Travel agents resort to hardline tactics to get out of a refund

The tone was pleasant, but the message on Steph Nixon’s voicemail contained a threat. Nixon, like thousands of others, had been informed by her travel agent that her package tour of Morocco could not go ahead because of coronavirus restrictions.

Also, like thousands of others, her request for a refund was refused. The agent, TourRadar, claimed it was a “suspension”, not a cancellation, and that she would have to accept a credit note. The tour operator, Intrepid Travel, insisted that a credit note was the only option.

Nixon, who is on furlough and fears for the future of her job, issued a chargeback claim for her £600 via her card company, Amex. That’s when the voicemail message was left.

A TourRadar operative said it was successfully contesting credit card claims and that if she did not drop her case, it would deem her to have cancelled the holiday and breached the contract. She would, therefore, be left without a refund and lose her entitlement to the credit note.

“TourRadar has continued to advise me every day by email that if I don’t withdraw the dispute within 24 hours it will remove the offer of credit and I’ll receive nothing,” she says. “It claims that it doesn’t have long to file paperwork with Amex to fight its side, but Amex tells me that dispute windows have been lengthened to 60 days. I believe they’re trying to put pressure on me by creating a false deadline. I now have no idea what to do.”

The travel industry is facing ruin as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on the holiday market. Although consumer law requires firms to refund customers if they cannot provide the goods and services purchased, many are instead offering protected credit notes in a bid to remain solvent. Some appear to be trying to manipulate the law to deter those who are unable or unwilling to rebook their cancelled holidays.

The Observer has been contacted about half a dozen agents who have retrospectively added exemption clauses to their terms and conditions, renamed cancellations “postponements” to avoid payouts or threatened customers who seek to enforce their right to a refund.

The approach by TourRadar, which sells holidays arranged by a range of package tour operators including Intrepid, is troubling.

Customers who do not receive the goods or services they have paid for have the right to make a claim via their card issuer. They can do this either through the voluntary chargeback scheme operated by Visa, Mastercard and Amex – which retrieves the money from the trader’s bank – or, if they used a credit card, under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, which requires the card issuer to cover the cost.

Nixon’s booking had already been cancelled by the tour operator before she sought redress from Amex, so it’s absurd for TourRadar to threaten to hold her liable for cancelling it herself.

Nonetheless, an email from customer services informed her that the booking terms and conditions had been amended after the coronavirus outbreak to redefine cancellations as “suspensions”. Amended terms and conditions can’t be retrospectively applied to a contract and the original terms promised a refund if the operator had to cancel.

Moreover, the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations require operators to issue refunds within 14 days for cancelled trips. Nixon was eventually refunded after approaching Intrepid for a second time.

The Financial Ombudsman Service says it was unaware of companies trying to pressure customers to drop claims. “Consumers have the right to make a complaint about section 75 with their bank and we’ll expect businesses to investigate these complaints thoroughly and treat consumers fairly,” it says.

Amex told the Observer that it took into account the terms and conditions that were in place at the time of the transaction if a card holder raised a dispute. “Our card acceptance agreements require merchants to comply with the laws applicable to their businesses,” it says.

TourRadar claimed that the voice messages were merely a recommendation that Nixon seek a refund directly from the tour operator, despite the fact that its subsequent emails insisted that Intrepid’s refusal was non-negotiable, and none suggested she approach Intrepid again.

“Looking back, we do acknowledge that communication between our team and Ms Nixon was not very clear in explaining this recommendation as typically the most successful route,” says Vanessa Subramaniam, global director of customer support at TourRadar. “We take full responsibility for this. Moving forward, we’ll continue to work on our training to ensure processes like these are carried out in line with best practices and standards in place.” Intrepid Travel was contacted for a comment.

Sheila Pearce was also told that her tour operator’s terms and conditions had been changed retrospectively, denying her the refund promised for her cancelled package holiday. When she attempted to recover the money through the small claims court, she was warned that the company would use pending insolvency legislation to thwart it.

Pearce had booked a £3,640 tour of Pompeii with an award-winning specialist travel company, Andante Travel. She was notified that the trip would have to be cancelled due to the pandemic and was twice promised a refund within six weeks. Instead of her money, she received a message informing her that the booking terms and conditions had been changed and she was only due a credit note.

“We objected on the grounds that we are pensioners with an underlying medical condition, so we will almost certainly never travel abroad again,” says Pearce.

