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.

What is the Best Way to Remove Snow?

What Is the Best Way to Remove Snow?
By: Douglas Trattner

Published: December 2, 2011

When choosing a snow blower, consider the size of your driveway and sidewalks, as well as how much snow you get. Here’s how to pick the best snow removal tool for your needs.

The best way to decide what kind of snow blower you’ll need is to know the amount of snow your area gets. Find annual snowfall totals in nearby cities, or check winter storm snowfall totals at the website of your local news and weather source, such as a television or radio station.

Also, size matters. “The main thing I ask shoppers is, how big is their property,” says Andrew Kelly, department manager for Lowe’s. If you have a long driveway or more than 150 feet of sidewalk to clear, see if you can afford a heavier, more capable machine than indicated by snowfall totals.

Light Snow Removal Jobs (Up to 4 Inches Per Year)

If you live in an area that receives the occasional light dusting of snow, you can likely get by just fine with a shovel. But if for reasons of health (or motivation) shoveling is impractical, an electric snow shovel is ideal. These walk-behind tools are good for small jobs, such as front porches and walks.

Plug-in, electric snow shovels feature plastic, rotating blades that throw snow out of the front of the machine. Expect to pay about $100. You’ll need a UL-listed outdoor extension cord to power your electric show shovel.

These lightweight machines have a few drawbacks. Small front openings can handle snows of only a few inches deep, and they’ll only clear a path about 1 foot wide. Their plastic blades are prone to cracking or breaking when they come in contact with ice and stones.

Light to Moderate Snow Removal Jobs (Up to 12 Inches Per Year)

Capable of handling snowfalls up to 8 or 10 inches in height, an electric snow blower is the right choice for home owners in moderately snowy locations.

Electric snow blowers are as close to maintenance-free as possible, requiring none of the hassles that accompany gas-powered lawn equipment, such as keeping gas cans and mixing two-cycle oil with the gas.

The downside, of course, is that you’ll need to drag around a lengthy extension cord.

With widths of just 14 to 18 inches, electric snow blowers are not the best choices for home owners with long, winding driveways or extra-lengthy sidewalks. Because their clearing paths are roughly half that found on many gas-powered blowers, they require twice the passes to get the job done.

Basic models are priced between $150 and $250. They lack any of the bells and whistles found on pricier gas machines that can make the job easier, such as headlamps, remotely adjustable discharge chutes, and self-propel systems.

Moderate to Heavy Snow Removal Jobs (Up to 40 Inches Per Year)

For all but the snowiest locales, a single-stage gas-powered snow blower should fit the bill. This machine features an auger or set of rubber blades that chews up snow and throws it out of a moveable discharge chute.

Single-stage gas-powered blowers are smaller and easier to handle than two-stage blowers (see below). Capable of clearing paths 18 to 22 inches wide, single-stage blowers are large enough for all but the biggest jobs.

Priced between $300-$600, most single-stage gas blowers feature push-button electric ignition, making for easy cold-weather starts. While these models lack a propulsion system found in bigger, pricier units, they do travel forward thanks to the movement of the blades.

Heavy Snow Removal Jobs (More Than 40 Inches Per Year)

So, you live in Cleveland, Denver, or Buffalo. What you need is a two-stage, gas-powered snow blower. With snow-hungry openings that devour paths 24 to 30 inches wide, these powerful machines are perfect not only for the snow-bound home owner, but also those who make a living clearing snow.

Strong auger-and-impeller systems gobble up snow as much as 20 inches deep and fling it up to 50 feet away. Joystick-controlled adjustable chutes allow the operator to control both direction and angle of the discharge with the flick of a finger.

Engine-driven wheels propel the machine both forward and reverse — some in multiple speeds — a key feature not found on smaller and less expensive models. Extras, such as headlights and heated hand grips, enable you to remove snow in severe cold and even at night.

Prices start around $600 and climb to $1,000 and up.

Home owners with gravel driveways are pretty much compelled to purchase a two-stage machine as they are the only units that can be raised or lowered to protect the auger from rocks and debris. The downside is that they’ll leave behind an inch or so of snow when in the raised position.

Accessories

For electric models, a UL Listed extension cord that can handle the wet and cold is mandatory. Cost is $20-$40, depending on length.

A cover to protect your blower during the off-season will run about $35.

For really big jobs, it might be worth it to splurge on a cab enclosure to protect you from wind and blowing snow. Expect to pay at least $100.

Snow Blower Maintenance

Electric models are essentially care-free. Gas-powered blowers require you to either run the machine dry of fuel at the end of your home snow removal season, or that you add a fuel stabilizer to the remaining gas in the tank.

Oil, sparkplugs, auger belts, and air filters need to be replaced on a regular basis. Shear pins, designed to break to protect the auger from damage, cost just a few bucks for a multi-pack. You might go through a pack per season.

How to Protect Your Home From Severe Cold

How to Protect Your Home From Severe Cold
By: Gwen Moran

Published: September 24, 2009

The right tools and pre-winter maintenance will ensure that your home and your family are safe from cold-weather threats.

Understand the Threats

Blizzards: Storms with heavy winds and large amounts of snow accumulation can cause roof or other structural damage and leave you isolated.

Ice storms and ice dams: Ice storms coat structures, trees, power lines, cars, roads—and virtually everything else—with ice. As the ice melts, large chunks can fall and cause injury to anyone below. When ice melts during the day and then re-freezes at night, ice dams, which block water from flowing in the gutter, may form. This condition can force water back under the roof line and cause leaks.

Related: How to Prevent Ice Dams

Sleet or freezing rain: Combinations of snow and freezing rain may cause slippery conditions and coat roads, sidewalks, and driveways with ice when temperatures drop.

Protect Yourself

The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that home owners have shovels on hand, as well as melting agents, such as rock salt. Some of the new, more environmentally friendly deicers include calcium magnesium acetate and sand to improve traction. Be sure to stock up early in the season, as these agents tend to be in short supply during periods before a well-publicized storm.

FEMA also advises you have enough fuel to maintain heat in your home, as well as a backup heating source: firewood if the home has a working fireplace, or a generator to power heaters in case of power failure. However, use caution as these can represent fire hazards when not used correctly. Be sure to follow directions explicitly and keep a fire extinguisher. Some generators and fireplaces also require proper ventilation, according to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, so follow directions carefully and keep them away from curtains or other flammable items.

Stock up on extra blankets, warm clothing, and enough food and water to sustain your family in case of a few days of isolation. And a transistor radio with fresh batteries can help keep you updated on news and information in case of a power outage.

Related: What Should Be in an Emergency Survival Kit?

Protect Your Home

Before winter, there are some precautions you can take to protect your home from the ravages of cold weather storms:

Winterize your home. Check shutters, siding, and other exterior materials to ensure they’re secure, says retired contractor and home improvement expert and writer John Wilder of Jacksonville, Fla. High winds, ice, and moisture from winter storms can easily strip off such outside elements if they’re loose.

Be sure that gutters are clear of debris and that walkways are even and don’t represent tripping hazards that can be exacerbated with snow or ice. Caulk drafty windows and apply weather stripping to doors—both inexpensive strategies that can keep heat in your home. Air sealing can help you save about $350 in energy costs or one-third of your average annual heating and cooling costs. The average annual home energy bill is about $2,200, according to Energy Star, of which about $1,000 represents heating and cooling. An assortment of air sealing materials and tools, including silicone foam, caulk, aluminum flashing for flues, and additional insulation, will run roughly $100-$350.

Winterize pipes. Be sure your pipes, especially those exposed or in unheated areas like crawl spaces, are wrapped in insulation to prevent freezing and bursting. Also, learn where your water shut-off valves are so you can turn off the water supply in case of a leak. Six feet of insulation can cost anywhere from $7-$17; it’s available at most home improvement stores.

Trim tree branches. Branches that overhang roofs or areas where you park your car — or which are simply overgrown — represent a risk to structures, vehicles, and people. Keep trees trimmed and remove those that are weak or sickly to prevent them from falling on or near your home. Tree trimming and removal pricing varies greatly, and you may have additional restrictions if you live in an historic community or if the trees are close to power lines.

Check with your municipality about any regulations and contact your local Chamber of Commerce, municipal offices, or contractor rating sites like MerchantCircle.com or AngiesList.com to get the names of reputable pros. Tree trimming and removal can be dangerous, so don’t attempt it on your own unless you’re experienced.

By keeping your home in good repair and stocking up on the supplies you’ll need before the rush for rock salt and shovels begins, you’ll be as ready as possible to tough out the storm.

5 Good Reasons to Amend Your Tax Return – and How

5 Good Reasons to Amend Your Tax Return — and How
By: Reyna Gobel

Published: December 21, 2012

Missed tax deduction? Overlooked tax credit? Get what’s coming to you by amending your return.

1. Home office deduction

If your home is your principal place of business, you can deduct a percentage of eligible home expenses like:

Utilities
Mortgage interest for the proportion of the house used as your office
Home repairs and maintenance
Forms you’ll need to file an amendment:

1040X
Form 8829 and Schedule A (if you’re employed by someone else) for the year you’re amending
Schedule C (if you’re self-employed) for the year you’re amending
2. Energy tax credit

If you installed energy-efficiency improvements (like HVAC systems, insulation, a roof, windows) in 2009 and 2010 and didn’t take a tax credit for those upgrades, you may have missed out on up to $1,500 (or up to 30% of what you spent).

My husband and I didn’t claim the energy tax credit for insulation we installed in 2009 because we thought we’d get a better deal if we claimed the credit in 2010 when we planned to replace windows. But we never got around to replacing the windows. So we amended our 2009 return to claim the tax credit for the insulation. The $500 we’ll get back for the insulation is less than the $1,500 we would have received if we replaced windows, but it’s $500 we won’t get if we don’t amend.

