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Consumer Reports

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    Car Headlight Performance Found to Be Not So Bright

    A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds that among 31 vehicles tested for car headlight performance, only one earned IIHS's top Good rating: the Toyota Prius V with LED lamps. Mirroring Consumer Reports test results, this first-ever car headlight ratings evaluation by IIHS shines light on how lamps are underperforming.

    In fact, 19 vehicles received Poor or Marginal scores for their disappointing performance. The worst performer in the IIHS tests was the BMW 3 Series equipped with halogen headlamps.

    If those results are surprising to you, they weren’t to us. Although we would agree that headlights have improved over the past decade, we still feel there is room for more advancement, especially for straight-ahead low-beam seeing distances that matter most. And the 3 Series also scored poorly in our tests.

    Since 2004, Consumer Reports has evaluated car headlight performance as part of our comprehensive battery of tests. Our ratings have provided insight not only into which cars help you see better at night but also how the lighting industry is faring overall and which technologies offer better potential for seeing at night. (Learn more about how Consumer Reports tests cars.)

    Although IIHS conducts its car headlight test a bit differently than we do, the concepts behind it are much the same. Both tests assess how far ahead the headlights illuminate, and both are conducted on dark nights. Further, both ratings evaluate both low and high beams, and they give the greatest emphasis to low- beam seeing distances, reflecting how lights are most often used.

    IIHS notes that spending more money doesn’t necessarily buy improved visibility, as many of the Poor-rated headlights came on luxury vehicles. Our own ratings have found that while newer technologies such as high-intensity discharge (HID) and now LED headlights typically provide brighter and often more visibility to the sides of the road, they don’t necessarily provide added visibility straight ahead. As those higher-tech lights often come on high-end vehicles, our test findings seem to be in alignment.  

    How IIHS' and Consumer Reports' Tests Differ

    Some key differences in the testing methodologies may help explain why some vehicles may not rate similarly.

    • Lamp aim: For the IIHS tests, headlights are tested in an ‘as received’ condition, meaning that the vertical aim of the headlamps is not adjusted from how the car was set at the factory. We center the aim all headlights before our tests. A vehicle where we raise the lamps, for example, might receive better ratings in our tests than in IIHS’ because of that adjustment and vice versa if we were to lower the lamps. By not adjusting the lamp aim, IIHS is hoping to draw added attention to the fact that aim adjustment can help headlight performance and that the consumer shouldn’t necessarily be tasked with making those corrections.
    • Curve evaluation: The IIHS evaluation factors not only the straight-ahead seeing distance (as does ours) but also includes evaluation of seeing distance in a curve. Headlights with a wider beam pattern or adaptive (cornering) capability might do better in IIHS' curve tests, bumping up a score. Although we rate width of the light, it is not conducted while driving in a curve.
    • Extra credit: IIHS provides additional credit in its ratings for vehicles equipped with high-beam assist—a feature that automatically switches between low and high beams as conditions warrant. An accompanying study confirms the potential safety benefits of this feature: Results showed that even when people had the opportunity to go to high beams for added visibility, they did so only about 18 percent of the time. Although we don’t award points in our headlight ratings for high-beam assist at present, we also find this feature among our favorites for providing added safety.

    In the end, because the IIHS ratings for headlights provide added information for consumers regarding which cars can help them see better and that drive improvements in headlight performance overall, we welcome them to the headlight testing party.

    You'll find Consumer Reports' headlight ratings on car model pages.

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

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    Is Pet Insurance Worth the Cost?

    Two years ago, Elizabeth Newsom-Stewart’s cat Fawkes ate part of a lily plant leaf. Newsom-Stewart, then a veterinary student at Cornell University, immediately knew the danger he was in, and rushed him to an animal hospital.

    “Some lily plants are toxic to cats” she says, and may cause kidney failure. “Symptoms can take 12 to 24 hours to show. By the time kidney failure occurs, it’s almost always fatal.”

    Emergency treatment, which included three days in intensive care, medication, tests, and lots of IV fluids, cost $1,783. But just three months before, Newsom-Stewart bought pet insurance, and it covered $1,327 of the bill. And Fawkes, now 4, made a full recovery.

    A serious illness or injury can take a financial toll, even when the patient is a pet. Cancer treatments can easily run $5,000; surgery to fix a torn ACL from, say, a poorly executed jump off the sofa can cost about $3,300. Pet insurance is sold with the promise that by helping to cover some of your pet’s medical bills, you won’t be forced to consider “economic euthanasia” in the most dire circumstances.

    But as helpful and emotionally comforting as it might be, is insurance really worth the price?

    About 1.4 million pets in the U.S. and Canada were covered by a plan at the end of 2014, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, a trade group. That’s less than 1 percent of about 174 million pet cats and dogs, but up from 680,000 policies in 2008. Some of the increase may be linked to a surprising fact: Pet insurance is one of the fastest-growing optional employee benefits.

    Major policy providers include the ASPCA (through Hartville), Embrace, Healthy Paws, PetFirst, Petplan, and Trupanion. Most cover only cats and dogs, but one company, Nationwide (formerly Veterinary Pet Insurance), also insures birds, rabbits, snakes, turtles, and other animals.

    How the Plans Work

    Like people insurance, pet policies come with a variety of deductibles, co-payments, and premiums. Unlike people coverage, you usually have to pay the vet bills in full and wait for reimbursement. But Trupanion launched a service in February that can disburse payments directly to vets on the day of service. The company says about 60 percent of its bills are already processed that way.

    The cost of coverage can increase depending on your pet’s breed (purebreds cost more to insure because they’re more prone to some hereditary conditions), age (plans may cost more as your pet gets older), the rising cost of veterinary care, and the coverage options you choose, such as your deductible amount. Embrace and Healthy Paws pay a flat percentage of covered costs after your deductible is met. Other companies calculate reimbursements based on the “usual and customary costs” of vet care in your area. Embrace lets you pick the annual maximum amount it will cover each year ($5,000, $8,000, $10,000, or $15,000); Healthy Paws and Trupanion have no annual ceiling.

    Almost all policies exclude pre-existing conditions and may exclude breed-specific conditions (or charge you more to cover them).

    What They Cover

    You can pick a plan that insures costs due to accidents (such as injuries caused by motor vehicles), or accidents and illness (including arthritis, cancer, and colitis). Some providers also offer wellness coverage for certain routine care, like annual exams, flea and tick treatments, and vaccinations. Eighty-one percent of pet insurance policies are accident and illness plans for dogs; 14.6 percent provide the same kind of coverage for cats and other pets. Only about 4 percent of the market is made up of accident-only and wellness coverage.

    The insurance trade group says that accident and illness coverage per year averaged $473 for dogs and $285 for cats in 2014. Accident-only policies ran $158 and $132, respectively.

    To compare costs, we asked four providers—Embrace, Healthy Paws, Nationwide, and Trupanion—whose parent companies comprise roughly 75 percent of the market, to estimate what their accident and illness policies would cover for a specific dog and cat. After initially agreeing, Nationwide decided it would only provide data for its policy that had accident, illness, and wellness coverage, so we didn’t include the company in our analysis.

