Acronyms of Real Estate: What Homebuyers Need to Know

Real estate is a regular smorgasbord of acronyms – everything from APR to REO. Here’s a list of the ones you’re likely to run into and what they mean when you’re buying or selling a house:

Acronyms You’ll Hear Associated with Real Estate Professionals

Real estate agents, builders and most other realty-related professions have numerous professional designations, all designed to set them apart from those who haven’t taken advanced courses in their fields. These designations don’t mean that professionals without letters after their names are not as experienced or skilled, but rather only that they haven’t taken the time to further their educations.

Read: How to Build Your Real Estate Team

Let’s start with the letter “R,” which stands for Realtor. A Realtor is a member of the National Association of Realtors, the nation’s largest trade group. NAR says it speaks for homeowners, and it usually does. But in that rare occasion when the interests of its members and owners don’t align, it sides with those who pay their dues.

Read: A Timeline of the History of Real Estate

NAR embraces a strict code of ethics. There are about 2 million active and licensed real estate agents nationwide, and 1.34 million can call themselves Realtors.

NAR members sometimes have the letters GRI or CRS after their names. The Graduate, REALTOR® Institute (GRI) designation signifies the successful completion of 90 hours of classroom instruction beyond the continuing education courses required by many states for agents to maintain their licenses. After the GRI, an agent may become a Certified Residential Specialist (CRS) by advancing his or her education even further.

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Builders can obtain the GBI – Graduate Builder Institute – designation by completing nine one-day classes sponsored by the educational arm of the National Association of Home Builders. Those who pass more advanced courses become Graduate Master Builders, or GMBs. Remodeling specialists with at least five years of experience can be Certified Graduate Remodelers, or CGRs. And, salespeople can be CSPs, or Certified New Home Sales Professionals.

In the mortgage profession, the Mortgage Bankers Association awards the Certified Mortgage Banker (CMB) and Accredited Residential Originator (ARO) designations, but only after completing a training program that may take up to five years to finish. To start the process, CMB and ARO candidates must have at least three years’ experience and be recommended by a senior officer in their companies.

Acronyms Associated with Mortgage Lending

When obtaining a mortgage, you will be quoted an interest rate; however, perhaps the more important rate is the annual percentage rate, or APR, which is the total cost of the loan per year over the loan’s term. It measures the interest rate plus other fees and charges.

An FRM is a fixed-rate mortgage, the terms of which never change. Conversely, an Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM) allows rates to increase or decrease at certain intervals over the life of the loan, depending on rates at the time of the adjustment.

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A conventional loan is one with an amount at or less than the conforming loan limit set by federal regulators on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two major suppliers of funds for home loans. These two quasi-government outfits replenish the coffers of main street lenders by buying their loans and packing them into securities for sale to investors worldwide.

Other key agencies you should be familiar with are the FHA and the VA. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insures mortgages up to an amount which changes annually, as does the conforming loan ceiling. The Veterans Administration (VA) guarantees loans made to veterans and active duty servicemen and women.

LTV stands for loan-to-value. This important ratio measures what your are borrowing against the value of the home. Some lenders want as much as 20% down, meaning the LTV would be 80%. But in many cases, the LTV can be as great as 97%.

Private mortgage insurance (PMI), is a fee you’ll have to pay if you make less than a 20% down payment. PMI covers the lender should you default, but you have to pay the freight. Fortunately, you can cancel coverage once your LTV dips below 80%.

Your monthly payment likely will include more than just principal and interest. Many lenders also want borrowers to include one-twelfth of their property tax and insurance bills every month, as well. That way, lenders will have enough money on hand to pay these annual bills when they come due. Thus, the acronym PITI (principle, interest, taxes, and insurance).

Real-estate owned (REO) properties are foreclosed upon by lenders when borrowers fail to make their payments. When you buy a foreclosure, you buy REO. Short sales are not REO because, while they are in danger of being repossessed, they are still owned by the borrower.

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Acronyms You’ll Hear During an Appraisal

There is no acronym for an appraisal, which is an opinion of value prepared by a certified or licensed appraiser (though sometimes other types of valuation methods are used in the buying and selling process).

