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    Life Hacks for Winter Driving

    Even on the most idyllic days, driving is a risky endeavor. Throw in complications due to cold temperatures, slippery roads, and diminished visibility, and winter driving can be downright dangerous for those who live in the snow belt. But with a few proven tips, you can tilt the safety scale back in your favor.

    The key is preparation, starting in the fall to ensure the car is properly maintained, shod with snow or at least good-quality all-season tires, and equipped with the essential emergency gear.

    To ensure your car can go the distance, stay current on maintenance and repairs. This is doubly important in the winter, as a snow storm is not the time to face a roadside emergency. As temperatures decrease, so will the pressure in your tires. Be proactive in adjusting your tire pressure to match the recommendations found on the driver’s-side door placard and/or in the owner’s manual.

    Having the right emergency gear ensures you’re ready to deal with whatever may occur, from getting unstuck to staying warm until help arrives.

    Ultimately, the most important advice: Think twice about driving in foul weather. If you can avoid braving a storm, do so. It makes the roads less crowded and safer for all. If you must drive, go slow—and follow the tips below.

    And if you have other tips, share them in the comments section.

    Car Maintenance

    Car wash: Rock salt and brine solutions can help keep roads clear, but they can corrode exposed parts on your vehicles. Run through a touchless car wash with an undercarriage spray feature periodically to remove excess salt. (Avoid touch washes, as they risk grinding sand and other grime into the finish.)
    Headlights: When you stop for gas, squeegee the headlights and taillamps to ensure that you keep sufficient visibility and so that other motorists can readily see them.

    Wiper blades: Blade effectiveness fades after six months of use. Be sure to change the blades before winter. To extend the life of the wipers, be sure to clear snow and ice from the windshield before dragging the wipers across the uneven surface or pulling them out of a frozen position. If possible, raise the wipers off the glass before snow storms, easing clean-up and reducing risk of damage to the rubber blades from a scraper or ice. When the time comes for new blades, replace them in pairs. If one is worn out, its mate can't be far behind. Don't forget to check the rear wiper, if your vehicle has one. Even though it may not get as much use as often as the front wipers, it is exposed to the elements and can fail over time. Do not throw away your old wiper blades. Store them in the trunk in case one or both is ruined from the ice or from scraping.

    Test your coolant: Buy test strips or have your mechanic check your coolant's effectiveness. A coolant that works to -30° F is sufficient almost anywhere.

    Have your battery tested: This is particularly important if the battery is more than four years old, or if it's more than two years old and you live in a warm climate. Inspect the terminals and cables to ensure that the fittings are tight.

    Winter/snow tires are a must in snowy climes: Buy a full set of four. Studless models can deliver impressive snow traction and grip on ice. Metal-studded winter/snow tires give the best traction on ice but offer no advantage on soft snow or cleared roads and can be noisy to drive on. All-season tires provide good, all-around performance in mild conditions. If you must travel in snow, rather than wait for roads to be fully cleared, then winter/snow tires are the right solution.

    Top off your windshield-washer reservoir: Used winter blend washer fluid, as it is designed not to freeze. Use the cleanser as needed to keep the windshield clear. Keep a spare gallon in your trunk or secure cargo area.

    Safety sensors: Increasingly, new cars are coming equipped with advanced safety features that use cameras and sensors to monitor the world and help keep you safe. To ensure these can work properly become familiar with where sensors are and be mindful to clear bumpers, fenders, grille, windshield, side mirrors, and backup camera of snow. Keep it simple: Make sure the entire car is snow-free before driving. It's a law in some areas.

    Essential Gear

    Cell phone: Keep a charger in the car. Store the number to a towing service or auto club in your phone.

    Emergency kit: Just in case, and particularly if you frequent less populated routes, travel with a kit that includes a flashlight, extra batteries, road flares or reflectors, work gloves, a rain poncho, an extra ice scraper, a blanket, a tow strap, a pair of four- or six-gauge jumper cables, a shovel, a non-perishable snack, and a bag of sand or cat litter. If you drive a vehicle that does not have an enclosed trunk or cargo area, be sure to secure the items so they don't become projectiles in a sudden stop.

    Floor mats: To contain the snow melt and grime, use all-weather floor mats. But be sure to remove your three-season carpet mats, rather than stack the all-season mats on top. Otherwise, there is risk the mats could move and interfere with the pedals.

    Jump starter: Mini jump starters are a convenient way to jump start a car, and they can provide back-up electricity in an emergency to charge a smartphone or other mobile device. Sized like a paperback, they are extremely portable. In our tests, they proved much less effective when both the jump starter and the car were cold. The lesson here is to store the starter indoors and bring it with you on road trips.

    Remote start: While not helpful for the car, warming it up for a few minutes from the comfort of home can make it easier to clear snow and ice. Plus, the cabin will be more welcoming, especially if you have heated seats. Never warm up a car in a closed garage.

    Snow brush with a scraper:
    An essential winter tool, stock a brush that can be used to clear the entire vehicle. In many states, driving with uncleared snow piled up is illegal, and in all states it is discourteous and potentially dangerous.

    Traction aids: Snow chains, traction mats, and fabric tire wraps (aka tire socks) can help you get unstuck. Sand or cat litter spread on snow or ice can aid traction.

    Snow bound: If stuck in a snow bank, clear the snow from your exhaust tip to keep emissions away from the car. Run the engine for short periods, such as 10-15 minutes, then shut it off, to stay warm and ration gas.

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

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    Making a Super Bowl Bet? You Might Owe Tax

    Betting on the Super Bowl has become as much of a ritual as picking the right beer and getting the best view of the TV. But an even older American ritual is confronting the outstretched hand of Uncle Sam. And if you end up winning some money when the Carolina Panthers take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on February 7, the IRS is going to want its cut.

    That means you'll need to include your winnings from your Super Bowl bet as income on line 21 of your IRS Form 1040. For any winnings subject to federal income-tax withholdings, you should provide IRS Form W-2G, Certain Gambling Winnings.

    That said, tax experts we spoke with noted that only a casino or legitimate sports betting establishment is going to issue you a Form W-2G. And those venues don't have to give you that form at all unless you net $600 or more on your bet, or your winnings are at least 300 times your wager. (The dollar thresholds for Form W-2G differ depending on the type of betting: $1,200 in net winnings from bingo or slot machines, $1,500 from a keno game, and $5,000 from a poker tournament.)

    Rob Seltzer, a CPA and principal of Seltzer Business Management, says he rarely sees clients bring in Form W2-Gs from sports bets. More often, it's for keno winnings or big slot payouts. The IRS withholds 25 percent upfront, or 28 percent if the player doesn't have a Social Security number, he says.

    Honor Code for Your Super Bowl Bet

    When it comes to reporting winnings from an informal pool, you're on your honor.

    "If you read the tax law, all income is taxable," says Steven Duben, a partner at Duben and Associates, an Encino, California-based CPA firm. "If you won $300 in an office pool, you’re supposed to report it to the IRS. But chances are nobody’s going to report it." Especially you made a small win during a Super Bowl bet.

    If you're feeling virtuous and report your gains, you'll also want to list gambling losses, since they can help to offset income when you itemize deductions. The amount needs to be reported on Schedule A of your IRS 1040, line 28.

    You can't report total losses that exceed your total winnings. If you have $1,000 in winnings, and $2,000 in losses, you can report only up to $1,000 in losses. You'll also need to maintain a clear record of everything you lost and won over the course of the year.

    And if you ever happen to win big as part of a group or win a large contest payout you will need IRS Form 5754, which is for any person in a group of two or more who split a grand prize. 