Andante refused to budge and, when she began legal action, its lawyer sent a letter advising that the company could not afford to pay refunds to all its customers. It warned that the directors would not defend her claim so a default judgment would be issued by the court and have to be enforced.

Enforcement is usually done through a petition to wind up a company and, the letter stated, the pending corporate insolvency and governance bill, designed to protect struggling companies during the pandemic, would prevent Pearce doing that.

“It will therefore be the case that in the event that you proceed with your claim and are successful in obtaining judgment, the company will not make payment and will be protected from further enforcement measures by you,” the letter concluded.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told the Observer that the new rules do not prevent creditors appointing bailiffs to enforce a county court judgment, and that winding up petitions can still be brought once the temporary new insolvency legislation has expired.

“The measures are not a licence for a company not to pay debts which remain legally due and enforceable,” says a government spokesperson. “Where cancellations occur, companies have a legal obligation to ensure their consumers are fairly compensated.”

Jackie Willis, CEO of Andante Travel, says the purpose of the letter is “simply to set the legal position from the company’s viewpoint, having received appropriate professional advice”.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has set up a taskforce to investigate companies that have behaved unfairly towards customers during the pandemic, including tour operators and holiday lettings companies. The majority of the complaints have been about cancellations and refunds, with 75% about holiday companies and airlines. “The vast majority of businesses are behaving in a reasonable way, but the CMA will not hesitate to take enforcement action if there is evidence that businesses have breached competition or consumer protection law,” it says.

Pearce is still without her £3,640. Andante Travel promised customers that they can claim a refund if they do not use their credit notes before they expire at the end of March 2021, but Pearce does not want to wait a further nine months.

“I feel they are, in effect, using our money as an interest-free loan without any agreement on our part,” she says. “This is causing us considerable stress, to say nothing of the disappointment from losing the chance to visit Pompeii which we have planned for 40 years.”

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Canada's Trudeau unsure about D.C. trip, cites concern over tariffs

Trump: Trade deals with China, Mexico, Canada, Japan will help farmers

President Trump discusses the USMCA and trade deals with China and Japan while speaking to supporters at a ‘Keep America Great’ rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

OTTAWA  - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday he was still unsure whether he would go to Washington D.C. next week to celebrate a new North American trade treaty, citing concern about possible U.S. tariffs on aluminum.

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Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is due to meet President Donald Trump next week, has said he would like Trudeau to attend.

"We're still in discussions with the Americans about whether a trilateral summit next week makes sense," Trudeau said in a news conference. "We're obviously concerned about the proposed issue of tariffs on aluminum and steel that the Americans have floated recently."


U.S. national security tariffs on imported steel and aluminum – including from Canada and Mexico – were a major irritant during negotiations for the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal, which was reached last year and entered into force on July 1.

U.S President Donald Trump and Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participate in a bilateral meeting at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

But now, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer is considering domestic producers' request to restore the 10 percent duty on Canadian aluminum to combat a "surge" of imports.

Concern about the "health situation and the coronavirus reality that is still hitting all three of our countries" is another factor in his decision on whether to go to Washington, Trudeau said.


The spread of the novel coronavirus has slowed steadily in Canada over the past eight weeks, but new cases are spiking in many U.S. states.

As of June 2, Canada had recorded a total of 104,772 coronavirus cases, with 68,345 recovered and 8,642 deaths.


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Potato chip heiress wins back control of fortune

The booming business of healthy snacks

Prommus CEO Anthony Brahimsha, Krave and Smashmallow founder Jon Sebastiani and SnackNation CEO Sean Kelly on efforts to innovate within the snack food industry with healthier options.

MONTGOMERY, Ala.  — The heiress to the Golden Flake potato chip empire is for now back in control of her fortune after a ruling Thursday by the Alabama Supreme Court.

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The court voided a 2019 probate order granting an emergency conservator that came after two employees claimed that 88-year-old Joann Bashinsky has dementia and is mentally unfit to handle her vast estate.

Justices said Bashinsky’s basic due-process rights were egregiously violated when the probate court made the emergency decision without giving her time to obtain counsel after her lawyers were disqualified. The permanent petition remains pending before the court.