    We used the vet bills of Guinness, an almost 12-year-old Labrador mix from Westchester County, N.Y., and Freddie, a mixed-breed cat from Fairfield County, Conn., who’s almost 9.

    Guinness had few health problems over the years until he was diagnosed with skin cancer last fall. Treating him required two costly surgeries and expensive follow-up care.

    Freddie has been relatively healthy; he had one pricey dental cleaning under anesthesia, and has been prescribed cat food and medication to treat infections. We did our analysis assuming that their owners had signed them up for coverage when they were just a few weeks old, and we adjusted each medical-care charge into present-day dollars to judge how their expenses would have been covered.

    Playing the Odds

    For Freddie, only the Healthy Paws policy would have paid out more than it cost, in part because of its lower premiums.

    If you have a pet like Guinness with a costly condition or illness you want to treat, we found that pet insurance may pay out more than it costs you. In our exercise, a Healthy Paws plan was the only one that paid more than it cost.

    But if his owner continues to cover cancer treatments, all three plans may be worth it. In 2015, for example, Healthy Paws and Trupanion would have reimbursed the owner over $3,000 more than they would have charged for coverage. Embrace would have covered more than $4,000 over the cost of its plan.

    Of course, our results are for a single cat and dog; vet bills are different for every animal, and there’s no way to predict whether your pet will become sick or injured. But if you’d like help with unexpected, large vet bills, a plan may be worth considering.

    Talk with your vet about the medical costs your pet’s breed will usually incur, and ask about his experience with different pet insurers.

    Download sample policies from insurance websites and read them thoroughly for limitations, exceptions, and co-payments. Consider skipping wellness coverage if possible and paying for it out of pocket. Last year routine vet care cost cat owners just $196 and dog owners only $235, according to the American Pet Products Association.

    If you don’t want to pay for pet insurance, consider starting an emergency savings fund for pet care instead. If you find you need help with a big pet medical bill, the Humane Society has a list of organizations that may help pay for it.

    More Ways to Save

    Take steps to keep your pet healthy to trim medical costs.

    • Ask your vet which vaccines you can skip. Some effectively prevent serious and costly diseases, says Louise Murray, D.V.M., a veterinarian and vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City. But ringworm, for example, is a mild condition and its vaccine isn’t that effective, she says.
    • Guard against parasites. Fleas can cause life-threatening anemia, and ticks can spread Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. An inexpensive topical solution can keep the bugs at bay.
    • Spay or neuter your pet. Doing so can help prevent health problems, including some cancers. Many sheltersor chapters of the ASPCA provide low-cost or no-cost spayor neuter surgery.

    A Tale of Two Critters

    How much, if anything, would the owners of Guinness the Dog and Freddie the Cat have saved over the years on their healthcare if they had had pet insurance?


    Embrace Healthy Paws Trupanion
    Cost of coverage (including premiums) $10,260 $6,070 $8,290
    Amount paid by insurance $8,450 $7,060 $7,810
    Net gain or loss with insurance -$1,810 +$990 -$480
    Embrace Healthy Paws Trupanion

    Cost of coverage (including premiums)

    $5,440 $2,780 $4,570

    Amount paid by insurance

    $3,270 $3,360 $3,850
    Net gain or loss with insurance -$2,170 +$580 -$720

    How We Crunched the Numbers
    To compare policies, we converted all of the vet charges over the years into 2016 dollars, and checked current premiums for our pets at different ages. We chose a 10 percent co-pay for all three policies, which means the plans cover 90 percent of eligible charges. Embrace has a $200 annual deductible; for Healthy Paws, it’s $250. Trupanion has a $200 deductible per type of illness or accident. Once that deductible is met (say, for a cancer treatment), it covers 90 percent of additional charges for that condition. Healthy Paws and Trupanion have unlimited annual reimbursements; Embrace lets you choose an annual ceiling of $5,000, $8,000, $10,000, or $15,000. In only one year did bills for Guinness go over the $5,000 annual ceiling we used in our example. Note that the premiums of an Embrace plan go up significantly if you choose higher annual ceilings.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Car Defect Information to Become More Readily Available to Consumers

    The Department of Transportation (DOT) will post online all vehicle Technical Service Bulletins (TSB) and any other automaker communications to dealers about defects in vehicles, regardless of whether the defects are the subject of a safety recall.

    This move by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shines a light on previously shadowy—and sometimes secret—automaker communications to dealerships about potential automotive safety defects. The move improves consumer safety by enabling government and safety watchdogs to identify vehicle problems earlier.

    The announcement is a victory for consumers and safety advocates—especially the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) which has worked for many years to have this information available in a usable form.

    In addition to all TSBs being posted in a more consumer-friendly PDF format to the DOT’s safercar.gov website, the directive also strongly recommends that the manufacturers submit the information in searchable formats.

    Lack of a fully searchable database has been a problem for NHTSA, with other government agencies, consumers, and safety advocacy groups often receiving incomplete or misleading data about defects.

    All of this comes on the delayed adherence to a 2012 congressional mandate directing the Secretary of Transportation to make manufacturer communications like TSBs publicly accessible. Previously, such information was limited to industry professionals, either through direct dealership communications or through paid subscription services for automotive technicians. Now, independent repair shops will have access to TSBs for free. Regular consumers not well-versed in the technical language used in TSBs will also have access, but will most likely need assistance translating what can often be highly complicated and specialized bulletins.

    Read "How to get your car fixed for (almost) free."

    “Disclosure could save lives,” says CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow, adding that the database also will “save consumers money for repairs covered by Service Bulletins and dealer communications.”

    But consumer safety is at the heart of this new information gathering tool.

    More than a decade ago, General Motors began installing ignition switches in some car models that soon after began to exhibit “moving stalls.” In other words, the cars would stop running, and power steering, power braking, and airbags would all shut off. In 2005, GM issued an electronic alert to dealers that ignitions could turn off without explanation and issued a TSB. Neither warning was posted by DOT.

    Simultaneously, reports of airbags not deploying during crashes of these GM vehicles began to emerge. It wasn’t until the investigation of a fatal 2007 accident that others outside GM began to put the pieces together—when a Wisconsin state trooper recognized a connection between the faulty ignition switch causing air bags to not deploy. It wasn’t until 2014 that GM announced publicly that the safety defect existed.

    Ditlow explains, “Disclosure of these dealer communications could have saved lives and led to an earlier discovery of the ignition switch defect.”

    “Consumer Reports has long believed that the information in these communications between automakers and dealers are great for consumers so they can identify potential issues with their cars and more quickly be able to remedy them,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports. 

    Check technical service bulletins (TSBs) for common problems on the new and used car model pages, under the Reliability tab.

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

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    10 Great Refrigerators for $1,500 or Less

    LG LFC24770ST

    You can easily spend $3,000 or more on a French-door refrigerator and not end up with nearly the performance of this 33-inch-wide LG. Temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness are all exceptional, plus it features dual evaporative cooling, which can extend food freshness by maintaining optimal humidity levels. The LG lacks through-the-door ice and water, plus storage capacity isn't quite what you get with other French-door models. But if you can live with those tradeoffs, the LG LFC24770ST is one of the best options for around $1,500.  

