How to Organize Your Refrigerator

How to Organize Your Refrigerator

By: Courtney Craig

Published: October 30, 2012

Leftovers gobbling up space in your refrigerator? Here are some tips for keeping things organized, efficient, and tasty.

Dreaming of a clean refrigerator, but not sure how to organize? We’ve got some cool ideas.

Front and center

Give prime fridge space to priority items, says professional organizer Kathi Burns, founder of Add Space to Your Life.

“If you want leftovers to be eaten, keep them front and center on the middle rack, at eye level,” says Burns. “That goes for healthy snacks, too. If you have leftovers, don’t cram them in the back.”

For large food items, slice and store in several containers, says professional organizer Abbey Claire Keusch. If your refrigerator has adjustable shelves, you can move them around for specific items. Have a plan for the food you keep.

Did you know that ketchup, vinegar, jam, and even mayonnaise and butter don’t need to be refrigerated? If you’re tight on fridge space, these items and more can go in the pantry instead.

And if you have backyard chickens, the eggs you get from them don’t need to be refrigerated, although store-bought eggs do (American regulations require eggs to be power-washed before selling, which strips eggshells of their protective coating, so store-bought eggs have to be refrigerated to stay fresh).

The only items that really need to go in the fridge are meats, dairy products, and certain vegetables (unless you’re going to eat them right away).

Items that should never go in the refrigerator include:
Tomatoes (they’ll get mushy faster if they’re cold).
Onions (they’ll soften, plus all your other food will smell like onions).
Honey (it’ll get too thick).
Potatoes (cold temperatures turn starches into sugars, giving your taters a sweet flavor when you cook them, and not in a good way).

Go against the flow

Today’s refrigerators are designed to be organized a certain way — condiments in the door, vegetables in the crisper, gallon of milk on the center rack. But it doesn’t have to be that way, Burns says.

“For busy families, I recommend a ‘lunch bin’ that you can pull out,” she says. “Keep the mayo, mustard, pickles, meat, and cheese in there, so you can just pull it out and make a sandwich. It’s easy for kids. You can create a bin for healthy snacks, too, or a breakfast bin with bagels and cream cheese.”

Pulling out one bin instead of many individual items is faster, too, so your refrigerator door doesn’t stay open as long. For smaller refrigerators that don’t have drawers, long, rectangular bins can be used for easy organizing.

“Same goes for the freezer — just use a Tupperware bin for frozen veggies, so you can pull out all the bags of veggies in one fell swoop,” Burns says. “It works really well.”

Hip to be square

Refrigerators are more efficient when they’re fuller, but that doesn’t mean you should cram as much stuff in there as possible. Square or rectangular containers are the way to go for leftovers — they’re easily stackable and fit into corners neatly.

“Stay away from round containers,” says Burns. “That’s just wasted space.”

How to Clean Up After Thanksgiving in Half the Time

How to Clean Up After Thanksgiving in Half the Time

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: November 1, 2012

The Pilgrims were on to something when they planned a Thanksgiving potluck; here are other good ideas that’ll simplify your T-Day kitchen cleanup.

Want something to be thankful for? Check out these tips that’ll make your Thanksgiving kitchen cleanup faster and easier — and will give you more time to enjoy family and friends.

Plan a potluck: The first Thanksgiving was a potluck; so let your guests share the fun and bring dishes to share. Then make sure they take home their serving bowls and platters, which will cut down on dishes to wash and put away.

Decide on disposable: Leave Mom’s good dishes in the breakfront and set your table with disposable — and recyclable — place settings. Party stores sell plastic dishware that look like real china (12 dinner plates for about $13). After eating, collect and toss. If you can’t stand to set a table with anything but your best, use disposables for hors d’oeuvres and dessert.

Triple-duty cookware: Cut down on cleanup by selecting cookware that can go from oven to table to freezer. Or, serve food in edible containers, such as bread bowls or hollowed-out winter squash, which you can either consume or compost.

Empty fridge: Start your holiday with a clean slate, which will make the inevitable mess less daunting than piling clutter onto clutter. Before beginning Thanksgiving prep, pick up depressing home clutter and clean out your fridge to make room for ingredients and leftovers.

If possible, designate a shelf for Thanksgiving food, which should be empty when you start your meal, then filled with leftovers when you’re finished. In a week, clean out that shelf again. Make soup from leftover meat and veggies, and then freeze. Compost wilted greens. Toss old dairy products.

Prepare roasting pans: You won’t have to clean what you don’t get dirty. So line your turkey roasting pans with heavy-duty aluminum foil, or cook the bird in a bag. Pour drippings into a pot to make gravy, then throw away the liner.

Line garbage cans: Double- or triple-line garbage cans, which saves time when the cleaning campaign begins. After you toss a trash bag, there’s another waiting for action.

Soaking bin: Soak pots and pans as soon as you transfer food to platters. But instead of filling the sink with soaking pots, designate a small trashcan as the soaking spot. Fill it will soapy water and dirty pots, and hide it under a sink or in a mudroom. That way, your sink is free throughout the evening to clean as you go and rinse dishes on the way to the dishwasher.

Stop stains: Don’t let stains on carpet or rings on furniture set. While wine stains are still wet, dab with go-to cleaner hydrogen peroxide mixed with a few drops of dish detergent; blot with a clean cloth. Get rid of water stains on wood furniture with a dab of white toothpaste (not gel). Rub in the direction of the grain.

Pump up the music: Up-tempo music will give you a second wind for cleaning. So turn off the soothing dinner tunes and get rocking with our cleaning playlist.

9 Ways to Avoid Gobbling Up Energy on Thanksgiving

9 Ways to Avoid Gobbling Up Energy on Thanksgiving

By: Courtney Craig

Published: November 12, 2012

Wasting energy on Thanksgiving? Don’t be a turkey.

A few days before Thanksgiving

1. Install a dimmer switch for the dining room chandelier. Every time you dim a bulb’s brightness by 10%, you’ll double the bulb’s lifespan. Most CFLs don’t work with dimmers, but you can create mood lighting with incandescents and LEDs. The dimmer switch will cost you about $10.

2. Plan side dishes that can cook simultaneously with the turkey. If you cook dishes at the same temperature at the same time, you’ll reduce the amount of time the oven has to be running — it’s easier for the cook and saves energy, too.

When you start cooking

3. Lower your house thermostat a few degrees. The oven will keep the house warm. You also can turn on your ceiling fan so it sucks air up, distributing heat throughout the room.

4. Use ceramic or glass pans — you can turn down the oven’s temp by up to 25 degrees and get the same results. That’s because these materials retain heat so well, they’ll continue cooking food even after being removed from the oven.

5. Use your oven’s convection feature. When heated air is circulated around the food, it reduces the required temperature and cooking time. You’ll cut your energy use by about 20%.

6. Cook in the microwave whenever possible. Ditto slow cookers. Microwaves get the job done quickly, and although slow cookers take much longer, they still use less energy than the oven. Resist the urge to peek inside your slow cooker: Each time you remove the lid, it releases heat and can add about 25 minutes of cooking time to your dish.

7. Use lids on pots to retain heat. The food you’re cooking on the stovetop will heat up faster when you use lids.

When it’s cleanup time

8. Scrape plates instead of rinsing with hot water. Unless food is really caked on there, your dishwasher should get the dishes clean without a pre-rinse. Compost your non-meat food waste. Check out these other Thanksgiving clean-up tips.

9. Use your dishwasher. It saves energy and water, so only hand-wash things that aren’t dishwasher-safe. Wait until you’ve got a full load before starting the dishwasher. Be sure to stop the appliance before the heated dry cycle; just open the door and let your dishes air-dry.

5 Holiday Hosting Disasters and How to Avoid Them

5 Holiday Hosting Disasters and How to Avoid Them

By:

Take a look at the most common things that can go wrong when you have guests and learn how to prevent them.

Imagine you’re preparing to host your annual holiday party, and you’re past the point of no return. The veggies and meats have been bought. Guests are already braving busy airports and crowded highways to get to your home—and then your oven won’t turn on. Your home-cooked meal has quickly turned into a microwave dinner.

That’s just one of many hosting nightmares that can end your holiday party before it even begins. Thankfully, some of the most damaging mishaps easily can be avoided. We collected five of the most prevalent issues and give you preventative tips to keep your holiday party on track.

Problem: The oven doesn’t heat

For any holiday occasion, the oven is the most important appliance in your house. If it fails to work, the centerpiece of your meal could go from roasted beef, ham, duck, or Tofurky to Peking Duck from the local Chinese takeout joint.

How to avoid:
There are any number of reasons a stove can break, but one common cause of disaster is easy to prevent. Don’t self-clean your oven until AFTER the holidays. You risk blowing a fuse or a thermostat, and tracking down an oven technician around the holidays can be tough.

Problem: The kitchen sink clogs

The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest of the year for plumbers. The prime cause of this clog-a-thon is the mistreatment of drains when cooking holiday feasts. We hope your Thanksgiving went well, and that you avoid clog-a-thons for the rest of the holidays.

How to avoid:
Fats and cooking oils can solidify in your pipes, so never dispose of them in your kitchen sink.
If you have a garbage disposal, make sure it’s running before anything goes in it, and never feed it any stringy, fibrous, or starchy foods like poultry skins or potato peels.
To fix, don’t rely on chemical drain-clearing products that can harm your pipes. Use a snake instead, available for $15 at your local hardware store. Best to keep one on hand.

Problem: The heat goes out

As the party’s host, you’re supposed to hang guests’ coats—not apologize to them for having to keep them on. A lack of heat can stop a holiday party dead in its tracks.

How to avoid:
The key to avoiding freezing your party to a standstill is regular maintenance of your HVAC. Every 90 days, a new one-inch pleated furnace filter should be installed. If you haven’t done it in a while, now’s a good time to replace it.
Also inspect insulation on refrigerant lines that are leading into your house. Replace them if they’re missing or damaged.

Problem: The toilet stops up

Toilets have a way of clogging up at the worst times, such as during parties and when you have overnight guests. This is especially true if you have a low-flow toilet from the early 1990s.

How to avoid:
Don’t flush anything other than sewage and toilet paper down the toilet. And there’s nothing wrong with putting up a polite note to remind your guests to do the same.

Problem: The fridge doesn’t cool

Without a properly functioning refrigerator, your meat could get contaminated, your dairy-based treats could go sour, and you may not be able to save your yummy leftovers. To avoid discovering a warm fridge after it’s too late, take these simple precautions.

How to avoid:
Get a thermometer for your refrigerator to make sure each shelf stays below 40 degrees and you can be aware of any temperature changes.
Also make sure the condenser coils located on the back of the unit or beneath it are free to breathe. Coils blocked from circulating air by cereal boxes atop the fridge, or dirtied by dust or pet hair can prevent a fridge from keeping cool.

Tips on How To Prepare Your Home for Holiday Guests

Tips on How To Prepare Your Home for Holiday Guests

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: November 14, 2011

Is your home ready for holiday visits from friends and family? Here’s how to prepare for the invasion.

I’m lucky and have a guest suite always ready for holiday guests. But even with a dedicated space, preparing my home for the annual onslaught of friends and family takes time and forethought.

Some preparations for holiday guests take only a few minutes; some take a lot longer. My advice: Start preparing your home for the holidays now.

Prioritize

The day before guests arrive is no time to pull apart junk drawers and clean out linen closets. Declutter guest rooms and public areas — foyer, kitchen, living room, den, and dining room. Remove anything unnecessary from countertops, coffee tables, and ottomans; if it’s out of sight, keep it out of mind, for now.

If you run short of time, bag up the clutter and store it in car trunks, basements, and out-of-the-way closets. Sort and arrange after your guests depart.

Safety

Light the way: Even though you can navigate your home blindfolded, your guests can’t. Make sure outside lights are working so they don’t trip on the way to your door. Put motion-activated night lights in hallways, bathrooms, and bedrooms to ensure safe passage after the sun sets.

Child proofing: Ask parents to bring hardware that keeps their small ones safe, such as baby gates and cabinet locks. Transfer toxic cleaners and medicines from base to wall cabinets. Hide matches and lighters.

Fire prevention: If you didn’t freshen smoke detector batteries when you switched the clocks to Daylight Savings Time, change them now. After your guests arrive, run a quick fire drill: Make sure they can locate exits and fire extinguishers, and that they know how to open windows and doors.

Entryway upgrades

Your home’s foyer is the first place guests see, so make a good first impression.
Upgrade exterior entry doors or give old doors a new coat of paint. Polish and tighten door hardware, and oil hinges to prevent squeaks.
Remove scratches from hardwood floors, stairs, and wood railings. Place a small rug or welcome mat at the entrance to protect floors from mud and snow.
Clear out shoes, umbrellas, and other clutter.
Add extra hooks to walls so guests can hang coats and hats.
Add a storage bench where guests can remove boots and shoes.

Kitchen prep

Your kitchen is command central during the holidays, so make sure it’s ready for guests and extra helpers.
To increase storage, install a pot rack to clear cooking items off countertops and ranges.
Move your coffee station into a family room so guests don’t crowd the kitchen when you’re trying to fix meals.
If you like to visit while you’re cooking, place extra stools and chairs around the perimeter of your kitchen so guests can set a spell.

Sleeping arrangements

If you’ve got a guest room, replace the ceiling fixture with a ceiling fan and light combo, which helps guests customize their room temperature without fiddling with the thermostat for the entire house.

To carve sleeping space out of public areas, buy a folding screen or rolling bookcase, which will provide privacy for sleepers. Fold or roll it away in the morning.

Bathroom storage

Bring toilet paper, towels, and toiletries out of hiding, and place them on open shelves so guests can find them easily.

If you don’t have enough wall space for shelves, place these items in open baskets around the bathroom.

Also, outfit each tub with a bath mat (to avoid falls) and each toilet with a plunger (to avoid embarrassment).

7 Steps to a Stress-Free Home Closing

7 Steps to a Stress-Free Home Closing

By: G. M. Filisko

This cheat sheet helps you do your homework, so you know what you’re signing when you close the sale of your home.

You’ve already cleared several hurdles by finding the right home, negotiating the best price, and getting approved for a mortgage. The last obstacle on your homebuying track is the closing, which can be both tedious and tense. By knowing what to expect and doing some legwork, you can smoothly put your closing behind you. These seven steps will guide you.

1. Set a Closing Date

Ask your title company to set a closing date and time that meshes with the end of your lease or the sale of your existing home. Don’t want to skip work? Ask for an evening or weekend closing. Tight on cash? Schedule your closing for the end of the month. That’s when you’ll pay the least amount of interest at the closing table.

2. Gather Your Funds

Buyers usually have to bring money to the closing. Ask the title company what forms of payment it accepts. Chances are you can’t use a personal check.

If you have to move money into your bank account to pay your closing costs, do so a week ahead to avoid last-minute problems. If the title company requires the funds in the form of a cashier’s check, stop by the bank a few days before closing to pick it up.

3. Purchase Title Insurance

If you’re getting a mortgage, you have to buy a title insurance policy. Think it protects you against problems with the title of your home? Nope, it protects the lender in case the sellers really didn’t own the home or someone else had a claim on it.

To cover yourself, you can buy an owner’s title policy from the same insurance company that sells you the lender’s title policy. Or, shop online at Closing.com, EasyTitleQuote.com, or FreeTitleQuote.com. An owner’s title policy insures you against losses from fraudulent claims against your ownership and errors in earlier sales. In some areas, sellers traditionally pay for the buyer’s title policy.

Whether or not you get the owner’s policy, if you buy a title policy from the same company that issued the prior owner’s title insurance, you can ask for a reissue discount or “bring-down” rate. There’s a discount because the title company only has to check the records filed since that prior owner bought the home, not since the dawn of time.

4. Line Up Homeowners Insurance

Get quotes and compare policies to be sure coverage will start by your closing date. An annual policy should run $500 to $1,000, depending on your home’s size, age, and amenities. To get a lower premium, opt for a high deductible or buy your homeowners insurance from the same company that insures your car.

If you live in an area where natural disasters occur, like earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes, you’ll need separate insurance to protect your home from those hazards.

5. Review Your Good Faith Estimate and HUD-1 Settlement Sheet

Your lender already gave you a Good Faith Estimate (GFE) that showed your estimated closing fees. Some of the fees on your GFE can’t change and others can rise by 10%. Before you go to the closing, compare the numbers on your GFE with the numbers on your HUD-1 settlement statement. Question your loan officer about any fees that increased.

6. Do a Walk-Through

Schedule an appointment to walk through the home one last time just before your closing.
Make sure repairs you requested have been made.
Look for major changes since you last viewed the property.
See if the sellers left everything they promised to leave.
Check to see that the sellers took all their personal belongings.
Test electronics and appliances to ensure they’re still working.
Turn on the HVAC and hot water. Are they functioning right?
Walk the yard to be sure no plants or shrubs have been removed.

7. Resolve Issues Identified in Your Walk-Through

If your walk-through uncovers problems:

1. Delay the closing until the seller corrects them (if your state allows it). But that’s often not feasible because your lease is probably over and you’ve already scheduled movers.

2. Negotiate a discount to your sales price to cover the cost of the work needed. If the air conditioning is on the fritz and a contractor says the repair will cost $500, ask that the sales price be reduced by that amount. If you make that request at closing, however, be ready for a delay while the title company redoes the paperwork.

3. Have the title company hold a portion of the seller’s proceeds in escrow until the dispute is resolved. Once that happens, the funds will be released to you or the seller, depending on the outcome.

Keep Your Home Purchase on Track

Keep Your Home Purchase on Track

By: G. M. Filisko

You’ve found your dream home. Make sure missteps don’t prevent a successful closing.

A home purchase isn’t complete until you make it to the closing. Until then, the transaction can fall apart for many reasons. Here are five tips for avoiding mistakes that cause a home sale to crater.

1. Be truthful on your mortgage application

You may think fudging your income a little or omitting debts when applying for a mortgage will go unnoticed. Not true. Lenders have become more diligent in verifying information on mortgage applications. If you fib, expect to be found out and denied the loan you need to fund your home purchase. Plus, intentionally lying on a mortgage application is a crime.

2. Hold off on big purchases

Lenders double-check buyers’ credit right before the closing to be sure their financial condition hasn’t weakened. If you’ve opened new credit cards, significantly increased the balance on existing cards, taken out new loans, or depleted your savings, your credit score may have dropped enough to make your lender change its mind on funding your home loan.

Although it’s tempting to purchase new furniture and other items for your new home, or even a new car, wait until after the closing.

3. Keep your job

The lender may refuse to fund your loan if you quit or change jobs before you close the purchase. The time to take either step is after a home closing, not before.

4. Meet contingencies

If your contract requires you to do something before the sale, do it. If you’re required to secure financing, promptly provide all the information the lender requires. If you must deposit additional funds into escrow, don’t stall. If you have 10 days to get a home inspection, call the inspector immediately.

5. Consider deadlines immovable

Get your funds together a week or so before the closing, so you don’t have to ask for a delay. If you’ll need to bring a certified check to closing, get it from the bank the day before, not the day of, your closing. Treat deadlines as sacrosanct.

Find the Home Loan that Fits Your Needs

Find the Home Loan that Fits Your Needs

By: G. M. Filisko

Understand which mortgage loan is best for you so your budget isn’t stretched too thin.

It’s easier to settle happily into your new home if you’re confident you can afford it. Here’s what you need to know about your mortgage financing options, including how to choose the loan that matches your income and tolerance for risk.

Mortgage Financing Basics

The most important features of your mortgage loan are:

1. Term (how long the loan lasts)

Mortgages typically come in 15-, 20-, 30- or 40-year lengths. The longer the term, the lower your monthly payment. The interest rate on a 15-year mortgage might be 1% lower than the rate on a 30-year mortgage.

The trade-off for a lower payment on the 30-year mortgage is that you make more payments. Since you borrow the money for longer, you pay more interest to the lender.

2. Interest Rate (how much you pay to borrow money)

Mortgage interest rates generally come in two flavors: fixed and adjustable.

A fixed rate gives you the same interest rate and payment until the end of your mortgage. That’s attractive when you’re risk-averse, if your future income won’t rise, or when interest rates are low.

The interest rate you pay on an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) changes at some point in the future based on where interest rates are at that time. ARMs are named for how long the rates last. For example, with a 5/1 ARM, your rate changes after the first five years and again every year after that.

ARM Risks and Rewards

An adjustable-rate mortgage rate goes up or down based on a particular financial market index, such as treasury bills. Typically, ARMs include a limit on how much the interest rate can change, such as 3% each time the rate changes, or 5% over the life of the loan.

Rewards for the uncertainty:
ARMs can be a good choice if you expect your income to grow significantly in the coming years.
The interest rate may drop if the financial market index that it tracks dips.
An ARM usually starts at a lower rate than a fixed-rate mortgage of the same length and that can mean big savings.

Risks: If rates go up, your ARM payment will jump dramatically. So before you choose an ARM, be comfortable with your answers to these questions:
How much can my monthly payments go up at each adjustment?
How soon and how often can my monthly payment go up?
Can I afford the maximum monthly payment?
Do I expect my income to increase or decrease by the time the mortgage payment adjusts?
Do I plan to own the home for longer than the initial low-interest-rate period, or do I plan to sell before the rate adjusts?
Will I have to pay a penalty if I refinance into a lower-rate mortgage or sell my house?
What’s my goal in buying this property? Am I considering a riskier mortgage to buy a more expensive house than I can realistically afford?

More Mortgage Options: Government-Backed Loans

If you’ve saved less than the ideal downpayment of 20%, or your credit score isn’t high enough for you to qualify for a fixed-rate or ARM with a conventional lender, consider a government-backed loan from FHA or the Department of Veterans Affairs.

FHA offers adjustable- and fixed-rate loans at reduced interest rates and with as little as 3.5% down; VA offers no-money-down loans. FHA and VA also let you use cash gifts from family members.

Before you decide on any mortgage, remember that slight variations in interest rates, loan amounts, and terms can significantly affect your monthly payment. To determine how much your monthly payment will be with various terms and loan amounts, try realtor.com’s mortgage calculator.

Negotiate Your Best House Buy

Negotiate Your Best House Buy

By: G. M. Filisko

Keep your emotions in check and your eyes on the goal, and you’ll pay less when purchasing a home.

Buying a home can be emotional, but negotiating the price shouldn’t be. The key to saving money when purchasing a home is sticking to a plan during the turbulence of high-stakes negotiations. A real estate agent who represents you can guide you and offer you advice, but you are the one who must make the final decision during each round of offers and counter offers.

Here are six tips for negotiating the best price on a home.

1. Get prequalified for a mortgage

Getting prequalified for a mortgage proves to sellers that you’re serious about buying and capable of affording their home. That will push you to the head of the pack when sellers choose among offers; they’ll go with buyers who are a sure financial bet, not those whose financing could flop.

2. Ask questions

Ask your agent for information to help you understand the sellers’ financial position and motivation. Are they facing foreclosure or a short sale? Have they already purchased a home or relocated, which may make them eager to accept a lower price to avoid paying two mortgages? Has the home been on the market for a long time, or was it just listed? Have there been other offers? If so, why did they fall through? The more signs that sellers are eager to sell, the lower your offer can reasonably go.

3. Work back from a final price to determine your initial offer

Know in advance the most you’re willing to pay, and with your agent work back from that number to determine your initial offer, which can set the tone for the entire negotiation. A too-low bid may offend sellers emotionally invested in the sales price; a too-high bid may lead you to spend more than necessary to close the sale.

Work with your agent to evaluate the sellers’ motivation and comparable home sales to arrive at an initial offer that engages the sellers yet keeps money in your wallet.

4. Avoid contingencies

Sellers favor offers that leave little to chance. Keep your bid free of complicated contingencies, such as making the purchase conditional on the sale of your current home. Do keep contingencies for mortgage approval, home inspection, and environmental checks typical in your area, like radon.

5. Remain unemotional

Buying a home is a business transaction, and treating it that way helps you save money. Consider any movement by the sellers, however slight, a sign of interest, and keep negotiating.

Each time you make a concession, ask for one in return. If the sellers ask you to boost your price, ask them to contribute to closing costs or pay for a home warranty. If sellers won’t budge, make it clear you’re willing to walk away; they may get nervous and accept your offer.

6. Don’t let competition change your plan

Great homes and those competitively priced can draw multiple offers in any market. Don’t let competition propel you to go beyond your predetermined price or agree to concessions—such as waiving an inspection—that aren’t in your best interest.

4 Tips to Determine How Much Mortgage You Can Afford

4 Tips to Determine How Much Mortgage You Can Afford

By: G. M. Filisko

By knowing how much mortgage you can handle, you can ensure that homeownership will fit in your budget.

Homeownership should make you feel safe and secure, and that includes financially. Be sure you can afford your home by calculating how much of a mortgage you can safely fit into your budget.

Why not just take out the biggest mortgage a lender says you can have? Because your lender bases that number on a formula that doesn’t consider your current and future financial and personal goals.

Think ahead to major life events and consider how those might influence your budget. Do you want to return to school for an advanced degree? Will a new child add day care to your monthly expenses? Does a relative plan to eventually live with you and contribute to the mortgage?

Consider those lifestyle issues as you check out these four methods for estimating the amount of mortgage you can afford.

1. Prepare a Detailed Budget

The oldest rule of thumb says you can typically afford a home priced two to three times your gross income. So, if you earn $100,000, you can typically afford a home between $200,000 and $300,000.

But that’s not the best method because it doesn’t take into account your monthly expenses and debts. Those costs greatly influence how much you can afford. Let’s say you earn $100,000 a year but have $1,000 in monthly payments for student debt, car loans, and credit card minimum payments. You don’t have as much money to pay your mortgage as someone earning the same income with no debts.

Better option: Prepare a family budget that tallies your ongoing monthly bills for everything — credit cards, car and student loans, lunch at work, day care, date night, vacations, and savings.

See what’s left over to spend on homeownership costs, like your mortgage, property taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and community association fees, if applicable.

2. Factor in Your Downpayment

How much money do you have for a downpayment? The higher your downpayment, the lower your monthly payments will be. If you put down at least 20% of the home’s cost, you may not have to get private mortgage insurance, which protects the lender if you default and costs hundreds each month. That leaves more money for your mortgage payment.

The lower your downpayment, the higher the loan amount you’ll need to qualify for and the higher your monthly mortgage payment.

But, if interest rates and/or home prices are rising and you wait to buy until you accumulate a bigger downpayment, you may end up paying more for your home.

3. Consider Your Overall Debt

Lenders generally follow the 43% rule. Your monthly mortgage payments covering your home loan principal, interest, taxes and insurance, plus all your other bills, like car loans, utilities, and credit cards, shouldn’t exceed 43% of your gross annual income.

Here’s an example of how the 43% calculation works for a homebuyer making $100,000 a year before taxes:

1. Your gross annual income is $100,000.

2. Multiply $100,000 by 43% to get $43,000 in annual income.

3. Divide $43,000 by 12 months to convert the annual 43% limit into a monthly upper limit of $3,583.

4. All your monthly bills including your potential mortgage can’t go above $3,583 per month.

You might find a lender willing to give you a mortgage with a payment that goes above the 43% line, but consider carefully before you take it. Evidence from studies of mortgage loans suggest that borrowers who go over the limit are more likely to run into trouble making monthly payments, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns.

4. Use Your Rent as a Mortgage Guide

The tax benefits of homeownership generally allow you to afford a mortgage payment — including taxes and insurance — of about one-third more than your current rent payment without changing your lifestyle. So you can multiply your current rent by 1.33 to arrive at a rough estimate of a mortgage payment.

Here’s an example: If you currently pay $1,500 per month in rent, you should be able to comfortably afford a $2,000 monthly mortgage payment after factoring in the tax benefits of homeownership.

However, if you’re struggling to keep up with your rent, buy a home that will give you the same payment rather than going up to a higher monthly payment. You’ll have additional costs for homeownership that your landlord now covers, like property taxes and repairs. If there’s no room in your budget for those extras, you could become financially stressed.

Also consider whether or not you’ll itemize your deductions. If you take the standard deduction, you can’t also deduct mortgage interest payments. Talking to a tax adviser, or using a tax software program to do a “what if” tax return, can help you see your tax situation more clearly.

Pumpkin Pulp Will Scare Your Disposal to Death

Pumpkin Pulp Will Scare Your Disposal to Death

By: Dona DeZube

Published: October 29, 2012

Put your pumpkin pulp into the trash to spare your disposal (and other plumbing pipes) a horrible death.

The pulp, seeds, and other guts you’re scraping out of pumpkins this week can kill your garbage disposal, so toss them in the trash or the compost pile instead.

In a press release, Roto-Rooter warns home owners about the dangers of pumpkin pulp, saying its plumbers “remove gobs of it from clogged drains” during the Halloween season.

“Plumbers know that frantic home owners will soon be complaining about pulp-clogged garbage disposals and stopped-up kitchen sink drains leading up to Halloween,” says Larry Rothman, Roto-Rooter’s plumbing director. “It’s stringy and sticky, and when it dries and hardens it’ll choke off drainpipes and garbage disposals, creating all sorts of havoc.”

Pumpkin guts haven’t been an issue for my household. But then again, we don’t have a garbage disposal. Year before last, we never got around to carving the pumpkin. It sat on the front porch, eventually shining in the glow of our Christmas lights. By January, it had rotted and fallen into the front flower bed, which led to a spring bumper crop of pumpkin vines. I did keep one of the vine sprouts and it produced a nice little pumpkin by fall.

Evidently, people flush pumpkin guts down the toilet, too, Rothman says, leading me to wonder if parents somewhere are trying to multi-task by combining bath time and pumpkin carving.

“The toilet is not a better option,” he says. “It just means the clog forms a little further down the pipe.”

Homeowners Insurance Protects You from Halloween Horrors

Homeowners Insurance Protects You from Halloween Horrors

By: Dona DeZube

When zombies, Snookies, and Lady Gagas storm your front door this weekend, don’t fear! Your homeowners insurance will protect you from Halloween mishaps.

Halloween is all fun and games until a trick-or-treater trips, knocks over your jack-o-lantern, and sets your front porch on fire. Fortunately, most homeowners insurance policies cover these common Halloween home mishaps:
Tricksters damage your home. Standard homeowners policies cover vandalism, such as dents in your siding caused by eggs thrown at your home, when repair costs exceed your deductible.
Candles or decorations cause a fire. A fire started by a Halloween candle or a string of holiday lights will be covered. If the fire makes your home unlivable, your homeowners policy will pay your living expenses while you wait for repairs.
A trick-or-treater gets hurt on your property. Injuries to trick-or-treaters or your party guests are covered by the homeowner liability portion of your policy. The injured person files a claim with your insurer.
You crash your car into a telephone pole to avoid hitting a trick-or-treater in your driveway. That accident would be covered by the collision portion of your auto insurance (if you have it). If you hurt anyone, the liability portion of your auto insurance would cover the cost of their treatment.

If everything on this list of Halloween home horrors occurred, your umbrella insurance would kick in to cover costs — if you have it.

To make your property safe for Halloween, the Insurance Information Institute has these recommendations:
Pick up anything in your front yard, sidewalk, stoop, or porch that a person could trip over.
Turn on your outdoor lighting so kids can see where they’re going.
Use battery-powered lights in your jack-o-lanterns.
Don’t put matches, lighters, or candles in places children can reach.
Pets, candles, and trick-or-treaters don’t mix. Keep pets away from the front door on Halloween.
Look for safety certifications, such as UL (Underwriters Laboratories), on your decorative lights.

Egging, Toilet Papering: How to Clean Up After Halloween Pranks

Egging, Toilet Papering: How to Clean Up After Halloween Pranks

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Halloween cleanup can be the scariest thing about the holiday. Here’s a tip sheet on how to remove eggs, toilet paper, wax, and other messes that go bump in the night.

Halloween can be a messy holiday. With pranksters about, you may end up with egg yolks dripping down your siding and toilet paper hanging from your trees. Inside, you might drip candle wax on your carpet, and your little ones could leave makeup stains on your furniture. Hey — it’s the price of having fun.

But when the fun is over, the cleanup begins. Here are some tips from the American Cleaning Institute and others on removing the Halloween mayhem that little tricksters leave behind.

Egg Splatters on Your House

Time is your enemy when your house has been egged, because sunbaked yolks can stain your siding. Also, micro-shards of shell can become embedded in paint or act as an abrasive when you clean off the gunk.

Instead of scrubbing, spray away the egg with your garden hose. But don’t aim the hose full blast at the yolk, which will splatter the mess. Instead, Popular Mechanics magazine suggests first wetting the siding below the egg, then gently spraying the siding above the egg; the water will fall in sheets and flush away the mess.

If you need more cleaning oomph, dip a brush into a bucket of warm water (never hot, which will bake on yolks) and dish soap, and then scrub away the mess.

Toilet Paper in Your Trees

Wet toilet paper is a beast to remove from trees. So wait until the sun evaporates dew; or, if rain is predicted, start removal right away.

Use a rake to grab and pull the TP down, a leaf blower to blast it, or a telescoping reacher/grabber to pluck it.

Start at the top and work your way down. Immediately throw paper away: Leaving it on your lawn can smother grass.

Candle Wax on the Carpets

Never try to remove hot wax from carpeting. Not only can you burn yourself, but you’ll likely spread the wax, making a bigger mess.

When the wax has cooled, break it with a dull knife or Popsicle stick. Throw away the pieces.

Cover remaining bits with a paper towel or rag, and press a warm iron to the area. Replace the towel frequently to avoid spreading the wax.

Halloween Makeup on Upholstery and Carpet

Many commercial carpet and upholstery cleaners remove makeup from unwanted places. The only tricky part is applying these cleaners.

Always test the cleaner on an inconspicuous spot. Apply a dab of cleaner on a white cloth, then hold it to the test area for about a minute. If no color is transferred to the white cloth, the cleaner is safe.

Never rub cleaner on a stain. Rather, blot the stain starting from its outer edge and work to the center.

Do Halloween Dangers Lurk at Your Entryway?

Do Halloween Dangers Lurk at Your Entryway?

By: Oliver Marks

Is your front entryway ready for Halloween visitors? Keep everything fun and accident-free with these seven safety tips.

Everyone loves a good scare on Halloween — as long as it’s just a trick.

To help you avoid any real-life scares — such as falls, fires, and traffic accidents — around your property this All Hallows Eve, play it safe while you’re setting up your Halloween lights and decorations.

Here are seven simple precautions recommended by John Pettibone, curator of Hammond Castle, a Gloucester, Mass., mansion that draws thousands to its renowned 20-room haunted house every Halloween season.

1. Light the Scene

Providing plenty of illumination ensures that your visitors can see where they’re walking, helping to avoid missteps and falls. Pettibone suggests using the highest wattage bulbs your outdoor lighting fixtures can safely take (check the label on the socket), and adding landscape lights every few feet along your front walk.

“We use the solar-powered kind because there’s no wiring needed,” he says. “Just push them into the ground, let them soak up the sun during the day, and they’ll light up the walk after dark.”

2. Secure the Footing

Clear your walk, steps, and stoop of any obstructions that could trip youngsters focused more on tricks and treats than watching where they’re going. That means moving potted mums and jack o’lanterns out of the way, and hammering down any nail heads protruding out of your steps.

If you have a concrete stoop, which can get slippery when wet, apply friction tape ($16 for a 60-foot roll of 1-inch-wide tape) to ensure stable footing, says Pettibone. He also stocks up on chemical ice melt ($20 for a 50-lb. bag) just in case of an early freeze.

3. Tighten the Railings

If your porch railings are wobbly or broken, family members and friends may know not to lean too heavily on them, but Halloween visitors won’t. So hire a contractor or handyman to fix the problem. It’ll make your home safer for guests all year round. Because more strangers come to your front door this night than the rest of the year combined, now is the time to take care of it.

4. Eliminate Fire Hazards

Don’t put real candles into your carved pumpkins or paper lanterns. “That’s a fire waiting to happen,” says Pettibone. Instead, pick up a bulk pack of LED-bulb faux candles, which emit a yellowish, flickering, battery-powered light that looks amazingly similar to the real thing — without the danger.

5. Secure your Property

To prevent burglaries and Halloween pranks — especially on mischief night the previous evening — make sure to keep all windows and doors (other than your main door) locked shut.

You might have an electrician add motion-sensor lights around your property, so anyone who walks down your driveway or around into the backyard will be discouraged from intruding any farther.

6. Set the Scene

In addition to spooky items like cotton cobwebs and half-buried skeletons, consider a few safety-related scene-setters. Pettibone suggests propping open the screen or storm door so it doesn’t get in the way when there’s a big group of kids congregated on your stoop. “We use yellow caution tape to tie open the door,” he says. “You can order it online and it works well with the Halloween theme.” A 1,000-ft. roll of 3-inch-wide caution tape is about $8.

You’ll also want a working doorbell, so if yours is broken, either hire an electrician or handyman to fix it — or install a wireless doorbell in its place.

7. Enhance Street Safety

Four times as many child pedestrians get killed on Halloween night than a normal night. So limit the danger as much as you can by clearing parked cars off the curb to allow better visibility and placing a reflective “watch for children sign” at the edge of the road. For high-traffic roads in Halloween-intensive neighborhoods, consider posting an adult in the street with a hand-held traffic control light to help maintain safety.

What’s Causing Those Footsteps in the Attic and Other Spooky Sounds and Smells?

What’s Causing Those Footsteps in the Attic and Other Spooky Sounds and Smells?

By: John Riha

Are you haunted by strange noises and weird odors? With the proper maintenance, you’ve got more than a ghost of a chance to rest easy.

Creaking and Popping in the Night

The many materials that make up your house — wood framing, plywood, glass, metal ducts, nails, plumbing pipes — all expand and contract at different rates.

When a house cools at night, these materials may move slightly, rubbing against each other and making noises. Occasionally, they’ll contract with an audible pop.

These sounds tend to be more noticeable in fall, when warm days give way to rapidly cooling nights. The bad news? Not much you can do about it. The good news? Those sounds are harmless and normal.

Zombie Odor

It’s either time to throw out the garbage, or you’d better call your gas utility to check on your gas lines and connections.

Natural gas is odorless, but natural gas suppliers add a foul-smelling odorant — butyl mercaptan — to alert occupants to any leaks. The smell is like rotten eggs.

Leaks can occur at your gas-fired water heater, fireplace, clothes dryer, and any gas line. Leaking natural gas is potentially dangerous — leave the house and call your natural gas provider to assess the situation. Most utility companies perform safety checks for free.

Footsteps in the Attic

Amplified by an unfinished attic space, a raccoon or even a good-size squirrel on your roof might sound like an ax murderer is doing the polka overhead.

These rooftop transits are normal for critters — roofs offer a nice long unobstructed highway.

Make sure your soffit, rafter, and gable roof vents are covered with screens and in good shape, or your rooftop buddies might find their way into your attic for real. Trim back branches that provide critters easy access to your roof.

Something’s Burning

You can smell the odor of burnt wood, but the smoke detectors aren’t going off and there’s no smoke in the house. The culprit could be your fireplace — even if you haven’t had a fire for days.

The probable cause is a drafty chimney and negative air pressure in your home, meaning that outside air is infiltrating down your chimney, bringing stale burnt smells with it.

Stop drafts by making sure your damper has a good seal. Regulate air pressure by adding more cold air return ducts to your HVAC system. You’ll get rid of the odor and save on your energy bill, too.

Moaning and Clattering

These classic spooky sounds often show up when the wind blows and there’s a storm brewing.

Vents for clothes dryers, bathrooms, and water heaters exit out the roof or the side of the house. To prevent backdrafts, these vents have dampers — flaps designed to let vented air out and prevent outside air from coming in. These flaps sometimes move and rattle in high winds.

Because dampers often are located in attics or in between floor joists, the sound can be difficult to pinpoint. You may need a new damper ($85).

4 Leaf Removal Tools that Clear Yards of Fall Debris

4 Leaf Removal Tools that Clear Yards of Fall Debris

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: September 12, 2011

Just for fun, take an inventory of all the leaf removal tools cluttering your garage.

Just for fun, take an inventory of all the leaf removal tools cluttering your garage.

If you’re like me, you’ve got a half-dozen rakes of different sizes and materials, a couple of blowers in various states of repair, and a couple of infomercial gadgets that promise to make annual leaf gathering faster and easier.

In fact, you need only a few essential leaf removal items in your landscape tool collection to accomplish your autumn goal — removing the heavy leaves that smother grass and make your lawn a splotchy mess in spring.

Fewer gizmos and more elbow grease help home owners remove leaves and keep up with lawn maintenance, says Brett Lemcke of R. M. Landscape Inc. in Rochester, NY.

“The reality is, you can’t avoid hard work” when it comes to fall landscaping chores, says Lemcke. “There are some tools that will help us, but the best help is family and friends. The more hands, the better. Doing it yourself is daunting.”

Unless you tether a mower to a stick and let it mulch leaves all by itself.

Whether you rake, blow, or tie a mower to a stick, you should remove leaves at least twice each fall.

“Some people wait until every last leaf falls, and then they pick them up,” Lemke says. “You should pick them up throughout the season. Don’t wait until the last minute.”

Here are four essential leaf-removal tools that’ll help you clear your lawn before winter sets in:
Rigid leaf rake. This plastic, fan-shaped rake is your go-to rake for collecting leaves. Pick one with a cushion handle and a 30- to 36-inch fan. Avoid the super-wide fans that can spread to 48 inches; they’re too big to rake between shrubs and in flower beds. Cost: $10-$20 (30-inch fan).
Leaf tarp. Instead of scooping leaves into a million plastic bags, rake or blow them into a big pile on top of a polypropylene leaf tarp. Then drag the tarp to the curb and dump. Cost: $22 for 12.5-by-10-ft. tarp.
Leaf blower. Select a two-cycle, gasoline-powered blower to collect leaves in tarps or blow them directly to the curb. If you have a large yard, buy a backpack model, which is more expensive but more comfortable than handheld blowers. Cost: 2-cycle handheld blower: $180; 2-cycle backpack blower: $300.
Yard vacuum. This tool vacuums, shreds, chips, and bags leaves and other yard debris. Once leaves are ground up, they’ll decompose quickly in your compost pile. Cost: $400-$650.

How to Clean Up Your Garden for Fall & Winter

How to Clean Up Your Garden for Fall & Winter

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: August 21, 2012

Tidy your garden for fall and winter before the first frost to keep it comely even after the growing ends.

