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Mortgage Rates Jan. 20: Up and Down; Builder Confidence Is Strong

Thirty- and 15-year fixed mortgage rates closed out the week by rising five basis points each this morning, while 5/1 ARM rates fell by two basis points, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders on Friday.

Mortgage Rates Today, Friday, Jan. 20 (Change from 1/19) 30-year fixed: 4.46% APR (+0.05) 15-year fixed: 3.84% APR (+0.05) 5/1 ARM: 3.86% APR (-0.02) NAHB: Builders confident in 2017

Two reports released this week by the National Association of Home Builders expressed confidence in the construction of single- and multifamily homes for 2017.

Nationwide housing starts rose by 11.3% in December to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.23 million units, according to yesterday’s NAHB report, which included data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Census Bureau.

Overall, single-family starts rose 9% in 2016, while multifamily construction was down slightly, according to NAHB chief economist Robert Dietz.

» MORE: How the Trump presidency will impact housing in 2017

“We expect that 2017 will be another year of gradual, steady improvement in the housing market,” Dietz said. “Multifamily starts have been volatile in recent months but should level off as supply meets demand. Meanwhile, single-family production continues to gain momentum but is limited by supply-side headwinds.”

Dietz said the NAHB forecasts 10% growth in single-family construction this year, despite “concerns about rising mortgage interest rates” and “a lack of lots and access to labor.”

NAHB Chairman Granger MacDonald said builders have started this year “optimistic that a new Congress and administration will help create a better business climate for small businesses, particularly as it relates to streamlining and reforming the regulatory process.”

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published annual percentage rate with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. APR quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Michael Burge is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: mburge@nerdwallet.com

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Ask Brianna: How Do I Start Strong With a New Roommate?

“Ask Brianna” is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com.

This week’s question: I’m on the hunt for a new roommate. How can we make our living space conflict-free?

I’ve had my share of subpar roommates, as I’m sure you have: weeknight partiers, late rent payers, loud phone talkers.

I never would have guessed it, but I loved sharing an apartment once I found my people. For much of my 20s I lived with three roommates who became family. We lived above a dive bar, fought a rotating cast of mice and roaches, and shared one bathroom smaller than the average closet. But we also lent each other outfits for roller-disco parties and made our way through life together.

Since you have the luxury of picking your own roommate, take time to do it purposefully. Find someone with similar goals, financial means and sense of responsibility, so you can avoid chasing down their share of the rent, or worse, facing the potentially costly decision of parting ways midlease. A thoughtful approach means you can create a home you love, whether you found your roommate on Craigslist or first met them in third grade.

Decide on your nonnegotiables

Before you sift through candidates, first decide on the cohabiting style you’re looking for, says Megan Ford, a financial therapist at the University of Georgia and president of the Financial Therapy Association.

Think about your ideal Monday evening. Do you want to process the workday over a shared dinner? Or would you rather eat alone in your room, cozied up with a Netflix marathon? Both approaches are valid. But if you and your roommate aren’t looking for the same thing, you’ll face the daily frustration of either a housemate who hovers, or one who leaves you feeling lonely.

“People interpret that relationship in different ways,” Ford says. “Really, the tip is: Know thyself.”

You also should be able to clearly articulate the behaviors you would not be able to deal with. Ford recommends bringing up the following questions, plus any others specific to your circumstances, with potential roommates:

  • How clean do you want to keep the apartment?
  • Do you want the space to be a gathering place for friends or a quiet refuge?
  • Is alcohol or drug use in the apartment OK?
Draw up a roommate contract

Once you’ve found someone who’s on your wavelength, set ground rules as soon as you decide to move in together. Ford recommends creating a contract that specifies how many nights per week each roommate can have guests and how you’ll pay for utility bills. If a bill is in your name, pay it on time or you’ll see a hit to your credit score; use an expense-splitting app to keep track of who owes what by each due date.

You might decide that a contract sounds too formal and that you’d rather simply agree on some baseline rules. But cleaning is one area that could benefit from a specified schedule, says Alyssa Favreau, author of “Stuff Every Graduate Should Know: A Handbook for the Real World.” I can attest that when my roommates and I wrote up a monthly bathroom cleaning schedule and posted it inside the medicine cabinet, that tiny space was suddenly spotless.