If you want to amend your 2009 return that you filed in 2010, you have until April 15, 2013; for your 2010 return, you have until 2014.

Forms you need:

1040X
Form 5695 for the year you’re amending
Note: Congress extended the $500 lifetime energy tax credit for 2012 and 2013.

3. Home improvement sales tax deduction

If your state and local town doesn’t tax income, you can amend Schedule A to deduct state and local sales tax you paid. Say you added new siding for $10,000 and your state charged 6% in sales tax. That’s potentially a $600 deduction.

Use the IRS’s online sales tax calculator to figure out the total sales tax you can deduct. Have the receipts to prove you paid the sales taxes.

Forms you need:

1040x
Schedule A for the year you’re amending
4. Property tax deduction

Get a copy of your tax bill payment from the local tax office that collects the bill. Make sure you deduct the property tax expense on your amended return for the year you paid it, which could be different than the year it was due.

Forms you need:

1040x
Schedule A for the year you’re amending
5. Home repair deduction

Red alert: You can’t claim deductions for any old home repair. There are only two narrow, possible ways to claim home repairs, and it’s always best to check with a tax pro for your particular situation:

1. If part of your home is used for business. You can only claim repairs made to your home office or claim a percentage of the repairs you make to the house as a whole, like repainting or patching a roof leak. If 10% of your home is office, you can deduct 10% of the repainting or patching. If the repair is to the office itself only, then the percentage generally does not apply.

Forms you need:

1040X
Form 8829 and Schedule A (if you’re employed by someone else) for the year you’re amending
Schedule C (if you’re self-employed) for the year you’re amending
2. For casualty losses. Calculating and deducting casualty losses (disaster, damages, robbery) is complex. Everything from your income level to how you value your property can affect overlooked deductions. Besides placing a value on your personal property, you have to subtract a number of things from that, including insurance reimbursement and a percentage of your adjusted gross income. Read IRS Publication 547 and consult a tax adviser. Note that you can claim losses from federally declared disasters either in the year they occur or, if it’s more favorable, on the preceding year’s taxes.

Forms you need:

1040X
Form 4684 for casualty and theft for the year you’re amending
Schedule A for the year you’re amending
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.

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.

6 Home Deduction Traps and How to Avoid Them

6 Home Deduction Traps and How to Avoid Them
By: Barbara Eisner Bayer

Published: December 21, 2012

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 2012, 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 you’ve had a change in loan-to-value status.

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 (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 Home Owners Make on Their Taxes

9 Easy Mistakes Home Owners Make on Their Taxes
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: December 31, 2012

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

This deduction may not be as good as it seems. It’s 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. Hampton’s advice: Claim it only if it’s worth those drawbacks. If so, here’s what to know about what you can write off.

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 maintenance and repair 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 2012 — or will 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

You can deduct mortgage interest only up to $1 million of mortgage debt, says Meighan. If you have $1.2 million in mortgage debt, for example, deduct only the mortgage interest attributable to the first $1 million.

This article was original published in Jan. 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!

Checklist for HVAC Maintenance

Checklist for HVAC Maintenance
By: Douglas Trattner

Published: July 17, 2013

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

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

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

Published: July 19, 2013

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.

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

Published: April 14, 2010

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

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

Published: August 3, 2012

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.

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 2006-2008, 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 square feet for around $25. If you hire a pro, figure on $1 per square foot.

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 square foot for a new finish. If the floor can’t be sanded, you’ll need a whole new floor — $8-$20 per square foot, 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

Published: October 14, 2013

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.

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.

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.

Don’t-Miss Home Tax Breaks

Don’t-Miss Home Tax Breaks
By: Dona DeZube

Published: January 10, 2013

From the mortgage interest deduction to energy tax credits, here are the tax tips you need to get a jump on your returns.

Mortgage interest deduction
Private mortgage insurance deduction
Prepaid interest deduction
Energy tax credits
Vacation or second home tax deductions
Home buyer tax credit repayment
Property tax deduction

Mortgage interest deduction
One of the neatest deductions itemizing home owners can take advantage of is the mortgage interest deduction, which you claim on Schedule A. To get the mortgage interest deduction, your mortgage must be secured by your home — and your home can even be a house trailer or boat, as long as you can sleep in it, cook in it, and it has a toilet.

Interest you pay on a mortgage of up to $1 million — or $500,000 if you’re married filing separately — is deductible when you use the loan to buy, build, or improve your home.

If you take on another mortgage (including a second mortgage, home equity loan, or home equity line of credit) to improve your home or to buy or build a second home, that counts towards the $1 million limit.

If you use loans secured by your home for other things — like sending your kid to college — you can still deduct the interest on loans up $100,000 ($50,000 for married filing separately) because your home secures the loan.

PMI and FHA mortgage insurance premiums

Helpfully, the government extended the mortgage insurance premium deduction through 2013. You can deduct the cost of private mortgage insurance as mortgage interest on Schedule A — meaning you must itemize your return. The change only applies to loans taken out in 2007 or later.

What’s PMI? If you have a mortgage but didn’t put down a fairly good-sized down payment (usually 20%), the lender requires the mortgage be insured. The premium on that insurance can be deducted, so long as your income is less than $100,000 (or $50,000 for married filing separately).

If your adjusted gross income is more than $100,000, your deduction is reduced by 10% for each $1,000 ($500 in the case of a married individual filing a separate return) that your adjusted gross income exceeds $100,000 ($50,000 in the case of a married individual filing a separate return). So, if you make $110,000 or more, you lose 100% of this deduction (10% x 10 = 100%).

Besides private mortgage insurance, there’s government insurance from FHA, VA, and the Rural Housing Service. Some of those premiums are paid at closing and deducting them is complicated. A tax adviser or tax software program can help you calculate this deduction. Also, the rules vary between the agencies.

Prepaid interest deduction
Prepaid interest (or points) you paid when you took out your mortgage is 100% deductible in the year you paid them along with other mortgage interest.

If you refinance your mortgage and use that money for home improvements, any points you pay are also deductible in the same year.

But if you refinance to get a better rate and term or to use the money for something other than home improvements, such as college tuition, you’ll need to deduct the points over the term of the loan. Say you refi for a 10-year term and pay $3,000 in points. You can deduct $300 per year for 10 years.

So what happens if you refi again down the road?

Example: Three years after your first refi, you refinance again. Using the $3,000 in points scenario above, you’ll have deducted $900 ($300 x 3 years) so far. That leaves $2,400, which you can deduct in full the year you complete your second refi. If you paid points for the new loan, the process starts again; you can deduct the points over the term of the loan.

Home mortgage interest and points are reported on IRS Form 1098. You enter the combined amount on line 10 of Schedule A. If your 1098 form doesn’t indicate the points you paid, you should be able to confirm the amount by consulting your HUD-1 settement sheet. Then you record that amount on line 12 of Schedule A.

Energy tax credits
The energy tax credit of up to a lifetime $500 had expired in 2011. But the Feds extended it for 2012 and 2013. If you upgraded one of the following systems this year, it’s an opportunity for a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your tax liability: If you get the $500 credit, you pay $500 less in taxes.

Biomass stoves
Heating, ventilation, air conditioning
Insulation
Roofs (metal and asphalt)
Water heaters (non-solar)
Windows, doors, and skylights
Storm windows and doors
Varying maximums

Some of the eligible products and systems are capped even lower than $500. New windows are capped at $200 — and not per window, but overall. Read about the fine print in order to claim your energy tax credit.

Determine if the system is eligible. Go to Energy Star’s website for detailed descriptions of what’s covered. And talk to your vendor.
The product or system must have been installed, not just contracted for, in the tax year you’ll be claiming it.
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.
Vacation home tax deductions
The rules on tax deductions for vacation homes are complicated. Do yourself a favor and keep good records about how and when you use your vacation home.

If you’re the only one using your vacation home (you don’t rent it out for more than 14 days a year), you can deduct mortgage interest and real estate taxes on Schedule A.
Rent your vacation home out for more than 14 days and use it yourself fewer than 15 days (or 10% of total rental days, whichever is greater), and it’s treated like a rental property. Those expenses get deducted using Schedule E.
Rent your home for part of the year and use it yourself for more than 14 days and you have to keep track of income, expenses, and divide them proportionate to how often you used and how often you rented the house.
Home buyer tax credit
There were federal first-time home buyer tax credits in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

If you claimed the home buyer tax credit for a purchase made after April 8, 2008, and before Jan. 1, 2009, you must repay 1/15th of the credit over 15 years, with no interest.
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. Example: If you bought a home in 2010 and sold in 2012, you pay it back with your 2012 taxes.
That repayment rules are less rigorous for uniformed service members, Foreign Service workers, and intelligence community workers who get sent on extended duty at least 50 miles from their principal residence.
Members of the armed forces who served overseas got an extra year to use the first-time home buyer tax credit. If you were abroad for at least 90 days between Jan. 1, 2009, and April 30, 2010, and you bought your home by April 30, 2011, and closed the deal by June 30, 2011, you can claim your first-time home buyer tax credit.

The IRS has a tool you can use to help figure out what you owe.

Property tax deduction
You can deduct on Schedule A the real estate property taxes you pay. If you have a mortgage with an escrow account, the amount of real estate property taxes you paid shows up on your annual escrow statement.

If you bought a house this year, check your HUD-1 Settlement statement to see if you paid any property taxes when you closed the purchase of your house. Those taxes are deductible on Schedule A, too.

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; tax laws may vary by jurisdiction.

If You Were Selling Today, Would You Have the Home That Buyers Want?