Growing season is winding down, but your garden still needs your love. Spent vines, stubborn weeds, greens gone to seed are making your garden look sloppy and tired.

Here are some fall vegetable garden cleanup tips.

Bury the dead

Nothing looks sadder than leggy tomato vines, yellow zucchini leaves, and dried-up perennials that long ago displayed their last bloom. So pull and prune the dead or dying plants in your garden.

Bury spent plants in your compost pile; double-bag diseased and infested plants and place in the trash. (Empty mulch bags are great final resting places for these plants, so be sure to stockpile them in spring.)

If your tomato vines are still bearing fruit, keep staking and pruning them until the first hard frost, when they’ll likely die. And give the birds a break and leave some seed-bearing but spent blooms for them. They love sunflowers, cone flowers, berries, and black-eyed Susans.

Pull weeds

This is the last time this season to pull weeds. Pluck them before they flower and send seeds throughout your garden that will rest in winter and sprout in spring.

If you have a mulcher, chop the weeds and throw them on your compost pile. If you want to be extra sure that weed seeds are dead, bag weeds in black plastic and place in a sunny place for a couple of months. The heat will kill the seeds. Then throw the cooked weeds on your compost pile.

Harvest seeds

One way to cut garden expenses is to harvest and store seeds. One large sunflower, for instance, can provide seeds for hundreds of plants next spring. Here are some seed guidelines.
Harvest seeds from heirloom vegetables and standard plants.
Disease can spread through seeds, so only harvest seeds from your healthiest plants.
Don’t harvest seeds from hybrid plants, which often are sterile or will look nothing like the parent plant.
Only harvest mature seeds from dry and faded blooms and pods. Mature seeds are often cream colored or brown.
After seeds are dry, store them in envelopes or glass jars in a cool, dry place.

Gather supports

Stack and cover metal tomato cages. Bundle wooden or bamboo stakes, and store in a dry place so they don’t rot over winter. And retrieve panty-hose vine ties that you can re-use next spring.

Instead of throwing out broken cages and stakes, repurpose them. Snip off remaining cage legs to use for pepper supports. Broken tomato steaks will support smaller plants if you whittle one end into a point, so it easily slips into the ground.

Fall Lawn Care: 4 Ways to Say G’Night For The Winter

Fall Lawn Care: 4 Ways to Say G’Night For The Winter

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: September 16, 2011

Labor Day through Halloween is your window for preparing lawns for a lush spring.

Although spring lawn care gets all the attention, fall lawn care is the make-it or break-it season for grass.

“I’m already thinking about next year,” says John Dillon, who takes care of New York City’s Central Park, which features 200 acres of lawn in the middle of Manhattan. “The grass I grow this fall is what will be there next spring.”

Fall lawn care is no walk in the park. It’s hard work, and Dillon guides you through the four basic steps.

1. Aeration

Aeration gives your lawn a breather in autumn and provides room for new grass to spread without competition from spring weeds. Aeration tools pull up plugs of grass and soil, breaking up compacted turf. That allows water, oxygen, and nutrients to reach roots, and gives seeds room to sprout.

If kids frequently play on your lawn, plan to aerate twice a year — fall and spring. If your lawn is just for show, then aerate once a year — and maybe even once every other year.

A hand-aerating tool ($20), which looks like a pitchfork with hollow tines, is labor-intensive and meant for unplugging small sections of grass. Gas-powered aerating machines (rental, $20/hour) are about the size of a big lawn mower, and are good for working entire lawns. Bring some muscle when you pick up your rental: Aerating machines are heavy and can be hard to lift into your truck or SUV.

Depending on the size of your property, professional aeration costs about $150.

2. Seeding

Fall, when the soil temperature is about 55 degrees, is the best time to seed your lawn because turf roots grow vigorously in fall and winter. If you want a lush lawn, don’t cheap out on the seed.

Bags of inexpensive seed ($35 for 15 pounds) often contain hollow husks, weed seed, and annual rye grass seed, which grows until the first frost then drops dead. Splurge on the good stuff ($55 for 15 pounds of Kentucky Bluegrass seed), which resists drought, disease, and insects.

Water your new seed every day for 10 to 20 days until it germinates.

3. Fertilizing

A late fall fertilization — before the first frost — helps your grass survive a harsh winter and encourages it to grow green and lush in spring. Make your last fertilization of the year count by choosing a product high (10% to 15%) in phosphorous, which is critical for root growth, Dillon says.

Note: Some states are banning phosphorous-rich fertilizers, which are harmful to the watershed. In those places, look for nitrogen-rich fertilizers, which promote shoot and root growth. Check with your local extension service to see what regulations apply in your area.

4. Mulching

Instead of raking leaves, run over them a couple of times with your mower to grind them into mulch. The shredded leaves protect grass from winter wind and desiccation. An added bonus — shredded leaves decompose into yummy organic matter to feed grass roots.

A mulching blade ($10) that attaches to your mower will grind the leaves even finer.

How to Replace Weather Stripping

How to Replace Weather Stripping

By: Douglas Trattner

When weather stripping on doors and windows gets worn out, cold air comes sneaking in. Here’s how to replace weather stripping and stop air leaks.

Weather stripping on windows and doors protects the home from air leaks while increasing comfort and saving energy. But as weather stripping ages, it loses its effectiveness. Stay ahead of the game by checking for worn-out weather stripping and replacing it.

Identifying Worn Weather Stripping

Weather stripping deteriorates due to age, friction, and exposure to the elements. It also can be damaged by people, pets, and pests. At least once each year, inspect your windows and doors to check for air leaks that indicate your weather stripping isn’t doing its job.
Self-adhesive foam tape loses its grip over time, causing it to pull away from the door or window frame — or fall off completely. Foam also can lose its resilience, no longer springing up to fill the gap.
Rubber and vinyl weather stripping becomes dry, brittle, and cracked. Over time, it can also lose its shape and effectiveness.
Spring-metal V-shaped weather stripping bends out of shape, cracks in spots, and comes loose thanks to missing nails.

How to Remove Old Weather Stripping

For peel-and-stick-type weather stripping, simply pull the foam strips off the door or window by hand. Stripping that is fastened in place with nails or screws requires a more tedious process of locating and removing all the fasteners.

Options for New Weather Stripping

There’s no shortage of weather stripping options at hardware stores and home improvement centers. As is often the case, the cheaper and easier the product is to install, the less effective and durable it probably is over time.

Adhesive-backed foam tape is inexpensive — costing less than a buck a foot — and peel-and-stick types are easy as pie to install. It works best where the bottom of a window sash closes against a sill, or a door closes against a doorframe. It’s the compression that produces the seal. Don’t expect this product to survive longer than 3 to 5 years.

V-shaped weather stripping, sometimes called tension-seal weather stripping, is the best option for the side channels of a double-hung window or a tight-fitting door. This product springs open to close gaps and plug leaky windows and doors.

Inexpensive peel-and-stick V-shaped vinyl (as little as $0.50 per foot) is easy to install but won’t last much longer than foam tape. More expensive copper or bronze styles cost as much as $2 per foot and must be nailed into place, but they look better and will last decades.

Tubular rubber or vinyl gaskets prove the most effective for sealing large and irregular gaps, such as around an old door. These hollow tubes are large enough to plug big gaps but soft enough to compress nearly flat. Types that are nailed in place last longer than peel-and-stick varieties. Prices range from less than $1 per foot for peel-and-stick to $1.25 per foot for nail-in-place.

Prepare the Surface

Before installing any new weather stripping, start with a smooth, clean, and dry surface. Remove all old adhesive using an adhesive cleaner and perhaps a light sanding. Fill and sand old nail holes. If old screw holes can’t be reused, fill and sand those as well.

Installation Tips
Some peel-and-stick types should only be applied when the temps are at least 50 degrees. Check the product label.
Start with one small area to make sure the door or window opens and closes without difficulty before completing the entire job.
Measure twice before cutting to prevent mistakes and waste.
Cut rubber and vinyl varieties with shears or a utility knife, and metal types with tin snips. Be careful not to bend the thin metal while cutting it.
Make sure to face the opening of V-shaped weather stripping out toward the elements to prevent moisture from getting inside.

Installing Weather Stripping

Adhesive-style weather stripping: Remove the backing and press firmly in place. Removing the backing as you go helps prevent the sticky part of the strip from accidentally adhering to something it shouldn’t.

Nail-in weather stripping: Fasten the strips in place by nailing through the pre-punched holes. For double-hung windows, you’ll need to install the lower half, drop the sash, and then install the upper half.

Fall Maintenance Checklist

Fall Maintenance Checklist

By: John Riha

You’ll be ready for winter’s worst and head off expensive repairs when you complete this checklist of 10 essential fall maintenance tasks.

Fall checklist

1. Stow the mower.

If you’re not familiar with fuel stabilizer, you should be. If your mower sits for months with gas in its tank, the gas will slowly deteriorate, which can damage internal engine parts. Fuel stabilizer ($10 for a 10-ounce bottle) prevents gas from degrading.

Add stabilizer to your gasoline can to keep spare gas in good condition over the winter, and top off your mower tank with stabilized gas before you put it away for the winter. Run the mower for five minutes to make sure the stabilizer reaches the carburetor.

Another lawn mower care method is to run your mower dry before stowing it.

1. When the mower is cool, remove the spark plug and pour a capful of engine oil into the spark plug hole.

2. Pull the starter cord a couple of times to distribute the oil, which keeps pistons lubricated and ensures an easy start come spring.

3. Turn the mower on its side and clean out accumulated grass and gunk from the mower deck.

2. Don’t be a drip.

Remove garden hoses from outdoor faucets. Leaving hoses attached can cause water to back up in the faucets and in the plumbing pipes just inside your exterior walls. If freezing temps hit, that water could freeze, expand, and crack the faucet or pipes. Make this an early fall priority so a sudden cold snap doesn’t sneak up and cause damage.

Turn off any shutoff valves on water supply lines that lead to exterior faucets. That way, you’ll guard against minor leaks that may let water enter the faucet.

While you’re at it, drain garden hoses and store them in a shed or garage.

3. Put your sprinkler system to sleep.

Time to drain your irrigation system. Even buried irrigation lines can freeze, leading to busted pipes and broken sprinkler heads.

1. Turn off the water to the system at the main valve.

2. Shut off the automatic controller.

3. Open drain valves to remove water from the system.

4. Remove any above-ground sprinkler heads and shake the water out of them, then replace.

If you don’t have drain valves, then hire an irrigation pro to blow out the systems pipes with compressed air. A pro is worth the $75 to $150 charge to make sure the job is done right, and to ensure you don’t have busted pipes and sprinkler head repairs to make in the spring.

4. Seal the deal.

Grab a couple of tubes of color-matched exterior caulk ($5 for a 12-ounce tube) and make a journey around your home’s exterior, sealing up cracks between trim and siding, around window and door frames, and where pipes and wires enter your house. Preventing moisture from getting inside your walls is one of the least expensive — and most important — of your fall maintenance jobs. You’ll also seal air leaks that waste energy.

Pick a nice day when temps are above 50 degrees so caulk flows easily.

5. De-gunk your gutters.

Clogged rain gutters can cause ice dams, which can lead to expensive repairs. After the leaves have fallen, clean your gutters to remove leaves, twigs, and gunk. Make sure gutters aren’t sagging and trapping water; tighten gutter hangers and downspout brackets. Replace any worn or damaged gutters and downspouts.

If you find colored grit from asphalt roof shingles in your gutters, beware. That sand-like grit helps protect shingles from the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun. Look closely for other signs of roof damage (#5, below); it may be time for a roofing replacement.

Your downspouts should extend at least 5 feet away from your house to prevent foundation problems. If they don’t, add downspout extensions; $10 to $20 each.

6. Eyeball your roof.

If you have a steep roof or a multistory house, stay safe and use binoculars to inspect your roof from the ground.

Look for warning signs: Shingles that are buckled, cracked, or missing; rust spots on flashing. Any loose, damaged, or missing shingles should be replaced immediately.

Black algae stains are just cosmetic, but masses of moss and lichen could signal roofing that’s decayed underneath. Call in a pro roofer for a $50 to $100 eval.

A plumbing vent stack usually is flashed with a rubber collar — called a boot — that may crack or loosen over time. They’ll wear out before your roof does, so make sure they’re in good shape. A pro roofer will charge $75 to $150 to replace a boot, depending on how steep your roof is.

7. Direct your drainage.

Take a close look at the soil around your foundation and make sure it slopes away from your house at least 6 vertical inches over 10 feet. That way, you’ll keep water from soaking the soils around your foundation, which could lead to cracks and leaks.

Be sure soil doesn’t touch your siding.

8. Get your furnace in tune.

Schedule an appointment with a heating and cooling pro to get your heating system checked and tuned up for the coming heating season. You’ll pay $50 to $100 for a checkup.

An annual maintenance contract ensures you’re at the top of the list for checks and shaves 20% off the cost of a single visit.

Change your furnace filters, too. This is a job you should do every two months anyway, but if you haven’t, now’s the time. If your HVAC includes a built-in humidifier, make sure the contractor replaces that filter.

9. Prune plants.

Late fall is the best time to prune plants and trees — when the summer growth cycle is over. Your goal is to keep limbs and branches at least 3 feet from your house so moisture won’t drip onto roofing and siding, and to prevent damage to your house exterior during high winds.

For advice on pruning specific plants in your region, check with your state extension service.

10. Give your fireplace a once-over.

To make sure your fireplace is safe, grab a flashlight and look up inside your fireplace flue to make sure the damper opens and closes properly. Open the damper and look up into the flue to make sure it’s free of birds’ nests, branches and leaves, or other obstructions. You should see daylight at the top of the chimney.

Check the firebox for cracked or missing bricks and mortar. If you spot any damage, order a professional fireplace and chimney inspection. An inspection costs $79 to $500.

You fireplace flue should be cleaned of creosote buildup every other year. A professional chimney sweep will charge $150 to $250 for the service.

Keep Your Home Sale from Falling Apart

Keep Your Home Sale from Falling Apart

By: G. M. Filisko

After finding a buyer, all you have to do to make it to closing is to avoid these five traps.

Finding a buyer for your home is just the first step on the homeselling path. Tread carefully in the weeks ahead because if you make one of these common seller mistakes, your deal may not close.

Mistake #1: Ignore contingencies

If your contract requires you to do something before the sale, do it. If the buyers make the sale contingent on certain repairs, don’t do cheap patch-jobs and expect the buyers not to notice the fixes weren’t done properly.

Mistake #2: Don’t bother to fix things that break

The last thing any seller needs is for the buyers to notice on the pre-closing walk-through that the home isn’t in the same condition as when they made their offer. When things fall apart in a home about to be purchased, sellers must make the repairs. If the furnace fails, get a professional to fix it, and inform the buyers that the work was done. When you fail to maintain the home, the buyers may lose confidence in your integrity and the condition of the home and back out of the sale.

Mistake #3: Get lax about deadlines

Treat deadlines as sacrosanct. If you have three days to accept or reject the home inspection, make your decision within three days. If you’re selling, move out a few days early, so you can turn over the keys at closing.

Mistake #4: Refuse to negotiate any further

Once you’ve negotiated a price, it’s natural to calculate how much you’ll walk away with from the closing table. However, problems uncovered during inspections will have to be fixed. The appraisal may come in at a price below what the buyers offered to pay. Be prepared to negotiate with the buyers over these bottom-line-influencing issues.

Mistake #5: Hide liens from buyers

Did you neglect to mention that Uncle Sam has placed a tax lien on your home or you owe six months of homeowners association fees? The title search is going to turn up any liens filed on your house. To sell your house, you have to pay off the lien (or get the borrower to agree to pay it off). If you can do that with the sales proceeds, great. If not, the sale isn’t going to close.

6 Tips for Choosing the Best Offer for Your Home

6 Tips for Choosing the Best Offer for Your Home

By: G. M. Filisko

Have a plan for reviewing purchase offers so you don’t let the best slip through your fingers.

You’ve worked hard to get your home ready for sale and to price it properly. With any luck, offers will come quickly. You’ll need to review each carefully to determine its strengths and drawbacks and pick one to accept. Here’s a plan for evaluating offers.

1. Understand the process

All offers are negotiable, as your agent will tell you. When you receive an offer, you can accept it, reject it, or respond by asking that terms be modified, which is called making a counteroffer.

2. Set baselines

Decide in advance what terms are most important to you. For instance, if price is most important, you may need to be flexible on your closing date. Or if you want certainty that the transaction won’t fall apart because the buyer can’t get a mortgage, require a prequalified or cash buyer.

3. Create an offer review process

If you think your home will receive multiple offers, work with your agent to establish a time frame during which buyers must submit offers. That gives your agent time to market your home to as many potential buyers as possible, and you time to review all the offers you receive.

4. Don’t take offers personally

Selling your home can be emotional. But it’s simply a business transaction, and you should treat it that way. If your agent tells you a buyer complained that your kitchen is horribly outdated, justifying a lowball offer, don’t be offended. Consider it a sign the buyer is interested and understand that those comments are a negotiating tactic. Negotiate in kind.

5. Review every term

Carefully evaluate all the terms of each offer. Price is important, but so are other terms. Is the buyer asking for property or fixtures—such as appliances, furniture, or window treatments—to be included in the sale that you plan to take with you?

Is the amount of earnest money the buyer proposes to deposit toward the downpayment sufficient? The lower the earnest money, the less painful it will be for the buyer to forfeit those funds by walking away from the purchase if problems arise.

Have the buyers attached a prequalification or pre-approval letter, which means they’ve already been approved for financing? Or does the offer include a financing or other contingency? If so, the buyers can walk away from the deal if they can’t get a mortgage, and they’ll take their earnest money back, too. Are you comfortable with that uncertainty?

Is the buyer asking you to make concessions, like covering some closing costs? Are you willing, and can you afford to do that? Does the buyer’s proposed closing date mesh with your timeline?

With each factor, ask yourself: Is this a deal breaker, or can I compromise to achieve my ultimate goal of closing the sale?

6. Be creative

If you’ve received an unacceptable offer through your agent, ask questions to determine what’s most important to the buyer and see if you can meet that need. You may learn the buyer has to move quickly. That may allow you to stand firm on price but offer to close quickly. The key to successfully negotiating the sale is to remain flexible.

8 Tips for Adding Curb Appeal and Value to Your Home

8 Tips for Adding Curb Appeal and Value to Your Home

By: Pat Curry

Here are eight ways to help your home put its best face forward.

Homes with high curb appeal command higher prices and take less time to sell. We’re not talking about replacing vinyl siding with redwood siding; we’re talking about maintenance and beautifying tasks you’d like to live with anyway.

The way your house looks from the street — attractively landscaped and well-maintained — can add thousands to its value and cut the time it takes to sell. But which projects pump up curb appeal most? Some spit and polish goes a long way, and so does a dose of color.

Tip #1: Wash your house’s face

Before you scrape any paint or plant more azaleas, wash the dirt, mildew, and general grunge off the outside of your house. REALTORS® say washing a house can add $10,000 to $15,000 to the sale prices of some houses.

A bucket of soapy water and a long-handled, soft-bristled brush can remove the dust and dirt that have splashed onto your wood, vinyl, metal, stucco, brick, and fiber cement siding. Power washers (rental: $75 per day) can reveal the true color of your flagstone walkways.

Wash your windows inside and out, swipe cobwebs from eaves, and hose down downspouts. Don’t forget your garage door, which was once bright white. If you can’t spray off the dirt, scrub it off with a solution of 1/2 cup trisodium phosphate—TSP, available at grocery stores, hardware stores, and home improvement centers—dissolved in 1 gallon of water.

You and a friend can make your house sparkle in a few weekends. A professional cleaning crew will cost hundreds–depending on the size of the house and number of windows–but will finish in a couple of days.

Tip #2: Freshen the paint job

The most commonly offered curb appeal advice from real estate pros and appraisers is to give the exterior of your home a good paint job. Buyers will instantly notice it, and appraisers will value it.
 
Of course, painting is an expensive and time-consuming facelift. To paint a 3,000-square-foot home, figure on spending $375 to $600 on paint; $1,500 to $3,000 on labor.

Your best bet is to match the paint you already have: Scrape off a little and ask your local paint store to match it. Resist the urge to make a statement with color. An appraiser will mark down the value of a house that’s painted a wildly different color from its competition.

Tip #3: Regard the roof

The condition of your roof is one of the first things buyers notice and appraisers assess. Missing, curled, or faded shingles add nothing to the look or value of your house. If your neighbors have maintained or replaced their roofs, yours will look especially shabby.

You can pay for roof repairs now, or pay for them later in a lower appraisal; appraisers will mark down the value by the cost of the repair. According to Remodeling Magazine’s 2014 Cost vs. Value Report, the average cost of a new asphalt shingle roof is about $19,000.

Some tired roofs look a lot better after you remove 25 years of dirt, moss, lichens, and algae. Don’t try cleaning your roof yourself: call a professional with the right tools and technique to clean it without damaging it. A 2,000 sq. ft. roof will take a day and $400 to $600 to clean professionally.

Tip #4: Neaten the yard

A well-manicured lawn, fresh mulch, and pruned shrubs boost the curb appeal of any home.

Replace overgrown bushes with leafy plants and colorful annuals. Surround bushes and trees with dark or reddish-brown bark mulch, which gives a rich feel to the yard. Put a crisp edge on garden beds, pull weeds and invasive vines, and plant a few geraniums in pots.

Green up your grass with lawn food and water. Cover bare spots with seeds and sod, get rid of crab grass, and mow regularly.

Tip #5: Add a color splash

Even a little color attracts and pleases the eye of would-be buyers.

Plant a tulip border in the fall that will bloom in the spring. Dig a flowerbed by the mailbox and plant some pansies. Place a brightly colored bench or Adirondack chair on the front porch. Get a little daring, and paint the front door red or blue.

These colorful touches won’t add to the value of our house: appraisers don’t give you extra points for a blue bench. But beautiful colors enhance curb appeal and help your house to sell faster.

Tip #6: Glam your mailbox

An upscale mailbox, architectural house numbers, or address plaques can make your house stand out.

High-style die cast aluminum mailboxes range from $100 to $350. You can pick up a handsome, hand-painted mailbox for about $50. If you don’t buy new, at least give your old mailbox a facelift with paint and new house numbers.

These days, your local home improvement center or hardware stores has an impressive selection of decorative numbers. Architectural address plaques, which you tack to the house or plant in the yard, typically range from $80 to $200. Brass house numbers range from $3 to $11 each, depending on size and style.

Tip #7: Fence yourself in

A picket fence with a garden gate to frame the yard is an asset. Not only does it add visual punch to your property, appraisers will give extra value to a fence in good condition, although it has more impact in a family-oriented neighborhood than an upscale retirement community.

Expect to pay $2,000 to $3,500 for a professionally installed gated picket fence 3 feet high and 100 feet long.

If you already have a fence, make sure it’s clean and in good condition. Replace broken gates and tighten loose latches.

Tip #8: Maintenance is a must

Nothing looks worse from the curb — and sets off subconscious alarms — like hanging gutters, missing bricks from the front steps, or peeling paint. Not only can these deferred maintenance items damage your home, but they can decrease the value of your house by 10%.

Here are some maintenance chores that will dramatically help the look of your house:
Refasten sagging gutters.
Repoint bricks that have lost their mortar.
Reseal cracked asphalt.
Straighten shutters.
Replace cracked windows.

Cleaning House: Secrets of a Truly Deep Clean

Cleaning House: Secrets of a Truly Deep Clean

By: Jane Hoback

Published: January 14, 2011

Deep clean your house and you’ll brighten rooms and help maintain your home’s value.

Deep cleaning your house is that top-to-bottom, take-no-dust-bunny-prisoners, mother-in-law-quality cleaning that truly maintains the value of your home. Here are frequently overlooked areas that a little spit and polish wouldn’t hurt.

De-Bug the Light Fixtures

See that bug burial ground within your overhead fixtures? Turn off the lights and carefully remove fixture covers, dump out flies and wash with hot soapy water. While you’re up there, dust bulbs. Dry everything thoroughly before replacing the cover.

Related: Did You Know that Dirty Bulbs Waste Energy?

Vacuum Heat Vents and Registers

Dirt and dust build up in heat vents and along register blades. Vents also are great receptacles for coins and missing buttons. Unscrew vent covers from walls or pluck them from floors, remove foreign objects, and vacuum inside the vent. Clean grates with a damp cloth and screw back tightly.

Polish Hardware

To deep clean brass door hinges, handles, and cabinet knobs, thoroughly wipe with a damp microfiber cloth, then polish with Wright’s or Weiman brass cleaner ($4). Dish soap shines up glass or stainless steel knobs. Use a Q-tip to detail the ornamental filigree on knobs and handles.

Replace Grungy Switch Plates

Any amateur can wipe a few fingerprints off cover plates that hide light switches, electric outlets, phone jacks, and cable outlets. But only deep cleaners happily remove plates to vacuum and swipe the gunk behind. (OK, we’re a little OCD when it comes to dirt!) Make sure cover plates are straight when you replace them. And pitch plates that are beyond the help of even deep cleaning. New ones cost less than $2 each.

Neaten Weather Stripping

Peeling, drooping weather stripping on doors and windows makes rooms look old. If the strip still has some life, nail or glue it back. If it’s hopeless, cut out and replace sections, or just pull the whole thing off and start new. A 10-ft. roll of foam weather stripping costs $8; 16-ft. vinyl costs about $15.

Replace Stove Drip Pans

Some drip pans are beyond the scrub brush. Replacing them costs about $3 each and instantly freshens your stove.

How to Pick Paint Colors

How to Pick Paint Colors

By: Jan Soults Walker

Paint has remodeling power when you use it to emphasize a room’s best features or play down the flaws.

Every home suffers a few negatives, but not every solution requires pricey structural changes. Paint is an often-overlooked, low-cost remodeler’s remedy for common complaints with interiors, offering the chameleon-like ability to lighten, warm, enlarge, erase, or attract attention.

“Paint is a powerful tool that can enhance the architectural character and intent of space,” says Minneapolis architect Petra Schwartze of TEA2 Architects. “As you choose your paint, think about what the experience in the room should be.”

More Schwartze advice:
Always sample paint colors on a few walls. Don’t be shy about painting a few large swaths on walls and trim to consider the effect of natural and artificial lighting. Add samples to opposite sides of a room to judge the paint color from different angles.
Check the space with the samples in place and watch how the paint color changes at different times of the day.
Evaluate your reaction to the proposed colors: Does the space feel cozy or is the openness enhanced?

How to enlarge space with color

Painting walls white, cream, pastels, or cool colors (tinged with blue or green) creates the illusion of more space by reflecting light. Paint trim similar to walls (or use white on trim) to ensure a seamless appearance that visually expands space.

White or light colors lift a ceiling; darker shades can have a similar effect if you select a high-gloss paint sheen, which reflects light and enhances space.

Employ a monochromatic scheme to amplify the dimensions of a room. Select furnishings in one color and paint walls and trim to match. Lack of contrast makes a room seem more spacious.

Make walls appear taller by extending wall color onto the ceiling. Create a 6- to 12-inch-wide border of wall color on the entire ceiling perimeter, or wherever walls meet the ceiling.

Vertical and horizontal stripes of alternating color can make a room grand. While vertical stripes enhance room height by drawing the eye upward, horizontal stripes lure your gaze around the perimeter, making walls seem further away. Use similar light colors for low-contrast stripes, and your room will look even larger.

Creating intimacy

When a space feels cavernous, draw walls inward and make it cozy with warm colors (red-tinged) because darker hues absorb light. Similarly, a dark or warm color overhead (in a flat finish) helps make rooms with high or vaulted ceilings less voluminous.

Give peace a chance

The right paint choice can lend tranquility to a bathroom, master suite, or other quiet, personal space. A palette of soft, understated color or muted tones help you instill a calming atmosphere. Some good choices include pale lavenders, light grays or greens, and wispy blues.

Define your assets

Call out notable features in a room with paint. Dress crown mouldings and other trims in white to make them pop against walls with color. Make a fireplace or other feature a focal point by painting it a color that contrasts with walls.

“Using a higher sheen of paint on woodwork, such as baseboards and door or window casings,” says Schwartze, “creates a crisp edge and clear transition from the wall to the trim.”

Hide flaws

Not everything should stand out in a space. Using a low-contrast palette is a good way to hide unappealing elements or flaws. Conduit, radiators, and other components painted the same color as the wall will seem to disappear.

Selecting low-sheen or flat paint colors also helps hide flaws. Unless walls are smooth, avoid using high-gloss paint because it reflects light and calls attention to an uneven surface.

What’s the cost?

As a DIY job, painting a 12-by-12-ft. space costs about $150, including paint, primer, brushes, drop cloths, and other painting tools and supplies. A professionally painted room using high-quality, brand-name paint costs $200-$400.

5 Tips to Prepare Your Home for Sale

5 Tips to Prepare Your Home for Sale

By: G. M. Filisko

Working to get your home ship-shape for showings will increase its value and shorten your sales time.

Many buyers today want move-in-ready homes and will quickly eliminate an otherwise great home by focusing on a few visible flaws. Unless your home shines, you may endure showing after showing and open house after open house—and end up with a lower sales price. Before the first prospect walks through your door, consider some smart options for casting your home in its best light.

1. Have a home inspection

Be proactive by arranging for a pre-sale home inspection. For $250 to $400, an inspector will warn you about troubles that could make potential buyers balk. Make repairs before putting your home on the market. In some states, you may have to disclose what the inspection turns up.

2. Get replacement estimates

If your home inspection uncovers necessary repairs you can’t fund, get estimates for the work. The figures will help buyers determine if they can afford the home and the repairs. Also hunt down warranties, guarantees, and user manuals for your furnace, washer and dryer, dishwasher, and any other items you expect to remain with the house.

3. Make minor repairs

Not every repair costs a bundle. Fix as many small problems—sticky doors, torn screens, cracked caulking, dripping faucets—as you can. These may seem trivial, but they’ll give buyers the impression your house isn’t well maintained.

4. Clear the clutter

Clear your kitchen counters of just about everything. Clean your closets by packing up little-used items like out-of-season clothes and old toys. Install closet organizers to maximize space. Put at least one-third of your furniture in storage, especially large pieces, such as entertainment centers and big televisions. Pack up family photos, knickknacks, and wall hangings to depersonalize your home. Store the items you’ve packed offsite or in boxes neatly arranged in your garage or basement.

5. Do a thorough cleaning

A clean house makes a strong first impression that your home has been well cared for. If you can afford it, consider hiring a cleaning service.

If not, wash windows and leave them open to air out your rooms. Clean carpeting and drapes to eliminate cooking odors, smoke, and pet smells. Wash light fixtures and baseboards, mop and wax floors, and give your stove and refrigerator a thorough once-over.

Pay attention to details, too. Wash fingerprints from light switch plates, clean inside the cabinets, and polish doorknobs. Don’t forget to clean your garage, too.

Find the Best Agent to Sell Your House

Find the Best Agent to Sell Your House

By: G. M. Filisko

Ask detailed questions about their experience and skills to help you find the right agent for your home sale.

Working with the right real estate agent can mean the difference between getting prompt, expert representation and feeling like you’re going it alone when selling your home. Here are 10 questions to ask when you’re interviewing agents.

1. How long have you been selling homes?

Mastering real estate requires on-the-job experience. The more experience agents have, the more likely they’ll be able to handle any curveballs thrown during your home sale.

2. What designations do you hold?

Designations like GRI (Graduate REALTOR® Institute) and CRS® (Certified Residential Specialist), which require that agents complete additional real estate training, show they’re constantly learning. Ask if agents have designations and, if not, why not?

3. How many homes did you sell last year?

Agents may tout their company’s success. An equally important question is how many homes they’ve personally sold in the past year; it’s an indicator of how active and aggressive they are.

4. How many days on average did it take you to sell homes?

Ask agents to show you this data along with stats from their local Multiple Listing Service (MLS) so you can see how many days, on average, their listings were on the market compared to the average for all properties in the MLS.

5. How close were the asking and sales prices of the homes you sold?

Sometimes sellers choose their agent because the agent’s suggested listing price is higher than those suggested by other agents. A better factor is the difference between listing prices and the amount homes actually sold for. That can help you judge agents’ skill at accurately pricing homes and marketing to the right buyers. It can also help you weed out agents trying to dazzle you with a lofty sales price just to get your listing.

6. How will you market my home?

The days of agents putting a For Sale sign in the yard and hoping for the best are long gone. Look for an agent who does aggressive and innovative marketing, especially on the Internet.

7. Will you represent me exclusively?

In most states, agents can represent the seller, the buyer, or both in a home sale. If your agent will also represent buyers, understand and consent to that dual representation.

8. How will you keep me informed?

If you want weekly updates by email, don’t choose an agent who plans to contact you only if there’s an offer.

9. Can you provide references?

Ask to talk to the last three customers the agent assisted. Call and ask if they’d work with the agent again and if the agent did anything that didn’t sit well with them.

10. Are you a REALTOR®?

Ask whether agents are REALTORS®, which means they’re members of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR). NAR has been an advocate of agent professionalism and a champion of homeownership rights for more than a century.

Keep Your Home Purchase on Track

Keep Your Home Purchase on Track

By: G. M. Filisko

You’ve found your dream home. Make sure missteps don’t prevent a successful closing.

A home purchase isn’t complete until you make it to the closing. Until then, the transaction can fall apart for many reasons. Here are five tips for avoiding mistakes that cause a home sale to crater.

1. Be truthful on your mortgage application

You may think fudging your income a little or omitting debts when applying for a mortgage will go unnoticed. Not true. Lenders have become more diligent in verifying information on mortgage applications. If you fib, expect to be found out and denied the loan you need to fund your home purchase. Plus, intentionally lying on a mortgage application is a crime.

2. Hold off on big purchases

Lenders double-check buyers’ credit right before the closing to be sure their financial condition hasn’t weakened. If you’ve opened new credit cards, significantly increased the balance on existing cards, taken out new loans, or depleted your savings, your credit score may have dropped enough to make your lender change its mind on funding your home loan.

Although it’s tempting to purchase new furniture and other items for your new home, or even a new car, wait until after the closing.

3. Keep your job

The lender may refuse to fund your loan if you quit or change jobs before you close the purchase. The time to take either step is after a home closing, not before.

4. Meet contingencies

If your contract requires you to do something before the sale, do it. If you’re required to secure financing, promptly provide all the information the lender requires. If you must deposit additional funds into escrow, don’t stall. If you have 10 days to get a home inspection, call the inspector immediately.

5. Consider deadlines immovable

Get your funds together a week or so before the closing, so you don’t have to ask for a delay. If you’ll need to bring a certified check to closing, get it from the bank the day before, not the day of, your closing. Treat deadlines as sacrosanct.

6 Tips for Buying a Home in a Short Sale

6 Tips for Buying a Home in a Short Sale

By: G. M. Filisko

By preparing for a real estate short sale, you can emerge with a great home at a favorable price.

When sellers need to sell their home for less than they owe on their mortgage, they’re shooting for a short sale. Short sale homes can sometimes be bargains, but only if you do your homework, stay patient, and remain unemotional during the sometimes lengthy and difficult short sale process.

Here are six tips for protecting yourself emotionally and financially when bidding on a short sale.

1. Get help from a short sale expert

A real estate agent experienced in short sales can identify which homes are being offered as short sales, help you determine a purchase price, and advise you on what to include in your offer to make the lender view it favorably. Ask agents how many buyers they’ve represented in short sales and, of those, how many successfully closed the transaction.

2. Build a team

Ask agents to recommend real estate attorneys knowledgeable in short sales and title experts. A title officer can do a title search to identify all the liens attached to a property you’re interested in. Because each lienholder must consent to a short sale, a property with multiple liens, like first and second mortgages, mechanic’s and condominium liens, or homeowners association liens, will be harder to purchase.

A title search may cost $250 to $300 up front, but it can help weed out less desirable properties requiring multiple approvals.

3. Know the home’s fair market value

By agreeing to a short sale, lenders are consenting to lose money on the loan they made to the sellers to purchase the home. Their goal is to keep those losses as low as possible. If your offer is dramatically less than the home’s fair market value, it may be rejected. Your agent can help you identify the price that’s good for you. The lender will determine whether approval is in its best interest.

4. Expect delays

There are two stages to a short sale. First, the sellers must consent to your purchase offer. Then they must submit it to their lender, along with documentation to convince the lender to agree to the sale.

The lender approval process can take weeks or months, even longer if the lender counteroffers. Expect bigger delays if several lienholders are involved; each can make a counteroffer or reject your offer.

5. Firm up your financing

Lenders will weigh your ability to close the transaction. If you’re preapproved for a mortgage, have a large downpayment, and can close at any time, they’ll consider your offer stronger than that of a buyer whose financing is less secure.

6. Avoid contingencies

If you must sell your current home before you can close on the short-sale property, or you need to close by a firm deadline, your offer may present too many moving parts for a lender to approve it.

Also, consider ordering an inspection so you’re fully informed about the home. Keep in mind that lenders are unlikely to approve an offer seeking repairs or credits for such work. You’ll probably have to purchase the home “as is,” which means in its present condition.

This article includes general information about tax laws and consequences, but isn’t intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice; tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

How to Assess the Real Cost of a Fixer-Upper House

How to Assess the Real Cost of a Fixer-Upper House

By: G. M. Filisko

When you buy a fixer-upper house, you can save a ton of money, or get yourself in a financial fix.

Trying to decide whether to buy a fixer-upper house? Follow these seven steps, and you’ll know how much you can afford, how much to offer, and whether a fixer-upper house is right for you.

1. Decide what you can do yourself

TV remodeling shows make home improvement work look like a snap. In the real world, attempting a difficult remodeling job that you don’t know how to do will take longer than you think and can lead to less-than-professional results that won’t increase the value of your fixer-upper house.
Do you really have the skills to do it? Some tasks, like stripping wallpaper and painting, are relatively easy. Others, like electrical work, can be dangerous when done by amateurs.
Do you really have the time and desire to do it? Can you take time off work to renovate your fixer-upper house? If not, will you be stressed out by living in a work zone for months while you complete projects on the weekends?

2. Price the cost of repairs and remodeling before you make an offer
Get your contractor into the house to do a walk-through, so he can give you a written cost estimate on the tasks he’s going to do.
If you’re doing the work yourself, price the supplies.
Either way, tack on 10% to 20% to cover unforeseen problems that often arise with a fixer-upper house.

3. Check permit costs
Ask local officials if the work you’re going to do requires a permit and how much that permit costs. Doing work without a permit may save money, but it’ll cause problems when you resell your home.
Decide if you want to get the permits yourself or have the contractor arrange for them. Getting permits can be time-consuming and frustrating. Inspectors may force you to do additional work, or change the way you want to do a project, before they give you the permit.
Factor the time and aggravation of permits into your plans.

4. Doublecheck pricing on structural work

If your fixer-upper home needs major structural work, hire a structural engineer for $500 to $700 to inspect the home before you put in an offer so you can be confident you’ve uncovered and conservatively budgeted for the full extent of the problems.

Get written estimates for repairs before you commit to buying a home with structural issues.

Don’t purchase a home that needs major structural work unless:
You’re getting it at a steep discount
You’re sure you’ve uncovered the extent of the problem
You know the problem can be fixed
You have a binding written estimate for the repairs

5. Check the cost of financing

Be sure you have enough money for a downpayment, closing costs, and repairs without draining your savings.

If you’re planning to fund the repairs with a home equity or home improvement loan:
Get yourself pre-approved for both loans before you make an offer.
Make the deal contingent on getting both the purchase money loan and the renovation money loan, so you’re not forced to close the sale when you have no loan to fix the house.
Consider the Federal Housing Administration’s Section 203(k) program, which is designed to help home owners who are purchasing or refinancing a home that needs rehabilitation. The program wraps the purchase/refinance and rehabilitation costs into a single mortgage. To qualify for the loan, the total value of the property must fall within the FHA mortgage limit for your area, as with other FHA loans. A streamlined 203(k) program provides an additional amount for rehabilitation, up to $35,000, on top of an existing mortgage. It’s a simpler process than obtaining the standard 203(k).

6. Calculate your fair purchase offer

Take the fair market value of the property (what it would be worth if it were in good condition and remodeled to current tastes) and subtract the upgrade and repair costs.

For example: Your target fixer-upper house has a 1960s kitchen, metallic wallpaper, shag carpet, and high levels of radon in the basement.

Your comparison house, in the same subdivision, sold last month for $200,000. That house had a newer kitchen, no wallpaper, was recently recarpeted, and has a radon mitigation system in its basement.

The cost to remodel the kitchen, remove the wallpaper, carpet the house, and put in a radon mitigation system is $40,000. Your bid for the house should be $160,000.

Ask your real estate agent if it’s a good idea to share your cost estimates with the sellers, to prove your offer is fair.

7. Include inspection contingencies in your offer

Don’t rely on your friends or your contractor to eyeball your fixer-upper house. Hire pros to do common inspections like:
Home inspection. This is key in a fixer-upper assessment. The home inspector will uncover hidden issues in need of replacement or repair. You may know you want to replace those 1970s kitchen cabinets, but the home inspector has a meter that will detect the water leak behind them.
Radon, mold, lead-based paint
Septic and well
Pest

Most home inspection contingencies let you go back to the sellers and ask them to do the repairs, or give you cash at closing to pay for the repairs. The seller can also opt to simply back out of the deal, as can you, if the inspection turns up something you don’t want to deal with.

If that happens, this isn’t the right fixer-upper house for you. Go back to the top of this list and start again.

Negotiate Your Best House Buy

Negotiate Your Best House Buy

By: G. M. Filisko

Keep your emotions in check and your eyes on the goal, and you’ll pay less when purchasing a home.

Buying a home can be emotional, but negotiating the price shouldn’t be. The key to saving money when purchasing a home is sticking to a plan during the turbulence of high-stakes negotiations. A real estate agent who represents you can guide you and offer you advice, but you are the one who must make the final decision during each round of offers and counter offers.

Here are six tips for negotiating the best price on a home.

1. Get prequalified for a mortgage

Getting prequalified for a mortgage proves to sellers that you’re serious about buying and capable of affording their home. That will push you to the head of the pack when sellers choose among offers; they’ll go with buyers who are a sure financial bet, not those whose financing could flop.

