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Consumer Reports

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    It Pays to File Your FAFSA Early

    While you may have submitted your college applications, you aren’t quite finished with the process yet. If you’ll be applying for financial aid, now is the time to fill out the application. While many families have a pretty good idea of the process, there’s one mistake students and their parents often make: They wait too long to file. That can mean the difference between collecting and missing out on thousands of dollars in financial aid.

    Why does it matter? Because the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) isn’t just the gateway for money from the federal government. States, colleges, and many scholarship programs use FAFSA to determine eligibility for financial aid and many have much earlier deadlines or give out money on a first-come, first-served basis. Even some federal aid, such as campus-based work-study programs, is based on when you apply.

    “The sooner you file the more money you’re likely to get,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy for Cappex.com, a website that helps students find financial aid for college. According to Kantrowitz’s analysis, students who file the FAFSA by the end of March get twice as much grant funding as students who file later.

    Ten states award money on a first-come, first-served basis, three have deadlines in February, and a dozen have deadlines in early March, according to Edvisors, a network of free websites that help students plan and pay for college. You can check Edvisors site for the 2016-2017 FAFSA deadlines by state. For school deadlines, contact the colleges you are applying to directly.

    Changes Are Coming

    You can file the FAFSA for the 2016-2017 school year anytime from January 1, 2016, up through June 30, 2017, which allows you to apply for aid even once you're in school. There are more than 100 questions and you’ll need information from your 2015 taxes. But you don’t have to wait until you have filed your return. You can estimate the information you need based on your 2014 taxes and update it later after you file.

    There are some important changes to the FAFSA this year that will improve the process, says David Levy, editor of Edvisors. One is that steps have been taken to keep your information more confidential than in the past.

    When you fill out the FAFSA, you can list up to 10 colleges to receive your financial information. Starting with this FAFSA season, the Department of Education (DOE) no longer gives colleges access to this list. The reason: Some organizations, such as the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, voiced concerns that some colleges used the list, which typically corresponds to the order of a student’s preferred college, to determine admission decisions and even how much aid to give.

    Looking ahead, the other change is that for the 2017-2018 school year, you will be able to file the FAFSA even earlier than in the past. Up until now, the earliest you could apply for financial aid was January 1 of the year you planned to start college.

    Now you’ll be able to file the application as early as October 1 the year before you start college. Because applications will now be accepted earlier, you’ll be able to apply based on the information you provided in your 2015 tax return. If you file the FAFSA application online you can use a tool that imports data from your return, which will reduce errors that can hold up processing, says Kantrowitz. Check the Department of Education (DOE) website for deadlines.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Doing Hard Time on Your Mattress?

    A mattress dealer we talked to jokingly referred to the few bottom-dollar mattresses in his store as “prison mattresses,” models that no one would sleep on voluntarily. That made us wonder how real prison mattresses, such as the Derby Standard Corrections bed, stack up against the many mattresses in Consumer Reports’ mattress tests. The most expensive mattress in our tests, the queen-size Duxiana Dux 515, costs $7,595. For that you can buy more than 50 Derby Standard Corrections twin-size mattresses at $145 each.

    Of course, you probably wouldn’t buy a Derby mattress unless you were furnishing a hunting camp or wanted one for your camper. Far from plush, the 5-inch thick Derby resembles a gym mat more than a mattress. It’s made of fiber padding and foam encased in a blue plastic shell with sealed seams. Ours came with a built-in pillow, though it also comes without one.

    Our tough tests yielded some interesting results. As you might expect, the Derby Standard Corrections mattress was especially firm, and it wasn’t notably breathable. It resists bounciness but because it’s a twin-size there’s no sleep partner to wake up anyway. And not surprisingly, other mattresses in our tests offered better support. The mattress scored only fair in our durability test simulating eight years of use, after which we assess changes in support and other wear and tear.

    But prison mattresses aren’t made for comfort. One of the challenges for manufacturers is how to design a mattress that can’t be used to hide contraband. The same company makes the See-Clear-ity Corrections mattress, a bed encased in clear fabric. That one we didn’t test.

    Mattresses for $500 or Less

    If you need an inexpensive mattress for a little-used guest room or a student’s first apartment, you can find one for $500 or less without being condemned to nights of discomfort. The prices here are for the queen-size mattresses we test; a twin-size will cost even less.

    For an innerspring, consider the Denver Mattress Doctor's Choice, $500. The Night Therapy 12-inch Euro Box Top Spring, $248, costs half that and narrowly missed our top picks list.

    For a foam mattress, take a look at the Tuft & Needle Ten, $500, or the slightly cheaper Sleep Innovations 12-inch Gel Swirl, $470. Two other models that missed the cut cost even less and do have their plusses, the Ikea Matrand, $400, a good choice for couples, and the Spa Sensations 10-inch Memory Foam SPA-1000Q, $360, which provides very good support for back sleepers.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Autonomous Cars Get Boost From Government

    The Obama Administration is proposing massive funding and regulatory assistance that will enable autonomous vehicles to ply U.S. highways and roads in the not-distant future.

    U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today announced the administration will “do everything we can to advance safe, smart and sustainable transportation innovations. We are bullish on automated vehicles.”

    President Barack Obama is proposing spending $3.9 billion dollars over the next 10 years to help accelerate projects related to the development and safety of self-driving cars, Foxx said at a press conference at the Detroit auto show.

    Showing support for this government-industry venture were key industry figures, including Mark Reuss, General Motors executive vice president of global product development; John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s self-driving car project; and Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    Despite the fanfare and proliferation of industry executives on hand, no specific new laws or regulations related to autonomous vehicles were officially announced. But Foxx did detail two first steps from NHTSA for integrating self-driving vehicles into the market.  

    First, they will develop and propose new policies to help the 50 states “advance to this new era of safety” in a way that’s consistent among them, given a national policy on self-driving cars. In other words, NHTSA would like to get all the states on the same regulatory page. Foxx said NHTSA will propose best practices “for the safe operation for fully autonomous vehicles.”

    Possibly more interesting to auto manufacturers, Foxx said the administration is planning to propose new “regulatory interpretations,” to aid builders of automated cars as they move forward with safety innovations. Further, Foxx said he was personally asking automakers to submit more requests for interpretation and regulatory exemptions, stating they want to “work with your progress, not hold it back.”

    Why are autonomous cars so important? Foxx says the future of the U.S. transportation system is in jeopardy, due to congestion and pollution, not to mention damage to infrastructure thanks to climate change weather events. A road filled with self-driving cars should also save time and fuel, he claimed. There’s a safety factor, too, as 80 percent of car accidents are due to human error, according to NHTSA estimates.

    Eliminate these errors, as promised by autonomous cars, and Foxx said, “more than 25,000 lives would have been saved in 2015 alone.”

    “This is an important announcement for consumers. Self-driving cars may have the potential to reduce crashes and save lives, and federal officials today committed to investing in research and testing to see if that’s true. As NHTSA considers possible policy changes related to these vehicles, we look forward to an open and rigorous process to ensure these and all cars are safe,” said William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    From Our Experts: How to Find the Right Exercise Equipment

    Peter Anzalone has been a tester for Consumer Reports for almost a ­decade. With degrees in mechanical engineering, dance, and advanced ­personal training, he’s uniquely suited to testing today’s high-tech exercise gear. Here are his tips for getting the most out of your workout and your exercise equipment.

    1. Try before you buy. Exercise equipment should feel comfortable and support your body’s natural movement, so don’t just admire it from afar. Go into a fitness store, sneakers on, and spend at least 15 minutes on the machines before buying. You need to work up a sweat before making this big purchase.

    2. Keep it clean and maintained. Cardio equipment has a lot of moving parts and electronics. To keep things moving smoothly, wipe down the machine after each use to remove any dirt, dust, and sweat. Listen for squeaks or other unusual sounds, which could indicate that a fastener needs tightening. Keep elliptical roller surfaces clean and lubricated, and treadmill belts aligned and lubed, ­following the instructions in your ­owner’s manual.

