Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Preparing your inventory, room by room

Unless you are an extreme minimalist and have taken on a challenge like the 100 item challenge, trying to name everything within your possession may seem nearly impossible. Typical Canadians own a lot of “stuff.” This can make the task of preparing an inventory seem really daunting—and with good's no small project! That said, whenever one is faced with a particularly large undertaking like this one, the best approach is to chunk it into smaller tasks. We have found that the most natural way to do this for the task of preparing an inventory is to go room by room.

Study. If you have a home office or library, there is a good chance you have a significant amount of electronic equipment there. Additionally, you will likely have valuable documents and work stored there as well. These are worth

Kitchen. While the kitchen may not be the first room in the house to occur to you as being a store of valuables that you should make note of and possibly insure, you might be surprised at the actual monetary value of everything you have in there. Small appliances such as food processors, mixers, blenders, coffee makers, as well as larger appliances such as dishwashers, refrigerators, and oven ranges should all be accounted for. Additionally, you should make note of significant pieces of cookware—these can be pricier than your appliances sometimes!

Bedroom. In addition to the furniture and fixtures in your bedroom, this is where items that are typically on your person will be found when they are not in use. Expensive pieces of clothing should be noted, as should jewelry. Additionally, if there are electronics in your bedroom, be sure to record those as well.

Storage areas. These include, but may not be limited to: closets, attics, and basements. Sports equipment, such as golf clubs, definitely needs to be recorded and insured. Other valuables that you typically find in these spaces include antiques that may have been passed down along the family, as well as collectibles (such as china, crystal, and figurines) that are not being displayed. You may have a musical instrument here that is not in use. On top of these more commonly recorded and insured items, be on the lookout for items that you are particularly attached to, regardless of whether they are typically considered valuable. Certain toys or even textiles may be difficult to replace should something happen to them. Make note of these possessions that you want to protect against disaster.

Shed. Don't forget your outdoor equipment! Power tools are one of the most targeted categories of items for theft, as are bicycles. These are prime candidates for protection against theft and damage via insurance.

Remember to have both hard and soft copies of your inventory handy, and to leave copies with a friend or family member as well.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Become a greener driver

Happy Earth Day! In celebration of the extraordinary planet we inhabit, we thought it would be appropriate to talk about ways in which we can all become greener drivers. Automobiles have a bad rap when it comes to culpability for the environmental woes facing the earth today—and with good reason: they are certainly a leading contributer to this world's burden of pollution. But even if you can't live without your car, you don't have to accept that driving a vehicle means remaining guilty of such high degrees of environmental destruction. There are ways to reduce the impact your ownership of an automobile has on the environment.

Don't top up. When you go to fill up your tank with gas, resist the urge to top up an already full gas tank. This practice not only wastes the earth's precious resources, but can also lead to dangerous and toxic spills. Fill your tank only as much as it needs.

Respect speed limits. Not only is this safer, but it also has the potential to reduce the amount of fuel you consume (which in turn has the effect of reducing the amount of pollution you create). Drivers who speed, then stop suddenly at lights and intersections, then floor their pedals as soon as it's their turn again, actually use far more gas than those who maintain stabler speeds. Additionally, driving the limit makes it easier for you to observe signs that indicate environmental features like wildlife crossings, and being aware of these and in control of your speed will undoubtedly assist you in avoiding the unnecessary death of various wildlife forms.

Pickle your car. Well, don't actually pickle it—but consider replacing toxic car cleaning products with the world's favourite pickling agent: vinegar. Vinegar is incredibly effective at cleaning and disinfecting, and it's cheap to boot. For a more detailed exploration of green cleaning methods for maintaining your vehicle, see our article on green car maintenance here.

Walk, carpool, or take transit. While you don't need to forgo the convenience (or in some cases necessity) of having your own vehicle, it doesn't mean you need to be totally dependent upon it. When alternatives present themselves, take advantage! Walking has the added benefit of keeping you in shape. At any rate, a reduction in the use of your vehicle will reduce your carbon footprint. The best part? It will probably reduce your insurance premiums as well.

