media, and review sites, such as Google Reviews, Facebook Reviews, and Yelp are more important than ever.
This change in how business is generated means that property managers should expand their knowledge of the internet and the latest in technology, such as website development, pay-per-click advertising, search engine optimization, task management software, or other new technologies being used by larger and more sophisticated competitors.
How We Compete in Today’s Market
For example, the Real Property Management franchise invests hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on technology and online marketing. We have created a website infrastructure to support our 300+ offices with custom websites, state-of-the-art capabilities, and national oversight. We have negotiated partnerships with top online marketing companies, take care of directory listings for local offices, and are now starting reputation monitoring and automated online testimonial requests. We spend large sums on Google display and Facebook advertising to build brand awareness and generate leads for local offices. Even very large independent property management firms cannot match these investments.
The Emergence of Business Intelligence
A related trend that will radically impact property management is Business Intelligence. Making decisions based on hard facts, and not opinion, makes success infinitely more likely. To do this takes data, and the right software, with ideal financial and operational management, can be a great start.
But numbers in a vacuum have limitations. The numbers might be improving for an individual office but how are your numbers comparing to your competitors’ or peers’? You need to analyze the data to walk away with a competitive advantage.
Also consider the next evolution in data management for property managers. What happens when you combine operational data, Google Analytics data, media buying information, CRM (customer relationship management) data, and market and customer demographics into a single relational database? A company could connect the dots from marketing tactics (e.g., an online ad) to lead volume to sales success to revenue/expenses per property to profitability by account. A complete closed loop intelligence system would be in place.
Imagine the competitive power that would bring to a company! An office could:
Know exactly the return on investment for specific marketing tactics.
Be able test changes in processes or procedures, and accurately measure the short and long-term impact.
Become drastically more efficient in how money is spent and invested.
Model how to react to competitive pricing or service changes.
How could a less sophisticated competitor compete effectively?
Growth by Acquisition
With these technological and business intelligence advances, a big future trend in the property management industry will be the acquisition of small property managers by more sizable firms that choose to invest in these new technologies and tactics.
Independently-owned Real Property Management offices are demonstrating this now by buying competing offices in their markets. Sometimes buying property management companies with more properties under management than they presently have. This can be done because of the nationally available processes, systems, and support.
Just as real estate brokers evolved from small independents to regional brands to national brands, the same is starting to happen in property management. Small, independent property management companies need to consider their technological abilities, and consider whether they may join a national brand now, or watch as a local competitor joins a national brand and rises to a new level.
Bob Pifke is CMO, Property Management Business Solutions, LLC, franchisor of Real Property Management. He continues to strengthen the Real Property Management brand and guide franchise owners using his wealth of experience in every aspect of marketing. Bob held executive positions with prominent companies such as CCA Global Partners, VISA and Ogilvy.
This phone could be a lifeline in the event of an emergency or disaster. (Photo: BrAt82/Shutterstock)
Storms, power outages and other emergencies can suddenly and all too readily demonstrate the limitations of our beloved cellphones. With no way to charge them and no way to make calls — whether it’s due to malfunctioning cell towers or congested wireless networks — that device you use mostly to text and access the internet may not be good for much more than serving as a very expensive flashlight.
As a result, you may stop and consider the value of that lumbering piece of technology that sits forever tethered to the wall, the landline telephone. Yes, that holdover from the end of the 1800s is still around and ringing, and it could be the only way for you to reach and call someone in the event of an emergency.
1. Better call quality. Chalk up your cellphone’s tinny call quality to the small receiver and microphone on the device and bandwidth allocation, says Scientific American. While cell providers are inching their way toward to better calls, a landline’s quality tends to be on the crisp and clean side.
2. Saving a bit of money. Some households are still getting good deals on their home phone service thanks to bundle deals with the telecommunication company. Dropping the landline may force them to start paying more for the services they already have.