If You Were Selling Today, Would You Have the Home That Buyers Want?
By: Dona DeZube

Published: November 8, 2013

Knowing what appeals to today’s homebuyers, and considering those trends when you remodel, can pay off years from now when you sell your home.

Two new surveys about what homebuyers want have me feeling pretty smug about my own home choices. Maybe you’ll feel the same.

Privacy from neighbors remains at the top of the most-wanted list (important to 86% of buyers), according to the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS’® “2013 Community Preference Survey.” Privacy is no doubt the best feature of my mid-century ranch home, since I can only see one neighbor’s house and it’s a couple hundred feet down my driveway.

It may not be practical to move your neighbors farther away (although I’m sure many people wish they had that superpower), but you can increase your home’s privacy (and therefore its resale value) by planting a living privacy screen of trees and shrubs or by physically screening off your patio.

Related: Trees Contribute to Property Value, Energy Savings, and More

3 More Takeaways for the Next Time You Remodel

1. More and more generations are living together. Another NAR survey, the “2013 Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers,” found 14% of buyers purchased a home suited to a multigenerational household due to children over the age of 18 moving back into the house, cost savings, and the health and caretaking of aging parents.

I did that back when my parents were still alive, and it worked out great for everyone. I didn’t have time to let my infant daughter nap on my shoulder all afternoon, but my mom did. She couldn’t drive to church meetings at night, but I could take her. And neither of us liked cleaning the gutters, but my husband didn’t mind that chore.

Even if you’d rather live in a cardboard box than with your mother, you might want to consider the multigenerational living trend when you’re remodeling. For instance, opting for a full bath when finishing the basement could offer more convenience for you now and boost your home’s resale value by making it more appealing to a multigenerational family.

2. On average, homeowners live in their home for nine years. That’s up from six years in 2007. Since you’ll be in your home for a long time, it makes sense to remodel to suit your taste but also with long-lasting marketability in mind. After all, you don’t want to have to redo stuff. For instance, you can go for trend-defying kitchen features, like white overtones and Shaker-style cabinets, which work with a variety of styles.

I feel compelled to caution against going so far out of the norm for your neighborhood that it’ll turn off potential buyers even nine years from now. (It never hurts to get your REALTOR®’s opinion on your remodeling plans.)

Related: Home Upgrades with the Lowest ROI

3. Homebuyers love energy efficiency. Heating and cooling costs were “somewhat” or “very important” to a whopping 85% of buyers. If your home could use an energy-efficiency upgrade, go with projects that have a solid return on investment, like sealing your air leaks and adding attic insulation. You’ll save money on your utility bills now and when you’re ready to sell, your home will appeal to buyers looking for efficiency.

By the way, to take back your energy bills, you need to do at least four things. One to two fixes won’t cut it, thanks to rising energy costs.

About two-thirds of survey respondents also thought energy-efficient appliances and energy-efficient lighting were important. Tuck away your manuals and energy-efficiency information when you buy new appliances and lighting. When you’re ready to sell (in nine years) you can pull those out and display them where buyers will see them.

NeverWet Lives Up to Its Name – But Questions Remain

NeverWet Lives Up to Its Name — But Questions Remain
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: July 23, 2013

Yes, it repels water from all sorts of surfaces at home, maybe even better than the hype suggests, but what’s the catch?

Rust-Oleum is rolling out its new NeverWet, water-repelling spray with such fanfare, we’re expecting a parade any minute.

NeverWet is a “superhydrophobic” (not just a regular hydrophobic), two-part spray that makes water bead up and run off just about any surface – plastic, wood, stucco, cement, tennis sneakers you want to keep white.

NeverWet, a nanotechnology innovator, has teamed up with Rust-Oleum to bring this miracle coating to the masses. The company “loves” its new product for low traffic-low abrasion items like:

Exposed brick and masonry

Porous wood, like decks

Stucco – claims of warding off mold and mildew have been made

Toilet brushes

Cat boxes and dog beds

Outdoor gear – hiking books, tents, gloves
There’s a catch. Isn’t there always?

The coating wears off quickly on surfaces that you rub or walk on often, like a walkway. Also, it has a matte finish and dries with a little white, hazy, and velvety feeling. So you shouldn’t spray it on:

Glass you’d like to see through (like your car’s windshield)

Black surfaces, like dress shoes

Nice clothing that you don’t want to redesign with a whitish, velvety finish (though the company is working on a fabric coating)
Internet chatter says NeverWet actually works better than advertised. Users have sprayed it on their satellite dish (bird poop rolls off) and workshop clamps (glue rolls off). But some commenters are worried about the health hazards of the spray.

A NeverWet white paper says key ingredients in the top coat are used in food products. “Yes, you have eaten them,” it says.

But — and this is a big but — the company doesn’t vouch for the solvents used in the product.

Flood Insurance Rates Going Up? Here’s What to Do

Flood Insurance Rates Going Up? Here’s What to Do
By: Dona DeZube

Published: July 22, 2013

Why Are Rates Going Up?

Two reasons:

1. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is updating its flood maps to be more accurate, which could change your flood risk designation. If your risk is higher, your premiums will go up. If it’s lower, your premiums could go down.

2. Last year, a new law took effect that requires the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to phase out subsidies for some older properties to reflect the full risk of flooding.

Phasing out the subsidized rates and discounts over the next five years will help the NFIP stay solvent.

Some subsidies have been given in the form of “grandfathering.” A grandfathered rate is a discount given to homes built in compliance with then-existing standards in a flood-mapped community where the flood risk has since increased.

Congress and FEMA are reviewing these properties to determine whether to phase out these grandfathered rates. FEMA won’t make a decision on this until late 2014. By then, Congress could pass a law delaying the increase indefinitely.

Do You Have a Subsidized or Discounted Rate?

Only 20% of NFIP policies are subsidized. Most hom eowners already pay the full rate and won’t see an increase.

If your property isn’t your principal residence, is in a special flood hazard area, and was built before the first flood insurance rate map was implemented for your community, you may be getting a subsidy for being what’s called Pre-FIRM (pre-flood-insurance-rate-map).

TIP: To find out if your home is Pre-FIRM, look up your area in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Community Book.

1. Click your state.

2. Look for the date in the “Init FIRM Identified” column for your area.

If your home was built before that date and it’s in a special hazard zone, you probably have subsidized flood insurance.

If Your Premiums Aren’t Subsidized or Discounted

It’s possible you still could see a change in your flood insurance premiums if your home is in a community that adopts a revised flood map after July 6, 2012. If that revised flood map puts you in a different zone, your rates could go up or down.

When Will the Rate Changes Take Effect?

If your home is Pre-FIRM and it’s a second home (rental or vacation), you may already have seen your rates change. A 25% increase was implemented for policies renewing after Jan. 1, 2013. Increases will continue each year until they reach full-risk rates.

In October 2013, more subsidized homes will start seeing rate increases of 25% each year:

Severe repetitive loss properties

Business properties

Properties with previous flood claims for more than the market value of the property
If you have a Pre-FIRM home, and it’s your primary home, and it doesn’t fall into the above-mentioned categories, (lucky you!) you get to keep your subsidized rate until:

You sell your home.

You let your policy lapse.

You have severe, repeated flood losses.

You buy a new policy.
Can You Get a Better Rate?

You may be able to get a lower flood insurance rate by changing your home’s flood risk. Congress appropriated a large sum of money for property owners to raise their homes onto piers, posts, columns, or pilings. Check with your local community to see if grant money is available to help you do that. Talk to your insurance agent about how elevating your house will change your flood insurance premium.

There’s also a Community Rating System that could reduce flood insurance rates by up to 45%, depending on which flood plain management regulations your community adopts.

Check with your local officials or insurance company to see if your community participates and if you can get a discount for that. If your community doesn’t participate, write a letter to local officials urging them to join the Community Rating System.

Other things you can do to trim your flood insurance premiums:

Opt for a higher deductible on your excess insurance policy if you have one.

Convince local officials to put more money into community flood mitigation projects to lower your flood risk.
It won’t lower your premium, but having a flood cleanup kit on hand will make your life easier if you do have a flood.

By the way, NFIP is the best deal. Without it, you have to take your chances in a virtually nonexistent private market for flood insurance at rates only the wealthy can afford.

Some of the same companies that provide private flood coverage also sell “excess coverage” flood insurance. Excess coverage pays to rebuild homes valued at more than the NFIP limit of $250,000.

Mistakes in Flood Insurance Premiums

It’s possible the rate you’re quoted for flood insurance is wrong. If you disagree about whether your home is in a particular flood zone or the insurer didn’t take into account the pilings that raise your home 12 feet in the air, you can appeal your home’s flood zone determination.

An elevation certificate from a surveyor or engineer can lower your premium if it proves your home sits above the predicted flood level.

You’ll also want to correct insurer mistakes that lower your premium. For example, if your policy says your home doesn’t have an elevator or crawlspace and it does, tell your agent, even if your premium will rise when those are included. That ensures your property and possessions are fully covered and recoup what you’re owed.

Think the FEMA map itself is wrong? Check with local zoning officials, your builder, prior owners, a local surveyor, and FEMA to see if anyone has filed a Letter of Map Amendment asking for a map review.

If no one has filed, you can do your own appeal.

Solar Christmas Lights: Should You Make the Switch?

Solar Christmas Lights: Should You Make the Switch?
By: Alyson McNutt English

Published: December 1, 2011

Solar Christmas lights don’t cost anything to operate, but the high purchase price might not add up to savings.

Now there’s a new kid in the string-light neighborhood: LED solar Christmas lights are appearing at retailers around the country, promising grid-free festive lighting for holiday-happy consumers.