Go electric. If you're currently in the market for a new vehicle, and if you have adequate savings to front load the expenses of that new purchase, consider an electric or hybrid option. You'll more than break even over the years as gas prices continue to rise. You should also be able to receive a discount on your car insurance rates simply for being a good steward of the earth.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Five seemingly harmless poisons in your bathroom

For the first time parent, child-proofing the home can seem like an overwhelming task. It is difficult to anticipate all of the various hazards that your child may find ways to access once they become adept explorers. Typically with child-proofing, the first line of defense that comes to mind is preventing the child's access to objects that may cause injury: heavy furniture, doors, sharp objects, etc. However, equally important is restricting your child's access to hazardous substances—especially since of the primary ways young children do their exploring is by putting things in their mouth. While your bathroom may not be the biggest room in your home, you may be surprised by how the considerable proportion of hazardous household materials that are tucked away into it. Potentially dangerous substances include:

Mothballs. We've all heard tales (or lived them!) of children who see these round white orbs as mistake them for peppermint candies—albeit weird-smelling ones. If you're going to use mothballs, keep them in a locked cabinet that your child cannot access.

Medications. Both prescription medications and over the counter medications are equally harmful when ingested by children for whom they are not prescribed. Ideally, such medications should be stored in a locking medicine cabinet that your children cannot access. However, it is common in many household bathrooms to be lacking such a cabinet. If that this the case, consider storing them at a high elevation, out of reach, in a pantry or kitchen cupboard (or even a closet, if privacy is a concern for you).

Toilet cleaner. This is a particularly dangerous one because these cleaners usually include bleach to some degree. While it may be convenient to leave it right beside the toilet for easy access during cleaning time, this really is not advisable if you have little ones. Instead, keep your cleaning supplies together in a locked cabinet or closet.

Nail polish and remover. As you likely know very well, both of these items emit strong fumes, and should only be used in well ventilated areas. Children do not know this, however. A curious mind will only be too fascinated with these highly pigmented minute bottles of paint, and the fumes from such products are definitely not something you want your child exposed to. The same is true (to a lesser degree) of nail polish remover, with the added hazard of the ease of ingesting it. While it makes sense to store these items in your regular cupboards or drawers in the bathroom, for safety's sake, consider storing these toiletries in a locking box or container of some sort.

Soap. Both liquid and solid soaps can present temptations for little ones to ingest—particularly those that are scented after food items. In your shower area, store these items on a shelf higher up so that they are difficult for your little one to reach. If you keep a steady supply of soap on hand, make sure the excess is locked away.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Making your roof fire-damage proof

When it comes to protecting your property from the profound damage it can sustain in the event of a fire, certainly prevention is key (as is having adequate insurance coverage of course!) The importance of doing all that you can to eliminate fire hazards from your home, and to have protection measures in place cannot be overstated. This is why we have devoted much of our discussion to fire prevention strategies. That said, not all fires are the result of carelessness, or missed hazards in the home; wildfires have very little to do with your lifestyle. With the exception of ensuring that your yard does not become so overgrown that it may catch fire, there is little you do that can cause a wildfire. Disasters that happen beyond our control don't need to leave us helplessly waiting for the worst, though. There are ways to protect the integrity of your home's structure in the event of a wildfire.

By far, the most important element of your home's structure to protect is the roof. If the roof collapses, the rest of the house will sustain insurmountable damage. Thus, investing a bit of extra attention into protecting your roof from wildfire damage will go a long way in terms of minimizing the adverse effects your home sustains as a result of the fire.

Protecting your roof from damage caused by fire involves choosing the right type of roofing to begin with. While most shingles that people purchase nowadays are more or less fire resistant, this isn't true for all of the options available, so choose wisely. Metal roofing is a particularly durable and reliable material, whereas traditional wood shingles are not. A more economical fire-proof option for roofing is to go with asphalt shingles. This is by far what the majority use. Once you have chosen a suitable material for your roof, ensure that any gaps between the tiles and roof deck are sealed, so that fire cannot penetrate it.

Material choice isn't only relevant for the roof itself, but for surrounding structures as well. While having a fire-resistant roof will reduce the likelihood of it combusting, ensuring that adjacent materials are also fire-resistant will reduce this risk even further. What does this mean? If your siding is currently combustible, you should consider replacing it with a material that is not, such as metal, slate, or clay.

Once you have the right materials in place, know that even the best quality things need taking care of in order to perform optimally. Assess your roof and siding for damage periodically so that you can attend to it right away, and fix any breaches in the shelter they offer from external fire. Additionally, make a habit of removing debris from the roof, gutters, and from your property in general to keep fires at bay. Following these steps should reduce your vulnerability to structural damage to your home in the event of a wildfire.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Your post collision protocol

With the hazardous conditions our roads have been in lately, collisions have been on the rise. When you have been involved in a collision, it is easy to panic, and to face the next few moments with uncertainty as to how to proceed. Several things that need taking care of will rush into your mind at once, and it will be tricky to organize and prioritize them for yourself. The effect can be paralyzing. The best way to avoid that deer-in-headlights experience following a collision is to know how to deal with one before it happens:
  • Maintain your composure. Easier said that done, and certainly, some degree of worry is natural. Don't feed it though. Devise strategies to talk yourself down from a frenzy in order to help yourself think clearly, and to avoid worsening the circumstances. You may be the wronged party here, but giving in to anger or hysteria will not help you in the least—in fact, it will make a favorable resolution less likely for you. 