3. Emergency contacting. This is probably the big reason a lot of folks keep their landlines. In the event of a power outage or emergency, a landline phone is still capable of making calls, especially to 911. They’re also more precise in this scenario than cellphones are; 911 operators will have your location information right on their screens when you call from a landline, but they don’t always have immediate access to your location if you call from a cellphone. This is particularly important in situations where communicating verbally might be difficult.
However, even this last, and perhaps most valuable, perk of a landline isn’t always available, and this is where things get tricky about whether or not you should have a landline.
Copper lines vs. VoIP
The reasons why landlines are so prized for emergency situations is because when we talk about landlines, we’re talking specifically about copper wires that connect to switch boxes and transmit calls between phones plugged directly into the wall. The benefit of these copper-wired connections is that the phone company is supplying power through the copper wires, and that’s what keeps the lines up and running. Even when the lights go out, there’s still a dial tone when you pick up the phone.
The challenge for telecom companies is that while copper wires are great for making phone calls, they’re lousy at transmitting things like cable television and internet, especially over long distances. They’re also not great when you add additional features (apart from caller ID or call waiting) and that makes them a tough sell. Additionally, copper wiring is expensive to maintain for the telecoms, and since they don’t offer a whole lot and options and fewer people are using them, the incentive to keep them in good order may be low on the priority list.
Nowadays, when you look into adding a landline, you’re more likely to end up with a voice over internet protocol phone, or a VoIP line. These phone lines transmit over the same cables and wires used for the internet. Many such phone lines need to be plugged directly into your internet gateway device to function. These VoIP are typically what telecoms — especially the companies that started off as cable companies — offer in their myriad bundles since they don’t have copper line holdings.
Naturally, this means that when the power goes out, your phone line is almost certainly going to go out as well. It requires an internet connection to function, after all. In some instances, companies may offer a battery back-up for the phone that can last up to eight hours, depending on use, but it’s up to you to maintain the battery, replace it and even test it to make sure it works in the event of an emergency.
For the legacy phone companies that now offer TV and internet services, copper wiring may be available but the question becomes for how long? We already mentioned that copper wiring can be expensive to maintain, but when you factor in that the companies now have to maintain the lines and wires that likely generate more revenue in addition to the copper wiring, it seems like a potentially losing battle.
Phone line alternatives
Don’t want to rely on a telephone? There’s always the radio. (Photo: Aubord Dulac/Shutterstock)
In the event that you can’t get a copper-wired phone, or you’re not fully convinced by the battery back-up, there are a few other communication options available to you.
1. Satellite phones. Unless the emergency you’re facing is a massive meteorite strike, satellite phones will allow you to make a phone call in an emergency. Plenty of these phones can use solar power, which means that even if the power is out, so long as you have access to sunlight, you’re good to go. Satellite phones can be fairly expensive to maintain, so this a costly alternative.
2. CB radio. CB radios have a limited range, and despite their popularity with some groups, particularly with truckers, if there’s not someone else operating a CB radio in the area, it’s not going to solve your communication problem, good buddy.
3. Ham radio. This likely your best alternative to a phone in any sort of an emergency, provided you have a power supply like a small generator or a solar bank. Ham radios have access to plenty of emergency frequencies to monitor even if you can’t transmit on them. However, there are significantly more ham radio operators out there than CB operators, and your chances of reaching someone is greater. Ham radio operation does require you to get an operating license of some sort (there are three different ones), but the ability to communicate when you most need it could be well worth the studying and the exams.
The holiday season is here, and the majority of those in your homeowners association are likely getting festive: lights being put out, holidays gifts coming in the mail, and an uptick in the amount of visitors as family members take off to come visit.
These are all wonderful aspects of celebrating the holidays, but they can quickly become problems for HOA boards if not monitored properly. You might find yourself dealing with neighbors complaining about blow up Santa displays, packages being taken from doorsteps, and problems with parking. Not to worry, though—there are ways to deal with each of these and reduce them becoming bigger headaches.
