The Earth has a trio of North Poles, but only one is habitable.
Q. What's the North Pole really like? Do people actually live there?
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A. It depends on which North Pole you are asking about, because North America has three of them. I answered a similar question a few years ago, but I thought it would be fun to revisit the topic now that the holidays are here.
The "geographic" and "magnetic" North Poles are both at the top of the Earth, about 400 miles apart. The latter, where massive magnetic fields make all compasses in the world point to the north, is basically a 6,800-square-mile ice cube that slowly floats about the Arctic Ocean. It's a good environment for whales and seals, but not so good for folks who want to build a house because there's no land under the ice.
Several hundred miles south, however, you can find North Pole, Alaska. It's a town of about 4.2 square miles, the U.S. Census Bureau reports, with roughly 700 homes and 1,800 residents. Many of its citizens work in its thriving tourism industry, which is largely centered on the legend of Santa Claus.
The tiny community was founded about 60 years ago by a real estate developer who thought that toy manufacturers would flock to the area so they could stamp "Made in North Pole" on their products. But few companies took the offer, in part because the average temperature in December is 15 degrees below zero, and windchill factors can make it feel like 50 below.
That's enough to freeze humans, not to mention toy-making machines.
Incidentally, some scientists say that the magnetic North Pole, with its ice blocks shifting up to 25 miles a year, will eventually drift south and wind up in South America or Australia between 500 and 2,000 years from now. At that point, compasses could then be pointing south rather than north -- and Santa might need to wear a swimsuit instead of a fur-covered jacket when delivering presents on Christmas Eve.
Q. I refinanced my mortgage with a small local bank about a year ago at a low fixed interest rate. Now the bank is being purchased by a bigger one. Can the new bank reconfigure the loan and start charging me more?
A. No, the terms of your mortgage cannot be changed simply because the lending institution that gave you the loan is being sold. About the only thing the new bank can do is demand that you send future payments to a new address.
Q. You have written that consumers are entitled to one free credit report from the three nationwide credit bureaus each year. Does that mean I can get just one report from the bureau of my choosing, or instead that I can get a free report from each of the three bureaus every year?
A. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the three big bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- to provide one free copy to consumers every year. This means you can get a total of three freebies (one from each bureau) every 12 months.
The best way to take advantage of this law is to order a free report at four-month intervals. For example, I order one from Experian in January, one from TransUnion in May, and the third from Equifax in September. I start the cycle all over again the following year.
Following this regular cycle keeps me fairly up-to-date on my credit file.
The best place to order your free reports is from www.annualcreditreport.com, the only Internet website operated jointly by the three credit agencies. Several other companies sponsor sites that also offer free reports, but most also insist you sign up for expensive credit-monitoring programs. You probably don't need to get monthly updates on your credit file unless you were recently the victim of identity theft or can't sleep at night fearing you might become one.
It takes just a few minutes to download a copy of your report from annualcreditreport.com. But if you don't have access to the Internet, you can call the group toll-free at (877) 322-8228 and get the report in the mail about two weeks later.
Real estate trivia: The tiny wood or metal case attached to the doorpost of many Jewish homes is called a mezuzah. It contains a small scroll, written in Hebrew, reminding homeowners and their visitors that they should love God and obey his rules.
• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.
© 2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.