Joann Bashinsky is the widow of Sloan Y. Bashinsky, Sr. who owned the majority stock in Golden Enterprises, Inc., and who was the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Golden Flake Foods. Her personal estate is estimated to be worth $80 million, and her entire estate was valued at $218 million.

Pennsylvania-based Utz Quality Foods bought Golden Enterprises for $141 million in 2016.


Joann Bashinsky has been locked in a legal battle with two former employees who claim she has dementia and is no longer able to manage her estate. The petition to appoint a conservator came after Bashinsky loaned her only grandson $23 million for his business ventures.

The employees said the grandson has undue influence over his grandmother. Bashinsky’s lawyers have disputed that she has dementia and that she wants to help her only grandson and heir.

Justices said the situation did not merit an emergency action by the probate court.


Justices said the petitioners and the probate judge “may all firmly believe that Ms. Bashinsky’s generosity to her grandson is financially unwise, and they may be correct in that judgment.”

“But such a concern is not an occasion for invoking the emergency procedures afforded a court as a result of which Ms. Bashinsky was admittedly deprived of proper notice of the hearing and, more egregiously, not given the opportunity at that hearing to present her own explanations for her behavior.”


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Top economist reveals key to post-coronavirus recovery

Was the federal government’s economic response to coronavirus appropriate?

Hoover Institution research fellow David Henderson argues the federal government singled out which businesses could receive grants during the coronavirus pandemic, which caused other businesses to suffer in the process.

A former member of President Ronald Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers believes in order to really get the economy to recover from the coronavirus, Americans need to be encouraged to go back to work.

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David Henderson told FOX Business' Gerry Baker during "WSJ at Large" it’s important to end a government program aimed at helping those who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.


“The major thing that will help growth is if they let that $600 per week federal unemployment benefit expire at the end of the month,” he argued. “If they do that, the [jobs] numbers, which will come out in September, will be great.”


Henderson, who is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, explained those payments are a strong disincentive for unemployed to go back to work.

“There are about 20 million people who would make more being unemployed than being employed,” he pointed out.


Henderson is also critical of the overall federal response to help businesses during the crisis.

“What they’re essentially practicing is industrial policy because they’re singling out who should get these grants and who shouldn’t,” he said. “I call them grants because, if you look at the details if you walk through certain hoops, you don’t have to pay it back.”

His suggestion is to make businesses think harder about reaching out for government assistance. 


“If you were going to have the federal government do something it would have some kind of loan program where people could borrow 60 to 80 percent of their previous year’s tax liability and pay a serious interest rate, [such as] 3, 4, 5 percent, not 1 percent,” he proposed. “And then, businesses would have an incentive to say: “How badly do we need this? Do we think we’ll be in business in a few months?” 

He feels any financial help should be about looking toward helping the economy of the future.

“As you can probably imagine, we’re going to have different businesses when we come out of this,” he explained. “And we’ll probably have major structural changes and we don’t know which ones will last and which ones won’t.”

"Wall Street at Large" airs at 9:30 p.m. ET on Fridays on FOX Business Network.


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Mortgage refinance rates could drop even lower ⁠— 4 ways to prepare

Mortgage rates are at record lows—and they could sink even deeper. (iStock)

Although the coronavirus crisis has had a devastating impact on the U.S. economy, the pandemic has also dropped mortgage rates to all-time lows. That’s great news for homeowners looking to refinance.

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The 30-year fixed-rate average plummetted to a record-low 3.13 percent the week ending June 18, according to data from mortgage giant Freddie Mac, marking its lowest recorded level since the company began tracking mortgage rates in 1971. The 5-year adjustable-rate average dropped to 3.09 percent, down from 3.48 percent a year ago.

Meanwhile, for the week ending June 12, the number of refinancing applications jumped 10 percent compared to the previous week—nearly doubling the number of applications filed during the same week last year, according to data released by the Mortgage Bankers Association. Refinance loans made up 63 percent of all mortgage applications that week.

No one knows if rates have bottomed out. They could continue to tumble. After all, the mortgage market is extremely volatile at the moment, as the nation continues to grapple with the effects of COVID-19. But one thing is clear: If you’re thinking about refinancing your home loan, now is the right time to take steps to prepare for another big drop.

It’s also a great time to explore your mortgage refinance options, which you can do in minutes by visiting Credible to compare rates and lenders.

Here are four ways to prepare for the next plunge in refinance rates.