    Keep in mind that if you have a major gain during the year from gambling winnings, the sale of stock or property, a taxable inheritance, or even a Super Bowl bet, your taxes for next year could be far higher than anticipated. So you should pay estimated taxes on that income to avoid a huge tax surprise next tax season. Social Security beneficiaries with income from other sources, including pensions, might also have to pay.

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

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    Vitamix Blenders Are Worth the Splurge

    If you’re shopping for a full-size blender, Vitamix has a lot going for it, including power, performance, and prestige. The only strike against it is the steep price, with many Vitamix blenders costing in the range of $500 and up. That can be hard to justify, especially if your kid needs braces or you’re looking to go large with the family vacation this year. But if you do make the splurge, here’s some added peace of mind: In addition to its top standing in Consumer Reports' blender Ratings, Vitamix also tops our reliability estimates, standing out as more dependable than most other brands, based on feedback from nearly 30,000 Consumer Reports subscribers. 

    It wasn’t long ago that $50 blenders from the likes of Black & Decker, Oster, and Hamilton Beach dominated the market. Retailers still sell a lot of bargain blenders, but high-performance models have seen a steady rise in sales. The shift started with the smoothie craze, and it’s been spurred further by consumer taste for blended soups, sauces, butters, whole-fruit juices, and more. Indeed, our survey found versatility to be the most important attribute among consumers looking for an upgrade to their current blender, with power coming a close second.

    Today, Vitamix blenders join a bevy of other high-end brands in our Ratings, names like Blendtec, Breville, Cuisinart, L’Equip, Waring, and Wolf. Even some entry-level brands are coming out with premium models, like the $300 Oster Versa Performance BLSTVB and the $450 Hamilton Beach Commercial Tempest HBH650.

    Vitamix Vital Statistics

    As you might expect, consumers who plan to do a lot of blending are willing to spend more on a premium blender. However, Consumer Reports’ tests routinely pick off high-priced duds. Our latest reliability data reinforces that caveat by showing how some of the priciest brands are also the most problem-prone. The one exception, no matter how you slice it, is Vitamix blenders. Here are the specifics:  

    • Our findings show that Vitamix is the brand least likely to encounter problems by the fourth year of ownership. Its estimated 6-percent problem rate is significantly lower than what we found with the majority of blender brands. Rates for Blendtec and Breville were 15 percent and 16 percent respectively, making them the least reliable of all analyzed brands. Reported problems for all brands included leaks, broken blade assemblies, and burned-out motors.  

    • Because problems experienced in the first year might prove particularly vexing for consumers, we also asked respondents about them. Vitamix blenders led here again with an estimated first-year problem-rate of 2 percent, compared with 4 percent for Breville and 6 percent for Blendtec.

    • Our survey also captured satisfaction with reliability, which controlled for such factors as price and the severity of reported problems. Once again, Vitamix blenders placed highest, with 96 percent highly satisfied. Blendtec was second with a 91 percent high satisfaction rate, while Black & Decker’s 77 percent high satisfaction rate was the lowest.

    The case for Vitamix blenders is clearly a strong one, especially if you plan to do a lot with your blender. But what if it’s just not in the budget? Based on our latest test results and reliability data, another brand to consider is Ninja. Though it misses our recommended list, the $100 Ninja Professional NJ600 is very good overall, especially at smoothies and icy drinks, plus its problem rate is quite reasonable.

    So is there ever a case to buy a super cheap blender? Maybe. For example, if all you’re after is the occasional fruit smoothie (hold the ice and other solid ingredients), the Oster 14-speed 6694-B, $28, should do the job. Just looking for a spare blender to keep at the office or summer home? Consider the Black & Decker Crush Master 10-speed BL10450HB, $40. Think of it this way: Even if you end up having to buy multiple models, compared with Vitamix blenders, you’ll still be up hundreds of dollars—handy for that unexpected orthodontist visit or to tack on a few extra days to your next vacation.

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

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    Stop-Sale Issued for the 2016 Honda Civic

    Honda has issued a stop-sale order for the 2016 Honda Civic models with a 2.0-liter engine. U.S. dealerships are directed to inspect and correct models in inventory before they can be sold. The turbocharged 1.5-liter engine is not involved.

    Honda has notified NHTSA of its concern, and the automaker intends to release more information on Friday, after the government agency responds.

    Based on internal documents posted online, there is an apparent concern for missing or misplaced piston pin snap rings that could cause an engine stall or failure. A Technical Service Bulletin will advise dealerships how to inspect the engines and make corrections, if necessary.

    Customers will be notified once an approved fix is in place, and parts available, in order that a recall can be performed.

    Among the takeaways, this is a reminder of the potential risks in being an earlier adopter. As our car reliability survey data often shows, there can be a benefit to avoid a first model-year car, giving the company time to sort out any potential bugs.  

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

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    Is the New Fitbit Alta Stylish Enough?

    If you're waiting for a stylish fitness tracker to lure you into the wearable device game, Fitbit’s latest offering might have you covered. The Fitbit Alta is a couture accessory through and through. It was even unveiled during New York Fashion Week.

    This fitness tracker's slim stainless-steel form looks more like jewelry than technology, and its detachable bracelet bands allow for style changes on the fly.

    The product arrives only a month after the debut of the Fitbit Blaze smart fitness watch, which coincided with news of the company’s involvement in a class-action lawsuit concerning the accuracy of the heart rate monitors in two of its devices.

    The Fitbit Alta lacks a heart rate monitor or GPS, features found in more expensive trackers. Its touch screen scrolls your fitness stats in addition to smartphone notifications for calls, texts, and calendar alerts. (It supports Android, iOS, and Windows Phone). The device tracks sleep, recognizes and automatically monitors workouts, and reminds you to get out of your chair and move around. The Fitbit Alta can last up to five days on a single charge, the company says. We’ll test that claim when we get the product into our labs.

    Fitbit obviously recognizes the need for fashionable fitness trackers—Tory Birch-branded Alta bands are coming soon—so this addition to its line isn’t surprising. At $129.95, the Fitbit Alta matches the price as well as the features of the less svelte Fitbit Charge, which implies the older tracker’s days are numbered. Classic fitness bands for the Alta are available for $29.95; leather bands for $59.95; and a (really cool) stainless steel band for $99.95.

    Had it been released two years ago, the Alta—a capable fitness tracker that doesn’t scream “calorie counting!”—would have probably turned some heads. But now, many models are sleek enough to wear day and night, and the competition is racing to be more fashion forward. Fossil has its Q series of smartwatches and fitness trackers; Misfit has its upcoming Ray fitness tracker made from black or rose gold aluminum. For the most part, they all perform the same body tracking functions, but we’ll see how the Alta stands up to the competition.

    Available for pre-order from Fitbit, the device will ship in the U.S. in March and worldwide in April. 

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

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  • 02/04/16--13:32: Don't Risk a Super Bowl DWI
  • Don't Risk a Super Bowl DWI

    Super Bowl Sunday is a major national party day, complete with snacksbeer, and big-screen TV action. But don't let the annual gridiron celebration turn into a personal tragedy by driving after drinking alcohol.

    Although the number of people who died because they were driving while intoxicated (DWI) dropped 49 percent between 1982 and 2013, according to the latest data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Super Bowl Sunday is still a dangerous day.

    Take a look at some statistics from California, for example. In that state, DWI-related injuries and fatalities on Super Bowl Sundays—from 2011 to 2015—were 56 percent higher on average than on the three Sundays before and the three Sundays after game day, according to data from the California Highway Patrol.

    You don’t need to be involved in an accident to run into trouble. If you are pulled over by the police and found to have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher, you could have high fines to pay. Even if that percentage comes in lower, you can still be arrested if the officer sees evidence of impairment, such as swerving while driving or slurred speech.