#1 Managing Holiday Lights
To make sure you’re not dealing with any obnoxious or unmanageable lights or displays in the community, the board can simply set some reasonable guidelines. These will likely vary depending on the type of community you’re running, but here are some areas to consider:
Where will lights will be allowed? Think about areas that could cause potential damage on fences, balconies, or some windows. What about places that are going a little too far, such as common areas or rooftops? Also, think about whether you want to prohibit certain types of displays, such as those that include sound or are bigger than a certain size.
How long can lights be up? Some people will be tempted to leave their lights up well after the holidays. It’s a good idea to give a specific date range for lights to be allowed to display.
What times can lights be lit up? You might get some complaints if lights are left on all night, especially if they are bright or distracting. Think about a certain time you can request lights be turned off by for the night.
#2 Managing Mail Security
Unfortunately, having packages left on doorsteps is a risk; thieves searching for any easy find can easily steal them. You don’t want to hold any responsibility for packages being successfully delivered, but it’s a good idea to give members tips for reducing stolen packages.
Some good ideas include leaving a note for the FedEx or UPS delivery people to put packages in a more hidden location, having the packages delivered to someone else’s home or to their workplace where they can be signed for, and using an online tracker to see exactly when the package arrives.
#3 Managing Parking
If your community is already a little cramped, the holidays can be difficult when it comes to traffic and parking. Make sure you remind residents about your specific rules for parking. Here are some tips:
If you can, employ a parking pass or guest pass system.
Be specific about where residents must park, such as in their assigned parking spot or their garage. Then, be specific about guess parking spaces.
Make sure everyone knows the amount of time guests can park in the community before they risk receiving a citation or getting towed.
The “new normal” of California’s fire season — year-round threats to homes all over the state — could alter the marketplace for fire insurance, according to California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones.
Multiple major wildfires have destroyed at least 800 structures in Southern California this week, just months after deadly fires in the northern part of the state led to a record $9 billion in insurance claims. Jones says insurers could respond by being more selective about where they issue policies.
“It’s possible in the wake of these disasters, that we’ll see some insurance companies, in some homes, begin to decide that they don’t want to write new policies,” Jones said.
Any change in coverage won’t immediately affect victims of this year’s fires as state law gives them the right to renew their policy. But Jones said that insurers are increasingly relying on sophisticated risk models to pinpoint houses that are at risk of wildfire.
“Even if a homeowner has fortified their home with fire prevention methods, cleared brush, the insurer may still decide that because of the location of the home, the topography, the wind direction, its proximity to large forests, that the particular home is one they don’t want to write,” he added.
This year’s destructive fires are less likely to cause an increase in insurance rates, according to Jones, because insurance companies have healthy reserves, and the state Insurance Commissioner can block proposed rate hikes. Additionally, any cost related to a major event like the North Bay fires is folded into a 20-year trend of catastrophes and then averaged out.
However, insurance companies are under less state scrutiny when it comes to deciding who gets insurance.
“Until the legislature passes a law requiring them to write insurance for everybody, they have the right under the California statutes to decide where they’re going to write and how much,” Jones said.
California does offer a last-resort fire insurance policy, called the California FAIR Plan, but it is more expensive and covers less than most homeowners insurance.
Get smart about environmental design to minimize safety risks
Above: Too many trees and plantings outside windows restrict anyone looking out from having a clear line of sight. This makes it much harder to spot someone with ill intent approaching your building or intercepting your occupants as they leave.
Alcoves and uneven grading, such as this bioswale, are a nightmare for natural surveillance, as they offer easy hiding places for thieves or other criminals. Ideally, you should be able to see people approaching from a considerable distance. | SEAN AHRENS
Do you feel safe at your facility? If you avoid the darkest parts of your parking garage at night or notice an increase in vandalism or littering on your property, your security practices could probably use an overhaul.
Fortunately, that doesn’t always mean a suite of expensive new cameras. It could be as simple as integrating the principles of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED), a layered approach that emphasizes barrier-free observation, easy access control and clear boundary marking in addition to the same upkeep you’re probably already doing.