A Certified Market Analysis (CMA) is prepared by a real estate agent or broker to help determine a home’s listing price. A Broker Price Opinion (BPO) is a more advanced estimate of the probable future selling price of a property, and an automated valuation model (AVM) is a software program that provides valuations based on mathematical modeling.

AVMs are currently used by some lenders and investors to confirm an appraiser’s valuation, but they are becoming increasingly popular as replacements of appraisals, especially in lower price ranges.

Other Terms to Know

If you hear the term MLS, you should know it stands for multiple listing service. An MLS is a database that allows real estate brokers to share data on properties for sale, making the buying and selling process more efficient. There are many benefits to both homebuyers and sellers utilizing an MLS, for more information on how to get your home available through an MLS, work with a real estate professional when selling.

Read: What Buyers and Sellers Need to Know About Multiple Listing Services

Did you know? has some serious MLS partnerships, no joke! When you start your home search on, you’ll see accurate property information quickly so you’ll never have to wonder if a home is actually available.

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However, not all properties for sale are listed on the MLS. A home may be a for-sale-by-owner (FSBO), if the owner is selling his or her property without an agent and bypassing an MLS listing. In addition, some agents fail to enter their listings in the MLS for days or weeks at a time in hopes of selling to a list of preferred clients.

Read: Advantages of Buying With or Without an Agent

Finally, you may find yourself buying into a homeowners association (HOA) when you purchase a house or condominium apartment. HOAs are legal governing bodies that establish requirements everyone must adhere to in order to keep the community it oversees running smoothly and ensure property values are maintained.

Lew Sichelman

Syndicated newspaper columnist, Lew Sichelman has been covering the housing market and all it entails for more than 50 years. He is an award-winning journalist who worked at two major Washington, D.C. newspapers and is a past president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors.


How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Helped Women Achieve Their Homeownership Dreams 

The passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has left the nation remembering her incredible legacy of service. Justice Ginsburg tirelessly fought for equality, especially for women. To honor her legacy, we wanted to examine how Ginsburg helped transform the housing market into a more equitable sphere for women, allowing them to engage in the market independent of male control. 

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A Brief History*

Until the mid-1800s, women were generally restricted from owning property or engaging in transactions like the purchase or selling of real estate. Under “common law,” a woman’s property became her husband’s upon marriage, and only the husband had legal authority over most, if not all, decisions regarding the property. In 1848, New York passed the Married Women’s Property Act, which, among other allowances, gave women the legal autonomy to maintain control over whatever property they brought into the marriage, and inspired many states to adopt similar laws.

In 1920, women were granted the right to vote in the U.S., but they still weren’t economically independent, especially if they were married. Even into the 1970s, women could not apply for credit cards, maintain employment upon pregnancy, and often could not manage their own bank accounts without a male co-signer. 

Read: The History of Women’s Homeownership 

From Progress to Freedom, Ginsburg Style

Motivated by her own experiences with sexism, Ginsburg worked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the 1970s. During this time, she founded the Women’s Rights Project, one of the major arms working towards national women’s equality under law. It was through this initiative she fought for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which passed in 1974. This law finally gave women the legal authority to apply for bank accounts, credit cards, and mortgages without a male cosigner. 

But, that was only the beginning of Ginsburg’s work. Here are some of the major cases she argued before over the course of her storied career to further women’s legal independence: 

  • 1971 – Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution; Section 214 of IRS Code: Men and women are equally entitled to the same caregiving and Social Security benefits. 
  • 1978 – The Pregnancy Discrimination Act: Employers cannot fire or consider a woman for a job because they are pregnant or have plans to become pregnant. 
  • 1979 – Jury Duty for Women: Overturned the thought that women’s civic duty to serving on a jury should not be lessened and deemed only optional. 
  • 1996 – United States vs. Virginia: During her time on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg led the ruling decision that state-funded schools must admit women. 

The Modern-Day Woman

Thanks in part to Ginsburg’s efforts, more single women than ever before are obtaining homeownership without a partner. In fact, a 2019 survey indicated that single females accounted for 1 out of every 5 home sales. Single women have also outpaced their male counterparts in real estate purchases for almost three decades.