  • Check for injuries. The single most important thing to check for immediately following an accident is for the safety of all those involved. If someone has been injured, don't attempt to nurse the injury yourself: call for professional medical help immediately. 

  • Get out of harm's way. As soon as you have assessed the well-being of all those involved in the collision, if possible, move your vehicle off of the road in order to avoid making a hazard of your car—this could result in further collisions. If you are unable to move your vehicle yourself owing to extensive damage, call your insurance provider for assistance in arranging to have your vehicle towed off of the road.   

  • Call the police. In cases of moderate to extreme damage, police involvement becomes necessary. When the police arrive, they will prepare a report by collecting as much data as possible, and most of this data will come from the answers you provide to their questions. Be sure to answer honestly and completely, but do not make an admission of guilt. Determining fault is the domain of both the police and the insurance claims adjuster. 

  • Make your own record. You may think that you will be able to recall the incident with accuracy, but this is actually highly unlikely, so you should make things easier on yourself by recording as much as you can about the incident. Writing down key pieces of information like the time and place of the collision, as well as names and contact information for those involved and those who may have witnessed it, are a good place to start. If you have a camera handy, taking photos of the damage would be very useful as well. 

  • Contact your insurance provider. This is the part where you get to turn over the thinking to someone else. Your insurance provider will guide you through the next steps for filing a claim, and for securing a temporary vehicle in the meantime. At Sharp, we try to make this as easy as possible for our clients. One such way we do this is through the provision of our Iphone claim app, which you can access here.
Having these steps committed to memory prior to a collision will make the experience of dealing with one much easier when it does happen. Remember that there are experts to help you along the way, who deal with this routinely, and who are there to ensure that you are taken care of.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Would you drive a car that smelled like french fries?

Alternative fuel sources for vehicles are becoming one of our favourite preoccupations. We've written before about electric cars and their hybrid half siblings; these vehicles garner a great deal of attention for their reduction in environmental damage, their propensity for lower auto insurance rates, and their promise of reduced fuel expenses—a most appealing attraction in the face of ever-increasing gas prices. What if, however, you simply aren't ready or able to afford the price difference between a conventional gas guzzler and its kilowatt munching counterpart? Are alternative fuel sources out of the question for you? Not necessarily: you could look to vegetables.

It's actually possible to run a car on vegetable oil. Since so few people are actually doing this, waste cooking oil from restaurants is available to interested consumers for free. You don't need to buy a special veggie-powered car to do this, you simply need to convert a conventional vehicle for this purpose. The conversion involves adding an appropriate fuel tank to the rear of the car with a heating element (since the oil needs to be kept hot to work this way), to attach fuel lines from the tank to the engine, a filter, and a switch system so that you can opt to use conventional fuel if you so choose. The Dancing Rabbit, a Missouri-based ecological community devoted to teaching people how to reduce their carbon footprints, operates their vehicles on discarded cooking oil alone.

At this point you may be thinking “aha—I knew this was a for-hippies-only-game,” but that isn't so. It may have begun this way, but there are people who have undertaken this conversion of their vehicles purely for the economy of it. With conversion kits available online for under $1000, it's a thrifty DIYer's paradise. So why aren't more people doing this? For one thing, it's still relatively unchartered territory. People want to see a system that's tried and true over time before they are willing to invest any part of themselves into it. Some are put off by the smell of frying that ensues when the vehicle burns cooking oil. But most significantly, there aren't actual steady supplies of veggie-fuel—the advantage of gas is that it's there, and it's regulated. While there are huge quantities of waste oil thrown out each year, those quantities still don't even cover one tenth of a percent of the annual demand for fuel. Vegetable oil as fuel is unlikely to become mainstream because producing an adequate supply would be extremely costly.

So, for now, veggie-power will remain the territory of the ultra handy, ultra frugal, and the ultra eco-conscious. If you decide to give it a go when the going's green (no pun intended) though, be sure to let us know how it goes. And who knows...your auto insurance provider might even give you a break in your premiums, given your demonstration of commitment to social responsibility.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Dos and don'ts of saving on home owner's insurance

Because home owner's insurance is something we all must purchase, many people mistakenly believe that what they are paying is a price that is set in stone, which they have little control over. This is simply not true. We've outlined the dos and don'ts of purchasing home insurance to help you save money.