Powering up solar Christmas lights

A string of solar Christmas lights uses a small solar panel for power; there are no extension cords that must be plugged into outlets. The panel — about the size of a hockey puck — powers rechargeable batteries that illuminate a 25- to 100-bulb string of LED lights.

Panels come with small stakes so you can put them in the ground, where they can take advantage of the sun. A fully-charged string of lights should glow for 6 to 8 hours after the sun goes down.

Solar lights vs. LED plug-in costs

Most consumers expect new technologies to cost more, but if saving energy and money is your main reason for considering solar-powered LED holiday lights, solar lights may not offer enough cost-saving to offset the higher initial purchase price.

Compare purchase prices:

The average cost for a 100-light string of miniature solar-powered LED lights is about $0.30 per bulb, or about $30 per string.
The average cost for a 100-light string of miniature plug-in LED lights is $0.08 per bulb, or about $8 per string.
Compare costs to operate:

Operating a string of plug-in LED Christmas lights for 300 hours — more than enough hours for an entire holiday season — costs about $0.30, using an average energy cost of $0.11 per kilowatt hour.
Solar-powered Christmas lights, of course, don’t cost anything to operate. That means you’re saving 30 cents per year in energy costs.
Do the math, and you’ll see that it’ll take about 45 years for the energy savings from solar-power to equal the difference in purchase price between a plug-in string and a solar-powered string.

Advantages of solar lights

no extension cords
no need for exterior electrical outlets
withstand cold temperatures and precipitation
zero cost to operate
light output comparable to plug-in lighting
a green option
Disadvantages

higher initial cost to purchase
may not operate under cloudy skies
unproven longevity (too new on the market for results)

How to Care for Poinsettias

How to Care for Poinsettias
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: December 12, 2012

Here’s how to care for poinsettias and keep them alive and happy for 6 to 8 weeks.

Buy with care

Inspect poinsettias carefully before you buy a plant. A healthy plant looks like this:

Dark green foliage before color develops.
Bracts (colored leaves) completely colored without green perimeters.
Lush and filled with leaves, not yellow and sparsely covered.
Balanced from all sides.
Displayed naked without plastic sleeves that can cause plants to droop. Cover the plant only when transporting in temperatures below 50 degrees.
2.5 times taller than its diameter.
Home growing

Poinsettias originated in Mexico and don’t like the cold, even for a few minutes. So make sure you wrap the plant before driving it home, and then keep it away from hot and cold drafts, such as heating registers and drafty windows, which can make leaves drop.

More poinsettia care tips

Display your poinsettia in indirect light for about 6 hours per day.
High temperatures will shorten the poinsettia’s life. Keep room temperatures at 60 to 70 degrees during the day; around 55 degrees in the evening. You might have to move the plant around to expose it to optimal temperatures, like keeping it in the kitchen by day and in the mudroom by night.
Water when the soil is dry to the touch. If you keep the plant in foil, puncture the bottom to allow water to drain and prevent root rot. Empty drip trays after watering. Be careful not to over-water, which can cause wilting and leaf loss.
Feed blooming poinsettias every 2 to 3 weeks with a water-soluble plant food; water monthly after blooming.
Should you rebloom?

Coaxing a poinsettia to re-bloom each year is an exhausting process. Each month from January to December you have to snip or repot; move to the dark or move to the light; water or not water — you’ll get a migraine just thinking about it.

Since a new 6-inch poinsettia costs a ten-spot, you’re better off buying a new crop each year and spending your time and energy on other gardening delights.

But if you’re a waste-not person, here’s a look at what you can do to coax your poinsettia to bloom again next year.

January-May: Give your plant plenty of sun and enough water to stay moist, but not soggy. Fertilize every 2 weeks. In early April, prune to 6-8 inches tall.

June: Repot with fresh soil and move your poinsettia outdoors where it can get 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. Fertilize weekly until early fall. If you put the plant on a patio, give it shade during the hottest part of the day. If you place the pot in a flower garden, lift and turn it weekly so roots don’t grow into the ground and become shocked when you return the plant indoors in September.

Late July: Pinch off the top of the plant and 2-3 leaves on each stem to prevent the poinsettia from getting leggy.

September: Bring the poinsettia indoors when nighttime temperatures fall into the 50s. Place in a sunny window, and water when dry to the touch. Fertilize weekly.

October 1 to Thanksgiving: To force the bracts to color, the plant must be kept in uninterrupted darkness from 5 p.m. to about 8 a.m., and then returned to bright sun for the rest of the day. There should be a 7-10-degree difference between the dark and light environments: optimally, 65-70 degrees at night, and 70-80 degrees in the day. Fertilize weekly.

Thanksgiving: When the bracts begin to color, suspend the dark-light routine, and keep the plant moist and in a sunny spot for 6-8 hours daily. After full color has been achieved (congratulations!), stop fertilizing and move the poinsettia to wherever it will be admired most.

Real Christmas Trees vs. Fake Christmas Trees: Which are Greener

Real Christmas Trees vs. Fake Christmas Trees: Which are Greener?
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: December 10, 2010

How do real Christmas trees and fake Christmas trees stack up when it comes to the environment and cost? We’ve got the dirt.

You can pick up a basic fake Christmas tree for as little as $23 from Lowe’s. Or, go deluxe—with already-lit, snow-covered branches—for as much as $298. Either way, keep a faux tree in the family for at least a decade to goose up your holiday gift fund and mitigate the pileup in your local landfill.

If you insist on replacing your fake tree every year to change things up, donate your old one to a charity, a resale shop, or Freecycle.

All I want for Christmas is the greenest of trees. What do I look for?

Visit a local Christmas tree farm. Christmas tree farmland often can’t be used for other crops, says Brian Clark Howard, an environmental reporter at The Daily Green in New York City. When the tree farmers plant new trees, the growing young trees combat climate change by absorbing carbon. And tree farms conserve soil—farmers only till the land once every six or eight years.
If you buy from a Christmas tree lot, your tree was likely shipped from Oregon or North Carolina, and getting it to you created pollution, Howard says.

Do business with a local Christmas tree farmer who grows organic Christmas trees without pesticides. Whether an organic tree costs more depends on where you live.

LED Holiday Lights: 6 Need-to-Know Tips

LED Holiday Lights: 6 Need-to-Know Tips
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: December 10, 2010

LED holiday lights vs. old-fashioned bulbs: 6 tips to help you decide which is right for you.

1. LED holiday lights save you money. LED lights use at least 90% less energy than traditional holiday lights, according to the U.S. government’s Energy Star program.

That results in a $50 energy savings for the average family during the holidays, says Avital Binshtock of the Sierra Club in San Francisco.

Put it into perspective: The amount of electricity consumed by one 7-watt incandescent bulb could power 140 LEDs—enough to light two 24-foot strings, says Energy Star.

2. But LED lights typically cost more than old-fashioned holiday lights.

GE 100-bulb string of Energy Star-certified LED white lights: $18.97 at Lowe’s
GE 100-bulb string of conventional white lights: $8.97
But shop around because a growing number of retailers are offering sales on LED holiday lights and, if you can’t find a sale before the holidays, you can certainly find one after. Plus, prices will surely go down as these lights gain traction.

3. LED holiday lights last and last. LED bulbs can keep your season bright for as long as 100,000 hours, says Cathy Choi, president of Moonachie, N.J.-based Bulbrite, which manufactures LED and regular bulbs. That’s substantially longer than the life of your old holiday light strings.

4. You can string a BIG strand of LED lights. Safety wise, you shouldn’t connect more than three traditional light strings, but you can connect up to 87 LED holiday light strings, totaling a whopping 1,500 feet, Choi says. So blow your neighbor’s display away by cocooning your house in lights:

You won’t have to buy as many extension cords.
You can take your holiday lighting display further away from the outlet.
5. LED lights reduce the risk of fire. They stay cooler than incandescent bulbs, according to Energy Star.

6. How about that hue? Some people stick with their old lights because they don’t like the brighter hue that white LED holiday lights emit. But Choi says manufacturers now offer a “warm white” bulb that more closely mimics the glow of an incandescent light. Be sure to read the label to choose a bright or warm white and to ensure what you’re purchasing is Energy Star-certified.

Colored and color-changing LED holiday lights are more vibrant than conventional lights, making your display easier to see from the street, Choi says.

10 Christmas Light Tips to Save Time, Money and (Possibly) Your Life

10 Christmas Light Tips to Save Time, Money, and (Possibly) Your Life
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: December 9, 2011

Here’s how to light up your Christmas light display safely and economically.

1. Safety first. Emergency rooms are filled with home owners who lose fights with their holiday lights and fall off ladders or suffer electric shocks. To avoid the holiday black and blues, never hang lights solo; instead, work with a partner who holds the ladder. Also, avoid climbing on roofs after rain or snow.

2. Unpack carefully. Lights break and glass cuts. So unpack your lights gingerly, looking for and replacing broken bulbs along the way.

3. Extension cords are your friends. Splurge on heavy-duty extension cords that are UL-listed for outdoor use. To avoid overloading, only link five strings of lights together before plugging into an extension cord.

4. LEDs cost less to light. LED Christmas lights use roughly 70% to 90% less energy and last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. You can safely connect many more LED light strings than incandescents. Downside: Some think they don’t burn as brightly as incandescent bulbs.

5. Solar lights cost nothing to run. Solar Christmas lights are roughly four times more expensive to buy than LEDs, but they cost zero to run. They’re a bright-burning, green alternative. Downside: If there’s no sun during the day, there’s no light at night. The jury’s also still out on how long they last; they’re too new on the market for results.