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Read: The Growing Number of Female Homeowners  

Thanks to the work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others who tirelessly fought for female equality, the opportunity to obtain a home is more accessible than any other time in history. Feeling inspired to start your own homebuying journey? The How-To can help you navigate the process, start to finish. 

Women still face stigma when buying a home alone, especially at a young age, according to recent homebuyer Alyssa Hanzl which interviewed. Nevertheless, they persist and turn their dream into reality. Hanzl recently recounted her homebuying journey as a single, 23-year-old, recent college graduate. Add in the global COVID-19 pandemic and you have a recipe for disaster, yet, she still made it work.

Read: Why I Bought a Home at 23 

The next time you see a post on social media thanking Justice Ginsburg for helping women, now you truly know the history behind her support as it pertains to homeownership.

*Sourced from the Guardian, Encyclopedia of Women’s History, UPenn Law, Britannica, Bureau of Labor Statistics,, Yale School of Management, and Bank of America.

Living the millennial life with my husband and Wheaten Terrier in beautiful Virginia. I document my life on Instagram and am ready to talk all things home-related at a moment’s notice.


The Power of the Network is the Network

Being a part of the CENTURY 21® Network gives each broker and agent access to a host of tools, tech resources, training, marketing materials, and some beautiful branding. But time and time again brokers and agents alike emphasize the valuable relationships that they’ve built with others around the country as the reason why they love this gold brand so much. Since 1971, members of the CENTURY 21 Network have been able to turn to fellow real estate professionals around the world for support with running their office, managing their business, and navigating the ups and downs of the market. With knowledge gathered from coast to coast (and beyond), CENTURY 21 affiliated brokers and agents expand their skills, gain new insights and ideas, and defy mediocrity together.


An unlikely relationship under any other circumstances, Jessie Hoff from CENTURY 21 JRS in New Jersey and Mike VanSickle from CENTURY 21 Gold Rush Alaska, text regularly. Whether it’s to discuss difficulties with a new agent, looking for help with a new lease agreement, or just to vent about the changing real estate market, the support that Jessie experiences from Mike in Alaska helped her to survive a tumultuous transition into office management.

Jessie began her career in real estate as an agent in 2005 at CENTURY 21 JRS. After attending the brand’s International Management Academy* in 2015, she began to transition into a manager-lite position in her office. Shortly afterwards, her broker and mentor suddenly passed away. The closely-knit office was thrown into chaos and struggled to pick up the pieces. Jessie began to lead the office but, “constantly felt like I was drowning.” With nowhere else to turn Jessie began to lean on the relationships that she’d just begun to build at CENTURY 21. “I felt so alone during that time, so in over my head.” Jessie attended as many brand events as she could, seeking out wisdom and advice from whoever she met.

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And the CENTURY 21 Network did not disappoint. Fellow brokers gave tough advice, asked hard questions, and then offered to look through and fix up her contracts and documents. Emerging from years of navigating her company’s loss, Jessie attributes her success as now the company owner to the relationships that she has with other CENTURY 21 brokers – like Mike in Alaska.


The value of the CENTURY 21 Network has perhaps never more apparent than in 2020. As offices struggled to navigate the volatile market at the start of the pandemic, brokers were eager to share what they’d learned and resources that they’d compiled. CENTURY 21 president and CEO, Mike Miedler ran regular sessions for all brokers and agents where topics like transitioning to a virtual environment, market analysis, and mental health were discussed.

In early March, details were shared in one of these sessions on how to apply for agent and office funding via a PPP loan. The next day, the requirements changed. Melanie Banks and Ken Murawski, from CENTURY 21 Veterans in PA, created a YouTube video on how an agent should apply for their own loan and how they had completed the application as an office. Shared with brokers in their area, this tutorial went into details on how to enter agent wages, office expenses, as well as what to keep in mind when choosing a bank to apply through. The time and effort that Melanie’s video saved offices was invaluable as Real Estate had been deemed a non-essential business in PA. Local brokers came together for a weekly call where best practices were shared both while their offices were closed and then as the state began to re-open. CENTURY 21 Jackson Real Estate was located in one of the first counties that reopened in PA. They put together documents on how to run virtual open houses, as well as where to find compliant PPE for showing homes. Sharing knowledge transparently in real time helped PA brokers to survive months of uncertainty.    