1. Start shopping around now

Don’t wait to start getting offers from several mortgage lenders. It pays to shop around since mortgage rates can vary greatly from lender to lender. Even a small difference could shave hundreds of dollars off your monthly mortgage payments and save you tens of thousands of dollars over the term of your loan.

Moreover, getting acquainted with lenders now, and establishing relationships with loan officers, will put you in a position where you’ll be ready to pull the trigger the next time rates drop. You can visit Credible today to compare refi offers from mortgage lenders.


2. Improve your credit score

As always, the best refi rates will go to the borrowers with the best credit scores (think FICO scores of 750 or higher). So if your credit score needs improvement, use the time that you have now to raise it.

Here are a few steps you can take to improve your score:

  • Eliminate outstanding debts. Carrying a balance on your credit cards? Start chipping away at it so that you’re debt-free when rates drop again.
  • Check your credit report for errors. You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit-reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) at Check for mistakes (one in four Americans in a Federal Trade Commission survey said they spotted errors on their reports). If you find a mistake, alert the credit bureau and creditor immediately to get it removed from your report.
  • Increase your credit limits. Ask your credit card companies to increase your credit limits. This will improve your debt-to-credit utilization ratio, which compares how much you owe to how much you can borrow. It comprises 30 percent of your credit score, according to FICO’s scoring model.


3. Do the math

Just because refinance rates are low and could go lower doesn’t mean it makes sense for every homeowner to refinance.

Ask yourself: How much time is left on the mortgage? What would your closing costs be to refinance? How long would it take for you to break even? These are all important questions to answer before you’re forced to act quickly to lock in a low refi rate.


Need help running the numbers? Use a refinance calculator to see how long you'd have to stay in your home to start saving money.

4. Build up the equity in the home to 20 percent or more

Most mortgage lenders will require you to have at least a 20 percent equity in your home before they'll approve your refinance application. Having 20 percent or more equity also means you'll avoid paying private mortgage insurance, or PMI, on your new loan. PMI is a premium that protects the lender in case you default on your loan, and it can range from 0.55 percent to 2.25 percent of the original loan amount each year, according to a report from the Urban Institute.


The bottom line

If you’re interested in refinancing, don’t just sit back and wait for mortgage rates to drop. You’ll need to be ready to pull the trigger if you want to lock in the lowest rate possible.

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3 mistakes that could wreck your retirement if there's a second wave of COVID-19

31 million Americans dip into retirement savings during COVID-19 pandemic

Workers also contributing less to retirement funds; Fox Biz Flash: 5/27.

If you're getting close to retirement age, the coronavirus pandemic could cause you to reconsider your plans. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and your retirement investments may have taken a hit over the last few months.

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While the stock market has (at least temporarily) rebounded and many businesses are reopening, the majority of Americans are concerned that it's too soon to go back to normal. In fact, 68% of U.S. adults are worried states will lift COVID-19 restrictions too early, according to a May survey from Pew Research Center.

Re-opening the economy too soon could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases, and a second wave of COVID-19 could spell trouble for your retirement strategy. While nobody knows for sure whether there will be a second wave, there are a few mistakes you should avoid if you want to keep your retirement plans on track.


Mistake No. 1: Pulling your money out of the stock market

Although the stock market has bounced back from its downturn earlier this year, a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic could result in another market crash. If you're nearing retirement age, it may be tempting to pull your savings out of the stock market in order to protect your money. However, withdrawing your cash can be an incredibly risky move, for a couple of reasons.

For one, there are penalties for taking your money out of your retirement fund before a certain age. By withdrawing your cash from your 401(k) or traditional IRA before age 59-1/2, you'll be subject to a 10% penalty fee and will also need to pay income taxes on the amount you withdraw. Although the CARES Act temporarily lifted some of the restrictions around retirement accounts, those new rules only apply to those who are using the money for coronavirus-related expenses — not those who are concerned about a market crash.


In addition, pulling your money from the stock market can be risky because you're attempting to time the market. You want to keep your money invested while the stock market is climbing, then withdraw your cash at the last possible moment before a crash. That kind of timing is nearly impossible to achieve, even for professional investors, and pulling out of the market at the wrong time could cost you a lot of money.

Mistake No. 2: Retiring now if you’re not financially prepared

If you've lost your job and can't find another one, you may have no choice but to retire now, whether you're ready or not. But if you are fortunate enough to still be employed and you're considering retiring now, triple-check that you're financially prepared.