Address conflict constructively

Even the best-intentioned housemates will deal with the occasional conflict. Maybe your roommate’s newfound passion for the electric guitar means she cranks up her amp whenever she’s home.

Instead of letting your anger fester, approach your roomie. Open the conversation using “I” or “we” instead of the accusatory “you,” Ford says, and include some positive with the negative. You could try something like: “I’m so pumped you’re taking guitar lessons, Amelia. I know that’s something you’ve wanted to do for a long time. Can we talk about setting up specific practice hours so it doesn’t disturb others?”

Be prepared for pushback, but maintain your positive stance. You and your roommate might decide plugged-in practices are only for weekends, except for the hour before her Thursday evening lesson. Be attentive to your roommate’s needs, too, Favreau says.

“The willingness to compromise, or work toward a middle ground, is really what’s going to save your living situation,” she says.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Western Union Fraud Case: Are You Owed Money?

Consumers who think they were affected by fraud perpetrated by Western Union agents should visit the Department of Justice’s victim website to determine how to request and receive compensation.

Global money transfer service Western Union has agreed to pay the government $586 million as part of a settlement with the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies for “willfully failing to maintain an effective anti-money laundering (AML) program and aiding and abetting wire fraud,” according to a DOJ press release Thursday.

Western Union knew of fraud, failed to act

Western Union’s “system facilitated scammers and rip-offs,” FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez said Thursday in a press release, which also stated that the business violated U.S. laws by processing “hundreds of thousands of transactions for Western Union agents and others involved in an international consumer fraud scheme.”

Western Union knew of these infractions but failed to take “corrective action against Western Union agents involved in or facilitating fraud-related transactions,” according to the DOJ press release. The bulk of the misconduct occurred between 2004 and 2012, and involved 2,000 Western Union agents.

Claiming to be related to their victims, fraudsters contacted people and told them to send money via Western Union in return for prizes or job opportunities. Western Union agents were involved in these transactions, “often processing the fraud payments for the fraudsters in return for a cut of the fraud proceeds,” the FTC’s press release said.

As part of the settlement, Western Union must incorporate anti-fraud practices into its business model.

In a company press release Thursday, Western Union said it would “pay a total of $586 million to the federal government, which is to be used to reimburse consumers who were victims of fraud during the relevant period.”

Western Union wasn’t available for comment at the time of reporting.

Tips to avoid fraud

There are precautions you can take to avoid money transfer fraud:

  • Never wire money to people you don’t know. Scammers may pretend to be a family member or might say you won a lottery or sweepstakes. Don’t send them money.
  • Don’t send money if you’re feeling rushed or confused. If you’re being asked to send money immediately, first make sure that you know who the recipient is and why he or she is asking you for money.

Visit the FTC website for more tips about avoiding scams.

Tony Armstrong is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: tony@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @tonystrongarm. NerdWallet writer Spencer Tierney contributed to this report.

Inauguration Rental Hosts May Get Tax Break

Big events bring big money to host cities. Free-spending visitors flock to the sites of Super Bowls, art and music festivals and, every four years, presidential inaugurations.

But it’s not just municipal treasuries that benefit. Residents who flee to avoid the hoopla can charge prime rates for a few days in their homes. For example, attendees of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration events could choose from more than 300 listings on Airbnb this week, averaging around $700 per night.

Even better, Airbnb hosts and other short-term landlords might not owe the IRS a cent. The federal tax code carves out an exclusion for profits from homes leased for two weeks or less. Here’s how it works.

Short-term rental rules

To take advantage of the tax exclusion, the property you’re renting out must be your primary residence, the one where you live during the tax year.

The 14 days of tax-free rental income is also available on a vacation property as long as you or a family member stay in it for at least 14 days during the same year or for at least 10% of the days you rent it, whichever is greater. Because you’re aiming for the tax-free rental income, this means you need to also stay in your mountain cabin or lake house yourself for two or more weeks.

Thinking of leasing only your spare bedroom during the celebration? That gets a tax-free OK from the IRS, too, as long as you rent the space for no more than two weeks.

The 14-day limit applies to the whole tax year, not each time you rent your home. A couple of weeklong events will get you to the limit quickly. 

You need to ask and receive a fair price for your home’s rent. The IRS defines this as the amount of rent that an unrelated person would be willing to pay. Of course, fair is fluid when it comes to scarce space and major events.