Any site or building type can benefit from integrating the principles of CPTED. Familiarize yourself with the tenets of this common-sense design philosophy and learn how to spot red flags at your building.
CPTED is a layered approach combining four principles: natural surveillance, natural access control, territorial reinforcement and maintenance. All four work together to create an environment that both makes potential criminals uncomfortable and enables occupants to notice anything out of place.
“CPTED is essentially the premise that people with malevolent intent want to be clandestine and don’t want to be detected or observed,” explains Sean Ahrens, Security Market Group Leader for Affiliated Engineers. “We can change the built environment to make them more observable, thereby creating fear that they’ll be caught either during the incident or afterward.”
The layered principles follow the flow of foot traffic, from designated paths onto and through the site to the layout of the building interior.
“Orient workstations so you can look out onto the lobby or parking lot or into the corridor. Lines of sight allow you to observe what’s going on in the common areas,” says Art Hushen, President and Owner of the National Institute of Crime Prevention, a training and consulting company specializing in CPTED. “That encourages people to feel responsibility and ownership: ‘This is my company’ or ‘This is my school, and that doesn’t look right so I’m going to notify security.’”
Is your building implementing CPTED as well as it could be? Try looking for major red flags first, such as trees that block lines of sight or lighting that’s uneven or inadequate, then explore each of the principles in greater detail.
Principle 1: Natural Surveillance
Natural surveillance is characterized by two complementary goals: minimizing ambush points and enabling the unobstructed observation of people with malevolent intent. Landscaping and lighting mistakes are the two biggest areas of neglect where this principle is concerned, Hushen explains, followed by interruptions in lines of sight.
“Natural surveillance is critical, but when you put a concrete column right outside the reception area, no one can see through the front door,” Hushen adds. “You’ve got cameras, but no one is going to watch the same camera for eight hours straight. If someone can just glance up and see all the way out to the parking lot, it makes their job much easier.”
Ideally, you should be able to see someone approaching from a considerable distance without any visual obstacles getting in the way, Ahrens says. “A good example is those car lots that look like Las Vegas, where you think ‘How much money are they spending on all that power?’ Well, if you were actually in the parking lot looking out to the foreground, you wouldn’t be able to see anything because where you are is so bright. However, the person in the background looking into the parking lot can see bright as day. The psychological component is ‘Who’s watching me while I’m in this parking lot?’ Thus we’re going to attract legitimate activity from people who want to buy a car. People who have illegitimate intent and are seeking to steal headlights or a car will be deterred because they would be observed or someone would call the police.”
This principle also extends into the interior. Look at areas that are infrequently trafficked or simply aren’t served by your existing surveillance technology, like hallways or the cafeteria. “What activities can we create there?” Heshen says. “The most expensive thing would be putting in windows, but maybe instead I can create a health program that encourages employees to take group walks down those corridors to exercise. We have a great cafeteria – maybe we can do cooking classes, and as people get to know each other, they’ll also know who should and shouldn’t be in the building.”
Don’t forget enclosed spaces like elevators and stairwells, adds Kevlon Kirkpatrick, Principal of Certified Crime Prevention Consultants. Convex mirrors can help you see around corners, and elevators can benefit from a simple retrofit where reflective material is placed on the inside of the cab, allowing people to see who’s inside before they enter and potentially avoid an ambush.
Principle 2: Natural Access Control
This principle relies on using pathways, lighting and other means to direct traffic and define spaces for use. For example, instead of an open park where anyone can walk anywhere, Ahrens suggests creating paths and using plantings to create borders.
“We’re trying to funnel traffic in a specific way so we can anticipate it,” Ahrens says. “That also works well when placing security technology. I don’t need cameras all over the place because I anticipate I’m going to have pedestrian traffic coming this way, so I’ll place my cameras at those locations and maybe add one overall camera to pick up the guy walking through the flowers.”
