Don't let the chances pass by

Local experts have a message for folks worried about their savings accounts, mortgages and investments: The bleak economy presents some opportunities, if you know where to look.

The Herald sought insight from a financial planner, appraiser, real estate attorney and banker about how to make smart choices at a time when fear dominates the marketplace.

Financial planner: Don't act on emotion

When clients come to his office for financial advice, Larry Carroll lays out a basic premise: Take the emotion out of your decision.

Carroll, a Rock Hill native, points out that consumers pulled more money out of mutual funds in September and October than any previous months. In many cases, acting with haste is the wrong approach.

"This movie always ends the same way," Carroll said. "I don't know whether it will be two months or two years, but I'm confident that in five years you're going to look back at this and think it was a great buying opportunity."

Carroll points clients toward large pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer, where dividends are approaching 7.6 percent. He also recommends small community banks, which haven't suffered from the mortgage meltdown plaguing big banks.

"Those are two opportunities as good as any I've seen in my career from a risk-reward perspective," he said.

Appraiser: Get help early

Too many homeowners wait until they're in crisis mode before seeking help, said real estate appraiser Sherry Martin.

Martin said most lenders will work with homeowners to restructure debts if the requests come early enough. Unfortunately, many wait until they're three months behind on house payments.

In extreme cases, homeowners who fear their homes are about to go into foreclosure will simply pack up their belongings and leave town. That means they lose whatever equity they had accumulated.

"That's their way of saying, 'I'm going to lose my home anyway, so I'm just going to leave,'" Martin said. "And that's so senseless."

Real estate lawyer: Consider refinancing

One of the smartest moves a homeowner can make is to refinance a mortgage from a 25- or 30-year term to 15 years, said real estate lawyer and Rock Hill City Councilman John Gettys. There are two major advantages to making the change, he said.

First, homeowners can often get lower interest rates that offset higher monthly payments. At one point last week, 15-year interest rates stood at 5.125 percent, well below the levels of previous months.

Second, they can avoid hundreds of dollars in closing costs and origination fees. Unlike in healthier economic times, banks will now waive these charges as they compete for customers. Fifteen years from now, the change can free up money to pay college tuition bills or help a person settle into retirement.

"If your payment is just $100 more a month, and you decrease your term by several years, you've just saved a tremendous amount of money, and you've helped yourself out in the long term," Gettys said.

Banker: Avoid impulse buys

Plenty of discounts are available at the mall this holiday season. But don't get lured into spending more than you normally would, said Kyle Curtis of Citizens South Bank.

Curtis advises families to avoid impulse buys by making shopping lists in advance. Another tip: Save receipts and add them up a week or two before Christmas. It'll provide a reality check on how much more you can afford to spend.

"A big mistake -- 'I'll put it on my credit card and pay for it later,'" said Curtis, a Rock Hill native. "That's how credit cards run up. That can get you into trouble pretty quickly."