    3. Exercise caution. Home exercise equipment causes tens of thousands of injuries each year. Always use the safety key on treadmills, which will stop the belt if you fall. Because young children are often victims of injury, the best policy is to keep them away from your equipment at all times.

    Affordable Exercise Gear

    You can spend a lot on exercise equipment but you don't have to. If you're just setting up a home gym consider a treadmill or elliptical that we named a CR Best Buy, which combines value and performance.

    Ellipticals

    Treadmills

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    Automakers and NHTSA Agree to Collaborate on Car Safety Improvements

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and 18 automakers have announced a commitment to improving car safety and catching safety defects before they turn into extensive recalls.

    Automakers have recalled more than 100 million vehicles over the past two years. Likewise, a record number of civil penalties were issued during that time by NHTSA to spur industry action. Clearly, the collective auto industry can and should do better.

    More than 94 percent of the 32,000 fatalities that happened on U.S. roads in 2014 were a direct result of human error. Making advanced safety features such as forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking more widely available and even standard equipment can significantly reduce collisions.

    Autonomous cars also hold significant promise. In fact, just yesterday U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that President Barack Obama is proposing spending $3.9 billion dollars over the next 10 years to help accelerate projects related to the development and safety of self-driving cars.

    These back-to-back announcements show the government taking the wheel in driving manufacturers to be more proactive with implementing safety features, preventing defects, and, in cases when defects are found, hastening the repair process.

    “It's vitally important to find and fix safety defects before, not after, consumers get hurt. These safety principles are a first step in that effort and we appreciate the consensus reached by NHTSA and the auto industry," says William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports.

    Also integral to the announcement is a pledge between industry and government to share data and analysis and collaborate to mitigate cybersecurity threats.

    "Better dialogue and data-sharing between industry and NHTSA are part of the solution, but holding companies accountable when they don’t measure up is equally important. Going forward, we urge automakers to follow through by meeting and exceeding the commitments they have made today. NHTSA should hold them to their word and keep taking strong steps to protect consumers on the road," says Wallace.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    8 Ways to Save on a Gym Membership

    It’s January and for many that means making a renewed commitment to improving health and fitness. For fitness clubs, it's also the time of year when they want to sign on as many newly motivated people as they can. So they'll often offer cut-rate prices on their membership plans.

    But if you missed initial wave of gym membership mania, you still have plenty of opportunities to get a good deal.

    “You can often get the biggest discount on a gym membership later in the month,” says Andrea Metcalf, a certified trainer and health coach in Chicago. That holds true in January or during any month of the year. Metcalf says that towards the end of a month, fitness clubs may need to boost their monthly sales quotas and so they will offer even lower rates to entice you to join.

    Another good time to lock in an annual membership rate is during the summer. When the weather is good, fewer people sign up for memberships so gyms often reduce fees to attract new members.

    There are plenty of other ways to save:

    Sign up for a trial run. Call fitness clubs near your home and office to ask for a no-commitment trial. Most clubs will give you a one week pass to try out the facility, says Pam Kufahl, director of content at Club Industry, a website for fitness pros. Visit during the hours you’ll be most likely to work out so you can see how crowded it is. Try the classes that interest you, from yoga and pilates to spinning and kettlebells. Be sure to also look closely at the condition of the facilities, including the weight machines, the locker room, and the swimming pool. If you can, ask members what they like and don’t like about the club, and get a copy of the fee schedule so you’ll know what your monthly expenses would be.

    Search for better prices online. While you’re deciding which gym to join, scour the Web. You may find out about some great deals on fitness websites and even through sites such as Groupon, Living Social, and Gilt City. Kufahl says that these deals usually include discounts on a gym membership or classes.

    Negotiate a deal. When you decide which club you'd like to join, speak with a manager instead of a sales person. She is more likely to be able to negotiate a better gym membership price for you. Metcalf says you should ask if you can get a month free or not have to pay the initiation fee—especially if you agree to pay for an annual membership upfront. Also find out what the fees would be if you pay monthly instead, so you can compare the total cost.

    While you're negotiating, try to get some additional bonuses thrown in without charge, such as a wellness assessment or a personal training session. If the membership includes services you won’t use, such as childcare, classes, or use of a pool, ask for a reduced rate that doesn’t include those perks.

    Be flexible. A club may offer you a discount as long as you agree to use the facilities only during off-peak hours or on certain days. Consider the offer carefully. The restrictions may be worth it, especially if you can easily fit those hours into your schedule. Such special rates, though, aren’t usually advertised, so you’ll have to ask for them.

    Join with a group. Many fitness facilities will lower their monthly rates for a large group. One of the easiest ways to take advantage of this benefit is through your employer. The Sporting Club in Philadelphia, for example, has offered discounts of up to 20 percent to Temple University’s full-time employees. Ask your human resources department if your employer has deals with local clubs.

    Many fitness clubs offer "family" or "household" discounts to two or more people who live together. You can also gather a group of friends and ask a gym manager if he or she would be willing to cut a deal for the group. If you can't wrangle a discount, find out if your group can get deals on additional services, such as small group personal training sessions, Kufahl says.  

    Check your insurance benefits. Health insurance plans may provide discounts on a gym membership. Some plans offered by United Healthcare for example, have reimbursed members up to $240 a year if they belong to a participating fitness center. Call your insurance plan's member services number (often listed on the back of your health insurance card) or check with your company's human resources insurance expert to see if you're eligible for a discount. See if there are any special requirements to get a reimbursement—you may have to visit a facility a certain number of times a month.

    Read the contract. One of the most expensive charges you could eventually encounter is a club’s cancellation fee. Although you might not be able to get it removed, you should be aware of the terms in advance so you don’t get stuck paying a penalty for a membership you no longer use. You might have to let the club know you want to cancel two months in advance, for example, or submit a notarized letter to end the contract.

    Ask if the membership fees have changed. Once you've joined a club, you'll still want to keep tabs on the monthly or annual fees the gym charges. One of our editors was paying the New York Sports Club in Manhattan a monthly membership fee of more than $90. While the club never announced price reductions, last October he asked the manager if there was a way to lower the monthly fee. Turned out there was. While the club charged him a one-time $50 fee for making the change, the monthly fee for exactly the same membership dropped to just under $60, a monthly savings of over more than 33 percent.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Innovative Winter Tire That Can Stay on the Car Year Round

    Toyo introduced the Celsius and Celsius CUV tires this past fall, describing them as variable conditions tires—with performance like an all-season tire on cleared roads and winter tire-like grip on snow and ice. Based on our experience, the Celsius sounds like and behaves much like the Nokian WR G3 all-weather tire.

    Consumer Reports likes the concept of an all-weather tire. They make a lot of sense for drivers who live in the snow-belt and want more traction than the typical all-season tire, but don’t want the inconvenience of buying a second set of tires for winter use.

    In our tests, the new Toyo Celsius and Nokian WR G3 deliver solid winter traction, with good stopping grip on dry roads and confident handling. In contrast, many snow tires may edge-out these all-weather tires on snow and ice, but they trade-down with fair to poor stopping ability on cleared pavement and lackluster handling. The Celsius and WR G3 offer good winter grip but neither is quite as good as dedicated snow tire models from those brands. 

    The Toyo Celsius and Nokian WR G3 have virtually identical overall scores, placing them in the upper half of Consumer Reports' winter/snow tire ratings chart. These tires perform similarly in most of our tests. The Celsius stops longer than the WR G3 on wet road surfaces, though shorter than many dedicated snow tires.