    A first-time conviction for DWI can cost you $5,000 to $15,000, according to Nolo Press, a publisher of self-help legal books. That estimate includes the cost of penalties, legal fees, loss of income and increased car insurance premiums.

    Stay Safe

    If you're attending a Super Bowl party, keep these tips in mind:

    • Don't drink alcohol if you have to drive after the game.
    • If you do imbibe, have a sober designated driver take you home.
    • Find out, just in case you need transportation, if your community offers a sober ride program.
    • If you drive yourself home, be sure to buckle up and drive defensively in case a drunk driver comes your way.

    If you're the party host:

    • Request that all of your guests designate their sober drivers in advance.
    • Monitor how much your guests drink and stop serving alcohol at the end of the third quarter of the game.
    • Take the car keys away from drunk people. 
    • Check your state law and home insurance coverage. Home policies typically offer liquor liability coverage limited to $100,000 to $300,000, but you might want more.

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

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    Mosquito Repellents That Best Protect Against Zika

    The World Health Organization has declared the rapid spread of the Zika virus—which has been linked to serious birth defects and is transmitted mainly by mosquitoes—an international public health emergency. In response to this growing threat, Consumer Reports is releasing free to the public its exclusive test results and Ratings of mosquito repellents (PDF)—including those that will protect you best against Aedes mosquitoes, the type that carry Zika.

    The Zika virus can make anyone sick for up to a week with fever, rash, joint pain, red eyes, and other symptoms. But it's especially dangerous for women who are pregnant or considering pregnancy because it's believed to sharply increase the risk of babies born with microcephaly, a condition marked by an abnormally small head and incomplete brain development.

    There is currently no vaccine to prevent the disease or drug to treat it, making it essential that people avoid mosquito bites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

    The CDC emphasizes that avoiding mosquito bites requires multiple strategies, such as wearing long-sleeved pants and shirts when outdoors. But it says that mosquito repellents are essential, too.

    “Using an insect repellent is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from Zika and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes," says Harry Savage, chief of ecology and entomology activity at the CDC's Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. And Consumer Reports' tests showed that some repellents worked much better than others at protecting against the type of mosquitoes that transmit Zika (see chart below). 

    The CDC has urged pregnant women against travel to about two dozen countries where Zika has been reported, mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While no cases have yet been traced to mosquito bites received on the U.S. mainland, experts predict some spread of the disease in the U.S. as the weather warms up, particularly in Florida, Texas, and other Southern states where the Aedes mosquitoes that carry the disease are most prevalent.

    The Most Effective Insect Repellents

    To find the most effective mosquito repellents, we tested products containing deet or a chemical called IR3535, as well as those containing two plantlike, but chemically synthesized, ingredients: lemon eucalyptus and picaridin. We also looked at repellents made with natural plant oils, such as geraniol, castor oil, soybean oil, citronella, and rosemary. (See details on our testing methods here.)

    The most effective products against Aedes mosquitoes were Sawyer Fisherman's Formula Picaridin and Natrapel 8 Hour, which each contain 20 percent picaridin, and Off! Deepwoods VIII, which contains 25 percent deet. They kept mosquitoes from biting for about 8 hours. (The Sawyer product was more effective at repelling ticks than the deet products we tested, making it our top insect repellent overall.)

    Repel Lemon Eucalyptus, containing 30 percent lemon eucalyptus, stopped bites for 7 hours. The IR3535 products didn’t make our list of recommended sprays. Neither did products that contained 5 percent picaridin or 7 percent deet.

    We advise skipping products made with natural plant oils, such as California Baby Natural Bug Blend (a blend of citronella, lemongrass oil, cedar oil, and other ingredients) and EcoSmart Organic, (which includes geraniol, rosemary oil, cinnamon oil, and lemongrass oil). None lasted for more than 1 hour against Aedes mosquitoes, and some failed almost immediately. In addition, those products are not registered by the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates skin-applied repellents and evaluates them for safety and effectiveness. Most plant-oil products are exempt from scrutiny by the EPA because the agency considers them to be a minimum risk to human health.  

    Instead, the CDC recommends using EPA-registered insect repellents. To see if a mosquito repellent is registered by the EPA, look for its registration number ("EPA Reg.") on the back of the label.  

    The Best Way to Use Mosquito Repellent

    Insect repellents that use deet come in varying concentrations, ranging from 4 percent to 100 percent. Our previous tests show that concentrations of 30 percent provide the same protection against mosquitoes as higher percentages for up to 8 hours. But higher concentrations of deet have been linked to rashes, disorientation, and seizures. That’s why Consumer Reports says you should avoid mosquito repellents with more than 30 percent deet and not use it at all on infants younger than 2 months.

    Women who are pregnant or breast feeding can safely use deet, picaridin, lemon eucalyptus, and IR3535, according to the EPA, if they are applied properly. Here are tips from the EPA on how to use insect repellent:

    • Apply repellents only to exposed skin or clothing—never put it on under clothing. Use just enough to cover and only for as long as needed; heavy doses don’t work better.
    • Don’t apply mosquito repellents over cuts, wounds, or irritated skin or immediately after shaving.
    • When applying to your face, spray first on your hands, then rub in, avoiding your eyes and mouth, and using sparingly around ears.
    • Don’t let young children apply. Instead, put it on your own hands, then rub it on. Limit use on children’s hands, because they often put their hands in their eyes and mouths.
    • Don’t use near food, and wash hands after application and before eating or drinking.
    • At the end of the day, wash treated skin with soap and water, and wash treated clothing in a separate wash before wearing again.

    Click on the image below to download a PDF of our mosquito repellent Ratings.

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

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    Where to Get Tax Preparation Help

    It's bad enough to have to prepare your taxes. It's even worse when your tax return comes back to haunt you. The best way to prevent that from happening? Pick a good tax preparer.

    If you have few itemized deductions, you don't have your own business, and your finances seem straightforward, you may be able to handle your tax preparation yourself. But if you're like more than 60 percent of Americans who have their returns done for them, the IRS offers a search page where you can find a tax preparer that meets its qualifications.

    These are your basic tax preparation choices:

    • Certified public accountants. Not all CPAs specialize in completing individual income-tax returns, so you'll have to ask. In addition to using the IRS's tax preparer search page, you can check with friends and neighbors or go to your state's CPA society.

    • Enrolled agents. Unlike CPAs, who can handle a variety of financial activities, enrolled agents focus solely on taxes. They must have worked for the IRS for at least five years or passed exams on tax codes and calculations. Enrolled agents might work for themselves or in a CPA firm or storefront office. The IRS tax preparation search page can help you find one, or you can go to the website of the National Association of Enrolled Agents.

    • National tax preparation chains. Storefront operations like H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and Liberty Tax Service may be adequate for simple, straightforward returns, and they're relatively inexpensive.  Keep in mind that national chains are less likely than independent preparers to hit you with "junk" fees, such as application and document-preparation charges, according to the National Consumer Law Center. Tax preparers at the national chains have usually taken and completed a course, and newcomers' work is reviewed by experienced supervisors.

    • Free tax preparation. If your household income was low to moderate for your community or you're at least 60 years old, you might not have to pay anything for tax help. The AARP Foundation Tax-Aide service will pair you with trained volunteers who can handle Form 1040 and schedules A and B.

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

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    2016 Toyota RAV4 Hybrid Challenges Small SUV Fuel-Economy Leaders

    For years, the Toyota RAV4 has been among the better small SUVs—consistently competitive in Consumer Reports’ tests. To maintain its position, the freshened 2016 Toyota RAV4 gets several changes, including retouched interior and exterior styling, a pseudo-sporty SE model, and a hybrid version. Toyota also tweaked the suspension and added more sound insulation.