    Samsung RF261BEAE[SR]

    Samsung's 36-inch-wide French-door bottom-freezer combines excellent temperature performance and efficiency. It also features dual evaporators, which can really make a difference with climate control. The Samsung is a bit noisier than other models in the French-door category, a factor that kept it off our recommended list. While it doesn't have an external ice and water dispenser, it has internal water with built in filtration, plus touchpad controls, and spillproof shelves, among other conveniences.

    LG LSXS26326S

    LG's 36-inch-wide refrigerator combines one of the lowest price tags in the side-by-side category with one of the highest overall scores. If you have big storage needs, and appreciate the vertical freezer of the side-by-side configuration, this LG is definitely worth a look. It serves up a generous 20.6 cubic feet of usable capacity and benefits from several helpful convenience features, like spillproof shelves and touchpad controls.

    GE GSE22ESHSS

    GE's 34-inch-wide side-by-side stands out for its exceptional temperature control, which most models in this category aren't able to achieve. It's also extremely energy efficient. Features include a temperature-controlled meat and deli bin, which helps keep food and beverages at the ideal temperature, as well as spillproof shelves. It's a little noisier than other models, which could be an issue if your kitchen is within earshot of other living spaces.

    Kenmore 51813

    This 33-inch-wide Kenmore is one of the least expensive models on our recommended list of side-by-sides, with few tradeoffs in performance. Solid temperature control and quietness combine with superb energy efficiency. Like most side-by-sides, it comes with a through-the-door ice and water dispenser, though you'll have to go without other convenience features, like adjustable shelves and a temperature-controlled meat and deli bin.

    Kenmore Elite 79043

    This 33-inch-wide refrigerator from Kenmore currently leads the bottom-freezer category, thanks to its exceptional all-around performance. Its 17.1 cubic feet of storage capacity feel even roomier thanks to several helpful storage features, including gallon storage and pullout shelves/bins throughout the freezer and refrigerator compartments.

    Kenmore 69313

    If you need to spend less than a $1,000 on a great refrigerator, but don't want a top-freezer, this 30-inch wide bottom-freezer from Kenmore is one of your best (not to mention only) options. Though it doesn't deliver much in the way of convenience features, it delivers superb temperature control, energy efficiency, and quietness. All that, along with the low price, was enough for a CR Best Buy designation.        

    Maytag MBF2258DEM

    This 33-inch-wide bottom-freezer from Maytag earned a spot on our recommended list thanks to its superb temperature control and energy efficiency. Its 15 cubic feet of usable capacity is about average for the category. Storage features include gallon door storage and split shelves, which are helpful for storing pitchers and other tall items, as well as touchpad controls.  

    LG LTCS20220S

    Top-freezers are the classic bargain refrigerator. They're typically smaller in size with fewer features and bare-bones design. This LG bucks that image a bit, thanks to its stainless steel finish, relatively roomy 16.7 cubic feet of usable capacity, and such conveniences as spillproof shelves and touchpad controls. In terms of performance, it combines solid temperature control with superb energy efficiency and quietness. And its 30-inch width makes it ideal for smaller kitchens.

    Frigidaire Gallery FGHT1846QF

    This 30-inch-wide Frigidaire also comes with stainless-steel styling, as well as certain features not found on all top-freezers, like a flip-up shelf that makes it easier to store taller items, and LED lighting. Though a tad noisier than the LG top-freezer included here, it's still very quiet on the whole. Temperature performance is also solid and it's exceptionally energy efficient.     

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

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    The Best Electric Dryers for $800 or Less

    Dryers haven’t changed as dramatically as washers in the past decade, and yet the top-scoring dryers in Consumer Reports’ tests cost $1,200 to $1,450. Manufacturers designed them so they can be paired with matching washers, and the washer price drives the dryer price. But for $800 or less, you can still buy a great dryer that gets the job done.

    Electric dryers are the big sellers, and the electric dryers highlighted below aced drying, and were quiet or relatively quiet. Most scored very good in capacity, meaning they should fit about 20 to 24 pounds of laundry. Two scored excellent, and should be able to hold about 25 pounds or more of laundry. You'll see the manufacturer's claimed cubic feet in the Features & Specs tab in our dryer Ratings. And of course these electric dryers have moisture sensors. Compared to thermostat dryers, moisture sensors are better at determining when laundry is dry, and then shutting off the machine.

    Dryers to Consider

    More choices
    Our dryer Ratings include dozens of electric dryers that we’ve bought and tested. We score drying performance, capacity, convenience, and noise of electric dryers. Years of testing found that the gas dryers perform similarly, so you’ll see Ratings for them, based on the performance of the electric model. Gas dryers usually cost about $100 more than electric dryers. 

    With so many to choose from, use the dryer Ratings filter to narrow your choices by brand, price, and more. The Features & Specs tab lets you compare dimensions and features, and the brand reliability information tells you which brands are the most repair-prone, according to the more than 105,000 people we surveyed. To help you decide, send questions to kjaneway@consumer.org.  

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

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    Latest on Cars From Consumer Reports

     

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    Latest on Safety From Consumer Reports

     

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    Latest on Home From Consumer Reports

     

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    Latest on Appliances From Consumer Reports

     

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    Latest on Health From Consumer Reports

     

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  • 03/31/16--03:00: 2016 Lincoln MKX Review
  • 2016 Lincoln MKX Review

    Borrowing the underpinnings of the impressive Ford Edge and the athletic chops of the fun-to-drive Fusion sedan, the 2016 Lincoln MKX has nothing to apologize for anymore.

    Lincoln has struggled mightily, despite valiant efforts, to re-establish itself as a credible luxury brand. But its offerings have come across as premium-grade poseurs.

    The new Lincoln MKX crossover, however, is ready for prime time—with a regal street presence, superior handling and braking, effortless acceleration, a plush interior, and a suite of advanced technology.

    How good is the MKX? With a road-test score of 87, the 2016 Lincoln MKX outguns all other luxury midsized SUVs, including the popular Lexus RX 350 and BMW X5.

    Read our complete Lincoln MKX road test and check our reviews of the 2016 BMW 750i, 2016 Honda Civic, and 2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450.

    Despite the MKX’s strong road-test score, Lincolns have traditionally lagged in our reliability survey, which sets back its Overall Score.

    The redesigned MKX comes with either a 3.7-liter V6 or a smaller, 2.7-liter EcoBoost twin-turbocharged 335-hp V6. It doesn’t take more than a quarter mile to realize this isn’t your grandmother’s Lincoln. The 2.7-liter pulls strongly. Powerful and refined, it supplies spirited forward thrust.

    Unfortunately, that engine is more about boost than eco. It delivers the oomph, but at a cost. Overall fuel economy came in at 18 mpg; most of the competition in the segment easily gets 20 mpg or better. And the six-speed automatic transmission seems quaint among the segment’s swath of eight-speed offerings.

