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posted: 3/21/2014 12:01 AM

Parents shouldn't use college fund to bankroll son's home

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Q. We are not rich, but we managed to put $19,500 into an account for our daughter to attend college and another $19,500 for our son to go to school, too. Our daughter is in her second year of college and is doing great, but our son is 17 years old and wants the $19,500 to make a down payment on a fixer-upper house instead of furthering his education. What should we do?

A. Your son won't like my response to your letter. But the truth is that the $19,500 you scrambled to save for his college education doesn't belong to him. It belongs to you.

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Lots of parents try to divvy up their savings, and even their estates, with the hope that their kids will feel they were treated equally. The $19,500 you're giving your daughter to help pay for her college education is money well spent. But giving that same amount to a 17-year-old boy who wants to skip college and instead use the cash to take a gamble on a fixer-upper house is a different matter.

Perhaps your son has been watching too many of those shows on cable TV, which make it look easy to buy an undervalued property, make some inexpensive repairs and then quickly resell it for a handsome profit. But your son is only 17, which suggests he has little or no real estate experience. He's not even old enough to sign a legal contract to buy a house and get a mortgage: You'd have to do it for him, which would make you financially liable if the investment turned sour.

Hang on to the $19,500 you have set aside for your son's schooling, at least for another year or two. If he's truly dedicated to becoming a real estate investor, he'll first invest the time to go to real estate school to learn more about the business and obtain a sales license when he turns 18. But for now, tell him that if he wants some money, he should go out and get a job.

Q. The weather has finally turned decent in our area, so it's time to mow our lawn for the first time in months. I bought a really expensive gas-powered lawn mower at the start of last year, but now it won't start. The store won't replace or repair it because its one-year warranty has expired, but having a full-time repair shop do the work would easily cost more than $200 or $300 for an initial inspection, labor, a tuneup and any parts that might be needed. Can you think of any alternatives?

A. Yes. It's fairly common for gas mowers, hedge-trimmers and the like not to start after they have sat unused for several weeks or months, especially if the weather has been unusually cold. That's because the gas that's left inside the tank can turn "stale," losing its ability to fire up an engine.

Before you spend a few hundred bucks to have a pro look at the machine, try this easy trick that I first learned from an official at the Virginia-based Outdoor Power Equipment Institute: Safely empty and dispose of the old gasoline that's left in the tank, refill it with fresh gas, and then try to start the engine. Let it run for a few minutes until it's humming smoothly before you start mowing.

There's a good chance that this plan will work, thus helping you to avoid the cost of hiring a pro.

Q. I want to rent my first apartment, but the lease the landlord wants me to sign requires that I get a renters' insurance policy to cover my losses if my personal possessions get damaged or stolen. It seems to me I should be the one to decide if I want the insurance or not. Is his request legal? Besides, doesn't the landlord have to carry insurance himself?

A. His request that you obtain a renters' policy is perfectly legal, and fairly common among landlords. And though the property owner almost certainly has a policy of his own, it only covers damage to the building itself, not the personal items you would keep inside your individual unit -- or the massive bills you might face if someone gets hurt while visiting you in your apartment.

Most standard renters' insurance policies cost between $150 and $250 a year, although figures vary based on factors ranging from the size and location of the apartment to the value of the personnel property that's insured. But even if your policy costs a bit more, it's a pretty good deal when you consider the breath of the coverage that such a policy provides: Just imagine how much it would cost to replace all of your furniture, clothes, computers and other stuff if they were lost to a fire or stolen by a thief.

A good source of information about renters' and homeowners' insurance alike is the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, www.iii.org. Several websites, including NetQuote.com and InsWeb.com, will give you free online quotes. Also check with the company that provides your auto insurance, because most insurers offer discounts if they provide a customer with more than one type of coverage.

Real estate trivia: Homes use only 8 percent of the world's water supply, according to a study by the United Nations. About 22 percent is used for industrial purposes, with the remaining 70 percent used for irrigation.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/Trust, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

© 2014, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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