    We bought two all-wheel-drive XLE trim level models for our test program—a standard version and a hybrid. But the kicker here is that the hybrid only cost about $700 more. Adding a few basic options such as floor mats and the like brought the total $29,014 for the regular model and $29,753 for the hybrid.

    Standard equipment for the XLE grade includes dual-zone automatic climate control, moonroof and—new for 2016—a height-adjustable power liftgate. We would rather take a power seat instead of the power liftgate, but for that you have to opt for the top-of-the-line Limited.

    One of the calling cards of many small SUVs has always been good fuel economy. In our tests, the top performers have been the Hyundai Tucson Sport and Subaru Forester (both returning 26 mpg overall) and the Mazda CX-5 (25 mpg). Toyota doesn’t claim any fuel economy improvement for the regular RAV, but the hybrid is a different story. Given that the hybrid’s running gear is identical to the Lexus NX 300h, which got 29 mpg overall in our tests, it bodes well.

    The standard engine in the 2016 Toyota RAV4 is a 176-hp, 2.5-liter four cylinder running through a six-speed automatic transmission. The hybrid version uses the same mechanicals as the Lexus NX 300h hybrid, including the 2.5-liter with the electric drive system, producing a total output of 194, coupled to a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

    So far we’ve been seeing about 23 mpg with the standard model and around 29 mpg with the hybrid, according to each car’s onboard computer.

    Both powertrains produce adequate acceleration, although the hybrid has many logbook complaints about the CVT, which flares loudly during high power demands. At least there’s a smooth transition from electric-driving mode to gas operation.

    Other initial impressions confirm that Toyota managed to improve the ride and quiet the interior—both weak spots of the last generation. Also, the RAV4’s handling doesn’t seem as sharp as before. Steering gives some feedback, even if it’s faint. Ultimately, the CX-5 remains more fun to drive, thanks to its agile handling.

    What we also immediately noticed was that these 2016 versions have nicer interiors than the last RAV4 we tested; you’ll find more soft-touch materials inside along with the usually good Toyota quality fit and finish.

    The same appealing upright driving position remains, as well as pretty good visibility and easy access.

    The seats feel firm and are a bit short on thigh support. Sadly, just like the last model, the XLE trim doesn’t get you any lumbar adjustment.

    Other annoyances from the previous RAV4 also remain, including daytime-running-lights that are too easy to turn off. We were also miffed that the car’s $29,000 price doesn’t include heated seats, auto headlights, or keyless ignition. And other models, such as the aforementioned Tucson Sport, give you blind-spot monitoring and heated seats for the same money.

    Overall, we’re somewhat pleased with the evolution of the RAV4. And pairing what is likely to be impressive fuel economy with excellent predicted reliability makes the hybrid version especially appealing. Conversely, this model’s asking price during a time when we’re experiencing near-historical low fuel costs might also make the hybrid a tough sell.

    So far, it seems as if the 2016 Toyota RAV4 can be summed up with this logbook comment: “[It’s] kind of like the Camry of small SUVs: competent and inoffensive but rather bland.”

    Check back soon for our complete road test evaluation.

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

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  • 02/05/16--07:13: How to Stream Super Bowl 50
  • How to Stream Super Bowl 50

    As a journalist who’s been to the Super Bowl three times, I can tell you the best place to watch the game: on the couch in your living room, surrounded by family, friends, and plates filled with nachos. Not only does this spare you the headache of fighting through the traffic and jawing with the fat cat stadium crowd but it also lets you catch every delicious moment of the game (halftime show included).

    But sometimes there's no TV in sight. Hey, I know things come up—things that can’t be avoided. Business trips, youth soccer tournaments, cousin Larry’s 25th wedding anniversary dinner. In that case, you'll be forced to watch the game on a laptop or, even worse, your phone. So if you find yourself outside the warm glow of the living room this Sunday, when the Broncos and the Panthers meet up in Levi's Stadium for Super Bowl 50, here’s what you need to do.

    Streaming the Game on a Laptop or a Tablet will stream the game live. For free. No login credentials required. That means you can watch on a laptop or tablet anywhere in the U.S. as long as you have access to Wi-Fi. (Fans overseas must sign up for NFL GamePass, which is now offering a 7-day free trial.)

    Just keep in mind that live doesn’t mean the moment it happens. When I watched the CBS stream of the playoff game between the Chiefs and the Patriots, for instance, the action on my laptop was nearly two full plays behind the action on my TV set, which was itself delayed by a few seconds to accommodate network censors watching for wardrobe malfunctions. (The latency on your TV can stretch up to 30 seconds longer, depending on your cable provider. By comparison, the expected latency for computers is more like 35 to 45 seconds, an NBC spokesman told us last year; for tablets, it's 45 to 55 seconds.)

    Once you're caught up in the game, though, you don’t really notice the lag—so long as you resist the temptation to see what your football-fan friends are saying on Facebook and Twitter.

    For extra protection against spoilers, you might want to buy yourself a pair of noise-canceling headphones: Slate writer Will Oremus watched last year's Super Bowl on NBC’s stream and learned about New England’s unforgettable, game-saving interception not from his computer screen, but the Patriots fans in the apartment above him, who erupted in celebration two minutes before he witnessed the play himself.

    If you ask me, though, the more vexing problem is the occasional mid-play halt in the feed that leaves you wondering if the receiver streaking downfield caught that pass or not. When that happens, there’s not much you can do but take a deep breath and wait for the stream to resume or stop and restart the feed.

    Despite the bugs, though, I have to say I still enjoy watching football on a laptop when I don’t have access to a TV.

    NFL Mobile

    I can’t say I’ve ever watched a football game on a smartphone, but last May my wife and I did pull the car over halfway to a dinner date to watch American Pharoah race in the Kentucky Derby on an iPhone 5s. I have to admit, for those few minutes, the experience was kind of thrilling—especially when the horse broke away from the pack in the final turn and streaked toward home. We had a clear picture, full audio, and NBC’s instant replays—albeit all squeezed onto a four-inch display.

    To give the option a try on Super Bowl Sunday, you must be a Verizon customer with the NFL Mobile app on your phone. (If not, you're out of luck.) If the app isn't pre-loaded, you can download it for free on iOS, Android, and Windows devices. There's no in-app fee to access the broadcast.

    On the day of the game, you simply launch NFL Mobile and look for the Watch Live prompt. Press that button and you're off and running. Just keep in mind that data usage restrictions apply, so if you’re planning to watch all four quarters, you might want to find a comfy chair in a Wi-Fi hotspot.


    When you’re on the road, seated behind the wheel of a car, the radio is your best bet. Panther fans can hear the game on WBT in Charlotte. Broncos fans? Dial up any station in the team's network. But what about the rest of us?

    If you’re a SiriusXM subscriber, you can find Super Bowl 50 on NFL Radio Channel 88. Westwood One Sports has a list of affiliate options. And the American Armed Forces Radio will carry the broadcast for the men and women on military bases and ships worldwide.

    If you want to hear the game on your cell phone (without gobbling up your data allowance on NFL Mobile's video feed), download the TuneIn app and choose premium service. It's generally $7.99 a month, but, here again, this week you can take advantage of a free seven-day trial. I used this option to catch the Penn State-Michigan State football game in November while driving home to New York from North Carolina. Aside from the final score—Spartans 55, Nittany Lions 16—I was really happy with the result.  

    If I can offer one more piece of hard-earned advice, it would be this: Don't wait until the last minute to set up the feed on your laptop, tablet, or phone. In my experience, there's often a glitch or two that crops up to delay the process. Better to tackle those at 5:30 pm ET, when you're calm and collected, than at 6:25 when you're counting the minutes until kickoff.