The connections formed between brokers across the Network are so valuable that some have created groups that regularly meet to share best practices and resources. In meetings of the CENTURY 21® broker-organized Broker Business Advocacy Association, members are able to be open and be vulnerable about the issues they’re dealing with. Sensitive topics like value packages and recruiting are frequently addressed with sample contracts, recruiting materials, and comp plans compiled into a resource center without fear of competition. The group’s president Fernando Semiao from CENTURY 21 Semiao and Associates in New Jersey states that, “Because of the diversity of the group, we’ve been able to clearly distinguish myth from reality in real estate, especially when it comes to our competition. This has helped us put together strong value packages, pulling pieces from each of ours to create the very best version that we couldn’t have made alone.”

Another significant benefit for Semiao are the referrals that he’s received from feeder markets in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. In the last few years, he estimates to have completed almost 100 deals based on referrals from the group. Holding about 6 huddles each year, the originally regional group recently opened their doors to any broker within the Network.


The desire that brokers have to transparently collaborate and share with the CENTURY 21 Network is especially invaluable for growing companies. The top 100 female brokers recently created a group where they’re able to candidly discuss the trials and successes that they’ve experienced as women in real estate. While women make up 67% of real estate sales associates in the US, yet more men lead real estate companies as a broker-owner (NAR 2019 Member Profile.) The mentorship that the owners of the smaller companies in the group are able to access from women who run some of the most successful companies in the Network has radically changed their mentality towards the way that they’re able to grow their business.

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Chrissie Wright, a broker from CENTURY 21 Wright-Pace Real Estate in Arkansas, recently posted on Workplace, the CENTURY 21 internal communications platform, searching for any advice on building a mortgage business in house. She had first been inspired to streamline the real estate process for her clients after attending a brand event focused on elevating the customer experience. “I’m trying to create a one stop shop. I’ve seen other C21® brokers do the same thing who found it very successful. Our markets and demographics may be different, but every consumer is looking for a seamless experience.” She began by bringing a closing company in house, choosing the final moment of the real estate process as her starting point. After successfully implementing the new process where clients physically come into her office to sign their closing paperwork, Chrissie was ready to take the next step.

Because of her post on Workplace, Chrissie connected with another CENTURY 21 broker who was looking to do the same thing. They are now researching together how to best bring a mortgage company in house.

14 Stores With the Best Return Policies

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The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be leaving few things unchanged. Some retail stores, whether brick-and-mortar or online (or both), are loosening their policies on returns, says ModernRetail, an industry publication. This buys customer goodwill and gives the companies time to process returned products. Other retailers may have tightened previously liberal returns policies.

To help ensure that you and the recipients of your gifts can exchange a too-small sweater or return an extra toaster, consider shopping at stores like these, whose return policies are more customer-centered. We’ve summed up the rules. We link to each store’s policy so you can read the fine print, including exceptions and caveats.

1. Costco

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Selling everything from cucumbers to caskets, Costco says it stands behind its products 100%. That means full refunds on almost anything. A caveat: Some products — mainly electronics and appliances — must be returned within 90 days of purchase for a full refund.

Exceptions include diamonds, which are subject to special terms, and cigarettes and alcohol, which may not be returned where prohibited by law.

Love shopping at Costco? See “18 Surprising Things You Can Buy at Costco.”

2. Lands’ End

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The Lands’ End return policy is short and sweet. If you aren’t happy with a product, return it at any time for a refund or exchange.

The policy says:

“Refund requests received within 90 days of purchase will be issued to the original form of payment when available. Refund requests received beyond 90 days from the date of purchase or refund requests without a Lands’ End proof of purchase will be issued a Lands’ End Merchandise Credit.”

3. Ikea

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Thanks to its “No-Nonsense — 365 Days to Change Your Mind” policy, Ikea is one of the best stores for customer returns.