One of the pitfalls of retiring when the stock market is volatile is that you risk withdrawing money from your retirement account during a market downturn. If you choose to retire now and the market crashes again, you'll probably end up withdrawing your savings when stock prices are at rock bottom — potentially losing money on your investments.


Before you retire, consider all your sources of retirement income. If you're going to be relying primarily on your personal savings and you have just enough saved to get by, retiring now could be risky because a crash could wreck your plans. Instead, it might be wise to hold off on retiring for a couple of years until the stock market is a little less volatile, or find other sources of retirement income so you won't be so dependent on your savings.

Mistake No. 3: Pressing pause on saving for retirement

It can be daunting to continue investing when a second wave of COVID-19 is looming, but not saving for retirement right now could be even more dangerous.

Saving for retirement takes decades of consistent work, and pressing pause right now will cause you to miss out on your most valuable resource: time. Nobody knows how long it could be before the stock market stabilizes, and if you stop saving for a year or two (or more), that can throw off your retirement plans.


Of course, it may seem counterintuitive to invest even when a market crash could be imminent, but market downturns are prime opportunities to invest. Because stock prices are at their lowest, you can get a lot more for your money by investing when the market is down. If you were to wait until the market stabilizes to invest, you'd miss out on the chance to load up on stocks at a deep discount.

It can be tough to prepare for retirement when the future is uncertain, and nobody has all the right answers. But by avoiding these mistakes, you can ensure you're doing everything possible to keep your retirement plans on track regardless of what the stock market does.


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Utilities Stocks Power Higher Amid 'Accommodative' Fed Minutes

The supposedly safe-haven utilities sector traded at a 7% discount to the broad-based S&P 500 Index through the first half of 2020 as investors shun the group for companies poised to benefit from the pandemic and jump into market darling FAANG stocks. However, the underperforming utilities segment caught a bid Wednesday after the June Fed minutes revealed that FOMC members stressed the need for prolonged accommodative monetary policy amid ongoing uncertainty and considerable risks to the economic outlook.

Years of low interest rates make utilities stocks more attractive as investors chase higher-paying yields. Currently, the sector offers an average 3.95% yield compared to just 0.673% for the U.S. 10-year Treasury Note.  Moreover, servicing debt becomes more affordable for capital-intensive utilities companies, allowing them to continue funding infrastructure for future growth.

Below, we look at three bellwether utilities players and identify important technical levels to watch.

NextEra Energy, Inc. (NEE)

NextEra Energy, Inc. (NEE) generates, transmits, and distributes electricity to roughly 5 million retail and wholesale customers in North America. The Florida-based power supplier disclosed first quarter adjusted earnings of $2.38 per share on total revenues of $4.6 billion. Both metrics surpassed Street expectations and grew 8.2% and 13.2%, respectively, from a year earlier. Analysts have a 12-month price target on the stock at $260.40, indicating 6% of upside from Wednesday's $246.26 close. As of July 2, 2020, NextEra Energy shares have a $120.53 billion market capitalization, offer a 2.33% dividend yield, and are trading 2.85% higher on the year.

The stock has oscillated within an orderly 30-point ascending channel since mid-April, providing several high-probability setups for those who favor range-bound strategies. Swing traders should consider buying the recent dip that finds significant support from the pattern's lower trendline and the closely aligned 50- and 200-day simple moving averages (SMAs). In terms of trade management, aim to book profits near the channel's top trendline around $270 and protect capital with a stop-loss order placed under this week's low at $233.76.

Chart depicting the share price of NextEra Energy, Inc. (NEE)

Xcel Energy Inc. (XEL)

Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy Inc. (XEL) provides electricity and natural gas services to over 5 million customers, primarily in Midwestern states. Despite the $33.71 billion energy giant reporting an 8.2% year-over-year decline in first quarter profit, management still anticipates full-year earnings growth of between 5% and 7%. The company also intends to increase its dividend rate and targets a payout ratio of 60% to 70%. As of July 2, 2020, Xcel Energy stock issues a 2.75% dividend yield and has gained 2.45% year to date.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Xcel Energy shares have formed a broad symmetrical triangle that provides well-defined support and resistance areas. The stock rallied nearly 3% from the pattern's lower trendline and 200-day SMA Wednesday in a move that may result in a breakout in upcoming trading sessions. Those who enter at these levels should look for a retest of the 52-week high just above $70 but cut losses on a breakdown below the triangle's lower trendline.

