Jan. 24, 2010 -- I teamed up with "Good Morning America Weekend" to present surprising savings ideas you may never have heard of before. They come from my new book, "Save Big: Cut Your Top 5 Costs and Save Thousands," which focuses on big savings -- more than a thousand dollars -- rather than the small savings ideas we so often hear about. Click here to read an excerpt.
In this tight economy, many people are already doing all the small things and it's not enough. So our mission was to find big, unusual savings strategies that can make a difference in peoples' lives. Our top five costs are houses, cars, credit, groceries and healthcare. When you know where you spend big, you can figure out how to save big, so those are the areas we targeted.
HOUSES: Fight Your Property Tax Assessment
Sample Savings: $5,000
It's your home sweet home, but you might be downright bitter if you knew that 60 percent of houses are over-valued for property tax purposes, according to the National Taxpayers Union. In other words, the local government says they are worth more than they actually are. It's especially true right now when so many properties have fallen in value, but local governments haven't kept up with reality.
"They've been showing the house continuing to go up since 2006," Stu Sendell of New Jersey told us. "In fact, the market cratered in the middle of 2006." Sendell is one of only two percent of homeowners who fight back. If he wins his appeal, he figures he'll save $5,000 in taxes each and every year. And here's the good news: the vast majority of homeowners who bother to appeal their assessments win at least a partial victory!
So here's how you do it:
Act quickly. Once you receive your property tax assessment, you typically have just 30 to 120 days to appeal it.
Understand your assessed value. Some jurisdictions use market value as assessed value. Others use a percentage of market value. If yours uses the latter, make sure you grasp the formula, because that's the only way to know for sure if you've been over-assessed.
Consider hiring help. If you are too busy, there are attorneys who will handle your appeal for you on contingency. They typically charge 30 percent to 50 percent of the amount they save you in taxes the first year.
Get the government's documents. Your local government should provide you with its notes on your property and the others it used as comparisons.
Craft your argument.. The two main arguments are that the assessor made a mistake -- like getting the number of bedrooms wrong -- or that the assessor compared your home to others that are not really similar.
Find alternate comparables. If the latter is true, you will want to find alternative comparables that are more favorable to you. You can see how much your neighbors are paying for their property taxes at www.zillow.com, in the charts and data section.
Make it official. You will complete your appeal either by putting it in writing or by attending a hearing. Total amount of work: five to 20 hours, depending on your case. If you win, you re-set your tax rate for years to come.
CARS: Sleuth Out Secret Warranties
Sample Savings: $1,200
Automakers sometimes offer secret warranties where they'll repair customers' cars for free to avoid issuing a formal recall. The reason they're called "secret" warranties is that they don't tell you they will do this. You have to ask.
"It's really worth it for the consumer to look for a secret warranty for their vehicle," said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety. "They can save hundreds if not thousands of dollars to repair that defect that's going to have to be repaired in your car."
There are about 500 secret warranties available at any given time, according to Ditlow. One current example: an automaker replacing faulty tires on luxury cars, a $1,200 value.
Here's how you can find a secret warranty:
Ask the dealership. Manufacturers and dealers don't call them secret warranties. They use euphemisms like "good will adjustment," "after-warranty assistance" and "extended warranty." Ask the dealership whether there is one for your make, model and defect.
Google it. Search for your make and model and the term "secret warranty" in quotes and if there is a lot of buzz about a recurrent problem with your type of car, you will find it.
Search service bulletins. These are notices that automakers send to dealers alerting them about emerging problems and giving guidance on how to handle them. They don't explicitly state that a free repair is available, so look for coded language like "ask for availability of goodwill assistance." You can search service bulletins here: www.edmunds.com/maintenance/select.html.
Check with the Center for Auto Safety. CAS has compiled a list of secret warranties that consumers and activists have already ferreted out and you can see it here: www.autosafety.org/campaigns/23.
CREDIT: Undergo Rapid Rescoring
Sample Savings: $132,000
If there are unflattering mistakes on your credit report when you apply for a mortgage, that's going to drive your credit score down and your interest rate up. If this is your situation, ask your mortgage lender or broker whether they can send your file for "rapid rescoring."