As the policy name suggests, shoppers get one year (365 days) to make a return for a full refund — for new and unopened products.

But you must have a receipt. If you don’t, the store will attempt to locate your purchase in its system. Failing that, you’ll get merchandise credit equal to the lowest selling price of the purchase from the previous 365 days.

Opened products may be returned within 180 days. You’ll need proof of purchase for a full refund.

If you love shopping at Ikea, here some tips: “4 Ways to Save More Money at Ikea.”

4. Bath & Body Works

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If you’re looking for a sweetly scented gift, Bath & Body Works can be a good place to go.

In case the fragrance you selected from the vast selection isn’t just what they wanted, the store has a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

Return a product for any reason with a receipt for a full refund. No receipt? Your refund will be for the lowest selling price of the item.

5. REI

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REI is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The store has a liberal return policy. In brief, you can return or exchange almost anything from the store within one year.

Outdoor electronics must be returned within 90 days. Tip: REI won’t take returns on items for normal wear and tear or damage caused by accidents or improper use. Used gear is covered by the policy, but must be returned within 30 days. REI Store Garage Sale (as is) purchases aren’t covered — those sales are final.

6. Zappos

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You don’t need to worry about buying the wrong shoes online when you purchase from Zappos. The shoe retailer allows 365 days to return unused products and will pay for the return shipping.

So, if those strappy heels don’t look quite as cute on you as they did on the model, you can send them right back. Just don’t wear them to a party first; returns must be unworn and in the original packaging with original tags attached.

7. Athleta /

A division of Gap, Athleta specializes in workout gear for women. Other stores (including other Gap brands) may only take back unwashed or unworn items, but Athleta lets you return anything for any reason within 60 days, thanks to its Give-It-a-Workout Guarantee. An exception: final sale goods.

Athleta covers the shipping cost for returns and exchanges.

8. Nordstrom

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The days when Nordstrom let shoppers return anything in practically any condition for any reason are in the past. But the chain’s return policy remains one of the best around.

It says:

“We handle returns on a case-by-case basis with the ultimate objective of making our customers happy.”

You can return a purchase without a receipt, and the retailer will try to find it in its computer system. If it can’t, customers may show identification to receive a Nordstrom gift card for the current price.

9. L.L. Bean

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The L.L. Bean policy says it will accept returned products that don’t live up to customer expectations within one year of purchase. It’s even better for purchases made before Feb. 9, 2018. These are not subject to the one-year limit.

The retailer adds:

“After one year, we will consider any items for return that are defective due to materials or craftsmanship.”

10. Macy’s

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Macy’s once-mighty chain of department stores is in the midst of a three-year plan to close one-fifth of its stores — shutting roughly 125 locations in all.

But many of its stores still are in business. Macy’s return policy gives shoppers 90 days to take back a purchase. Returned goods must be in original, salable condition with the original tags.

Some exceptions are carved out. These include products from certain lines and manufacturers, lighting, area rugs, tech accessories and watches, dresses, furs, foods and beverages, and furniture and mattresses.

11. Kohl’s

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Hassle-free returns are a Kohl’s tradition, although the rules can be a bit more complicated than the name implies.

An in-store purchase with an original receipt can receive a refund or an even exchange up to 180 days after the original purchase date, with an exception for premium electronics. If you don’t have a receipt, and the store can’t find one, you may get a merchandise credit based on the lowest discounted 13-week sale price of the item.

12. Target

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Target’s return policy varies, depending on what you purchased, its condition and whether you paid with a Target REDcard.

Most goods that are returned within 90 days, are unopened and in new condition can receive a refund or exchange. Read the policy and check your sales receipt or packing slip for exceptions.

Target allows up to a year to return Target-owned brands or registry purchases.

Using your Target RedCard to make the purchase earns you an extra 30 days to make returns.

Returns by mail are postage-free; you can download and print a prepaid mailing label.

13. JC Penney

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As with Target, JC Penney’s return policy varies significantly based on what you’ve purchased and whether you have a receipt. Here are the highlights:

  • Most purchases can be returned with a receipt for a full refund or exchange. No time window is given. Read the policy to see exceptions.
  • When you return something without a receipt, the refund with be issued as a JC Penney gift card; you’ll get the amount of the lowest selling price in the last 45 days and you’ll need to show a photo ID.