    The idea is to enjoy the game, not lose your head.

    Streaming Recap: How to Watch the Game

    • Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. ET
    • TV: CBS
    • Online:
    • Mobile: NFL Mobile (only on Verizon)
    • Radio: SiriusXM and Westwood One (for more options, see below)
    • Note for cord cutters: Got a TV and broadband but no pay-TV package? You can stream Super Bowl 50 using the free CBS Sports app on Roku’s set-top boxes, AppleTV, Google Chromecast, Microsoft’s Xbox One, and Amazon Fire. (Or, make this the weekend you set up an antenna—just be sure to leave yourself enough time to determine if your house gets decent reception.)

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

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    LED Lights That Play Music Too

    GE recently announced it would stop making CFLs this year and focus on LED lights. That’s because these bulbs are evolving into consumer electronic products, offering much more than light. Consumer Reports tested eight LEDs with built-in speakers. The claims are inviting—“Light it loud” and “Turn it on. Turn it up.”  We just had to take a look, and listen.
    We bought the LED lights online and paid $26 to $200 per bulb. Engineers from our lightbulb lab tested each LED for brightness, energy use, whether it cast warm or cool light (color temperature), and its color rendering index or CRI. That tells you how well a bulb accurately reveals the colors of objects and skin tones.
    Then one of our sound engineers worked with three trained listening panelists to compare the sound quality of the Bluetooth speaker in the LED lights to the same high-quality reference audio system that we use for all home audio testing. The speaker in the LEDs were also compared to one of the lower scoring small portable Bluetooth speakers in our tests.

    The Sound Quality

    The idea is appealing, and the apps, for the models that had them, were easy to use and it was easy to connect them to Bluetooth audio sources. These LEDs used only 4 to 10 watts of energy, Unfortunately, they weren’t great as either light sources or speakers.
    The speakers in all eight LEDs had poor sound quality that was tinny and about what you would expect from an intercom. They’re best suited for close listening but can achieve adequate volume in a small to medium-sized room. Some online user reviews mention installing these LEDs in bathrooms, which are not known for their great acoustics.

    The Light Quality

    Propel, $26
    This bulb seems more like a BR30 in shape and speaker location. It’s a bit dimmer than a 40-watt incandescent, the cool light appears directional, similar to a spotlight. No app was provided with the LED. Remote control allows you to adjust volume and dimming.
    Flux, $30
    Casting a bluish white light, the Flux is a bit dimmer than a typical 40-watt incandescent. The bulb is meant for a table lamp, but the light is directional and very little of it is projected down toward the tabletop—most of the light goes up. The LED cannot be dimmed and there’s no app to control the light or speaker. But you can use your smart device to control volume.
    MagicLight, $40
    This bulb produces multiple colors but it’s significantly dimmer than a typical 40-watt incandescent. Light is directional, the light color is very cool, and poor at accurately showing the colors of objects. An app lets you dim the bulb and adjust volume.
    Playbulb, $44
    Significantly dimmer than a typical 40-watt incandescent, Playbulb gives off cool, directional light, so it’s not ideal for a table lamp needed for task lighting. The app controls dimming and volume, and there are programmable timer settings for wake-up, night, sleep, and energy saver.

    Sengled Pulse Solo, $55
    A little brighter than a 40-watt incandescent, the warm light cast appears very directional, almost like a spotlight. Bulb works in a table lamp or gooseneck lamp. An app lets you control dimming and volume.
    Awox StriimLight, $69
    More like a nightlight or mood light, this bulb isn’t bright enough for illuminating tasks. It fits in a typical table lamp and is dimmable. An app offers you control of volume and light color, which can react to music by changing colors or brightness.
    Sengled Pulse, $146
    Sold as a set of two BR30 LEDs, the LEDs give off warm directional light similar to a flood light. The light is a bit dimmer than a typical 65-watt incandescent BR30 bulb, the kind used in recessed cans and track lighting. The app controls dimming and speaker loudness.
    Sony LED Bulb Speakers, $200
    Dimmer than a typical 40-watt incandescent, the Sony casts a warm but somewhat directional light. Use the app to control dimming. A remote control lets you dim the light and adjust volume.
    Lightbulbs that light up a room
    For lightbulbs that simply keep you out of the dark, see our full Ratings of LEDs and CFLs. Any questions? Email me at

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    Best Time to Buy a TV: Super Bowl or Black Friday?

    For many of us, getting the absolute best deal on a TV has become a national pastime, fueling the type of adrenaline rush you usually only get from contact sports. (And if you shop in stores on Black Friday, it can actually be one.)

    But when, exactly, is the best time to get the top TV deals—during the traditional Black Friday shopping period, or the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl?

    To answer that question, we worked with Chicago-based market research firm Market Track to monitor TV prices on the models we listed in both our "Best TVs for the Super Bowl" and "Best Bargains for a Super Bowl TV" posts from early October through this past weekend. (Make sure you also check out our most recent post on the best last-minute Super Bowl TV deals.)

    What we found was that for those looking for top TV deals, Black Friday is generally the better time to buy a lower-priced TV at an especially great price, while the Super Bowl is a better opportunity to get a better-performing set at a discount. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule.

    "From our review of pricing on key holiday items like TVs over the past few years, the goal for retailers [at Black Friday] is to get shoppers to their websites or into their stores with shockingly low prices," says Ryne Misso, director of marketing at Market Track.

    Misso points to Black Friday deals such as a 49-inch Toshiba TV for $150, or a 55-inch Westinghouse set for $250, as Black Friday examples. "No, they weren't top-of-the-line models, but they were eye-catching prices for TVs of those sizes."

    But if you're buying a TV to watch the big game, you're probably looking for a set that's not only going to do a good job showing the game in all its high-def glory, but provide satisfying picture quality over the next several years.

    "For the Super Bowl, TV quality enters the equation—consumers want big, high-quality TVs to optimize their viewing experience," Misso says, adding that shoppers will find these bigger-and-better-TVs at or below their Black Friday prices. "A consumer buying a TV during [Black Friday or] a holiday is OK taking a slight hit on picture quality because the price is so low."

    Promotions Can Vary by Brand

    Another reason why you may get a better deal on a step-up or flagship model is that the Super Bowl is closer to the end of a TV's life cycle. At this time of year, retailers are preparing for the first 2016 models to start arriving in late February or early March, so the Super Bowl provides a great promotional opportunity to move out remaining 2015 sets. Better TVs are typically higher priced, so there's more room for price cuts, which are the most effective way to entice consumers to buy.

    But there are a few exceptions. One is that some TV brands may choose to focus more on one of these promotional opportunities than another. For example, Samsung was extremely aggressive during Black Friday this past year, and we saw the lowest prices on several of its sets during Thanksgiving week.

    Market Track's survey showed that four of the six Samsung TVs we followed were cheapest during the Black Friday shopping period. As just one example, a 60-inch 1080p smart TV, the Samsung UN60J6200, was selling for about $850 just before Black Friday, when it dropped to just under $700. Its priced jumped back up to $850 in December, and it's currently selling for anywhere from about $850 to $1,000 right now. This model, which is in our full TV Ratings (available to subscribers), had very good HD picture quality.

    Based on the models we tracked, LG is being more aggressive around the Super Bowl, perhaps because this year it's a Super Bowl advertiser. But TVs we tracked over the three-month period from both LG and Samsung showed some pretty big differences in price, depending on the month and even week.

    By contrast, the three TVs we tracked from Vizio showed less price volatility, as well as less seasonality. Perhaps because its TVs are already priced fairly aggressively for their size and features, prices didn't move all that much, either for Black Friday or leading up to the Super Bowl.

    Can You Wait a Month?