    On the plus side, tread life is predicted to be longer for the Celsius than the WR G3. The Celsius and WR G3 have 60,000 and 55,000 treadwear mileage warranties, respectively. The Toyo Celsius is available in 14-17-inch tire sizes to fit many family cars, and a CUV version comes in 17-20-inch tires sizes for trucks.

    All-weather tires appear to be an emerging category, with Toyo and Nokian potentially starting a new trend. Vredestein also offers a high performance all-weather tire called Quatrac 5, which we hope to test this coming year.

    When shopping for the next tires for your vehicle, be sure to consult our ratings to find the ones that excel in the areas that matter most to you, such as snow traction, wet-braking, and/or treadwear.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Coming Soon: 360-Degree Videos Shot With GoPro Cameras

    Thanks to the recent surge of interest in virtual reality, we're now witnessing an intense, almost frenzied fascination among camera companies with models that shoot 360-degree video. After all, what good is a $599 headset if you don't have high-quality eye candy to explore?

    A year ago, Pentax introduced its Theta action cam. This month, it was Nikon with its Keymission 360. And so, it's not surprising that GoPro, the runaway leader in the action cam market, will be introducing two 360-degree camera rigs later this year. Most consumers won't consider buying either of these expensive pieces of equipment, which both can shoot in 4K, but you may see video shot with them if you invest in Google Cardboard or another headset. And in the next couple of years, prices should drop into the expensive-but-sane range. 

    GoPro's $15,000, 16-camera Odyssey is designed for professionals—presumably for Hollywood and ESPN. But the company also plans to release a consumer-friendly model. At what price? That's not yet clear. But, since the rugged, waterproof device will have six GoPro cams integrated into it, it is likely to cost upwards of $2,000. That would be quite expensive, but still within reach for some really committed amateurs. At least GoPro is hoping so, because the company has a lot riding on the product: After announcing disappointing sales figures for the holiday season, the company recently announced it was cutting 7 percent of its workforce.

    Although I have not gotten to shoot with the new GoPro model—what I was shown during a recent meeting with executives was more or less a prototype—I did get to review some footage from it on a Samsung Gear VR headset. Dressed in a jacket and tie, I donned the headset and suddenly I was surfing the waves off the coast of Tahiti.

    Two moments in particular captivated me. In the first, the top of a wave appeared just over my head. When I looked up, all I could see was more wave. That's when I realized I was tunneling through the surf. Then I looked down and noticed, just below the rushing water, the rocky ocean floor whizzing beneath my feet.

    If you want to check out the footage, you'll find it online here (the surfing segment starts about 45 seconds into the clip). As you can see, you can change the point of view—even when you're not wearing a VR headset—by simply dragging and clicking on the video.

    It will be interesting to see what kinds of great content videographers shoot using GoPro’s six-camcorder VR rig. But we also want to learn more about what it's like to actually shoot with it, and so far, GoPro hasn't revealed too much information. In all likelihood, the rig will be controlled through either a remote or an app-enabled smartphone. Since GoPros do not have optical zoom, this rig may lack that capability, too. But the company will probably need to add for the first time some kind of image stabilization, since non-VR ultra HD or 4K-resolution video without it is hard to stomach, much less watch. Nausea is not good for business.

    We’ll be sure to test this new action cam rig in our labs once it’s available. In the meantime, check out our camcorder buying guide for expert advice on action cams that are already on the market.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    After a Storm, Beware of Scammers

    Severe storms and rampaging floodwaters have pummeled people in many parts of the country. Yet even as they start to cleanup, home and business owners may face a different—more insidious—threat from scammers known as "storm chasers" who offer debris removal, clean-up services, and home repair.

    In the wake of the recent severe flooding in Illinois, Attorney General Lisa Madigan warned against home repair con artists who quickly move to “work” an affected area. Elderly folks are particularly vulnerable.

    A common scam occurs when someone poses as a contractor or service provider, requests payment in advance, and then doesn’t provide the services agreed upon. Price gouging is also a popular scam. Among the respondents to Consumer Reports Hurricane Sandy Impact Survey who hired contractors to help with post-storm repairs, 22 percent felt they had been exploited. The most common complaint was excessive prices charged for the repairs, followed by contractors who rushed through the job and did substandard work. 

    Red Flags

    To avoid unscrupulous contractors or outright scam artists, watch out for:

    • Unsolicited phone calls or visits. Be wary of people who appear at your door without an appointment and claim to offer disaster relief. Be especially wary of repair people who offer a bargain price, claiming that they’re "doing a job in the neighborhood and have leftover materials."

    • Fake officials. Scammers may try to impersonate government officials and claim they need to see your bank account, credit card, or Social Security number. This is a ploy to use your personal information for identity and credit card theft. Always ask to see their identification. Government officials must carry proper identification with their name and photograph.

    • Credentials that can’t be easily checked. A contractor whose address can’t be verified, who uses only a post office box, or who has only an answering service and no listing in the telephone book should set your fraud alarm buzzing. That also applies to contractors who aren’t affiliated with any recognized trade association, who tell you they "left at home" their state and local permits and licenses, or whose name on the license doesn’t match the name on the contractor's business card or truck. Check with your local Better Business Bureau to see whether they’re members or have had any complaints listed against them. Use only those repair people who can—and will—provide references for similar jobs in your area.

    • Price-busting promises. Don’t trust someone who promises a hefty discount but won't tell you the total cost of the job. The same advice applies for a contractor who promises a sizable drop in price in return for using your home as a “demo.”

    • Scare tactics. Scammers often use high-pressure sales tactics or threaten to rescind a special price if you don’t sign on the spot. Another typical scam is to try to scare you into a signing a contract by claiming that your house puts you in peril, saying, for example, “Your electrical wiring could start a fire if it isn’t replaced before the next rainstorm.”

    Even if your home needs urgent repairs, take the time to find a reputable contractor and insist on a written contract. Remember that you have the right to cancel a contract within three days if you signed it in your home or at a seller’s temporary location, such as hotel or motel room, convention center, or restaurant. Protect yourself further by paying by check or credit card—never cash—and by never making full payment until all the work has been completed to your satisfaction.

    These steps may delay your recovery from a disaster, but they will help protect you from being scammed. 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Low-Rolling Resistance Tires Can Save Fuel

    Low-rolling resistance tires are marketed as an easy way to save fuel—and money. But how much do they really save you? In collaboration with the University of Michigan—which ran the calculations based on Consumer Reports data—we have proof that low-rolling resistance tires could save $78 a year in fuel.

    To run the calculations, the university used Consumer Reports rolling-resistance data from 49 all-season tires. The analysis covered T-speed-rated all-season tires, and H- and V-speed-rated performance all-season tires. T-speed-rated tires come in sizes to fit many cars and minivans. They are designed to handle most weather conditions, and emphasize comfort, quietness, and long tread life. Performance all-season tires are typically original equipment on new cars, and they are generally a step-up in handling but may trade-off some tread life and winter grip.

    The data was collected at an outside lab where the resistance force to roll a tire under load at speed on a dynamometer was measured. The lower the rolling-resistance force, the more fuel efficient a tire is likely to be. Aside from Consumer Reports tire ratings, shoppers would be hard pressed to find such fuel efficiency information.

    In general, if you wanted a low-rolling resistance tire, check our ratings, as we’ve found performance can vary. Should you choose not to confer with the ratings, your best bet is to buy an original equipment tire, as those are typically designed with good fuel efficiency as a high priority. Other replacement tires may trade-off some fuel efficiency for better wet grip and longer tread life. It’s worth mentioning there are a few replacement tires available touting good fuel efficiency, but they’re not commonplace.  

    Traction Points From the Rolling-Resistance Report

    There is a large overlap in rolling resistance between the all-season and performance all-season tires, meaning there are good choices for potentially low-rolling-resistance tires in each of the T-, H-, and V-speed-rated categories.