Chart depicting the share price of Xcel Energy Inc. (XEL)

Duke Energy Corporation (DUK)

Duke Energy Corporation (DUK) distributes and sells regulated utilities to over 7 million customers in the Carolinas, Indiana, Florida, Ohio, and Kentucky. The company missed analysts' first quarter earnings expectations and saw its top line contract 3.5% from the March 2019 quarter due to milder winter weather and severe early spring storms. On the valuation front, the energy provider trades at around 16 times this year's earnings, slightly below its five-year average multiple of 17 times. As of July 2, 2020, Duke Energy stock is down 8.1% year to date but has added nearly 7% over the past three months. Investors receive an enticing 4.73% dividend yield.

Duke Energy shares have remained stuck in a three-month trading range after an initial sharp rebound from their March 23 capitulation low. The stock has held support near the range's lower trendline and psychological $80 level this week, with gains accelerating through Wednesday's session. Furthermore, a relative strength index (RSI) reading below 50 gives price ample room to march toward overhead resistance at $92.5 before consolidating. Traders should limit downside with a stop situated beneath the June low at $77.58.

Chart depicting the share price of Duke Energy Corporation (DUK)
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New car prices rise 3% in June, boosted by non-luxury car and light truck sales

Fox Business Flash top headlines for July 1

Fox Business Flash top headlines are here. Check out what’s clicking on

Despite the continued threat of COVID-19 on the economy, the average price of new vehicles purchased this June climbed to $38,530, representing an increase of over three percent compared to a year ago, according to analysts at Kelley Blue Book.

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While sales throughout the three months ending in June are projected to be down 35 percent due to the pandemic and the "ensuing economic recession," sale prices have strengthed more than normal, analyst Tim Fleming said.


"The industry average climbed 3 percent – helped by increases in non-luxury cars – and light truck sales mix at around 75 percent of the total market," he said. "Today's new-car buyers are likely more financially secure despite the economic uncertainty, and they are purchasing a disproportionate number of trucks and SUVs."


The average transaction price (ATP) of vehicles made by Nissan North America, which includes the Nissan and Infiniti brands, rose the most in June, up 8.5 percent from the same period last year, according to Kelley Blue Book data.


The ATP of the manufacturer's redesigned Versa rose 15 percent and the Sentra was up 7 percent. Nissan's mid-size Frontier increased by more than 4 percent. The automaker's top seller, the Rogue, saw an increase of 1.5 percent — it will be replaced with a new generation later this year.


Analysts cautioned that these elevated prices are likely to remain throughout the summer months due to the coronavirus-related factory shutdowns this past spring and the slow supply chain ramp-ups that followed, as well as the recent resurgence in used-car values.

Although buyers are heading back to dealerships, they are still shying away from luxury brands, which saw prices dip 1.5 percent, Fleming said.


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Mortgage applications are rising dramatically — here’s why

Why are Americans still buying homes, despite the ongoing pandemic? A few factors are at play. (iStock)

The coronavirus pandemic has had sweeping effects on the U.S. economy. Unemployment reached Depression-era lows, the financial markets tanked, and businesses shuttered across the country.

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And the housing market? That felt the burn, too.

Forbearances surged. Popular iBuyers like Opendoor and Offerpad halted operations. At one point, mortgage applications decreased nearly 30 percent in just one week.

That was spring, though. It’s now summer — not that far removed from the first COVID-19 case hit — and it seems housing may be on its way back up. In fact, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association, mortgage applications to purchase a home jumped 26 percent in just May alone. For the first week of June, refinance applications were up another 11 percent.

Why are people buying and refinancing homes right now?

Unemployment is still at over 13 percent, so finances are strapped for many Americans.

Still, mortgage applications are rising despite it all. Buyer demand is up, too. According to real estate brokerage Redfin, overall demand from homebuyers is now up 25 percent over pre-pandemic levels.

What’s causing this jump in activity with all that’s going on? There are a few factors:

1. Low mortgage rates

Rates on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages hit record lows in May, at one point reaching 3.15 percent. For buyers, those low rates can mean a more affordable mortgage payment or more homebuying power.

Credible can help you to compare rates, loan terms and assess your likely mortgage payment. Visit today to see what a mortgage loan might mean for you.