Don't settle for the first rate you find. Shop around. It won't take you very much time, and yet the benefits will continue to pay off for you in the future. Word of mouth is one great way to find out about companies that offer their clients the best; ask your friends and family about their providers and about their satisfaction level with the rates and service they are receiving. It's a good a idea to try and find three or so providers that all sound quite appealing to you. From there, you can narrow in on the best one by choosing the one that offers you the most competitive rates.

Do raise your deductible. The deductible is the amount of money you pay towards repairing or restoring your loss before your insurance company takes financial responsibility for this. The higher your deductible, the lower your insurance rate. Raising your deductible may be difficult to do if finances are particularly tight for you. However, if you can manage it, raising your deductible—depending on just how much you can raise it by—could save you as much as twenty five percent of what you are currently paying.

Don't assume that the market value of your home is the amount you need to insure it for. The reason you should not assume this is that there are several variables that affect the real estate value of your home, many of which have little to no influence on the cost of restoring and repairing damage. For example, consider a city in which there are two identical properties: one located in a very desirable neighbourhood at the heart of the city, and one located at the outermost edge. The property with the downtown location would certainly be worth more. However, if they were both destroyed in a fire, they would both cost the same to repair, since materials and labour are really the only factors in determining that cost; the land they are situated on simply doesn't affect this. Therefore, when you are determining your coverage, do not assume that you need to pay more for a well-situated property.

Do look for package deals. Many insurance providers reward loyalty. If you go with a package that covers both your home and auto insurance needs, you will likely receive a substantial discount. In fact, many providers will reduce your premiums by as much as five to fifteen percent what you would be paying otherwise. Of course, this does not negate the need to shop around; if you are going to pursue a bundle, shop around for the best rates on combined insurance costs.

Do protect your home against calamity. Installing anti theft devices around your home is just one example of this. Other examples include reinforcing your roof, and making your home more resistant to natural disasters. This not only gives you peace of mind, but shows your insurance provider that you are a lower risk client, and that in turn will result in lower premiums.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Costly tax-filing mistakes to avoid

With April 30th quickly approaching, you should be thinking about filing your income tax return soon, if you haven't already done so. While it can be a cumbersome task for some, it is legally required of all Canadian citizens. This does not mean you should simply rush to get it done: there are several costly errors you should be wary of in order to avoid bringing an audit upon yourself. While some of these errors may be honest mistakes, others may be deliberate attempts at tax evasion. We've warned of insurance claims fraud before, and we'll warn against tax claim fraud too. Here are some common behaviours that may raise red flags for the Canada Revenue Agency investigators:

Not filing at all
Filing taxes is your legal obligation. As with any other legally mandated expectation, there are penalties for breaking this law. If you failed to report an amount on your return for the current year, and you also failed to report an amount on your return for any previous year, you will likely be required to pay a both a federal and provincial penalty for repeated failure to report income. Each of these penalties is ten percent of the amount you failed to report in the most recent year. However, if you voluntarily come forward to admit these omissions to the Canada Revenue Agency, they may consider waiving those penalties. Even so, a twenty percent loss of your income is too substantial too risk. File your taxes.

Omitting some of your income in your report
The Canada Revenue Agency is very adept and finding discrepancies between what you actually made, and what you claim, so be sure to assess this honestly and carefully to avoid misrepresenting your income. Remember to include all income earned from your job, from investments, and from sales if you are a business owner. Take the time to double and triple check this, as reporting inaccurately will most certainly lead to an audit.

Assuming you don't need to file if you live abroad
If you are a Canadian citizen, you must file for taxes in Canada. The only way to be exempt from this is if you live abroad more than six months plus one day for the year in question. However, this exemption is not automatic! If you meet this criteria and want to be exempt from filing, you must submit an application for non-resident status. In this application, you will be asked about properties and official documents that may be considered “significant ties” to Canada. If you have several of these significant ties, you may not qualify.

Claiming loss on your home-based business every year
This is one of the surest ways to raise suspicion. In fact, it is assumed that a small business which loses money sixty percent or more of the years you file is automatically considered suspicious, and is very likely to be investigated.

Hiding income you have from abroad
Legally, you are entitled to have accounts in other parts of the world. However, you must declare them, as well as any income earned on them.