6. Dismantle lights sooner than later. Sun, wind, rain, and snow all take their toll on Christmas lights. To extend the life of lights, take them down immediately after the holidays. The longer you leave the up, the sooner you’ll have to replace them.

7. Plan next year’s display on Dec. 26. Shop the after-Christmas sales to get the best prices on lights and blowups that you can proudly display next year. Stock up on your favorite lights so you’ll have spares when you need them (and after they’re discontinued).

8. Permanent attachments save time. If you know you’ll always hang lights from eaves, install permanent light clips ($13 for 75 clips) that will save you hanging time each year. You’ll get a couple/three years out of the clips before sun eats the plastic.

9. Find those blueprints. Instead of guessing how many light strings you’ll need, or measuring with a tape, dig up your house blueprints or house location drawings (probably with your closing papers) and use those measurements as a guide.

10. Store them in a ball. It sounds counterintuitive, but the best way to store lights is to ball them up. Wrap five times in one direction, then turn the ball 90 degrees and repeat. Store your light balls in cardboard boxes, rather than in plastic bags: Cardboard absorbs residual moisture and extends the life of your lights.

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.

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.

Not everything needs chilling

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.

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.

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:
Published: November 29, 2010

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

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).

What tips do you have for getting ready for guests this holiday season?

How to Pick Paint Colors

By: Jan Soults Walker

Published: December 17, 2012

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

“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.

Concrete Painting Basics

By: Pat Curry

Published: March 25, 2011

Prepping and painting concrete surfaces requires more skill, tools, and time than throwing a coat of paint on drywall. Here’s how to put a new face on concrete.

1. Clean the concrete

Cleaning concrete is a vital first step because the porous surface tends to trap dirt, grease, and oil.

Remove dirt and grease with trisodium phosphate ($6.30 per quart concentrate), or choose a more Earth-friendly cleaner like Krud Kutter’s pre-paint cleaner ($10 for 32 ounces).
Yank off vines and moss growing on the foundation. Use a pressure washer to finish off remaining roots and dirt.
Remove efflorescence, a white powder that forms on moist concrete. Try Krud Kutter Concrete Clean & Etch ($8.50 for 32 ounces); if you need more cleaning muscle, try phosphoric acid masonry cleaner ($27 per gallon).
2. Strip old paint

Strip peeling or blistering paint indoors with a wire brush ($3 to $5), a paint scraper ($10 to $20), and lots of elbow grease.

Outdoors, get rid of old paint with a power washer (rents for $40 to $75 per day).

3. Seal interior concrete

Water moves easily through porous concrete, so sealing interior walls is necessary to prevent moisture from seeping in, promoting mold growth and that cold, damp basement feel. Use a masonry sealer, such as ThoroSeal, that also patches cracks ($35 for a 50-pound bag).

Carefully follow directions for mixing, applying, and curing the sealer. ThoroSeal, for example, requires two coats; the manufacturer recommends curing for five to seven days before applying the second coat.

4. Prime the concrete

Concrete primer, called block primer, fills pores and evens out the surface. For exterior foundations and walls, use exterior-grade block filler, such as Behr’s Concrete and Masonry Bonding Primer, which also is good for interior concrete ($17.98 per gallon). Primer dries in two hours; wait at least eight hours, but no more than 30 days, to paint.

5. Paint the concrete

Masonry paint (also called elastomeric paint or elastomeric wall coating) is a good choice for concrete painting because it contains binders that contract and expand with the concrete. Exterior house paint can crack and peel on concrete.

Masonry paint ($20 per gallon) can be tinted and is much thicker than exterior paint. Apply it with a masonry brush ($5 to $8), a high-capacity (3/4-inch or higher) roller, or a texture roller ($5.50).

Some masonry paint is thicker than exterior paint and contains fine particles that can clog air sprayers. If you want to spray-paint cement, ask your local paint store for a product that will work well in a sprayer ($300).

No matter how you apply paint, let it dry for a day between coats. You’ll probably need two to three coats, so check the long-range weather forecast before you begin.

Green Up Your Exterior Paint Job

By: Joseph D’Agnese

Published: March 1, 2010

A “green” exterior paint job costs more than a conventional job, but many conscientious painting contractors already build these practices into their estimates.

Taking green steps can add 10% to 25% to the cost of a pro paint job, jacking up the average price to paint a 2,000-square-foot, two-story house from $5,000 to around $6,000. But before you balk, understand that some of these practices are already built into the working process–and the cost estimates–of most high-end, conscientious paint contractors.

Here are some easy ways to improve air quality, reduce waste, and limit exposure to toxic chemicals when tackling an exterior painting project.

Choose low- or zero-VOC paint

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)–solids and liquids that convert easily to gas or vapor at room temperature–are contained in many paint products and have been linked to a variety of health problems. On the mild side, they can make your eyes water and give you headaches; more seriously, they can trigger asthma and other respiratory diseases, and some are known to cause cancer.

Common VOCs in paint include ethylene glycol (the same chemical compound found in antifreeze), formaldehyde, benzene, and a variety of other flammable or toxic chemicals. The paint’s materials safety data sheet (MSDS) lists any hazardous materials the product contains. Laminated MSDS sheets are usually displayed in paint stores, and you can also download them from a paint manufacturer’s website before you buy.

Current EPA regulations limit VOCs to 250 grams per liter in latex paint, and 380 grams per liter in oil-based paint. Low-VOC paints, now available from most major manufacturers, clock in at less than 50 grams per liter for flat paints, and 150 grams per liter in gloss paints. Some go even lower, hitting 25- or even 10-gram-per-liter benchmarks. A paint that has 5 grams of VOCs or less per liter can claim “zero-VOC” status.

With little to no odor and performance that rivals that of conventional products, today’s low-VOC paints are easy to like. The biggest barrier to wider use is the higher cost: about $10 more per gallon than conventional premium paints, which adds up when you’re painting an entire house.

Use lead-safe practices

As of April 2010, by law paint contractors must follow strict lead-safe procedures while working on pre-1978 houses to ensure that old paint dust isn’t dispersed into the air. In addition to wearing protective suits and masks, they’re also required to use high-performance HEPA sanders and vacuums and to carefully collect and bag old paint scrapings. Any lead-containing waste can’t be tossed out in the regular trash but must be bundled in special bags and brought to an authorized hazardous waste facility.

The cost of the extra labor and disposable materials–such as Tyvek suits, masks, tarps, and vacuum bags, which can’t be reused on the contractor’s next job–accounts for a large chunk of the added expense to homeowners.

Buy only what you need

Smart contractors only buy as much paint, primer, putty, and caulk as they need for a job. If you’re doing the work yourself, consult a paint-store expert or use a paint calculator so you buy only what you absolutely need to reduce waste. Remember: Once your color’s mixed, you’re stuck with it. Buy slightly less than you need on your first run. You can always buy more later.

Use quality tools and take care of them

Waste isn’t green. Cheap brushes lose bristles and make a mess of the job. Same goes for cheap rollers and sprayers. Good contractors buy high-end materials and take care of them so they last. For DIY projects, buy the best brushes you can afford and commit to washing them carefully after each use. It often doesn’t pay to wash and reuse roller cartridges; buy the best you can and dispose of them when the paint on them has dried completely.

Recycle cans, solvents, and paints

The best way to recycle leftover paint is to use it for a different job around your house. You can also donate it to an organization that can use it. Paint that is still in liquid form can be remixed and reprocessed by companies such as Boomerang Paint into excellent new paint products.

Dispose of empty or dried paint cans and solvents at a county hazardous waste landfill. Costs vary greatly. In some municipalities, homeowners don’t pay for this disposal, only commercial contractors do.

10 Steps to a Perfect Exterior Paint Job

By: Joseph D’Agnese

Published: March 11, 2011

Painting the exterior of your home is a big job that costs thousands in the hands of a professional. But you can save money if you invest the time to do it yourself correctly.

Step 1: Get the lead out

Do-it-yourselfers are not obligated to follow EPA regulations for lead-safe practices, as professional paint contractors must. But if your home was built before 1978, when lead paint was banned for residential use, you should protect yourself and your neighbors from airborne lead particles.

The first step is to test for lead paint: Kits are available for $10 to $35 online, and at paint and hardware stores. If tests prove positive for lead, keep paint dust to a minimum by taking the following precautions.

Lay plastic drop cloths and collect scrapings.
Clean area with a HEPA vacuum.
Wear masks and Tyvek suits.
Dispose of all materials at an approved hazardous materials site.
Read on to learn more:

2. Wash the exterior
3. Scrape off loose paint
4. Sand rough spots
5. Fill and repair
6. Apply primer
7. Caulk all joints
8. Choose the right paint
9. Apply top coat(s)
10. Practice good maintenance

Step 2: Wash the exterior
Mildew thrives under fresh paint, which won’t adhere well to dirty, grimy, spore-sporting exterior walls. So wash your home’s exterior before painting.

Use a mix of water and a phosphate-free cleanser such as Jomax House Cleaner ($15 per gallon) and Mildew Killer Concentrate ($8.50 for 32 ounces).

You can hand-apply the solution with a sponge, which will take forever and many trips up and down the ladder. Or, hire a pro to pressure wash siding–not a task for an amateur, who can damage siding by pushing water under boards. (Cost varies by location: $150 to $750 for a professional to pressure wash the exterior of a 2,100-square-foot house.)

Step 3: Scrape off loose paint
Once clapboards are dry, remove loose, flaking paint.

A handheld scraper is usually the best tool for the job, though you can also use a hot-air gun or infrared paint stripper. Never use an open-flame torch, which can easily start a fire and is illegal in most states unless you have a permit.

To work lead-safe, wear a mask and Tyvek suit, spray water on the paint as you scrape, and collect the debris.