    But if you're not buying a new TV specifically to watch the Super Bowl, you may be able to get an even better deal on a TV if you're able to wait another month, when the first 2016 sets start arriving in stores. This is when manufacturers and retailers really start clearing out leftover inventory in earnest.

    If you're considering one of last year's models, especially a 4K UHD set, just make sure the TV will support some of the new features we'll hear more about this year, such as high dynamic range (HDR), if that's of interest to you. For example, many 2015 UHD TVs sets have HDMI 2.0a inputs, which are required for HDR capability.

    One final note: If you are buying a TV in the next week or so, see if it's covered by a retailer's 30-day price match policy. At this time of year, when pricing is volatile, it's a nice hedge against big price drops after you've made your purchase.

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

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    Maximize Small Ovens for the Big Game

    Super Bowl parties are all about finger food. You don’t want to be huddling in the kitchen while your team is making its move on the field. The challenge for the host is how to put out a steady stream of appetizers without missing the key plays, great commercials, or the halftime show. Oven occupied? Then this is the time to draft your small ovens like your microwave or toaster oven. Consumer Reports made a scouting report and here’s what we found.

    More and more microwaves on the market today have a convection mode that can be used to brown and crisp food. In our tests, one of the microwaves with a convection function, the GE Profile PVM1790SR[SS], $600, did a good job baking biscuits, which is how we test that function.

    Another midsized countertop model, the LG LCSP1110[ST], $230, features a pizza oven in a drawer-like oven beneath the microwave cavity, although it can't be used at the same time as the microwave. Still it has preset buttons not only for pizza but other baked goods such as appetizers. It scored very good overall as a microwave and baked biscuits to satisfaction.

    Toaster ovens
    A large toaster oven can also serve as a second small oven. Use one to heat appetizers or to warm up pie for dessert. Several of the toaster ovens in our tests have convection heating, which manufacturers claim is faster and cooks more evenly. At least one model, the Panasonic FlashXpress NB-G110P, $110, has speedy infrared heating.

    Three of the five toaster ovens on our recommended list come from Breville and range in price from $180 to $270. Two of the small ovens, the Breville Smart Oven Pro BOV845BSS, $270, and the Breville Smart Oven BOV800XL, $250, have convection ovens that make them more versatile. All of our top models have cooking options that help when you’re making something more complicated than toast.

    When you have to punt
    If you have a double oven, then your game strategy is set because you can cook different dishes at different temperatures. Also consider using a pizza stone to heat pizza and other appetizers. Because they retain heat, you can turn out trays of food one after another.

    Similar to a toaster oven but capable of higher heat, the Black & Decker 5-Minute Pizza Oven was able to cook a crowded tray of appetizers in our tests. It also made great pizza. Enjoy the game.

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    Don't make these income tax mistakes

    Tax mistakes can mean much more than just a computation error. The tax code is long and complex, so it's not surprising that wrong assumptions about preparing and filing taxes abound. Correcting those misconceptions could save you money. Here are a few commonly misconstrued facts that can lead to tax mistakes, and the real story.

    I shouldn't file until I can pay what I owe

    Mistake. Even if you can’t send one cent to the Treasury, file your return by April 18 this year (April 19 if you're in Massachusetts or Maine) to avoid the penalty for failure to file, which is greater than the failure-to-pay penalty.

    Keep in mind that if you overestimated your health-insurance premium tax credit last year, you now must reconcile what you got with what you should have recieved. In most cases, you must repay the difference. Here's more from the IRS on calculating what you owe related to your premium tax credit, and making a payment.

    The IRS offers arrangements for installment agreements and short-term extensions if you can't pay everything on time. The agency may waive penalties in some cases, but not interest charges on unpaid taxes. If you’re concerned that you can’t pay at all, call the IRS at 800-829-1040, or check out IRS Tax Topics 202, Tax Payment Options, for more information.

    It's always better for married couples to file jointly

    Not always. Couples who recently lost tax breaks when they bid their dependent children goodbye may now benefit from filing separately. So might a married couple whose income is much higher or lower than last year. In some cases, the savings may be in state, not federal, taxes. So to avoid this tax mistake, ask your tax preparer about the cost of comparing the options of filing separately and jointly.

    I can't claim my parents as dependents unless they live with me

    No, your parents can live anywhere. What matters is that you and your siblings pay for more than 50 percent of their living expenses. Adult children can share equally or unequally in that support, but only one child can claim the dependent-care exemption each year. Often the children give the exemption to the sibling who deals most with day-to-day issues, even if she or he doesn’t provide the most financial support. (That child must provide at least 10 percent of total support.) For more guidelines, consult IRS Publication 501, "Exemptions, Standard Deduction and Filing Information." [PDF]

    CPAs charge the most to prepare taxes

    Not necessarily. Certified public accountants, with their extensive training, may be considered the most costly tax professionals. But a national survey of members by the National Society of Accountants—including CPAs, tax experts known as enrolled agents, and other credentialed tax professionals—found that tax-prep fees may have less to do with the preparer’s professional designation than with the size of the firm.

    A canceled check is the only proof needed for a charitable deduction

    Wrong. To be eligible for a deduction, any donation of $250 or more requires a donor acknowledgement letter that specifies the amount of cash given and describes any property that was donated. The letter should also state whether the donor received any goods or services from the organization in exchange for the gift. If the letter doesn’t mention the date of the donation, a bank record or receipt will suffice. See IRS Publication 526, "Charitable Contributions," [PDF] for more.

     —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    See Consumer Reports' Tax Guide for more advice on avoiding tax mistakes, as well as on preparing, filing and saving on your income tax return.

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

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    Save money with home office tax deductions

    Small-business owners bedeviled by expense calculations for their home office tax deductions can take advantage of an IRS rule that offers a potentially less time-consuming way to figure out some of those costs. But it saves money only in certain situations.

    The rule lets you calculate expenses related to the business use of a home based on a simple multiplier: $5 per square foot. It applies only to home-ownership and maintenance costs, including deductible mortgage interest, real-estate taxes, homeowners insurance, repairs, and utilities. Other expenses related to your business, such as advertising, supplies, and wages, still need to be itemized to obtain the home office tax deduction.

    Before this rule took effect for 2013 returns, to apportion some of the costs of maintaining your home to your business expenses for the home office tax deduction, you had to create a factor: the square footage of your home-office space divided by your home’s total square footage. Then you applied that factor to your total home-related expenses. Now all you need do is multiply the square footage of the office space by $5 and report that figure on line 30 of IRS Schedule C.

    See our Income Tax Guide for more advice and tips on preparing, filing and saving on your income tax return.

    New rule offers flexibility

    You can apply the $5 multiplier to up to 300 square feet of your home office space, for a total of $1,500. A business that uses a room that’s 10x10 feet, for instance, could claim a business-use-of-home expense of $500, or $5 times 100 square feet, toward the home office tax deduction. But the new method doesn’t reduce your mortgage interest or property-tax deductions. You still report those on IRS Schedule A.

    You can still use the old way to determine your expenses. In fact, in any year you can use whichever method saves you more. But you can’t amend a previous return to use the other method. And when you use the simplified method, you can’t carry over expenses from a prior tax year in which you used the regular method. (For more information, check out IRS Publication 587, “Business Use of Your Home.”  

    Who benefits?

    The simplified method is a no-brainer when your expenses are reliably less than $5 per square foot. That’s easy to determine if your expenses haven’t changed much from last year. Multiply your home-office square footage by $5 and compare the dollar result with the sum on line 30 of last year’s Schedule C. If the $5 method yields the higher figure, go with that. “Someone with low home-office expenses, no mortgage left to pay, and low property taxes is a perfect candidate,” says Lawrence Pon, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner from Redwood City, Calif.