2. Ask questions

Ask your agent for information to help you understand the sellers’ financial position and motivation. Are they facing foreclosure or a short sale? Have they already purchased a home or relocated, which may make them eager to accept a lower price to avoid paying two mortgages? Has the home been on the market for a long time, or was it just listed? Have there been other offers? If so, why did they fall through? The more signs that sellers are eager to sell, the lower your offer can reasonably go.

3. Work back from a final price to determine your initial offer

Know in advance the most you’re willing to pay, and with your agent work back from that number to determine your initial offer, which can set the tone for the entire negotiation. A too-low bid may offend sellers emotionally invested in the sales price; a too-high bid may lead you to spend more than necessary to close the sale.

Work with your agent to evaluate the sellers’ motivation and comparable home sales to arrive at an initial offer that engages the sellers yet keeps money in your wallet.

4. Avoid contingencies

Sellers favor offers that leave little to chance. Keep your bid free of complicated contingencies, such as making the purchase conditional on the sale of your current home. Do keep contingencies for mortgage approval, home inspection, and environmental checks typical in your area, like radon.

5. Remain unemotional

Buying a home is a business transaction, and treating it that way helps you save money. Consider any movement by the sellers, however slight, a sign of interest, and keep negotiating.

Each time you make a concession, ask for one in return. If the sellers ask you to boost your price, ask them to contribute to closing costs or pay for a home warranty. If sellers won’t budge, make it clear you’re willing to walk away; they may get nervous and accept your offer.

6. Don’t let competition change your plan

Great homes and those competitively priced can draw multiple offers in any market. Don’t let competition propel you to go beyond your predetermined price or agree to concessions—such as waiving an inspection—that aren’t in your best interest.

4 Tips to Determine How Much Mortgage You Can Afford

4 Tips to Determine How Much Mortgage You Can Afford

By: G. M. Filisko

By knowing how much mortgage you can handle, you can ensure that homeownership will fit in your budget.

Homeownership should make you feel safe and secure, and that includes financially. Be sure you can afford your home by calculating how much of a mortgage you can safely fit into your budget.

Why not just take out the biggest mortgage a lender says you can have? Because your lender bases that number on a formula that doesn’t consider your current and future financial and personal goals.

Think ahead to major life events and consider how those might influence your budget. Do you want to return to school for an advanced degree? Will a new child add day care to your monthly expenses? Does a relative plan to eventually live with you and contribute to the mortgage?

Consider those lifestyle issues as you check out these four methods for estimating the amount of mortgage you can afford.

1. Prepare a Detailed Budget

The oldest rule of thumb says you can typically afford a home priced two to three times your gross income. So, if you earn $100,000, you can typically afford a home between $200,000 and $300,000.

But that’s not the best method because it doesn’t take into account your monthly expenses and debts. Those costs greatly influence how much you can afford. Let’s say you earn $100,000 a year but have $1,000 in monthly payments for student debt, car loans, and credit card minimum payments. You don’t have as much money to pay your mortgage as someone earning the same income with no debts.

Better option: Prepare a family budget that tallies your ongoing monthly bills for everything — credit cards, car and student loans, lunch at work, day care, date night, vacations, and savings.

See what’s left over to spend on homeownership costs, like your mortgage, property taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and community association fees, if applicable.

2. Factor in Your Downpayment

How much money do you have for a downpayment? The higher your downpayment, the lower your monthly payments will be. If you put down at least 20% of the home’s cost, you may not have to get private mortgage insurance, which protects the lender if you default and costs hundreds each month. That leaves more money for your mortgage payment.

The lower your downpayment, the higher the loan amount you’ll need to qualify for and the higher your monthly mortgage payment.

But, if interest rates and/or home prices are rising and you wait to buy until you accumulate a bigger downpayment, you may end up paying more for your home.

3. Consider Your Overall Debt

Lenders generally follow the 43% rule. Your monthly mortgage payments covering your home loan principal, interest, taxes and insurance, plus all your other bills, like car loans, utilities, and credit cards, shouldn’t exceed 43% of your gross annual income.

Here’s an example of how the 43% calculation works for a homebuyer making $100,000 a year before taxes:

1. Your gross annual income is $100,000.

2. Multiply $100,000 by 43% to get $43,000 in annual income.

3. Divide $43,000 by 12 months to convert the annual 43% limit into a monthly upper limit of $3,583.

4. All your monthly bills including your potential mortgage can’t go above $3,583 per month.

You might find a lender willing to give you a mortgage with a payment that goes above the 43% line, but consider carefully before you take it. Evidence from studies of mortgage loans suggest that borrowers who go over the limit are more likely to run into trouble making monthly payments, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns.

4. Use Your Rent as a Mortgage Guide

The tax benefits of homeownership generally allow you to afford a mortgage payment — including taxes and insurance — of about one-third more than your current rent payment without changing your lifestyle. So you can multiply your current rent by 1.33 to arrive at a rough estimate of a mortgage payment.

Here’s an example: If you currently pay $1,500 per month in rent, you should be able to comfortably afford a $2,000 monthly mortgage payment after factoring in the tax benefits of homeownership.

However, if you’re struggling to keep up with your rent, buy a home that will give you the same payment rather than going up to a higher monthly payment. You’ll have additional costs for homeownership that your landlord now covers, like property taxes and repairs. If there’s no room in your budget for those extras, you could become financially stressed.

Also consider whether or not you’ll itemize your deductions. If you take the standard deduction, you can’t also deduct mortgage interest payments. Talking to a tax adviser, or using a tax software program to do a “what if” tax return, can help you see your tax situation more clearly.

11 Ways to Create a Welcoming Front Entrance for Under $100

11 Ways to Create a Welcoming Front Entrance for Under $100

By: Cara Greenberg

Wouldn’t it be nice to approach your home’s entrance with a grin instead of a grimace? Take our tips for beating a clear, safe, and stylish path to your front door.

First impressions count — not just for your friends, relatives, and the UPS guy, but for yourself. Whether it’s on an urban stoop or a Victorian front porch, your front door and the area leading up to it should extend a warm welcome to all comers — and needn’t cost a bundle.

Here’s what you can do to make welcoming happen on the cheap.

1. Clear the way for curb appeal. The path to your front door should be at least 3 feet wide so people can walk shoulder-to-shoulder, with an unobstructed view and no stumbling hazards. So get out those loppers and cut back any overhanging branches or encroaching shrubs.

2. Light the route. Landscape lighting makes it easy to get around at night. Solar-powered LED lights you can just stick in the ground, requiring no wiring, are suprisingly inexpensive. We found 8 packs for under $60 online.

3. Go glossy. Borrow inspiration from London’s lovely row houses, whose owners assert their individuality by painting their doors in high-gloss colors. The reflective sheen of a royal blue, deep green, crimson, or whatever color you like will ensure your house stands out from the pack.

Related: Pictures of 10 Great Value-Add Exterior Paint Jobs

4. Pretty up the view. A door with lots of glass is a plus for letting light into the front hall — but if you also want privacy and a bit of decor, check out decorative window film. It’s removable and re-positionable, and comes in innumerable styles and motifs. Pricing depends on size and design; many available for under $30.

A way to get the look of stained glass without doing custom work or buying a whole new door: Mount a decorative panel on the inside of the door behind an existing glass insert, $92 for an Arts and Crafts-style panel 20-inches-high by 11-inches-wide.

5. Replace door hardware. While you’re at it, polish up the handle on the big front door. Or better yet, replace it with a shiny new brass lockset with a secure deadbolt. Available for about $60.

6. Please knock. Doorbells may be the norm, but a hefty knocker is a classic that will never run out of battery life, and another opportunity to express yourself (whatever your favorite animal or insect is, there’s a door-knocker in its image).

7. Ever-greenery. Boxwoods are always tidy-looking, the definition of easy upkeep. A pair on either side of the door is traditional, but a singleton is good, too. About $25 at garden centers. In cold climates, make sure pots are frost-proof (polyethylene urns and boxes mimic terracotta and wood to perfection).

8. Numbers game. Is your house number clearly visible? That’s of prime importance if you want your guests to arrive and your pizza to be hot. Stick-on vinyl numbers in a variety of fonts make it easy, starting at about $4 per digit.

9. Foot traffic. A hardworking mat for wiping muddy feet is a must. A thick coir mat can be had at the hardware store for less than $20. Even fancier varieties can be found well under $50.

10. Go for the glow. Fumbling for keys in the dark isn’t fun. Consider doubling up on porch lights with a pair of lanterns, one on each side of the door, for symmetry and twice the illumination. Many mounted lights are available well under $100.

11. Snail mail. Mailboxes run the gamut from kitschy roadside novelties masquerading as dogs, fish, or what-have-you to sober black lockboxes mounted alongside the front door. Whichever way you go, make sure yours is standing or hanging straight, with a secure closure, and no dings or dents. The mail carrier will thank you.

Garden Watering Systems You Can Make Yourself

Garden Watering Systems You Can Make Yourself

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Easy DIY watering systems for gardens are lifesavers when hot weather moves in and thirsty plants moan, “Feed me!” once or twice a day.

Save money when you make these nifty DIY watering systems from materials you probably already have.
Drip hoses that save water by delivering moisture directly to roots.
Self-watering planter that hydrates plants by wicking moisture from a water well.
Ollas, buried clay pots that deliver water to roots on demand.

DIY Drip Hose

A drip hose soaks soil — drop by drop — without wasting water to evaporation or promoting disease by soaking foliate. A 50-ft. drip hose costs $14 at big box stores. Or you can make one yourself from any old hose you might otherwise toss into the trash. Here’s how.
Rescue an old hose. Clean it and lay it on a flat surface, such as a wood plank.
On one side of the hose, punch tiny holes 1 to 2 inches apart, leaving 6 inches with no holes on both ends of the hose. To make holes, use an upholstery needle or a tiny, 1/64-inch drill bit.
Attach a hose cap ($1.80 for ¾-in. brass) to one end of the hose. Attach the other end to another hose that’s long enough to reach from a spigot to your garden.
Turn on water so that drops fall from each hole along the hose. You want a drip — not a spray — so lower the pressure if too much water comes out.
Wind the hose along the base of plants, then cover with 2 inches of mulch.

Self-Watering Earth Box Planter

An earth box is a self-watering planter that relies on the wicking ability of soil to continuously draw water from a built-in well. You fill the well through a tube — far less often than if you watered by hand.

An earth box can be any size or material, so long as it has a water reservoir and soil. Here’s a good one:

1. Select a Rubbermaid Roughneck Tote (24-by-16-by-12 inches; $6). Using a super-sharp knife, cut out the flat part of the lid, separating it from the lip.

2. Make “weeping cups” by punching 1/2-in. holes in two 16 oz. plastic cups until they look like Swiss cheese.

3. Take a 5-ft. long piece of ½-inch-diameter ABS pipe ($6), mark it off every 2.5 inches, and cut into 16 pieces. Use the remainder (about 20 inches) for your watering tube.

4. In the lid corners, cut out holes to fit two weeping cups and the watering tube.

5. Using a ½-in. drill bit, punch holes in the lid spaced about 1 inch apart (that’s lots of holes!)

6. Arrange the small PVC pieces in the bottom of the bin — they should be on-end and evenly spaced. Place the lid on top of the pieces. Place weeping cups and watering tube into their holes.

7. Pack the weeping cups snugly with potting soil, then fill the box with soil.

8. Drill a ½-in. drainage hole in the side of the box 2 ½ in. from the bottom.

9. Fill the bin with water through the watering tube. When it’s full, water will come out the drainage hole.

10. Plant.

Check out this video, which shows you how to make an earth box from two Rubbermaid tubs.

Make Your Own Ollas

Ollas (OY-yas) are earthen jars with thin necks and wide bellies that you fill with water and bury in your garden. Water seeps through the ollas’ unglazed walls to feed plant roots without wasting any water to evaporation or runoff. Eventually, plant roots grow around the ollas, drawing water when needed, creating a super-efficient self-watering system.

Make yours from extra clay garden pots and silicone caulk.
Select two 8- or 10-in. clay pots with smooth rims that closely match each other.
Caulk a bottle cap or piece of tile over the bottom hole of one pot to prevent water from pouring out.
Cover the rim of one pot with a thick ribbon of silicone caulk. Place the other pot over the caulk and press lightly.
Let caulk dry for 24 hours, then fill the pot with water to check for leaks.
When you’re satisfied that your olla is leak-proof, bury it in your garden next to plants. Water in an 8-in. diameter; olla spreads 18 inches.
Fill olla with water, and cover the hole with a rock or glazed saucer. Check water levels with a stick and refill as necessary.

5 Awesomely Easy Landscaping Projects

5 Awesomely Easy Landscaping Projects

By: Dave Toht

Published: February 26, 2013

Ramp up your curb appeal with cool landscaping projects you can easily pull off in a weekend.

Project #1: Install Rigid Flower Bed Edging

The setup: A crisp edge where the lawn meets the flower beds looks great and eases mowing. Opt for rigid edging — the flexible plastic stuff looks amateurish from day one.

Use a charged garden hose to lay out a smooth curve.

Tip: A “charged” garden hose full of water makes for a smoother, kink-free curve; charge up by turning on the spigot but leaving the sprayer off.

With the hose as your guide, use a lawn edger or spade to cut away excess sod and make an incision for the edging. Tap in the edging with a rubber mallet and add the stakes. Trim the edging with a hacksaw, using a speed square to mark for cuts.

Specs and cost: Steel — $1.25 per lineal foot; aluminum — $2.25 plf; rigid plastic or fiberglass — $1.65 plf.

Tools: Garden hose, flour or powdered chalk, lawn edger or spade, shovel, speed square, hacksaw, rubber mallet, hammer.

Time: 1 day to edge a typical yard.

Read on for more easy landscaping projects:

Add an Earth Berm
Build a Wall for a Raised Bed
Install a Flagstone Path
Add a Brick Tree Surround

Project #2: Add an Earth Berm

The setup: Create an eye-catching front yard feature by shaping a few cubic yards of topsoil into an undulating berm. Topped off with mulch, groundcover, and bushes, a berm adds interest and buffers street noise.

Use a charged hose to outline the berm. Remove sod a couple of feet in from the perimeter. Add a few mounds, but max out at 3 feet high.

Specs and cost: Three cubic yards of soil is enough for a good-sized berm. Expect to pay $15-$20 per cubic yard and $15–$60 for delivery — a total of $60-$120.

Tip: Don’t be tempted by those bags of topsoil at the home center: At $2.50 per cubic foot, a cubic yard (27 cubic feet) will end up costing you $67.50.

Have a cubic yard of mulch dropped off as well ($15–$20). A dozen periwinkle starts, plus a few boxwood bushes and evergreens, will set you back another $140.

Total for an 18-foot-long berm: $215–$280.

Tools: Wheelbarrow, spade, shovel, garden rake, trowel.

Time: A day to form the berm, another half-day for planting and mulching.

Project #3: Build a Wall for a Raised Bed

The setup: A stacked flagstone wall for your raised beds has an old-world look that mellows any landscape. Best of all, you don’t have to be stonemason to build one.

Begin by laying out the wall with stakes and mason’s line. Tamp a level bed of sand for the first course. As you add courses, stagger joints at least 3 inches. Set each course back ¼-inch so the wall leans backward slightly. Once finished, back the wall with landscaping fabric before filling with topsoil.

Specs and cost: Choose a stone of consistent thickness. Flagstone might be limestone, sandstone, shale — any rock that splits into slabs. A ton of 2-inch-thick stone is enough for a wall 10 feet long and 12 inches high.

Cost: About $300 for stones and sand.

Tip: Permanent retaining walls should be backed by pea gravel for drainage. In some locations, walls taller than 3 feet high require a building permit.

Tools: Stakes and mason’s line, spade, shovel, a 2-by-4 that’s 8 feet long, a 4-foot level, garden rake, tamper.

Time: 1 day for a 10-foot-long wall that’s 12 inches high.

Want to see some cool retaining walls? Check out our slideshow, 8 Retaining Wall Ideas.

Project #4: Install a Flagstone Path

The setup: For a welcoming addition to your yard, add a flagstone pathway. Use a charged garden hose to mark a meandering path about 3 feet wide. Arrange flagstones within the path so they are 2–4 inches apart and mark their location with sprinkled flour.

Tip: Sprinkling flour over the stones creates a “shadow” outline on the ground. When you remove the stones, you’ll have perfect outlines for cutting away the sod.

Cut away 3–4 inches of sod beneath each stone, add a layer of sand, and level the flagstones as you place them.

Specs and cost: For a 40-foot path about 3 feet wide, plan on 2 tons of flagstones and about a cubic yard of coarse sand. Cost: About $550.

Tools: Garden hose, flour, spade, trowel, level.

Time: 1 day for a 40-foot path.

Want more detail? Get the inside scoop on our start-to-finish DIY paver project.

Project #5: Add a Brick Tree Surround

The setup: Installing a masonry surround for a tree eases mowing and looks great. All it takes is digging a circular trench, adding some sand, and installing brick or stone.

Tip: To create a nice, even circle around the base of your tree, tie a big loop of rope around your tree. Adjust the length of the loop so when you pull it taut, the free end is right where you’d like the outer edge of the surround to be. Set your spade inside the loop with the handle plumb — straight up and down. Now, as you move around the tree, the loop of rope keeps the spade exactly the same distance from the base of the tree, creating a nice circle.

Use the spade to cut into the sod all the way around the tree. Remove the rope, and dig out a circular trench about 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide. Add a layer of sand. Set bricks at an angle for a pleasing saw-tooth effect or lay them end-to-end. Fill the surround with 2–4 inches of mulch.

Curious what trees to plant? Our popular slideshow tells you which trees you should never plant in your yard.

Specs and cost: This is an instance where buying small quantities of materials at the home center makes sense. Brick pavers cost 50 cents-$1 each — figure about 20 pavers per tree. A bag of mulch, enough for one tree, costs $2.50.

Tools: Rope, spade, trowel.

Time: About 3 hours per tree.

How to Create the Garage Workshop of Your Dreams

How to Create the Garage Workshop of Your Dreams

By: Larry Erickson

A weekend and a few hundred bucks can unleash your inner craftsman.

Garages often harbor a not-so-secret second life: heroic home workshop. They’re well-suited to the task, with a tolerance for the noise and dust of do-it-yourself projects.

But if a garage workshop isn’t comfortable and convenient to use, you’ll avoid projects rather than enjoy them. Here are the essentials:
Adequate work space. Ideally, you’ll need room to work even when your cars are parked inside. Figure a minimum area of 10 ft. long and 6 ft. deep.
Appropriate storage. Places for tools and supplies are mandatory — the top of your work surface doesn’t count!
Excellent lighting. Both task and ambient lighting help keep you safe and projects mistake-free.
Durable surfaces. Pound away on your work surface — it can take it.
Easy-to-clean environment.

You can assemble a basic workbench, cabinets, shelving, and add simple overhead lighting for less than $500. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s no end; you can spend tens of thousands of dollars creating an ultimate garage shop showplace.

Your Workbench — Heart and Soul of DIY

Your primary work surface should be a rock-solid bench with a hard and heavy top. Buy or build the best you can manage. (Then vow to keep the top clear — tools and materials have a way of eating up workbench space).

Premade workbenches run $100 to $500 and come in many lengths; they’re usually 24 inches deep. A 38-inch height is typical, but you might be more comfortable with a work surface as low as 36 or as high as 42 inches. Some benches include vises, drawers, and shelves.

Build one yourself using readily available plans. A simple, sturdy workbench takes less than a day to build and materials cost less than $100. The Family Handyman magazine offers detailed instructions for several, including an inexpensive, simple bench. A more complex bench with a miter saw stand and drawers costs $300-$500 to build and takes a weekend.

The Right Bright Light

Garage work surfaces need bright ambient light and strong task lighting.
High-intensity lights (halogen, LEDs, and others) are great for over-bench task lighting. An LED task light with a flexible goose-neck ($75-$150) puts light where you need it.
If your garage has a finished ceiling, recessed fixtures (can lights) are inexpensive ($10-$20) and are good for task and ambient lighting.

Ceiling-mounted fluorescent light fixtures are the classic, low-cost solution for workshop lighting. A two- or four-bulb, 48-inch fluorescent fixture costs less than $50.

When shopping for workshop lighting, think lumens rather than watts. A lumen is a measure of lighting brightness, and is a handy way to compare today’s new energy-efficient light bulbs. Lighting fixtures and bulbs have labels that indicate lumens per device. A general rule of thumb is to use 130 to 150 lumens per square foot of work space.

For example, a 40-watt fluorescent bulb puts out about 2,200 lumens. A 60-watt incandescent bulb puts out about 800 lumens.

Adding Adequate Electrical Power

Along with your new lights, be sure your garage workshop has adequate electrical service — outlets and capacity — to accommodate your arsenal of power tools. Place outlets nearby; don’t depend on extension cords stretched across your garage — they can be a tripping hazard. If you don’t have 30-amp circuits on your garage service, talk with an electrical contractor about making this simple upgrade.

Ballpark $75-$100 an hour for an electrical contractor, plus a probable service-call fee of $50 to $100. Rates will vary across regions of the country.

Good electricians work quickly, so installing shop lights might take only an hour or two if access to electrical service is readily available. Increasing circuit capacity generally requires running new, heavier-gauge wire from your circuit-breaker box to the shop site.

Storage: Everything in Its Place

Don’t make yourself rummage through old coffee cans full of rattling bolts and bits: Visit home improvement centers for garage storage ideas and products.

Modular, wall-mounted garage storage systems let you configure shelves, bins, and hooks the way you need. Cost is about $10 per sq. ft. of wall space.

Plastic bins and hefty tubs protect tools, sandpaper, and tool manuals from insects, rodents, and dust. A 10-gallon plastic tub with lid is $5-$8.

Old kitchen cabinets, available where salvaged building materials are sold, are a great way to add storage — and a homemade workbench. Salvaged cabinets are about 50-75% cheaper than new. Top a run of cabinets with ¾-inch plywood for a durable work surface.

5 Easy DIY Weekend Projects Under $300

5 Easy DIY Weekend Projects Under $300

By: John Riha

Published: May 24, 2012

Just another weekend? Not if you take advantage with one or more of these 5 great projects you can easily pull off for under $300.

Most of the cost of these DIY weekend projects is in the materials. The labor — that’s you — is free. All you need now are the hours. But, hey, you’ve got two full days — plenty of time to be a superhero weekend warrior and grab some R&R.

Project #1: Add a garden arbor entry.

The setup: Install an eye-catching portal to your garden with a freestanding arbor. It’ll look great at the end of a garden path or framing a grassy area between planting beds.

Specs and cost: Garden arbors can be priced up to thousands of dollars, but you can find nice-looking kits in redwood, cedar, and vinyl at your local home improvement or garden center for $200-$300. Typical sizes are about 7 feet high and 3-4 feet wide. You’ll have to assemble the kit yourself.

Tools: Screwdriver; cordless drill/driver; hammer; tape measure. Kits come pre-cut and pre-drilled for easy assembly, and usually include screws. If fasteners aren’t included, check the materials list before you leave the store.

Time: 3-5 hours

Project #2: Install a window awning.

The setup: Summer is super, but too much sunlight from south- and west-facing windows can heat up your interiors and make your AC work overtime. Beat that heat and save energy by using an awning to stop harsh sunlight before it enters your house.

Specs and cost: Residential awnings come in many sizes and colors. Some are plastic or aluminum, but most are made with weatherproof fabrics. They’re engineered for wind resistance, and some are retractable. A 4-foot-wide awning with a 2.5-foot projection is $150-$250.

Tools: Cordless drill/driver; adjustable wrench; tape measure; level. You can install an awning on any siding surface, but you’ll need a hammer drill to drill holes in brick. To prevent leaks, fill any drilled holes with silicone sealant before you install screws and bolts.

Time: 3-4 hours

Project # 3: Screen off your air conditioner from view.

The setup: Air conditioning is great, but air conditioner condensers are ugly. Up your curb appeal quotient by hiding your AC condenser or heat pump unit with a simple screen.

Specs and costs: An AC screen is typically 3-sided, about 40 inches high, and freestanding — you’ll want to be able to move it easily when it comes time to service your HVAC. For about $100, you can make a screen yourself using weather-resistant cedar or pressure-treated wood to build 3 frames, and filling each frame with plastic or pressure-treated lattice.

Or, buy pre-made fencing panels. A 38-by-38-inch plastic fencing panel is about $50.

Tools: Hammer; saw; cordless drill/driver; measuring tape; galvanized wood screws.

Time: Build it yourself in 4-6 hours. Install pre-made fencing in 1-2 hours.

Project # 4: Add garage storage.

The setup: Shopping for garage storage solutions is definitely a kid-in-the-candy-store experience. There are so many cool shelves, hooks, and hangers available that you’ll need to prioritize your needs. Take stock of long-handled landscape tools, bikes, paint supplies, ladders, and odd ducks, such as that kayak. Measure your available space so you’ll have a rough idea of where everything goes.

Specs and cost: Set your under-$300 budget, grab a cart, and get shopping. Many storage systems are made to be hung on drywall, but hooks and heavy items should be fastened directly to studs. Use a stud finder ($20) to locate solid framing.

If your garage is unfinished, add strips of wood horizontally across studs so you’ll have something to fasten your storage goodies to. An 8-foot-long 2-by-4 is about $2.50.

Tools: Cordless drill/driver; hammer; level; measuring tape; screws and nails.

Time: This is a simple project, but not a fast one. Figure 6-10 hours to get everything where you want it, plus shopping. But, oh the fun in putting everything in its place!

Project #5: Edging your garden.

The setup: Edging is a great way to define your planting beds, corral garden mulch, and to separate your lawn from your garden or patio.

Specs and cost: Wood and metal edging looks like tiny fencing; they’re 4-6 inches high. Some include spikes that hold the edging in position; other types must be partially buried. Cost is $1-$5 per foot.

Plastic edging can be molded and colored to mimic brick, wood, and stone. About $20 for 10 feet.

Concrete edging blocks are smooth, or textured to resemble stone. $15-$25 for 10 feet.

Real stone edging is installed flush with the surrounding grade in a shallow trench on a bed of sand, so digging is required. Stone is sold by the ton and prices vary by region. You’ll need about one-third of a ton of flagstone to make an 8-inch-wide edging 50 feet long, costing $150-$200.

Tools: Shovel; wheelbarrow; tin snips (for cutting plastic edging); work gloves.

Time: Pre-made edging will take 2-3 hours for 50 feet; stone will take 6-10 hours.

Checklist for HVAC Maintenance

Checklist for HVAC Maintenance

By: Douglas Trattner

Here’s an easy, doable preventative maintenance plan to keep your HVAC in top shape.

It’s a good idea to hire a HVAC company to inspect and do maintenance on your system every fall and spring. They’ll do things like inspect and clean the wiring and mechanisms of the unit, which is bit more challenging for the average homeowner.

But you can prolong the life and increase the efficiency of your system if you follow this simple maintenance plan:

HVAC checklist

Some things you should do immediately; other tasks only need to be done seasonally or once a year. Here are the steps to a healthy HVAC system:
Buy a better filter if you haven’t already. The new high-efficiency pleated filters have an electrostatic charge that works like a magnet to grab the tiniest particles — even those that carry bacteria.
Replace the filter at least every 90 days. But check it monthly. If it looks dark and clogged, go ahead and change it. If you have pets, you’ll probably need to change every month.
Check to make sure there’s at least two feet of clearance around outdoor air conditioning units and heat pumps.
Weekly during spring, summer, and fall remove debris such as leaves, pollen, and twigs from top and sides of outdoor air-conditioning units and heat pumps. Don’t allow the lawn mower to discharge grass clippings onto the unit.
Monthly, inspect insulation on refrigerant lines leading into house. Replace if missing or damaged.
Annually, ensure that outdoor air-conditioning units and heat pumps are on firm and level ground or pads.
Annually, pour a cup of bleach mixed with water down the air-conditioner condensate drain to prevent buildup of mold and algae, which can cause a clog.
In summer, shut off the water supply to the furnace humidifier. In fall (or when you anticipate turning on the heat), replace the humidifier wick filter, set the humidistat to between 35% and 40% relative humidity, and turn on the water supply.
Never close more than 20% of a home’s registers to avoid placing unnecessary strain on the HVAC system.
Annually, replace the battery in your home’s carbon monoxide detector.

Tips to Make Your Roof Last as Long as Possible

Tips to Make Your Roof Last as Long as Possible

By: Jeanne Huber

Whether your roof is brand-new or years old, here’s what you need to do to keep it in the best possible shape for the longest possible time.

A new roof is an expensive proposition — $18,800 on average for composition shingles, according to Remodeling magazine’s Cost Vs. Value Report, and as much as $36,000 for high-end materials. Once you’ve made that kind of investment, you’ll want to protect it.

And even if your roof is years old, maintaining it in good shape will prolong its life and keep you from having to replace it prematurely. Here’s what you need to do to get the most from your roof.

Clean the Gutters

Ruined paint on siding and a wet basement are typical problems caused by clogged gutters, but it might surprise you to learn that the overflow can also go upward. When leaves pile too deeply in gutters, water can wick into roof sheathing and rot it, or even rot roof rafters.

Fixing that kind of damage could run into the thousands of dollars, but you can avoid it by cleaning your gutters each fall and spring. Do it yourself in a few hours if you’re comfortable working on a ladder, or hire a pro for $50-$250, depending on house size.

Related: Fast Fixes for Common Gutter Problems

Remove Leaves

If you have a simple peaked roof surrounded by low landscaping, your roof probably stays clear of leaves on its own. But if the roof is more complicated or if towering trees are nearby, piles of leaves probably collect in roof valleys or near chimneys. If you don’t remove them, they will trap moisture and gradually decompose, allowing moisture to accumulate in your roof — or worse, create fertile ground for weeds to grow.

If you have a low-slope roof and a one-story house, you may be able to pull the leaves down with a soft car-washing brush on a telescoping pole. Or you can use a specialty tool like a roof leaf rake, which costs about $20. A leaf blower gets the job done too, especially on dry leaves, but you or a pro needs to go up on the roof to use it.

If leaves are too wet or too deep, you might need to wash them off with a garden hose. Don’t use a pressure washer, which can force water up under the shingles.

Get Rid of Moss

In much of the country, composition roofs often become covered with black algae. Although unsightly, this filmy growth doesn’t hurt the roof. A little chlorine bleach or detergent mixed with water will kill it, but it’s safer for both you and the roof to just leave it alone.

If you live in the Northwest, you’re likely to find moss growing on your roof, particularly on wood or composition shingles. Moss, which looks more three-dimensional than algae, needs to go because it traps water. If you tackle it early enough, you can just sweep it off.

If there’s a lot of buildup, you may need to kill the moss first. The Washington Toxics Coalition recommends using products based on potassium salts of fatty acids rather than more toxic formulas with zinc sulfate. Even so, apply the soap only where moss is growing, and try to keep the wash water from getting into storm drains.

Once the roof is clean and free of moss, consider investing in zinc strips to keep it from coming back. For about $300, a roofer will install strips near the top of the roof. When it rains, the runoff from the strips inhibits the growth of moss. It’s effective and more environmentally friendly than treating the entire roof with pesticide, as long as you don’t live near a stream or a lake where the runoff can harm aquatic life.

Trim Overhanging Branches

A little prevention in the form of tree-trimming goes a long way toward keeping leaves and moss off your roof and keeping your roof damage-free. Abrasion from limbs and leaves that touch your roof can eventually damage shingles, especially in high winds.

Overhanging branches also give squirrels and other rodents access to your roof. They can gnaw on your roof and siding. Branches need to be 10 feet away from your roof to keep these pests at bay. If that’s not possible, wrap the tree trunk with a sheet-metal bank to prevent them from climbing the tree.

Trimming branches that hang over the roof is a job for a pro, though, or you might cause more damage than you prevent.

Related: The Best Trees for Your Yard

Prevent Ice Dams

If you’re plagued by ice buildup on the roof, removing some or all of the snow between storms might forestall leaks into your house. Don’t try to pry off ice that’s already formed, since that could damage the roof. Use a roof rake to dislodge snow within three or four feet of the gutters. Get a telescoping pole and work from the ground, if possible. If you must be on a ladder, work at an angle so the falling snow doesn’t push you over.

Inadequate insulation and air leaks into your attic greatly increase the risk of ice dams, so once the storms pass, address those problems, too.

Related: Tips on Preventing Ice Dams

Look and Listen

After every big wind or hail storm, or if you’ve heard scurrying on the roof at night, give your roof a quick check to make sure everything’s still intact.

Look for:
Curling, loose, or missing shingles

Damaged flashing around vents, chimneys, skylights, and other openings

If anything seems amiss, ask a roofer to inspect ASAP. Most problems are fairly easy to fix, but if you put them off and water gets in, the damage and costs escalate.

TIP: You don’t have to climb a ladder to inspect your roof. You can use binoculars.

Caring for Your Plumbing System

Caring for Your Plumbing System

By: Joe Bousquin

Care for your pipes so they’ll last longer — and prevent a costly plumbing disaster later.

You probably don’t think much about the network of water and sewer pipes inside your walls that deliver your hot and cold water — and eliminate your waste — on demand.

But giving your plumbing a little regular attention can prolong its life, prevent leaks, and avoid costly repairs. Here’s how to care for the pipes in your house.

Plumbing maintenance checklist

Avoid chemical drain-clearing products

Clogged drains are the most common home plumbing problem, and you can buy chemicals to clear them. But these products sometimes do more harm than good. They can actually erode cast-iron drainpipes.

And because they typically don’t remove the entire clog, the problem is likely to recur, causing you use the chemicals repeatedly. “Each time, they’ll eat away at the pipes a little more,” says Passaic, N.J. plumber Joseph Gove. “Soon, you’re going to get leaks.”

Better to hire a plumber to snake the drain (usually $75 to $150) and completely remove the chunk of hair or grease that’s plugging the line. Or you can pick up a snake of your own, for around $20 at the hardware store, and try clearing the drain yourself.

Prevent future clogging

Clogs aren’t just nuisances. Backed-up water puts added pressure on your wastepipes, stressing them and shortening their lifespan. So avoid plug-ups by watching what goes down your drains. That means keeping food scraps out of kitchen drains, hair out of bathroom drains, and anything but sewage and toilet paper out of toilets.

Install screens over drains in showers and tubs, and pull out what hair you can every few weeks to prevent buildups. Scrape food into the trash before doing dishes—even if you have a disposal—and never put liquid grease down the drain; pour it into a sealable container to put in the garbage after it cools.

“Grease is only liquid when it’s hot,” Gove says. “When you pour it down the drain, it cools and becomes solid. Do that enough, and just like a clogged artery, your drains won’t work anymore.”

Reduce the pressure

As nice as high water pressure can be when you’re taking a shower or filling a stockpot, it stresses your pipes, increasing the likelihood of a leak. “That drastically reduces the life of your plumbing,” says Phoenix, Ariz., plumber Alex Sarandos. “It makes your pipe joints, faucets, and appliance valves work harder.”

You can measure your water pressure with a hose bib gauge, available at the hardware store for under $10. Attach it to an outside spigot and open the line. Normal pressure will register between 40 and 85 psi. If it’s above that range, consider hiring a plumber to install a pressure reducer (around $400).

By the way, adding a low-flow showerhead won’t affect pressure in the pipes. It only affects the amount of water coming out of the showerhead itself.

Soften the water

If your water has a high mineral content—known as hard water—it can shorten your plumbing’s lifespan. Those naturally occurring minerals, usually magnesium or calcium, build up inside your pipes and restrict flow, increasing the pressure. Plus, they can corrode joints and fittings. Although hard water can occur anywhere, it’s most common in the Southwest and parts of the Northeast.

A white buildup on showerheads and faucets is a telltale sign of hard water. Or, if your house receives municipal water service, you can easily find out how hard it is. By law, every municipality must file an annual water quality report with the Environmental Protection Agency. If you have a well, check your most recent water test report for hardness information. Anything over 140 parts per million is considered hard water.

The only way to effectively deal with hard water is by installing a water softener. Most use sodium to counteract the minerals in your water, but new electronic softeners use electromagnetic pulses to dissolve minerals, and have the advantage of not adding sodium to your water.

You’ll need a plumber to install a traditional, sodium-based softener, for $500 to $1,000. Electronic units start below $200, and because the pipes don’t have to be opened up, you can install one yourself. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll need an outlet nearby to power the unit.

If you opt for a sodium-based softener, consider installing a whole-house pre-filter at the same time. Since the plumber will already be cutting into your pipes to install the softener, the pre-filter might add only $100 to the job. And not only will it give you cleaner drinking water by removing particulates and chlorine, you’ll reduce stress on your pipes that can occur when those particles clog faucet filters.

Keep your sewer lines or septic tank clear

If you have municipal sewers, hire a plumber to snake your main sewage cleanout every few years. This will cost $75 to $150, and will remove tree roots that inevitably work their way into these pipes—leading to messy sewage backups. If you have a septic system, get the tank pumped out every three to five years, for $200 to $500.

Other ways to avoid trouble
Learn where your home’s main water shut off valve is—so if there’s ever a leak, you can go straight there and quickly turn off the water to the entire house.
Remove hoses from outdoor spigots in winter to prevent frozen water from cracking the pipes and causing a flood.
Add pipe insulation to the plumbing in cold parts of your house—such as garages, basements, and crawl spaces—to avoid frozen pipes (and to shorten the wait for hot water).
Never use an exposed pipe as a hanger rod for laundry. Doing so can loosen joints and fasteners.
Fix problems quickly. Even small leaks can make pipes corrode more quickly, and cause significant water damage or mold.

5 Maintenance Tasks to Ignore at Your Peril

5 Maintenance Tasks to Ignore at Your Peril

By: Jeanne Huber

Are you a pro at procrastination? Get off the couch for these 5 critical maintenance jobs; left undone, the consequences could cost you thousands — or worse.

Homeownership means regular maintenance and repair chores, but some are more important than others. Here are five that should top your priority list:

1. Make Sure Your Appliances Aren’t Being Recalled

Why it matters: The non-profit “Consumer Reports” magazine wrote an eye-popping piece about how often home appliances catch fire: more than 150,000 residential fires each year from 2006 to 2008, resulting in 3,670 injuries, 150 deaths, and $547 million in property damage. About half the fires appear to have been caused by faulty appliances. Some had been recalled for defects that could cause an appliance fire, but the home owners weren’t aware.

What you need to do: Write down the model and serial number of each appliance, then check at www.recalls.gov for recalls and what action to take if something you own is involved. Keep your list so it’s easy to recheck; it sometimes takes years for problems to become evident. Keep tabs at HouseLogic for notices about recalls.

Maintenance cost: Free

Worst case if you put it off: You don’t learn that your dishwasher or clothes dryer has a safety defect, and the machine catches fire and burns your house down.

2. Check for Leaks and Fix Them

Why it matters: Water does more damage to houses than anything else, since persistent leaks lead to mold and mildew, rot, and even termites and carpenter ants (they like chewing soggy wood since it’s soft). Yet if you fix a leak soon after it starts, there may be no long-term damage at all.

What you need to do: Inside, keep your eyes open for dark spots under pipes inside sink cabinets, stains on ceilings, toilets that rock, and of course drips. At least once a year, inspect the roof. If you find leaks, fix them immediately. Otherwise, call in a plumber.

Maintenance cost: Negligible for a simple fix, such as a new washer. A visit from a plumber might set you back $250; a roof repair, a few hundred dollars to $1,000.

Worst case if you put it off: Drips ruin the cabinet under the kitchen sink, and run down into the floor sheathing and joists underneath, so you need a structural repair, plus new cabinets and new kitchen flooring. Or the roof rots, so you need a new roof and repairs to rooms directly beneath.

3. Test Your Sump Pump and Backup Pump (or Install a Backup Pump If You Don’t Have One)

Why it matters: The middle of a storm isn’t the time to discover your basement sump pump is clogged, nor is it the time to begin planning for a backup pump. You need them ready before the water arrives.

What you need to do: Fill the sump pump pit with water and make sure the pump switches on and sends water out the discharge line. If you have a backup pump, repeat the test, but unplug the main pump first. If the backup pump runs on batteries that are more than two years old, replace your sump pump. If you don’t have a backup pump and are on municipal water, get one that runs on water pressure. If you’re on well water, your only option is the battery kind.

Maintenance cost: Testing is free; a water-powered backup sump pump, including installation, costs $150-$350; a new battery for a battery-operated sump starts around $200.

Worst case if you put it off: The pump or pumps don’t work when you need them and your basement floods, ruining everything in it and forcing you to tear out drywall and carpeting.

4. Renew the Finish on Your Hardwood Floors

Why it matters: Every wood floor needs to be refinished periodically, but the trick is to get to the job before the old finish wears through. Then you can apply a fresh coat without having to sand into the wood. Since sanding wears away some of the wood, being able to skip that step can extend the life of your floor by decades.

What you need to do: If your floor is dull but OK otherwise, repair scratches and apply a hardwood floor refinisher ($6-$18 per quart). If the old finish is really scratched up, call in a pro to buff it and apply a fresh finish.

Maintenance cost: If you just need the refresher coat and apply it yourself, you can do 500 sq. ft. for around $25. If you hire a pro, figure on $1 per sq ft.

Worst case if you put it off: The finish wears through. If your floor is thick enough to sand, expect to spend $2.50 per sq. ft. for a new finish. If the floor can’t be sanded, you’ll need a whole new floor — $8-$20 per sq. ft., if you stick with wood.

5. Protect your Foundation

Why it matters: If anything goes wrong with your foundation walls — serious cracks, uneven settling — you could be in for one of the most expensive home repair jobs possible.

What you need to do: Every year, check to make sure the soil around your house slopes away from your foundation walls at least 6 inches over 10 feet (rain gutter downspouts should extend at least 5 feet away from your house).

That slope keeps water from getting down right next to your foundation, where it could cause basement walls to lean, crack the masonry, and cause leaks. (For houses with crawl spaces, keeping water away makes sure excess water doesn’t pool underneath your floor, making for damp conditions that encourage mold, rot, and insects.)

Maintenance cost: Topsoil is $10-$20 per cubic yard, plus delivery. You’ll pay $50-$100 per cubic yard if you buy by the bag.

Worst case if you put it off: Hydrostatic pressure causes your foundation to settle, cracking your basement walls. A full excavation is necessary to stabilize, repair, and seal the foundation walls — a $15,000 to $40,000 job.