Potential pitfalls

Because you receive the short-term rent tax-free, you aren’t allowed to deduct related expenses, such as cleaning supplies to ready the property for visitors.

Keep close track of the days you lease your home. If you hit rental day 15, you must include all of your rental income when you file your taxes, not just the amount collected after the 14-day free period. And because you used the dwelling unit for personal purposes, you must divide your expenses between rental use and personal use. This means more record-keeping.

You’ll also have to determine which tax form to use. When you rent all or part of your main home or vacation home for 15 or more days per year, you normally report the income on Schedule E, Supplemental Income and Loss. That’s also where you can write off allowable expenses.

If, however, you provide substantial services to your guests, such as meals or cleaning the property during their stay, the IRS tends to view the rental as a business activity. In this case, you’ll report the taxable rent on Schedule C, Profit or Loss From Business, or Schedule C-EZ, Net Profit From Business. And you’ll probably owe self-employment tax. This additional 15.3% tax goes toward Medicare and Social Security. It’s required when you have business income of $400 or more.

» MORE: 10 tax forms you need to know before you file

If you rent your residence or a second home for substantial periods during the year, it’s a good idea to talk with a tax professional, especially one who specializes in rental properties. The amount you’ll save by submitting correct taxes will likely offset the price of the advice.

Watch out for local fees

Even if you don’t have to pay federal income tax on your rental earnings, you might be subject to local fees. Some states, cities and counties categorize home rentals like hotels and impose lodging occupancy taxes across the board.

The types of taxes and rates vary by jurisdiction, so ask local officials about your tax responsibilities when renting your home.

Mortgage Rates Jan. 19: Higher; Trump Could Repeal FHA Mortgage Insurance Premium Cut

Mortgage rates jumped substantially this morning. Thirty-year fixed rates rose by 10 basis points, and 15-year fixed rates rose by nine basis points, while 5/1 ARM rates saw a smaller bump at four basis points, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders on Thursday.

Mortgage Rates Today, Thursday, Jan. 19 (Change from 1/18) 30-year fixed: 4.41% APR (+0.10) 15-year fixed: 3.79% APR (+0.09) 5/1 ARM: 3.88% APR (+0.04) Trump could repeal FHA MIP reduction, according to reports

Reports surfaced yesterday about the possibility of the incoming Trump administration delaying, and even repealing, the latest FHA mortgage insurance premium reduction, which is slated to go into effect Jan. 27. The reduction, which would cut annual mortgage insurance premiums on most FHA loans by a quarter of a percent, was announced last week by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The insurance premium reduction is largely supported by housing industry professionals, and is estimated to save new FHA borrowers about $500 this year.

» MORE: How the Trump presidency will impact housing in 2017

Responding to the possible repeal or delay, National Association of Realtors president William E. Brown said in a statement to NerdWallet, “We’re disappointed having heard reports that the mortgage insurance premium cut was included in a wider regulatory freeze, but it’s important to remember that this policy wasn’t singled out. That leaves the door open to implement the cut in the near future.”

“According to our estimates, roughly 750,000 to 850,000 homebuyers would face higher costs and 30,000 to 40,000 new homebuyers will be left on the sidelines in 2017 without the cut,” Brown said. “For now, we believe that the benefits of the mortgage insurance premium cut will shine through during this review period so it can be quickly put back into place.”

A Trump transition spokesperson told Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert yesterday that a decision hasn’t been made yet on the insurance premium reduction.

“The incoming policy team has not seen the model the outgoing administration used, nor their analysis, and nothing was communicated to the incoming team before the announcement was made,” the Trump spokesperson told Woellert. “The new team looks forward to seeing the financials to ensure there is the right balance between encouraging sustainable home ownership at an individual level and protecting taxpayers against future losses to the entire program.”

“No determination has been made on this last-minute policy change by Secretary Castro that could detrimentally impact FHA’s reserves,” the spokesperson said.

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published APR with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. Annual percentage rate quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Michael Burge is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: mburge@nerdwallet.com

Mortgage Rate Newsletter Get daily mortgage rate updates delivered straight to your inbox!