    If home-related expenses typically hover around $5 per square foot, however, you won’t save time. To compare the savings from each method, you’ll still have to itemize and add up all business expenses as you’ve always done.

    One caveat: The simplified method doesn’t allow you to include depreciation of your home in business expenses, which is possible with the old method. In the short run, you’ll lose that potential savings. In the long run, though, the simplified method could prove to be a blessing, Pon says. With this method you won’t have to subtract—or “recapture”—the depreciation from your home’s basis when you sell it, as you must do under the old method. That lower basis could mean higher capital gains taxes on the profit. (Federal capital gains tax applies when the profit exceeds $500,000 per couple and $250,000 per single person, assuming they meet certain qualifications.)

    Other IRS rules still apply

    Regardless of your choice of expensing rule for home office tax deductions, you must still comply with IRS definitions of a home office: a room or delineated space furnished and equipped only for business use. Got a TV near your desk? Be prepared to defend why watching those reruns of “Law and Order” is strictly business.

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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

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    Protect yourself from a tax audit

    Tax audits are rare. The average taxpayer has a 1-in-100 probability of being formally audited by the IRS in a given year. The odds of a tax audit rise if, among other things, you itemize deductions, report profits or losses on a home business or rental property, or have an income of $200,000 or more.

    And the IRS conducts many more informal reviews for problems like math errors and mismatches between the income taxpayers show on their tax forms and what their employers and other income providers report. Those raise your chances of being contacted by the IRS closer to 7 in 100. But you can take steps that will help you survive a tax audit in some key areas.

    Business expenses

    Home-business owners using Schedule C and employees claiming unreimbursed expenses on IRS Form 2106 should scrupulously record telephone, travel, meal, and entertainment expenses for business.

    Avoid deductions that can be personal in nature. They're the first ones the IRS wil scrutinize in a tax audit. If you’re just starting a business, for instance, don’t expense research trips. Other tips:

    • Is it a business or a hobby? Unless you can claim income periodically, don’t deduct a $1,200 Nikkor lens for the photography hobby you hope will some day pay off, especially if you get a W-2 from another job. A rough rule of thumb is to show a profit on Schedule C in at least two years out of every five.
    • Define your home office. Applying too much of your home’s square footage toward a home business sends the wrong signal. And it should look like an office and be used exclusively for business.  

    Rental income

    If you own rental property, take care completing Schedule E for supplemental income and loss. How much you can deduct for expenses and losses depends on how actively involved you are in managing your property and how well you can prove it. Other tips to prevent a tax audit:

    • Know when to depreciate. Repairs and new equipment that extend a property’s life or add to its value aren’t considered maintenance. Depreciate them over a number of years rather than expensing them in a single year.
    • Document personal use. To fully deduct the expenses related to a vacation rental, you and family members can’t use the home more than 14 days, or 10 percent of the days the unit is rented at the market price, whichever is greater. If you own a second home that doubles as a rental, hold on to credit-card bills and travel documents in case you have to prove in a tax audit that you and your relatives stayed only for the allotted period.

    See the Consumer Reports Tax Guide for more advice and tips on preparing, filing and saving on your income tax return.

    Charitable donations

    Sums that stand out can raise suspicion. For example, deducting a large charitable contribution—say, $20,000—if your adjusted gross income is $40,000 is permissible by the IRS but might appear out of place.

    Keep dated receipts for cash gifts of $250 or more and for noncash items you donate, such as furniture and clothes. If you give an item worth more than $500, you’ll need to fill out Form 8283. Donations worth more than $5,000 require a written appraisal. Check IRS Publication 561, "Determining the Value of Donated Property," for details.

    Records are the key

    No matter what you’re deducting, always keep or scan original receipts. Your credit-card bill alone won’t necessarily identify the item or services purchased. And hold on to your records for at least seven years.

    —Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

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

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    The Buzz on Death Wish Coffee

    If you don’t already know about Death Wish Coffee, you probably will after watching the Super Bowl today. The winner of a contest sponsored by Intuit QuickBooks, this small company scored a 30-second commercial during the third quarter of the big game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos.

    People who don’t feel quite human until they’ve had their morning java will likely perk up when they hear the ad’s tag line: Death Wish Coffee. Fiercely caffeinated.

    But this brew may be too much for some people to handle. The company bills its coffee as the “world’s strongest,” and credits the blend of beans and the roasting process it uses for the coffee's caffeine content, which is 59 milligrams per fluid ounce. A typical cup of coffee has 12 to 16 milligrams of caffeine per fluid ounce.

    The consensus from the latest studies is that moderate amounts of caffeine don’t raise the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, or other ills. But the key word here is moderation.

    According to the recent U.S. Dietary Guidelines, 400 milligrams of caffeine a day can be part of a healthy diet for most adults. That’s two to four eight-ounce cups of most coffees. The Food and Drug Administration says 600 milligrams a day is too much. An eight-ounce cup of Death Wish has 472 milligrams. And for many people a “cup” of coffee ranges from 12 to 20 ounces. (The table below lists the caffeine content of different products per fluid ounce and per serving size.)

    Should you try it?

    “People should be aware of the effects of getting too much caffeine. It varies from individual to individual, but consuming more than your normal amount could make you feel nervous, anxious, irritable, or jittery, and may cause excessive urine production or irregular heartbeat,” says caffeine researcher Maggie Sweeney, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow at the behavioral pharmacology research unit in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “That could be the case even for people used to caffeine. And for those who have anxiety or insomnia, it could worsen their symptoms.”

    Neal Benowitz, M.D., professor of medicine at University of California San Francisco, notes that there’s a difference between getting 400 milligrams of caffeine a day and consuming that amount or more in one sitting. “With drugs that affect mood or behavior such as caffeine, the faster the rise in the drug level in the body, the more intense the response. Consuming that much caffeine or more in a single dose may produce an intense effect. That’s concerning for someone who isn’t a regular coffee drinker, and even someone who is will get a big jolt."

    Death Wish did not respond to our request for an interview.

    Death Wish also uses “strongest” to refer to the coffee’s flavor, which the company describes as “strong,” “intense,” and “never bitter.” To find out how accurate that is, 10 staffers from our food lab did a small tasting.

    We ordered Death Wish ground coffee ($19.99 per pound, plus shipping) from the company’s website and brewed the coffee according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Without knowing which brand of coffee they were sipping, the staffers did two rounds of tasting of Death Wish.

    “Overall our tasters found Death Wish to be strong and bold, but somewhat bitter,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a Consumer Reports’ dietitian who led the tasting. “It’s fairly similar to some of the other dark roast coffees we’ve tasted in our previous tests.”

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

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  • 02/08/16--05:00: Tips for Safe Winter Driving
  • Tips for Safe Winter Driving

    Winter driving brings inherent risks. But you can put the odds in your favor with proper preparation, car maintenance, and driving techniques.

    Keeping up with car maintenance year-round is important, but it carries added significance in the winter when being stranded can be inconvenient due to travel plans, as well as being downright unpleasant waiting at the side of the road. As always, try to time your routine maintenance ahead of long-distance travel. Putting off service today can turn into an expensive problem down the road.

    To be prepared for challenges winter driving poses, keep these tips in mind:

    Maintain a full tank of gas. Keeping a half tank or more of gas limits the moisture that can condensate in the tank, and it means you are well positioned to tough out an expected traffic jam or survive being stuck in the snow.