Step 4: Sand rough spots
A pad sander or random-orbit fitted with 80-grit sandpaper will smooth out any remaining rough spots. Take care not to push so hard that you leave sander marks in the wood.

To be lead safe, use sanders fitted with HEPA filters.

Step 5: Fill and repair
After washing, scraping, and sanding your wood siding, step back and inspect what you’ve uncovered–holes, dings, and chips.

Fill minor holes or dings in the siding with a patching putty or compound such as Zinsser’s Ready Patch ($20 per gallon).

If you’ve got a major rot problem, summon a carpenter to replace the bad wood. Also, fix drainage problems that cause water to pool and promote rot.

Step 6: Apply primer
Apply primer immediately after preparing wood siding.

White, gray, or tinted primer provides an even base for topcoats to adhere to, and a uniform canvas from which to survey your work. Small gaps in joints and around doors, windows, and other spots where horizontals meet verticals will all stand out in high relief, showing where you need to fill in with caulk.

If you’re painting over bare wood or existing latex paint, then latex primer is fine. But if you’re painting over multiple coats of oil-based paint, it’s best to stick with a new coat of oil-based primer.

Step 7: Caulk all joints
Siliconized or top-of-the line polyurethane acrylic caulks give paint jobs a smooth, pleasing look. But the benefits aren’t purely aesthetic. Tight joints also prevent air leaks and block water penetration.

Spring for the $7-a-tube polyurethane caulks with 55-year warranties, which will stand up to weather better than 35-year caulks that cost less than $3. The average house requires about seven tubes of caulk.

Step 8: Choose the right paint
Painting with water-based acrylic latex is so much easier than dealing with oil-based paints. Latex paint:

Applies easily
Dries quickly
Cleans up with soap and water
If your house already sports an oil-based paint, which is more durable than latex, you’ll have to stick with it.

Choose finishes carefully. As a rule, the higher the sheen, the better the paint is at blocking the sun’s damaging rays. Satin is fine for shingles or clapboards, but you’ll want gloss paint to protect high-traffic parts of a house, such as window casings, porches, and doorframes. A gallon of premium exterior latex costs $35 to $45.

Step 9: Apply top coat(s)
Less is more when it comes to applying top coats. More layers can result in paint flaking off through the years; less paint bonds better to layers beneath.

If you’re going from a white house to yellow or cream, you might be able to get by with one coat. Going from a light to a dark house, and vice versa, usually requires two coats.

Step 10: Practice good maintenance
You can extend the life of a good paint job by:

Inspecting the caulk every year and replacing any that’s cracked or missing.
Removing mold or mildew.
Washing stains from nesting birds and pollen.
Touching up blisters and peels before they spread.

Need to Know How to Paint Anything? There’s an App for That

By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: September 14, 2012

A new painting app teaches you ‘How To Paint Anything.’ We love the bonus tips.

Acting on the theory that a new coat of paint makes anything look better, Better Homes & Gardens has launched a new app for iOS devices that helps you paint anything better.

“How To Paint Anything” (99 cents) is a nifty tool that tells you, step-by-step, how to apply paint to any surface you can imagine — door hardware, exterior doors, room divider screens, ceramic tile, and of course, walls and floors.

If you’ve never painted before, the app has information and videos on must-have painting tools, brushes, sheens and the all-important prep.

But even if you’re painting proficient, the app supplies handy shopping lists, directions, and bonus tips.

We love the bonus tips, like these:

Wait 30 days before painting newly installed brick.
Painting laminate is a good temporary fix, but wear and water will compromise the finish over time.
Because the labor involved in painting a house exterior is so extensive, don’t be tempted to use inexpensive paint.
What’s your favorite painting tip?

Exterior Paints and Stains: A Guide to the Options

By: Joseph D’Agnese

Published: February 26, 2010

To choose the best exterior paint or stain for your job, match the coating to your house, your climate, and the look you want.

One key to how long an exterior finish lasts is how well the surface is prepared. But equally important is the choice of the paint or stain itself. Using high-quality materials, matching them to your house and climate, and conducting regular maintenance will extend the time between recoatings.

Expect to pay $35 to $45 per gallon for conventional premium paint or stain. “Green,” or zero-VOC, products run $45 to $55 per gallon. A gallon covers 350 to 400 square feet, so figure on about 8 gallons to cover an average two-story, 30-by-40-foot house. Most paint jobs require a primer and two topcoats.

Acrylic latex paints

Acrylic latex is the favored choice, both of pros and do-it-yourselfers. These water-based paints come in an endless range of colors and three popular finishes. Flat paint, commonly used indoors, offers the least protection against the elements. Satin, with its slightly higher sheen, is a good choice for wood siding. Semi-gloss or gloss offers the most protection and works well on high-use areas like window and door trim.

Pros: Latex paints are easy to work with and clean up with water. The paint film remains flexible even after drying, so it breathes and moves slightly to accommodate changes in temperature, or even house settling, without cracking. In addition to wood, latex can also cover siding made of vinyl, aluminum, fiber cement, stucco, brick, and metal.

Cons: Unless you’re using “green” products, expect to smell paint fumes from the moment you open the can until the paint dries completely. These odors, produced by volatile organic compounds, are toxic in high quantities and contribute to air pollution.

In general, latex paint doesn’t bond well to previous coats of oil paint unless you prepare the surface very well. That means stripping nearly all the old paint off the wood first, a time-consuming and expensive job. It’s often smarter to stick with oil if you’ve got oil, and latex if you’ve got latex.

Costs: $35 to $45 a gallon for premium latex paint; $45 to $55 a gallon for premium low- or zero-VOC paints.

Oil-based paints

Oil paint, long prized for its durability, used to be the gold standard for exteriors and some high-traffic house trim such as handrails, doors, and floors. But these days it plays second fiddle to latex.

Pros: Oil paints dry hard and get harder with time. That makes them perfect for high-traffic uses: porch floors, steps, metal handrails, even your front door.

Cons: Over time, oil paint can become brittle and crack, producing an “alligator” look. (Some people actually like the effect.) Oil paint can never be applied on top of old latex paint; the two won’t bond properly.

Toxic solvents are required to clean brushes and other equipment that come in contact with oil paint. The average can of oil paint has more VOCs than a can of conventional latex paint. Low-VOC oil paint is available, but even these products contain more VOCs than low-VOC latex paint.

Costs: $35 to $45 a gallon for premium oil-based paint; $45 to $55 a gallon for premium low-VOC paints.

Exterior stain

Stain is the choice when you want to let some of the natural features of the wood shine through but still shield your investment from the elements. Cedar, redwood, and other beautiful varieties cry out for stain. As a rule, stain isn’t as protective as paint; sunlight and weather can still penetrate the stain, causing the wood to age and discolor.

Like paints, stains come in latex and oil-based versions. You don’t want to cover an oil with a latex stain, or vice versa, unless the old coat of stain has aged and weathered to the point where the new coat can adhere.

Stains come in three finishes:
Clear stains are extremely translucent. You’ll see more of the wood, but you’ll need to reapply as often as every two to three years. Clear stains can still vary greatly in appearance, so you will want to experiment on a scrap piece of shingle to choose your favorite product. Over time, the wood under clear stain will continue to discolor, forcing you to eventually move to the next category.
Semi-transparent stains are bulkier and offer more protection than clear stains, because they contain a hint of pigment. Color choices are not nearly as numerous as those for latex paint, but there’s still a broad range of options. Reapply in five to seven years.
Opaque stains behave more like paint; they offer maximum protection and hide much of the wood’s look. But they still allow the texture to show through. These come in many colors, but choose carefully–if you want to change colors next time around, you’ll need to sand the surface completely. Opaques last 10 years or more.
Pros: Stains don’t require extensive surface prep the way paint does. Just wash, dry, scrape any raised or cracked stain, and re-stain with a brush. You don’t need a primer and may be able to squeak by with one coat.

Cons: Depending on type of stain, requires frequent reapplication.

Costs: $35 to $45 a gallon.

It’s worth springing for the good stuff

To make sure you’re purchasing a quality product, buy at a reputable paint store and ask sales clerks for recommendations. When buying latex paints, choose ones that are 100% acrylic polymers or resins, labeled on the front or in the ingredients list. Low-quality paint feels thin, runs down surfaces, and spatters off rollers. High-quality paint feels thicker, levels well when applied, and hides the old paint layer or primer in one to two coats, tops.

When it comes to stain, brand name and reputation are the best indicators of quality. Ask for recommendations, accept the higher price, and don’t try to cut corners.

Do’s and Don’ts of Buyer Incentives

Dos and Don’ts of Homebuyer Incentives
By: G. M. Filisko

Published: September 1, 2010

Homebuyer incentives can be smart marketing or a waste of money. Find out when and how to use them.

When you’re selling your home, the idea of adding a sweetener to the transaction—whether it’s a decorating allowance, a home warranty, or a big-screen TV—can be a smart use of marketing funds. To ensure it’s not a big waste, follow these dos and don’ts:

Do use homebuyer incentives to set your home apart from close competition. If all the sale properties in your neighborhood have the same patio, furnishing yours with a luxury patio set and stainless steel BBQ that stay with the buyers will make your home stand out.

Do compensate for flaws with a homebuyer incentive. If your kitchen sports outdated floral wallpaper, a $3,000 decorating allowance may help buyers cope. If your furnace is aging, a home warranty may remove the buyers’ concern that they’ll have to pay thousands of dollars to replace it right after the closing.

Don’t assume homebuyer incentives are legal. Your state may ban homebuyer incentives, or its laws may be maddeningly confusing about when the practice is legal and not. Check with your real estate agent and attorney before you offer a homebuyer incentive.