14. Bed Bath & Beyond

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Bed Bath & Beyond promises “Easy Exchanges & Returns.” If you have a receipt, you’re in luck. Returns and exchanges can be made (postage-free) online or in stores that are open to the public (this doesn’t include curbside only locations).

You can take back unwanted goods, with exceptions, for a refund in the original form of payment, within 90 days with your receipt. You may be asked to show ID.

Without a receipt, things get a little trickier. If it was purchased within the last 365 days, Bed Bath & Beyond will try to find a record of the transaction. If they can’t, and you are returning new and unopened goods, you may be able to get an exchange or merchandise credit for the current selling price minus 20%.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.


Rent Prices Have Dropped in These 9 Formerly Hot Markets

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You may have heard or seen firsthand how fast home prices have risen. In January, home value appreciation was 9.1% higher than one year prior, the largest annual increase since 2006, according to new data from Zillow.

Perhaps less known is this: The cost of renting is affected, too. But unlike with home prices — rising across most of the country — rents are up in some cities and down in others.

Overall, the cost of renting was relatively stagnant in the United States last year, say Zillow economists. The company, a real estate website, tracks and analyzes home prices and rents. The typical rent this January, $1,721, was up just $9, or 0.5%, from January 2020.

But that flat line masks big changes.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and widespread changes to work-from-home policies have also pushed many to reconsider what they want and need in their living space, and where it should be,” says Zillow.

Many workers were freed to work from home and live virtually anywhere, at least while pandemic lockdowns lasted.

Rents in pricey, formerly desirable coastal meccas — especially New York City, Boston and the Silicon Valley centers of San Francisco and San Jose — saw the most dramatic drops in rents.

Below, listed by the change from January 2020 to January 2021, are the nine major metropolitan areas where rent costs are down, according to the Zillow Observed Rent Index. Even with reductions, rents in these metros remain steep:

  1. San Francisco: $2,876 (down 9.2% from January 2020)
  2. New York City: $2,465 (down 8.8%)
  3. San Jose, California: $2,892 (down 7.2%)
  4. Boston: $2,277 (down 6.3%)
  5. Seattle: $1,866 (down 5.5%)
  6. Washington, D.C.: $2,006 (down 3.4%)
  7. Chicago: $1,614 (down 2.9%)
  8. Austin, Texas: $1,511 (down 1.2%)
  9. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California: $2,542 (down 0.8%)

In the rest of the 50 largest metro areas in the U.S., rent increased on Zillow’s index between January 2020 and January 2021. These increases were as small as 0.1% in Denver and as big as 10% in Memphis, Tennessee.

A recent analysis by MyMove, a website that helps people relocate, also found that many people who moved during the pandemic left crowded urban areas for (often nearby) smaller cities and suburbs.

MyMove analyzed U.S. Postal Service change-of-address requests filed from February through July 2020. It found that the number of requests for temporary moves — meaning requests from people who planned to live at the new address for less than six months — increased about 27% compared with the same period in 2019.

New York City (110,978 people moved), including its borough of Brooklyn (43,006), lost the most residents to moves, followed by Chicago (31,347), San Francisco (27,187) and Los Angeles (26,438).

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.


7 Social Security Rules Everyone Should Know by Now

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Social Security is not a well-understood program. In fact, a 2019 survey found that people age 50 and old thought they could get their full Social Security benefit at age 63, on average. That’s way, way wrong.

The confusion’s a shame, given how many of us will need this money badly in old age. Around 21% of couples collecting Social Security benefits and about 45% of those who are unmarried rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income.

It’s a shame, too, because knowing the rules puts the most money possible in your monthly benefit checks.

The following are a few key rules for Social Security.

1. Your benefit is based on your 35 highest-earning years

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Social Security calculates your monthly checks with a formula that uses your 35 best-earning years — that is, the 35 years during which your income was highest. If your earnings record doesn’t include 35 years, missing years are replaced with zeros, lowering your potential benefit.