Feds Sue Student Loan Giant Navient: What Borrowers Need to Know

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is suing Navient Corp., the nation’s largest student loan servicer, accusing it of “systematically and illegally failing borrowers at every stage of repayment,” according to a press release Wednesday. The CFPB is asking Navient to compensate the borrowers the agency says were harmed.

Among other things, the CFPB alleges that since at least January 2010, Navient misallocated payments, steered struggling borrowers toward multiple forbearances instead of income-driven repayment plans, and provided unclear information about how to re-enroll in income-driven repayment plans and how to qualify for a co-signer release.

Navient denied the CFPB’s allegations in a statement Wednesday, saying they are false and politically motivated. The student loan giant, which broke off from Sallie Mae Bank, one of the largest lenders of private student loans, in 2014, currently services more than $300 billion in federal and private student loans for more than 12 million borrowers.

The Illinois and Washington attorneys general also filed suits against Navient on Wednesday. Navient said in subsequent statements Wednesday that allegations by the Illinois and Washington attorneys general were also politically driven and “unfounded.”

“Time will tell” what impact these lawsuits have on borrowers, says Betsy Mayotte, director of consumer outreach and compliance at American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that helps students pay for college. But regardless of outcomes, borrowers should regularly check their student loan accounts to make sure their loans are being serviced correctly, she says.

How to check if Navient is your loan servicer

Your student loan servicer is the company you make payments to each month. It’s not always the same company that lent you money in the first place.

The Department of Education is the lender for all federal student loans, but it contracts with private, third-party companies, including Navient, to handle loan servicing. Log on to the Federal Student Aid website to find your federal loan servicer. In addition to Navient, other major federal loan servicers include FedLoan Servicing, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates and Nelnet.

What to do if you’re frustrated with your student loan servicer

When it comes to student loan servicing, “consumers cannot easily take their business elsewhere,” Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said in a statement Wednesday.

It is possible to switch student loan servicers through federal consolidation or student loan refinancing. But you shouldn’t consolidate or refinance solely to switch servicers because there are potential risks associated with each, says Adam Minsky, a Boston-based lawyer specializing in student loans. Also, there’s no guarantee you’ll be better off with a different servicer.

“The other servicers aren’t exactly rainbows and sunshine,” Minsky says.

If you’re stuck with your servicer, there are a number of things you can do to voice your concerns and protect yourself as a borrower: File complaints, check your credit report for errors, school yourself on your repayment options and watch out for companies that charge fees for student loan help.

File complaints

You can file complaints to one or multiple of the following entities:

The CFPB alleges that Navient ignores borrowers’ complaints. But getting your concerns in writing is still worth doing, if only to improve the system for others, Seth Frotman, student loan ombudsman and assistant director of the office for students at the CFPB, said in a press call Wednesday.

“We receive thousands of complaints,” Frotman said. “That has dramatically informed our work around improving the student loan servicing market.”

Check your credit report for errors

One of the CFPB’s allegations is that Navient incorrectly reported disabled borrowers’ accounts as “in default” when the borrowers had actually gotten loan relief through the government’s Total and Permanent Disability discharge program. To guard against a mistake like that, which could severely hurt your credit score, check your credit report for errors. You can get one free credit report every year from each of the three major credit bureaus.

Get up to speed on your repayment options

Student loan servicers are supposed to help you understand the various student loan repayment options. By learning about the options yourself, you can be empowered to hold your loan servicer to that standard. Keep in mind, though, that each of the following options has risks.

  • Income-driven repayment plans can lower your monthly federal student loan payments by capping your payment at a percentage of your income. They also offer loan forgiveness after you make on-time payments for 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan.
  • Student loan forgiveness programs, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness, can relieve your federal student loan debt if you work for a certain type of employer and make on-time payments for a certain period of time.
  • Federal consolidation doesn’t lower your monthly payments or save you money, but it’s sometimes necessary to do in order to qualify for income-driven repayment or a forgiveness program. Consolidating is frequently confused with student loan refinancing, which is a way to save money on interest by getting a lower rate.
Watch out for companies that charge fees for help

You can sign up for the above options on your own for free. But some companies that aren’t affiliated with the Department of Education capitalize on subpar student loan servicing practices by charging fees to enroll borrowers in free federal student loan programs. So-called student debt relief companies often advertise messages such as “Obama Student Loan Forgiveness” on Facebook and Google. If you’re tempted by such an offer, know that you don’t have to pay for student loan help.