    When it comes to carving up corners, the 2016 Lincoln MKX proved lively and composed, with a taut and connected feel that is enjoyable and inspires confidence. This Lincoln has no problems keeping up with lusty German competitors on a mountain road. Even when driven with extra gusto, the MKX is so reassuring that our testers wanted to push it harder around our track.

    Ride comfort has an underlying firmness and feels composed, planted, and steady. Even with the 20-inch wheels, bumps and ruts are nicely muted and the cabin stays quiet and tranquil.

    Lincoln has been spiffing up its interiors, and our MKX has a swanky, high-society, hunt-club atmosphere with brown leather seats and rich wood and chrome trim pieces. A large sunroof brightens up the interior. However, the well-padded front seats are narrow and are located too far inward from the door; the driver’s left footwell is cramped.

    Large doors provide easy access, and there’s a spacious rear seat and plenty of room for your stuff. A power liftgate and power-folding rear seats help with loading cargo.

    MKXs being delivered now have the more advanced and intuitive Sync 3 touch-screen info­tainment system, replacing the balky MyLincoln Touch. As for other controls, we’re not crazy about the newfangled push-button shifter, and some dashboard buttons are small and are packed too closely.

    It may be wishful thinking that Lincoln customers will be young enough to not need reading glasses for the fine print on the instrument readouts. And thick roof pillars take a toll on rearward visibility, but the surround view system can virtually peer out of tight spots.

    Our MKX set us back about 55 grand, which is close to the price of established luxury SUVs from the German brands and the Lexus RX. But let’s face it: Those brand names have more cachet than Lincoln. For now, though, consider the MKX to be a legitimate alternative with actual talent and substance.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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  • 03/31/16--03:00: 2016 BMW 750i Review
  • 2016 BMW 750i Review

    Traditionally, BMW’s flagship, the 7 Series, has been the sporty driver’s choice among ultraluxury sedans. For 2016 BMW has found the right balance of opulence, performance, comfort, and high-tech features—it will even massage your back.

    With a serene ride, high-tech features that cater to every whim, thoughtful touches in a comfortable and beyond-impeccable cabin, and impenetrable interior silence, the new BMW 7 Series delivers a first-class travel experience.

    After years of trailing the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, the 7 Series has outscored the big Benz in our tests. With weight-saving carbon construction, the BMW is not only quick but also fuel efficient. It’s smart enough to steer itself, or brake on its own if you fail to. And its clamped-down, über-­serious driving motif is better balanced with luxury and comfort.

    Read our complete BMW 7 Series road test and check our reviews of the 2016 Honda Civic, 2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450, and 2016 Lincoln MKX.

    The 2016 BMW 750i can still claim fast-lane dominance, but its plushness, newfound attention to detail, refinement, efficiency, and relative user-friendliness give it a clear edge. Simply put, it’s a better all-around car than the Mercedes.

    Our loaded $110,645-as-tested 2016 BMW 750i xDrive had a smoother transmission, more intuitive controls, and substantially better fuel economy.

    The gutsy V8 engine slings the 2016 BMW 750i to triple-digit speeds decisively but effortlessly. The engine’s velvet punch is augmented by the precision of the eight-speed automatic transmission, which imperceptibly executes each shift. And yet its 21 mpg fuel economy is on par with smaller V6-powered sedans. The lineup also includes a lower-priced, rear-wheel-drive 740i with a smaller engine.

    A six-figure car should feel indomitable as it glides down the road, and the 2016 BMW 750i features a supremely steady ride—courtesy of the standard air suspension and a tomb-quiet interior. Even at high speeds or over undulating pavement, the BMW reassuringly keeps its composure.

    However, the 2016 BMW 750i trails the S-Class in ultimate ride comfort, a crucial aspect in this class. Though the 7’s handling is secure and responsive, it’s not the sports sedan it used to be. In a bit of a role reversal, the S-Class is nimbler around corners.

    What’s inside an ultraluxury car is just as important. The opulent-yet-modern interior integrates wood and leather, touches of aluminum, and a suede headliner. Front seats have the delightful articulation befitting a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The sumptuous rear seat befits a dignitary—with massage, heated armrests, lumbar support, and controls for sun shades, climate, and audio. It may be the first BMW in which it’s more fun to be the passenger.

    The iDrive infotainment system now has “gesture control”—allowing you to adjust volume, pause tracks, or take phone calls with an aerial sweep or poke of your finger. Though it may be a redundant gimmick, a new touch screen and useful windshield head-up display combine to make the daunting array of controls more manageable.

    For all of those many reasons, the BMW 7 Series is the new leader of the luxury segment.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450h Review

    Lexus, Toyota’s elite brand, was the first manufacturer to bring car-based luxury to a sport-utility vehicle rich in comfort and amenities. It conquered the world. The latest model continues the very civilized experience.

    Despite hordes of imitators, the Lexus RX crossover lineup has continued to win the loyalty of its buyers by delivering a driving experience that accentuates comfort, tranquility, and luxury, topped off with superb reliability. The RX has long been Lexus’ top seller, and the redesigned model faithfully carries the torch, even with its new, slightly menacing grill and exterior styling.

    The 3.5-liter V6 in the RX 350, coupled with an eight-speed automatic, has the smooth and ample power delivery that you expect in a premium SUV. The hybrid version offers added boost and better fuel economy, as it combines the one-two punch of the gas engine and electric drive.

    The RX 450h’s hybrid transmission seamlessly puts power to the pavement, allowing this SUV to dash from 0 to 60 mph in a quick 7.5 seconds, while delivering 29 mpg overall—truly impressive in a class for which the V6’s 22 mpg is considered a benchmark.

    Read our complete Lexus RX road test and check our reviews of the 2016 BMW 750i, 2016 Honda Civic, and 2016 Lincoln MKX.

    You also can poke along in the 450h on electric power only, up to 40 mph—provided you apply a light foot; otherwise, the gas engine kicks in.

    Unfortunately, the RX doesn’t reward drivers with the crisp handling or sharp steering possessed by crossovers offered by the German brands.

    In corners, the soft suspension quickly makes the car lean over, giving the uncomfortable impression that the RX doesn’t hug the road well. It felt clumsy when pushed to its cornering limits—not unsafe, but not confidence-­inspiring, either. And the RX’s brakes produced wet stopping distances that were about a car-length longer than with most luxury SUVs.

    We also drove an “F Sport” variant, which includes a stiffer suspension and firmer seats. But it only ends up compromising ride comfort, rather than making the RX sportier.

    What the RX does do—coddle folks with reliable calmness—it does extremely well. Continuing long-standing RX hallmarks, the interior is bank-vault quiet, and the ride is soft, cushy, and insulating. The interior is tastefully done with materials that look elegant and plush. The seats are comfortable—nay, downright soporific. Big wood panels ornament the center console. The rear seat is roomy; the cargo hold, useful.

    A word about styling. Not everyone will warm to the body’s sharp creases and gaping grill. The company tried to make the bland RX edgier, but the pendulum may have swung back through the wall of the design studio. It also means diminished rearward visibility. We would definitely buy the blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert—which is optional on the RX 350 and standard on the hybrid.