Don’t think buyers won’t see the motivation behind a homebuyer incentive. Offering a homebuyer incentive may make you seem desperate. That may lead suspicious buyers to wonder what hidden flaws exist in your home that would force you to throw a freebie at them to get it sold. It could also lead buyers to factor in your apparent anxiety and make a lowball offer.

Don’t use a homebuyer incentive to mask a too-high price. A buyer may think your expensive homebuyer incentive—like a high-end TV or a luxury car—is a gimmick to avoid lowering your sale price. Many top real estate agents will tell you to list your home at a more competitive price instead of offering a homebuyer incentive. A property that’s priced a hair below its true value will attract not only buyers but also buyers’ agents, who’ll be giddy to show their clients a home that’s a good value and will sell quickly.

If you’re convinced a homebuyer incentive will do the trick, choose one that adds value or neutralizes a flaw in your home. Addressing buyers’ concerns about your home will always be more effective than offering buyers an expensive toy.

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.

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 www.StagedHomes.com 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.

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.

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.

More from HouseLogic
How to ready your home for sale at little cost

How to review offers on your home

Other web resources
More on setting the right price

G.M. Filisko is an attorney and award-winning writer who made strategic price reductions that led to the sale of a Wisconsin property. A frequent contributor to many national publications including Bankrate.com, REALTOR® Magazine, and the American Bar Association Journal, she specializes in real estate, business, personal finance, and legal topics.

Reimagining The Kitchen: Trends For 2013

Reimagining the Kitchen: Trends for 2013
By: John Riha

Published: January 30, 2013

Today’s kitchen is a quick-change artist that adores families and loves simplicity.

If you’re looking to remodel your kitchen, we’ve got good news and bad news.

First, the good stuff. According to trend experts Lita Dirks and Dominick Tringali, you don’t have to shell out major cash to add space. Instead, look to expand what you already have. Vault your ceiling, add windows, squeeze in clever storage ideas. Make the space work harder, not bigger.

Plus, relax. Casual kitchens are trending, with doo-dads and gee-gaws (think elaborate trim and vent hoods that look like medieval castles) going away, and simpler, sleeker designs coming on strong.

Speaking on kitchen trends at the 2013 International Builder’s Show in Las Vegas, interior designer Dirks and architect Tringali teamed up to describe the new American kitchen as one piece of a larger, open floor plan.

It’s all part of a new kitchen gestalt that Dirks describes as the “prep-eat-play” triangle, with flexibility and casual living as key ingredients. The notion tosses the kitchen into a design blender along with living, dining, and family rooms, and frappes everything into communal happiness.

Example: You can eat at a comfy banquette, or in front of the TV (don’t tell your child-development counselor), or in the breakfast nook, or you can belly up to the island. No rules!

The bad news (OK, it’s not that bad) is that we’ve heard some of this before. Open floor plans have been around since the moon landing and yes, we like them. A lot. What we really have here is affirmation — and freedom to create kitchens that are less ornate and yet have more personality.

Just like you.

Of course, Dirks and Trengali definitely have the pulse of today’s home owner and offer some great takeaways. We’ve combined their goodies with our own kitchen trendspotting for 2013. If you’re planning a kitchen redo, here’s what you need to know:

Contemporary kitchens are In. Specifically, they’re getting simpler and more modern, with less elaborate detail and trim. In fact, the National Kitchen and Bath Association reports that in its annual survey of kitchen designers, “transitional” design — meaning a simple, more modern aesthetic — has surpassed “traditional” as the preferred design for the first time in the association’s history.

Kitchen cabinets are dark, or white. Darker, furniture-like finishes are popular, but so is pure white. The middle ground — think natural oak — is going away. Dark finishes help the kitchen integrate into the overall scheme; pure white is the ultimate accent color that readily complements the rest of the living area.

Islands rule. Kitchen islands are becoming more multi-dimensional, serving as food-prep areas, snack stations, wine storage, and display cabinets for objets d’art. Also, they’re essential for directing traffic flow within an open floor plan, channeling guests toward comfy seating areas, for example. Small kitchen? Go with a rolling cart that’s there when you need it.

Countertop revolution. Say hi to porcelain and ceramic slabs that look like stone, wood, and fabric, says Jamie Gold, a California designer. The product is made from clay, quartz, and feldspar that’s subjected to high heat — just like regular tile. Unlike other engineered countertops, this product doesn’t use cements or resin binders. It’s not readily available in the U.S. yet.

Appliances are disappearing. In the past, we loved our commercial-style kitchen appliances that made us look like we really knew how to cook. Now, appliances are hiding behind wood panels and faux veneers so they integrate better with the overall living space. New finishes, such as GE’s slate and Whirlpool’s Ice White, are bucking the stainless steel trend, but don’t bet on stainless going away anytime soon — it’s still hot.

Espresso yourself. An eye-catching extra gives a kitchen a blast of personality. Cool sinks and high-tech faucets are au courant. Other possibilities include:

Stylish vent hood.
Ventless fireplace.
Espresso machine.
One-of-a-kind tiles as accents on kitchen backsplashes and countertops.
Glass finishes. Glistening glass is popping up everywhere in the kitchen, especially glass tiles installed as backsplashes. Applying clear glass panels over walls painted soft colors gives a deep sheen that harmonizes with today’s contemporary looks. Bonus: It’s easy to clean.

Grab some fresh air. Outdoor kitchens and entertaining areas are hot. Your indoor kitchen should have an outdoor doppelganger close by, available through wide glass doors.

How To Bear-Proof Your Property

How to Bear-Proof Your Property
By: Jan Soults Walker

Published: August 22, 2012

Bears are big, strong, curious — and usually hungry. Here’s how to bear-proof your house and keep them from showing up as uninvited dinner guests.

Kara Jackson has. The Forest Falls, Calif., youngster was home alone one afternoon when a bear tried to climb in through an open kitchen window. Kara knew what to do, however, and made enough noise to startle the bear and chase it away.

It was the family’s third bear encounter in a month.

Although you might not live in bear country like the Jacksons do, millions of Americans live in rural areas or have vacation homes where bears roam. A thrilling sight in the wild, a bear is less than charming when it’s trying to stick its nose in your refrigerator.

Keeping bears out of your household has a lot to do with common sense. Here’s what you need to know:

Eliminating enticing odors

Bears have excellent sniffers. Your first line of defense is to make sure they’re not attracted to your property because you left foodstuffs outside.

Bird feeders: Regularly clean up debris beneath bird feeders. Put away your bird feeders in early spring (April 1) and don’t put them back up until mid-November. Bring hummingbird feeders in at night.

Pet food: Feed pets indoors when possible, and store pet food indoors. If you feed animals outdoors, bring food dishes in at night.

Garbage: Put garbage out shortly before pickup time. Store garbage in a bear-resistant trash container or inside a storage area. Double-bag to reduce odors and place bags inside the container. Regularly clean and deodorize cans with bleach.

Grills: When cooking meat on the outdoor grill, don’t leave your food unattended. Thoroughly clean your grill after use, including the grease can and drip tray. Clean up spills on your deck or patio. Store the grill in a garage or shed when not in use.

Compost: Don’t add pungent items such as meat, melon rinds, or sweet-smelling foods to your compost pile. Regularly turn the pile and add lime to reduce odors.

Fruit trees and berry bushes: Harvest fruit from fruit trees and berry bushes as soon as it’s ripe. Pick up fallen produce frequently; rethink planting more fruit trees or berry bushes.

Beehives: Protect beehives with electric fencing.

Other: Even non-food items can attract bears. Take scented items, such as suntan lotion, insect repellent, soap, or candles indoors when not in use.

Preventing home invasions

During spring and fall, when bears are roaming around seeking food, or when a bear is reported in your area, close and lock windows and doors at all times. (Scents wafting from your home can lure bears inside.) Here are other ways to prevent bears from entering your yard, home, and garage.

Electric fencing: Install electric fencing around your yard or around fruit trees and gardens. Electric fencing gives bears a shock, but doesn’t harm them.

You’ll need an energy source (either a 12-volt marine battery or 110-volt household current), plus an energizer, fence posts, a grounding rod, and 14- or 12-gauge, hi-tensile galvanized steel wire. The largest expense is the energizer, a device that delivers the electrical pulse to the wire fence. Look for a charger that offers a minimum of .7 joules to effectively shock a bear.

A heavy-duty electric fencing kit that covers a 50-by-50-foot area costs about $1,100.

Bars/grilles on windows: Bears can easily push through screens and glass windows; steel grilles and bars — called burglar bars — are good deterrents. A burglar bar with a quick release mechanism for emergency egress is $200-$250 for a 42-by-54-inch window.

Deterrents: Install and use specially designed animal deterrents to discourage bears from entering your property.

Infrared motion detector water sprays are design to humanely scare off all kinds of animals, including bears. Hook them to your garden hose or irrigation system. $50-$90.
Motion-activated sound systems simulate a barking dog. Some types are radar-activated, meaning they can detect motion behind solid objects, such as fences. $60-$90.
Motion-sensor lighting helps startle any kind of intruder — man or animal. $25-$100.
For a passive deterrent, liberally apply pine-scented cleaner around doors, window frames, and porch steps.

Crawl spaces: Securely block access to potential hibernation sites such as crawl spaces under decks and buildings.