Is Your Home Older Than Its Years?

Is Your Home Older Than Its Years?

By: Lara Edge

Would you throw away $20,000? You are if you’re letting your home age faster than it should. Here’s a simple maintenance strategy to keep your home young.

You know how Dr. Oz says that if you keep your body fit and your mind nimble, you’re likely younger than your chronological years? The same principle applies to your house.

An out-of-shape house is older than its years and could lose 10% of its appraised value, says Mack Strickland, an appraiser and real estate agent in Chester, Va. That’s a $15,000-$20,000 adjustment for the average home.

But good maintenance can even add value. A study out of the University of Connecticut and Syracuse University finds that regular maintenance increases the value of a home by about 1% each year.

So if you’ve been deferring maintenance, or just need a good strategy to stay on top of it, here’s the simplest way to keep your home in good health.

callout

Focus on Your Home’s #1 Enemy

If you focus on nothing else, focus on moisture — your home’s No. 1 enemy.

Water can destroy the integrity of your foundation, roof, walls, and floors — your home’s entire structure. So a leaky gutter isn’t just annoying; it’s compromising your foundation.

Keeping moisture at bay will improve your home’s effective age — or as Dr. Oz would say, “real age” — and protect its value. It’ll also help you prioritize what you need to do. Here’s how:

Follow This Easy 4-Step Routine

1. When it rains, actively pay attention. Are your gutters overflowing? Is water flowing away from your house like it should? Is water coming inside?

2. After heavy rains and storms, do a quick inspection of your roof, siding, foundation, windows, doors, ceilings, and basement to spot any damage or leaks.

Related: How to Tell if You Have a Drainage Problem

3. Use daylight savings days or the spring and fall equinox to remind you to check and test water-related appliances like your washer, refrigerator, water heater, HVAC (condensation in your HVAC can cause leaks) or swamp cooler, and sump pump. It’s also a great time to do regular maintenance on them. Inspect any outdoor spigots and watering systems for leaks, too.

4. Repair any damage and address any issues and leaks ASAP.

Don’t procrastinate when you spot minor leaks or drips inside your house. Ongoing small leaks can slowly erode pipes and fixtures, and even cause mold and mildew issues you won’t notice until it’s too late.

Say you’ve got a bit of cracked caulk around the kitchen window. It may not seem like much, but behind that caulk, water could get into your sheathing, causing mold damage and rot. Before you know it, you’re looking at a $5,000 repair that could have been prevented by a $4 tube of caulk and a half hour of your time.

To help you with this routine, we have several guides with specifics and tips:
How to Prevent Water Damage
Inspecting and Maintaining Your Roof
How to Inspect Windows and Doors for Leaks
Spotting Foundation Problems
How to Help Your Appliances Last Longer
Caring for Siding

Once you settle into a routine, it becomes easier to handle other maintenance tasks, which will only do more to protect and enhance your home’s value. Plus, you’ll get to know your home better, which will help you spot other one-off problems, such as termites and other wood-destroying insects, that can cause costly damage.

If You Want to Take Home Maintenance to the Next Level . . .

If you’re a geek about home maintenance like we are, and you want to do more than water patrol, these ideas will help you keep your house in great shape.

Give yourself an incentive to do maintenance. Maintenance is your springboard to sexier projects like a kitchen remodel or basement makeover. So plan a room-per-year redo. This way you’re maintaining, fixing, and improving. For example:

In your basement:
Check for dark stains that could signal plumbing leaks. If you find any leaks, fix them.
Check your ductwork for leaks that are wasting energy.
Clean the lint out of the dryer vent. The machine will last longer, and you’ll help prevent fires.
Caulk and seal basement windows to stop air leaks.
Once your space is moisture sealed, you can start converting it into a family room or other livable space.
Add a basement ceiling.
Brighten it up with paint.

In your kitchen:
Clean out all the cabinets, then wipe them down. It’s a great way to purge and get organized.
Take a good look under your kitchen sink. Remove all the wastebaskets and cleaning supplies to help you spot any leaks, and fix them.
Pull out the fridge to give that yucky alcove a thorough cleaning. Check the drip pan for moisture that can spawn mold growth.
Update cabinet hardware and adjust hinges if necessary.
Re-caulk the seam between your backsplash and wall to keep moisture out. To give your whole kitchen a low-cost facelift, how about a new backsplash?
Re-paint the walls using paint with a tough, semi-gloss sheen that stands up to repeated cleanings and resists moisture.

Keep a maintenance fund. Some sources say you should save 1% to 3% of your initial house price annually to pay for maintenance. On a $200,000 house, that’s $2,000-$6,000 a year. Yeesh, that’s a big nut.

Alternatively, make it a goal to save enough money to do a major replacement project, so the bill won’t catch you off guard. Probably the biggest single replacement project you’ll have is your roof or siding.

You can build up this fund over several years by paying yourself a monthly assessment — whatever you can manage. Keep it in a separate account to avoid the temptation to tap it for hockey tickets or other impulse buys.

If you need to replace the roof before you have a fund, an equity loan is an option. But consider very carefully.

Related: When to Use Home Equity and When Not To

If you’re practicing maintenance in the way we’ve outlined here, you won’t need $2,000 per year to manage your home’s natural aging process. Some routine tasks, such as cleaning rain gutters and changing furnace filters, could cost you $300 or less per year.

Your house takes care of you — not just for shelter but as a financial asset. Return the favor and keep it hale and hearty by caring for it with regular maintenance.

Guide to Buying and Installing a Sprinkler System

Guide to Buying and Installing a Sprinkler System

By: Dave Toht

An irrigation system saves water, keeps your lawn looking great, and helps maintain your curb appeal. We’ve gathered the info to get you started.

An underground irrigation system delivers water to your landscaping at the right time, and in just the right amount, so you don’t water too much or too little. It’s relatively easy to install and makes a good DIY project.

You’ll also save money doing it yourself. A professionally installed system for a typical ¼-acre lot is $3,000 to $4,000. You can DIY it for under $1,500.

The heart of an underground system is pop-up sprinkler heads. When working, the heads raise up a few inches to spray water on your landscape. When not in use, they drop to ground level so you can mow or walk right over them.

Plus, today’s systems are pretty darn smart. Automated features decide when it’s been raining too much or too little, then adjust the amount of water your landscaping gets. That lowers the worry quotient for you, heads off costly over-watering, and makes the whole system almost maintenance-free.

Getting in the Zone

An irrigation system divides your property into zones. Each zone can be different in terms of the amount of water it gets, and at what time of day it’s watered. Examples of zones include:
Lawn zones have pop-up heads with just the right spray radius and range to cover a broad area of grass.
Landscaping zones have high-rise heads to water shrubs and ground cover.
Flower and vegetable zones may be equipped with bubblers and tiny spray heads that gently water plants without bruising edibles or knocking petals off blooms.

Everything functions on an automatic timer that controls water flow throughout the system. You can elect to include sensors that monitor rain and humidity — self-adjusting timers that prevent unnecessary watering.

Start with a Plan

Your irrigation journey starts with a plan that maps out:
Your yard, house location, and major landscaping features, such as trees.
Your irrigation zones.
The location of sprinkler heads and bubblers.
The location of underground water supply lines.
The location of a water-supply shutoff valve.
Any automatic sensors.

But planning is a challenge for first-timers. Manufacturers recognize this hurdle and go out of their way to provide planning help. After you give them some info on the size of your lot and your water supply system, they give you an irrigation plan tailored to your property.

You’d be crazy not to take advantage of their services. For one, they’re free. Second, they’re very thorough: downloadable guides and step-by-step videos take you through every part of creating a home irrigation system.

For example, Rainbird and Toro offer planning guides that show you how to make a scale drawing of your property, and how to easily gather information on your water pressure and water flow rate that’ll help determine the design of your system.

When you mail in the drawing and info, the manufacturer returns a custom plan with a materials list and detailed installation instructions, all designed specifically for your property. Replies take several weeks. For a small fee ($20-$30), you can have your plans arrive in a few days.

Orbit shows you how to use Google Maps to make a scaled plan of your lot without ever stepping outdoors. Plans are available instantly.

Get Ready to Dig

Your next job is trenching — digging channels in your yard for the water supply lines and sprinkler heads. With plan in hand, mark out the locations of the irrigation lines using string lines, powdered chalk, or lawn marking paint — it comes in a spray can specially designed to be used upside down ($5).

At this point comes a heads-up about your local building codes. You’ll need to ask a couple of questions of your local building and planning commission:
Do I need a permit?
Is a licensed plumber required to connect my irrigation system to my home’s water system?
How deep should the trenches be? (Most building codes require you to dig down 18 inches to protect the water lines from freezing — in colder climates the required depth is more.)

Unless you relish the idea of hand-digging several hundred feet of trench, rent a gas-powered trenching tool for $100–$160 per day. This walk-behind tool makes short work of deep, narrow trenches.

Very important! To prevent injury, be sure to have all utilities marked before you begin digging. Call your local utilities or dial 811.

Installing the System

With excavation complete, you’re ready to buy all the stuff you need. You’ll build your system from plastic pipe, either rigid or flexible PVC. Both are good choices and use the same methods of assembly.
Rigid PVC pipe is inexpensive — ¾-inch diameter pipe is about 25 cents per lineal foot.
Flex PVC costs more at about $1 per lineal foot of ¾-inch-diameter pipe, but it installs faster, there are fewer connections, and it’s more forgiving of trenches that aren’t perfectly straight.

There are lots of other components, including sprinkler heads and bubblers, and each type has different ranges and arcs — the size and shape of their spray. That’s another reason to check out the manufacturer’s guides — they’ll give you a complete materials list.

Unless you’re an accomplished DIY electrician and plumber, you’ll probably need a bit more professional help:
An electrician to extend a circuit to the automatic timer; figure 2-3 hours at $90-$110 per hour.
A plumber to tap into your household water system. Budget another $200-$300.

Ready to Call In the Pros?

If the DIY approach is more than you want to tackle, or your lot is larger than a third of an acre (14,500 sq. ft.), consider hiring a pro. Expect to pay $3,000-$4,000 to have an underground irrigation system installed on a ¼-acre lot.

Aside from saving you a lot of work, a pro is going to get the job done quickly and with minimal disruption. He’ll also come with knowledge of what design best suits local conditions.

Good Tips for Watering Your Landscape

Check out these low-cost, low-maintenance DIY watering systems.
Planning a trip this summer? Here’s how to water while you’re on vacation.
Dry spells are hard on your plants. Make sure you know how to water your plants during a drought.

How to Keep Your Dog Out of Your Garden

How to Keep Your Dog Out of Your Garden

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: August 9, 2012

Is your pooch pawing your petunias? Here’s how to keep your dog out of your garden and away from your precious plants.

We want our dogs to eat well, but we don’t want them snacking on our heirloom vegetables and prized perennials. Nor do we want them digging up the daffodils.

How can you keep dogs from wrecking your garden?

Spray nasty odors

Your vegetable garden is a salad bar for your dog. To keep him away, spray plants with pungent white vinegar or apple bitter. Or plant marigolds between vegetable rows, which repel dogs and other backyard pests, such as Mexican bean beetles, aphids, squash bugs, and whiteflies.

However, don’t apply rabbit or deer repellents that contain coyote urine. Dogs love the smell of urine and will either roll in your sprayed plants or leave an odor of their own.

Sprinkle yucky tastes

Sprinkle powdered mustard or red pepper flakes around your plants. A few sniffs and licks of these unpleasant tastes will discourage your dog from returning to the area.

Fence dogs in or out

If you’ve got small dogs, a 16-inch fence border ($29 for 6 ft.) will mark the perimeter of your garden and discourage them from trampling your seedlings. For large, spunky dogs, encase your vegetables in a chicken wire cage with a top enclosure, which fence out deer and rabbits, too.

Or, contain your dog in a fenced play area that’s roomy and filled with interesting toys and treats. However, if your dog likes burying things, don’t give him a bone; instead offer chews, such as rawhide or bully sticks, that’ll keep him occupied and his mind off burying.

Erect prickly barriers

Place pruned rose or holly branches around your garden or plants. The thorns and prickly leaves will discourage your dog from entering the restricted area.

Provide a pooch path

If your dog cruises through your garden but leaves the veggies alone, make him a path of his own. You can lay down mulch, or even place a spare piece of carpet along your pet’s favorite route. You may have to alter your garden design a bit, but that’s better than watching puppy crash through your flowers or zucchini.

Perennial Flowers: A Little Care Says ‘Encore! Encore!’ Each Year

Perennial Flowers: A Little Care Says ‘Encore! Encore!’ Each Year

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: February 10, 2012

Don’t take your old garden friends — perennial flowers — for granted. A little routine love keeps these stunners growing for bloomin’ ever. ROI, anyone?

You don’t need a calendar if you grow perennial flowers, which return each year like clockwork. But home owners often take these Old Faithfuls for granted. We don’t divide, deadhead, or cut back like we should. Before we know it, our lush hydrangeas are barren, and our salvia has run amuck.

Luckily, perennial flowers are a forgiving bunch; and with a little love, will keep on blooming — a nice ROI. Here’s how to care for your perennials and protect your landscape year after year.

Chose varieties, location wisely

Growing perennial flowers is all about planting the right flower in the right spot. In other words: Know thy garden, and read thy plant label.

“I’ve had couples in here fighting about whether a spot is sunny or shady,” says Alison Caldwell, buyer for Hicks Nurseries on Long Island, N.Y. “You really must know your site — sunny, shady, clay soil, or sandy — and then pick the appropriate plant.”

Grow labels tells you everything a plant loves — partial shade or full sun, a lot of water or a little drought.

“Succulents favor droughts, so don’t plant them next to a sprinkler head,” Caldwell says. “And hostas don’t want to be in full sun — their leaves burn.”

Some hardy perennial flowers that grow from coast to coast, Florida to Maine, include:
Ornamental grasses
Hostas
Daylilies
Iris
Mums
Salvia
Yarrow

Most perennial flowers appreciate well-drained soil; so, if necessary, amend your compacted or clay soil with leavening organic matter like compost, peat moss, and manure. This will create tiny pockets that contain air, water, and nutrients — the building blocks of healthy plants.

Warning: Never try to break up clay soil with sand alone. Sand + clay + water = cement.

Mulch miracles

Mulching perennials gives them a fighting chance of surviving climate swings — frigid winters, blistering summers. After planting, mound up to 4 inches of mulch around the plant base. This insulation will keep soil temperature and moisture levels relatively constant, and protect plants from surprises — plants don’t like surprises — like record-warm winters and summer heat waves.

Divide and nurture in spring

Perennial flowers return each year bigger and better … until they don’t. Overcrowding could be the culprit, and dividing the plant is the answer.

You know it’s time to divide when blooms are fewer and smaller, and when the plant’s center is open or dead.

“When it comes to dividing, every plant is a little different,” says Lance Walheim, author of Roses for Dummies and an expert at Bayer Advanced Garden, which makes lawn and pest products.

You can break daylilies apart with your hand, but you’ll have to divide salvia’s hard root ball with a shovel or other sharp landscape tools.

Plant and fertilize divisions in bare spots around your yard. Or have a perennial swap with neighbors — your daylilies for their hostas.

If you decide not to divide, stake drooping stalks to protect against disease.

Deadhead in summer; cut back in fall

After blooms are spent, lop off their heads to direct energy to a second bloom, rather than a seed head. When the growing season is finished, and you’re cleaning up your garden for winter, cut off dead stalks and foliage. This will help plants get a good rest and return healthier and happier in spring.

Are You Making These 7 Rookie Mistakes in Your Vegetable Garden?

Are You Making These 7 Rookie Mistakes in Your Vegetable Garden?

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: May 9, 2012

Even the best vegetable gardeners can forget basics and make rookie mistakes. Here are 7 no-nos to avoid.

Even if your vegetable garden is the envy of neighbors, it’s still easy to make rookie mistakes that waste precious resources and growing time.

Avis Richards, whose Ground Up Campaign teaches New York City school kids how to grow their own food, reveals the rookie mistakes that all gardeners should avoid.

1. Unwise watering. Too much, too little, too hard, too soft — they’re all watering mistakes that’ll wreck your garden. Before adding water, poke a finger a couple of inches into the soil. If it’s moist, save the water; if it’s dry, train a gentle spray at the base of plants. Better yet, wind a drip hose ($13 for 50 feet) through your garden; that way, you’ll deliver moisture to the roots without wasting water on leaves and to evaporation.

2. Forgetting to test. Even veteran gardeners forget to test their soil every year to make sure it has the pH and nutrients plants need. For about $10, you can send a sample to your state extension service and receive a complete analysis. Or, buy a DIY test kit at your local garden center. When you know what your soil is made of, either select plants that thrive in that type of earth, or amend soil to match your garden’s needs.

3. Planting garden divas. Of course you love summer tomatoes, but they can be tricky to grow during summers that are too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. So newbies should try growing a couple of tomato plants just for fun, then load gardens with foolproof veggies and herbs, such as beans, peppers, oregano, and parsley. If you must grow a tomato, plant cherry tomatoes that can survive anything summer can throw at them and even yield fruit into fall.

4. Raising too much. One cherry tomato plant can yield 80 fruit, and a single zucchini plant can keep your neighbors in zucchini bread through winter. So don’t plant more than you can eat, put up, or share with friends. The National Gardening Association says an edible garden of about 200 sq. ft. should keep a family of four in veggies all summer. If you do grow more than you need, donate it to a local food bank or plan a swap with fellow gardeners.

5. Growing everything from seed. Some crops, such as salad greens, radishes, carrots, peas, beans, and squash, are easy to grow from seeds that germinate in a couple of weeks. Experience will tell you that eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, and tomatoes are better grown from seedlings, which someone else has nurtured for months. Pick plants that are short and compact; avoid leggy plants with blooms that are liable to die on the vine as the plant acclimates itself to your garden.

6. Assuming you know. Gardeners often read seed packages and figure they know everything about growing vegetables. Wrong! The more you know about your hardiness zone, soil, weather, insects, and vegetable varieties, the better your garden will grow. So curl up with a good gardening book, and surf the web for garden bloggers that share your passion. Better yet, join a gardening club where you can share tips and seeds.

7. Relying on pesticides. Don’t bring out the big guns, which can contaminate the watershed, until you’ve tried less-toxic ways to get rid of garden pests. Ladybugs and praying mantis, which you can buy at garden supply stores, will eat garden intruders, such as aphids and beetles. Non-toxic insecticidal soaps will take care of soft-bodied insects (don’t use if ladybugs are around).

Designing a Flower Garden? Don’t Make These 5 Rookie Mistakes

Designing a Flower Garden? Don’t Make These 5 Rookie Mistakes

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: May 18, 2012

Excited about designing your first flower garden? Calm down before you make these 5 rookie mistakes.

When designing your first flower garden, you’re bound to make some mistakes.

Nick Statton of Monrovia plant sellers says beginners don’t ask enough questions or read planting labels. The cure? Don’t be shy about bugging your local plant growers with basic inquiries — they’re there to help!

George Pisegna of The Horticultural Society of New York says newbies don’t know enough about their soil. Get smart by testing your soil.

What other mistakes do first-time gardeners make when designing and planting their flower gardens?

Mistake 1: Disregarding the sun

Do you know how many hours of full sun your garden gets each day in each season?

If you can delay gratification, study your yard over a year before designing a garden. See how long the sun shines in the fall, spring, and summer. Read planting labels to determine how much sun a particular plant needs.

Sun-loving plants, such as roses, need at least 6 hours of sun a day; partial sun/shade plants need 4 to 6 hours; and shade plants need little or dappled sunlight: more sun can burn their leaves.

Mistake 2: Failing to consider color

It doesn’t matter what color story you tell, just make sure you know the story before you plant. Here are some ideas:
Pull out your color wheel and find plants with complementary colors, such as yellow coreopsis with violet salvia.
Monochromatic gardens are stunners. Dot your one-color story with whites (daisies) and greens (hostas), considered neutrals in the garden world.
If you want to attract birds, add plants with vivid colors. Hummingbirds like reds, and goldfinches fly to yellows.
Pick blooms that contrast with the exterior paint color of your house, so plants will stand out and add to your curb appeal.

Mistake 3: Over-planting

When it comes to perennials, remember this rule: First year they sleep; second year they creep; third year they leap. Be sure to leave 2-3 feet between plants, giving them room to breathe and space to grow.

Mistake 4: Favoring lines over bunches

Tulips look like lonely soldiers when planted in lines. Instead, arrange bulbs and plants in more natural-looking, odd-numbered clusters of 3, 5, 7, and so on.

Mistake 5: Forgetting that size matters

Check labels for mature plant heights. Tallest go in back; medium in the middle; shortest in front. And don’t forget to install a focal point, like an ornamental tree or fountain.

Your Guide to Choosing Patio Pavers

Your Guide to Choosing Patio Pavers

By: Andrea Nordstrom Caughey

Published: April 9, 2013

There are so many options on the market for patio pavers, it can be hard to choose. So we’ve done the research to help you make the right choice for your home.

Brick

Brick pavers are classic. They’ve got lots of character, and you can explore your creative chops by setting them in intricate patterns. Thinner than typical “builder bricks” used on home siding, they’re made to hold up under heavy foot traffic.

Brick pavers come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and finishes, and can look old or new. Because they’re smaller than other pavers, they take a while to put in place, and installation costs can be higher.

You can do the job yourself for $3 to $5 per sq. ft. You’ll need to rent a brick saw — a heavy table-mounted saw that makes cutting masonry a snap. Cost: $60-$95/day. Don’t forget: You’ll need to figure out a way to get the brick saw to your house.

For a pro-installed brick patio, you’ll pay $12-$18 per sq. ft., professionally installed.

Concrete
Concrete Pavers
Rubber Tiles
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Mixing Materials
Getting on Base

Concrete

Concrete can be finished off in lots of imaginative ways — brushed, acid washed, scored, and stamped — and lots of colors. Its long lifespan and relatively inexpensive installation make it a popular choice.

“For colder climates, consider adding $1-$2 per square foot for a specialized base preparation and concrete additive,” says Chris Fenmore, principal with Garden Studio Landscape Design.

Stamped concrete can simulate flagstone, brick, cobbles, and other decorative patterns, but adds about $3 per sq. ft. to installation costs.

Figure $6-12 per sq. ft., depending on finish and color.

Brick
Concrete Pavers
Rubber Tiles
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Mixing Materials
Getting on Base

Concrete Pavers

Concrete pavers offer an embarrassment of riches — there are shapes, sizes, textures, and colors galore. Some are plain; some look like real stone; others have intricate patterns embossed on their surfaces. They’re readily available at home improvement centers and are well-suited to DIY patio projects.

Interlocking concrete pavers have tabs and slots so they fit together like pieces of a very simple puzzle. They’re fairly inexpensive, have minimal maintenance, and install quickly.

Concrete pavers are $2-$8 per sq. ft. If you’d rather have a pro do it, you’ll pay $7-$15 per sq. ft., including materials.

Brick
Concrete
Rubber Tiles
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Mixing Materials
Getting on Base

Rubber Tiles

Rubber tiles are made from recycled tires. They’re designed to go over any surface, and their light weight means you can use them on decks. They look like concrete tiles, with finishes that resemble brick and terra cotta. They’re fairly new on the market, so the jury is still out on how they perform over time.

Rubber tiles are strictly a DIY material, and they snap together with connector clips. They’re good for quickly covering up old, cracked, worn patio surfaces. You’ll pay $3-$5 per sq. ft.

Brick
Concrete
Concrete Pavers
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Mixing Materials
Getting on Base

Flagstone, Slate, and Marble

Almost any stone can work as a paver, but most are either sandstone, limestone, slate, or granite. The materials you select will be especially cost-efficient if they come from locally operated quarries; check your local stone supplier before looking at national home improvement chains.

Stone pavers are cut into modular shapes; 6-by-12, 12-by-12, and 18-by-18-inch sizes are standard. Uncut pavers have rough, irregular edges and come in various sizes.

When it comes to installing uncut stone, an experienced pro works quickly and is your best bet for a good-looking patio with even spaces between stones.

Pro installation is $12-$28 per sq. ft., depending on the stone you choose.

Want to see some stone patios that really rock?

Brick
Concrete
Concrete Pavers
Rubber Tiles
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Mixing Materials
Getting on Base

Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces

Decomposed granite is made up of very small pieces of granite, ranging in size from ¼-inch to the size of sand. It’s an affordable way to go, and some folks really love the slightly crunchy texture underfoot, and the way rain disappears — no puddles!

You’ll probably have to refresh and replenish the granite now and then, as the surface can erode with time, so there’s some preventative maintenance involved. Figure about $1 per sq. ft. every three years for upkeep.

Also, decomposed granite isn’t solid and furniture legs tend to sink into the stones. Adding stabilizers that help bind particles together can strengthen the surface.

Cost: $1.50 per sq. ft. without stabilizers, $2 with stabilizers.

Brick
Concrete
Concrete Pavers
Rubber Tiles
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Mixing Materials
Getting on Base

Finding Your Own Recycled Materials

Like the idea of upcycling? A patio is a good way to reuse old building materials, and it’s a cost-effective and eco-friendly alternative to new materials. Plus, you’ll be building a one-of-a-kind creation. Tip: Look for materials that provide uniform thickness.
Cast-off concrete sections from a neighbor’s old driveway or sidewalk.
Check nearby construction sites for old materials — be sure to ask permission before hauling anything away.
Know of a building scheduled for demolition? See if there’s any old brick or stone is going to be discarded.

Although the materials are usually free, it’s a good idea to enlist some strong-backed helpers and the use of a pick-up truck. For a typical 12-by-12-foot patio, you’ll save $500-$800 versus new pavers. Spend some of that on a patio party for your helpers.

(If you’re a salvaged materials aficionado, check out our slideshow on clever ways to use salvage in your home.)

Brick
Concrete
Concrete Pavers
Rubber Tiles
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Mixing Materials
Getting on Base

Mixing Materials

Remember, you’re not stuck with one type of patio paver. Combining different materials — such as brick together with concrete, or stone with rock trim, can create a cool, customized look.

Southern California designer Chris Fenmore notes, “Too much hardscape can be tedious. I often like to use four-inch troughs separating masonry from concrete that can be filled with gravel, beach rocks, or ground cover. They provide a bit of relief from the hardscape and nice detail, adding to the custom look of the yard.”

Brick
Concrete
Concrete Pavers
Rubber Tiles
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Getting on Base

Getting on Base

Choosing paving materials begins with a basic: the base or foundation. The base supports your pavers, and it’s got to be firm, strong, and designed to stand up to years of wear and weather. A poorly installed base leads to shifting and settling that’ll crack concrete and make your patio pavers look like choppy seas.

A sand-and-gravel base is a good DIY project; leave a concrete slab base to the pros.

A gravel and sand base is a simple foundation that lets you “dry set” pavers — you put the pavers on top of the base, then sweep fine sand into the joints to hold them there. Building a gravel-and-sand base is an easy (but time-consuming) DIY project. You’ll pay $2-$3 per sq. ft. for a DIY job. If you’d rather have a pro do the work, figure $3-$5 per sq. ft.

With a sand or gravel base, chances are there’ll be some settling over time. Every couple of years, plan on resetting individual pavers that have gotten out of whack because of settling.

A concrete base offers greater longevity and stability, with less potential for settling. On a concrete slab base, the paving materials are set permanently with mortar, and ongoing maintenance is minimal.

Working with concrete is a challenge for weekend warriors, so skip experimentation (mistakes in concrete are permanent) and go with a pro. You’ll pay $5 to $8 per sq. ft. for a professionally installed concrete base.

If you’re a fan of concrete, check out these imaginative ways to use concrete inside your house.

Brick
Concrete
Concrete Pavers
Rubber Tiles
Flagstone, Slate, and Marble
Decomposed Granite and Pebble Surfaces
Finding Your Own Recycled Materials
Mixing Materials

Patio Shade Ideas Under $300

Patio Shade Ideas Under $300

By: Jan Soults Walker

Published: June 26, 2012

Not all shady deals are bad. These patio shade projects are each under $300.

If you hop-skip like a rookie firewalker across your sun-drenched patio, then patio shade projects are probably a hot priority.

But there’s no reason to get burned on price; you’ll find plenty of low-cost shade-giving options to cool your tootsies.

If you’re looking for shade beyond the typical market umbrellas ($45) and freestanding gazebo kits (starting at $200 at home improvement centers), check out these other easy, affordable patio shade projects — all for under $300:

Tall order: vertical trellis

Even if you have overhead shade, low morning or late afternoon light can make your patio uncomfortably hot in summer. Filter low-flying rays with a vertical trellis for growing leafy climbing plants.

The taller the trellis (60 inches or more), the more time you enjoy in the shade. Plus, an attractive trellis adds structure, lush greenery, and home privacy to your outdoor getaway.

Trellises can be made of weather-resistant wood, metal, PVC, or a combination of materials. Build one from scratch in just a few hours for less than $100 using vertical posts and cross members that plants grip and climb.

Or, make a simple frame and add pre-made garden lattice, $20 for a 4-by-8-foot sheet.

Trellises also come in kits ($40-$250 and up) or ready-made ($15-$200 and up). In an hour or less, you’ll be ready to set the trellis in the ground.

For plants, choose climbing leafy or flowering vines, such as English ivy, golden hop, morning glory, clematis, bougainvillea, or roses. Prices range from $10 to $40 and up for climbers.

Or, start veggie climbers from seed ($1 or less per packet), such as pole beans or sweet peas, and harvest the rewards later.

Patio-dwelling trees

Add leafy shade by planting a sapling or ornamental tree in a container. A small (6-10 feet tall) tree will still throw plenty of shade — Japanese maples and dwarf red buckeyes are favorites. You’ll pay $40-$100 for a young tree.

Select a container large enough to stabilize the tree so wind won’t blow it over. Add a wheeled base for shade mobility. Fill out with these other ideas for container gardening.

A potted tree requires more care than one in the yard. Feed it monthly during the growing season and water regularly (once or twice a day in dry weather). As your trees grow, transplant them to larger pots. Winter over container trees indoors — anywhere with ample light and temperatures that won’t drop below 40 degrees.

Potted citrus trees are a beautiful, bountiful option. A lemon tree loves a sunny patio while offering shade and juicy fruits for squeezing. Other fruit-bearing trees include fig and semi-dwarf apple trees.

A potted palm transports your patio to the tropics with wide fronds for dappled shade and an island feel. Chinese windmill, or chusan palm (Trachycarpus), for example, can grow up to 7 feet tall in a container.

Sailing in the shade

Shade sails are triangular or square pieces of high-strength nylon that you suspend over your patio, adding color, pattern, and plenty of shade. The sails require connections to posts, trees, or rigid structural members of your house, such as exposed rafter ends.

A sail with 11-foot sides starts at $40. More expensive shade sails ($170 and up) include hardware (turnbuckles, eye bolts, and cable) for sturdy, wind-resistant installations.

As a frugal alternative, make your own shade sail using a canvas drop cloth ($15 for a 6-ounce, 9-by-12-foot piece). Install grommets ($10 for a kit) at the corners and loop clothesline ($5 for 50 feet) through the grommets.

Shade from the islands

Mix up a mai tai and enjoy a cool respite beneath these tropically inspired patio shade projects:
Top an existing structure, such as a pergola, with reed or bamboo fencing. A 6-by-16-foot roll of bamboo fencing starts at $22. Secure the fencing with galvanized staples or roofing nails.
Thatch panels ($200 for a 12 pack of 4-by-4-foot panels) are typically made from palm fronds cut into strips. Staple or nail the panels to the top of an existing pergola or awning frame for tiki-hut charm.

Installing a Spa on Your Deck

Installing a Spa on Your Deck

By: Dave Toht

Published: November 25, 2009

Evaluate the cost of purchasing, installing, and maintaining an outdoor spa to decide if it’s a worthwhile addition to your deck.

Hot tubs and spas come in an array of shapes and sizes, and can be equipped with scores of accessories. Accordingly, they have a wide range of prices. Choosing the right spa depends on its intended use, how big your deck is, and what structural alterations will be required for your deck. In addition, you’ll need to know the cost of installation, day-to-day expenses, and how much you can expect to recoup on your investment should you sell your home.

Different types of spas and their costs

It started with that icon of laid-back living, the redwood hot tub. Before long, fiberglass versions with circulating jets appeared called “spas.” Today the terms “hot tub” and “spa” are used interchangeably, but because most units are jetted, spa is the term more commonly used. Spas range in size from two-person models costing about $2,000, to 20-foot-long swim spas costing $18,000 or more. In between are those most popular for decks: 4- to 8-person models costing from $2,500 to $10,000.

Choosing a spa can be challenging. You’ll need to select from a dazzling number of accessories, including cup holders, colored LED lights, iPod docks, stereo systems, pop-up TV screens, and even waterproof keyboards.

“The gadgetry is there to catch your eye while shopping,” cautions Erich Johanson, an experienced spa installer in Olympia, Wash. He recommends choosing established manufacturers and narrowing your choice from there. “Look at the national brands and find one you like,” he says. “Then chose a model that has the features you want.”

His top recommendation is for “full-foam” insulation—a high-density, closed-cell polyurethane foam that fills the cavity between the fiberglass tub shell and the outer cabinet and helps reduce heat loss. In addition, full-foam insulation helps reduce noise and adds stability to the entire unit.

Check installation costs as well. They’ll be dependent on the size of the spa and the ease of getting it where it needs to be. In some cases, limited access may require the use of a crane to lower the spa into place. For an 8-person spa, expect about $300 for delivery and setup.

Adding structural components to carry the weight

The safest—and most cost-effective—location for a spa is the lower level of a deck. A deck only a few steps above ground, if built to code, should be able to support 100 lbs per sq. ft.—a filled 8 x 8 spa at 6,000 lbs. works out to about 94 lbs per sq. ft., just within limits. Check your local codes for any restrictions governing the installation of a spa on a deck.

Even better is a reinforced concrete pad, a great option if you’re planning a new deck or intend to add on to an existing deck. A 4-inch slab will safely bear 115 lbs per sq. ft.

If you want the tub on a deck more than a couple of feet above ground or on an upper level of a deck, things get more complicated. You’ll need to hire a structural engineer to provide specs for a site-specific framing structure to support the weight. Expect to pay an engineer $300 to $500 for these services. The necessary framing for a typical backyard deck may cost only a few hundred dollars, but expect to pay much more if your deck is a high-flying structure perched on a slope.

Accessing power and water

Spas require a nearby source of electricity. Because water is involved, any electrical hookup for a spa must include ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection. This nifty device shuts down the system within milliseconds if it detects the tiniest change in current flow caused by a short circuit. Some spas come with an extension cord with a GFCI built in that can be plugged into a 110-volt, 20-amp circuit.

Larger units require at least one dedicated 220-volt, 50-amp circuit. In addition, there must be an emergency shutoff within sight of the spa, but not closer than 5 feet or farther than 50 feet. A new circuit and shutoff will cost about $800.

Water access is simple; spas fill with an outdoor hose. The spa then heats and circulates the water. Insulated tub covers limit evaporation, but the tub will need occasional topping off. When it’s time to empty the unit, all spas have built-in hose bibs so you can drain the water.

Safety

Getting in and out of a spa provides opportunities for mishaps. A handrail is a good idea for older—and younger—users. A cover with a lock is must if you have children.

If you plan to build your spa into the deck, it may seem best to drop it into the deck so that the rim of the tub sits on the decking. Unfortunately, this makes it easy for people to fall in or step on the cover, and also complicates getting into the tub. The ideal arrangement is to set the spa partially into the deck so the rim is 17 to 24 inches above the decking. That way, bathers can sit on the rim, swing their feet over, and enter the water.

Hot water feels great, but needs to be indulged with caution. The Association of Pool & Spa Professionals recommends keeping the water temperature between 100°F and 102°F, with 104°F as a maximum. A safe soaking duration is 15 minutes. To keep the spa free of bacteria, you must be clean it regularly and add sanitizing chemicals.

Anticipating the cost and value of a spa

It costs as little 50¢ a day to run a spa. That amount can vary according to the amount of use, your local energy costs, the quality of insulation in your spa, and the quality of the cover. Covers typically come with spas, but consider upgrading to a higher efficiency type. The additional cost is modest and the better-insulated covers are often lighter, making them easier to remove.

If you live in a region with a climate moderate enough for year-round use, a deck equipped with a spa should give you a slight edge in selling a home. John Tripp, an appraiser with Foundation Trust in San Jose, Calif., says that spas “normally are assets as long as they have been properly maintained and there is no evidence of leakage or deferred maintenance.”

In other areas of the country, don’t expect much of a return. “They don’t have the payback to meet the cost,” says Richard Koestner, an appraiser with Koestner, McGiven & Associates in Davenport, Iowa. “If they do add any value it would be in the upper price range. It could be detriment if they aren’t in the right market.”

People react differently to the prospect of purchasing a house that has a spa. Some buyers may ask that it be removed as a condition of sale. Others will hardly be able to wait for that first soothing soak.

Extend the Outdoor Living Season

Extend the Outdoor Living Season

By: Jan Soults Walker

Published: October 3, 2011

Make an outdoor living area comfy long after the sun sets or the leaves turn with outdoor lighting, a patio heater, and a glowing firepit or portable fireplace.

Light the deck or patio

The sun sets sooner on your outdoor living space in the fall, but that shouldn’t limit the hours you use your deck or patio. Adding low-voltage or solar outdoor lighting fixtures lets you party or relax well after dark.

With both lighting types, you can:
Light deck railings and stairs
Define the patio perimeter
Illuminate the edges of paths and walkways
Draw attention to a planter or tree

Other fixtures light up dining tables, grill surfaces, and even underwater in swimming pools.

Low-voltage fixtures clip onto a safe, 12-volt cable connected to a transformer, which plugs into a GFCI-protected 120-volt electrical outlet. A timer or light-sensitive control automatically turns lights on and off.

A low-voltage lighting kit with eight LED stainless steel fixtures, 50 feet of cable, and a transformer starts at $60. Individual low-voltage fixtures range in price from $7 for a simple poly-resin fixture up to about $150 for architectural-grade, cast-brass models.

Solar outdoor lighting fixtures don’t need cables and transformers. They simply turn themselves on automatically after dark. Each stand-alone fixture stakes into the ground or secures to a deck or exterior surface. You’ll save energy, as a sunlight-charged battery powers the bulb.

The downside to solar fixtures is a dimmer glow than low-voltage fixtures, and fewer lighting hours – many solar fixtures run out of stored energy after 4-5 hours on the job. Cloudy days also reduce power.

A four-pack of solar light fixtures that mount on top of deck posts starts at about $30. Or, check out a cast-aluminum solar lantern for about $60.

Get glowing with a firepit or portable fireplace

Bring a cozy glow and a stylish focal point to your outdoor living area with a firepit or portable fireplace. Irresistible for gathering, warming up, and roasting marshmallows, firepits and portable fireplaces come in a variety of materials, sizes, and styles. You’ll also find options for fueling your fire with wood, propane, gas, or gel cans.

Check local fire codes first to find out if your community allows the use of a firepit or portable fireplace on the patio or lawn. (Never use a fire feature on a wood deck.)

A firepit ($100-$500) is an open bowl, dish, or pan that varies in size from 24 inches across to about 40 inches. A firepit may come on a stand (some with wheels) or nestle into a tiled tabletop. Select a model with screening to contain flyaway sparks.

A portable fireplace ($100-$600) features a chimney to vent smoke up and away from people. Some portable fireplaces offer 360-degree views of the fire.

Warm up with a patio heater

Boost the warmth of your outdoor living area by as much as 15-25 degrees in the fall or spring with the addition of a portable patio heater. You’ll find three basic models:
Freestanding units resemble large floor lamps. Set them anywhere on your patio that will accommodates their 7-8 foot height. Some models include wheels for mobility. Expect to pay from $150 to $1,500, depending on heat output and fuel source.
A tabletop patio heater rests on a table, bench, or garden wall. These compact units typically produce less heat than tall, freestanding models. Prices range from $100 to $450.
Ceiling- or wall-mount patio heaters free up floor and table space, and typically emit heat via a halogen lamp. Prices vary from $175 to $1,500.

Make your selection based on how much outdoor living area you want to heat and whether you want a model powered by electricity or natural gas (each requiring a connection) or with a propane tank, which allows mobility.

As a rule of thumb, a 47,000 BTU propane-powered, floor-standing patio heater ($200) will heat an 18-foot diameter space. A 20-pound propane tank (about $36, plus $13 for fuel) offers about 10 hours of heating time.

Electric patio heaters use a quartz tube or halogen lamp that emits radiant heat. An infrared wall-mount electric patio heater ($450) equipped with a 1500-watt bulb heats a 9-foot area around the heater and uses about 14.4 kilowatts for a 10 hour period. At 8 cents per kilowatt for electricity, you spend about $1.15 to operate the unit for 10 hours.

Extend the Outdoor Living Season

Extend the Outdoor Living Season

By: Jan Soults Walker

Published: October 3, 2011

Make an outdoor living area comfy long after the sun sets or the leaves turn with outdoor lighting, a patio heater, and a glowing firepit or portable fireplace.

Light the deck or patio

The sun sets sooner on your outdoor living space in the fall, but that shouldn’t limit the hours you use your deck or patio. Adding low-voltage or solar outdoor lighting fixtures lets you party or relax well after dark.

With both lighting types, you can:
Light deck railings and stairs
Define the patio perimeter
Illuminate the edges of paths and walkways
Draw attention to a planter or tree

Other fixtures light up dining tables, grill surfaces, and even underwater in swimming pools.

Low-voltage fixtures clip onto a safe, 12-volt cable connected to a transformer, which plugs into a GFCI-protected 120-volt electrical outlet. A timer or light-sensitive control automatically turns lights on and off.

A low-voltage lighting kit with eight LED stainless steel fixtures, 50 feet of cable, and a transformer starts at $60. Individual low-voltage fixtures range in price from $7 for a simple poly-resin fixture up to about $150 for architectural-grade, cast-brass models.

Solar outdoor lighting fixtures don’t need cables and transformers. They simply turn themselves on automatically after dark. Each stand-alone fixture stakes into the ground or secures to a deck or exterior surface. You’ll save energy, as a sunlight-charged battery powers the bulb.