So, it’s worth staying in the workforce at least 35 years if you can. The more peak-earning years in your formula, the bigger your monthly benefit checks can be.

Check your earnings record once yearly to confirm that the Social Security Administration has recorded your earnings correctly so you get credit for all your earnings. Do this by logging into or signing up for your online Social Security account.

2. Your benefit might be taxed

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Are you surprised to learn that your Social Security income may be taxed? About half of retirees pay federal taxes on their income from the program.

As we detail in “5 Ways to Avoid Taxes on Social Security Income,” up to 85% of your benefits could be considered taxable income by Uncle Sam.

That’s not all. Many states also tax at least some residents’ Social Security income. If you’re looking forward to a low-tax retirement, consider these 26 states that do not tax benefits.

3. You can claim benefits as early as 62

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The earliest age at which you can start receiving Social Security benefits is 62 for most people, and 60 for those who claim survivor’s benefits.

The largest share of Americans — about 35% of men and nearly 40% of women — claim at age 62.

If that’s your plan, understand that claiming early carries a penalty, one you’ll pay by receiving smaller monthly checks for the rest of your life. Check your online Social Security account to compare what you’d receive in monthly checks at age 62 with what you’d get from waiting until you are older.

Despite all that, there are circumstances when you have few choices — you need the money to live, for instance, or you don’t expect a long life — and claiming early makes sense.

4. Your full benefit amount is tied to your full retirement age

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“Full retirement age,” or FRA, is a technical term in the context of Social Security. It refers to the age at which you are eligible to receive the full amount of your monthly benefit — meaning without any penalty applied for claiming early, or any bonus applied for delaying claiming.

In other words, claiming benefits before reaching full retirement age means your monthly benefit will be reduced — by as much as 30%. Claiming after you reach FRA means your monthly benefit will be increased by as much as 8% for each year you wait past FRA to claim, up until age 70.

So, what exactly is your full retirement age? That depends on the year you were born, but for most people it’s between age 66 and 67.

5. Your spouse’s work history can help you, too

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Understanding your options can really pay off with Social Security. For example, if your spouse or ex-spouse earned more money than you, it may be better for you to claim spousal benefits — which are based on your spouse’s or ex’s earnings record — instead of claiming based on your own work history.

If you’ve been a stay-at-home spouse, or earned low wages or didn’t work for very many years, you may be able to receive up to half the amount of your spouse’s or ex-spouse’s monthly benefit. (In the case of an ex, you generally must have been married to the person for at least 10 years, as well as meet other conditions, to claim spousal benefits based on that person’s earnings record.)

It’s one more case where doing research and planning your Social Security claiming strategy is an investment in your future.

Social Security Choices, a Money Talks News partner, can assess and give you a personalized report about your claiming options. Use coupon code “moneytalks” to get a $10 discount.

6. When you claim won’t affect your total payment

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As you now know, starting benefits at age 62 makes your monthly checks smaller than if you’d waited. But whether you start early (and get smaller checks) or later (with bigger checks), you should receive about the same total payout over the course of your retirement.

The Social Security system was designed to work that way — “actuarially neutral” is the technical term.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a powerful reason to wait — ideally, even to age 70 if you can. If Social Security is going to be a big part of your retirement income, the bigger checks you’ll get from waiting will be valuable to your quality of life in old age.

7. You may be able to collect survivor’s benefits even after remarrying

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The rules for remarriage and survivor’s benefits sometimes throw people off, probably because your age when you remarry is a big part of the equation.

Survivor’s benefits let a widow or widower collect up to 100% of the late spouse’s Social Security benefit amount. You generally can claim this type of benefit as early as age 60, but the benefit will be reduced if you claim it before reaching your full retirement age. (Social Security’s pamphlet “Survivors Benefits” has details).

But what if you remarry? Again, that depends on the age at which you remarry. The Social Security Administration explains:

“Usually, you can’t get widow’s or widower’s benefits if you remarry before age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled). But remarriage after age 60 (or age 50 if you’re disabled) won’t prevent you from getting benefit payments based on your former spouse’s work. And at age 62 or older, you can get benefits on your new spouse’s work, if those benefits would be higher.”

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