    Rolling resistance data was used to predict fuel economy differences using industry guidance that a 10 percent change in rolling resistance may result in a 1-2 percent change in fuel economy. It was calculated that the average fuel consumption for cars on the road today is 21.6 mpg, as computed from a vehicle fleet average.

    • Based on those calculations, the potential fuel economy could rise from 20.9 mpg to 22.2 mpg when driving on tires with the highest rolling resistance versus the lowest.
    • Based on an average distance driven in a year of 11,346 miles, 32 gallons of fuel a year could be saved by going from the highest to lowest rolling-resistance tire.
    • At the time of the analysis, a cost savings of $78 was realized by going from a tire with the highest to lowest rolling resistance, based on the average price of a gallon of regular gas being $2.43.  

    The estimates used in the report are similar to results Consumer Reports has found in actual on-vehicle fuel economy tests showing a 1-2 mpg difference when swapping between relatively high- and low-rolling-resistance all-season tires on our test car.

    The study shows that you wouldn’t reap a windfall of savings by switching to low-rolling-resistance tires, but every little bit helps. We recommend when considering a tire purchase, look for a tire with good braking, handling, and hydroplaning resistance. After that look for tires that perform well in other areas important to you, such as comfort, winter grip, and tread life, and then consider rolling resistance as a tie-breaker.

    Finally, keep your tires properly inflated. Underinflated tires raise a tire’s rolling resistance. A 0.3-percent drop in fuel mileage is possible for every 1 psi drop in tire pressure according to government estimates.  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Is It Finally Time to Buy a 4K UHD?

    Despite the hype over 4K, or Ultra HD, TVs during the past two years, we held off on recommending that people go out and buy them. Now that's changing.

    We had a few reasons for hesitating. First off, there were barely any 4K movies or TV shows to watch. Secondly, the sets were considerably more expensive, and we knew the prices would drop, as they always do. And, finally, the higher resolution by itself wasn't that noticeable to most viewers sitting a typical distance from the screen. (A 4K television has four times as many pixels as a conventional 1080p television.)

    What mattered more, we thought, were additional enhancements to UHD picture quality including high dynamic range, or HDR, and an increased range of colors via wide color gamut, or WCG, technology. (HDR improves contrast by expanding the range of the lightest and darkest images a TV can display, and WCG gives the TV a larger box of crayons to play with, so to speak.) When done well, these features can produce impressive, more lifelike images, but we were concerned that these technologies were still evolving.

    After meeting with TV makers at CES 2016, we think that the industry has progressed enough so that it now makes sense to consider a 4K UHD TV, especially if you're looking to future-proof a purchase.

    Prices High, But Dropping

    The price difference between a 4K UHD TV and a 1080p model continues to narrow. While the major brands didn't reveal pricing for their new models at CES, a few secondary brands did. As a result, we expect this spring you'll be able to buy a 50- to 55-inch UHD TV with some level of HDR capability for as little as $600 to $700. That's only about $150 to $200 more than a comparable 1080p model.

    Major-brand UHD TVs will be pricier, but not outrageously so. In its new entry-level D-series, Vizio is charging about $200 more for a 4K UHD TV than for a 1080p set. For example, its 65-inch D65-D2 1080p TV costs $1,000, while the UHD version (D65u-D2) is $1,200.

    More 4K Content Coming

    Right now 4K content is still limited but much more is on the way, both from streaming services and on new 4K discs for the Ultra HD Blu-ray players that will start arriving this spring. Both Amazon and Netflix have indicated that all their original series will be available in 4K this year, and M-Go and Vudu will be ramping up their 4K lineups, too. Several Hollywood studios, including Lionsgate, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros. have already pledged support for the new Ultra HD Blu-ray standard. Titles will roll out slowly, but we've been told to expect more than 100 releases by next fall. Many of those titles will also include HDR and WCG, which will be supported by both streaming services and the new 4K Blu-ray players.

    One other issue we had in 2015 was that a fair number of the UHD TVs we tested lacked the latest HDMI inputs, HDMI 2.0a. These inputs are required for HDR, and some didn't support HDCP 2.2, the copyright protection scheme used by Hollywood to prevent piracy. But just about every UHD TV announced for 2016 that claims HDR capability supports those technologies.

    HDR: Still a Bit Tricky

    The area that's still of concern to us is HDR. And from what we've seen, there could be wide differences in performance among 4K UHD TV sets that tout HDR capability, which could make it hard to know if the TV you're buying can really deliver the full HDR experience.

    How can this be? Well, some televisions have the hardware to really take full advantage of HDR. Others don't, but they are able read the metadata, which is the information embedded in the digital signal that tells the TV how the image should be displayed. These sets then try to accommodate it as best they can based on the TV's capabilities. That could lead to big differences in performance.

    To help reduce confusion, the UHD Alliance—a diverse group of TV makers, Hollywood studios, distributors (such as DirecTV and Netflix), and technology companies—has created performance specifications for "Ultra HD Premium" TVs. Sets that pass a certification process can use a new Ultra HD Premium logo on packaging, so you'll know they can deliver top-level UHD performance in various areas, including HDR. We expect these to be the pricier models in a TV manufacturer's lineup.

    But many sets won't have the Ultra HD Premium logo. Instead, they'll be labeled "HDR-capable," meaning they can read the metadata (as we describe above) but they may lack the electronic circuitry needed to deliver the full range of brightness and colors. Until we test them, there's no way to know how well these sets will perform.

    Another wrinkle: Some TV manufacturers may decide not to use the Ultra HD Premium logo, even on sets that could meet the certification standards. Sony, for example, tells us it won't be using the industry logo, choosing instead to mark its premium 4K TVs with its own "4K HDR" logo. Other manufacturers could follow suit, utilizing proprietary, rather than standardized, logos to denote various levels of HDR performance.

    That's why this year we'll be spending a fair amount of time testing a wide range of UHD TVs this year—both premium and lower-priced models—to see how much of a difference in picture quality TV buyers this year will experience.

    Bottom Line: Wait a Few Months

    Despite some of the remaining issues with HDR, we think that if you're looking for a new TV in 2016, you should consider buying a UHD set, especially if you can wait a few months. In the back half of the year, we expect prices to be lower and more content to be available. And, by then, we'll have had the chance to test a wide variety of HDR-capable TVs and judge the differences in performance.

    If you need to replace a TV immediately, it depends on your priorities. Prices are at an all-time low for 1080p sets, and there are a lot of good models on the market. But if you're willing to pay more for top-notch picture quality, an HDR-capable 4K UHD TV could make sense. And buying one of these televisions will future-proof your entertainment system.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    8 Ways to Boost Your Home Value

    When Alec and Jennifer Harmes spent $264,900 for their first home in 2011—a 1,500-square-foot ranch fixer-­upper in Austin, Texas—they assumed they would be living there for many years. So the couple, millennials in their early 30s, embarked on a series of home improvements to make it suit their tastes and needs. They refinished the kitchen cabinets, and installed new stainless-steel appliances and LED lighting. New engineered wood floors replaced the mishmash of linoleum tiles and musty, high-maintenance carpeting.

    Outside, they removed the asbestos siding and installed durable, no-paint fiber cement. They also used that moment to rewrap the house in rigid insulation, improving its overall energy efficiency. Though the Harmeses saved big by doing most of the work themselves (he works in construction management, she oversaw design), the total investment was close to $65,000. They were even planning to build a separate mother-in-law apartment on the property to help lure family to Austin. But their folks didn’t want to relocate, so they made the tough decision to move back to Florida to be close to them. “If we could have picked up that house and brought it with us, we would have,” Jennifer says.

    Lorella Martin of Redfin, an online real estate brokerage, was the Harmeses’ listing agent; she set the asking price at $450,000. The first open house was like a feeding frenzy, attracting many young professionals eager to move into the popular Austin neighborhood, she says. And it wasn’t hard to figure out why. “When a home is move-in ready and buyers know they can be cooking in the kitchen from day one and entertaining in the backyard that very weekend, you know you’ve got a winner,” she says.