    Care for your tires. As winter driving safety is impacted by traction, it is key to make sure your tires are in top shape. Check tire pressure monthly, topping off as necessary. (Cold winter temperatures can lower tire pressure.) Inspect your tires for tread depth, an important factor in wet and snow traction. The tread should be at least 1/8 an inch, easily gauged by using a quarter and measuring from the coin's edge to Washington's head. Look for uneven tread wear, which typically indicates poor wheel alignment or worn suspension components. If you do invest in new tires, be sure to have your vehicle's alignment and suspension checked before having the tires mounted to avoid premature wear. (See our tire buying guide and ratings.)

    Accelerate slowly to reduce wheel spin. If starting from a standstill on slick snow or ice, start in second gear if you have a manual transmission or gear-selectable automatic so the vehicle is less likely to spin the tires.

    Reduce your speed and drive smoothly. In slippery conditions, tires lose their grip more easily, affecting all aspects of your driving: braking, turning, and accelerating. Keeping the speeds down will give you more time to react to slippage or a possible collision, and it will lessen the damage should things go wrong.

    Allow longer braking distances. Plan on starting your braking sooner than you normally would in dry conditions to give yourself extra room, and use more gentle pressure on the brake pedal.

    Don't lock your wheels when braking. Locked wheels can make the vehicle slide or skid. If you have an older vehicle without an antilock braking system (ABS), you may need to gently apply the brakes repeatedly in a pulsing motion to avoid having them lock up the wheels. If your vehicle has ABS, simply depress the brake pedal firmly and hold it down. The shuddering sounds and pedal feeling is expected (don't lift off the brake); the system is doing its job.

    Perform one action at a time when accelerating, braking, and turning. Asking a vehicle to do two things at once--such as braking and turning, or accelerating and turning—can reduce your control. When taking a turn on a slippery surface, for instance, reduce speed sufficiently, and slowly apply the brakes while the vehicle is still going straight.

    Avoid sudden actions when cornering. A sudden maneuver—such as hard braking, a quick turn of the steering wheel, sudden acceleration, or shifting a manual transmission—can upset a vehicle's dynamics when it's taking a turn. Rapidly transferring the weight from one end or corner to another can throw a car off balance. In slick conditions, this can cause it to more easily go out of control.

    Beware bridges and overpasses. These can freeze before the roads.

    Be ready to correct for a slide. Should the rear end of the vehicle begin to slide during a turn, gently let off on the accelerator and turn the steering wheel in the direction of the slide. This will help straighten it out. Electronic stability control will also help keep control in a slide situation. But remember, safety systems may bend the laws of physics, but they can't overcome stupid. If you’re turning and the vehicle keeps moving straight ahead, you may be tempted to turn even more. However, it is better to slow down and turn back straight for moment until you can regain traction and then make your turn.

    Don't let four- or all-wheel-drive give you a false sense of security. 4WD and AWD systems only provide extra traction when accelerating. They provide no advantage when braking or cornering. Everyone has four-wheel brakes...

    Be extra wary of other motorists. They may not be driving as cautiously as you, so leave extra space, avoid distractions, and be predictable, signaling clearly ahead of any turns or lane changes. If you feel you’re being ‘pushed’ by someone wanting to go faster, pull over and let them go.

    Don’t pass snow plows. The road is likely more treacherous in front of the trucks, and the added speed needed to complete the pass can risk sliding. Instead, hang back and let the trucks do their job. Don’t follow too close, as there is a high risk of windshield-threatening pebbles being thrown up from sanding machines.

    What to Do If You're Stuck

    Try to shovel a path out. With the front wheels straight, rock the car by shifting between drive and reverse and applying light throttle. Shift directions the moment the wheels start spinning. Spread sand in your tracks. Once freed, keep going until you reach firm footing.

    If the car isn’t moving, don’t spin the wheels; they’ll just dig deeper into the snow. You may need to jack up the car to put a traction aid under the drive wheels, but make sure the jack is on firm ground. You can use sand, cat litter, twigs, weeds, planks, even your car’s floor mats or trunk liner. Make sure others stand clear before you apply power.

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

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    Tax deduction rules for charity donations

    If efforts to sell your unwanted stuff are unsuccessful, you can take a tax deduction for donations of used clothing and household items that are in good or better condition. You must be giving to an IRS-qualified organization. See IRS Publication 526, Charitable Contributions, for rules on what constitutes a qualified organization.

    You’ll have to do a little legwork to figure out how much you should deduct. The IRS says that the fair-market value of used clothing and household goods is the price that buyers would pay for them in a consignment or thrift shop. Some charities provide valuation guides on their websites to help you figure out how big a deduction you should claim. Choose an amount that makes sense given the garment’s age and quality. Tax preparation software, such as TurboTax and H&R Block, also includes valuation guides.

    Ensure your charitable donations are going to the best organizations. Read how charitable organizations are rated by the watchdogs.

    It’s important to maintain a paper trail of your contributions in case the IRS audits you. Different rules apply, depending on the value of your gifts. If you claim a tax deduction for a noncash contribution worth less than $250, the charity should give you a written acknowledgment that includes its name, the date and location of your donation, and a description of your gift. If the value of your donation falls between $250 and $500, the acknowledgment must also say whether you received goods or services in return (and if you did, an estimate of the value).

    The more generous you are, the more paperwork you’ll have to fill out. If your gift is worth more than $500, you must attach Form 8283 to your tax return. For donations valued at more than $5,000, you must also send the IRS a written appraisal of your gift. But you can deduct the cost of the appraisal subject to the 2 percent limit for miscellaneous itemized deductions.

    Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

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

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    Treadwear Warranty Extended on Nokian All-Season Tire

    Last fall we introduced tread life mileages of 47 car tires from our 16,000-miles test driven over public roads in West Texas. The evaluation found almost half of the all-season and performance all-season tires could last at least 65,000 miles. Of those, a half dozen could top 85,000 miles or more, but the Nokian eNTYRE 2.0 achieved just a 35,000-mile wear projection. Since then, Nokian enhanced the treadwear warranty. 

    Your Treadwear May Vary

    Of course, mileage to wear-out can vary based on many factors, including how hard you drive, what vehicle the tires are on, and road conditions, to name a few. But the eNTYRE 2.0 fell short of its 80,000-mile warranty by a wide margin. That’s too bad, because despite the treadwear shortfall, the eNTYRE 2.0 managed to place a respectable sixth overall among 16 performance all-season tires (H-Rated). The tire is credited with very good dry and wet braking and handling, excellent hydroplaning resistance, good snow traction, and a comfortable, quiet ride. But treadwear matters, as that addresses the cost associated with replacement.

    Nokian is addressing that potential cost disparity with a supplemental treadwear warranty on eNTYRE 2.0 tires sold since October 1, 2015.

    Qualifications for Reimbursement

    In addition to treadwear warranties, tires are also evaluated by Uniform Tire Quality Grading (UTQG), a government standard to allow tire comparisons.

    Tires with an 80,000-mile treadwear warranty and UTQG treadwear grade of 720 that wear evenly on all four tires down to treadwear indicators of 2/32-inch during first half of the warranty (up to 40,000 miles) will be eligible for free replacement cost by Nokian Tyres.

    Beyond that mileage, treadwear will be pro-rated, but the first 40,000 miles will not be counted toward the replacement cost. So for example, if your tires wear-out at 60,000 miles, you pay 50 percent of the cost (half-way between 40,001 to 80,000 miles).

    Tires with a 60,000-mile treadwear warranty and UTQG Treadwear grade of 580 in specific 17- and 18-inch tire sizes will have a free replacement cost between up to 30,000 miles. For those who go over, a credit will be applied from 30,001 to 60,000 miles.

    Note that tires purchased online are not eligible.

    We welcome manufacturers enhancing warranties and consider this a helpful move by Nokian. But this does underscore how tire performance can vary and savvy buyers will want to consult our test findings before buying replacement rubber for their car.

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

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