If your servicer isn’t answering your student loan questions, reach out to the Department of Education or your state’s attorney general’s office for help.

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: teddy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @teddynykiel.

5 Financial Goals to Set in 2017

By Kurt Smith, Psy. D.

Learn more about Kurt on NerdWallet’s Ask An Advisor

The beginning of the new year is the perfect time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. It’s also a good time to set goals in your personal, physical, emotional and financial life. What better time to look ahead and think of how you want your finances to change in the coming year?

Still, for many people money isn’t a pleasant topic, and so they often avoid it. Some people will put off thinking about money until taxes are due in April. If that’s you, force yourself to push past the discomfort and keep reading.

You may not be able to change your income, but you can choose how you spend and save your money, which will greatly affect your financial future. Making a few simple decisions now can set you up for success and put you where you want to be financially down the road.

Here are five financial goals to consider setting in 2017. Pick a few or pick them all. Either way, you’ll be on the path to a better financial picture this time next year.

Set a budget

Knowing where and how you’re spending your money is the first step to getting your finances in order. Start a simple spreadsheet that lists all your expenses along with your net income, or use a budgeting app like Mint. Once you know your income and expenses, you can set up a financial plan for your spending. Look for ways to pare down your variable expenses — costs that aren’t fixed — so you fit in funds for savings and retirement.

>> MORE: How to build a budget

Invest in your 401(k) or an IRA

If your employer offers a 401(k), you should certainly take advantage of it. 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts are great, because the amount you contribute can be excluded from your taxable income. Many employers will match your 401(k) contribution, up to a certain percentage, which doubles your contribution each time. Your account will grow over time not just from your contributions but also by the compounding growth of the investments you choose. Most 401(k) plans will allow you to start with even a small amount, such as 3% of your income.

Increase your 401(k) or IRA contribution

If you’re already contributing to your company’s 401(k), bravo! Now, increase the amount you contribute by a percentage point or two. Use the same approach for an IRA. You probably won’t miss the small percentage when you get your paycheck each time, and saving that extra little bit will add up in the long run. If your employer offers a match, try to increase your contribution to at least meet that match so you reap the full benefits the company is offering. This means if the company offers up to a 6% match, be sure to make your contribution 6%.

Pay off your debt

Getting out of debt will mean you’ll have more money to contribute to saving for your future and, ultimately, more financial freedom. No matter how much debt you have, you have to start somewhere to begin to pay it off. One strategy is to focus first on the smaller debts you may have, such as credit card balances, which also may have relatively high interest rates. Pay those off first, and then you’ll be more energized and ready to tackle any larger debts, such as car or student loans. The less money you have tied up in debt, the more money you’ll have to save and spend as you wish.

Start an emergency fund

Having an emergency fund can offer financial relief and peace of mind in tough situations. If you need to replace a home appliance suddenly, get your car fixed or handle some other financial circumstance that life throws your way, you’ll be prepared. Start by setting a goal of saving $1,000 in your emergency fund. Even if you put just $84 a month into an account, you’ll reach your goal within the year. If you need to dip into the account for an emergency, just make sure to replenish that amount.

The topic of finances makes some people anxious, while others get mad. If setting financial goals requires you to talk with a partner, be on guard for finger-pointing, blaming and anger to arise in your relationship.

No matter what stage of life you’re in, you can start making financial goals. Whether you are graduating from college soon or getting ready to retire, planning will help set you up for financial success. Planning also helps lessen the mental and emotional burden that ignored finances bring. It’s never too late to get started, so pick one or all of the goals listed above and start setting yourself up for your best money year yet.

Kurt Smith, Psy. D., is a financial and relationship counselor at Guy Stuff Counseling and Coaching.

5 Ways to Upgrade Your Old Car With New-Car Tech

No word yet on when cars will be able to take the wheel while dressing you in a suit, à la “The Incredibles,” but today’s carmakers are still coming up with some pretty fancy new technology.

As the industry barrels toward autonomous vehicles, new cars include increasingly advanced ways to protect drivers, such as automatic braking and blind spot monitoring. Plus, new car technology often means posh comfort features. Think Wi-Fi access and massaging seats.

But it’s not always affordable to buy a new car or expensive technology packages, and buying a used car — or holding on to a car longer — is much more practical for many shoppers.