    Also, the infotainment controls are an ergonomic mess. Though some controls can be managed with buttons and knobs, many functions require fiddling with a fussy mouse. As soon as any jostling occurs in the car, the mouse has a hard time placing the screen’s cursor onto the task you desire. It’s unnecessarily distracting.

    While the avant-garde styling may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the new RX continues to be a genteel, cosseting vehicle that’s likely to give years of headache-free ownership.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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  • 03/31/16--03:00: 2016 Honda Civic Review
  • 2016 Honda Civic Review

    After the last edition of the Honda Civic received such poor reviews that the small car was no longer the go-to choice. The 2016 Honda Civic received a serious makeover, with a return of the affordable elegance we know and love.

    The Honda Civic is back—recapturing its position as a mature, substantial economy car with enough elegant touches that make you feel like you spent more money than you did.

    We tested two versions of the 2016 Honda Civic: the base LX with a new 2.0-liter four-cylinder rated at 158 hp, and the EX-T with the uplevel 1.5-liter, 174-hp turbocharged four-cylinder (the first turbo Honda has offered in the U.S.).

    Read the complete Honda Civic road test and check our reviews of the 2016 BMW 750i, 2016 Lexus RX 350 and RX 450, and 2016 Lincoln MKX.

    Automatic Civics come with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which uses belts and pulleys rather than mechanical cogs. If you prefer to row your own gears, the 2016 Honda Civic LX model offers a six-speed manual.

    The base 2.0-liter engine is smooth, with reasonable oomph, provided you’re not in a real hurry. If you just loaf around, the CVT is a fairly good application of the technology; most are joyless and underwhelming, but this one does a fair job of minimizing the transmission’s inherent rubber-band feel. Still, if you climb a hill or merge quickly, the engine responds with annoying, whiny revs.

    For people who move to the turbo engine, those CVT quirks are well-masked by the engine’s impressive midrange power—making merging a cinch. We like the power of the turbo, and our test numbers backed us up: The EX-T was 1.6 seconds quicker to 60 mph (at a zippy 7.1 seconds) than the base engine. Fuel economy was similar—the LX got 32 mpg overall; the turbo, 31.

    The 2016 Honda Civic handles with newfound confidence, thanks to a redesigned chassis that endows the car with a sense of precision and control. It’s secure and predictable with minimal body lean in the corners. The Civic turns in quickly and responds intuitively, although we wish there were more steering feedback.

    The Civic’s ride is unusually refined for a compact car. The suspension keeps the car steady and composed over all but the nastiest bumps. Braking is responsive and confident during panic stops.

    Inside, the Civic’s interior has been thoroughly updated. The 2012 version looked furnished by discards from Honda’s House of Plastic. The 2016 model features higher-grade materials, and the cabin is quieter and has clever cubbies and nooks. It’s easy to stash an iPad under the armrest.

    Still, the car’s sleek, low-slung styling means that getting in requires almost falling in to the front seat, as well as limbo-dance flexibility getting out. Front-seat lumbar support isn’t available, period. And we disliked the seats’ short bottom cushion. But for a compact sedan, rear-seat room for legs, knees, and heads is excellent.

    The instrument cluster features all gauges on the same eye level, including a large digital speedometer. And the base LX has an intuitive array of knobs and buttons for the audio system. But every other trim has a frustratingly overcomplicated touch screen—although it does work with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto from your smartphone.

    Despite a few gripes, the 2016 Honda Civic brings more civility, better road manners, decent fuel economy, and thoughtful features—all wrapped in a stylish and appealing package.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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  • 03/31/16--03:01: A Safer Food Future, Now
  • A Safer Food Future, Now

    Severely obese schoolchildren, E. coli outbreaks, salmonella in ground beef, arsenic in apple juice and rice, poultry sickened by avian flu, hog farms dumping manure into rivers and streams, meatpacking workers routinely injured on the job, the cruelty of factory farms—all of these problems have inspired activists to seek a variety of solutions. But the seemingly disparate problems with America’s food system have a common explanation: The handful of corporations that now dominate the system are imposing their business costs on the rest of society. And the greatest harm is being suffered by the poorest Americans.

    To create a truly sustainable food system for the 21st century, we will have to address not only the well-publicized, harmful symptoms but also their underlying cause. Although it may be tempting to blame those problems on the workings of capitalism, the changes in food production during the past few decades have been largely driven by the elimination of free markets and real competition.

    As the food system has become more centralized and industrialized, the income of ranchers, farmers, and food workers has been squeezed. State socialism is hardly the solution. Communist-led China has been responsible for a series of food scandals that would’ve shocked Upton Sinclair: Three hundred thousand infants sickened by adulterated baby formula, pasta tinted with lead-based whiteners, rat meat sold as lamb, soy sauce made from human hair.

    In the U.S., the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture is one of the most shocking examples of how private interests have triumphed over the public interest. More than three-quarters of the anti­biotics sold in this country are routinely fed to healthy poultry and livestock at factory farms to prevent disease but also to promote growth. The dangers of that practice—the creation of lethal, antibiotic-resistant organisms—have been recognized for decades. And yet the practice continues because the meat industry has successfully blocked strict regulations on antibiotic use. About 2 million Americans are now infected every year with antibiotic-resistant bacteria from a variety of sources, and more than 20,000 are killed by them. The annual healthcare costs stemming from the misuse of antibiotics are estimated to be at least $20 billion. The financial cost pales beside an unacceptable reality: Thousands of Americans have died so that chickens and hogs can grow a little faster.

    The corruption of the political system helps to explain the wide discrepancy between what’s best for the American people and what benefits the leading food companies. Elected officials accept millions of dollars in campaign donations from the food industry; government regulators find lucrative jobs in the industry after leaving office—and as a result, the government now obeys the companies it’s supposed to regulate. The FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 wasn’t a radical bill. It sought to give the federal government the power to order the recall of contaminated foods and to punish companies that knowingly sold them. It was supported by about 80 percent of the American people and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And yet, thanks to food industry opposition, the bill was stalled in committee for almost two years and gained passage only through the last-minute efforts of a lame-duck Congress. And the new food-safety measures still haven’t been adequately funded.

    The battle over the labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) illustrates the threat to democracy posed by our current food system. Twenty-five years ago, none of the processed food consumed in the U.S. contained genetically modified ingredients. Today, about 75 percent of it does. The spread of GMO crops has greatly increased the sale of glyphosate, now the most widely used pesticide in America. Studies have found glyphosate in the raindrops, drinking water, and air of the Midwest. Last year the World Health Organization declared that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” More than 90 percent of the American people favor labeling GMO foods so that consumers can choose whether to buy them. Nevertheless, the House of Representatives passed an industry-­backed bill last year that would prevent states from requiring labels on GMO food. George Orwell would’ve loved its name: The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015. [Editor's note: In March, the Senate version of this bill was rejected by lawmakers.]