    The house sold for $472,000.

    Granted, some of the roughly $200,000 increase in home value had to do with the Austin market’s 20 percent appreciation in the Harmeses’ 3½ years of stewardship. But it’s also a testament to the couple’s savvy instincts about what today’s buyers are looking for, especially now that millennials, 75 million strong, have become the leading cohort of buyers, purchasing 32 percent of homes in 2014.

    So let the following renovation rules, driven by shifts in the current housing market and informed by Consumer Reports’ nationally representative survey of 1,573 millennials, inform your decisions on improving your home and its value.

    1: The Kitchen Is Still King

    Buyers of all kinds have long focused on the kitchen, but it holds particular sway over the newest wave of first-time homeowners. A “modern/updated kitchen” topped the list of ideal home features in our survey of millennials, registering as most important to more than a third of respondents. If you plan to sell, don’t rip your kitchen down to the studs; a smaller investment can have serious impact. For as little as $5,000, you should be able to add a new suite of appliances, as well as a new countertop and flooring, resulting in a fresh, coordinated look. Applying a fresh coat of paint to the walls or cabinets, and updating the hardware, can also breath new life into the space. (Check our kitchen planning guide for more information.)

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    Stainless steel.
    Though it has been around for decades, this appliance finish conveys clean, contemporary design, so it will signal “updated” in the mind of the buyer. For the latest spin on stainless, look for new versions of black stainless steel from KitchenAid, LG, and Samsung, each with a softer, less reflective finish but the same cachet as the original.

    Quartz countertops. Engineered from stone chips, resins, and pigments, quartz has started to challenge granite and marble as the go-to material in higher-end kitchens. It shrugged off heat, scratches, cuts, and stains in our tests, and it requires none of the upkeep of comparably priced natural stones. Expect to spend $40 to $100 per square foot, installed.

    Potential bump in sale price: 3 to 7 percent

    2: Make Floor Plans Work Harder

    Bigger isn’t necessarily better in today’s market, but strategically increasing the amount of living space is sure to boost home value. An “open floor plan with flexible living space” was second only to an updated kitchen on millennials’ list of most desired features.

    Finishing a basement is the most common way to add usable square footage to a home. Most homeowners spend between about $10,000 and roughly $27,000 converting a basement, depending on the size of the space, according to estimates from HomeAdvisor, a website that connects homeowners with prescreened service professionals. Attic conversions are another option. The average attic remodel in 2014 cost $50,000.

    Many younger buyers will envision the additional living spaces as a dedicated office, especially if they work from home. And at the other end of the spectrum, “a lot of my boomer clients are daytime caretakers for their grandkids,” says David Pekel, who owns a remodeling company in Wauwatosa, Wis. “They want a playroom that they can close the door to after the kids leave, so they’re not dealing with toys underfoot.”

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    Flex rooms.
     Also known as double-duty rooms, you’ll see flex rooms advertised as an additional living area that can serve a variety of purposes, from a guest bedroom to a game room to an exercise room to a study room for the kids.

    Mother-in-law apartment. These spaces go by many names, including “granny flats,” “casitas,” and the technical sounding “accessory dwelling unit,” or ADU. They can house an additional family member or provide rental income—­allowing baby boomers to afford their house once they retire or helping millennials pay the mortgage. More municipalities, particularly in Western cities, are amending zoning laws to allow for ADUs.

    Upstairs laundry rooms. Younger buyers in particular say they want a dedicated laundry room, perhaps off the kitchen or even near second-floor bedrooms. Manufacturers are obliging with washer/dryer sets with a matching fit and finish that neatly integrate into the living space. We like the Maytag Bravos ­MVWB855DW HE top-loader and Maytag Bravos ­MEDB855DW electric dryer, $1,050 each.

    Potential bump: 4 to 6 percent

    3: Don’t Let Your Home Be an Energy Hog

    Lowering your home’s energy costs will save you money for as long as you live there and is expected to be a major selling point down the line. Indeed, “energy-­efficient” was second only to “safe community” on the list of attributes that would most influence a purchase decision, according to a 2015 survey by the National Association of Home Builders.

    Older homeowners who have felt the sting of escalating energy costs tend to be driving the interest. But there are some early adopters among younger buyers, too, especially in regions of the country with more extreme weather. “My millennial buyers usually ask for two years’ worth of utility payments,” says Joe Rivellino, a real estate professional in the Buffalo, N.Y., area. “They want to know the R-Value on the insulation and whether the windows have low-E coatings,” he says, referring to two important efficiency measures.

    And don’t forget about water heating, which accounts for 16 percent of energy costs in the typical home. Spending $1,800 to $2,400 on a new unit is another way to impress efficiency-minded buyers.

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    High-efficiency windows.
     Energy Star certified windows can lower your home’s energy bills by 7 to 15 percent.

    That will be a selling point with buyers, though replacing every window in a home costs anywhere from $8,000 to $24,000, so you probably won’t recoup the entire investment if you plan to sell right away.

    LED lights. Some listings emphasize their “green” credentials by mentioning the presence of LED lighting. Choose the Feit Electric 60 Watt Replacement 9.5W LED, a $7 bulb that delivers superb light quality and has a 23-year life expectancy.

    Potential bump: 1 to 3 percent

    4: Keep It Simple and Stress-Free

    Stain-prone stone countertops, grime-­collecting ornate cabinets, and dust-­catching wall-to-wall carpet used to be symbols of luxury, but today’s homebuyers are more likely to equate them with extra work. “We call it stress-free living,” says Miguel Berger, a real estate professional in Albany, N.Y. “The younger generation in particular would much rather spend their time entertaining at home than fussing over it.” It’s safe to assume boomers feel the same.

    Beyond a home’s cosmetic finishes, it’s important to keep the major mechanical systems in working order. Many first-time buyers will have used up much of their savings on the down payment, so they want to know that the heating system, plumbing, and electricity have been recently updated. Central air conditioning is also in demand because it eliminates the need to switch window units in and out. ­HomeAdvisor puts the average cost nationwide at just more than $5,000.

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    Updated systems.
     In addition to including the age of the system, it helps if you can also point to its reliability. For example, Consumer Reports surveys have found American Standard and Trane to be among the least repair-prone manufacturers of gas furnaces.

    New roof. This will help assuage fears of water damage, ice dams, squirrel infestation, and other home disasters that can result from an old, shoddy roof. For a typical 2,300-square-foot house, you might be able to put on a new asphalt shingle roof for as little as $6,000.

    Hardwood floors. More carpets are being replaced with long-wearing hardwood flooring with a durable factory finish. Engineered wood flooring, which uses a thin veneer of real wood or bamboo over structural plywood, tends not to wear as well as the solid stuff, though it has the same look and tends to cost less, making it a good choice if you plan to sell soon.

    Potential bump: 3 to 5 percent

    5: Build a Home for ‘the Ages’

    By 2040, there are expected to be almost 80 million seniors accounting for 21 percent of the population. The existing housing stock isn’t equipped to safely accommodate that many older people—too many steep staircases, narrow walker-­unfriendly doorways, and slippery step-in bathtubs and showers. Forward-thinking homeowners are making necessary improvements to their home now—and those changes will benefit people of all ages, not just seniors. According to a 2015 survey by ­HomeAdvisor, 56 percent of homeowners who hired a pro for aging-related projects were younger than 65, and 10 percent were younger than 50.

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    Walk-in shower. 
    “People in the 50-plus age range don’t want to step over the tub to take a shower,” Pekel says. Curbless showers eliminate the threshold between the shower and surrounding bathroom, making them wheelchair accessible, not to mention sleek and streamlined.