The downside to solar fixtures is a dimmer glow than low-voltage fixtures, and fewer lighting hours – many solar fixtures run out of stored energy after 4-5 hours on the job. Cloudy days also reduce power.

A four-pack of solar light fixtures that mount on top of deck posts starts at about $30. Or, check out a cast-aluminum solar lantern for about $60.

Get glowing with a firepit or portable fireplace

Bring a cozy glow and a stylish focal point to your outdoor living area with a firepit or portable fireplace. Irresistible for gathering, warming up, and roasting marshmallows, firepits and portable fireplaces come in a variety of materials, sizes, and styles. You’ll also find options for fueling your fire with wood, propane, gas, or gel cans.

Check local fire codes first to find out if your community allows the use of a firepit or portable fireplace on the patio or lawn. (Never use a fire feature on a wood deck.)

A firepit ($100-$500) is an open bowl, dish, or pan that varies in size from 24 inches across to about 40 inches. A firepit may come on a stand (some with wheels) or nestle into a tiled tabletop. Select a model with screening to contain flyaway sparks.

A portable fireplace ($100-$600) features a chimney to vent smoke up and away from people. Some portable fireplaces offer 360-degree views of the fire.

Warm up with a patio heater

Boost the warmth of your outdoor living area by as much as 15-25 degrees in the fall or spring with the addition of a portable patio heater. You’ll find three basic models:
Freestanding units resemble large floor lamps. Set them anywhere on your patio that will accommodates their 7-8 foot height. Some models include wheels for mobility. Expect to pay from $150 to $1,500, depending on heat output and fuel source.
A tabletop patio heater rests on a table, bench, or garden wall. These compact units typically produce less heat than tall, freestanding models. Prices range from $100 to $450.
Ceiling- or wall-mount patio heaters free up floor and table space, and typically emit heat via a halogen lamp. Prices vary from $175 to $1,500.

Make your selection based on how much outdoor living area you want to heat and whether you want a model powered by electricity or natural gas (each requiring a connection) or with a propane tank, which allows mobility.

As a rule of thumb, a 47,000 BTU propane-powered, floor-standing patio heater ($200) will heat an 18-foot diameter space. A 20-pound propane tank (about $36, plus $13 for fuel) offers about 10 hours of heating time.

Electric patio heaters use a quartz tube or halogen lamp that emits radiant heat. An infrared wall-mount electric patio heater ($450) equipped with a 1500-watt bulb heats a 9-foot area around the heater and uses about 14.4 kilowatts for a 10 hour period. At 8 cents per kilowatt for electricity, you spend about $1.15 to operate the unit for 10 hours.

5 Deck Makeover Projects Under $300

5 Deck Makeover Projects Under $300

By: John Riha

Published: July 2, 2012

Want to upgrade your deck but watching your budget? Here are 5 easy deck makeover ideas, many well under $300.

1. Add solar lighting

If you’d like your wood deck to come alive when the sun goes down, add solar lighting. Solar lights don’t need an on/off switch — they light up when it gets dark, then fade away 4-6 hours later.

You won’t have to plug them in or wire anything, either. Their solar-charged batteries are renewed every day, and the lights are built to withstand all kinds of weather.

Types and cost:
Paper lanterns (made from synthetic, weatherproof nylon; $20-$30) are made for hanging and come in all sorts of fun shapes, sizes, and colors.
Carriage lights can be fixed on top of a pillar or railing newel post. $45-$150.
Solar illuminated replicas of old-fashioned mason jars can be set on any flat surface, about $35.
Rope lights have small LED bulbs inside a flexible cord. A 25-foot-long rope with solar charger and stand is $25.

What else: Suspend lanterns from overhead trellises, railings, and nearby trees, where they’ll shed a soft, colorful glow. Wind rope lights around rafters and railings.

2. Install a stone landing at the foot of your deck stairs
3. Put up a privacy screen
4. Paint a faux floor rug on your decking
5. Wash and refinish your wood decking

2. Install a stone landing at the foot of your deck stairs

Dress up the transition from your deck to your yard with a little hardscaping — a stone landing at the bottom of your deck stairs. Stones are a natural compliment to wood decks, and they’ll help prevent mud from forming where there’s heavy foot traffic.

Cost: Flagstone is priced by the pound; you’ll spend $60-$100 for enough stone for a 3-by-4-foot landing.

How-to: Techniques for installing a landing are the same as putting in a patio, although you’ll have to temporarily support your existing stairway while you work around — and under — it.

What else: You should be able to add a landing in less than a day. It’ll get done faster if you hire a pro, but it’ll cost you another $150-$200 in labor.

3. Put up a privacy screen

Whether you’re relaxing alone au naturel or entertaining friends, a little home privacy is always welcome. You can add some vertical supports and fill in a variety of cool screening materials that are as nice for your neighbors to look at as they are for you.

Types and costs:
Bamboo fencing comes in a 6-by-16-foot roll for $20-$25.
Lattice panels are either wood or plastic, $15-$30 for a 4-by-8-foot panel.
Grow climbing plants on a trellis ($20-$100) to create a living privacy screen. Plant climbing vines in tall containers ($40-$120) to raise them above the deck surface and give them a head start filling in your screen.
Outdoor fabric resists moisture and fading; $12-$120 per yard. You’ll pay another $20 to have a seamstress cut and hem a 3-by-5-foot panel.

How-to: Your privacy screen should integrate with your deck; make the framework using the same basic materials as your deck railing and structure.

Add some flash by building a frame with 2-by-2- or 2-by-4-inch uprights spaced 1 foot apart, then weaving aluminum flashing between the uprights.

What else: Make sure to position your privacy screen where you’ll get maximum benefit. Sit on your deck and check your lines of sight.

4. Paint a faux floor rug on your decking

Punch up a boring old deck with a faux rug. This is a fairly low-cost project with a big wow factor, and one you can share making with your (well-behaved) kids. It works best on a newly cleaned deck (see below.)

Cost: Most of your cost will be deck stain or paint in various colors. Because you won’t be using that much stain per color, you can buy quarts. Figure $15-$20 per quart.

How-to: Figure out a size, sketch out the design on your decking, and then all you have to do is paint or stain between the lines. You can use painter’s tape as a guide, but a little leakage is likely on a wood decking surface.

What else: Keep a few basic cleaning supplies on hand for any drips or spills. After the stain is dry, coat the entire deck with a clear deck sealer.

5. Wash and refinish your wood decking

The ultimate deck makeover is none other than a good cleaning. Applying a coat of deck sealant afterwards ensures your wood decking looks great and will last for decades.

Cost: There are many brands of deck cleaning and brightening solutions. Some require the deck to be wet; others need the decking to be dry. Some are harmful to plants and you’ll have to use plastic sheeting to protect your landscaping. Consult the instructions carefully.

You’ll pay $15-$25 per gallon, enough to clean 300 sq. ft. of decking.

How-to: Scrubbing with a good cleaning solution and rinsing with a garden hose is more foolproof than scouring your decking with a power washer that may damage the surface of the wood.

What else: After you deck is cleaned, apply a coat of deck stain or clear finish. The sealer wards off dirt, wear, and UV rays, and helps prevent deck splinters. A gallon covers 250-350 sq. ft., $20-$35/gal.

How to Buy an Outdoor Refrigerator

How to Buy an Outdoor Refrigerator

By: Douglas Trattner

Published: April 29, 2010

Refrigerators work harder outdoors than in so it’s important to seek out models designed specifically for the task.

With temperature regulating systems that function constantly, refrigerators are one of the hardest working appliances in the home. When placed outside the home, they are required to work even harder to maintain proper temperatures. In addition, they must operate safely even when exposed to inclement weather. For that reason, it’s important to purchase a refrigerator designed specifically for efficient and reliable outdoor use.

Cost range: $550-$1,800 and up

Likely additional costs: 110-volt GFCI outlet, cover for freestanding units

Average life span: 5-10 years

Indoor vs. outdoor

“There are two fundamental differences between refrigerators designed for indoor and outdoor use,” explains Paul Storch, vice president of Summit Appliance, a manufacturer of specialty refrigerators and freezers. Outdoor fridges are expected to maintain consistent temperatures in an unstable environment. Keeping items cool in the heat of summer requires that units possess increased insulation and be outfitted with more powerful components than their indoor counterparts.

The appliances also need to be weatherproofed against the elements. “Electricity and water do not mix,” Storch adds. “If the components get wet, there is risk of electrocution.” Storch says that to receive the endorsement of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), an outdoor refrigerator must pass a battery of tests designed to prove its safety in wet conditions. Even when built into an outdoor kitchen island, appliances still are exposed to splashing water and moist conditions.

Built-in vs. freestanding

As their names suggest, a built-in unit is designed to integrate seamlessly into outdoor kitchen cabinetry, while a freestanding appliance can be placed anywhere in the outdoor living space. The classification is more than cosmetic. Built-in fridges are front-vented so they require little to no clearance on the top, sides, and rear of the unit. Freestanding models still can be positioned beneath island countertops, but they require at least one inch of ventilation on all sides.

Material of choice

To withstand the elements, an outdoor refrigerator must be rust-resistant. For that reason, almost all are constructed of stainless steel. But all stainless is not created equal. Buyers are urged to seek out grade 304 stainless, also called 18/8, because of the alloy’s higher resistance to corrosion. Less-expensive fridges will be made from plastic-wrapped steel or grade 430 stainless, a ferrous metal that is susceptible to rust.

Size/capacity

Outdoor fridges are more compact than the fridge/freezer combos found in kitchens. The most common measurement is 24 inches wide by 34 inches tall with an interior capacity of 5.5 to 6 cubic feet. Slimmer 15-inch-wide models with about 3 cubic feet of interior space are also available.

Some shoppers prefer the slide-out convenience of refrigerator drawer units. Sold in two- or three-drawer configurations, these built-in units occupy the same dimensions as a 24-by-34-inch fridge.

Features

Outdoor fridges are simpler units than their feature-rich indoor counterparts, although most have an adjustable thermostat, automatic defrost, adjustable shelves, an interior light, and four leveling legs.

Units sold as “refreshment centers” or “wine coolers,” explains Storch, function exactly the same as those sold as fridges. The major differences are that these models often feature insulated glass doors and beverage-specific shelving. Wine, for example, is stored on its side on glide-out wooden shelving. Parents of small children should seek models with locking doors.

Price/warranty

UL-approved outdoor refrigerators start around $550 for a basic unit with white plastic door panel and manual defrost freezer. The jump to $700 buys a sleek, stainless steel appliance with roomy interior space, mainly at the cost of the small freezer compartment, which is not present on finer models.

For a sharp, glass-fronted beverage cooler, expect to pay at least $900. If the idea of a double- or triple-drawer fridge sounds appealing, expect to pay between $1,800 and $3,000. Units approved for outdoor use typically come with a warranty that covers parts and labor for one-year and the compressor for five. Installing an “indoor” fridge outdoors will likely nullify the warranty, notes Storch.

Energy use

According to the EnergyGuide label on Energy Star-rated outdoor fridges, these units have an estimated yearly operating cost of around $35. But Storch says those estimates can be misleading. Outdoor temperatures, exposure to direct sunlight, and even proximity to the barbecue all will affect those figures. To keep energy costs low, maintain proper ventilation and position the unit in the shade and away from grills, pizza ovens and fireplaces.

End of season

Outdoor refrigerators are not designed to function in temps below 40 degrees. Homeowners in cold climates are advised at season’s end to empty the unit’s contents and unplug the appliance from the electrical outlet. To inhibit the growth of mold, Storch suggests inserting a small spacer between the door and frame before taping it shut. Freestanding units should be covered to protect them from the elements and debris.

Outdoor Appliance Buying Guide: Specialty Items

Outdoor Appliance Buying Guide: Specialty Items

By: Douglas Trattner

Published: May 12, 2010

Specialty appliances for outdoor kitchens are hot items but you’ll spend thousands of dollars for the added convenience.

“There is a trend away from simple barbecue islands and to elaborate outdoor kitchens,” explains Mitch Slater, president of Danver, a manufacturer of outdoor kitchen cabinetry. “Homeowners want to be able to do outdoors all the food preparation that they normally have to do indoors.” For that reason, appliances like ice makers, pizza ovens, and beer fridges are all finding their way to the backyard. However, you should carefully consider your needs and lifestyle to ensure that you’ll get your money’s worth of use and convenience from specialty appliances that may cost thousands of dollars.

Note that with outdoor appliances, you will likely encounter the following additional costs for installation:
$125 to $300 to add an outdoor electrical outlet.
$400 to $800 to run a cold water supply line, or a combination hot-and-cold water supply.
$1,500 to $3,000 to install hot-and-cold water supply lines plus a drain system.

Ice makers

Cost range: $180-$2,000
Likely additional costs: 110 outlet, water line hook-up, cover
Average life span: 3-10 years

With a built-in ice maker, there will be no more trips to the corner store for 25-pound bags of ice. These sleek, stainless steel-clad units blend seamlessly with outdoor kitchen cabinetry and produce about 25 pounds of ice per day.

Because these models get tied into the home’s water line, they require a plumber for installation. They also require an electrical outlet. Expect to pay $900 to $2,000 for an outdoor-approved appliance with a warranty that covers parts and labor for one year and the compressor for five. Homeowners in cold climes must shut off the water supply and drain the lines before winter to prevent the freezing and bursting of pipes.

Portable or countertop ice makers are less expensive–ranging from $180 to $300—and don’t require a connection to a water line. An interior reservoir is filled with tap or bottled water, allowing the units to produce about 35 cubes per hour. Refilling the tank may be necessary for large amounts of ice, and the appliance requires an electrical outlet.

Because most less-expensive machines are not UL rated for outdoor use, they should not be left out in the weather. Expect shorter warranties (90-day to one year) as well.

Pizza ovens

Cost range: $700-$6,000 and up
Likely additional costs: gas line hook-up, sturdy base, firewood
Average life span: 5-20 years

“Gas or wood-fired pizza ovens are getting very popular,” explains Danver’s Mitch Slater. Attracted by the romance of a Tuscan-style pizza-making experience, more and more homeowners are installing these hefty gourmet appliances. Constructed of masonry or thick steel, these units all feature a stone hearth floor and gently sloping domed roof.

Wood-fired stoves, the purist’s choice, come in two basic models: those heated from a fire built inside the firebox and those heated from a separate firebox below the oven. Both require a sizeable time commitment to reach desired temps, not to mention a steady supply of hardwood. A word of caution, notes Slater: “These units are heavy, 500 pounds or more, and require a sturdy base that can be very expensive to build.”

Countertop pizza ovens are fueled by propane or a home’s natural gas supply and can reach cooking temps in as little as 30 minutes. Prices range from $700 for a freestanding wood-fired oven to $6,000 for elaborate wood- or gas-fired units. Expect warranties ranging from five years to limited lifetime.

Beer dispenser

Cost range: $400 to $1,500
Likely additional costs: 110 outlet, CO2, cover
Average life span: 5-10 years

For serious entertainers, there may be no greater luxury than an endless supply of ice-cold draft beer. Often referred to as kegerators, beer dispensers simultaneously chill and dispense beer from a keg.

Though models are available for as little as $400, the less-costly versions typically are not designed for outdoor use and must be protected from the weather. Expect to pay between $900 and $1,500 for an outdoor-approved model with a warranty that covers parts and labor for one year and the compressor for five.

Before investing in one of these appliances, it’s wise to know that kegs are heavy and not readily available in all areas. A full-size keg holds approximately 160 pints of beer, or roughly seven cases. And once the keg is tapped, the beer will remain fresh only for about three weeks under consistent refrigeration.

In addition to an electrical source, kegerators also require a CO2 supply. Each five-pound cylinder of gas will dispense about six kegs of beer before it needs refilling from a local gas supplier ($10).

Patio heaters

Cost range: $150-$800
Likely additional costs: 110 outlet, natural gas hook-up or propane tank, cover for freestanding units
Average life span: 5-10 years

Patio heaters don’t cook the food or chill the beer, but they do increase the amount of time a family gets to enjoy the outdoors. There are three main categories of outdoor heaters, each with its own benefits and drawbacks. None, however, will transform an arctic evening into a tropical oasis: most work best when the thermometer reads between 50 and 60 degrees. Patio heaters add approximately 10 degrees to the ambient outdoor temperature.

Tabletop models stand just 3 feet tall, making them easy to move from site to site. Putting out about 10,000 BTUs, these units heat a 10-foot-diameter circle, or about 80 square feet. They will run approximately two hours on a one-pound propane tank. At about $5 per tank, the operating cost is $2.50 per hour. Prices for tabletop propane heaters range from $150 to $250, including a one-year manufacturer’s warranty.

Freestanding–or post-style–heaters stand about 8 feet tall and heat an area more than four times the size of tabletop varieties. Producing over 40,000 BTUs, these models warm a 20-foot-diameter circle, or 314 square feet.

Fuel choices for post-style heaters include propane or natural gas. Using natural gas eliminates the need to refill propane tanks and costs less than half to run, but requires a gas line hook-up and a stationary location. Post-style heaters range from $200 to $500 and come with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty.

Electric heaters simply plug into a standard outlet, making them the greenest and cheapest options when it comes to operating costs. Powerful bulbs emit steady infrared heat that is unaffected by wind like models that utilize flames.

Units costing $300 will heat 75 to 100 square feet and cost as little as $0.15 per hour to run. Models that heat 300 square feet cost upwards of $800 and consume about three times the energy.

Some electric heaters are rated for outdoor use and may be exposed to the elements, as long as the outlet itself is weatherproof. Some electric heating units are designated for outside use but must be covered, meaning they can be used only under a roof structure, awning, or eave, limiting their applications. Also, heating elements last only two to four years depending on use and cost $100 to replace. One-year manufacturer’s warranties are standard.

How to Buy a Gas Grill

How to Buy a Gas Grill

By: Douglas Trattner

Published: April 27, 2010

With models priced from $29 to $5000 and up outdoor gas grills offer convenience and ease-of-use to fit any budget.

There may be no home cooking appliance with a wider price range than the outdoor gas grill. With models starting as low as $29 and climbing to $5,000 and higher, it is an understatement to say there’s is a model for every budget. When shopping for a gas grill, the motto “You get what you pay for” is especially fitting, explains Dan Marguerite, owner of Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette, Ill. Basement models, he says, offer poor performance, are cheaply constructed, and often fail to survive two summers.

Cost range: $29-$5,000 and up

Likely additional costs: Assembly, natural gas hookup or propane tank, cover

Average life span: 2-16 years

Sub-$50 range

Grills in the sub-$50 range are often of the tabletop propane variety. These units are constructed of thin painted sheet metal and cheaply fabricated components, all but guaranteeing a short lifespan. Brief 90-day warranties don’t offer much of a safety net.

When it comes to power, these grills are positively entry level, says Marguerite. The single, 12,000 BTU burner is satisfactory for grilling hamburgers and hot dogs but will be far less successful at charring a thick porterhouse. Still, when it comes to portability, these grills have no equal. If you are looking for a highly mobile tailgating grill, look to this sector of the market.

$50-$150 range

The biggest differences between a $50 gas grill and a $150 grill will be size and fuel source. Boasting cooking areas over twice that of their less expensive counterparts, these grills are the most economical options for families.

Models in this price range run on liquid propane stored in large refillable tanks (as opposed to the small disposable cylinders). Construction quality is moderate, featuring lightweight steel or aluminum bodies. However, the boost in price over the cheapest gas grill models yields an extra burner (albeit a low-powered one). Most are furnished with thin, steel-rod cooking grates that may warp from exposure to high temperatures, such as those from flare-ups.

$150-$350 range

Marguerite says buyers in this price range can expect to get “middle of the road” power, with burners putting out around 20,000 BTUs. Shoppers should expect a three- or four-burner grill, a roomy cooking surface, and perhaps even a storage cabinet and side burner—a separate burner used for boiling water or other independent cooking chores.

With widths of 20 to 24 inches and boasting around 400 square inches of grill surface, these units can simultaneously cook about two dozen burgers. Homeowners in cool climes who grill year round likely will lament the thin-body construction, says Marguerite. “These grills do a poor job of retaining heat in cold weather,” he says. At this price range, expect less-expensive porcelain-coated steel cooking grates that tend to chip, rust and need replacing at a cost of $30 to $60.

$350-$600 range

Constructed of heavy cast-aluminum or thick-gauge steel, and utilizing high-quality stainless steel burners, these units are built to last. Parts that do fail will be covered by five- to 10-year warranties.

Averaging between 400 and 500 square inches of cook surface, these units are not substantially larger than those in the $150-$350 category. But they are constructed of heavy cast aluminum or thick-gauge steel and utilize multiple high-quality stainless steel burners. Heavy-duty castors and solid-built carts make it easy to move these grills from spot to spot.

Grills in this category can handle enough food for 15 to 18 people. Buyers are urged to select a burner configuration that appeals to them as some models arrange them front-to-back versus side-to-side, which can complicate indirect cooking.

$600-$1,500 range

Units starting around $600 feature burners that reach 40,000 BTUs, power that will make short work of even the largest barbecue payloads. Precision controls and even heat distribution give home cooks the ability to simultaneously sear, cook, and keep food warm. To step up to a 36-inch grill that approaches 900 square inches of cook space, a shopper should expect to spend at least $1,000.

Constructed of high-quality stainless steel throughout, these grills will weather years of use. These first-class rigs often include heavy cast-iron grates, side burners, under-grill storage, and even a rotisserie spit and motor. Buyers also get the peace of mind that comes with improved customer service and best-in-class warranties that range from 10 years on burners to 25 years on the body.

$1,500 to $5,000 range

When you spend upwards of $2,000 on a grill, you’ll get a host of features and quality construction. These appliances boast six or more top-of-the-line burners. Almost standard issue these days is an infrared sear burner that can reach temps topping 700 degrees.

Most include a rear-mounted rotisserie burner with motor, interior and exterior lighting, and even a spring-assisted lid for effortless opening. With the best grills also come the best warranties, typically covering most components for 10 to 25 years.

Propane vs. natural gas

Homeowners should decide before buying a grill whether they intend to fuel it with propane or natural gas, says Marguerite. While many grills can be converted for around $50, it is best to buy one factory engineered for one fuel type or the other.

Owners of built-in units typically choose natural gas as there are no tanks that need filling and the cost to operate is roughly half that of propane. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s most recent figures, propane costs $20.47 per million BTUs compared to natural gas’s $12.18. Assuming a homeowner grilled once a week, he or she can expect to pay about $40 per year for propane and $24 for natural gas. Marguerite says that his company charges $150 plus $7 per foot to connect a grill to a natural gas line.

Suggested extras

A good-fitting cover will extend the life of any outdoor appliance. Expect to pay between $30 and $50. Owners of propane powered grills should consider purchasing a $20 back-up tank so that a fully charged spare is always on hand. A $20 gas gauge will take the guesswork out of estimating a tank’s contents.

How to Buy a Charcoal Grill

How to Buy a Charcoal Grill

By: Douglas Trattner

Published: April 26, 2010

With models priced from $35 to $1000 there are charcoal grills to fit the budget of anyone who’s a fan of traditional barbecue.

A charcoal grill can be as basic as a 55-gallon drum cut in half and turned on its side, or as extravagant as a $1,000 ceramic-lined cooker. When shopping for a charcoal grill, author and barbecue expert C. Clark “Smoky” Hale urges consumers to stop and ask themselves the following questions: What type of cooking do you intend to use it for? How often do you expect to grill? How many people will you be grilling for? How much do you want to spend?

Cost range: $35-$1,000 and up

Likely additional costs: assembly, cover, charcoal

Average life span: 3-16 years

Sub-$50 range

In the case of charcoal grills, “small doesn’t have to mean cheap,” explains Hale, author of “Great American Barbecue & Grilling Manual.” Whereas many gas grills priced south of $50 aren’t worth the money, the same isn’t necessarily true when applied to charcoal.

Weber, the king of the kettle, sells a solid and wholly functional grill for around $35. Of course, that unit rests on the ground and measures just over a foot in diameter, making it useful only for the smallest of gatherings. Larger grills in this price range tend to be constructed of thin painted steel and positioned atop wobbly aluminum legs.

$50-$100 range

A homeowner looking to satisfy the needs of an average-size family should plan on spending at least $60 for a roomy but basic grill. Models in this category are of the 19- to 22-inch kettle variety, which is large enough to handle over a dozen burgers or chicken breasts.

Despite the increased girth, these grills restrict all but the most rudimentary cooking methods due to shallow lids that can’t accommodate whole chickens, turkeys, or other roasts. Because charcoal (and especially hardwood lump) burns hotter than gas, the thinner steel grates found on these grills often warp and need replacing at a cost of $15 to $45.

$100-$200 range

This price range includes 22- and 26-inch name brand kettles. But the roomiest charcoal grills in this category are not round, they are rectangular barrel-style units that mimic a dissected 55-gallon drum.

These solidly constructed rigs, which start at around $130, boast a cooking area two to three times the size of comparably priced kettles. The 1,000-square-inch grate surface makes it easy not only to cook for a crowd, but also to do indirect cooking for slower, longer roasts.

Though billed as smokers too, these models typically lack the airflow control needed for the serious, long-temperature cooking associated with traditional smoked barbecue, warns Hale.

$200-$300 range

The additional dollars spent for charcoal grills in this category often buy convenience rather than increased capacity or improved construction. Kettle-style grills come mounted in a portable cart with storage for charcoal and a small work area. Some feature propane ignition systems for effortless charcoal starting sans lighter fluid.

Hinged cooking grates make it easy to add or rearrange charcoal without having to remove the food. And many facilitate the ash-disposal process thanks to removable catch basins. For frequent grillers, these conveniences are worth the costs.

Ceramic cookers

“The Big Green Egg folks are like Apple computer people,” says Hale, referring to a prominent brand of ceramic charcoal cooker. “They are very passionate.”

Owing to their thick-walled ceramic construction, these trendy grills are unmatched at retaining heat for long periods of time. Precision dampers make it easy (with practice) to accurately control temps, making the units effective for everything from high-heat searing to roasting to low-and-slow smoking. Homeowners, however, must be prepared to shell out $700 and up for a grill with a cook surface equal to a $70 kettle.

Smokers

Most charcoal grills can be configured to accept wood chunks or chips, allowing the cook to impart a pleasant smoke flavor to cooking foods. But in order to truly excel at barbecue, says Hale, a grill must contain a system of tight-fitting dampers and vents that make it possible to accurately regulate cooking temperatures.

Offset smokers look like barrel-style grills with the addition of a side-mounted firebox. Heat and smoke travel from the firebox, through the main cooking chamber, and finally out the exhaust. Because the heat source is not directly underneath the food (indirect cooking), it is easier to maintain the lower temps needed for smoking. These units start around $250.

Water smokers, of which the Weber Smokey Mountain (aka the Bullet) is the most popular model, look like elongated kettle grills. Situated between the charcoal bowl at the bottom and the cooking chamber above is a shallow pan of liquid that acts like a heat sink, regulating temps. Well-made and backed by Weber’s 10-year warranty, these smokers sell for around $300.

Suggested extras: Wood ash combines with rain water to make lye, a corrosive and caustic substance. For that reason alone, a tight-fitting grill cover is a necessity. Prices range from $20 to $70. Chimney starters ($15) make fast work of igniting charcoal briquettes without the need for lighter fluid. Folks serious about barbecuing, says Hale, should purchase a quality grill thermometer for $10.

Cost of operation: There is no denying that charcoal grilling is more expensive than gas grilling. A typical charcoal cookout will cost about $3.50 in fuel, while the same session on a propane grill will run about $0.60, and even less if hooked up to a natural gas line. Nevertheless, charcoal grill aficionados swear by the superior taste of foods prepared with charcoal.

Grilling Safety

Grilling Safety

By: Deirdre Sullivan

Published: June 29, 2012

Nothing spoils an outdoor barbecue more than burning the house down. Here are 6 tips to stay safe when grilling this summer, plus videos of cookout calamities.

Don’t think you’re at risk? Over the last five years, fire departments have responded to an average of 8,200 house fires per year involving grills, hibachis, and barbecues. Most of these fires took place during June and July, the peak grilling months.

Tip 1: Barbecue only outside

Firing it up in your home, trailer, tent, or any partially enclosed area is dangerous. If the carbon monoxide doesn’t kill you, your neighbors might, especially if you set off your building’s sprinkler system by grilling on your covered balcony.

Tip 2: Grills heat up to 650 degrees or higher

Always place your grill or hibachi on a non-flammable surface. For additional protection, place a heat-resistant pad or splatter mat beneath the cooker. And FYI, plastic has an average melting point of 150 degrees.

Tip 3: Protect your home and family

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, you should barbecue at least 10 feet away from your house or any structure. Children and pets should stay at least 3 feet away from the grilling area. Just in case you need a little convincing, this visual should drive the point home.

Tip 4: Lighter fluid can be dangerous

Before starting a fire, soak coals with an accelerant made for charcoal. Never use lighter fluid on hot briquettes. Doing so causes the fluid to vaporize and become explosive. The result could be a charbroiled yard and home.

Tip 5: Proper grilling attire

Take a cue from this grill master: Don’t wear loose or baggy clothing while flipping burgers. This includes aprons, especially when your back is turned.

Tip 6: Utensils are not toys

Of course you want to keep your guests entertained at your next barbecue, but remember, playing with sharp utensils can be dangerous. You could poke an eye out or skewer a feathered friend.

Bonus tip: We ran across one more prickly grilling situation. Who thought a brush could ruin a barbecue? Hints at Heloise says there’s a new danger hidden away in your grill: bristles from wire cleaning brushes. If accidentally consumed, they could cause abdominal pain and more. Make sure that after you clean your grill with a wire brush, rinse the grill and wipe it with a paper towel to make sure no pesky wires are left.

How to Clean and Care for Your Home’s Siding

How to Clean and Care for Your Home’s Siding
By: John Riha

Published: November 7, 2013

Cleaning your home’s siding every year and keeping it in good repair extends the life of any siding and heads off replacement costs.

With a bit of preventative maintenance, your home’s siding could be trouble-free for 50 years or more. And that means you won’t have to replace siding as often.

Cleaning siding removes the dirt and mildew that shortens the life of siding. A clean house protects your investment, too. Some real estate appraisers say good curb appeal can add 5%-10% to the value of your house.

Related: How Maintenance Also Adds to Your Home’s Value

Cleaning All Types of Siding

All types of siding benefit from an annual cleaning to remove grit, grime, and mildew. Cleaning an average-sized house may take you and a friend every bit of a weekend. Here’s how to do it:

1. Start with a bucket of warm, soapy water. Mix 1/2 cup trisodium phosphate (TSP, available at grocery stores, hardware stores, and home improvement centers) with 1 gallon of water.

2. Divide your siding into 10-foot sections. Scrub each section using a soft-bristled brush attached to a long handle. Work from bottom to top to avoid streaking, and rinse often. (For two-story homes, you’ll be using a ladder, so keep safety foremost.)

Related: Care and Maintenance of Your Deck

What’s a Professional Cleaning Cost?

If you don’t have the time — or the inclination — you can have your house professionally cleaned for $300-$500. A professional team will use a power washer and take less than a day.

You can rent a power washer to do the job yourself for about $75/day, but beware if you don’t have experience with the tool. Power washers can strip paint, gouge softwoods, loosen caulk, and eat through mortar. Also, the tool can force water under horizontal lap joints, resulting in moisture accumulating behind the siding.

A siding professional has the expertise to prevent water penetration at joints, seams around windows and doors, and electrical fixtures.

Inspecting Siding for Damage

All siding: Siding is vulnerable to water infiltration where it butts against windows, doors, and corner moldings. Look for caulk that has cracked due to age or has pulled away from adjacent surfaces, leaving gaps. Reapply a color-matched exterior caulk during dry days with temperatures in excess of 65 degrees for maximum adhesion.

Wood siding: Check for chipped or peeling paint, and cracked boards and trim.

Stucco: Be on the lookout for cracks and chips.

Brick: Look for crumbling mortar joints.

You’ll want to repair any defects before cleaning. The sooner you make repairs, the better you protect your house from moisture infiltration that can lead to dry rot and mold forming inside your walls.

Related: 10 Steps to the Perfect Exterior Paint Job

Repairing Wood, Vinyl, and Fiber-Cement Siding

Repairs to wood, vinyl, and fiber-cement siding require the expertise to remove the damaged siding while leaving surrounding siding intact. Unless you have the skills, hire a professional carpenter or siding contractor. Expect to pay $200-$300 to replace one or two damaged siding panels or pieces of wood clapboard.

Repairing Brick and Mortar

Crumbling and loose mortar should be removed with a cold chisel and repaired with fresh mortar — a process called repointing. An experienced do-it-yourselfer can repoint mortar joints between bricks, but the process is time-consuming. Depending on the size of the mortar joints (thinner joints are more difficult), a masonry professional will repoint brick siding for $5-$20/sq. ft.

Efflorescence — the powdery white residue that sometimes appears on brick and stone surfaces — is the result of soluble salts in the masonry or grout being leached out by moisture, probably indicating the masonry and grout was never sealed correctly.

Remove efflorescence by scrubbing it with water and white vinegar mixed in a 50/50 solution and a stiff bristle brush. As soon as the surface is clear and dry, seal it with a quality masonry sealer to prevent further leaching.

Persistent efflorescence may indicate a moisture problem behind the masonry. Consult a professional building or masonry contractor.

Repairing Stucco

Seal cracks and small holes with color-matched exterior acrylic caulk. Try pressing sand into the surface of wet caulk to match the texture of the surrounding stucco. Paint the repair to match.

To repair larger holes and cracks, you may want to call in a pro who’s familiar with stucco work. A professional charges $200-$1,000 for a repair job, depending on the size of the damage. Repainting the patch to match your siding will be up to you.

Removing Mildew

Stubborn, black spotty stains are probably mildew. Dab the area with a little diluted bleach — if the black disappears, it’s mildew. Clean the area with a solution of one part bleach to four parts water. Wear eye protection and protect plants from splashes. Rinse thoroughly with clean water.

5 Awesomely Easy Landscaping Projects

5 Awesomely Easy Landscaping Projects
By: Dave Toht

Published: February 26, 2013

Ramp up your curb appeal with cool landscaping projects you can easily pull off in a weekend.

Project #1: Install Rigid Flower Bed Edging

The setup: A crisp edge where the lawn meets the flower beds looks great and eases mowing. Opt for rigid edging — the flexible plastic stuff looks amateurish from day one.

Use a charged garden hose to lay out a smooth curve.

Tip: A “charged” garden hose full of water makes for a smoother, kink-free curve; charge up by turning on the spigot but leaving the sprayer off.

With the hose as your guide, use a lawn edger or spade to cut away excess sod and make an incision for the edging. Tap in the edging with a rubber mallet and add the stakes. Trim the edging with a hacksaw, using a speed square to mark for cuts.

Specs and cost: Steel — $1.25 per lineal foot; aluminum — $2.25 plf; rigid plastic or fiberglass — $1.65 plf.

Tools: Garden hose, flour or powdered chalk, lawn edger or spade, shovel, speed square, hacksaw, rubber mallet, hammer.

Time: 1 day to edge a typical yard.

Read on for more easy landscaping projects:

Add an Earth Berm
Build a Wall for a Raised Bed
Install a Flagstone Path
Add a Brick Tree Surround

Project #2: Add an Earth Berm
The setup: Create an eye-catching front yard feature by shaping a few cubic yards of topsoil into an undulating berm. Topped off with mulch, groundcover, and bushes, a berm adds interest and buffers street noise.

Use a charged hose to outline the berm. Remove sod a couple of feet in from the perimeter. Add a few mounds, but max out at 3 feet high.

Specs and cost: Three cubic yards of soil is enough for a good-sized berm. Expect to pay $15-$20 per cubic yard and $15–$60 for delivery — a total of $60-$120.

Tip: Don’t be tempted by those bags of topsoil at the home center: At $2.50 per cubic foot, a cubic yard (27 cubic feet) will end up costing you $67.50.

Have a cubic yard of mulch dropped off as well ($15–$20). A dozen periwinkle starts, plus a few boxwood bushes and evergreens, will set you back another $140.

Total for an 18-foot-long berm: $215–$280.

Tools: Wheelbarrow, spade, shovel, garden rake, trowel.

Time: A day to form the berm, another half-day for planting and mulching.

Project #3: Build a Wall for a Raised Bed
The setup: A stacked flagstone wall for your raised beds has an old-world look that mellows any landscape. Best of all, you don’t have to be stonemason to build one.

Begin by laying out the wall with stakes and mason’s line. Tamp a level bed of sand for the first course. As you add courses, stagger joints at least 3 inches. Set each course back ¼-inch so the wall leans backward slightly. Once finished, back the wall with landscaping fabric before filling with topsoil.

Specs and cost: Choose a stone of consistent thickness. Flagstone might be limestone, sandstone, shale — any rock that splits into slabs. A ton of 2-inch-thick stone is enough for a wall 10 feet long and 12 inches high.

Cost: About $300 for stones and sand.

Tip: Permanent retaining walls should be backed by pea gravel for drainage. In some locations, walls taller than 3 feet high require a building permit.

Tools: Stakes and mason’s line, spade, shovel, a 2-by-4 that’s 8 feet long, a 4-foot level, garden rake, tamper.

Time: 1 day for a 10-foot-long wall that’s 12 inches high.

Want to see some cool retaining walls? Check out our slideshow, 8 Retaining Wall Ideas.

Project #4: Install a Flagstone Path
The setup: For a welcoming addition to your yard, add a flagstone pathway. Use a charged garden hose to mark a meandering path about 3 feet wide. Arrange flagstones within the path so they are 2–4 inches apart and mark their location with sprinkled flour.

Tip: Sprinkling flour over the stones creates a “shadow” outline on the ground. When you remove the stones, you’ll have perfect outlines for cutting away the sod.

Cut away 3–4 inches of sod beneath each stone, add a layer of sand, and level the flagstones as you place them.

Specs and cost: For a 40-foot path about 3 feet wide, plan on 2 tons of flagstones and about a cubic yard of coarse sand. Cost: About $550.

Tools: Garden hose, flour, spade, trowel, level.

Time: 1 day for a 40-foot path.

Want more detail? Get the inside scoop on our start-to-finish DIY paver project.

Project #5: Add a Brick Tree Surround
The setup: Installing a masonry surround for a tree eases mowing and looks great. All it takes is digging a circular trench, adding some sand, and installing brick or stone.

Tip: To create a nice, even circle around the base of your tree, tie a big loop of rope around your tree. Adjust the length of the loop so when you pull it taut, the free end is right where you’d like the outer edge of the surround to be. Set your spade inside the loop with the handle plumb — straight up and down. Now, as you move around the tree, the loop of rope keeps the spade exactly the same distance from the base of the tree, creating a nice circle.

Use the spade to cut into the sod all the way around the tree. Remove the rope, and dig out a circular trench about 8 inches deep and 6 inches wide. Add a layer of sand. Set bricks at an angle for a pleasing saw-tooth effect or lay them end-to-end. Fill the surround with 2–4 inches of mulch.

Curious what trees to plant? Our popular slideshow tells you which trees you should never plant in your yard.

Specs and cost: This is an instance where buying small quantities of materials at the home center makes sense. Brick pavers cost 50 cents-$1 each — figure about 20 pavers per tree. A bag of mulch, enough for one tree, costs $2.50.

Tools: Rope, spade, trowel.

Time: About 3 hours per tree.

7 Landscaping Mistakes That Wreck Curb Appeal

7 Landscaping Mistakes That Wreck Curb Appeal
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: September 9, 2013

Don’t let badly designed or maintained landscaping wreck your home’s curb appeal. Here are pitfalls to avoid.

Clumsy, neglected, and hodgepodge landscaping not only hurts your home’s curb appeal, it can cut the value of your property and make it harder to sell.

Real estate appraisers say bad landscaping is a buyer turnoff that can increase the number of days a property languishes on the market, which also hurts prices.

“I’ve been with clients who won’t even go into a house because of the bad landscaping outside,” says Mack Strickland, a Chester, Va., REALTOR® and appraiser.

Even more important, bad landscaping is a downer that hurts the way you see and enjoy your home.

Don’t let bad landscaping happen to you. Here are the seven landscaping mistakes that bust, rather than boost, your home’s curb appeal.

1. Planting Without A Plan

Some landscaping choices, such as a line of begonias, will last a season; others, like trees, can last a lifetime. So, take time to plan and plot a yard that gives you maximum enjoyment and curb appeal.

For the design challenged, landscape architects are worth the investment ($300-$2,500 depending on yard size). They will render elevations of your future yard, and provide plant lists so you can install landscaping yourself.

Related: How to Create a Landscaping Plan on a Budget

2. Too Much Togetherness

Yes, planting in clusters looks way better than installing single plants, soldier-like, throughout your yard. But make sure your groups of perennials, shrubs, and trees have plenty of room to spread, or they’ll look choked and overgrown. Also, over-crowded landscaping competes with itself for food and water, putting the clusters at risk, especially during drought.

Google how high and wide the mature plant will be, and then combine that info with the spacing suggestions on planting labels. At first, garden beds of young plants will look too airy and prairie-like. But within three years, your beds will fill in with room to grow.

Remember: First year it sleeps, second it creeps, third it leaps.

3. Zoning Out

Don’t be seduced by catalog plants that look gorgeous on paper but aren’t suited to your hardiness zone. You’ll wind up with plants that die prematurely, or demand winter covers, daily watering, and other intensive efforts to keep them alive and well.

Check plant labels to see which hardiness zones are best for your plants.

4. More of the Same

Resist the design temptation to carpet-bomb your yard with your favorite plant or shrub, which will create a boring, monochromatic landscape. Worse, your yard will look great when your fave flowers bloom, then will look drab the rest of the year.

Mix things up and strive for four-season color. For example, combine spring-blooming azaleas with summer-blooming roses and autumn-blazing shrubs — such as burning bushes (Euonymus alatus). For winter color, try the red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera), a hardy shrub that sports bright-red branches in winter.

Related:

9 Winter Plants that Dazzle Even in Snow

Winter Gardening: Plants that Provide Beauty All Year Round

5. Refusing to Bury Your Dead

Nothing wrecks curb appeal faster than rows of dead or dying shrubs and perennials. So quickly remove your dearly departed landscaping from your front and side yards.