    A food system reflects the values of the nation that created it. That was the thesis of “Fast Food Nation,” published 15 years ago. The racism and inequality that still plague the U.S. are evident in how we produce our food. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of the restaurant industry, the federal minimum wage is about one-third lower today than it was in 1968, when adjusted for inflation. California is the nation’s largest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, the foods deemed essential for a healthy diet. And yet the mainly Latino workforce that harvests those crops now lives in abject poverty. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, all 800,000 farm workers in California had a combined income about one-third lower than that of America’s top 25 hedge fund managers. A food system based on that sort of injustice is not sustainable.

    Despite these problems, I’m deeply optimistic about the possibility of creating a better food system. A nationwide food movement is now demanding better wages, healthier foods, local and organic production, an end to government policies that subsidize junk foods. I can’t predict what Americans will be eating in the future. But I feel confident that a food system appropriate for the 21st century is gradually emerging. It will be regional, diverse, kinder to livestock, less dependent on pesticides, more respectful of the environment, and far more compassionate.

    In May 1936, the first issue of Consumers Union Reports (as the magazine was called then) warned readers about the dangers of contaminated milk. During the 80 years since then, the organization has uncovered the mysterious ingredients of hot dogs, exposed the false marketing of olive oil, measured the pathogen levels in supermarket meat, and called for a long list of reforms to protect Americans from being harmed by what they eat. Consumer Reports has arduously defended the basic consumer rights outlined by President John F. Kennedy in 1962: the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, and the right to be heard. In the absence of those rights, market forces are distorted, rewarding unethical business practices and punishing companies that play by the rules. The kind of citizens’ movement led by Consumer Reports is essential for a functioning democracy. As President Kennedy noted, “Consumers, by definition, include us all.”

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Reforms Come to Reverse Mortgages

    W hen Karen Hunziker’s husband, Charles, died a month after having a stroke in May 2014, she was devastated. Ten days later, she got another shock: a letter from a loan servicing company saying she’d have to pay off the reverse mortgage on her home or it would go into foreclosure.

    The Hunzikers had taken out a reverse mortgage in 2008. Karen, an artist, and Charles, who worked at a local warehouse, wanted to borrow $20,000 to do repairs on their home in Pollock Pines, Calif. The loan allows older homeowners to borrow against the equity in their home. As long as you keep up with your property taxes, home insurance, and house maintenance, a reverse mortgage doesn’t have to be paid back until you move out, sell your home, or die.

    At the time, Karen was 60, two years too young to qualify for that type of loan. So she agreed to be removed from the title so that Charles, then 65, was the sole borrower.

    Karen says the lender repeatedly assured her that she’d be able to stay in the home if anything happened to Charles. But when she contacted the loan servicer after Charles died, she was told that her home was scheduled for auction in 30 days.

    “I barely had a chance to mourn, and I was told I would have to get out of my house,” says Hunziker, now 68.

    Karen’s experience is the kind of horror story that has long led some consumer advocates and financial planners to consider reverse mortgages too risky, a loan of last resort. In addition to problems when a surviving spouse isn’t on the loan, these compounding-­interest loans can be expensive. And seniors who can’t keep up with taxes, insurance, and home upkeep risk defaulting on the loan and losing their house.

    But over the past three years, new government regulations aimed at protecting older borrowers and shoring up the government-­backed loan program have gone into effect.

    To be sure, the loans remain a poor choice for some, and at Consumer Reports we believe more reforms are needed. But some experts say that for certain homeowners, with the new regulations in place, it may make sense to consider a reverse mortgage.

    One high-profile proponent is Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Merton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who has studied reverse mortgages for more than a decade. It’s an unfortunate reality, he says, that many people haven’t saved enough for retirement. At the same time, a fast-growing number of the 76 million baby boomers, now 52 to 70 years old, are moving into the eligible age range for reverse mortgages, making them a prime audience for the loans.

    Among Americans 55 to 64, 55 percent report little to no retirement savings, according to a May 2015 Government Accountability Office report. But 74 percent of people 55 and older own their homes. Merton has come to see that “home equity could be a solution” for retirees who would like to improve their standard of living. “Will we still have problems with reverse mortgages? Of course we will,” Merton says. “Do we need improved design, lower closing costs, and better regulation? Yes. But a well-­functioning reverse mortgage is going to be key for working- and middle-class people to have a good retirement.”

    If you’re considering a reverse mortgage, it’s critical to know what you are getting into, given the loans’ complexity, cost, and controversial nature. Here’s what you need to know:

    A Troubled History

    Though never a big part of the mortgage market, government insured reverse mortgages—formally known as Home Equity Conversion Mortgages (HECMs)—have been around since 1987. Congress created them with the aim of helping cash-strapped homeowners 62 and older pay for critical everyday living expenses by drawing income from their home, usually their biggest asset.

    The loans took off along with the housing boom that boosted home values in the 2000s. Lenders gave retirees incentives to take all of the money out up front. Some were talked into using the money for ill-advised investments or spent it on noncritical home improvements. About 40 percent say the primary reason they used the loan was for extra income to pay for daily living expenses, according to Stephanie Moulton, an associate professor at Ohio State University who did a study of seniors who took reverse mortgages between 2006 and 2011.

    But after the real estate bust deflated home values and the Great Recession hit, home­owners in shaky financial positions began falling behind on property tax and home insurance payments. Defaults rose by half, from 8 percent in 2010 to 12 percent in 2014.

    “There was no requirement to check to see if a borrower could really afford to stay in their homes,” Moulton says. “Reverse mortgages were supposed to give seniors more financial security, but for some seniors, that wasn’t happening.”

    Meanwhile, the barrage of reverse mortgage ads on radio and TV has continued unabated. The ads, featuring B-list actors such as Henry “The Fonz” Winkler (shown below), aggressively pitch reverse mortgages to seniors as a risk-free way to supplement retirement income.

    Those ads can be misleading, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says. It issued a report last June saying that many reverse mortgage ads are inaccurate or omit important information.

    The CFPB also studied complaints made about reverse mortgages from 2011 to 2014. It found that many consumers were confused about how the loans worked or got the runaround from loan servicers when there were problems.

    “We don’t see reverse mortgages as innately bad. For the right consumer at the right time, these loans may be an excellent choice,” says Stacy Canan, deputy assistant director at the CFPB’s Office of Financial Protection for Older Americans. “But this is a complicated mortgage product and one we see that consumers don’t often understand,” Canan says.

    Tougher New Rules

    It’s not just homeowners who can get into trouble with reverse mortgages. The Department of Housing and Urban Development insures HECMs and is on the hook if a foreclosed home sells for less than the loan’s value. It must reimburse the lender for the difference. The rules it rolled out starting in 2013 and continuing through last year were instituted not just to weed out selling to borrowers unsuited to the loans but also to reduce its own risk insuring them. The new rules include:

    • Tighter borrowing limits. Starting in 2014, most borrowers can take only 60 percent of the loan in the first year. Some may be eligible to take out more but must pay higher up-front costs.
    • Stricter financial requirements. In the past almost anyone with sizeable home equity could qualify for a reverse mortgage. Since April 2015, lenders are required to assess the borrower’s income, cash flow, and credit history to make sure they have enough to pay the future costs of owning the home. If they don’t, they may still qualify if they can put aside money from the loan to cover future taxes, insurance, and maintenance costs. If not, they won’t get the loan.
    • Stronger spousal protections. As Karen Hunziker found out, if a spouse isn’t listed as a borrower and the borrowing spouse dies or moves out (say, to a nursing home) for more than 12 months, the loan has to be repaid immediately or the surviving spouse faces foreclosure. Last June, HUD adopted a policy that allows a non­borrowing spouse to remain in the home as long as it is their primary residence and taxes and insurance are paid.