    Master on main. A floor plan in which the master bedroom is on the first floor reduces the need to climb stairs. “It’s probably the most desired feature among boomers,” says JP Endres, a real estate professional based in Westchester county, north of New York City. Creating a truly functional master-on-main suite usually involves a multiroom renovation, which can cost upward of $35,000.

    Comfort-height toilets. These toilets are a few inches taller, which makes getting on and off easier. Most top flushers in our tests are comfort height, including the Glacier Bay N2428E two-piece toilet, which sells at Home Depot for $100.

    Potential bump: 1 to 2 percent

    6: Paint Is Still a Potent Upgrade

    Paint keeps your home looking its best while also defending its surfaces from wear, tear, and the elements. If you’re getting ready to sell, don’t blow thousands having every square inch repainted. Instead, focus on high-traffic areas, including the kitchen and bathrooms. “Your home has to look better on the day of the open house than it’s ever looked before,” says Steve Clark, a real estate professional in Los Angeles. “If the back door is covered in scratch marks from the dog, you have to fix that.” Do the job yourself for about $100 in material costs or pay a professional $1,000 or so, which should cover multiple rooms.

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    Neutral color scheme.
     Whites and off-whites remain the top-selling interior colors and will appeal to most homebuyers, allowing them to envision the space as their own. Neutrals appeal to all generations of buyers, according to Jule Eller, trend and style director at Lowe’s.

    High-quality paints. Home Depot’s Behr Marquee, $43 per gallon, is our top-rated interior paint. For outdoor projects, Behr Premium Plus Ultra Exterior, $39 per gallon, and Clark+Kensington Exterior from Ace Hardware, $35 per gallon, offered the best protection.

    Potential bump: 1 to 2 percent

    7: Remember the Great Outdoors

    Your home’s property is another opportunity to expand its living space. Adding a deck or patio, with room for seating and a built-in or freestanding grill, is a way to create a defined space for outdoor living on a large or small scale.

    But remember the rule of low upkeep, especially if your future buyer is likely to be a millennial. “They love outdoor spaces, but whereas prior generations might have gone for the pool, Gen Yers recognize the maintenance costs associated with it,” Berger says. “They’d much rather see an outdoor fire pit surrounded by a simple seating arrangement.” Don’t go for overly lush landscapes, especially in drought-stricken regions with high water costs. (Check our guide to outdoor living.)

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    Curb appeal.
    Trimming overgrown shrubs and making minor repairs to the façade, including painting the front door, can deliver quick results. Replacing worn-out siding is a major undertaking, costing $12,000 on average, but it can give your home a complete facelift.

    Water-smart yard. Replacing a section of turfgrass with native ground covers or pea gravel will reduce the maintenance costs while adding visual interest.

    Potential bump: 3 to 5 percent

    8: Make Sure Your New Technology Is Smart

    High-tech features offer notoriously bad returns on investment because technologies tend to evolve quickly. “One of the biggest losers in recent years is the fully wired audiovisual system,” says Duo Dickinson, an architect based in the New Haven, Conn., area. “They’ve probably lost 80 percent of their value since everything went wireless.”

    But certain smart devices add to home value and interest, including programmable thermostats. “I’ll often install a Nest thermostat in a home that doesn’t have one because it creates the impression that this is a high-tech home,” Berger says.

    We’re seeing the same benefit with a range of products, such as lights, door locks, and security systems. Those smart features have broad appeal with millennials, “who grew up on smartphones, so they’re used to being able to control things at their fingertips,” Endres says. “And they’ll pay 3 to 5 percent more for a home with the right amenities.”

    Value-Added Buzzwords
    Programmable thermostat. The Nest is widely recognized, but the Honeywell RTH9590WF, $300, proved easier to use in our tests. Both models can be controlled from a smartphone or computer.

    Whole-house generator. Power failures are a reality for more homeowners. Stationary generators can usually power the entire property. A professionally installed unit can range from $7,000 to $15,000, according to Porch, a website connecting consumers with home service pros. The Generac 6241, $3,500, excluding installation, is a top pick.

    Potential bump: 3 to 5 percent

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The Real State of Real Estate

    Forget all of the old stereotypes about American housing—starting with the notion that only families with a mom, a dad, and 2.2 kids buy homes. Since the Great Recession, homeownership rates among Gen Xers, who are between the prime family-rearing ages of 35 and 50, have actually fallen more than rates of any other age group. Meanwhile, millennials, the generation of roughly 75 million Americans between ages 18 and 34, have been buying homes later in life than previous generations, in part because of student debt, high rents, and low credit scores. But now they’re entering the market in greater numbers.

    Today’s path to homeownership­ is still strewn with challenges, many of them vestiges of the housing market’s collapse in 2008, which resulted in 5 million foreclosures and, just four years ago, a shocking one-third of all mortgage holders owing more than their homes were worth. Late last year, that sobering share was down to about 13.4 percent, but it’s still more than twice what’s considered normal, according to research by Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Zillow, the real estate website.

    With so many homeowners stuck, usually in lower-priced homes, today’s first-time buyers of every demographic face fewer choices and inflated prices. Banks are less strict than they were right after the crash, but they still demand stellar credit. And federal guidelines now require more proof that borrowers can meet their payments. “The lending market has eased up quite a bit, but lenders are stricter than ever when it comes to documentation,” says Michael Alexander, president of Infiniti Financial Group, a mortgage lender in Deerfield, Ill.

    And yet, perhaps through sheer number, millennials were the top buying cohort in the country in 2013 and 2014, barely edging out baby boomers at No. 2 and Gen Xers in third place, according to the National Association of Realtors.

    What Millennials Value

    The Consumer Reports National Research Center surveyed 1,573 millennials nationwide to better understand their attitudes toward housing. Overall, they believe firmly in ownership. Though just 26 percent currently own a home, 71 percent aspire to do so. Their top reasons include a desire for more privacy, the ability to make a space their own, and the wealth-building benefits of homeownership.

    Yale economist and Nobel Prize laureate Robert Shiller recognizes the satisfaction of homeownership, but he says it’s not a foolproof investment for everyone and never has been. According to his research, U.S. home prices, adjusted for inflation, have barely appreciated year to year over the past 120 years. Of course, there have been exceptions in certain markets and time periods, he notes, cautioning first-time home buyers: “Just don’t be overly optimistic that it is going to keep going up in value.”

    More than one-third of millennials who responded to our survey say the top reason for not owning a home is that they haven’t saved enough for a down payment. And it’s easy to see why. A 2015 report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University shows the financial pressure on those in the 25-to-34 age group who rent. Forty-one percent still owe, on average, $30,700 in college debt, and almost a quarter pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing.

    “Millennials are sick and tired of rent increases, so they’re getting into the game in larger numbers,” says Dowell Myers, a demography and urban planning professor at the University of Southern California. He thinks the Federal Reserve’s December 2015 interest rate increase, the first in almost a decade, will further motivate fence-sitters to enter the market.

    So what are millennials looking for in their next place to live? According to our survey, proximity to family and friends topped the list of features, though short commutes and walkability also popped up.

    Another developing trend in real estate: the rise of the single household. In 1985, single women accounted for just 10 percent of buyers. By 2005, during the last housing boom, that figure reached 21 percent for women; single men accounted for 9 percent of buyers. Many singles also want walkable communities and easy-to-maintain homes, according to real estate professionals. The expectation is that by 2025 there will be as many single-person households in the U.S. as there are homes with families.

    As for specific housing preferences, the cohort also known as Gen Y doesn’t always equal Gen DIY. “It has to be move-in ready,” says JP Endres, a real estate professional based in Westchester County, N.Y. “They’ll personalize the home in small ways, for example with paint, but my millennial buyers don’t want to have to renovate or do a lot of work.”