Spent plants that lived their natural lives are good candidates for a compost pile — if you grind them first, they’ll decompose faster. But if your landscaping succumbed to disease or infestation, it’s best to inter them in black plastic bags, then add to the trash.

6. Weeds Gone Wild

Weeds not only wreck the look of your landscaping, they compete with pricey vegetation for water and food. Weeds also can shorten the life of brick, stone, and pavers by growing in mortar cracks.

The best way to stop weeds is to spread a pre-emergent about three weeks before weed seeds typically germinate. If you can’t stop them from growing, at least get rid of weeds before they flower and send a zillion weed seeds throughout your yard.

7. Contain Those Critters

Deer, rabbits, and other backyard pests think your landscaping is an all-you-can eat buffet, leaving you with denuded branches and topless perennials.

If you’ve got a critter problem:

Plant deer- or rabbit-resistant varieties. Your local extension agent can provide a list of green things critters won’t eat in your area.
Install an electric fence around landscaping you want to protect.
Spray plants with critter repellent. After a hard rain, spray again.

Choosing an Exterior Door

Choosing an Exterior Door
By: Karin Beuerlein

Published: December 28, 2009

You should understand the pros and cons of steel, fiberglass, and wood exterior doors before choosing the one that’s right for you.

Replacing your front door can pay for itself by increasing your home’s value, according to Remodeling Magazine’s annual Cost vs. Value Report.

What’s more, if you choose an energy-efficient exterior door, you may qualify for a tax credit that can save you up to $500 as well as trim up to 10% off your energy bills. (With utility bills averaging $2,200 annually, that’s a savings of as much as $220.)

But how do you know which door is right for you? Make your decision by comparing the three main materials available for exterior doors: steel, fiberglass and wood.

Steel

If you’re looking to save money, a steel door may be a good choice, particularly if you have the skills to hang it yourself. A simple, unadorned steel door can sell for as little as $150 (not including hardware, lock set, paint, or labor) and typically runs as much as $400 at big-box retailers. Steel offers the strongest barrier against intruders, although its advantage over fiberglass and wood in this area is slight.

Even better, replacing your entry door with a steel model preserves home value. Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value Report estimates the total project cost of installing a 20-gauge steel door at $1,162. The project, on average, returns 97% of its cost, the highest return value in the report.

Still, the attractive cost of a steel door comes with an important caveat: Its typical life span under duress is shorter than either fiberglass or wood. A steel door exposed to salt air or heavy rains may last only five to seven years, according to Bob Bossard, general manager of 84 Lumber in Clarksville, Del. Despite steel’s reputation for toughness, it actually didn’t perform well in Consumer Reports testing against wood and fiberglass for normal wear and tear.

With heavy use, it may dent, and the damage can be difficult and expensive to repair. If your door will be heavily exposed to traffic or the elements, you may be better off choosing a different material.

Fiberglass

Fiberglass doors come in an immense variety of styles, many of which accurately mimic the look of real wood. And if limited upkeep is your ideal, fiberglass may be your best bet. “Nothing is maintenance-free,” Bossard says, “but fiberglass is pretty close. And it lasts twice as long as wood or steel.”

Fiberglass doesn’t expand or contract appreciably as the weather changes. Therefore, in a reasonably protected location, a fiberglass entry door can go for years without needing a paint or stain touch-up and can last 15 to 20 years overall. Although it feels light to the touch, fiberglass has a very stout coating that’s difficult for an intruder to breach; and its foam core offers considerable insulation.

Fiberglass generally falls between steel and wood in price; models sold at big-box stores range from about $150 to $600. Remodeling Magazine lists the cost of a fiberglass entry-door replacement project at around $2,800. Although a fiberglass door doesn’t generate as high a return as a steel door, it recoups about 71% in home value.

Wood

Wood is considered the go-to choice for high-end projects; its luxe look and substantial weight can’t be flawlessly duplicated by fiberglass or steel, though high-end fiberglass products are getting close. If your home calls for a stunning entry statement with a handcrafted touch, wood may be the best material for you.

Wood is usually the most expensive choice of the three — roughly $500 to $2,000, excluding custom jobs — and requires the most maintenance, although it’s easier to repair scratches on a wood door than dents in steel or fiberglass. Wood doors should be repainted or refinished every year or two to prevent splitting and warping. (Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value Report doesn’t include a wood entry-door replacement project.)

If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of your door as well as its energy efficiency, you can purchase a solid wood door certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which assures you that the wood was sustainably grown and harvested.

Tracing the environmental impact of a particular door — from manufacturing process to shipping distance to how much recycled/recyclable content it contains — is quite complicated and probably beyond the ken of the average homeowner, notes LEED-certified green designer Victoria Schomer. But FSC-certified wood and an Energy Star rating are an excellent start.

A final note on choosing a door based on energy efficiency: Because efficiency depends on a number of factors besides the material a door is made of — including its framework and whether it has windows–look for the Energy Star label to help you compare doors. To qualify for the federal tax credit, look for solar heat gain coefficient and U-factor values less than 0.3.

11 Ways to Create a Welcoming Front Entrance for Under $100

11 Ways to Create a Welcoming Front Entrance for Under $100
By: Cara Greenberg

Published: November 5, 2012

Wouldn’t it be nice to approach your home’s entrance with a grin instead of a grimace? Take our tips for beating a clear, safe, and stylish path to your front door.

First impressions count — not just for your friends, relatives, and the UPS guy, but for yourself. Whether it’s on an urban stoop or a Victorian front porch, your front door and the area leading up to it should extend a warm welcome to all comers — and needn’t cost a bundle.

Here’s what you can do to make welcoming happen on the cheap.

1. Clear the way for curb appeal. The path to your front door should be at least 3 feet wide so people can walk shoulder-to-shoulder, with an unobstructed view and no stumbling hazards. So get out those loppers and cut back any overhanging branches or encroaching shrubs.

2. Light the route. Landscape lighting makes it easy to get around at night. Solar-powered LED lights you can just stick in the ground, requiring no wiring, are suprisingly inexpensive. We found 8 packs for under $60 online.

3. Go glossy. Borrow inspiration from London’s lovely row houses, whose owners assert their individuality by painting their doors in high-gloss colors. The reflective sheen of a royal blue, deep green, crimson, or whatever color you like will ensure your house stands out from the pack.

Related: Pictures of 10 Great Value-Add Exterior Paint Jobs

4. Pretty up the view. A door with lots of glass is a plus for letting light into the front hall — but if you also want privacy and a bit of decor, check out decorative window film. It’s removable and re-positionable, and comes in innumerable styles and motifs. Pricing depends on size and design; many available for under $30.

A way to get the look of stained glass without doing custom work or buying a whole new door: Mount a decorative panel on the inside of the door behind an existing glass insert, $92 for an Arts and Crafts-style panel 20-inches-high by 11-inches-wide.

5. Replace door hardware. While you’re at it, polish up the handle on the big front door. Or better yet, replace it with a shiny new brass lockset with a secure deadbolt. Available for about $60.

6. Please knock. Doorbells may be the norm, but a hefty knocker is a classic that will never run out of battery life, and another opportunity to express yourself (whatever your favorite animal or insect is, there’s a door-knocker in its image).

7. Ever-greenery. Boxwoods are always tidy-looking, the definition of easy upkeep. A pair on either side of the door is traditional, but a singleton is good, too. About $25 at garden centers. In cold climates, make sure pots are frost-proof (polyethylene urns and boxes mimic terracotta and wood to perfection).

8. Numbers game. Is your house number clearly visible? That’s of prime importance if you want your guests to arrive and your pizza to be hot. Stick-on vinyl numbers in a variety of fonts make it easy, starting at about $4 per digit.

9. Foot traffic. A hardworking mat for wiping muddy feet is a must. A thick coir mat can be had at the hardware store for less than $20. Even fancier varieties can be found well under $50.

10. Go for the glow. Fumbling for keys in the dark isn’t fun. Consider doubling up on porch lights with a pair of lanterns, one on each side of the door, for symmetry and twice the illumination. Many mounted lights are available well under $100.

11. Snail mail. Mailboxes run the gamut from kitschy roadside novelties masquerading as dogs, fish, or what-have-you to sober black lockboxes mounted alongside the front door. Whichever way you go, make sure yours is standing or hanging straight, with a secure closure, and no dings or dents. The mail carrier will thank you.

Tree Falls Over Property Line: Who Pays? Who Picks Up the Pieces?

Tree Falls Over Property Line: Who Pays? Who Picks Up the Pieces?
By: Ann Cochran

Published: March 23, 2011

If a neighbor’s tree falls over your property line, file an insurance claim for repairs and cleanup. No house damage? Check if chopping and hauling debris is covered.

When a neighbor’s tree falls over your property line, yell TIMBER, then call your insurance company. Home owners policies cover tree damage caused by perils like wind and winter storms. Most policies cover hauling away tree debris if the mess is associated with house damage; some will cover cleanup even if no structures were harmed.

When a Tree Falls

Your neighbor is responsible when a tree falls over your shared property line only if you can prove he was aware that his tree was a hazard and refused to remedy the problem. Regardless, your insurance company restores your property first, and later decides whether or not to pursue reimbursement from the neighbor or his insurer if the neighbor was negligent in maintaining the tree.

Before a Tree Falls

Write a letter to your neighbor before his dead, diseased or listing tree falls through your roof or over your property line.

The letter should include:

Description of the problem
Photographs
Request for action
Attorney letterhead–not necessary but indicates you mean business.
Trim Their Trees

If the limbs of a tree hang over your property line, you may trim the branches up to the property line, but not cut down the entire tree. If a tree dies after your little pruning, the neighbor can pursue a claim against you in civil or small claims court. Depending on the laws of your state, your neighbor may have to prove the damage was deliberate or caused by negligence, but may also be able to recover up to three times the value of the tree.

Before you cut, tell your neighbors what you intend to do to protect your property. They may offer to trim the whole tree instead of risking your half-oaked job.

Your Tree Falls

It’s always a good idea to take care of your big and beautiful trees, and keep receipts for trimmings and other care.

But if your tree falls over a neighbor’s property line, do nothing until their insurance company contacts you. You may not be liable unless you knew or should have known the tree was in a dangerous condition. If you pruned a tree or shored up trunks to prevent problems, gather your receipts to prove your diligence.

How to Raise Your Tree From the (Almost) Dead

How to Raise Your Tree From the (Almost) Dead
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: June 27, 2012

Learn to spot a tree under stress, and you may be able to nurse it back to health.

When it comes to landscape love, there’s nothing sadder than losing a tree to a storm, drought, or disease.

You can’t save every sick tree: sometimes a tree dies before you even know it’s unwell. Sandra Dark, author of Weatherproofing Your Landscape, says trees that don’t leaf out in spring are probably beyond help. Time to continue the circle of life, grind them up, and turn them into garden mulch.

But if you recognize the early signs of tree stress, you may be able to help your tree before it’s too late.

Discolored and dropping foliage

Healthy foliage for most trees is bright green. If leaves turn yellow or brown, it means the tree’s root system has been damaged, usually from drought or flooding.

Drought: Run a soaker hose around the tree, starting 1 foot from the trunk and extending to the end of the drip zone — the outer edge of the tree’s leaf canopy. Give the tree 10 gallons of water for every inch of trunk diameter, or about 45 minutes of soaker hose watering. Repeat 2-3 times a month, depending on rainfall.

Flood: After a flood, watch your trees carefully — signs of stress from damage and too much water may take two or three weeks to appear. When the water recedes, prune damaged limbs, making clean cuts. Perform a soil test to determine mineral levels, then add only the nutrients that are lacking.

Oozing through bark

Oozing or bleeding bark can be a sign of fungal infection or insect infestation. Sometimes, a tree with a healthy immune system will heal itself; sometimes the tree is too weak and needs the help of a certified arborist.

Get to know an arborist

Trees contribute to your home’s curb appeal, so it pays to establish a relationship with a certified arborist who will help you identify problems, stop disease from spreading, and preserve your property’s value.

Each spring, ask the arborist to inspect your trees to check for beginning problems, such as flaking bark, strange growths, and brittle branches.

A certified arborist can also:

Suggest appropriate pruning to keep trees healthy and looking good.
Brace trees for added support.
Spray trees to protect against insect infestation.
Identify trees that are in danger of falling, obstructing wires, or crowding and causing harm to other trees.
Recommend trees that should thrive in your yard.
Cooperative extension help

Many state cooperative extensions can help you diagnose what’s wrong with your trees based on pictures, or samples of leaves, bark, and insects.

Is Your Tree Going to Fall Over?

Is Your Tree Going to Fall Over?
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: April 5, 2013

Sometimes a valuable tree uproots without warning; but most often, your tree sends distress signals before it topples.

A mature tree can account for as much as 10% of your assessed property value, depending on your market. With that much at stake, you sure don’t want to have to yell, “Timber!”

Here’s how to tell if one of your trees is in danger of falling over, and what you can do about it.

How to Inspect Your Trees

No one knows your trees as well as you. So after they leaf out in the spring, leaf off in the fall, and after a big storm, walk around and look at your lovelies, top to bottom, noticing changes in foliage, branches, roots, and bark.

Inspect all sides of the tree, both up close and from a distance.
Check for cuts in or peeling bark.
Use binoculars to inspect the tree’s crown for dead wood and brown leaves.
Leaning Trees

Trees usually don’t grow straight, and a little lean is normal. But when your tree starts looking like the Tower of Pisa because of poor weight distribution or anchor root damage, it’s likely unstable. This is a good time to call an arborist.

Danger signs:

Cracked or heaving soil, especially on the side opposite the lean.
Exposed roots around the base of the tree.
Cures:

Prune branches to distribute weight better.
Brace the tree trunk with cables attached to stakes on opposite sides of the tree. Make sure to pad the tree before placing cables around tender bark.
Multiple Trunks

A tree with multiple trunks, or with splits in one trunk, can be unstable.

Danger signs:

V-shaped or U-shaped multiple trunks are weak points for mature trees. The connective wood where the trunks come together may lose strength — and be more likely to split — with age and when storms occur.
Cracks that extend deeply into or through the trunk.
Cures:

An arborist can stabilize split trunks by attaching cables between trunks and branches high in the tree. Cables won’t repair existing damage, but they will increase the safety, especially in strong winds, and extend the life of your tree.

This is dangerous work best left to experts, who will charge between $600 and $2,000; annual cable maintenance costs $100-$200.

Construction Destruction

Construction is tough on trees. Installing a driveway, putting on an addition, and digging up utility lines puts nearby trees under stress. Construction can damage shallow feeder roots, starving and destabilizing the tree. Construction equipment can scrape tree bark, providing a gateway set for disease and infestation.

Danger signs of construction stress (which can show up immediately or years later):

Damaged bark
Reduced, smaller, or no foliage
Premature autumn color
Mushrooms, conks, and carpenter ants at the base of the tree are a sign of decay and rot.
Cures:

Prevention is your best option. Before construction, set up a barricade around the tree; for each inch in diameter of the tree’s trunk, add a foot of protection. For example, an 8-inch-diameter tree needs a barricade with an 8-foot radius.

If the tree is damaged by construction, act fast:

Prune to reduce weight and remove damaged limbs.
Install cables or bracing rods.
Water deeply.
Aerate compacted soil around the root zone.
An Arborist to the Rescue

If you think your trees are changing, or you see any of the major warning signs above, they could be “hazard trees” — trees likely to fall and destroy what’s near them — like your house.

This is a good time to call a certified arborist. Get recommendations from friends or neighborhood list serves. Or, contact the International Society of Arboriculture, which maintains a list of certified arborists.

An arborist can help save your tree, or let you know if it’s beyond help. For example, bacteria or bugs could be harming your tree, and an arborist’s inspection ($150-$350) can diagnose which disease, trauma, or fungus is the culprit. An arborist also can determine if your tree is decaying internally, something that may not yet be obvious.

Aborists can either fix the problem, or calculate the risk of the tree falling and the likely objects it could damage. That calculation will help you decide if it’s worth spending money to keep the tree alive and upright, remove the tree, or just let nature take its course and topple the tree at will.

What About Lightning Risks?

If you live on the highest hill in the neighborhood, and own the tallest tree on the block, that’s pretty sweet. But it also increases your chances of a lightning strike.

If lightning strikes one side of a tree, your tree might close the wound and live its life. But if a bolt travels through the trunk, exploding wood and bark and damaging roots, it might be lights out.

To protect trees from lightning, an arborist can ground a tree with a copper cable system that extends from near the top of major trunks down to copper ground rods. These systems can cost $1,500, and may not be worth the money to protect a tree you could replace for $150.

Speaking of lightning, here’s how to save trees from storm damage.

And if you’re thinking of planting a tree, you might want to avoid one of these trees. HouseLogic readers told us which trees they love to hate.

How to Properly Care for Trees

How to Properly Care for Trees
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: June 13, 2013

When trees fail to thrive, they (and you) have a problem. Here are tips on how to care for your trees to prevent troubles.

Unless our trees have problems, we don’t fuss about them. So long as they’re green, leafy, flowery, and fruity, we let them be.

But when trees fail to leaf out in spring or drop the leaves they have; when foliage turns brown before autumn; when trees lean precariously or branches die; then suddenly our trees become the center of attention.

What’s wrong? The likely culprit is human error. Trees often get sick because they haven’t been planted and cared for properly.

The good news: It’s pretty easy to give your trees the care they need to stay healthy and fight off diseases. Here are the most common errors and how to avoid them:

Improper Pruning

Improper pruning can destabilize a tree, encourage the spread of disease, and even make it fall over.

Signs of bad pruning include:

Tree is leaning more than usual.
Tree looks top- or bottom-heavy.
One tree is blocking the sun from another.
Tree is too big for its space.
Pruning cuts are jagged.
Do it right:

Pruning is as much art as science. A properly pruned tree looks balanced and beautiful; it feels comfortable — not squished into — its space; it lacks dead branches or ones that crisscross.
Pruning techniques — where and how — are specific to each species of tree. So before you make your first cut, consult a pruning manual.
Make sure your saws, loppers, and shears are clean and sharp to prevent disease.
Mulching Mayhem

Mulch helps protect trees (especially young ones) from stress and gives your yard great curb appeal. But more mulch is not necessarily better, and too little mulch does little to protect trees.

Signs of mulching mistakes:

Mulch piled up against the tree trunk, volcano style, which can cause trunk rot and encourage infestation and disease.
Mulch covering the tree’s root collar, where the trunk flares into the root system.
Exposed roots.
Do it right:

Begin mulching about 6 in. from the tree base, and extend the mulch to the end of the tree’s drip line just beneath the end of the tree canopy. Start with 1 in. of mulch toward the base, building up to no more than 4 inches at the end of the mulch circle.

Use mulch only from reputable sources, not strange mulch piles that may contain material from diseased trees. To save money, make your own mulch from healthy lawn clippings, shredded leaves, branches, and bark.

Fertilizer Frenzy

A tree planted in a sunny location with good soil and covered with organic matter doesn’t need extra fertilizer: it makes its own food through photosynthesis.

Still, many homeowners mistakenly think their trees need an annual dose of fertilizer that adds minerals and nutrients to the soil. In fact, the opposite is true. Over-fertilizing can poison a tree’s root system, cause excessive and weak growth, and pollute watersheds.

Signs of over-fertilizing:

Small or yellow foliage.
Dead branches.
Reduced growth.
Salts on soil surface.
Do it right:

Many ailments — infestation, compacted soil, trauma, and nutrient deficiency — can cause a tree to show the same symptoms of over-fertilizing. So before you add fertilizer, test your soil to determine which, if any, nutrients your tree lacks. A good time to test soil is either before you plant, or every 3 years or so after planting.

Keep Your Home Sale from Falling Apart

Keep Your Home Sale from Falling Apart
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: March 30, 2010

After finding a buyer, all you have to do to make it to closing is to avoid these five traps.

Finding a buyer for your home is just the first step on the homeselling path. Tread carefully in the weeks ahead because if you make one of these common seller mistakes, your deal may not close.

Mistake #1: Ignore contingencies
If your contract requires you to do something before the sale, do it. If the buyers make the sale contingent on certain repairs, don’t do cheap patch-jobs and expect the buyers not to notice the fixes weren’t done properly.

Mistake #2: Don’t bother to fix things that break
The last thing any seller needs is for the buyers to notice on the pre-closing walk-through that the home isn’t in the same condition as when they made their offer. When things fall apart in a home about to be purchased, sellers must make the repairs. If the furnace fails, get a professional to fix it, and inform the buyers that the work was done. When you fail to maintain the home, the buyers may lose confidence in your integrity and the condition of the home and back out of the sale.

Mistake #3: Get lax about deadlines
Treat deadlines as sacrosanct. If you have three days to accept or reject the home inspection, make your decision within three days. If you’re selling, move out a few days early, so you can turn over the keys at closing.

Mistake #4: Refuse to negotiate any further
Once you’ve negotiated a price, it’s natural to calculate how much you’ll walk away with from the closing table. However, problems uncovered during inspections will have to be fixed. The appraisal may come in at a price below what the buyers offered to pay. Be prepared to negotiate with the buyers over these bottom-line-influencing issues.

Mistake #5: Hide liens from buyers
Did you neglect to mention that Uncle Sam has placed a tax lien on your home or you owe six months of homeowners association fees? The title search is going to turn up any liens filed on your house. To sell your house, you have to pay off the lien (or get the borrower to agree to pay it off). If you can do that with the sales proceeds, great. If not, the sale isn’t going to close.

6 Reasons to Reduce Your Home Price

6 Reasons to Reduce Your Home Price
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: March 19, 2010

While you’d like to get the best price for your home, consider our six reasons to reduce your home price.

Home not selling? That could happen for a number of reasons you can’t control, like a unique home layout or having one of the few homes in the neighborhood without a garage. There is one factor you can control: your home price.

These six signs may be telling you it’s time to lower your price.

1. You’re drawing few lookers
You get the most interest in your home right after you put it on the market because buyers want to catch a great new home before anybody else takes it. If your real estate agent reports there have been fewer buyers calling about and asking to tour your home than there have been for other homes in your area, that may be a sign buyers think it’s overpriced and are waiting for the price to fall before viewing it.

2. You’re drawing lots of lookers but have no offers
If you’ve had 30 sets of potential buyers come through your home and not a single one has made an offer, something is off. What are other agents telling your agent about your home? An overly high price may be discouraging buyers from making an offer.

3. Your home’s been on the market longer than similar homes
Ask your real estate agent about the average number of days it takes to sell a home in your market. If the answer is 30 and you’re pushing 45, your price may be affecting buyer interest. When a home sits on the market, buyers can begin to wonder if there’s something wrong with it, which can delay a sale even further. At least consider lowering your asking price.

4. You have a deadline
If you’ve got to sell soon because of a job transfer or you’ve already purchased another home, it may be necessary to generate buyer interest by dropping your price so your home is a little lower priced than comparable homes in your area. Remember: It’s not how much money you need that determines the sale price of your home, it’s how much money a buyer is willing to spend.

5. You can’t make upgrades
Maybe you’re plum out of cash and don’t have the funds to put fresh paint on the walls, clean the carpets, and add curb appeal. But the feedback your agent is reporting from buyers is that your home isn’t as well-appointed as similarly priced homes. When your home has been on the market longer than comparable homes in better condition, it’s time to accept that buyers expect to pay less for a home that doesn’t show as well as others.

6. The competition has changed
If weeks go by with no offers, continue to check out the competition. What have comparable homes sold for and what’s still on the market? What new listings have been added since you listed your home for sale? If comparable home sales or new listings show your price is too steep, consider a price reduction.

Open House Timeline: Countdown to a Successful Sale

Open House Timeline: Countdown to a Successful Sale
By: Dona DeZube

Published: May 6, 2011

An inviting open house can put your home on buyers’ short lists.

Get ready for your open house—stress-free—by starting early and breaking down your to-do list into manageable chunks. Use this timeline of 35 tips and your house will stand out from the competition on open house day.

Four weeks before the open house
Ask your parents to babysit the kids the weekend of the open house. Then book a reservation for your pet with the dog sitter or at the kennel. Having everyone out of the house on the day of will help you keep your home tidy and smelling fresh. Plus, no dogs and no kids equal more time for last-minute prep.
Line up a contractor to take care of maintence issues your REALTOR® has asked you to fix, like leaking faucets, sagging gutters, or dings in the walls.
De-clutter every room (even if you already de-cluttered once before). Don’t hide your stuff in the closet—buyers will open doors to size up closet space. Store your off-season clothes, sports equipment, and toys somewhere else.
Book carpet cleaners for a few days before the open house and a house cleaning service for the day before. Otherwise, make sure to leave time to do these things yourself a couple of days before.
Three weeks before the open house
Buy fluffy white towels to create a spa-like feel in the bathrooms.
Buy a front door mat to give a good first impression.
Designate a shoebox for each bathroom to stow away personal items the day of the open house.
Two weeks before the open house
Clean the light fixtures, ceiling fans, light switches, and around door knobs. A spic-and-span house makes buyers feel like they can move right in.
Power-wash the house, deck, sidewalk, and driveway.
One week before the open house
Make sure potential buyers can get up close and personal with your furnace, air-conditioning unit, and appliances. They’ll want to read any maintenance and manufacturer’s stickers to see how old everything is.
Clean the inside of appliances and de-clutter kitchen cabinets and drawers and the pantry. Buyers will open cabinet doors and drawers. If yours are stuffed to the gills, buyers will think your kitchen lacks enough storage space.
Put out the new door mat to break it in. It’ll look nice, but not too obviously new for the open house.
Week of the open house
Buy ready-made cookie dough and disposable aluminum cookie sheets so you don’t have to take time for clean up after baking (you can recycle the pans after use). Nothing says “home” like the smell of freshly baked cookies.
Buy a bag of apples or lemons to display in a pretty bowl.
Let your REALTOR® know if you’re running low on sales brochures explaining the features of your house.
Clean the windows to let in the most light possible.
Mow the lawn two days before the open house. Mowing the morning of the open house can peeve house hunters with allergies.
Day before the open house
Make sure your REALTOR® puts up plenty of open-house signs pointing in the right direction and located where drivers will see them. If she can’t get to it on the Friday before a Sunday open house, offer to do it yourself.
Put away yard clutter like hoses, toys, or pet water bowls.
Lay fresh logs in the fireplace.
Day of the open house
Put checkbooks, kids’ piggybanks, jewelry, prescription drugs, bank statements, and other valuables in the trunk of your car, at a neighbor’s house, or in your safe. It’s rare, but thefts do happen at open houses.
Set the dining room table for a special-occasion dinner. In the backyard, uncover the barbeque and set the patio table for a picnic to show buyers how elegantly and simply they can entertain once they move in.
Check any play equipment for spider webs or insect invasions. A kid screaming about spiders won’t endear buyers to your home.
Clean the fingerprints off the storm door. First impressions count.
Put up Post-It notes around the house to highlight great features like tilt-in windows or a recently updated appliance.
Remove shampoo, soap, toothbrushes, and other personal items from the bathtub, shower, and sinks in all the bathrooms. Store them in a shoebox under the sink. Removing personal items makes it easier for buyers to see themselves living in your house.
Stow away all kitchen countertop appliances.
One hour before the open house
Bake the ready-to-bake cookies you bought earlier this week. Put them on a nice platter for your open house guests to eat with a note that says: “Help yourself!”
Hang the new towels in the bathrooms.
Put your bowl of apples or lemons on the kitchen table or bar counter.
Pick up and put away any throw rugs, like the bath mats. They’re a trip hazard.
15 minutes before the open house
Open all the curtains and blinds and turn on the lights in the house. Buyers like bright homes.
Light fireplace logs (if it’s winter).
Didn’t get those cookies baked? Brew a pot of coffee to make the house smell inviting.
During the open house
Get out of the house and let your REALTOR® sell it! Potential buyers will be uncomfortable discussing your home if you’re loitering during the open house. Take advantage of your child- and pet-free hours by treating yourself to something you enjoy–a few extra hours at the gym, a trip to the bookstore, or a manicure.

7 Tips for Staging Your Home

7 Tips for Staging Your Home
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: March 19, 2010

Make your home warm and inviting to boost your home’s value and speed up the sale process.

The first step to getting buyers to make an offer on your home is to impress them with its appearance so they begin to envision themselves living there. Here are seven tips for making your home look bigger, brighter, and more desirable.

1. Start with a clean slate.
Before you can worry about where to place furniture and which wall hanging should go where, each room in your home must be spotless. Do a thorough cleaning right down to the nitpicky details like wiping down light switch covers. Deep clean and deodorize carpets and window coverings.

2. Stow away your clutter.
It’s harder for buyers to picture themselves in your home when they’re looking at your family photos, collectibles, and knickknacks. Pack up all your personal decorations. However, don’t make spaces like mantles and coffee and end tables barren. Leave three items of varying heights on each surface, suggests Barb Schwarz of Staged Homes in Concord, Pa. For example, place a lamp, a small plant, and a book on an end table.

3. Scale back on your furniture.
When a room is packed with furniture, it looks smaller, which will make buyers think your home is less valuable than it is. Make sure buyers appreciate the size of each room by removing one or two pieces of furniture. If you have an eat-in dining area, using a small table and chair set makes the area seem bigger.

4. Rethink your furniture placement.
Highlight the flow of your rooms by arranging the furniture to guide buyers from one room to another. In each room, create a focal point on the farthest wall from the doorway and arrange the other pieces of furniture in a triangle around the focal point, advises Schwarz. In the bedroom, the bed should be the focal point. In the living room, it may be the fireplace, and your couch and sofa can form the triangle in front of it.

5. Add color to brighten your rooms.
Brush on a fresh coat of warm, neutral-color paint in each room. Ask your real estate agent for help choosing the right shade. Then accessorize. Adding a vibrant afghan, throw, or accent pillows for the couch will jazz up a muted living room, as will a healthy plant or a bright vase on your mantle. High-wattage bulbs in your light fixtures will also brighten up rooms and basements.

6. Set the scene.
Lay logs in the fireplace, and set your dining room table with dishes and a centerpiece of fresh fruit or flowers. Create other vignettes throughout the home — such as a chess game in progress — to help buyers envision living there. Replace heavy curtains with sheer ones that let in more light.

Make your bathrooms feel luxurious by adding a new shower curtain, towels, and fancy guest soaps (after you put all your personal toiletry items are out of sight). Judiciously add subtle potpourri, scented candles, or boil water with a bit of vanilla mixed in. If you have pets, clean bedding frequently and spray an odor remover before each showing.

7. Make the entrance grand.
Mow your lawn and trim your hedges, and turn on the sprinklers for 30 minutes before showings to make your lawn sparkle. If flowers or plants don’t surround your home’s entrance, add a pot of bright flowers. Top it all off by buying a new doormat and adding a seasonal wreath to your front door.

5 Tips to Prepare Your Home for Sale

5 Tips to Prepare Your Home for Sale
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: February 10, 2010

Working to get your home ship-shape for showings will increase its value and shorten your sales time.

Many buyers today want move-in-ready homes and will quickly eliminate an otherwise great home by focusing on a few visible flaws. Unless your home shines, you may endure showing after showing and open house after open house—and end up with a lower sales price. Before the first prospect walks through your door, consider some smart options for casting your home in its best light.

1. Have a home inspection
Be proactive by arranging for a pre-sale home inspection. For $250 to $400, an inspector will warn you about troubles that could make potential buyers balk. Make repairs before putting your home on the market. In some states, you may have to disclose what the inspection turns up.

2. Get replacement estimates
If your home inspection uncovers necessary repairs you can’t fund, get estimates for the work. The figures will help buyers determine if they can afford the home and the repairs. Also hunt down warranties, guarantees, and user manuals for your furnace, washer and dryer, dishwasher, and any other items you expect to remain with the house.

3. Make minor repairs
Not every repair costs a bundle. Fix as many small problems—sticky doors, torn screens, cracked caulking, dripping faucets—as you can. These may seem trivial, but they’ll give buyers the impression your house isn’t well maintained.

4. Clear the clutter
Clear your kitchen counters of just about everything. Clean your closets by packing up little-used items like out-of-season clothes and old toys. Install closet organizers to maximize space. Put at least one-third of your furniture in storage, especially large pieces, such as entertainment centers and big televisions. Pack up family photos, knickknacks, and wall hangings to depersonalize your home. Store the items you’ve packed offsite or in boxes neatly arranged in your garage or basement.

5. Do a thorough cleaning
A clean house makes a strong first impression that your home has been well cared for. If you can afford it, consider hiring a cleaning service.

If not, wash windows and leave them open to air out your rooms. Clean carpeting and drapes to eliminate cooking odors, smoke, and pet smells. Wash light fixtures and baseboards, mop and wax floors, and give your stove and refrigerator a thorough once-over.

Pay attention to details, too. Wash fingerprints from light switch plates, clean inside the cabinets, and polish doorknobs. Don’t forget to clean your garage, too.

6 Home Deduction Traps and How to Avoid Them

6 Home Deduction Traps and How to Avoid Them
By: Barbara Eisner Bayer

Published: January 30, 2014

Get an “A” on your Schedule A form: Dodge these tax deduction pitfalls to save time, money, and an IRS investigation.

Trap #1: Line 6 – Real estate taxes

Your monthly mortgage payment often includes money for a tax escrow, from which the lender pays your local real estate taxes.

The money you send the bank may be more than what the bank pays for your taxes, says Julian Block, a tax attorney and author of Julian Block’s Home Seller’s Guide to Tax Savings. That will lead you to putting the wrong number on Schedule A.

Example:

Your monthly payment to the lender: $2,000 for mortgage + $500 escrow for taxes
Your annual property tax bill: $5,500
Now do the math:

Your bank received $6,000 for real estate taxes, but only paid $5,500. It may keep the extra $500 to apply to the next tax bill or refund it to you at some point, but meanwhile, you’re making a mistake if you enter $6,000 on Schedule A.
Instead, take the number from Form 1098—which your bank sends you each year—that shows the actual taxes paid.
Trap #2: Line 6 – Tax calculations for recent buyers and sellers

If you bought or sold a home in the middle of the year, figuring out what to put on line 6 of your Schedule A Form is tricky.

Don’t simply enter the number from your property tax bill on line 6 as you would if you owned the house the whole year. If you bought or sold a house in midyear, you should instead use the property tax amount listed on your HUD-1 closing statement, says Phil Marti, a retired IRS official.

Here’s why: Generally, depending on the local tax cycle, either the seller gives the buyer money to pay the taxes when they come due or, if the seller has already paid taxes, the buyer reimburses the seller at closing. Those taxes are deductible that year, but won’t be reflected on your property tax bill.

Trap #3: Line 10 – Properly deducting points

You can deduct points paid on a refinance, but not all at once, says David Sands, a CPA with Buchbinder Tunick & Co LLP. Rather, you deduct them over the life of your loan. So if you paid $1,000 in points for a 10-year refinance, you’re entitled to deduct only $100 per year on your Schedule A Form.

Trap #4: Line 10 – HELOC limits
If you took out a home equity line of credit (HELOC), you can generally deduct the interest on it only up to $100,000 of debt each year, says Matthew Lender, a CPA with EisnerLubin LLP.

For example, if you have a HELOC for $200,000, the bank will send you Form 1098 for interest paid on $200,000. But you can deduct only the interest paid on $100,000. If you just pull the number off Form 1098, you’ll deduct more than you’re entitled to.

Trap #5: Line 13 – Private mortgage insurance

You can deduct PMI on your Schedule A Form, as long as you started paying the insurance after Dec. 31, 2006. Congress renewed the PMI deduction for 2012 and 2013 for people making less than $110,000.

Since you’re thinking about it, this is also a good time to review your PMI: You might be able to cancel your PMI altogether because your home value has risen and the amount your owe on your mortgage has gone down.

Trap #6: Line 20 – Casualty and theft losses

You can deduct part or all of losses caused by theft, vandalism, fire, or similar causes, as well as corrosive drywall, but the process isn’t always obvious or simple:

Only deduct losses that are greater than 10% of your adjusted gross income and exceed $100 (line 38 of Form 1040).
Fill out Form 4684, which involves complex calculations for the cost basis and fair market value. This form gives you the number you need for line 20.
Bottom line on line 20: If you’ve got extensive losses, it’s best to consult a tax pro. “I wouldn’t do it myself, and I’ve been dealing with taxes for 40 years,” says former IRS official Marti.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.

How to Claim Your Energy Tax Credits

How to Claim Your Energy Tax Credits
By: Donna Fuscaldo

Published: January 30, 2014

Energy tax credits on select improvements available through the end of tax year 2013.

If you upgraded one or more of the following systems last year, you may be eligible to take a tax credit — up to $500 — on your return.

Biomass stoves
Heating, ventilation, air conditioning
Insulation
Roofs (metal and asphalt)
Water heaters (non-solar)
Windows, doors, and skylights
The energy tax credits are small, but at least a credit is better than a deduction:

Deductions just reduce your taxable income.
With a credit, you get a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax liability: If you get the $500 credit, you pay $500 less in taxes.
Limits on IRS energy tax credits besides $500 max

Credit only extends to 10% of the cost (not the 30% of yesteryear), so you have to spend $5,000 to get $500.
$500 is a lifetime limit. If you pocketed $500 or more in past years combined, you’re not entitled to any more money for energy-efficient improvements in the above categories. But if you took $300 back then, for example, you can get up to $200 now.
With some systems, your cap is even lower than $500.
$500 is the max for all qualified improvements combined.
Certain systems capped below $500

No matter how much you spend on some approved items, you’ll never get the $500 credit — though you could combine some of these:

System Cap
New windows $200 max (and no, not per window—overall)
Advanced main air-circulating fan $50 max
Qualified natural gas, propane, or oil furnace or hot water boiler $150 max
Approved electric and geothermal heat pumps; central air-conditioning systems; and natural gas, propane, or oil water heaters $300 max

And not all products are created equal in the feds’ eyes. Improvements have to meet IRS energy-efficiency standards to qualify for the tax credit. In the case of boilers and furnaces, they have to meet the 95 AFUE standard. EnergyStar.gov has the details.

Tax credits cover installation — sometimes

Rule of thumb: If installation is either particularly difficult or critical to safe functioning, the credit will cover labor. Otherwise, not. (Yes, you’d have to be pretty handy to install your own windows and roof, but the feds put these squarely in the “not covered” category.)

Installation covered for:

Biomass stoves
HVAC
Non-solar water heaters
Installation not covered for:

Insulation
Roofs
Windows, doors, and skylights
How to claim the energy tax credit

Determine if the system you installed is eligible for the credits. Go to Energy Star’s website for detailed descriptions of what’s covered; then talk to your vendor.
Save system receipts and manufacturer certifications. You’ll need them if the IRS asks for proof.
File IRS Form 5695 with the rest of your tax forms.
This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but isn’t intended to be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice, and remember that tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

How to Get Your PMI Deduction

How to Get Your PMI Deduction
By: Richard Koreto

Published: February 14, 2013

Deducting PMI premiums can save you hundreds of dollars. Here’s what you need to know to get the deduction.

Do You Qualify for the Deduction?

Just because you have PMI premiums doesn’t mean you can deduct them. Here’s what qualifies you:

You got your loan in 2007 or later.
Your mortgage is for your primary residence or a second home that’s not a rental property.
Your adjusted gross income is no more than $109,000. The deduction begins to phase out once your adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds $100,000 ($50,000 for married filing separately) and disappears entirely at an AGI of more than $109,000 ($54,500 for married filing separately).
How to File for the PMI Deduction

You’ll have to itemize and use Schedule A.

If you make no more than $100,000 a year, put the amount of insurance premiums you paid last year on Line 13. Don’t include pre-paid premiums for this year. You’re doing taxes based on last year’s income and expenses, so this year’s premiums don’t count even if you pre-paid them last year. (More about deducting prepaid and upfront mortgage insurance here.)

If your adjusted gross income is between $100,000 and $109,000, use the worksheet included with Schedule A to figure out how much you get to deduct.

How Much Can You Save?

It depends on how much you’re paying. A good rule of thumb industry experts use: You’ll pay $50 a month in premiums for every $100,000 of financing. Keep in mind, though, that the amount of the down payment, type of loan, and lender requirements can all affect your actual cost.

For example, if you put 5% down on a $200,000 house, you’ll pay monthly PMI premiums of about $125. Increase your down payment to 10%, and you’ll pay less than $80 a month.

So how does this affect your tax bill? Let’s say your adjusted gross income is $100,000. You bought a $200,000 house in 2012, put down 5%, and paid $1,500 in PMI premiums ($125 times 12 months). The deduction for PMI cuts your taxable income by $1,500. If you’re in the 15% tax bracket, you save $225 on your tax bill ($1,500 x 15%), and if you are in the 25% tax bracket, you save $375 ($1,500 x 25%).

The Best Savings of All: Canceling Your PMI

Although the tax deduction is nice — at least while it lasts — getting rid of PMI altogether is even nicer.

You can cancel your PMI when you have 20% equity in your home. Lenders are required to automatically cancel it once you have 22% equity. If you think you’re at that threshold, find out more about canceling your PMI.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied on as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax pro for such advice; tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

9 Easy Mistakes Homeowners Make on Their Taxes

9 Easy Mistakes Homeowners Make on Their Taxes
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: January 30, 2014

Don’t rouse the IRS or pay more taxes than necessary — know the score on each home tax deduction and credit.

Sin #1: Deducting the wrong year for property taxes

You take a tax deduction for property taxes in the year you (or the holder of your escrow account) actually paid them. Some taxing authorities work a year behind — that is, you’re not billed for 2013 property taxes until 2014. But that’s irrelevant to the feds.

Enter on your federal forms whatever amount you actually paid in 2013, no matter what the date is on your tax bill. Dave Hampton, CPA, tax manager at the Cincinnati accounting firm of Burke & Schindler, has seen home owners confuse payments for different years and claim the incorrect amount.

Sin #2: Confusing escrow amount for actual taxes paid

If your lender escrows funds to pay your property taxes, don’t just deduct the amount escrowed, says Bob Meighan, CPA and vice president at TurboTax in San Diego. The regular amount you pay into your escrow account each month to cover property taxes is probably a little more or a little less than your property tax bill. Your lender will adjust the amount every year or so to realign the two.

For example, your tax bill might be $1,200, but your lender may have collected $1,100 or $1,300 in escrow over the year. Deduct only $1,200. Your lender will send you an official statement listing the actual taxes paid. Use that. Don’t just add up 12 months of escrow property tax payments.

