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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Entertainment Idea: National Geographic Terra Cotta Warrior Exhibit

By JC Leahy

After March 31, you'll have to go to China if you want to see these famous terra cotta warriors. A collection of them has been on tour in the US for the past 2 years. Washington, DC is their last stop, and March 31 is their last date. If you want to see the greatest archeological find of the 20th Century close up and close to home, you need to hurry.

(Photo at right taken byJC Leahy at the National Geographic Building, Washington, DC)

The warriors are on exhibit at the National Geographic building located at 17th and M Streets, NW, Washington, DC 20036. Leave your camera at home, because National Geographic strictly prohibits photography. It has omnipresent guards who carefully watch anyone carrying a camera. If you ask the guards about it, they will tell you that there is a photo-opportunity at the end of the tour. This so-called photo-op consists of a single imitation terra cotta warrior outside the exhibit exit with poor lighting and a horrid orange background. Parking could be another problem. There are a limited number of on-street, public, metered parking spaces and a few parking garages within walking distance. Consider Metro for this one.

Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, whose real name was Ying Zheng, by all accounts, was a harsh despot who defeated the Chinese kingdoms of Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, and Qi. In doing so, he created one big kingdom -- the first unified Chinese state, in 259 BC. He then proceeded to burn the books he didn't like, and kill the scholars whom he didn't like, and to enslave large numbers of people for "public works" projects. One such public works project was a joining together of separate defensive walls that had been constructed by the various defeated kingdoms.. In hindsight, this connecting of defensive walls is recognized as the precursor of the Great Wall of China. He also created a truly amazing Imperial Palace -- which you will learn about at the National Geographic display. Another major public works project was to create a vast army of these terra cotta warriors, with horses and chariots. This army was buried with him when he died, so that the could serve him in the afterlife. There were at least 7,000 of them because that's how many have been found so far..

The Emperor's influence went far beyond public works projects. Obviously, his biggest influence was that he created a unified Chinese state. He also created a unit of money that lasted into the 20th Century.

On display at the National Geographic is a representative sample from this army -- including soldiers, officers, horses, a chariot, and another carriage.

Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi actually didn't plan to die. At least that wasn't  Plan-A.  He sent his ministers far and wide seeking an elixir of immortality. While that quest was in progress, however, he was out on an inspection tour of his kingdom when he suddenly became ill and died. To me, this sounds suspicious of poisoning. Luckily, he had his large army to accompany him into the afterlife for Plan-B.  He was so hated that his dynasty lasted for only 15 years altogether.

Personally, I scheduled my visit to National Geographic on a Sunday, when downtown traffic would be minimal.  I went with a few friends and enjoyed the amazing Sunday Champaign Brunch at the Army and Navy Club on Farragut Square. After brunch, we strolled two blocks to the National Geographic building to view the exhibit.   I recommend that approach -- combine a nearby meal,  some good company, and this exhibit.  You'll have an enjoyable time.

The exhibit is open 7 days a week until March 31. Hours are 10 am to 6pm, except Wednesday it is open till 9pm .  Additionally, until March 28, the exhibit is open until 8 pm on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
Click here to see prices and how to buy tickets. One sneaky little thing to note: In addition to the ticket prices, they charge you another little fee apparently to compensate themselves for doing you the favor of actually selling the ticket. This fee is an irritant but should not dissuade you from attending this excellent exhibit.





Saturday, February 20, 2010

DON'T MISS THE NEW VEHICLE SALES TAX DEDUCTION: FOR NEW VEHICLES -- INCLUDING MOTORCYCLES

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By JC Leahy, MA Accounting
Maximum Legal Refund (tm)
Income Tax Preparation & Consulting
Silver Spring, MD  20905
(301)537-5365

If you would like help preparing your income tax returns, email jcleahy@jaitoday.com  or phone (301)537-5365

If you bought a new vehicle in 2009, you need to be aware of this brand-new tax deduction.  Before 2009, you had a choice between deducting state income taxes and state sales taxes.  You could not deduct both.  You also had to itemize your dedictuions to claim either. However, for 2009, if you bought a qualifying vehicle after February 17,  you can deduct state income taxes PLUS the sales tax on your new vehicle.  And you DO NOT have to itemized deductions to benefit from this one, because if you don't itemize, the deduction will be added to your standard deduction!!!!  To qualify, a motor vehicle must be new.  It must have a gross vehicle wiight of not more than 8,500 pounds. It must be model year 2009 or 2010.  Only tax on the first $49,000 per vehicle of purchase price is eligible,  Motorcycles, motor homes, and RV's qualify, as well as cars.  As far as I know, there is not gross vehicle weight restriction on motor homes and RV's. 