Rescoring experts have direct phone, fax and e-mail access to the big three credit bureaus. You provide them proof that there are mistakes on your report, and they make your case to the bureaus. You can correct your report yourself but it takes months. Rescoring pros get your file cleaned up in 24 to 72 hours.
To be clear, these are legitimate professionals who only correct legitimate errors. When you hear ads for "credit repair" services that claim they can fix unflattering entries on your credit report even though they are true, that is a scam.
Warren Crest was about to buy his first home and discovered that his score wasn't high enough because somebody else's unpaid bill was on his credit report. His mortgage broker sent him for rapid rescoring.
"I'm a living example that it can work," Crest said. "So, I'm grateful for it. I really am."
Crest's higher score earned him a lower mortgage rate, one that would save him approximately $132,000 over the life of the loan.
How to change the score:
Order your free credit reports. Get them from all three credit bureaus before you apply for a mortgage. Click here www.annualcreditreport.com to access the free site set up by the Federal Government for this purpose.
Ask your lender for Rapid Rescoring. It's only available through mortgage lenders and brokers, so if you have discovered unflattering errors on your reports, ask yours to refer you for rescoring.
Provide proof. Assist the rescoring experts by providing any and all paperwork you can muster that proves you are in the right.
GROCERIES: Go to Grocery Auctions
Sample Savings: $7,056
One way to save big is to bid for groceries instead of buying them. Grocery auctions specialize in overstock items and dinged and damaged packages. They also carry some foods that are close to their expiration date.
Here's how it works. The auctioneer gets people bidding on a grocery item. Once the price will go no higher, that's what everybody at the auction who wants that product pays.
We attended a grocery auction in Indiana and compared the deals there with prices at a chain supermarket. We found that the savings were 66 percent. The average American family of four spends $10,692 a year on food, household supplies and personal care items, according to the IRS. A 66 percent savings on that total would be $7,056, assuming you were able to do all your shopping at grocery auctions.
How to get in on the game:
Search for grocery auctions near you. You can do this on the Web site of the National Auctioneers Association. Click here /www.elisabethleamy.com/web_links?web_links=chapter%2025∂=Part%20IV
Don't overbid. New auction-goers can get caught up in the excitement of "winning" something and pay too much. Make sure you have a feel for what the same merchandise costs at your regular grocery store, so you don't pay too much.
HEALTHCARE: Hire a Medical Billing Advocate
Sample Savings: $6,858
A shocking 80 percent of hospital bills contain errors, according to Medical Billing Advocates of America. Medical billing advocates are trained to find them and fight them. Best of all, many work on contingency, so you don't pay them a thing unless they're successful.
"It was like a miracle that we found her," said Cynthia Kulp, who hired an advocate to help after a hospital overcharged her for a lumpectomy. Billing advocate Holly Wallack found all sorts of inflated and mistaken charges on Kulp's bill. She negotiated with the hospital and saved Kulp $6,858. Cynthia was uninsured at the time, so this service was particularly crucial to her. But even people with health insurance can easily owe thousands of dollars in copayments for a major hospitalization.
How to find an advocate:
Know the lingo. Medical billing advocates are also called claims assistance professionals, medical claims professionals and healthcare claims advocates. It helps to know all those terms when you go searching for them.
Try these leads. Finding somebody to help you fight your hospital bills is not always easy, only because these professionals' services are not well publicized. That's why I did the work for you and compiled a list of sources where you can find one. Click here www.elisabethleamy.com/web_links?web_links=chapter%2029∂=Part%20V.
So there you have it, a total of $152,114 dollars in surprising savings! Now that's what I'm talking about when I say "Save Big."
To put it in perspective, one of the most common tips for economizing is to cancel your magazine subscriptions. That's fine, but you would have to give up 6,084 annual magazine subscriptions at $25 each to save the amount of money we demonstrated here.
I've given you the nuts and bolts of how to pull off these five savings strategies right here in this article. For even more detailed guidance, please check out my book, "Save Big."
Check it out at the library if you want, but check it out. It contains a total of $1,176,916 worth of savings examples. I've also created a Web site full of recommendations and resources that is the companion to the book. Visit me at www.elisabethleamy.com and join the big discussion.