Sin #3: Deducting points paid to refinance

Deduct points you paid your lender to secure your mortgage in full for the year you bought your home. However, when you refinance, says Meighan, you must deduct points over the life of your new loan. If you paid $2,000 in points to refinance into a 15-year mortgage, your tax deduction is $133 per year.

Sin #4: Misjudging the home office tax deduction

The deduction is complicated, often doesn’t amount to much of a deduction, has to be recaptured if you turn a profit when you sell your home, and can pique the IRS’s interest in your return. But there’s good news – there’s a new simplified home office deduction option if you don’t want to claim actual costs. If you’re eligible, you can instead claim $5 per sq. ft. up to 300 feet, or $1,500.

Sin #5: Failing to repay the first-time home buyer tax credit

If you used the original home buyer tax credit in 2008, you must repay 1/15th of the credit over 15 years. If you used the tax credit in 2009 or 2010 and then sold your house or stopped using it as your primary residence, within 36 months of the purchase date, you also have to pay back the credit.

The IRS has a tool you can use to help figure out what you owe.

Sin #6: Failing to track home-related expenses

If the IRS comes a-knockin’, don’t be scrambling to compile your records. Many people forget to track home office and home improvement expenses, says Meighan. File away documents as you go. For example, save each manufacturer’s certification statement for energy tax credits and lender or government statements to confirm property taxes paid.

Sin #7: Forgetting to keep track of capital gains

If you sold your main home last year, don’t forget to pay capital gains taxes on any profit. You can exclude $250,000 (or $500,000 if you’re a married couple) of any profits from taxes. So if your cost basis for your home is $100,000 (what you paid for it plus any improvements) and you sold it for $400,000, your capital gains are $300,000. If you’re single, you owe taxes on $50,000 of gains. However, there are minimum time limits for holding property to take advantage of the exclusions, and other details. Consult IRS Publication 523.

Sin #8: Filing incorrectly for energy tax credits

If you made any eligible improvements in 2013, such as installing energy-efficient windows and doors, you may be able to take a 10% tax credit (up to $500; with some systems your cap is even lower than $500). But keep in mind, it’s a lifetime credit. If you claimed the credit in any recent years, you’re done. Fill out Form 5695.

The first part of the form, which covers systems eligible for a larger tax credit through 2016, such as geothermal heat pumps, can be complex and involves crosschecking with half a dozen other IRS forms. Read the instructions carefully.

Sin #9: Claiming too much for the mortgage interest tax deduction

Taxpayers are allowed to deduct mortgage interest on home acquisition debt up to $1 million, plus they can also deduct up to $100,000 in home equity debt.

This article was original published in January 2011.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.

What You Should Know About Your Home and Your 2013 Taxes

What You Should Know About Your Home and Your 2013 Taxes
By: Dona DeZube

Published: December 12, 2013

It’s the last year for three sweet home tax benefits, but the first for a way simpler home office deduction.

These days few things start a fight on Capitol Hill faster than taxes. Despite the fact that three important tax benefits used by millions of American homeowners are days from expiring, Congress is unlikely to do anything to re-up them any time soon.

So if you’re eligible, tax year 2013 is possibly the last time to claim the private mortgage insurance (PMI) deduction, the energy tax credit, and debt forgiveness benefit, all of which all expire on Dec. 31, 2013.

At least there’s one piece of good news for homeowners: If you have a home office, there’s a new, simpler option for calculating the home office deduction for which you may qualify on your 2013 taxes.

Meanwhile, here’s what you need to know about those expiring benefits as you ready your taxes:

PMI Deduction

This tax rule lets you deduct the cost of private mortgage insurance, which is what you pay your lender each month if you put down less than 20% on a home. PMI protects the lender if you default on the home loan. Your deduction could amount to a couple hundred dollars depending on your tax bracket and other factors.

Find out if you qualify for and how to take the PMI deduction.

Energy-Efficiency Upgrades

This sweet little tax credit lets you offset what you owe the IRS dollar-for-dollar for up to 10% of the amount you spent on certain home energy-efficiency upgrades, from insulation to water heaters. On the downside, the credit is capped at $500 (less in some cases). But on the bright side, the right improvement could lower your utility bills indefinitely.

Related: Take back your energy bills with these high-ROI energy-efficiency practices.

Debt Forgiveness

When you go through a short sale, foreclosure, or deed-in-lieu, your lender typically lets you off the hook for some or all of what you owe on your mortgage.

That forgiven mortgage debt is income, on which you’d typically have to pay income tax.

Suppose you’re in financial distress and your lender agrees to let you short-sell your home, say for $50,000 less than you owe on the mortgage, and forgive you for the balance. Without the protection of the Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Act, you’ll owe income tax on that $50,000.

It’s likely if you had the money to pay income tax on $50,000, you’d have used it to pay your mortgage in the first place.

New Simplified Option for the Home Office Deduction

This may be the last year for the benefits above, but a new one kicks in for the 2013 tax year. If you work from home, you may qualify to use a new, simplified option for claiming the home office deduction when you file your 2013 taxes.

How much simpler is it? It lets you claim $5 per sq. ft. for up to 300 sq. ft. instead of having to compute the actual expenses of your home office using a 43-line form. To calculate the square footage of your office, just multiply the length of two walls. For example, an 8-by-10-foot room is 80 sq. ft. And at $5 per, that’s $400.

Although using the simplified option is obviously easier, the basic requirements for claiming the home office deduction haven’t changed. Your home office still must be used for business purposes:

Exclusively, and
On a regular basis.
Related: Which Home Office Set-Ups Qualify for a Deduction?

Why Might the Tax Benefits Not Be Renewed?

Although the expiring tax benefits were renewed retroactively in past years, that may not happen in 2014 because many in Congress would like to see comprehensive tax reform rather than scattershot renewals of individual provisions. This could delay a decision on the homeownership tax benefits until the big picture budget and tax issues are resolved.

So if you can, enjoy them now!

5 Classy Kitchen Cabinet Updates for Under $100

5 Classy Kitchen Cabinet Updates for Under $100
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: October 23, 2012

You don’t have to spend a lot to give your tired cabinets a lift. These five inexpensive cabinet updates will brighten the mood of your entire kitchen.

1. Handsome Hardware

Knobs and pulls are kitchen jewelry that can dress cabinets up. Note that cabinet hardware can get very fancy and expensive — costing $30 and up for a single ornate knob. But you’ll get a huge bang for a few bucks by buying 10-packs of simple, contemporary hardware at big box stores for less than $20 (that’s $2 a knob!).

To save time and money, replace 1-hole hardware with 1-hole upgrades; 2-hole with 2-hole. That way, you won’t need to drill or patch.

2. Pretty in Paint

Nothing updates old cabinets as quickly as fresh coat of paint.

Painting cabinets yourself is cost-effective — a few gallons of paint, sandpaper, cleaner — but the process is time-intensive. You can paint most cabinet surfaces, but proper prep is key to success. For laminate and melamine finishes, be sure to rough up the surface with 150-grit sandpaper, and apply a good bonding primer before topping it off with the color of your choice.

If you’re going to dive into this DIY project, keep these tips in mind:

Lighter-colored paints will make your kitchen seem bigger.
Don’t skip on prep. Thoroughly clean cabinet doors and boxes to remove grease and dried-on gunk; fill holes or nicks with wood putty, then sand.
Sand each coat of paint so your final coat will look perfect.
Lay doors flat to paint, and wait until each side is completely dry before painting the other side. It will take more time, but you’ll avoid ugly drip marks.

3. Moulding Miracles

Crown moulding adds a touch of class to the tops of tired cabinets for less than you’d expect. Three-inch, primed composite crown moulding with a dentil design costs as little as $20 for 8 ft.

It’s easiest to add moulding when you’re repainting cabinets; that way you’ll get a perfect match.

If you order matching wood moulding from your cabinet’s manufacturer, be prepared for a color difference between new moulding and older cabinets. Natural wood cabinets (especially cherry) will darken with age.

For a look at other crown moulding miracles, take a look at this slideshow.

4. Fancy Glass

Change the glass insert in a cabinet door, and you change the look and feel of your kitchen.

“Decorative glass takes stock cabinets and gives them a custom look,” says Anthony Longo, who sells glass panels.

Not all cabinet doors are candidates for a changeover, however. You’ll need the kind of door with a removable panel. Check the backs of your doors to see if the center panel can be taken out.

Types of glass inserts are limitless — contemporary, bubbles, raindrops on water, antique — and cost $7-$9 sq. ft. So, you can change the look of a 2-door, 30 x 24-inch cabinet (about 5 sq. ft. of glass) for between $35 and $45.

5. Task Lighting

Once, the only way to shed light on kitchen tasks was by hard-wiring under-cabinet lights — an expensive and messy task. But you can add lighting under and inside cabinets with battery powered, peel-and-stick LED lights.

Of course, battery-run lights are not as bright as their hard-wired cousins. But at about $8 each, you can afford to buy several and scatter them around. LED light bulbs last for thousands of hours of use.

The Best Choices for Kitchen Flooring

The Best Choices for Kitchen Flooring
By: John Riha

Published: May 15, 2013

With so many options to choose from, it’s hard to know what’s best for kitchens. So we’ve narrowed down the choices for you.

We’ve taken out the guesswork and chosen four flooring types that make the most sense for kitchens, and we explain why they are ideal.

Hardwood Flooring is Ideal When:

You don’t want your kitchen to look dated over time.
You have an open floor plan.
You seek durability.
Hardwood flooring, with its unmatched warmth and visual appeal, is a great choice if you want to create a look that never really goes out of style, giving you a good return on investment if you ever sell your home.

Also, if you have an open floor plan, hardwood works well in both kitchens and living areas. It creates a warm and unified look.

Hardwood is also:

Highly durable. It can withstand decades of use.
Low-maintenance.
Moisture-resistant if you choose a prefinished type.
Hardwood flooring is made in two ways: solid wood strips or engineered wood planks.

Engineered wood is the better choice for kitchens. It has a veneer of real wood backed by layers of less expensive plywood. This construction provides dimensional stability that makes the flooring less susceptible to movement caused by changes in humidity and temperature — common in kitchens.
Cost: $3 to $12 per sq. ft.
Installation: $5 to $12 per sq. ft., depending on the complexity of the job.
Vinyl Flooring is Ideal When:

You cook a lot.
You want the easiest-to-maintain floor.
You are on a tight budget.
Sheet vinyl belongs to a group of flooring products called resilient flooring, which is the softest flooring option. If you cook a lot, this cushiness makes it easier on your feet while easing muscle fatigue.

Also, sheet vinyl is much more forgiving if you (or someone in your family) is a bit of klutz who tends to drop things. You’ll have less breakage.

Plus, sheet vinyl flooring is a snap to clean up; it’s completely waterproof and stain-proof.

However, depending on the size and layout of your kitchen, you may have seams. Standard width for vinyl flooring is 12 feet. If your kitchen is wider than that, you’ll definitely have seams, which can let moisture into the subfloor and trap dirt if they aren’t tightly bonded.

On the upside, sheet vinyl requires no ongoing maintenance beyond sweeping and mopping.

 If the softness of vinyl flooring appeals to you most, you might opt for cushioned vinyl flooring, which is backed with a layer of foam (standard sheet vinyl uses felt backing).

Sounds good, but that extra cushiness makes it hard to create seams that stay tightly bonded over time. You may end up with seams that come apart, letting in moisture and trapping dirt.


Sheet vinyl comes in many colors and patterns. Thicker vinyl can feature a textured surface, and some types do an excellent job of mimicking the appearance of ceramic tile and real stone. Textured vinyl is a wise choice because it provides traction. Vinyl can be dangerously slippery when wet.

Vinyl flooring also has a wear layer that helps resist scratches and scuff marks. But it does eventually wear off. The best brands offer guarantees on the wear layer of 10 to15 years, and good quality vinyl should last 20 years.
Cost: $1 to $5 per sq. ft.
Installation: $1 to $2 per sq. ft.

Don’t confuse vinyl with linoleum. While linoleum is a similar product, it is not as durable, nor as soft. Its upside is its eco-friendliness.

Porcelain Tile is Ideal When:

You want the toughest flooring.
You like the look of stone.
You want low maintenance.
Porcelain flooring tile, a version of common ceramic tile, is the durability champ. It’s fired at high temperatures that produce an extremely hard, durable, stain-resistant tile that is impervious to moisture.

In fact, it’s so tough it can be used outdoors in virtually any climate. 

Like common ceramic tile, porcelain tile comes either unglazed or glazed. The unglazed versions take on the color of their clay mixture, so they have naturally earthy tones.

Glazed tiles have a glass-like coating that can be made in virtually any color, and can mimic the look and texture of real stone at a much lower cost than stone.

Make sure you choose porcelain tiles certified as slip-resistant by the Americans with Disabilities Act — the designation should be visible on product literature or packing materials.
Cost: $1 to $20 per sq. ft.
Installation: $5 to $10 per sq. ft.
Cork Flooring is Ideal When:

You want an eco-friendly choice.
You want a softer floor than wood or tile.
You want slip-resistance.
Cork is made from tree bark that’s harvested every eight to 10 years; it’s a sustainable material, meaning the bark grows back and can be harvested repeatedly.

Countries that produce cork are careful to regulate harvesting to ensure future supplies.

Cork has a unique cellular structure that’s waterproof and compressible, which makes it a comfortable, moisture-resistant choice. It comes in 12-inch-by-12-inch tiles and 1-foot-by-3-foot planks, each with a unique grain pattern of swirls and speckles.

The surface is naturally textured, which makes it slip-resistant.

But unlike other flooring options mentioned, cork floors need to be resealed every three to four years to help guard against scratches and prevent moisture from entering the seams between tiles.

Both natural wax and polyurethane are good sealers for cork. Choose water-based polyurethane that’s non-toxic or has low volatile organic compound content to keep it green.
Cost: $2 to $6 per sq. ft.
Installation: $5 to $10 per sq. ft.

Why Laminate Kitchen Countertops Deserve a Second Look

Why Laminate Kitchen Countertops Deserve a Second Look
By: Jan Soults Walker

Published: May 14, 2013

Laminate kitchen countertops offer durability and style at a price lower than any other material. It’s a worthy contender if you have a limited budget.

Shop around and you’ll find a nearly unlimited selection of richly colored solids, midcentury patterns, and enticing-to-touch textures. They mimic:

Earthy stone slabs, such as marble
Rusted metal
Butcher block and other wood
Fabric and leather
What is Laminate?

Laminates are made with layers of paper, including a decorative layer, and melamine resin. Generally, the thicker the product, the more durable and costly it’ll be. Higher-end laminates offer 10-year warranties. Fancy edge treatments — beveling, ogees, and bullnose — kick up the costs, too.

In the past, laminate kitchen countertops looked like poor copies of materials, such as wood and stone, because reproduction qualities were poor, and the finished product depended on a repeating pattern about 18 inches wide.

Today, advanced photographic technology creates laminates that look more like the real thing, and unique patterns can be up to 5 feet wide — wide enough to create an entire “granite” kitchen island with no repeating pattern.

Also these days, laminates are made with some percentage of recycled materials, such as FSC-certified wood — wood that’s harvested sustainably.

Quick Cost Comparison

In general, laminate kitchen countertops are your least expensive option. Compare the costs with other countertop materials, as shown for an average kitchen with 30 linear feet of countertops, installed:

Type Cost
Laminate $1,575
Ceramic tile $1,850
Solid surface $3,690
Concrete $5,310
Granite slab
$4,440
Carrera marble
$4,620

Will Laminate Last?

Thankfully, today’s laminates aren’t as prone to chipping and cracks as products from days gone by. However, laminate countertops still aren’t as long-lasting as other materials, such as stone and solid surfaces. Here’s why:

Easily scratched with knives.
Household cleaners with mild abrasives can dull the surface.
Acidic liquids can stain.
Laminates don’t stand up to heat, such as a pot with a hot bottom.
What to Shop For

Long warranty
Melamine resin wear layer strengthened with aluminum oxide (a hard, colorless, inorganic material that makes countertops more resistant to scratches).
Caring for Laminate Countertops

With proper care, a laminate kitchen countertop can last at least 10 to 20 years. Scratches and burns account for the demise of most laminate countertops. So:

Don’t use your countertop as a cutting board.
Use a trivet! Avoid laying hot pots and pans directly on a laminate countertop.
Clean counters with water and a non-abrasive household cleaner. Want green cleaning options?

How to Choose Stock Kitchen Cabinets

How to Choose Stock Kitchen Cabinets
By: Deborah R. Huso

Published: April 30, 2013

Buying stock cabinets for your kitchen remodel can definitely save you money. Here are some tips to help you make the right buying decision.

Stock cabinets save you time because you don’t have to wait for them to be built. And they save you money because you aren’t paying for customizations.

But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality. You just need to know what to look for.

What to Look For

Solid wood and plywood cabinets. They’ll give you better longevity and crisper details than pressed wood.
Walls at least ½-inch thick. They’re more sturdy.
Consistency of finish. Lesser quality cabinets often have irregular finishes and colors from one cabinet box to the next.
Full-extension hardware. It allows you to open drawers all the way and open doors almost 180 degrees to make access easier.
Dovetail joinery. Or a metal box. Drawer sides and backs that are stapled together won’t last as long.
Cost and Installation

The cost of quality stock cabinets for an average-sized kitchen generally runs $8,000 to $10,000. Semi-custom cabinets would cost about twice that. And full custom cabinets would cost even more.

There are some lower-cost stock alternatives, such as IKEA (as low as $2,500), but you’ll offset your savings with the hassle of difficult assembly — fine if you have the patience and skill.

But unless you’ve got professional building experience, actually installing kitchen cabinets isn’t a typical DIY job.

So carve out $100-$300 per cabinet (depending on labor rates in your area) to have them professionally installed.

The Drawbacks of Stock Cabinets

Finish and color choices are limited. The most likely options are painted white, natural wood, or stained maple and cherry.
Stock cabinets are only 36 inches tall. If you want taller cabinets, you’ll have to go semi-custom, which can take you up to 42 inches.
You could lose potential storage space. Filler strips are used to cover gaps created when the stock sizes don’t quite fill the space — whereas custom cabinets can be measured to take advantage of all space.
Extra details such as crown molding aren’t included. Mitered corners and furniture-style sides aren’t included either. However, you can add crown molding yourself later if you choose.
Warranties are limited. The industry standard is about 5 years, and they only cover product failure, not wear and tear.
Note: You’ll also need to choose hardware. But that can be a fun project to really personalize your kitchen.

7 Smart Strategies for Kitchen Remodeling

7 Smart Strategies for Kitchen Remodeling
By: John Riha

Published: May 30, 2013

Follow these seven strategies to get the most financial gain on your kitchen remodel.

A significant portion of kitchen remodeling costs may be recovered by the value the project brings to your home. Kitchen remodels in the $50,000 to $60,000 range recoup about 74% of the initial project cost at the home’s resale, according to recent data from Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value Report.

A minor kitchen remodel of about $19,000 does even better, returning more than 82% of your investment.

To maximize your return on investment, follow these seven strategies to keep you on budget and help you make smart choices.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan

Planning your kitchen remodel should take more time than the actual construction. If you plan well, the amount of time you’re inconvenienced by construction mayhem will be minimized. Plus, you’re more likely to stay on budget.

How much time should you spend planning? The National Kitchen and Bath Association recommends at least six months. That way, you won’t be tempted to change your mind during construction and create change orders, which will inflate construction costs and hurt your return on investment.

Some tips on planning:

Study your existing kitchen: How wide is the doorway into your kitchen? It’s a common mistake many homeowners make: Buying the extra-large fridge only to find they can’t get it in the doorway. To avoid mistakes like this, create a drawing of your kitchen with measurements for doorways, walkways, counters, etc. And don’t forget height, too.

Think about traffic patterns: Work aisles should be a minimum of 42 inches wide and at least 48 inches wide for households with multiple cooks.

Design with ergonomics in mind: Drawers or pull-out shelves in base cabinets; counter heights that can adjust up or down; a wall oven instead of a range: These are all features that make a kitchen accessible to everyone — and a pleasure to work in.

Related: Test Your Ergonomic Design Knowledge

Plan for the unforeseeable: Even if you’ve planned down to the number of nails you’ll need in your remodel, expect the unexpected. Build in a little leeway for completing the remodel. Want it done by Thanksgiving? Then plan to be done before Halloween.

Choose all your fixtures and materials before starting: Contractors will be able to make more accurate bids, and you’ll lessen the risk of delays because of back orders.

Don’t be afraid to seek help: A professional designer can simplify your kitchen remodel. Pros help make style decisions, foresee potential problems, and schedule contractors. Expect fees around $50 to $150 per hour, or 5% to 15% of the total cost of the project.

More tips on planning a kitchen remodel:

Keep the same footprint
Get real about appliances
Don’t underestimate the power of lighting
Be quality-conscious
Add storage, not space
Communicate clearly with your remodelers

2. Keep the Same Footprint
Nothing will drive up the cost of a remodel faster than changing the location of plumbing pipes and electrical outlets, and knocking down walls. This is usually where unforeseen problems occur.

So if possible, keep appliances, water fixtures, and walls in the same location. 

Not only will you save on demolition and reconstruction costs, you’ll cut the amount of dust and debris your project generates.

More tips on planning a kitchen remodel:

Plan, plan, plan
Get real about appliances
Don’t underestimate the power of lighting
Be quality-conscious
Add storage, not space
Communicate clearly with your remodelers

3. Get Real About Appliances
It’s easy to get carried away when planning your new kitchen. A six-burner commercial-grade range and luxury-brand refrigerator may make eye-catching centerpieces, but they may not fit your cooking needs or lifestyle.

Appliances are essentially tools used to cook and store food. Your kitchen remodel shouldn’t be about the tools, but the design and functionality of the entire kitchen.

So unless you’re an exceptional cook who cooks a lot, concentrate your dollars on long-term features that add value, such as cabinets and flooring.

Then choose appliances made by trusted brands that have high marks in online reviews and Consumer Reports.

More tips on planning a kitchen remodel:

Plan, plan, plan
Keep the same footprint
Don’t underestimate the power of lighting
Be quality-conscious
Add storage, not space
Communicate clearly with your remodelers

4. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Lighting
Lighting can make a world of difference in a kitchen. It can make it look larger and brighter. And it will help you work safely and efficiently. You should have two different types of lighting in your kitchen:

Task Lighting: Under-cabinet lighting should be on your must-do list, since cabinets create such dark work areas. And since you’re remodeling, there won’t be a better time to hard-wire your lights. (Here’s more about under-cabinet lights.) Plan for at least two fixtures per task area to eliminate shadows. Pendant lights are good for islands and other counters without low cabinets. Recessed lights and track lights work well over sinks and general prep areas with no cabinets overhead.

Ambient lighting: Flush-mounted ceiling fixtures, wall sconces, and track lights create overall lighting in your kitchen. Include dimmer switches to control intensity and mood.

Related: How to Choose the Best Bulb for the Job

More tips on planning a kitchen remodel:

Plan, plan, plan
Keep the same footprint
Get real about appliances
Be quality-conscious
Add storage, not space
Communicate clearly with your remodelers

5. Be Quality-Conscious
Functionality and durability should be top priorities during kitchen remodeling. Resist low-quality bargains, and choose products that combine low maintenance with long warranty periods. Solid-surface countertops, for instance, may cost a little more, but with the proper care, they’ll look great for a long time.

And if you’re planning on moving soon, products with substantial warranties are a selling advantage.

Related:

Kitchen Remodeling Decisions You’ll Never Regret

White: The Savvy and Chic Kitchen Color Choice

More tips on planning a kitchen remodel:

Plan, plan, plan
Keep the same footprint
Get real about appliances
Don’t underestimate the power of lighting
Add storage, not space
Communicate clearly with your remodelers

6. Add Storage, Not Space
Storage will never go out of style, but if you’re sticking with the same footprint, here are a couple of ideas to add more:

Install cabinets that reach the ceiling: They may cost more — and you might need a stepladder — but you’ll gain valuable storage space for Christmas platters and other once-a-year items. In addition, you won’t have to dust cabinet tops.

Hang it up: Mount small shelving units on unused wall areas and inside cabinet doors; hang stock pots and large skillets on a ceiling-mounted rack; and add hooks to the backs of closet doors for aprons, brooms, and mops.

Related: Storage Options that Pack More Space in Your Kitchen

More tips on planning a kitchen remodel:

Plan, plan, plan
Keep the same footprint
Get real about appliances
Don’t underestimate the power of lighting
Be quality-conscious
Communicate clearly with your remodelers

7. Communicate Clearly With Your Remodelers
Establishing a good rapport with your project manager or construction team is essential for staying on budget. To keep the sweetness in your project:

Drop by the project during work hours: Your presence broadcasts your commitment to quality.

Establish a communication routine: Hang a message board on site where you and the project manager can leave daily communiqués. Give your email address and cell phone number to subs and team leaders.

Set house rules: Be clear about smoking, boom box noise levels, available bathrooms, and appropriate parking.

Be kind: Offer refreshments (a little hospitality can go a long way), give praise when warranted, and resist pestering them with conversation, jokes, and questions when they are working. They’ll work better when refreshed and allowed to concentrate on work.

2 Deduction Options When You Work From Home

2 Deduction Options When You Work From Home
By: Donna Fuscaldo

Published: January 28, 2014

Like things easy? The new simplified home office deduction may be your salvation from the long form. But you might not save as much the easy way.

Now, there’s an optional, simplified home office deduction: Take $5/sq. ft. up to 300 feet or $1,500 and, boom, you’re done.

What’s the catch? Trade-off is a better word: You may not be able to deduct as much compared with the regular method. The IRS says the average home office deduction has been around $3,000. So consider the value of your time against potential tax savings if you believe you’re eligible for more than the $1,500 cap.

Before you start spending your refund, however, there are a few rules you need to heed.

What Counts as a Home Office?

A room or defined area of your home that you use exclusively and on a regular basis for business and that meets either of these uses:

It’s your principal place of business, or
You see clients, customers, or patients there.
Exception to the “exclusive” rule: If you use your home as the sole location of your business and store products there, the room or area where you store products can be used for other things. Say you use a room in your basement to make and store jewelry that’s also a TV room. If it’s the only fixed location of your business, you can use it to also watch TV.

What If You’re on the Road a Lot?

You don’t have to do all your work from home to take the home office deduction. If you’re an outside salesperson, you probably spend most of your work time elsewhere. But the home office has to be essential to your business, and you must spend substantial time there. If you do your billing and other office work from your home office, and there’s no other location available to perform these functions, your home office should qualify for the deduction.

You can also qualify for the deduction if your employer requires you to work from home, as long as you don’t charge your employer rent.

A big catch: You must maintain the at-home office for your employer’s convenience, not your own. If you use your home office to finish reports at night or on weekends because you don’t want to work at your desk in your office downtown, you can’t claim the home office deduction.

But if your employer doesn’t have a headquarters and everyone works remotely, you’re good to go.

Also Covered Under the Tax Break

Separate structures on your property, like a detached garage you’ve converted to an office or studio.

Unlike an office inside your home, a separate structure doesn’t have to be your main place of business to qualify for a deduction. That’s because the IRS believes your family is less likely to use a separate structure as a part-time play area or den, says Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for tax and consulting at CCH.

Related: Check Zoning Laws Before Adding a Detached Workshop or Studio

Two Ways to Deduct Home Office Expenses

1. Simplified home office deduction. We talked about this one above, but there are a few other particulars to note:

You can’t depreciate your home office, and your deduction is limited to your gross business income less business expenses.
If you use this deduction, you can still claim the deductions every homeowner gets, like mortgage interest, real estate taxes, and casualty losses. Put those on Schedule A.
Using the standard home office deduction won’t stop you from taking the deductions for other business expenses unrelated to your home, such as advertising, supplies, and employee wages.
You don’t need to keep track of individual expenses with this option. You do with the actual cost method.
2. Actual costs, which you list on Form 8829. To use this method, you figure the proportion of your home’s overall space devoted to your office and use that to calculate how much of your overall home expenses went toward your home office.

Example: If your office is 300 sq. ft. and your home is 3,000 sq. ft., your office takes up 10% of your home. So you can deduct 10% of your utility, mortgage interest, property taxes, and other home expenses. However, certain expenses that aren’t related directly to the home office, such as lawn care, aren’t included in the calculation.

Not sure how big your house is? Check the documents you received when you bought your home — there’s probably a detailed rendering — or measure the outside of your home and multiply length times width.

Do You Have to Stick with the Same Deduction Method Each Year?

Nope. Each year, you get to decide whether to use the standard or the actual-expense deduction.

What Can You Deduct When You Use the Long Form?

If you’re using Form 8829 to report your actual expenses and you’ve figured out what percentage of your home you use for business, you can apply that percentage to different home expenses. These include:

Mortgage interest
Real estate taxes
Utilities (heating, cooling, lights)
Home repairs and maintenance (so long as they benefit both the business and personal parts of the home)
Homeowners insurance premiums
Just take each expense and multiply it by your home office percentage to get the amount you can deduct as a business expense. So if you spend $150 a month on electricity, and your home office takes up 10% of your home, you can deduct $15 a month as a home office expense. That adds up to a $180 deduction per tax year.

Important limitation: Your home office deduction can’t exceed the amount of income you generate from the home office. So if you spend some of your work time on-site with a client and earn $1,500 there, you can’t claim more than $1,500 because it exceeds what you made at home.

Save bills or cancelled checks to prove what you spent in case of an IRS audit. Also, only repairs, like to the furnace, can be expensed; improvements must be depreciated.

Don’t Forget Depreciation

Depreciation is based on the idea that everything — even something like a home — wears out eventually. If you’re using the long form, figure home office depreciation by calculating the tax basis of your home:

1. Add the purchase price to the cost of improvements.

2. Subtract the value of the land it sits on.

3. Multiply that cost basis by the percentage of your home used for work. This gives you the tax basis for your home office.

4. Divide by 39 years.

For example:

Purchase price: $100,000
Value of land: $25,000
Cost basis: $75,000, plus cost of improvements you’ve made
Tax basis: $75,000 x 10% = $7,500
Depreciation deduction: $7,500/39 years*
*Usually, depreciation deductions for a home office are figured over a 39-year period. There are caveats. For instance, if your business opened after Jan. 1 in its first year, you need to calculate a factor of 39. For a crash course, read IRS Publication 946 or talk to a tax pro.

Keep in mind that depreciation deductions on your home office may increase the amount of profit on a home sale that’s subject to taxes. Most taxpayers don’t owe income tax on up to $250,000 of profit if you’re a single filer, $500,000 for joint filers. Consult with a qualified tax professional on how depreciation deductions affect your tax liability when you sell.

Related: More on How Improvements Can Lower Your Cost Basis

Special Rules for In-Home Care Providers

If you provide in-home daycare services for children, the elderly, or disabled persons as a licensed or authorized business, you don’t have to use the home work space exclusively to take the home office deduction.

You calculate your deduction by dividing the number of hours you used your home workspace to provide daycare services during the year by the total number of hours during the year.

For example, if you do daycare 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year, that’s 2,000 hours a year, divided by the 8,760 hours in a regular year equals 22.8%. So you could take 22.8% of the $5 per sq. ft. simplified deduction for your daycare workspace.

Related: What You Should Know About Your Home and 2013 Taxes

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.

6 Home Deduction Traps and How to Avoid Them

6 Home Deduction Traps and How to Avoid Them
By: Barbara Eisner Bayer

Published: January 30, 2014

Get an “A” on your Schedule A form: Dodge these tax deduction pitfalls to save time, money, and an IRS investigation.

Trap #1: Line 6 – Real estate taxes

Your monthly mortgage payment often includes money for a tax escrow, from which the lender pays your local real estate taxes.

The money you send the bank may be more than what the bank pays for your taxes, says Julian Block, a tax attorney and author of Julian Block’s Home Seller’s Guide to Tax Savings. That will lead you to putting the wrong number on Schedule A.

Example:

Your monthly payment to the lender: $2,000 for mortgage + $500 escrow for taxes
Your annual property tax bill: $5,500
Now do the math:

Your bank received $6,000 for real estate taxes, but only paid $5,500. It may keep the extra $500 to apply to the next tax bill or refund it to you at some point, but meanwhile, you’re making a mistake if you enter $6,000 on Schedule A.
Instead, take the number from Form 1098—which your bank sends you each year—that shows the actual taxes paid.
Trap #2: Line 6 – Tax calculations for recent buyers and sellers

If you bought or sold a home in the middle of the year, figuring out what to put on line 6 of your Schedule A Form is tricky.

Don’t simply enter the number from your property tax bill on line 6 as you would if you owned the house the whole year. If you bought or sold a house in midyear, you should instead use the property tax amount listed on your HUD-1 closing statement, says Phil Marti, a retired IRS official.

Here’s why: Generally, depending on the local tax cycle, either the seller gives the buyer money to pay the taxes when they come due or, if the seller has already paid taxes, the buyer reimburses the seller at closing. Those taxes are deductible that year, but won’t be reflected on your property tax bill.

Trap #3: Line 10 – Properly deducting points

You can deduct points paid on a refinance, but not all at once, says David Sands, a CPA with Buchbinder Tunick & Co LLP. Rather, you deduct them over the life of your loan. So if you paid $1,000 in points for a 10-year refinance, you’re entitled to deduct only $100 per year on your Schedule A Form.

Trap #4: Line 10 – HELOC limits
If you took out a home equity line of credit (HELOC), you can generally deduct the interest on it only up to $100,000 of debt each year, says Matthew Lender, a CPA with EisnerLubin LLP.

For example, if you have a HELOC for $200,000, the bank will send you Form 1098 for interest paid on $200,000. But you can deduct only the interest paid on $100,000. If you just pull the number off Form 1098, you’ll deduct more than you’re entitled to.

Trap #5: Line 13 – Private mortgage insurance

You can deduct PMI on your Schedule A Form, as long as you started paying the insurance after Dec. 31, 2006. Congress renewed the PMI deduction for 2012 and 2013 for people making less than $110,000.

Since you’re thinking about it, this is also a good time to review your PMI: You might be able to cancel your PMI altogether because your home value has risen and the amount your owe on your mortgage has gone down.

Trap #6: Line 20 – Casualty and theft losses

You can deduct part or all of losses caused by theft, vandalism, fire, or similar causes, as well as corrosive drywall, but the process isn’t always obvious or simple:

Only deduct losses that are greater than 10% of your adjusted gross income and exceed $100 (line 38 of Form 1040).
Fill out Form 4684, which involves complex calculations for the cost basis and fair market value. This form gives you the number you need for line 20.
Bottom line on line 20: If you’ve got extensive losses, it’s best to consult a tax pro. “I wouldn’t do it myself, and I’ve been dealing with taxes for 40 years,” says former IRS official Marti.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.

9 Easy Mistakes Homeowners Make on Their Taxes

9 Easy Mistakes Homeowners Make on Their Taxes
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: January 30, 2014

Don’t rouse the IRS or pay more taxes than necessary — know the score on each home tax deduction and credit.

Sin #1: Deducting the wrong year for property taxes

You take a tax deduction for property taxes in the year you (or the holder of your escrow account) actually paid them. Some taxing authorities work a year behind — that is, you’re not billed for 2013 property taxes until 2014. But that’s irrelevant to the feds.

Enter on your federal forms whatever amount you actually paid in 2013, no matter what the date is on your tax bill. Dave Hampton, CPA, tax manager at the Cincinnati accounting firm of Burke & Schindler, has seen home owners confuse payments for different years and claim the incorrect amount.

Sin #2: Confusing escrow amount for actual taxes paid

If your lender escrows funds to pay your property taxes, don’t just deduct the amount escrowed, says Bob Meighan, CPA and vice president at TurboTax in San Diego. The regular amount you pay into your escrow account each month to cover property taxes is probably a little more or a little less than your property tax bill. Your lender will adjust the amount every year or so to realign the two.

For example, your tax bill might be $1,200, but your lender may have collected $1,100 or $1,300 in escrow over the year. Deduct only $1,200. Your lender will send you an official statement listing the actual taxes paid. Use that. Don’t just add up 12 months of escrow property tax payments.

Sin #3: Deducting points paid to refinance

Deduct points you paid your lender to secure your mortgage in full for the year you bought your home. However, when you refinance, says Meighan, you must deduct points over the life of your new loan. If you paid $2,000 in points to refinance into a 15-year mortgage, your tax deduction is $133 per year.

Sin #4: Misjudging the home office tax deduction

The deduction is complicated, often doesn’t amount to much of a deduction, has to be recaptured if you turn a profit when you sell your home, and can pique the IRS’s interest in your return. But there’s good news – there’s a new simplified home office deduction option if you don’t want to claim actual costs. If you’re eligible, you can instead claim $5 per sq. ft. up to 300 feet, or $1,500.

Sin #5: Failing to repay the first-time home buyer tax credit

If you used the original home buyer tax credit in 2008, you must repay 1/15th of the credit over 15 years. If you used the tax credit in 2009 or 2010 and then sold your house or stopped using it as your primary residence, within 36 months of the purchase date, you also have to pay back the credit.

The IRS has a tool you can use to help figure out what you owe.

Sin #6: Failing to track home-related expenses

If the IRS comes a-knockin’, don’t be scrambling to compile your records. Many people forget to track home office and home improvement expenses, says Meighan. File away documents as you go. For example, save each manufacturer’s certification statement for energy tax credits and lender or government statements to confirm property taxes paid.

Sin #7: Forgetting to keep track of capital gains

If you sold your main home last year, don’t forget to pay capital gains taxes on any profit. You can exclude $250,000 (or $500,000 if you’re a married couple) of any profits from taxes. So if your cost basis for your home is $100,000 (what you paid for it plus any improvements) and you sold it for $400,000, your capital gains are $300,000. If you’re single, you owe taxes on $50,000 of gains. However, there are minimum time limits for holding property to take advantage of the exclusions, and other details. Consult IRS Publication 523.

Sin #8: Filing incorrectly for energy tax credits

If you made any eligible improvements in 2013, such as installing energy-efficient windows and doors, you may be able to take a 10% tax credit (up to $500; with some systems your cap is even lower than $500). But keep in mind, it’s a lifetime credit. If you claimed the credit in any recent years, you’re done. Fill out Form 5695.

The first part of the form, which covers systems eligible for a larger tax credit through 2016, such as geothermal heat pumps, can be complex and involves crosschecking with half a dozen other IRS forms. Read the instructions carefully.

Sin #9: Claiming too much for the mortgage interest tax deduction

Taxpayers are allowed to deduct mortgage interest on home acquisition debt up to $1 million, plus they can also deduct up to $100,000 in home equity debt.

This article was original published in January 2011.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice.

What You Should Know About Your Home and Your 2013 Taxes

What You Should Know About Your Home and Your 2013 Taxes
By: Dona DeZube

Published: December 12, 2013

It’s the last year for three sweet home tax benefits, but the first for a way simpler home office deduction.

These days few things start a fight on Capitol Hill faster than taxes. Despite the fact that three important tax benefits used by millions of American homeowners are days from expiring, Congress is unlikely to do anything to re-up them any time soon.

So if you’re eligible, tax year 2013 is possibly the last time to claim the private mortgage insurance (PMI) deduction, the energy tax credit, and debt forgiveness benefit, all of which all expire on Dec. 31, 2013.

At least there’s one piece of good news for homeowners: If you have a home office, there’s a new, simpler option for calculating the home office deduction for which you may qualify on your 2013 taxes.

Meanwhile, here’s what you need to know about those expiring benefits as you ready your taxes:

PMI Deduction

This tax rule lets you deduct the cost of private mortgage insurance, which is what you pay your lender each month if you put down less than 20% on a home. PMI protects the lender if you default on the home loan. Your deduction could amount to a couple hundred dollars depending on your tax bracket and other factors.

Find out if you qualify for and how to take the PMI deduction.

Energy-Efficiency Upgrades

This sweet little tax credit lets you offset what you owe the IRS dollar-for-dollar for up to 10% of the amount you spent on certain home energy-efficiency upgrades, from insulation to water heaters. On the downside, the credit is capped at $500 (less in some cases). But on the bright side, the right improvement could lower your utility bills indefinitely.

Related: Take back your energy bills with these high-ROI energy-efficiency practices.

Debt Forgiveness

When you go through a short sale, foreclosure, or deed-in-lieu, your lender typically lets you off the hook for some or all of what you owe on your mortgage.

That forgiven mortgage debt is income, on which you’d typically have to pay income tax.

Suppose you’re in financial distress and your lender agrees to let you short-sell your home, say for $50,000 less than you owe on the mortgage, and forgive you for the balance. Without the protection of the Mortgage Debt Forgiveness Act, you’ll owe income tax on that $50,000.

It’s likely if you had the money to pay income tax on $50,000, you’d have used it to pay your mortgage in the first place.

New Simplified Option for the Home Office Deduction

This may be the last year for the benefits above, but a new one kicks in for the 2013 tax year. If you work from home, you may qualify to use a new, simplified option for claiming the home office deduction when you file your 2013 taxes.

How much simpler is it? It lets you claim $5 per sq. ft. for up to 300 sq. ft. instead of having to compute the actual expenses of your home office using a 43-line form. To calculate the square footage of your office, just multiply the length of two walls. For example, an 8-by-10-foot room is 80 sq. ft. And at $5 per, that’s $400.

Although using the simplified option is obviously easier, the basic requirements for claiming the home office deduction haven’t changed. Your home office still must be used for business purposes:

Exclusively, and
On a regular basis.
Related: Which Home Office Set-Ups Qualify for a Deduction?

Why Might the Tax Benefits Not Be Renewed?

Although the expiring tax benefits were renewed retroactively in past years, that may not happen in 2014 because many in Congress would like to see comprehensive tax reform rather than scattershot renewals of individual provisions. This could delay a decision on the homeownership tax benefits until the big picture budget and tax issues are resolved.

So if you can, enjoy them now!

Your Top Home Ownership Tax Questions Answered

Your Top Home Ownership Tax Questions Answered
By: Natasha Padgitt

Published: December 31, 2012

Which tax benefits do home owners miss? Will you get audited if you take the home office deduction? Find out the answers to these questions and more before Tax Day.

There are a lot of home ownership tax benefits — if you don’t forget to take them. To make sure you get your due, HouseLogic asked tax expert Abe Schneier, a senior technical manager with the American Institute of CPAs, for tax-filing tips.

