New Home Sales Down as 2016 Begins; Could Word Be Getting Out About Risks of Poor Construction?

According to data gathered by Trading Economics, January of 2016 was a lousy month for sales of new single-family homes in the United States. Purchases were down 9.2% from December; the lowest figure in three months and well below predictions.

Meanwhile, Nolo just wrapped up an online survey of viewers, asking about their satisfaction with their newly purchased homes. Among those who responded, 74% had bought from a developer, and 25% had hired their own contractor.

But only 22% were satisfied with the quality of the construction. An overwhelming number–91%–have found home defects since buying, and 96% are contemplating legal action.

Uh oh. Now, it should be said that this was a small survey (fewer than 100 respondents), and anyone searching for information on Nolo is likely to have an existing reason for doing so, perhaps dissatisfaction with their home and questions about filing a lawsuit.

But it does fit a long-observed pattern within the real estate industry. “New” does not equal “risk-free” when it comes to a structure as complex as a home. In fact, with shortages of skilled labor, new homes can come with major defects.

To find out how to protect yourself as a buyer, see Newly Built Houses: Pros and Cons of Buying. And if you’ve already bought and are encountering defects, you’ll want to check out Nolo’s series of articles on Suing Your Home Builder: Legal Rights in Selected States.

Is There Time to Become a U.S. Citizen Before the November, 2016 Election?

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While on the road today, I caught a snippet of a radio interview in which U.S. immigrants (presumably green card holders) discussed their eagerness to apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship as soon as possible, in order to be able to vote in the upcoming presidential election.

That made me wonder: Is there time? Anything to do with the U.S. immigration bureaucracy tends to take weeks and months longer than it should. But let’s take the best-case scenario for an applicant who decides today, February 19, 2016, that he or she wants to apply. Let’s also assume that that person meets the basic citizenship criteria.

The first step would be to fill out the paperwork; no small task, because it not only involves filling out a form, but figuring out the dates of all one’s absences from the U.S. over the last several years, making a copy of one’s green card, having two passport-style photos taken, rustling up a $680 fee, and including any other relevant documentation (for example, proof of marriage to a U.S. citizen if applying after three years rather than usual five on that basis, or a medical report if claiming an exemption from the English or civics exam based on a disability).

And then the person would need to make a complete copy of the application and send it via a secure method, to protect against the all-too-real possibility that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will lose it.

Let’s assume that all of the above could be done in one week. The person would then need to mail the applications to a USCIS “lockbox,” which facility would then need to review and transfer the application to a local field office. That’s bound to take a few days right there.

Next, it becomes a matter of how quickly one’s local USCIS field office is moving. Applicants can check this on the “USCIS Processing Time Information” page, by choosing the appropriate office from the”Field Office” dropdown, then scrolling down to where it lists “N-400.”

Most offices are processing applications they received in July 2015, meaning it’s taking them seven months to interview the applicants. Los Angeles advertises only a five months’ wait. But it’s an eight months’ wait in Houston and Baltimore, and I didn’t check every field office, and the waiting periods can change depending on how many people apply at any given time.

Now let’s say the person attends the required in-person naturalization interview at a USCIS office, passes all the exams, and is approved for U.S. citizenship. That’s great, but it’s not the end of the process. First off, USCIS may not yet have received the results of the person’s fingerprint checks from the FBI and other sources, which can add weeks or months to process.

And no one becomes a U.S. citizen without attending the swearing-in ceremony. This, too, might be scheduled weeks or months after the person’s approval; though same-day swearing in is possible in some locations.

Oh, and let’s not forget actually registering to vote!

So, putting it altogether, and assuming that all goes smoothly, I’d guesstimate it would take approximately 8 1/2 months from today to successfully becoming a U.S. citizen. That’s almost exactly the amount of time left between now and the November presidential election.

If you’re hoping to apply, get moving on the process today!

