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5 Spot: Gather ideas, ask questions before you hire a landscaper


Ready to hire help to spruce up your property this year?

Before you dig too deeply into hiring a landscaping contractor, take time to do two things:

1. Be clear about what you want to achieve. If you only want yard work, check out companies that specialize in residential lawn services. If you want design or installation services, you’ll need a full-service landscaper. These can plan and install patios and walkways, water features, drainage and erosion systems, retaining walls and other services. They can take a job from design to completion, or provide a plan that you carry out.

GROCERIES: Do labels mean what they say?

Real! Simple! Artisanal! Even old brands such as Progresso have been slapping those words on their product labels lately, notes ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports.

They can give you the impression that a product is higher quality. Or they can make food appear more healthful, according to the Hartman Group, a Washington-based firm that specializes in market research and food trends. And that might get you to choose one product over another and maybe even pay a higher price.

GROCERIES: Five websites that really deliver

If you’ve never bought groceries online — or if you have and found it unsatisfying — now is a great time to give it a try, says ShopSmart, the shopping magazine from the publisher of Consumer Reports.

ShopSmart looked at five national companies. They all let you browse food categories as you would in store aisles or search by keyword or UPC. The trade-offs: Some sites require a minimum purchase, shipping fees can be steep and most offer only dry goods.

GROCERIES: ‘Fresh’ trumps ‘cheap’ in 2015


What makes a supermarket great? Years ago, says Consumer Reports, the answer might have been low prices, checkout speed or variety. Now another consideration is top-of-mind: “fresh.”

When the typical shopper makes each of his or her 83 yearly grocery trips (running up an annual tab of about $5,400), he or she is demanding a wider than ever choice of healthy, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, as well as more organics and local produce. The clamor for “fresh” also extends to freshly prepared meals that can be taken home. So when Consumer Reports did its annual supermarket survey, it asked readers to rate their grocers on traditional characteristics such as service and cleanliness — but also asked them to rate the selection of local produce and the price of organics at their stores.

Good deal! When new cars are unveiled, prices can fall on old models


DETROIT — When auto companies roll out exciting new models like they did at the recent New York auto show, the unveilings can sometimes push down the price of cars already on sale.

Usually the immediate impact is small, according to industry analysts, but the deals can get a whole lot better once the new models hit the showrooms and the automakers try to clear the old models from dealer lots. And the extent of the impact depends on whether the latest models are significantly more appealing than the old ones because of new features or styling changes.

Health law bumps up tax refunds for some; others take hit


WASHINGTON — As the April 15 tax deadline nears, people who got help paying for health insurance under President Barack Obama’s law are seeing the direct effect on their refunds — hundreds of dollars, for better or worse.

The law offers tax credits so people without access to job-based health insurance can buy private coverage. Because these subsidies are tied to income, consumers must accurately estimate what they will make for the coming year.

5 Spot: Avoid getting fleeced by your broker: Ask questions


Can your broker or adviser be trusted? There is no way to be 100 percent certain, but far too many investors don’t even take a few simple steps to protect themselves. Start by asking questions. Here are four key ones, and tips for finding the answers.

— WHO’S PAYING YOU? If a broker or adviser is pushing a specific investment, maybe it’s because they’re getting paid to do so. Many mutual funds charge one-time “sales loads” or annual “12b-1” fees that come out of your pocket and go into theirs. Cheaper, equally good funds may be available, but they may not tell you.

The top 5 ways to raise your home’s value


Real estate is a careful balancing act, Consumer Reports notes. Over-improving a property — say, by adding a swimming pool or sunroom — will cost you because the market won’t support the asking price you need to break even, let alone turn a profit. Under-improving your home, namely by ignoring essential repairs, will also drag down its value.

Consumer Reports offers the following strategies that strike the sweet spot between too much enhancement and not enough.

Psychology on order: How restaurants get you to spend more


NEW YORK — You may think you’re immune to transparent sales pitches like “Do you want fries with that?” But the tactics restaurants use to nudge you into spending a little extra may be subtler than you realize.

Here’s a look at a few ways companies get you to spend (and eat) more than you intended.

Higher standard deduction, other breaks for older taxpayers


WASHINGTON — You’ve downsized to an apartment, the kids are long gone, and you’re no longer eligible for some of the deductions and exemptions that had helped you lower your tax bill.

But for those 65 years or older, there are other tax breaks that might benefit you come tax time.

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