HouseLogic: What’s the most common home-related tax deduction or credit claimed by home owners?

Abe Schneier: The mortgage interest deduction, [which the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® estimates amounts to about $3,000 in tax savings for the average itemizing home owner] and [the deduction for] real property taxes.

HL: Which tax provision do home owners often overlook?

AS: You can deduct mortgage insurance premiums [or PMI] if you were required to get PMI as a condition of receiving financing on your home. Some people will overlook that, although it’s typically disclosed on the 1099 that you receive from the bank, along with all the deductible information you need.

HL note: The PMI deduction has been extended through 2013 and is retroactive for 2012.

[Another area of tax-filing confusion is] whether you’ve correctly treated any points you paid if you refinanced. In a new home purchase, the points can be deducted [in the tax year you paid them]. But typically in a refinancing, you have to amortize and deduct any points you paid over the life of the mortgage, and people tend to forget that after a couple of years.

HL: What’s the No. 1 mistake home owners make when filing their taxes?

AS: Because you receive a statement from the bank with details [such as] how much mortgage interest you paid over the year, and how much the bank pays on your behalf in real estate taxes, the number of mistakes has dropped.

But if you’re in a state where you pay the real estate taxes on your own — the bank doesn’t handle it for you — [people] make mistakes because sometimes real estate tax bills include other items besides pure real estate taxes. It could be trash collection fees; it could be snow removal fees that the state or county is assessing on the real estate tax bill. Since the items are included in the same bill, home owners sometimes deduct [those fees] regardless of whether the items are actually taxes.

HL: What’s the single most important piece of advice for people filing their taxes as a first-time home owner?

AS: You have to take a look at your closing statement from when you bought the house. It’s commonly called the HUD-1 form and you receive it at the closing. Occasionally, there are fees such as prepaid taxes or interest at closing that can be deductible.

HL: What tax advice do you have for someone who’s owned their home for 10 or 20 years?

AS: If you’ve been a longtime home owner and you’ve been through refinancings, you have to be careful about how much interest you’ve deducted, especially if you have a home equity loan or equity line. A lot of people who’ve refinanced have sizable equity lines. The maximum outstanding home equity debt on which interest is deductible is $100,000; the maximum loan amount on which interest is deductible is $1 million.

HL: What home improvement-related records should home owners keep?

AS: Absolutely keep your receipts for couple of reasons:

1. You want to make sure — if there are any warranties attached to the work that was done — that you maintain those records and you have something to go back to the person who did the work in case something doesn’t function properly.

2. If you’ve added value to the home — you’ve added a deck, you’ve added a room, you’ve added something new to house — you’ll need to know what the gain is on that capital improvement when you sell the house.

HL note: Tax rules let you add capital improvement expenses to the cost basis of your home, and a higher cost basis lowers the total profit or capital gain you’re required to pay taxes on. Of course, most home owners are exempted from taxes on the first $500,000 in profit for joint filers ($250,000 for single filers). So it doesn’t apply to too many people.

HL: How do I tell the difference between a capital improvement and a repair?

AS: Typically a repair is [done] to allow an item, like a home furnace or air conditioner, to continue. But if you were to replace the heating unit, that’s not a repair.

HL: Does taking any home-related tax benefits, such as the home office deduction, make a taxpayer more likely to be audited?

AS: Only if numbers look out of the ordinary — for instance, if one year you were writing off $20,000 in mortgage interest debt and the next year you’re writing off $100,000 in mortgage interest. Taking the home office deduction in and of itself doesn’t usually generate an audit. However, if you claim nominal income and significantly higher expenses in an effort to create artificial losses, the IRS will see that there’s something else going on there.

HL: Once filing season is over, when should home owners start thinking about next year’s taxes?

AS: Well, hopefully, when you visit your CPA to give information about or pick up [this year's] tax return, your CPA has spoken with you about your plans for [next year]:

If any major improvements are scheduled
If you’re planning on moving
How to organize any expenditures for fixing up the home before sale
If you’re planning to do any of those things, talk with your CPA so that you’re prepared with documentation and so that the [tax pro] can help minimize your tax situation.

How to Mulch

How to Mulch
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: April 23, 2012

Anyone can learn how to mulch and prolong the life of their landscaping. Here’s how.

But you should blanket your garden beds at least twice a year — in early spring and late fall — to retain moisture and keep down weeds. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to mulch correctly.

How much is enough?

If you’re a numbers geek, try this method:

To determine how much mulch you’ll need, multiply the length and width of your garden space (in feet) by the mulch height (about 3 inches, or a quarter of a foot) to get total cubic feet.

Bagged mulch is sold by the cubic foot. To figure the number of bags, divide total cubic feet by the number of cubic feet in each bag.

Bulk mulch is sold by the yard. To figure the number of yards, divide the total cubic feet by
27 (there are 27 cubic feet to 1 cubic yard).

If all that makes you want to pull out your hair, just use one of these easy mulch calculators:

Gardenplace.com features a calculator that tells you how many bags or trucks of mulch you’ll need.
Colorbiotics Mulch Tool (iPhone, iPad: free): Not only calculates how many cubic yards or bags of mulch you need, it also helps you pick the mulch color that looks best around your house.
Material Calculator (Droid: $1.99): Calculates how much mulch — and sand, gravel, stone dust, topsoil — you need, and converts from English to metric units.
Bags or bulk?

It depends on what’s more valuable to you — time or money.

If you want to save money, then bulk is the way to go. In Virginia, for instance, shredded hardwood mulch in bags costs about $50/cubic yard; bulk is $30/cubic yard — about a 40% savings.

Also, delivering bulk mulch, where trucks just dump and run, is about 25% less expensive than delivering bags, which someone has to drag and stack.

If you want to save time, mulch by the bag is for you.

Bags are easy to carry to and spread on garden beds. Just rip and dump.
Extra bags are easily stacked and stored.
You don’t have to sweep up after a bag delivery; you will after a bulk delivery.
Spreading the wealth

Spreading mulch isn’t a NASA launch: precision is not required, says Kevin Warhurst of Merrifield Garden Center in Virginia. But you must follow a few guidelines.

Pile on 2 to 4 inches of mulch. If you mulch regularly, and several inches have built up, add only 1 inch as top dressing, or remove all mulch, and start fresh. Too much mulch can trap moisture and cause rot, or prevent water from reaching roots.
Never pile mulch next to a tree or shrub trunk, which can cause wood rot and foster insect and fungus problems.
To get rid of weeds, put down a pre-emergent herbicide, newspaper, or landscaping paper before mulching.
Spread mulch by hand, which gives beds a neat and finished look. If you must use a tool, use a pitchfork, good for moving mulch into and out of the wheelbarrow. Move the tool side to side to even out mulch. Or, use the back of a steel rake to smooth out the mulch. (Tip: Use a snow shovel to move bulk mulch from pile to wheelbarrow.)
Never leave mulch on lower branches and leaves, a telltale sign of careless work.
Want free mulch?

Learn how to mulch leaves that overwinter on your lawn and pile up during fall. Leaves make an excellent garden mulch, or rig your mower for mulching and chew them up to feed your lawn.

How to Divide Plants

How to Divide Plants
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: September 21, 2012

Make the most of your perennials by dividing and transplanting favorites that have outgrown their homes.

Why divide and transplant?

Plants need space to thrive. When they become too big for their garden spots, powdery mildew coats leaves, insects chow down on blooms and stems, and centers become brown.

When you divide and transplant, each perennial — the new and old — blooms more. Plus, divided plants are cheap plants — they fill in garden gaps and are a hit at neighborhood plant swaps.

When’s the best time to transplant?

Transplanting rule of thumb: If it flowers in spring, transplant in fall; if it flowers in fall, transplant when the blossoms fade.

But really, anytime is an OK time to move perennials if you can dig the ground and water the transplants. If you transplant in warm weather, avoid hot afternoons.

Early fall is particularly good because rain is more plentiful in most regions, and roots have an entire winter to grow and anchor themselves into the ground. Some happy fall transplants include:

Peony
Bleeding heart
Hosta
Spring bulbs such as tulips and iris
Plants that would rather be transplanted in spring are:

Coneflowers
Black-eyed Susans
Mums
Dividing without tears

You don’t need a surgeon’s touch to divide perennials, which are hardier than they look.

“Just dig or pull it out; you won’t hurt it,” says Sheri Ann Richerson, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Year-Round Gardening.

5 essential steps for dividing plants

Prune the plant by about a third, which reduces its water requirements after transplanting.
Place a shovel or spade where you want to divide the plant, push the tool down through the plant and roots, and pull up the divided plant.
When dividing bulbs, dig up the mature plants and gently pull bulbs apart with your fingers.
To divide hostas, cut roots with a sharp knife or shears.
Trim the roots of divided plants, which makes them stronger and healthier (just like trimming split ends makes hair healthier).
6 essential steps for transplanting

Give plants a nice long drink before transplanting. Immerse their roots in a bucket of water with a small amount of fertilizer for at least 30 minutes and no longer than overnight. Place the bucket in a shady place. This will decrease plant stress.
Amend soil with compost from your pile or a slow-release fertilizer. Bulbs will appreciate a handful of bone meal.
Dig a hole about twice the diameter of the plant.
If you’ve got clay garden soil, place crushed gravel or terra-cotta pot shards in the bottom of the hole to increase drainage.
Place plant in hole and cover with soil.
Water thoroughly and check every day or two to make sure the soil is moist, not sopping.
More tips

Divide and transplant perennials every 3-5 years.
Dividing and transplanting temporarily stresses plants, so pick a day that’s not too hot or cold. A mild, overcast day about a month before the first hard frost is best.
Let plants rest for a couple of weeks after blooming, which is stressful. Then transplant.
If a heat wave suddenly appears, shade transplants with a beach umbrella and water daily.

Read This Before Landscaping this Spring; Your Pets Will Thank You

Read This Before Landscaping This Spring; Your Pets Will Thank You
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: March 26, 2012

When you get rid of weeds this spring, make sure you don’t get rid of Rover as well. Here are tips on keeping pets safe while you’re cleaning up your yard.

When you spruce up your yard for spring, remember that landscaping aids that make your plants healthy can make your pets real sick.

In a Dailycamera.com post, veterinarian Jennifer Bolser says the following landscaping staples can harm your pets:

Cocoa mulch: Contains theobromine, the chemical in chocolate that poisons dogs.
Fertilizers and herbicides: Can irritate pet skin, pads, tongues, and gums.
Compost: Ingesting coffee grinds and onions in compost piles can make pets ill.
Metal lawn edging: Can cut pets who walk on it.
To keep your plants and pets healthy, store chemicals in pet-proof containers, enclose compost piles in bins and drums, and choose plastic or rubber edging.

Lawn Aeration: Give Your Grass a Breath of Fresh Air

Lawn Aeration: Give Your Grass a Breath of Fresh Air
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: October 5, 2011

Lawn aeration ensures lush, healthy grass year-round.

Lawn Aeration Basics

Lawn aeration pulls 2- to 8-inch soil “plugs” out of the ground, leaving holes that allow water, air, and nutrients to reach grass roots, and lets new seed germinate in a cool, moist environment. Hard clay soils need to be aerated more often than sandy soil. A soil test will tell you what type of soil you have.

John Dillon, who directs lawn care at New York City’s Central Park, says aeration helps lawns by:

Allowing oxygen to reach the root zone, which invigorates lawns
Relieving compaction by allowing established grass and seed to spread into plug holes
Controlling thatch buildup
Reducing water runoff
Aeration Tools

You can aerate by hand with an aerating tool ($20), which looks like a pitchfork with two hollow tines. Step on the tool’s bridge and drive the hollow tines into the earth. It’s slow-going, but good for spot aerating small patches of lawn.

You also can buy an aeration attachment for your garden tiller, but the tool slices the lawn and doesn’t actually remove plugs. ($60)

Most lawn aeration is done with a self-propelled machine known as a core aerator. About the size of a large lawn mower, a core aerator has hollow tines or spoons that rotate on a drum, removing soil plugs as you guide it from behind. This tool is available at most garden or rental centers for $15-$25 per hour. Plan 2 to 4 hours to aerate an average quarter-acre suburban lot.

Timing is Everything

Aerate after the first frost has killed weeds, but before the ground has become too hard. It’s a good idea to spread grass seed after you aerate, so make sure you’re still able to water your lawn for two weeks after you aerate, which will help the seed to germinate.

Season-by-Season Lawn Maintenance Calendar

Season-by-Season Lawn Maintenance Calendar
By: Douglas Trattner

Published: April 8, 2013

Follow our season-by-season lawn maintenance calendar to get a barefoot-worthy lawn and ensure great curb appeal.

Sharpen mower blades to ensure clean cuts. A dull blade tears the grass, leaving jagged edges that discolor the lawn and invite pathogens.

Sharpen mower blades once each month during grass-cutting season. Have a backup blade (about $20) so that a sharp one is always on hand.

Tune up your mower with a new sparkplug ($3-$5) and air filter ($5-$10). Your mower might not need a new sparkplug every season, but changing it is a simple job, and doing it every year ensures you won’t forget the last time you replaced your sparkplug.

Buy fresh gas. Gas that’s been left to sit over the winter can accumulate moisture that harms small engines. This is especially true for fuel containing ethanol, so use regular grades of gasoline.

If you need to dump old gasoline, ask your city or county for local disposal sites that take old fuel.

Clean up your lawn. Time to get out the leaf rakes and remove any twigs and leaves that have accumulated over the winter. A thick layer of wet leaves can smother a lawn if not immediately removed in early spring. Cleaning up old debris clears the way for applying fertilizer and herbicides.

Spring
Early Summer
Summer
Early Fall
Fall

Spring
Depending on your weather, your grass will now start growing in earnest, so be ready for the first cutting. Don’t mow when the grass is wet — you could spread diseases, and wet clippings clog up lawn mowers.

Fertilizing: Both spring and fall are good times to fertilize your lawn. In the northern third of the country, where winters are cold, fertilize in fall — cool weather grasses go dormant over winter and store energy in their roots for use in the spring.

For the rest of the country, apply fertilizer just as your grass begins its most active growth. For best results, closely follow the application directions on the product. You’ll spend about $50 to $75 per application for an average ¼-acre lot.

Aeration: Aerating punches small holes in your lawn so water, fertilizers, and oxygen reach grass roots. Pick a day when the soil is damp but not soaked so the aeration machine can work efficiently.

Related: More about lawn aeration

Pre-emergent herbicides: Now is the time to apply a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent crabgrass and other weeds from taking root in your lawn. A soil thermometer is a handy helper; you can pick one up for $10-$20. When you soil temperature reaches 58 degrees — the temperature at which crabgrass begins to germinate — it’s time to apply the herbicide.

Early Spring
Early Summer
Summer
Early Fall
Fall

Early Summer
Watch out for grubs: Warm weather means that grub worms, the larvae stage of June, Japanese, and other beetles, start feeding on the tender root systems of lawns. Affected lawns show browning and wilting patches.

To be certain that the culprits are grubs, pull back the sod and look for white, C-shaped grubs. If you see more than 10 per square foot, your lawn should be treated with a chemical pesticide.

Milky spore is an environmentally friendly way to control some species of grubs. When using insecticides, read and follow all label directions, and water the product into the soil immediately. Cost is around $50 to $75 per application.

Grass-cutting tip: Your grass is starting to grow fast, and you might even be cutting more than once a week to keep up. To keep grass healthy, mow often enough so you’re removing no more than 1/3 of the grass blade.

Pesky weeds: Weeds that have escaped an herbicide application should be removed with a garden fork. Use a post-emergent herbicide only if you think the situation is getting out of hand.

Check out our guide to some common types of weeds and tips on how to get rid of them.

Early Spring
Spring
Summer
Early Fall
Fall

Summer
Here’s a good mantra to guide you through the heart of grass-mowing season: The taller the grass, the deeper the roots, the fewer the weeds, and the more moisture the soil holds between watering.

With that in mind, here’s how to ensure a healthy, green lawn:

Set your mower blade height to 3 inches.
Deep and infrequent watering is better for lawns than frequent sprinkles, which promote shallow root growth. In general, lawns need about 1 inch of water per week to maintain green color and active growth.
Lawns that receive less than that will likely go dormant. That’s okay, the grass is still alive, but dormant lawns should still receive at least 1 inch of water per month. Your grass will green up again when the weather brings regular rains.

To check the output of a sprinkler, scatter some pie tins around the yard to see how much water collects in a specific length of time. Having a rain gauge ($5 to $20) will help you keep track of how much water the lawn receives naturally.
At least once each month, clean underneath your mower to prevent spreading lawn diseases.
Although it’s OK to leave grass clippings on the lawn where they can decompose and nourish the soil, large clumps of clippings should be removed. Regularly rake up any leaves, twigs, and debris.
If your grass seems to be stressed out, check out our advice on what to do if your lawn is turning brown.

Early Spring
Spring
Early Summer
Early Fall
Fall

Early Fall
The best time to patch bare or thin spots is when the hot, dry days of summer have given way to cooler temps. Follow these simple steps:

1. Remove any dead grass.

2. Break up the soil with a garden trowel.

3. Add an inch of compost and work it into the soil.

4. Add grass seed that’s designed for shade or full sun, depending on the area you’re working on. Spread the seed evenly across the bare patch.

5. Use a hard-tooth rake to work the seed into the soil to a depth of about half an inch.

6. Sprinkle grass clippings over the patch to help prevent the soil from drying out.

7. Water the area; you’ll want to keep the patch moist, so lightly water once a day until the seed germinates and the new grass gets about one inch tall.

Early Spring
Spring
Early Summer
Summer
Fall

Fall
Your main job in fall is to keep your lawn free of leaves and other debris. You can use a mulching mower to break up leaves and add the organic matter to your soil, but be sure to clean up any clumps so they don’t kill the grass.

In the northern one-third of the country, now is the time to fertilize your lawn. Your grass will store the nutrients in its roots as it goes dormant over the winter, and your lawn will be ready for a jump start when spring warms the ground.

This is also the time to clean up your garden.

6 Tips for Buying a Home in a Short Sale

6 Tips for Buying a Home in a Short Sale
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: March 19, 2010

By preparing for a real estate short sale, you can emerge with a great home at a favorable price.

1. Get help from a short sale expert
A real estate agent experienced in short sales can identify which homes are being offered as short sales, help you determine a purchase price, and advise you on what to include in your offer to make the lender view it favorably. Ask agents how many buyers they’ve represented in short sales and, of those, how many successfully closed the transaction.

2. Build a team
Ask agents to recommend real estate attorneys knowledgeable in short sales and title experts. A title officer can do a title search to identify all the liens attached to a property you’re interested in. Because each lienholder must consent to a short sale, a property with multiple liens, like first and second mortgages, mechanic’s and condominium liens, or homeowners association liens, will be harder to purchase.

A title search may cost $250 to $300 up front, but it can help weed out less desirable properties requiring multiple approvals.

3. Know the home’s fair market value
By agreeing to a short sale, lenders are consenting to lose money on the loan they made to the sellers to purchase the home. Their goal is to keep those losses as low as possible. If your offer is dramatically less than the home’s fair market value, it may be rejected. Your agent can help you identify the price that’s good for you. The lender will determine whether approval is in its best interest.

4. Expect delays
There are two stages to a short sale. First, the sellers must consent to your purchase offer. Then they must submit it to their lender, along with documentation to convince the lender to agree to the sale.

The lender approval process can take weeks or months, even longer if the lender counteroffers. Expect bigger delays if several lienholders are involved; each can make a counteroffer or reject your offer.

5. Firm up your financing
Lenders will weigh your ability to close the transaction. If you’re preapproved for a mortgage, have a large downpayment, and can close at any time, they’ll consider your offer stronger than that of a buyer whose financing is less secure.

6. Avoid contingencies
If you must sell your current home before you can close on the short-sale property, or you need to close by a firm deadline, your offer may present too many moving parts for a lender to approve it.

Also, consider ordering an inspection so you’re fully informed about the home. Keep in mind that lenders are unlikely to approve an offer seeking repairs or credits for such work. You’ll probably have to purchase the home “as is,” which means in its present condition.

This article includes general information about tax laws and consequences, but isn’t intended to be relied upon by readers as tax or legal advice applicable to particular transactions or circumstances. Consult a tax professional for such advice; tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

How to Assess the Real Cost of a Fixer-Upper House

How to Assess the Real Cost of a Fixer-Upper House
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: August 24, 2010

When you buy a fixer-upper house, you can save a ton of money, or get yourself in a financial fix.

1. Decide what you can do yourself
TV remodeling shows make home improvement work look like a snap. In the real world, attempting a difficult remodeling job that you don’t know how to do will take longer than you think and can lead to less-than-professional results that won’t increase the value of your fixer-upper house.

Do you really have the skills to do it? Some tasks, like stripping wallpaper and painting, are relatively easy. Others, like electrical work, can be dangerous when done by amateurs.
Do you really have the time and desire to do it? Can you take time off work to renovate your fixer-upper house? If not, will you be stressed out by living in a work zone for months while you complete projects on the weekends?
2. Price the cost of repairs and remodeling before you make an offer
Get your contractor into the house to do a walk-through, so he can give you a written cost estimate on the tasks he’s going to do.
If you’re doing the work yourself, price the supplies.
Either way, tack on 10% to 20% to cover unforeseen problems that often arise with a fixer-upper house.
3. Check permit costs
Ask local officials if the work you’re going to do requires a permit and how much that permit costs. Doing work without a permit may save money, but it’ll cause problems when you resell your home.
Decide if you want to get the permits yourself or have the contractor arrange for them. Getting permits can be time-consuming and frustrating. Inspectors may force you to do additional work, or change the way you want to do a project, before they give you the permit.
Factor the time and aggravation of permits into your plans.
4. Doublecheck pricing on structural work
If your fixer-upper home needs major structural work, hire a structural engineer for $500 to $700 to inspect the home before you put in an offer so you can be confident you’ve uncovered and conservatively budgeted for the full extent of the problems.

Get written estimates for repairs before you commit to buying a home with structural issues.

Don’t purchase a home that needs major structural work unless:

You’re getting it at a steep discount
You’re sure you’ve uncovered the extent of the problem
You know the problem can be fixed
You have a binding written estimate for the repairs
5. Check the cost of financing
Be sure you have enough money for a downpayment, closing costs, and repairs without draining your savings.

If you’re planning to fund the repairs with a home equity or home improvement loan:

Get yourself pre-approved for both loans before you make an offer.
Make the deal contingent on getting both the purchase money loan and the renovation money loan, so you’re not forced to close the sale when you have no loan to fix the house.
Consider the Federal Housing Administration’s Section 203(k) program, which is designed to help home owners who are purchasing or refinancing a home that needs rehabilitation. The program wraps the purchase/refinance and rehabilitation costs into a single mortgage. To qualify for the loan, the total value of the property must fall within the FHA mortgage limit for your area, as with other FHA loans. A streamlined 203(k) program provides an additional amount for rehabilitation, up to $35,000, on top of an existing mortgage. It’s a simpler process than obtaining the standard 203(k).
6. Calculate your fair purchase offer
Take the fair market value of the property (what it would be worth if it were in good condition and remodeled to current tastes) and subtract the upgrade and repair costs.

For example: Your target fixer-upper house has a 1960s kitchen, metallic wallpaper, shag carpet, and high levels of radon in the basement.

Your comparison house, in the same subdivision, sold last month for $200,000. That house had a newer kitchen, no wallpaper, was recently recarpeted, and has a radon mitigation system in its basement.

The cost to remodel the kitchen, remove the wallpaper, carpet the house, and put in a radon mitigation system is $40,000. Your bid for the house should be $160,000.

Ask your real estate agent if it’s a good idea to share your cost estimates with the sellers, to prove your offer is fair.

7. Include inspection contingencies in your offer
Don’t rely on your friends or your contractor to eyeball your fixer-upper house. Hire pros to do common inspections like:

Home inspection. This is key in a fixer-upper assessment. The home inspector will uncover hidden issues in need of replacement or repair. You may know you want to replace those 1970s kitchen cabinets, but the home inspector has a meter that will detect the water leak behind them.
Radon, mold, lead-based paint
Septic and well
Pest
Most home inspection contingencies let you go back to the sellers and ask them to do the repairs, or give you cash at closing to pay for the repairs. The seller can also opt to simply back out of the deal, as can you, if the inspection turns up something you don’t want to deal with.

If that happens, this isn’t the right fixer-upper house for you. Go back to the top of this list and start again.

4 Tips to Determine How Much Mortgage You Can Afford

4 Tips to Determine How Much Mortgage You Can Afford

Published: March 11, 2010

By knowing how much mortgage you can handle, you can ensure that home ownership will fit in your budget.

1. The general rule of mortgage affordability
As a rule of thumb, you can typically afford a home priced two to three times your gross income. If you earn $100,000, you can typically afford a home between $200,000 and $300,000.

To understand how that rule applies to your particular financial situation, prepare a family budget and list all the costs of homeownership, like property taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and community association fees, if applicable, as well as costs specific to your family, such as day care costs.

2. Factor in your downpayment
How much money do you have for a downpayment? The higher your downpayment, the lower your monthly payments will be. If you put down at least 20% of the home’s cost, you may not have to get private mortgage insurance, which costs hundreds each month. That leaves more money for your mortgage payment.

The lower your downpayment, the higher the loan amount you’ll need to qualify for and the higher your monthly mortgage payment.

3. Consider your overall debt
Lenders generally follow the 28/41 rule. Your monthly mortgage payments covering your home loan principal, interest, taxes, and insurance shouldn’t total more than 28% of your gross annual income. Your overall monthly payments for your mortgage plus all your other bills, like car loans, utilities, and credit cards, shouldn’t exceed 41% of your gross annual income.

Here’s how that works. If your gross annual income is $100,000, multiply by 28% and then divide by 12 months to arrive at a monthly mortgage payment of $2,333 or less. Next, check the total of all your monthly bills including your potential mortgage and make sure they don’t top 41%, or $3,416 in our example.

4. Use your rent as a mortgage guide
The tax benefits of homeownership generally allow you to afford a mortgage payment—including taxes and insurance—of about one-third more than your current rent payment without changing your lifestyle. So you can multiply your current rent by 1.33 to arrive at a rough estimate of a mortgage payment.

Here’s an example. If you currently pay $1,500 per month in rent, you should be able to comfortably afford a $2,000 monthly mortgage payment after factoring in the tax benefits of homeownership.

However, if you’re struggling to keep up with your rent, consider what amount would be comfortable and use that for the calcuation instead.

Also consider whether or not you’ll itemize your deductions. If you take the standard deduction, you can’t also deduct mortgage interest payments. Talking to a tax adviser, or using a tax software program to do a “what if” tax return, can help you see your tax situation more clearly.

7 Tips for Improving Your Credit

7 Tips for Improving Your Credit
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: February 25, 2010

Here’s how to clean up your credit so you get the least-expensive home loan possible.

1. Know your credit score
Credit scores range from 300 to 850, and the higher, the better. They’re based on whether you’ve paid personal loans, car loans, credit cards, and other debt in full and on time in the past. You’ll need a score of at least 620 to qualify for a home loan and 740 to get the best interest rates and terms.

You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report annually from each of the major credit-reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Access all three versions of your credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com. Review them to ensure the information is accurate.

2. Correct errors on your credit report
If you find mistakes on your credit report, write a letter to the credit-reporting agency explaining why you believe there’s an error. Send documents that support your case, and ask that the error be corrected or removed. Also write to the company, or debt collector, that reported the incorrect information to dispute the information, and ask to be copied on any materials sent to credit-reporting agencies.

3. Pay every bill on time
You may be surprised at the damage even a few late payments will have on your credit score. The easiest way to make a big difference in your credit score without altering your spending habits is to diligently pay all your bills on time. You’ll also save money because you’ll keep the money you’ve been spending on late fees. Credit card or mortgage companies probably won’t report minor late payments, those less than 30 days overdue, but you’ll still have to pay late fees.

4. Use credit carefully
Another good way to boost your credit score is to pay your credit card bills in full every month. If you can’t do that, pay as much over your required minimum payment as possible to begin whittling away the debt. Stop using your credit cards to keep your balances from increasing, and transfer balances from high-interest credit cards to lower-interest cards.

5. Take care with the length of your credit
Credit rating agencies also consider the length of your credit history. If you’ve had a credit card for a long time and managed it responsibly, that works in your favor. However, opening several new credit cards at once can lower the average age of your accounts, which pushes down your score. Likewise, closing credit card accounts lowers your available credit, so keep credit cards open even if you’re not using them.

6. Don’t use all the credit you’re offered
Credit scores are also based on how much credit you use compared with how much you’re offered. Using $1,000 of available credit will give you a lower score than having $1,000 of available credit and using $100 of it. Occasionally opening new lines of credit can boost your available credit, which also affects your score positively.

7. Be patient
It can take time for your credit score to climb once you’ve begun working to improve it. Keep at it because the more distance you put between your spotty payment history and your current good payment record, the less damage you’ll do to your credit score.

7 Steps to Take Before You Buy a Home

7 Steps to Take Before You Buy a Home
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: February 10, 2010

By doing your homework before you buy, you’ll feel more content about your new home.

1. Decide how much home you can afford
Generally, you can afford a home priced 2 to 3 times your gross income. Remember to consider costs every homeowner must cover: property taxes, insurance, maintenance, utilities, and community association fees, if applicable, as well as costs specific to your family, such as day care if you plan to have children.

2. Develop your home wish list
Be honest about which features you must have and which you’d like to have. Handicap accessibility for an aging parent or special needs child is a must. Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are in the bonus category. Come up with your top-five must-haves and top-five wants to help you focus your search and make a logical, rather than emotional, choice when home shopping.

3. Select where you want to live
Make a list of your top-five community priorities, such as commute time, schools, and recreational facilities. Ask your REALTOR® to help you identify three to four target neighborhoods based on your priorities.

4. Start saving
Have you saved enough money to qualify for a mortgage and cover your downpayment? Ideally, you should have 20% of the purchase price set aside for a downpayment, but some lenders allow as little as 5% down. A small downpayment preserves your savings for emergencies.

However, the lower your downpayment, the higher the loan amount you’ll need to qualify for, and if you still qualify, the higher your monthly payment. Your downpayment size can also influence your interest rate and the type of loan you can get.

Finally, if your downpayment is less than 20%, you’ll be required to purchase private mortgage insurance. Depending on the size of your loan, PMI can add hundreds to your monthly payment. Check with your state and local government for mortgage and downpayment assistance programs for first-time buyers.

5. Ask about all the costs before you sign
A downpayment is just one homebuying cost. Your REALTOR® can tell you what other costs buyers commonly pay in your area—including home inspections, attorneys’ fees, and transfer fees of 2% to 7% of the home price. Tally up the extras you’ll also want to buy after you move-in, such as window coverings and patio furniture for your new yard.

6. Get your credit in order
A credit report details your borrowing history, including any late payments and bad debts, and typically includes a credit score. Lenders lean heavily on your credit report and credit score in determining whether, how much, and at what interest rate to lend for a home. Most require a minimum credit score of 620 for a home mortgage.

You’re entitled to free copies of your credit reports annually from the major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Order and then pore over them to ensure the information is accurate, and try to correct any errors before you buy. If your credit score isn’t up to snuff, the easiest ways to improve it are to pay every bill on time and pay down high credit card debt.

7. Get prequalified
Meet with a lender to get a prequalification letter that says how much house you’re qualified to buy. Start gathering the paperwork your lender says it needs. Most want to see W-2 forms verifying your employment and income, copies of pay stubs, and two to four months of banking statements.

If you’re self-employed, you’ll need your current profit and loss statement, a current balance sheet, and personal and business income tax returns for the previous two years.

Consider your financing options. The longer the loan, the smaller your monthly payment. Fixed-rate mortgages offer payment certainty; an adjustable-rate mortgage offers a lower monthly payment. However, an adjustable-rate mortgage may adjust dramatically. Be sure to calculate your affordability at both the lowest and highest possible ARM rate.

How Much Snow is Too Much Snow on Your Roof?

How Much Snow is Too Much Snow on Your Roof?
By: Douglas Trattner

Published: November 22, 2011

Here’s what you need to know about snow on your roof and whether or not to remove it.

When (If Ever) is it Necessary?

The critical factor in determining excessive snow loads on your roof isn’t the depth of the snow, it’s the weight, says home improvement expert Jon Eakes.

That’s because wet snow is considerably heavier than dry, fluffy snow. In fact, 6 inches of wet snow is equal to the weight of about 38 inches of dry snow.

The good news is that residential roofs are required by building codes to withstand the heaviest snows for that particular part of the country.

“Theoretically, if your roof is built to code, it’s built to support more than the normal load of snow and ice,” says Eakes.

You can determine the type of snow you’re getting simply by hefting a few shovelfuls — you should be able to quickly tell if the current snowfall is wet or dry. Local winter storm weather forecasts should alert you to the possibility that snow loads are becoming excessive and a threat to your roof.

How Do I Know There’s a Problem?

An indication that the accumulated snow load is becoming excessive is when doors on interior walls begin to stick. That signals there’s enough weight on the center structure of the house to distort the door frame.

Ignore doors on exterior walls but check interior doors leading to second-floor bedrooms, closets, and attics in the center of your home. Also, examine the drywall or plaster around the frames of these doors for visible cracks.

Homes that are most susceptible to roof cave-ins are those that underwent un-permitted renovations. The improper removal of interior load-bearing walls is often responsible for catastrophic roof collapses.

The Snow Load Seems Excessive, Now What?

Most home roofs aren’t readily accessible, making the job dangerous for do-it-yourselfers.

“People die every year just climbing ladders,” Eakes points out. “Add ice and snow and you’re really asking for trouble.”

Instead, call a professional snow removal contractor to safely do the job. Check to make sure they are licensed and insured — that immediately sets them apart from inexperienced competitors.

Pro crews attack snow removal with special gear, including sturdy extension ladders, properly anchored safety harnesses, and special snow and ice-removal tools. Expect to pay $250-$500 for most jobs.

Don’t expect (or demand) a bone-dry roof at job’s end. The goal is to remove “excessive” weight as opposed to all weight. Plus, any attempt to completely remove the bottom layer of ice will almost always result in irreparable damage to your roofing.

The DIY Option

If you have a small, one-story bungalow where the roof is just off the ground, taking matters into one’s own hands may be safe — if you can work entirely from the ground and have the right tools.

Long-handled snow rakes work great on freshly fallen snow, and at $45 they are relatively affordable. Look for models with sturdy telescoping handles and built-in rollers, which keep the blade safely above the shingles.

Other versions work by releasing the snow from underneath. These models slide between the roof and snow, allowing gravity and the snow’s own weight to do most of the work. Models range from $50-$125 or more for unique systems utilizing nylon sheeting. Again, search out models with sturdy adjustable handles.

Eakes offers a common sense word of caution about all these snow removal tools. “They tend to work their best on light, fluffy snow — the kind that probably doesn’t need to be removed in the first place.”

You’ll need to anticipate where the snow and ice will fall as you pull it off your roof — you won’t want to pull a load of heavy, wet snow down on top of yourself or any helpers.

Remember, the goal isn’t to remove all visible snow and ice, but rather just enough to relieve the excessive load on the roof.

Tips on Using Salt to Melt Ice Safely Around Your Home

Tips on Using Salt to Melt Ice Safely Around Your Home
By: Douglas Trattner

Published: December 22, 2011

We all know salt melts ice, but some deicers can be harmful to pets, plants, and our water supply. Here are some tips on choosing deicers.

Thankfully, salt and ice can’t co-exist. Commercial deicers use various chemical variations of salt to melt away dangerous ice on patios, walkways, and driveways.

Unfortunately, those same chemicals can harm fish, wildlife, and household pets. In addition, they can corrode your hard masonry outdoor surfaces.

How salt works on ice

Salt and deicers are effective ice-melting agents because they lower the freezing point of water, turning ice back into water. Salts and deicers are cheap, effective, simple to use, and easier than attacking ice with brute physical force.

What’s the problem?

That same chemical magic that turns ice into water creates a very salty brine that can make household pets sick, and eats away at outdoor hardscaping made of concrete, brick, and stone.

Deicing products also can damage your plants by altering the chemical composition of the soil in planting beds and yards. Inside the home, tracked-in salt can mar carpets and wood floors.

The problem is bigger than your back yard, too.

“Salt is very soluble, and it runs off into nearby creeks, rivers, and lakes, where it can have a tremendous effect on native plants,” explains Jim Bissell, Director of Conservation at Cleveland’s Museum of Natural History.

Deicing products are blamed for fish and amphibian kills, aquatic dead zones, and corrosion of vehicles, bridges and roadways, plus a host of other environmental ills.

Choosing the right salt and deicing product

As a shopper for deicing products, you’ll have to balance your needs with any environmental concerns.

Ignore packaging promises like “natural,” “pet-friendly,” or “environmentally safe” — those labels can be misleading and inaccurate. Buyers should also take with a grain of salt claims that a product works to sub-arctic temps, as those results rarely are duplicated in real-world applications.

In general, the lower the price of the product, the more salt it contains and the more potentially harmful it is to the environment. Check product labels to figure out the chief ingredients in these popular deicing products:

Sodium chloride: Also known as rock salt, this basic compound is one of the cheapest ice melters on the market. It has the lowest price per pound, but it’s the hardest on the environment and not that effective at temps less than 15 degrees F. Cost: $6 for a 50-lb. bag.
Calcium chloride: One of the best choices for super-cold climates, it’s effective down to minus 25 degrees F. It’s a better environmental choice than sodium chloride. Cost: $20 for a 50-lb. bag.
Calcium magnesium acetate: Relatively new on the market, it’s a salt-free product that’s touted as environmentally friendly, but that claim has yet to be tested in the long run. It costs more than other deicers. Cost: $30 for a 50 lb. bag.
Other options

Unfortunately, there are few proven eco-friendly alternatives to chemical deicers. Some products have lower salt content but include glycols, fertilizers, and urea, which are blamed for aquatic dead zones, algae blooms, and other water-quality issues.

Sand does not melt ice, but it can aid in traction. While not directly harmful to the landscape, sand can clog storm sewers and it must be cleaned up at some point by the home owner.

Tips for using deicing products

Buy the right blend. By having a product that best suits your climatic conditions and average low temps, you’ll need to use less of it.
Keep walkways shoveled in the first place as snow quickly becomes ice when walked upon.
Pre-treat walkways before the storm hits. You’ll need less deicer in the long run.
Mix sand with salt — you’ll use less to melt ice, and gain the traction provided by sand.
Store ice-melt products in airtight containers to maintain maximum effectiveness.

Snow Shoveling: Tools, Techniques, and Tips to Save Your Back

Snow Shoveling: Tools, Techniques, and Tips to Save Your Back
By: Douglas Trattner

Published: December 15, 2011

Shoveling is hard enough. Don’t compound the drudgery with the wrong shovel and bad shoveling techniques, both of which can put a serious strain on your back and even your heart.

Keep the dimensions moderate. A good size for most situations is 18-22 inches wide.

Material of choice

High-strength plastic shovels are strong, lightweight, and easy to use. Because they’re less prone to freezing, they release snow better than metal shovels. However, constant scraping against concrete walks and driveways can wear out the leading edge in a single season, and they’re not good for removing ice.
Steel shovels are hard to beat for durability — they’ll outlast all others. But they’re the heaviest models out there, and require more energy to use. They’re also the most expensive. Steel shovels are useful for removing both snow and ice.
Aluminum snow shovels are more durable than plastic, and lighter and less expensive than steel. However, aluminum may bend when it comes in contact with a stubborn ice chunk or a crack in a driveway. Once bent, they’re difficult to repair.
Getting the shaft

It doesn’t matter how strong a shovel blade is if the shaft twists, turns, and bows while you’re trying to use it. Look for shovels with a sturdy steel, aluminum, or wooden handles. With their high strength-to-weight ratio, fiberglass and resin handles are the premium choice, although you’ll pay up to 20% more than other types of handles.

What’ll you pay?

Prices for snow shovels range from as low as $15 for a flimsy plastic model on up to $125 for a solid steel shovel with wooden or fiberglass shaft. Most good-quality shovels, however, fall in the $30 to $50 range.

Ergonomic ease

The snow shovels with the funny-looking Z-shaped shafts are billed as “ergonomic.” They’re designed to ease the strain on your lower back by reducing the amount of bending you’ll do while scooping snow. Prices for well-built ergonomic shovels range from $25 to $75.

Another version includes a large wheel attached to the handle. The wheel supports all the weight of the snow and acts as a fulcrum for lifting snow and helping you move it out of the way. You’ll pay $130.

When push comes to shove

When it comes to physical exertion, it’s always better to push the snow rather than lift it. Push-type snow shovels or plows are great for driveways and walks where you can simply shove the snow off to the side.

Because snow pushers are large in size — anywhere from 24 to 36 inches wide — they aren’t great for when the snow is deep or has to be thrown over a snow bank. Make sure the width of the snow pusher isn’t wider than your narrowest walkways.

Snow pushers and plows usually have large, U-shaped handles. Expect to pay $25 for a plastic 24-inch plow and up to $80 for 30-inch heavy-duty aluminum models.

Safety first

It isn’t just a myth that many people get injured from the simple act of shoveling snow. In fact, according to a study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy, there are more than 11,000 medical emergencies each year related to shoveling snow.

The study found that just two minutes of shoveling snow can stress your cardiovascular system and raise heart rates past recommended levels. Singled out for blame: the non-ergonomic design of many snow shovels.

To reduce the risk of injury, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) suggests you do the following:

Check with your doctor to make sure you’re healthy enough to shovel.
Dress appropriately in layers of light, water-repellent clothing. Don’t forget the hat, gloves, and slip-resistant boots.
Clear snow early and often. It’s easier to remove large snowfalls in multiple phases than all at once.
Warm up before starting. Stretch or perform light exercise for 10 minutes before shoveling.
Pace yourself, take frequent breaks, and stay hydrated by drinking water throughout.
Push, rather than lift, the snow whenever possible.
When lifting snow, bend at the knees with a straight back.
When moving snow, walk and dump it as opposed to throwing it.
Alternatives include safely using a snow blower or hiring a snow-removal contractor. When doing the latter, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) recommends that you get multiple estimates, understand the difference between per-season and per-incident pricing, discuss what’s included (shoveling the front walk?), request references, and get it all in writing.