The good news is, you don’t need a new car to get some of the latest upgrades. Several aftermarket devices can be added to your current ride to give it capabilities found in new models, often for less than $100 each.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, is a “big believer” in upgrading older cars with new technology.

“Especially if it’s a car you otherwise really like. I have an old 2005 Ford GT, which is a unique car they only made for two years. It’s a car I can’t just go get a newer version of,” Brauer says. “If I want a more modern feature in my car, I have to add it myself. So I put an upgraded head unit that in one fell swoop of installation went from a single CD player and AM/FM radio to something that could play everything but Blu-ray.”

Below are a few of the ways to give your trusty ride a technology facelift — from heated seats to rearview camera capabilities — without spending a fortune.

1. Heads-up displays

In a world of Oculus Rift and virtual reality video games, the auto industry is ripe for a video projection upgrade.

Heads-up displays, or HUDs, show navigation for drivers as a transparent image projected on the windshield and have been included in newer car models by brands such as Audi, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Hyundai and Land Rover.

HUDs not only display arrows for upcoming turns, but also information like your speed, mileage, engine warnings and more — all without ever requiring your eyes to leave the road. It’s typically offered as a factory-installed add-on but is becoming standard equipment on higher-end cars and even some midlevel models.

You can find standalone aftermarket HUDs for $100 to $300; they typically project onto a transparent screen that sits on the dashboard in front of your windshield and displays directions and engine warnings. Other companies have designed stands and smartphone apps that provide HUD capabilities for even less, like the Hudway Glass for $49.95.

2. Seat heaters and massagers

Want to give your car the comfort level of a spa? Start with the seats.

Built-in heating pads in car seats debuted on the 1966 Cadillac DeVille, but the cozy upgrade has soared in popularity in recent years, with heated seats offered on almost every new model today. In fact the 2016 Ford F-150, a pickup truck, not only offers a seat warmer, but also front-seat cooling and massaging capabilities as well.

If your car didn’t come with upgraded seats, you don’t have to miss out. You can buy seat covers with various heating settings for less than $50, such as Bed Bath & Beyond’s heated car seat cushion for $39.99. More advanced cushions can provide cooling and massages, while still costing less than $100. Two examples with high customer ratings, the Five Star FS8812 10-Motor Vibration Massage Seat Cushion ($59.99) and the Gideon Luxury Cooling and Heating Ventilated Seat Cushion ($49.95), are available through Amazon.

3. Parking sensors

Twisting in and out of small parking spots is incredibly stressful, and often leads to scratched doors or fender benders. The latest automobiles can sometimes take the wheel for you with automatic parking, but there’s an affordable way to add parking help to your current car.

Parking sensors typically activate when you shift into reverse. Using sound waves, the sensors detect surrounding objects and use increasing beeping or lights to warn drivers when they’re coming close to hitting something.

Aftermarket sensors can be purchased for less than $35, like Zone Tech’s Car Reverse Backup Radar System for $15.75. Of course, the more you spend, the more features the tool typically offers. Original manufacturer parts with multiple sensors may cost up to $300, such as the JustforJeeps.com Park Distance Sensors for $306.90.

And while experienced professional installation is always a plus, several sensors don’t require drilling or wiring, and can be installed at home. Just make sure they’re compatible with your car before buying.

4. Rearview camera

We can’t sing the praises of rearview cameras enough — they’ve become essential safety equipment for nearly all vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will require them in all new vehicles after May 1, 2018, as rearview blind spots account for over 15,000 injuries each year, and backup cameras reduce this blind zone by about 90%.

You can buy a quality rearview camera that you can install yourself for less than $150. Auto retail chain Pep Boys offers a wireless backup camera for $127.49 online.

5. Bluetooth stereos

Nobody wants a ticket for holding a cell phone, or worse, an accident caused by distracted driving. And in today’s constantly connected world, that makes Bluetooth capabilities a fan favorite upgrade.

Bluetooth installation wirelessly syncs your phone to your sound system, so drivers can speak to callers over their car speakers, display incoming alerts on their dashboard, and operate their phone’s music through the car stereo — meaning no more manually scrolling through your tiny device to find Beyonce’s “Lemonade” on your morning commute.