    If those financial checks and loan limits had been in place sooner, a recent study by Moulton estimates, defaults would have been about 40 to 50 percent lower.

    Still, some consumer protection experts say the reforms haven’t gone far enough and that loan servicers are dragging their feet helping surviving spouses take advantage of the new rules that allow them to remain in their home. A recent National Consumer Law Center survey of elder advocates found that their clients were experiencing that. “We welcome these reforms—they give consumers more options,” says Odette Williamson of the NCLC. “But there is more work to be done on behalf of consumers to make sure that the options are truly available to them without jumping through a lot of hoops.” Norma Garcia, a senior attorney for Consumer Reports, adds that aggressive marketing, loan complexity, and borrower confusion also remain troubling concerns.

    One important change Consumer Reports advocates is a requirement for seniors to fill out a detailed questionnaire walking them through the loan’s possible consequences before filling out a mortgage application. The worksheet, which we helped design with a neurology professor who studies decision-making in older adults, is mandatory in California. Consumer Reports would like it to become a national policy. That would be in addition to required counseling usually done by phone. “This is a much more effective tool that actively engages people in decision-­making and aids counseling,” Garcia says. To see the worksheet, go to canhr.org and click on Free Consumer Fact Sheets, then sheet No. 52.

    A Strategic Approach

    Some academics and financial planners say that reverse mortgages, strengthened by the reforms, can be used strategically by people who are worried about running out of money in retirement.

    For example, rather than take a reverse mortgage as a lump sum, you can access the equity in your home as a monthly payment, says Steven Sass of Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research, where he is director of the Financial Security Project.

    A lump sum is tempting to spend quickly, whereas a monthly payment gives you a regular stream of income that draws down your equity more slowly, he says. Sass recommends first investigating other, less expensive options, such as downsizing your house (see below). But with the stringent financial checks and borrowing limits, reverse mortgages “are safer products,” he says.

    Alternatively, you could set up a reverse mortgage as a standby line of credit, says John Salter, a certified financial planner and professor of personal financial planning at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. That way the money is available if you have big unexpected expenses, such as a health emergency. “It’s there if you need it, and if you don’t, you never need to tap it,” he says.

    Also, Salter suggests that if the financial markets are down, you could take income from a reverse mortgage line of credit rather than from other investments. Once those investments recover, you can repay the loan. You could also put off taking Social Security longer by using a reverse mortgage to supplement income early in retirement. Delaying Social Security allows the benefit payment to grow, which would give you a higher lifetime guaranteed income stream that is adjusted for inflation. As with any transaction involving your home’s equity, you should discuss the implications with an independent financial adviser.

    Having money in reserve is what appealed to Ralph ­Kumano, 71, who took a reverse mortgage on his two-bedroom home in Auberry, Calif., earlier this year. A retired biology teacher, Kumano has no debt, and his home, appraised at $166,000, is paid off. He qualified for an $87,000 loan and set it up as a line of credit. “It’s mainly for emergencies,” he says. Having those funds available also means that if he needs cash, he doesn’t have to take more than the minimum he is required to take from his retirement accounts, which increases his taxable income. “The money from my house is tax-free,” ­Kumano says.

    As for Karen Hunziker, the new regulations appear to have come just in time. The protections for nonborrowing spouses were extended to loans made before Aug. 4, 2014. With the help of Sandy Jolley, an independent reverse mortgage consumer advocate, Hunziker was able to stall the foreclosure until the new spousal guidelines were in place. “The new law was a lifesaver in Karen’s situation,” Jolley says. “She would have lost her home if it weren’t for this change.”


    How to Decide If a Reverse Mortgage Is Right for You

    How Long Do You Plan to Stay in Your House?
    As with a traditional home loan, taking out a reverse mortgage costs thousands of dollars in closing costs and fees. But reverse mortgages come with an additional expense: Borrowers pay 0.5 percent of the loan amount up front and 1.25 percent annually for government mortgage insurance. If you leave your home soon after taking the loan, you’ll lose a big chunk of your home equity to fees for only a small benefit.

    Is There Another Way to Meet Your Money Needs?
    If you’re really strapped for cash, consider downsizing to lower your expenses. According to the Center for Retirement Research, the cost of taxes, insurance, maintenance, and utilities average about 3.25 percent of the home’s value each year. Downsize from a $250,000 home to a $150,000 one and you’ll cut annual expenses about $3,250, from $8,125 to $4,875.

    Will Your Home Suit You as You Age?
    Reverse mortgages make the most sense if you plan to stay in your home a long time. So consider whether you can continue living there independently in your later years. Think about things such as: Does it have a lot of stairs you may have trouble getting up and down? Is it far from hospitals, doctors, or family members who can look out for you?

    Can You Live There If Something Happens to Your Spouse?
    If you’re married and your spouse dies or goes to a nursing home and can no longer contribute income or help with home maintenance, make sure you can afford to live in the home. Interest on the loan compounds, so also consider whether you will have enough equity left to finance long-term-care costs if you need to go to a nursing home.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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    Broadband Industry: It's Unfair If Facebook Can Collect Your Data, But AT&T Can't

    Later this week, the Federal Communications Commission will be voting on a proposal intended to protect some of your personal data from being shared by your Internet service provider, by requiring that the ISP first get your permission. As the vote approaches, the broadband industry is trying to make the case that your ISP's collecting and sharing of customer data is no different than Facebook's or Google's.

    The FCC now has privacy jurisdiction over ISPs, thanks to last year's Open Internet rule (more popularly referred to as "net neutrality"), which reclassified broadband providers as "common carriers." Although the Federal Trade Commission still protects consumers' privacy with regards to most services, the FCC steps in where common carriers are concerned. 

    We Know All About You

    The data-heavy services you use online—called "edge providers" in the formal parlance—know a lot about you. Netflix knows what you're watching and what you've searched for. Google and Facebook between them know pretty much everywhere you're going on the web and what apps you have on your phone.

    But ISPs are the conduit for everything you do online, meaning they have access to a lot of potentially sensitive information about you.

    While phone companies have long had access to "metadata" about your calls—what numbers you called, which numbers called you, when these called happened, and for how long—in the 21st century, there's so much more information to collect.

    Your ISP can access data about what sites you visit. When. For how long. How much data you move to or through them. What apps you're using, on what operating systems and devices. And more. 

    No Big Deal?

    The ISPs contend that their ability to know all that data—called Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI)—isn't that big a deal because the edge providers like Google and Facebook have roughly equal access to all that same data, pieced together from a different direction. The way they see things, if the FCC regulates how ISPs acquire and use CPNI, it would put them at a competitive disadvantage against the content companies that don't also operate infrastructure.