EEOC Proposes to Add Pay Data to EEO-1 Reporting Form

As part of itsgavel over money istock role enforcing antidiscrimination laws, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) gathers information about workplace demographics in the United States. Employers with 100 or more employees are required to submit an annual report, called the EEO-1 report, providing information about the race, ethnicity, and gender of the company’s employees in certain job categories. At the end of last month, the EEOC announced a proposal to add pay data to the EEO-1 report, in an effort to enforce equal pay laws.

Although wage discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, and race has been outlawed for several decades, the United States still has a significant pay gap. Women continue to make around three-fourths or less of what men make in the same position. The pay gap is even wider for female employees of African American or Latino descent.

Enforcing equal pay has presented somewhat of a challenge because it’s easy for this type of discrimination to go unnoticed. Employees typically aren’t privy to what their coworkers are earning, and up until now, employers haven’t been required to report that data to any state agencies. The EEOC expects that requiring regular reporting of pay data will help regulate employers and enforce antidiscrimination laws. And, it will provide employers with an opportunity to monitor their pay practices and correct any discrepancies.

If the EEOC’s proposed change is approved, employers that are required to submit an EEO-1 report will need to include information on employees’ wages and work hours. The EEOC will be accepting comments on the proposed rule until April 1, 2016. If the rule passes, employers will need to comply with the new reporting requirement beginning in 2017.

Forty Cent Difference Between 2016 Business and Charity Mileage Deductions

The IRS actually lowered the amount per mile that a business owner can deduct for vehicle use in 2016. (See 2016 Standard Mileage Rates for Business, Medical and Moving Announced.) The standard mileage deduction went from 57.5 cents for 2015 to 54 cents.

The amount that a volunteer using a car for charity can deduct in 2016 stayed right where it’s been for years, at 14 cents per mile. So relatively speaking, the volunteers are a little better off than they were last year. After driving hither and yon to set up a charity auction, visit shelter dogs and cats (and birds, and reptiles . . . ), clean up a shoreline, and so on, they’re only an even 40 cents worse off per mile than had they been driving the car for business purposes.

Does the IRS hate charitable work? No, the difference is based on a technicality. The charitable mileage deduction is set by federal statute, which would take an act of Congress to change. Congress never seems to get around to that particular fix.

The standard mileage rate for business, by contrast, is within the IRS’s power to change. The agency announces a new rate annually, based on the latest fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile.

If you’re volunteering for charity and using your car to get you to the facility and back, or for other purposes related to your volunteer work, and you want the maximum deduction, you might want to do it the more laborious way: keep track of your miles, and figure out the per-mile cost of gas and oil, as directly related, variable expenses. (General wear and tear can’t be included for the charitable mileage deduction.) See IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions, for details (under “Out-of-Pocket Expenses in Giving Services”).

And if you’re a leader or manager of a charitable or nonprofit organization, be sure to remind your volunteers about the tax deductions they can take for expenses they incur. Not only mileage, but other expenses they pay for out of pocket (aprons, treats for kids, pets, or other clients, art supplies, and so forth) can be deducted.

Minimum Wage Increases in the New Year

Witgavel over money istockh the start of the new year, the minimum wage has increased in several states. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25; this is the lowest hourly amount that employers can pay employees in the United States. However, if a state has a higher minimum wage, the employer must pay the higher amount. Likewise, if a city or county has a higher minimum wage than the federal or state rate, the employer must pay the higher amount.

As of January 1, 2016, the minimum wage increased to the following amounts:

  • Alaska: $9.75
  • Arkansas: $8
  • California: $10
  • Colorado: $8.31
  • Connecticut: $9.60
  • Hawaii: $8.50
  • Massachusetts: $10
  • Michigan: $8.50
  • Nebraska: $9
  • New York: $9
  • Rhode Island: $9.60
  • South Dakota: $8.55
  • Vermont: $9.60
  • West Virginia: $8.75

Employers and employees should check with their city or county to find out if there is a local minimum wage. For more information about the rules in your state, see Your Right to Minimum Wage.