    Many Generations, One Roof

    Hispanics are another huge—and growing—force in U.S. housing. So much so that the Urban Institute, an economic and social research group based in Washington, D.C., estimates that they will account for about 55 percent of new homeowners this decade. Those who already own homes are making their preference felt. “It is common for Hispanics to buy houses with an eye toward integrating their parents,” says Nora Diaz Bretherton, co-founder of Casa Latina, a home and lifestyle website.

    For many homeowners and their relatives, multigenerational living has become an economic necessity. Consider this: The 36.4 percent of women ages 18 to 34 who lived with their parents in 2014 was the highest level since 1940. Even more adult men (42.8 percent) lived at home in 2014. It’s no wonder that 13 percent of home purchases last year were by multigenerational households.

    Then there are the baby boomers, who have helped transform housing at every turn, starting with the post-World War II suburbanization to house them and their parents. Boomers now head up 40 percent of U.S. households and control 54 percent of total household wealth. But what comes next for them? A 2015 survey by the Demand Institute, a nonprofit organization operated by Nielsen and The Conference Board, found that almost two-thirds of boomers plan to stay put, often in the same suburban homes where they raised families. That has led to an uptick in aging-­related remodeling—for example, replacing the once-coveted whirlpool tub with an accessible walk-in shower. According to an earlier Demand Institute survey, 39 percent of boomers plan major home improvements.

    Although the composition of America’s 134 million (and counting) households has never been more varied—some experts are calling it the “next America”—many of the new rules that govern it are universal.


    The Huge Truth About Tiny Homes

    The tiny-house movement has been enjoying its media “close-up,” even getting an HGTV show, “Tiny House Hunters,” and an FYI show, "Tiny House Nation," dedicated to those seeking living spaces no bigger than a school bus.

    But the truth is that newly built single-family houses are still getting bigger. In fact, we hit another record high for overall size in 2014—reaching a national average of 2,657 square feet. Of the 620,000 newly constructed single-family homes in 2014, only 48,000, or about 8 percent, were smaller than 1,400 square feet. Meanwhile, about 10 percent were 4,000 square feet or more.

    “The tiny-house movement is pretty tiny,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, adding that homes smaller than 1,000 square feet made up less than 1 percent of U.S. sales from 2010 through 2015. “People might seek smaller units for affordability or environmental benefit, but they quickly realize that, in terms of comfort, it’s not a permanent solution.”

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    You May Be Paying High Fees for an Index-Hugging Fund

    Consumer Reports often compares generic products and their higher-priced branded counterparts in the pharmacy and the grocery aisle. But recently, academics have made a similar comparison when it comes to financial products.

    Professors from four universities have published research that examines the relationship between index-based mutual funds—funds made up of investments that allow them to closely track an index, such as the Standard & Poor's 500 Index—and actively managed funds, which are run by managers who use their judgment and analytical skills to make investment decisions. For that service, actively managed stock funds have expense ratios that average nearly 1 percent annually making them more expensive than index funds.

    In their research, the academics found that there were a number of funds that were being sold as actively managed—and charging higher fees—when in fact they were far more similar in their makeup to index funds. Such funds are colloquially known as "closet indexers" or “index huggers.”  If you have money invested in one of these, you are paying retail prices for generic performance. 

    Regulators in Europe have recently turned their attention toward index hugger funds, where fund selection is much more limited than in the U.S. In some countries, these funds hold as much as half of the assets available to its nation's investors.

    In the U.S, where investors have more choice, the index hugger isn't as insidious a problem. Even so, investors are not immune from the problem. A recent study focusing on "tax-managed" stock funds, for example, concluded that those funds seem to follow simple index-tracking strategies, while charging investors higher fees. Nor did they appreciably save on taxes compared to index funds, which are naturally tax efficient (most index funds only buy and sell when there's a change in the underlying index).

    How to Test for Index Hugging

    Regulators in the U.S. don’t police against the activity, so here the onus is on you to do your homework to see if you have an index hugger in your portfolio. When considering a fund as an investment, look at the R-squared, which shows how much of a fund's performance is explained by it's similarity to an index. For an index fund, like the Vanguard 500 index fund, the R-squared score is 1.00, or perfect. The closer the score is to 1.00, the more of an "index hugger" it is. Although there's no definitive R-squared score that makes a fund a closet indexer, anything above 0.90 should raise eyebrows and lead you to consider switching to an index fund instead of paying the fees.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2016 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Top Countertop Trends for 2016

    The countertop is a critical component of kitchen design. From a design perspective, it helps tie the room together, even if it’s seldom the actual focal point. And in terms of performance, the surface takes a beating every day, from dropped pots to heated pans to corrosive liquids.

    At the 2016 Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas, many of the biggest countertop manufacturers are showcasing their latest wares, which continue the trend for gray, neutral hues in the kitchen.

    If you’re embarking on a remodel, or just looking to give the space a gentle facelift, here are a handful of options that combine good looks with the promise of solid performance.

    Wilsonart’s Dusk Ice Solid Surface
    We love laminate in the bathroom, where the sink and vanity top can be molded out of a single piece of material; plus the material is waterproof and small scratches can be buffed out. Wilsonart is unveiling 19 new solid surfacing designs at the show, including the soft gray quartz-inspired pattern above with medium particulates and mirror chips.

    Formica’s Gray Josef Linen
    If you do want your countertop to be a focal point, or if the counter is located in another part of the house, say a play room or craft space, this new laminate pattern from Formica, created by designer Jonathan Adler, will certainly turn heads. Inspired by Josef Albers, the German-born American artist, it has a distinctly Mid-Century Modern feel, with its geometric shapes in shades of charcoal, smoke gray, and white, beneath a fine gray linen. Laminate holds up well in Consumer Reports' countertop tests, except when it comes to knife cuts, so on a countertop this fabulous, you’ll definitely want to use a cutting board.

    Caeserstone’s Symphony Grey
    The color gray continues to trend in kitchens and quartz is the toughest material in our countertop tests, so this countertop could start to show up in more Pinterest boards and Houzz photos. Its diagonal lines and veining provide an interesting geometry to the streaming shades of light and dark gray.

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    If You Want Drier Dishes, Use Dishwasher Rinse Aid

    If you want your dishes dry at the end of a cycle, we have three words of advice: Use rinse aid.

    Dishwashers dry items in a variety of ways. Some use electric heating coils, others raise the temperature of the water at the end of the cycle using the residual heat to dry, and others use a fan. But for optimal drying, every dishwasher manufacturer recommends rinse aid no matter how your machine works.

    You might think rinse aid is a gimmick—just another thing manufacturers want you to buy. But it works. Rinse aid not only prevents spotting but it also causes water to sheet off glassware and dishes by breaking the bond between the water molecules and the dishes. In fact, it could more accurately be called “dry aid.”

    Consumer Reports has long tested drying by using plastic cups because plastic cools more quickly than ceramic materials and is harder to get completely dry. Only a few dishwashers in our dishwasher Ratings score better for drying than they do for washing. And performing well on our washing test is no guarantee of equally good drying.

    One of our top-scoring dishwashers, the KitchenAid KDTM354DSS, $1,080, and the similar KitchenAid KDTM354ESS, $1,000, earned excellent scores for drying, and our perennial CR Best Buy, the Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7[5]UC, $700, was very good at drying. A number of other Bosch models aced the drying test. But don’t buy by brand alone—other KitchenAid models in our tests were only so-so at getting dishes dry.

    Dry Ideas

    In addition to using rinse aid, try these steps to improve drying:

    • Run the kitchen faucet before starting the dishwasher. That way, the water entering the dishwasher is hot.
    • When loading the dishwasher, place the dishes so they aren’t touching. That improves water circulation.
    • Use heated dry or other available heat options on your machine.
    • As soon as the cycle ends, open the dishwasher door a few inches to let the moist air escape.
    • When emptying the dishwasher, unload the lower rack first. That way any water that might have pooled on your coffee mugs won’t spill on the clean dishes below.