    The full text of the FCC proposal won't be made public until after Thursday's vote, so much of the debate surrounding this issue has been based primarily on what's disclosed in the single fact sheet (PDF) released by the Commission.

    But that lack of available granular details didn't stop a recent panel at a Consumer Federation of America conference from exploring the topic.

    One panelist, Debbie Matties, formerly of the FTC but now an executive with the mobile industry lobbying group The CTIA, voiced frustration with her industry being singled out.

    "It's different with the voice market because only a small group of businesses has access to the data," Matties explained. "On the Internet the ISP can see that, but it may be encrypted. But your ISP knows, your OS knows, your browser knows, advertisers and trackers know it," so the ISP is not in a unique position that voice service companies once were.

    "The idea that the ISP has this singular view of everything you do is outdated," said Matties. If the ISPs, both mobile and fixed, have to live in an "an opt-in regime for everything" while nobody else does, she concluded, "it's not solving the larger problem."

    Katharina Kopp, from the Center for Democracy and Technology, acknowledged that privacy and consumer advocates would love to see all those edge providers brought in line but, "what we have here [is] the FCC with its statutory duty to act" specifically on ISPs, and so the Commission is regulating what it has the authority to regulate. 

    Paying for Privacy

    The panel discussion grew heated when moderator Ariel Johnson, from Common Sense Kids Action, asked about discount "pay for privacy" programs like the one AT&T now offers, where you can see significant savings on its GigaPower fiberoptic service, but only if you allow the company to share your browsing data.

    AT&T regulatory affairs executive Jacquelyne Flemming took issue with the very premise of the question, saying, "I'm not sure that labeling it 'pay for privacy' is the way to characterize that."

    "We, AT&T, have a broadband Internet access service that we market to customers that if you agree, if you opt-in, to the use of your data for various reasons, then you get a discount," Flemming continued. "That doesn’t mean that other people who don't get the discount are paying for privacy. I wouldn't say that," she explained, even though that is in fact actually the case.

    "I think that there is a benefit to the customer," Flemming finished, "and it's not as if we're talking [all] broadband Internet access services, of which there are a wide range of them that are available to customers. In this particular instance, if you like to get this benefit, then there is a reciprocal benefit to the customer and the company."

    However, most consumers do not have a wide range of broadband services available, which consumer advocate and Georgetown University visiting professor Laura Moy alluded to when she spoke.

    "You shouldn't have to make a choice between privacy protection and going online," Moy said.

    Referencing the "digital divide"—the fact that lower-income Americans lag behind the rest of the country in their access to online services—Moy theorized that "We could end up with something like a privacy divide. If you have pricing tiers that are based in part on privacy options, then you're going to see those that end up with the privacy protections tend to be those who can afford to pay, and that those who don't have them—even if they think they need them or prefer to have them—those will tend to be people who can't afford to pay that extra amount." 

    If You Don’t Like The Boat, Jump Off

    A question from the audience seemed to bolster Moy's position.

    "All of us don't have access to a wired Internet," explained the conference attendee. "Some of us only have over-the-air access. And so it's expensive already and we're already limited in what we can use it for."

    The woman began to explain the concern about the concept of being expected to pay more just to have privacy, when AT&T's Flemming responded that, "If you dislike the way that AT&T is providing that service to you, there are a number of choices you can make."

    "But they're all still expensive, and limited bandwidth," responded the woman in the audience. And as we've shown before, cost and data caps are common problems for satellite and wireless Internet users. "With the caps that all of them have—I don't have access to the same kind of Internet that other people do."

    Flemming responded, "So if there was an ad-supported service available to you that was cheaper, a different model of service—is that something that would seem reasonable to you?"

    "If they're ads that are based on using my information to target things to me," she answered, "then no, I’d rather not have it."

    Flemming challenged, "So you'd rather have ads that are not relevant to you?"

    But the woman in the audience enthusiastically responded, "Yes!" and pointed out that targeted ads are not only intrusive, high-data, and annoying, but also often wrong: they're advertising you a flight you've already taken and returned home from, a shirt you've already bought, or a service that you already subscribe to.

    What "value" is there in that?

    The audience laughed in appreciation, but Moy took the chance to point out the greater policy implications of the issue: "[As has just been] pointed out, whatever privacy options are going to be available to consumers should be available what their income level is and no matter whether they're using fixed or mobile broadband service." 

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

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  • 03/31/16--08:00: How to Keep Flowers Fresh
  • How to Keep Flowers Fresh

    Plunking a penny into a vase of water won’t help your blooms last longer. But here’s what will keep flowers fresh, according to Kristin Schleiter, associate vice president for outdoor gardens and senior curator at the New York Botanical Garden.

    Give Them a Snip
    You’ve probably heard that you keep flowers fresh by cutting the stem as soon as you get them home. Here’s why it’s a good practice: Flowers have a vascular system in their stems that draws up water and nutrients to feed the blooms. If you neglect to cut them, air that has been drawn into the stems while they were out of water can block water absorption. Use very sharp scissors or pruning shears, and snip at least one-half inch off the bottom of the stems to be sure you’re cutting above possible air bubbles. Schleiter suggests doing this if your flowers are delivered in a box or tied with a rubber band.

    Place Them in Water Quickly
    To speed the process, you can cut stems under water to prevent air bubbles from forming in the stems. It’s also okay to put the flowers in a vase of water right after you make the cut. Just don’t dillydally, Schleiter says. Arrange your bouquet first, then cut the stems and put them in water.

    Watch the Water Temp
    Placing stems in hot water will cook them, Schleiter says. Room-temperature water is best, with one exception: Blooms from bulbs that flower during cooler months, like anemones, daffodils, and tulips, will do better if the water is below room temperature. “Using cool water will help them last longer,” Schleiter notes. If you have unopened flowers and want to speed blooming along, perhaps because you plan to use them as a table centerpiece in the next day or two, use warm water to help them open up more quickly. (The trade-off, of course, is that they’ll also die sooner.)

    Remove Below-Water Foliage
    Any plant leaves and flowers you leave in the vase water will rot quickly, which will spread bacteria that will kill your flowers before their time.

    Keep 'Em Cool
    Heat will hasten your flowers’ demise, so place arrangements in cool spots, away from heating ducts and vents. You can also keep flowers fresh by avoiding direct sunlight.

    Change the Water
    As we said, bacteria are the enemy, so wash out the vase and refill it at least every three days, Schleiter advises. Trim another half-inch off the stems while you’re at it.

    Make Your Own Flower Food
    Those little packets that come with many floral arrangements help to keep flowers fresh because they contain sugar to provide a little nourishment; citric acid to keep the pH low and acidic, which helps water move up the stems a bit faster and may reduce wilting; as well as antibacterial powder. If your arrangement didn’t include a packet of food or if you’ve used yours up, you can make your own each time you change the water or before you give the stems a cut. Here’s how: Mix together a few drops of bleach or a clear spirit such as vodka or gin to help fight bacterial growth, add a few drops of clear soda or superfine sugar to feed the flowers, and then crush a vitamin C tablet and add it to lower the pH.

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 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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