You have heard us wax cautionary about insurance claim fraud—and to be certain, it will cost you. However, the last type of fraud you want to find yourself accused of is tax fraud. Be smart: file carefully, honestly, and on time.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The first Canadian-made electric car

If you are in the market to buy a vehicle, you know that a little bit of research could save you considerable amounts of cash on interest, fuel, and insurance rates. That's precisely why we think electric cars are the way of the future: not only do you save on gas (which is only going to increase in price over time) but you also get lower car insurance rates, since people who make environmentally sound choices are generally considered to be responsible drivers by the industry. Curious about a particular model that won't break the bank? You need to check out the ZENN car.

What is it?
The ZENN (zero emissions, no noise) car is the first electric car to be manufactured in Canada. While the company is based in Toronto, assembly takes place in Saint Jerome, Quebec. Since the car is completely electric, it has no emissions whatsoever. Additionally, it is so quiet in its operation that test drivers had a very hard time believing that car was running, even when it was. At only $12,000 apiece, and a plug that recharges using the same outlet as your cell phone charger, this contestant is worthy of your consideration.

Who is it ideal for?
The primary draw of this vehicle is its economy—both in purchasing price, and in maintenance costs. This makes the ZENN car ideal for people with budgets to consider. Because of its very compact design, it may be useful as a second vehicle for a family who already owns a larger vehicle, and simply needs a second means of traveling small distances. Its tiny footprint makes it ideal for driving in crowded urban locations; parking it is a breeze.

Who can buy it?
Up until recently, it was only being sold in the United States—it wasn't legally allowed in Canada. That will soon change, hopefully, as British Columbia is the first province to permit sales of the ZENN car. Let's hope Alberta is next—Canadians should be supporting Canadian innovation...especially when we have so much to gain from it!

What are its limitations?
If hauling furniture is your primary reason for purchasing a vehicle, this may not be the best choice for you: it is small. (That said, there is adequate room in the trunk for groceries and other moderate purchases.) Additionally, its range of speed only reaches 64 kilometres per hour, so it isn't suited to highway driving. That said, if you are driving primarily in a small town, or even within the downtown core of a big city, the ZENN car will meet those speed limits without any trouble at all.

Curious to see it in action? It was featured on the Rick Mercer Report. A visit to the video archives of their website should give you just the demo you're looking for.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Protecting the elderly from fire hazards

Chances are that you have senior-aged loved ones, whether they are dear friends, or family. Unfortunately, the elderly are at a great disadvantage when it comes to their protection against fire hazards. There are several reasons for this. For one, they are not as agile as other age groups, so escaping the scene of a fire may be difficult for them. Additionally, whether owing to long-term health conditions that affect their minds, or whether from the effects of medications they may be taking, their ability to assess danger and respond to it appropriately is frequently hampered.

We often worry about the well-being of our elderly friends and family—even moreso when they live away from us, and we cannot keep an eye on them from our own homes. However, this does not mean that there is nothing you can do to protect such persons from fire hazards, even if they live away from you.

The first step towards achieving elderly safety from fire hazards is to recognize the most frequent types of hazards they are affected by:

Food preparation – Food that is forgotten or left unattended in the oven or stove can quickly lead to fire. This accounts for the greatest number of fire occurrences in elderly households.

Smoking – Cigarettes and matches that land where they shouldn't can quickly ignite the materials they touch.

Space heaters – If possible, opt for central heating instead.

Fireplaces – Fireplaces that are not gas, and that use actual kindling and wood can be a great fire hazard for the elderly.

Bad wiring – Old appliances with frayed cords and old wires can start fires with no warning at all.

Oxygen tanks – if there is a fire, oxygen tanks can quickly escalate the situation. There should be signs in a home that has them, pointing them out.

Personal care items – Toiletries that have high alcohol content, like hand sanitizers, are flammable. If stored near a heat source, they can catch fire.

Clothes dryer – Forgetting to clean the lint trap of a clothes dryer can cause fire.

Once these hazards are pointed out and dealt with, ensure that all smoke detectors have fresh batteries, and are in a place where they will be heard. Choose a detector that has flashing lights for persons who are hard of hearing. Additionally, ensure that there are fire extinguishers wherever there are fire hazards.

Should a fire break out, be sure your loved ones know not to attempt to put it out themselves, but to leave as quickly as possible, closing the door to contain it. As soon as they are able, they should call 911. The best way to avoid smoke inhalation is to stay close to the ground, with mouth covered.

Knowing and reviewing these steps well in advance can prepare your loved ones to best prevent and deal with such a mishap if it happens.