“Homebuyers can now afford more home than previously budgeted thanks to mortgage rates floating at or near historic lows,” said Bill Banfield, EVP of capital markets at Quicken Loans. “Their housing options are increasing significantly – all while maintaining the monthly payment they can comfortably afford. This sudden surge in buying power offers a great opportunity for Americans searching for a new home after months of being confined during the period of quarantine.”

Low rates are also good for existing homeowners. Just a small dip in rates can mean big savings — both on the monthly payment and in long-term interest costs. In fact, according to the latest Mortgage Monitor report from data firm Black Knight, about 14 million homeowners could shave at least 0.75 percent off their mortgage rate through refinancing.

Keep in mind, getting those low rates requires shopping around. Rates vary widely by lender, so use a tool like Credible to compare your options and get the best deal.


2. Reopenings and lifting of stay-at-home orders

Many parts of the country have started lifting shelter-in-place orders, and businesses and workplaces are beginning to reopen. As this happens, homebuyers who may have been putting off their purchases are getting back into the market.

Homeowners are starting to feel more comfortable going out, too — including to the various lenders and title companies required to refinance their loans.

3. Demand for more space

After months in lockdown, often with kids, spouses, and extended family members, many Americans are feeling stifled. They’ve been homeschooling, working from home, and confined to small spaces for weeks on end — and it has many yearning for a more spacious property.


Many are looking for houses with home offices, more outdoor amenities, or just extra rooms to allow for more privacy. There’s also been an interest in moving to the suburbs and more rural parts of the country, particularly from those living in urban regions. This is likely a result of social distancing recommendations, as Americans look to create more space between them and their neighbors.

Should you make your move?

With mortgage rates so low, it could be a good time to buy a house, but keep in mind: housing inventory is low right now. That means fewer options and more competition as you hit the market.

To stand out from other buyers, make sure you get preapproved for your mortgage loan before shopping for your home (Credible can help here) and increase your earnest money deposit if you’re up against a bidding war.


You can also write a letter to the seller making a personal appeal for the property or include an escalation clause, which increases your offer — up to a certain point — if you get outbid.

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Landlords fall short on property taxes after COVID-19 wiped out rent payments

The tax man cometh, even during a pandemic.

July 1 marked the deadline for thousands of beleaguered building owners to fork over billions of dollars in property taxes to New York City — and nearly half of them are expected to fall short.

Some 6 percent of property owners won’t be able to pay their tax bills at all, while another 39 percent will only be able to make partial payments, according to a survey by trade group Community Housing Improvement Program, or CHIP.

The June survey took the pulse of landlords for 500,000 rent-stabilized residential units, but is reflective of the larger industry, as the coronavirus hammers a diverse group of tenants — from residential to commercial, CHIP spokesman Michael Johnson told The Post.

“People who have owned buildings for decades for the first time in their life will be unable to pay their property taxes,” Johnson said.

The city had been counting on an estimated $30 billion in property taxes this year — or roughly one-third of its budget. Yet little consideration has been given to landlords’ plight, industry sources said.

Property owners last month asked for a freeze on property tax rates; a reduction in interest penalties from 18 percent to 3 percent, and for monthly payment plans for their taxes — but their requests have not been granted.

In fact, property taxes were raised this year by $1.65 billion based on assessments conducted before the pandemic, The Wall Street Journal reported.

“The financial assistance is very one-sided, all aimed at the tenant,” lamented Arthur Franciosa, who owns about 30 residential and commercial buildings in the city, mostly in The Bronx.

Many of Franciosa’s retail tenants, including nail salons, have been unable to pay rent for months, during which time he has been covering their share of the property tax as well as their water and sewer charges.

He has been forgiving rent in some cases, but now doesn’t have enough to pay his full tax bill, which will start the clock ticking on 18 percent penalty charges until he either pays the bill or the city begins lien proceedings against him.

Another landlord said she just borrowed $40,000 from a relative to cover the property tax bill of three commercial buildings her family owns.

Two of her major tenants have been unable to pay their rent since the pandemic hit in March. But paying the $50,000-plus tax bill was a priority because of the onerous 18 percent penalty.

“It’s a bad situation when you have to borrow money from a relative,” said the landlord, who asked not to be named. “We are being forced to pay our tenants’ bills and the city’s bills.”

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