    Don’t forget to check our drying scores before choosing your new dishwasher.

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    Hyundai Genesis Owners Face Another Tire Replacement

    Hankook tire has had a difficult ride on the 2015 Hyundai Genesis sedan. Back in April of 2015, Hyundai issued a Technical Service Bulletin offering replacement tires to owners of the Genesis sedan equipped with Hankook brand tires with Continental (19-inch size) and Michelin (18-inch size) tires to eliminate a vibration and road noise issues. Those car owners who didn’t get their Hankooks replaced now face a tire recall for risk of cracking.

    With the original TSB action, the replacement Michelin 18-inch tires came with a lower speed rating than the original Hankook tires. This required a software update to change the speed governor. Dealers were directed to perform this customer satisfaction campaign at the request of the customer.

    We pursued the tire replacement program and had our Hyundai dealer replace the Hankook Ventus S1 noble 2 tires on our 2015 Genesis Sedan test car with the 18-inch Michelins. After the tire swap, we noticed some improvement in handling, offset by slightly longer wet stops.

    Genesis Sedan owners who still have the original Hankook tires may find them to be a subject of a recall now due to cracking in the sidewall, which could lead to air loss. In October 2015, Hankook started a quality investigation of sidewall cracking, prompting them to recall 46,968 tires.

    Owners will be notified by January 31, 2016. The model is the Ventus S1 noble 2 and covers tires in 245/45R18 96W manufactured May 20, 2013, to February 14, 2015, and 245/40R19 94W and 275/35R19 96W tires manufactured between May 22, 2013, to February 14, 2015. Tires were supplied to Hyundai for the 2015 Genesis and sold as replacement tires. Other sizes of the Ventus S1 noble 2 are not affected, including the 225/40R18 size we tested; it performed well and is a recommended tire.

    The Hankook Ventus S1 noble 2 tires being recalled in these three sizes have a date code found in the last four digits of the DOT number (located on the lower sidewall on the tire) beginning with 2013 through 0715. These numbers refer to the week (20th) and year (2013) of manufacture. See how to read a tire in the tire buying guide for more information.

    Hankook will notify purchasers of replacement tires, and owners of the Hyundai vehicles will be notified by Hyundai.

    Owners can contact Hankook at 1-800-426-5665 and may also contact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Vehicle Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236 or go to www.safercar.gov.


    Look up recalls on your vehicle at ConsumerReports.org/carrecalls.

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    New Choices in Wireless Home Audio Systems

    If you were around to witness David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust era, then you certainly remember the chore of creating a killer home audio system back in the day. Once you sprang for the speakers, you spent hours snaking wires from room to room—unless, of course, you hired a contractor to do the dirty work for you. 

    These days, Bluetooth speakers have eliminated the need for wires, significantly simplifying the process. With their limited range, though, they make it awfully hard to pipe Bowie's "Space Oddity" from the den to the dining room, much less the deck.

    For a job like that, you need to pay a little more for Wi-Fi speakers, the sort now manufactured by Sonos, Bose, and Samsung. These allow you to broaden the system's footprint to take advantage of the full range of your router, hitching multiple speakers together via a network that's already in place. And they also permit you to pump music from streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora through those speakers. 

    This fall, consumers will get a new choice in Wi-Fi speakers as Riva—known for its Turbo line of Bluetooth speakers—enters the market with its new WAND (Wireless Audio Network Device) speakers.

    Scheduled for release in September, the WAND line includes two home models: the WAND 100, a stereo speaker that will sell for about $250; and the WAND 300, a mono speaker that will cost between $450 and $500. For $200 more, you can add the 44-inch Riva Arena Trillium soundbar and better enjoy Bowie in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" on your TV. (Riva also has a battery accessory on the way for $80 to $100 that turns the WAND 100 into a portable speaker.)

    The big question for music fans is, How will this new wireless system stack up against an established leader like Sonos, which has a broader selection of components, including speakers ranging from $199 to $499. According to Riva, its speakers and soundbar let you play audio from just about any source (Bluetooth included). That means virtually anyone in the family can play songs from a cell phone, laptop, or tablet. Riva claims you can use Apple's Airplay, Googlecast, Spotify Connect, and DLNA. The network will also be able to play Hi-Res audio files.

    By contrast, Sonos's system is less open (although there are workarounds). Denon's HEOS and Bose's SoundTouch also lack built-in Bluetooth support. And while Samsung's system does offer Bluetooth, it supports fewer streaming services than Sonos. 

    Of course, we'll be sure to check these claims as well as the quality and versatility of the Riva system when the WAND speakers and soundbar become available later this year.  

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    Market for Home Pizza Ovens Heats Up

    Most Americans get their pizza fresh from the pizzeria or from the supermarket, in the form of frozen pies. But there's a growing appetite for pizza made from scratch—or “semi-scratch” using store-bought dough—at home. The DIY trend accounted for nearly 10 percent of pizza sales in 2015, up from just 3 percent in 2013. Appliance manufacturers are taking notice, including several at the 2016 Design & Construction Week in Las Vegas who are launching new pizza ovens.

    The most innovative product is GE’s Monogram Pizza Oven, which came out of FirstBuild, a microfactory in the company’s Louisville headquarters that harnesses the brainpower of the maker movement to develop unique appliances for small batch production (the Opal Nugget Ice Maker is the most successful creation to date). 

    The Monogram Pizza Oven fits into the small space of a standard wall oven cavity, yet is spacious enough to fit a pizza peel and large pie. It can crank up to 750 degrees, the perfect temperature for crisp pizza, in about 30 minutes. The oven incorporates a compact interior ventilation system, so no special installation or construction is required. That’s a good thing, since the price tag on the oven is $9,900. Look for it in May 2016.

    Outdoor Pizza Ovens

    There are also plenty of new outdoor pizza ovens on display at the show, including the Lynx Napoli Pizza Oven, a gas-fired model that comes on a freestanding cart, or that can be built into an outdoor countertop. The oven reaches 750 degrees in about 20 minutes so it’s a bit faster than GE’s. And at $4,000, it costs a lot less, though it’s still a luxury product. 

    If you’re looking for the authenticity of wood-fired pizza, the Italian manufacturer Fontana offers stainless steel ovens for as little as $1,400. The Fontana Gusto Wood Oven, its original dual-chamber model introduced 40 years ago, is still the best seller, starting at $4,900. Thanks to their thin firebrick inserts, Fontana ovens can reach optimal baking temperatures in 15 to 30 minutes, compared with the 2 to 4 hours of other wood-fired ovens.

    While manufacturers of residential pizza ovens are clearly playing on America’s enormous taste for pizza, there’s a lot more these ovens can do, everything from breads to cookies to roasted meats. So before you make the investment, make sure you're willing to embrace the full menu of possibilities.  

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    Consumers Union Urges Auto Industry to Move Quickly on Commitments under New Safety Agreement

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx today joined with major automakers to announce a voluntary effort to boost safety efforts in the wake of unprecedented failures to identify defects and repair them quickly. The initiative also aims to address cybersecurity risks in vehicles.

    Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, welcomed the interest in proactive safety and called on automakers to move quickly in following through on this voluntary agreement with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

    “It's vitally important to find and fix safety defects before, not after, consumers get hurt. These safety principles are a first step in that effort and we appreciate the consensus reached by NHTSA and the auto industry," said William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union. "Better dialogue and data-sharing between industry and NHTSA are part of the solution, but holding companies accountable when they don’t measure up is equally important. Going forward, we urge automakers to follow through by meeting and exceeding the commitments they have made today. NHTSA should hold them to their word and keep taking strong steps to protect consumers on the road."

    Media Contacts:
    David Butler, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or dbutler@consumer.org
    Kara Kelber, Consumers Union, 202.462.6262 or kkelber@consumer.org

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