Congress takes this benefit away if you make too much money.  This is called phaseout.  It's a little tricky.  Phaseout occurs in 2 stages.  First there is what I call the "direct" phaseout, which is primary because it applies directly to this particular deduction.  Whaetever is left after that is subject to a "indirect" phaseout as a part of total itemized deductions. The "primary" phaseout of the Vehicle Sales Tax Deduction occurs from $250,000 to $260,000 for married-filing-jointly taxpayers, and $125,000 to $135,000 for everyone else.  The indirect phaseout is not referred to as a phaseout by the Tax Code.  It is called a "reduction."  The reduction of itemized deductions starts at $166,000 for married filing jointly, and $83,400 for all others.  The reduction is based on 3% of the excess over the $166,000/$83,400 thresholds, but the exact computation is so complex you have to fill out a worksheet to figure it out.  Those claiming the standard deduction don't face a reduction of standard deduction based on level of income. (They do, however, face the reduction of personal exemptions -- which is another article for another day.)

Bottom line:  If you bought a new car, motorcycle, truck, motor home or RV in 2009, make sure you take the deduction on your tax return!!

Questions? Leave them as comments to this article.

If you would like help preparing your income tax return, e-mail maxlegalrefund@yahoo.com or phone (301)537-5365

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

FIRST TIME HOMEBUYER TAX CREDIT / REPEAT HOMEBUYER TAX CREDIT

By JC Leahy Maximum Legal Refund (TM)
Income Tax Preparation and Consulting
Silver Spring, Maryland

For help preparing your income tax returns, email: maxlegalrefund@yahoo.com or phone (301)537-5365 .

The First Time Homebuyer Tax Credit has come a long way since it was first created, and it is bigger and better for 2009 and 2010.  Also, it has a new cousin:  the Repeat Home Buyer's Tax Credit. The First Time Homebuyer Credit was created during the latter days of the Bush Administration by the Housing Recovery Act of 2008. Originally, it was not actually a tax credit, was not limited to first-time home buyers, and was not limited to buying a house. The maximum "credit" was $7,500. At that time, you would have been obligated to REPAY the $7,500 to the IRS over a 15-year period starting in tax-year 2010. So the original Home Buyer Tax Credit amounted to a 17-year interest-free loan for buying a principal residence, provided that you hadn't owned a principal residence during the prior 3 years. Nowadays, the maximum credit is $8,000, and you don't have to pay it back -- except as mentioned below.

To qualify for the credit you must have not owned a principal residence within the 3-year period ending on the date of purchase of your new principal residence. If you built your home, your date of purchase is counted as the date you moved in. If you owned a vacation home, or rental property, or a shopping center, or any other real estate that was NOT your principal residence, you still qualify.

The purchase date of your new home may be any time in 2009 and until June 30, 2010, provided that there is a binding sales contract in place no later than April 30, 2010, AND that you then close the purchase by June 30. The latest expiration date for this credit was November 30, 2009, but that was extended, with some changes. You must have purchased the home in an "arms length" transaction. This means that if you bought the home from relatives, such as your parents, it won't qualify for the credit.

If you make too much money, you can't get this credit. How much is too much? This depends on when you bought the home, First, the pre-November 6, 2009 rules: For single taxpayers, the credit starts to get reduced at a Modified Adjusted Gross Income of $75,000, and disappears entirely at $95,000. For married couples filing joiong returns, the credit starts to get reduced at MAGI of $150,000, and disappears completely at $170,000. This is called "MAGI phaseout." For post-November 6 buyers, the MAGI phaseout ranges are $125,000 to $145,000 for singles, and $225,000 to $245,000 for married filing joint.  So you can make more money and still claim the credit if you purchased your home after November 6. 

If two single people buy a home together, they must split the credit between them, and each one is subjet to MAGI phaseout separately.

You don't have to buy a house to qualify for this credit. A trailer will do. Or a mobile camper, or a yacht, for that matter. It must have full living facilities and you must use it as your principal residence.

There is one circumstance when you WILL have to pay back the $8,000 credit. If you If you sell the home or stop using it as a preincipal residence within 36 months of the purchase date, or convert it to a rental or business property, you'll be asked to repay the credit. This is also true if your home is destroyed or condemned and you do not replace it with a new principal residence withing 2 years.

One other little twist: When you eventually DO sell the home, the $8,000 credit reduces its tax basis. This increases any capital gain by $8,000.