Natural access control is closely linked with natural surveillance, adds Audra Rigby, Principal of Certified Crime Prevention Consultants. Pathways and boundaries should be distinct enough to smoothly direct people from place to place but not obtrusive in a way that interferes with a clear line of sight. With landscaping, for example, Rigby recommends limiting small plantings or hedges to 2-2.5 feet and trimming tree canopies starting at 6 feet from the ground. “That allows for surveillance in and out of the building and the landscaping won’t block windows,” Rigby adds.
Wayfinding technology can also assist with access control by clearly delineating public areas from private ones and directing people to specific spaces. Not only that, but people who are in your building for legitimate reasons will also appreciate the navigation assistance, Ahrens says: “At the end of the day, a lot of people are insensitive to the amount of time it takes to do something. If people are wandering around the building trying to find the right department or location, by the time they get there, they’re not going to be happy. Wayfinding encourages efficiency.”
Principle 3: Territorial Reinforcement
Similar to the principle of natural access control, territorial reinforcement focuses on drawing clear lines between different properties and public areas vs. private ones by using both hard barriers (fences and walls) and soft barriers (plantings and lighting), as well as clues like artwork and entryways. “That eliminates all of the possible excuses people might have about why they’re not complying with the rules, such as why they’re parking in a certain area or why they’re on one side of the building,” Hushen explains.
In addition to drawing clear boundaries around permissible vs. non-permissible space, Ahrens recommends working to attract activity to the public areas people are allowed to enter, which highlights spaces that are OK to use.
“That shows there’s a good opportunity for offenders to be detected when doing illegitimate activities,” Ahrens says. For example, one of Ahrens’ recent university clients renovated a basement and needed to beef up the area’s security. “Not many people went down to the basement because there weren’t a lot of classes down there and not much natural light, but there were always a couple late at night, and the university was concerned that people would be accosted in the bathrooms,” Ahrens explains. “We moved the vending machines downstairs, which draws people with legitimate activities to the area and increases the potential for natural surveillance.”
Principle 4: Maintenance
The importance of maintenance is supported by the broken window theory in which well-kept properties indicate to offenders that someone is watching the area, Rigby explains: “Maintaining the urban environment creates an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, which helps reduce the opportunity for crime on the property.”
Conversely, rundown and dilapidated properties evoke the idea that no one is watching and the property is abandoned, which invites vandalism, littering and worse. Poor lighting has the same effect, Ahrens adds; good lighting is one of the best ways to deter crime, but if you cut too many corners or don’t maintain the lighting system, you could be asking for trouble.
“Lighting can actually encourage illegal activity depending on its color,” Ahrens says. “For example, the sodium vapor lights. Do you really want to stay in those areas? It feels unfriendly, as opposed to a bright white light, which is inviting, feels secure and lets you see everything.”
If parts of your lighting system switch on and off on a timer, maintenance personnel should check the timers regularly to make sure they’re still functioning, says Rigby. Fixtures should be examined periodically to make sure they’re not rusting or otherwise hampering illumination. Deal with dark spots as soon as possible by providing more uniform light.
“Another important aspect is to pick materials that hold vandal-resistant properties, like anti-etch and anti-paint products,” Ahrens says. “That carries forward into public bathrooms too. Incorporate a drain and a spigot to wash down the facility and put in fixtures that are anti-scratch and abuse-resistant. That’s going to go a long way in minimizing the upkeep you’ll have to do.”
It may be time to take a second look at your building’s CPTED practices if there has been a recent increase in crime on or around your property, Rigby suggests. “Turnover is also a good indicator,” Rigby adds. “If you have employees who are leaving to seek jobs elsewhere because they don’t feel safe on the property, that should be a red flag. Look at that during exit interviews.”
Question remaining employees about how they’d rate the safety and security of the site too, Kirkpatrick adds. Ask about specific safety concerns and whether anyone has ever been a victim of a crime on or near your site. “Match that against management’s concerns about security. They may not be the same,” Kirkpatrick notes. “Management may feel keeping people off the site is a challenge, whereas others may say employee theft is a bigger problem, but they’ll all have a vested interest in being part of the team to solve these challenges.”