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On finance and practice

Mutual funds: Overseas was the place to be in 2005

Except for natural resource specialty funds, which gained 38 percent, domestic equity funds brought in respectable, if less dazzling, earnings. US stock funds returned an average of 8 percent in 2005, with all categories posting positive returns except for bear market funds, which lost over 4 percent. Funds specializing in utilities brought in almost 14 percent, while real estate funds returned about 12 percent. By comparison, the S&P 500 earned a tad under 5 percent.

Asset levels in exchange-traded funds rose about 28 percent during the first 11 months of 2005, more than three times the rate for conventional mutual funds, which increased by 8 percent, according to data from the Investment Company Institute. About 196 ETFs were on the market as of the end of November, compared to 151 at the end of 2004. But they're still heavily outgunned by nearly 8,000 mutual funds, which had total net assets of $8.8 trillion at the end of November vs $290 billion for ETFs.

Unlike traditional mutual funds, ETFs are traded on stock exchanges throughout the day at market-determined prices.

Update the bath, but think twice on the home office

Remodeling the bathroom costs a national average of $10,499, but you'll get back $10,727, or 102 percent, when you sell, says the National Association of Realtors. The exception is if you live in the Midwest, where that same job will fetch you only 90 percent of your costs. The resale value of 12 different home improvement projects is below the national average in the Midwest, where the most lucrative project is updated siding, which has a 96 percent return, equal to the national average.

Westerners, however, benefit the most from projects, recouping more than 100 percent of their costs for midrange bath and kitchen remodeling jobs, attic bedrooms, basement upgrades, deck additions, and window replacements. But, folks out West can expect to get back an average of just 83 percent for adding a home office and 89 percent for a master suite. The national averages are 73 and 82 percent, respectively.

Don't let this "logger" hack at your finances

You never respond to "phishing" e-mails that try to fool you into revealing your personal information, and you've installed security software. So your online brokerage account is safe from hackers, right? Wrong. Keylogger programs that record the keystrokes you make on your computer can slip past antivirus programs and firewalls. The number of keylogger programs rose by a projected 65 percent in 2005, says iDefense, a cyber security company.

But you can defend yourself. The SEC has a new investor guide on protecting online brokerage accounts from identity thieves, at http://www.sec.gov/investor/pubs/onlinebrokerage.htm. One way to protect your account is to use a security token, offered by some institutions. The keychain-sized device generates pass codes that change every 60 seconds, which investors must type in to access their online accounts. E*Trade ( http://www.etrade.com) offers a free security token to investors who make at least 10 trades a month or keep at least $50,000 in their accounts.

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