Bottom Line: This is a great tax credit. Take it if you can -- just be aware of the details outlined above!


Questions? The author may be contacted at: jcleahy@jaitoday.com

PS: Upcoming Article: The Repeat Homebuyers Tax Credit -- Don't Miss It !!!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

ENERGY TAX CREDIT (2009/2010)

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By JC Leahy, MA Accounting
Maximum Legal Refund (tm) Silver Spring, Maryland
Income Tax Preparation and Consulting
email jcleahy@jjaitoday.com

For assistance preparing your income tax returns, email: maxlegalrefund@yahoo.com

Congress allowed the Residential Energy Tax Credit to expire at the end of 2007. It was not available in 2008, then was reintroduced in 2009 with changes and complications.

Here's the current deal:

There are now actually TWO Residential Energy Tax Credits: (1) The Nonbusiness Energy Property Credit, and (2) The Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit.  Both are "nonrefundable credits" -- which means that to the extent the tax credit exceeds your tax liability you don't get the credit. .

NON BUSINESS ENERGY PROPERTY TAX CREDIT


This credit is limited to a total of $1,500 between the years 2009 and 2010. That means if you get a $1,500 credit in 2009 for installing energy efficient windows, don't expect another dime in 2010 for installing energy efficient doors. There is no carryforward or carryback provision for any unused portion of your Nonbusiness Energy Property Tax Credit.

The credit is equal to 30% of the cost of qualified improvements to your PRINCIPAL RESIDENCE located in the United States -- up to the $1,500 limit mentioned above. Qualified improvements include energy efficient insulation, exterior windows, doors, skylights, heat pumps, water heaters, furnaces, boilers, central air conditioners and certain metal and asphalt roofs. With the old, pre-2008 Residential Energy Tax Credit, you could rely on the Energy Star label to be sure your improvement qualified for the tax credit. This is no longer true.  With the exception of windows and skylights purchased before June 1, 2009, the IRS now publishes stricter, detailed guidelines that determine exactly which products qualify and which don't. Fortunately, the taxpayer can rely on the manufacturer's certification that any particular product meets the IRS guidelines. If you plan to claim this tax credit, be sure to get a copy of the manufacturer's certification. You don't need to attach it to your tax return, but you need to keep it on file.

Your Nonbusiness Energy Tax Credit may be reduced or disallowed if you claim certain other nonrefundable personal credits. There's a special tax form to accomplish this take-back: Form 5695. On Form 5695, you will subtract the amount of the following tax credits from what you thought would be your $1,500 : the credit for foreign taxes, the child and dependent care expenses credit, the credit for the elderly and disabled, and education tax credits.

Again, this is a "nonrefundable credit". This means that you can only get the credit up to the amount of  your income tax liability.  Unlike some nonrefundable credits, there is no carryback or carryforward of the limited portion; that amount is simply be lost.

So there are a lot of pitfalls and caveats, but the Nonbusiness Energy Property Tax Credit may help you improve the energy efficiency of your home.

RESIDENTIAL ENERGY EFFICIENT PROPERTY TAX CREDIT

This is an entirely different credit than the one outlined above, but it sounds similar in ways.. This one also goes on Form 5695 and is equal to 30% of the cost of qualified property. This one also is reduced or eliminated by those other personal nonrefundable credits I enumerated; viz., the foreign tax credit, the child and dependent care expenses credit, the credit for the elderly and disabled, and education tax credits This one also a nonrefundable credit. Products also have to comply with detailed standards published by the IRS, but the taxpayer may rely on certifications issued by manufacturers.

The Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit does not have a $1,500 cap. In fact, there is no cap at all, except for a $500 per half-kilowatt limit on fuel cells. Additionally, there ARE carryforward provisions from 2008 and to 2010, but only to the extent that the credit was limited by the tax-liability limit -- NOT for the other-personal-tax credit limit.

Qualified property for this credit is strictly defined as two groups:

  • Group one: Qualified residential solar panels, solar water heating equipment, wind turbines, and geothermal heat pumps -- but not to the extent that any of these items is used to heat a swimming pool or hot tub. Products in this group DO NOT have to be installed on your principal residence.
  • Group two: Qualified residential fuel cells. Fuel cells DO have to be installed on your principal residence located in the United States. They must have a capacity of at least half a kilowatt, and the credit cannot exceed $500 per kilowatt
Again, a good credit if you can negotiate the minefield of details.