And you don’t have to buy a whole new vehicle to get one. Simply replace your current stereo with a Bluetooth-equipped one. A reliable model can be found for under $150. Best Buy’s Kenwood radio, at $79.99, has over 100 positive customer reviews, and the company’s Geek Squad auto techs will install it for $64.99. Also, many independent shops sell stereos and provide installation for varying fees.

Nicole Arata is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: narata@nerdwallet.com.

Photo of a heads-up windshield display courtesy of Hudway Glass.

Mortgage Rates Jan. 18: Up Slightly; Big Banks Accused of Mortgage Discrimination

Mortgage rates made small moves this morning, with 30-year fixed and 5/1 ARM rates ticking up a hair, and 15-year fixed rates holding steady for the third day in a row, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders on Wednesday.

Mortgage Rates Today, Wednesday, Jan. 18 (Change from 1/17) 30-year fixed: 4.31% APR (+0.01) 15-year fixed: 3.70% APR (NC) 5/1 ARM: 3.84% APR (+0.02) JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America face mortgage discrimination charges

Two of the nation’s largest mortgage originators stand accused of discriminatory lending practices by the U.S. government. Today, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York filed a lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase claiming the bank charged at least 53,000 black and Hispanic borrowers higher interest rates and loan fees between 2006 and 2009.

JPMorgan has agreed to a settlement, reported to be $55 million, and issued the following statement: “We’ve agreed to settle these legacy allegations that relate to pricing set by independent brokers. We deny any wrongdoing and remain committed to providing equal access to credit.”

» MORE: Calculate how much house you can afford

Today’s action follows a similar charge against Bank of America made less than two weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging discriminatory lending practices against Hispanic borrowers in South Carolina.

The lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase claims the lender charged minority borrowers, on average, about $1,000 more in fees than white borrowers with similar risk profiles. The U.S. government also says the bank paid mortgage brokers bonuses for selling customers loans with higher interest rates.

Damages to borrowers could amount to “tens of millions of dollars,” according to the lawsuit. Attorneys for JPMorgan Chase filed a response with the court denying the allegations.

The HUD lawsuit against Bank of America alleges that two employees offered less favorable mortgage loan terms to female Hispanic prospective borrowers compared with non-Hispanic females. The claims are based on loan estimates offered to potential borrowers in tests conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published APR with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. Annual percentage rate quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Michael Burge is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: mburge@nerdwallet.com. NerdWallet writer Hal Bundrick contributed to this report.

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When You Can’t Repay a Payday Loan

+ What to do if you can't repay a payday loan 1. Prioritize food and shelter needs. 2. Offer to settle before debt goes to collections. 3. Consider bankruptcy if debts are overwhelming. 4. Know your rights in dealing with debt collectors. 5. Insist collectors show proof the debt is yours. 6. If sued, show up in court no matter what.

If you don’t repay your payday loan, here’s what can happen: a barrage of bank overdraft fees, constant collections calls, hit after hit to your credit, a day in court and garnishment of your paycheck.

Don’t think it can’t happen because you borrowed only $300 in the first place.

“If you have a valid, binding, legal agreement to pay that debt, and you’re in a state where they can sue you and attach your wages, you’re playing a game of chicken that you’re going to lose,” says Bruce McClary of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

This is what you can expect:

First up: Lots of bank withdrawals and calls

When the money you borrowed is due, payday lenders don’t waste time.

Immediately, they’ll initiate automatic withdrawals from your bank account, which you typically give them access to when you take out the loan. If the debits don’t go through, they may break the charge into smaller chunks in an attempt to extract whatever money is in your account. Each failed attempt can trigger a bank fee against you.

At the same time, lenders will start calling, sending letters from lawyers and contacting the relatives or friends you used as references when you took out the loan. While federal law prohibits debt collectors from revealing their identity or your debt situation to anyone else — they can ask only for help locating you — violations of this provision are widespread, advocates say.

In a 2014 report on lender practices, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that payday collectors visited borrowers’ homes and places of work and told friends, neighbors and colleagues the details of the person’s outstanding loan.

“They’re fairly aggressive because you’re already on a fairly short leash,” credit expert John Ulzheimer says. “Payday lenders understand that if someone goes delinquent, it’s much more likely they’re going to default. They’re not going to give their borrower a bunch of time, and they’re certainly not going to listen to a bunch of sob stories before they start trying to collect on the debt.”