Questions?  Feel free to contact me directly at jcleahy@jaitoday.com

JC Leahy
Maximum Legal Refund (tm)
Income Tax Preparation and Consulting

Sunday, February 7, 2010

SNOWSTORM IN COLESVILLE, MARYLAND, FEBRUARY 5-6, 2010

By JC Leahy
Maximum Legal Refund (TM)

Income Tax Preparation and Consulting
Silver Spring, Maryland

For assistance preparing your income tax returns, email: maxlegalrefund@yahoo.com

Snow began falling Friday, February 5, at around 11AM.  It fell heavily, but the roads were warm so by rush hour Friday evening, there was no problem driving.  I returned home from downtown Washington, DC to Colesville without incident.  An hour later, Dali brushed off her minivan and left for her night-shift assignment.  She took extra clothes and personal supplies.  She would be stranded at work for the weekend.

Dali clears her minivan to go to night-shift at work.

I own a  snow blade for my garden tractor, but I hadn't actually installed it for a couple of years. Installing it is a pain.  It consumes an hour of lying in the driveway. First you have to remove the lawn-cutting deck, slide it out sideways, store it somewhere, and then mount the snow blade -- or "dozer blade," as Sears pompously calls it.   Besides, I have an old snowblower that functions, so who needs a tractor, right?    Dark was already falling when I arrived home  Friday.  After listening to the latest weather forecast, I lay down in the driveway, funbled around by flashlight, and put the blade on that tractor.  Joaquin, my son-in-law drove over and helped me. Then I went out and bought an additional 5 gallons of gasoline.  That gave me about 12 gallons of available gas to work with, 50 lbs. of potassium chloried salt, a small snow blower, a garden tractor with "dozer blade" and  2 snow shovels. I It sounded like a lot of snow, and I didn't want to become snowbound  because -- counting me, my wife, and Lindsey who rents the cottage in the back --  there were 3 nurses at my house who needed to get to and from hospitals.  Plus there was Andrea, our roomer, a public school teacher.  Also I have tax clients who, even at the height of the snowfall, wanted to come and pick up their tax returns so they could get those tax refunds!  All in all,  I had a LOT of people interested in my driveway!  With a 3-acre yard and a house set far back from the road, the driveway was extensive!


Anything not related to snow clearing was crammed to the rear of the tiny "one car" garage.


Tractor, snow blower, shovels, were arranged to move out.

That night, the snow started to accumulate in the driveway.  I started clearing right away.  I began with the snow blower clearing the back parking area.

Then I went to the front parking area and front-door walkway. 


By the time I went to bed later Friday night, I had additionally cleared the entire front and back parking areas and driveway with the tractor three times.  The snow kept falling..

When I woke up Saturday morning and opened the garage door, I couldn't even get the tractor out of the garage.  So much for hard work and having a plan!

The Craftsman garden tractor with "dozer blade" sat uselessly in the garage.  Even with rear-wheel chains installed, it was too light to push that much snow.
The house was buried in snow.


Buried front of house.


Buried driveway circle and rear parking area.

Plan B relied on the little 6-horsepower snowblower.

A big task begins with a single line in the snow.

I worked ALL DAY Saturday digging out.  Eventually, the rear parking area and cottage driveway were cleared.

The driveway loops around to the rear parking area and the cottage.  It's a long way from here to the main road!

Then the front parking area was cleared. 


Front parking area

But the long part of the driveway, leading out to New Hampshire Avenue was still full of snow.

Meanwhile, while I was outside working, Joaquins' mother Alina phoned me on my Palm.  She said that Joaquin, Theresa, and infant Ethan were snowbound without heat or cooking stove.  Alina had a friend with a truck whom she had asked to fetch Joaquin and family, but the friend saw no hope of getting through the snowy neighborhood roads.  I phonedTheresa and Joaquin's house, but only the Verizon cyber-voicemal answered.  I learned something  It turns out that when you lose power to your house, a FIOS landline is useless. Only an old-fashioned analog landline will work.  This is because the analog line carries its own power, but a FIOS line relys on a digital-to-analog converter when the digital signal arrived at your house.  The converter needs electricity from the regular power grid!!  Wow!   So, I reached Joaquin on his mobile phone. He confirmed that the neighborhood was unploughed, power was out, and the household temperature was rapidly dropping.  I advised him that my 4x4 Ford Explorer was pretty good in the snow.  I might be able to dig out in another hour.  I would call again when I had dug out, and we would consult about the situation at that time.  An hour was optimistic.

Ice laden, sagging power lines cut electricity to something on the order of 230,000  households, including that of Theresa and Joaquin!



Pepco Electric crews struggled to make repairs.

So the digging continued.  Around 12:30 AM, Andrea came out to help. 


Andrea shoveling -- look at that snow's depth!!

The 25 horsepower Craftsman snow plow was useful mainly for keeping clear what had already been cleared. 

Trying to get traction. :)


Once the driveway was clear to the street, the next problem was to free the 4x4 Ford Explorer from the snow.



Meanwhile,  the usually bustling New Hampshire Avenue grew silent except for an occasional snow plow.




After we cleared off the Explorer, I phoned Joaquin to check on whether his neighborhood was plowed and whether their power was back on.  Power was off.  A repair wasn't expected until Tuesday -  three days away!  The indoor temperature was falling and they had no way to cook.  Sooo...Andrea and I took the Explorer out for a ride in the snow to make a pickup. 





It was a bumpy, sliding ride.  We followed "snow emergency routes"  -- north on New Hampshire Avenue, then east on Route 198.  The roads were barely plowed - bumpy, slippery, and narrow.  Stranded vehicles littered the roadside.  Actually, it was kind of fun -- as long as we didn't get stuck!


Stranded vehicles littered the roadsides.

The plan was for us to drive to a pickup point and then call Joaquin. Theresa and Joaquin would hike 1/8 of a mile through snowbound fields and a construction site, carrying baby Ethan and supplies, to reach us for pickup.  That's what we did.


Joaquin carrying Ethan and Theresa carrying supplies arrive at the pickup point. They hiked through the terrain shown in the background.  Andrea (left) waits at the vehicle.


And soon, everyone was back at the New Hampshire Avenue house for a 3-day stay with the in-laws (Dali and me).  LOL!  Happy ending!


Joaquin and Ethan


Theresa and Joaquin with Ethan.


:)

Monday, February 1, 2010

DINING OUT: LUMPIA, PANSIT, atbp. RESTAURANT (Gaithersburg, MD)

By JC Leahy
Maximum Legal Refund (TM)
Income Tax Preparation and Consulting
Silver Spring, Maryland

For assistance preparing your income tax returns, email: maxlegalrefund@yahoo.com

There are two ways to look at the physical presence and ambiance of the Lumpia, Pansit, atbp Restaurant in Gaithersburg, Maryland. First, there is the glass-half-empty view. According to this view, the Lumpia, Pansit, atbp had the low-budget feel of a struggling restaurant started on a shoestring. The dimensions of the single dining room were modest. The lunchtime sun glared harshly through naked windows. Ceiling tiles showed old water marks. The walls seemed stark, despite a monotonous row of framed photographs arranged around the room. In short, it seemed like a low-budget restaurant in serious need of an interior decorator. However, if you have actually traveled to the Philippines and ventured outside the main tourist areas, you may recognize another view. The glass-half-full view maintains that the whole physical presence and ambiance of the Lumpia, Pansit, atbp authentically evokes the feel of small-town main-street restaurants in the Philippines. Furthermore, the restaurant appeared clean and the food was both authentic and delicious. I, personally, am a glass-half-full kind of guy.

The food surprised me. I opted for the buffet. The buffet consisted of 12 entrees, 7 or 8 other dishes, and a few dessert items. It was the kaldereta that made me pause, raise my eyebrows, and say to my table mates, "Hmm...this kaldereta is really....rather good! You should try it.!" The adobong manok followed, and chicken curry, lumpia, and fresh lumpia. All were very satisfactory. I finished with halo halo. There were six diners at my table, and all were impressed with the food.

It was charming that the owner and founder, Cho Ortega, visited our table to chat. Cho is a gifted talker. She was ebullient with the saga of her professional development.  Her brown eyes waxed wide as she talked. She was eager to share her experience in catering for the past ten years, and restaurant management for the last two. Food is clearly her passion.

There were a couple of quirky things about the restaurant. For one, the waitress insisted that we pay before we eat. This struck me as bizarre at first -- as though we might refuse to pay after we had tasted the food. I thought about this and discussed it with my table mates. We rationalized that many buffet-style chain restaurants - Ponderosa Steak House comes to mind for example -- make you pay before you eat. Another oddity is that the tables are set with forks and spoons, but no knives. You have to ask the waitress if you need a knife. This is not an omission, but a touch of authenticity, as many restaurants in the Philippines set their tables with no knives.

Bottom line: Check this place out if you want some good Filipino food in an authentic setting, but it's no place to impress a date with ambiance. Here's the address:

Lumpia, Pansit, atbp
213 Muddy Branch Road
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
Tel. 301-527-7788
Web site: http://www.lumpiapansitatbp.com/


Check the hours of operation before you go. They're closed on Tuesdays.