Jail time? No — but threats are common

In a 2014 Pew Charitable Trusts survey, 30 percent of online payday borrowers reported having been threatened by a payday lender, “including the threat of arrest,” says Nick Bourke, director of the nonprofit’s small-dollar-loans project.

Failure to repay a loan is not a criminal offense. In fact, it is illegal for a lender to threaten a borrower with arrest or jail. Nonetheless, some payday lenders have succeeded in using bad-check laws to file criminal complaints against borrowers, with judges erroneously rubber-stamping the complaints.

The CFPB advises anyone threatened with arrest for nonpayment to contact his or her state attorney general’s office. You should never ignore a court order to appear in court, however, even if the criminal complaint was filed mistakenly.

Try to negotiate a settlement

A lender would rather collect money directly from you than proceed to the next step, which is to sell your debt to an outside collections agency.

“It’s not inconceivable that [third-party debt collectors] are paying 3, 4, 5 cents on the dollar,” Ulzheimer says. That makes lenders’ first priority to collect the debt themselves, he says. The second option is to see if they can settle with you directly for some amount of money. The third is outsourcing to a debt collector.

“And that’s when the fun begins, because these guys are professional debt collectors,” Ulzheimer says.

Transfer of your debt to the pros can happen “very, very quickly,” he says, perhaps within 30 days. Think of the previous collections efforts multiplied: collections agents showing up at your workplace, calling you 10 times in a day, threatening to sue. A collections agency will often use the threat of a report to the credit bureaus to encourage delinquent borrowers to make a payment, since payday lenders don’t themselves use the credit agencies.

“The collector has complete latitude regarding whether they want to report it at all, whether they want to report it immediately, or in six months, or ever,” Ulzheimer says.

Next stop: The courthouse

If you think a collections agency wouldn’t bother to sue for a small amount, think again.

Michael Bovee, founder of the Consumer Recovery Network, says nearly all lawsuits against consumers today are for relatively small amounts. “I’ve seen lawsuits for under $500,” he says. “Even Capital One sues for less than $500 these days. I see those regularly.”

The lenders typically win because consumers don’t show up to court. “Consumers don’t know what to do,” he says. When the defendant is a no-show, the judge typically enters a summary judgment and the court can begin to collect the money you owe on behalf of the collections agency.

“Depending on your state law, you are exposed to property liens, bank account levies and wage garnishment,” Bovee says.

Options if you default on a payday loan

Don’t let panic drive your decision-making.

“You should not prioritize paying the payday lender over putting food on the table” or paying the rent, says Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. Cover basic needs first; you may be eligible for community assistance plans for help with rent, utilities or food. Then, seek free advice from a nonprofit credit counselor or legal aid center to set a repayment plan, she says.

Call the lender and make an offer to pay a portion of the bill in exchange for erasing the rest of the debt. “They’re usually at least open and willing to listen,” Ulzheimer says. A good figure to start the bartering is 50% of the debt amount.

“Tell the lender: ‘Look, I simply can’t pay you and I’m considering bankruptcy,’” Ulzheimer says. “The minute you start using the BK word they get real serious, because BK means they get nothing.”

Get any agreement in writing, and make sure the document states that your balance will be reduced to zero. In official terms, you want the debt “exhausted.”

Don’t ignore a lawsuit

If you can’t settle, make sure you know how to deal with debt collectors. If you’re sued for the debt, show up in court.

“You should never ignore a lawsuit,” says Saunders, a lawyer. “Show up in court and ask them for proof that you owe them the money, because often they show up without proof.” A CFPB review of one lender’s lawsuits found that 70% of them were dismissed for lack of proof.

If you can’t get the suit dismissed, do whatever you can to avoid having a judgment on your record: ask the plaintiff to accept a settlement plan, plead with the judge. A judgment is different, and worse, than simply having an unpaid loan reported to the credit agencies.

“You pay late on loans and it may show up as 30 days, 60 days, 120 days late, there’s really nothing more that’s going to happen to your credit. The damage is there,” Bovee says. A judgment, though, “has a whole new shelf life. That’s another seven years on your credit report.”

While the judgment may eventually drop off of your credit report, the amount you owe never magically dissolves.

“Time never makes debt go away,” Ulzheimer says. “Bankruptcy does.”

Karen Aho is a contributing writer.

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