What to do when you’re away

If your away from your house for an extended period of time, or you’re closing a vacation cabin for the season, be sure to clean out all foodstuffs from shelves, refrigerators, freezers, and pantries. Also:

Sweep up any crumbs and debris, and remove all trash.
Protect windows with heavy shutters. The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game recommends custom-cut panels of ¾-inch plywood secured with hanger bolts.
Don’t store food, such as dry pet food, anywhere in your house or garage. Remove it until you return.
Close encounters: What to do

Always be ready for an encounter with a bear in bear country and carry pepper spray. Use it only in the event of an attack. Black bears likely will run when you make noise by clapping, yelling, banging pots and pans, or blowing a boat air horn.

However, if you encounter a grizzly, remain quiet and back slowly away. Be certain you know the difference between a black bear and grizzly.

Leave Your Home Vacant? You Could Lose Insurance

Leave Your Home Vacant? You Could Lose Insurance Coverage
By: Dona DeZube

Published: October 4, 2011

Do the geese flying south have you thinking of closing up your house and spending the winter in a warmer climate? Are you moving out of town and trying to rent your old home? Before you pack your swimsuit and sandals, take note: If you leave your house empty for too long, you could lose your home owners insurance — and your home equity if a fire or other disaster destroys or damages your house.

Insurance companies hate vacant houses, whether you’re taking a extended vacation or you’re moving out of town and leaving your house empty. If you’re not home and a water pipe busts, a fire starts, or someone breaks in, chances are the subsequent mess is going to be pretty big — along with the insurance claim for the damage.

If you’re lucky, your insurance company will let you leave the house vacant, but just won’t pay for certain things like broken glass, vandalism, or malicious mischief. At worst, your home owners insurance company will yank your policy if you go away and leave the house unattended for a month or more.

Some companies, like State Farm, decide on a case-by-case basis whether you can keep your policy when you’re temporarily not living in your home, especially if you’ve got a plan to take care of the place while you’re out of town.

Say you’re going on a two-month, around-the-world cruise (lucky you!). You’re more likely to keep your coverage if you hire a company to shovel the snow so your home looks occupied while you’re gone.

Some insurers will cancel your policy if your house is vacant for 30 days. If that happens to you, call a commercial insurance broker. Commercial agents sell insurance to landlords who have vacant houses all the time — during renovations, or when they’re between tenants.

Expect to pay about 15% to 20% more than you were paying for your regular home owners insurance.

The bottom line is that if you’re heading south for the winter, read the fine print in your home owners policy to see what it says about vacancies. Then, email your agent or insurance company to double-check the rules. Don’t call, because an email is a written record of your communication. You might need that record later if the company refuses to pay a claim because your house was vacant.

Have you left your house vacant for more than a month? Did you check your home owners insurance policy before you left?

Clever Security Tricks That Will Fool Any Burglar

Clever Security Tricks That Will Fool Any Burglar
By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: September 27, 2012

A little ingenuity can make your house more secure when you’re home alone or away on vacation.

You don’t have to install a pricey or crazy security system to feel safer in your home. Here are some low- and no-cost ways to keep burglars at bay.

Don’t sleep alone: If you’re sleeping solo these days, take your car’s remote control to bed with you. If you hear suspicious noises, push the remote’s “panic” button and let the alarm scare away intruders.

Fake it: Pretend you’re home watching “Downton Abbey” and deter burglars with FakeTV ($34), a small gizmo that glows and flashes like the flicker of a television set. FakeTV uses the same energy as a nightlight, and has a built-in light sensor and timer, which turns it on at dusk and off when you wish.

Slippery when wet: In the U.K., they slather “anti-climb” paint, which never dries, on downspouts, gutters, and anything they don’t want an intruder to shimmy up. It doesn’t seem to be available in the U.S. yet. But it’s a wild idea.

Footsteps in the snow: Virgin snow is a sure sign that no one’s home. If you’re away after a snowstorm, ask a neighbor’s kid to tromp around your yard, creating footprints that will fool a burglar into thinking you’re around but just haven’t gotten around to shoveling your snow yet.

Parked car: Also, ask a neighbor to occasionally park their car in front of your house, making it look like you’re entertaining visitors. And ask them to remove any fliers that may be wedged into your door or mailbox. Burglars sometimes case a home by planting a flier and checking to see if someone retrieves it.

What do you think of these tricks? Do you know any others?

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Maintain Your Vacation Home

Maintain Your Vacation Home
By: Donna Fuscaldo

Published: May 4, 2010

Plan to spend time and money to maintain your vacation home, no matter if you hire a property manager or local caretaker, or do the work yourself.

Property managers: Convenience at a price

Hiring a property management company for your vacation home can be costly, but it can save a lot of effort (and headaches) on your part. A property manager can open and close your vacation home, and screen and hire a staff to make sure your house is well-maintained inside and out. If you plan to rent out your vacation home, a property manager can advertise the rental, check in guests, and handle payments.

A property manager acts as your eyes and ears, doing regular drive-bys and responding in emergencies. This is especially important if you live far from your vacation home. Ask owners of nearby vacation homes for referrals. Membership in a trade group like the Vacation Rental Managers Association adds to credibility.

Property managers don’t come cheap. According to Christine Karpinski of HomeAway, a vacation rental website, property managers typically get 20% to 60% of the rental income from your vacation home. So if your ski chalet rents for $1,000 per week, expect to hand over anywhere from $200 to $600 of that income to the property manager.

Local caretakers can be cheaper

A cheaper alternative to a property manager, especially if you don’t plan to rent out the house or will handle rentals yourself, is hiring a local housecleaner or handyman to maintain your vacation home. Again, other homeowners are the best source for referrals. Even during the offseason, it’s a good idea to have someone local who can go to the house once a month to turn on faucets, flush toilets, and inspect for damage.

How much you pay will vary by location and the nature of the caretaking tasks. A recent survey of cleaning fees put the cost between $69 for a 1-bedroom home and $199 for a 6-bedroom. A rule of thumb for calculating cleaning fees is to multiply the number of bedrooms and bathrooms combined by $20.

Since you’re entrusting cleaners and handymen to go in and out of your home unsupervised, check references and ask for proof that they’re bonded and insured. A fee-free option is to rely on a neighbor. Work out an arrangement to check on each other’s properties regularly, rather than hiring someone.

Prepare for maintenance emergencies

Preventive home maintenance reduces the likelihood of emergencies, but a pipe is bound to burst eventually. As the owner of a vacation home, especially one that’s hundreds of miles away, the most important thing you can do is be prepared for the inevitable.

If you don’t have a property manager, caretaker, or year-round neighbor you can call, at least have a list of local repair companies at your fingertips. Invest three or four hours into assembling a list of plumbers, electricians, exterminators, and the like. Ask other homeowners for recommendations, or, if too few are forthcoming, turn to a service like Angie’s List or even the phone book.

Having a keyless entry system for your vacation home is critical in the event of an emergency. A basic touchpad model costs less than $100. You can give the code to a repairman over the phone. A wireless system, which allows you to use a computer or cellphone to change the entry code, can cost three times that amount plus a monthly service fee of perhaps $10 to $15.

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Opening and Closing a Vacation Home

Opening and Closing a Vacation Home
By: Donna Fuscaldo

Published: May 4, 2010

Don’t neglect to budget time and money for opening and closing a vacation home before the season starts and after it ends.

Opening a vacation home

When it’s time to visit your vacation home for the first time, or start renting it out for the season, you’ll need to get it ready. A ski chalet might require you to shovel snow and chop firewood, while a summer retreat by the shore might call for cleaning patio furniture and staining the deck.

Much depends on how well the house is maintained throughout the year. Opening your vacation home could be as easy as stocking the pantry, or if the house was neglected in the offseason, you could have multiple repairs on your hands.

A well-maintained vacation home shouldn’t take more than a day to get in shape for the season, assuming no major repairs are needed. Here are some typical opening chores:

Turn on utilities
Clean and stock kitchen and bathrooms
Look for evidence of plumbing and roof leaks
Cut lawn and trim shrubs/trees
Clear walkways and driveway
Set up outdoor furniture
Change light bulbs and smoke detector batteries
Replace furnace filters
Check for signs of pest infestation
Closing a vacation home

Closing a vacation home also takes about a day to complete. The emphasis should be on safeguarding your home against the elements as well as fire risks. Here are some common closing tasks:

Turn off nonessential utilities
Secure all windows and doors
Turn on alarm system
Close storm shutters
Dispose of trash and perishable foods
Adjust furnace settings for climate
Bring in outdoor furniture
Unplug appliances and electronics
Drain water lines to prevent freezing (in cold climates)
Request mail-forwarding service
To deter vandalism and theft, consider installing a home security system. You can also put in automatic indoor lights that turn on at dusk or outside flood lights that are motion-activated.

If the house is only going to be vacant for a couple of months, call your utility providers to see if discounted “vacation rates” are available. It might be cheaper than turning off services and paying a reconnection fee a few weeks later.

Property manager vs. caretaker

It’s costly to hire a property management company to maintain your vacation home, including opening it and closing it. If you plan to rent out your vacation home, a property manager typically gets 20% to 60% of the rental income, according to Christine Karpinski of HomeAway, a vacation rental website.

A less expensive alternative is hiring a local housecleaner or handyman to open and close your vacation home, and keep an eye on the property during the offseason. A good rule of thumb for calculating cleaning fees is to budget $20 for each bedroom and bathroom, so a 3-bed/2-bath home would cost $100 to clean.

If you live far from your vacation home, you may have little choice but to hire local help. Ask owners of nearby vacation homes for referrals. Look for a property manager or caretaker with good references who has been in business locally for an extended period of time. And no matter who you end up hiring, be sure that anyone coming onto your property to do work is bonded and insured.

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Dorothy’s Homemade Tamales Moves to Fairplay!!!!!

I just noticed on the way home from the office yesterday that Dorothy’s Homemade Tamales is moving into the bowling alley in Fairplay!! I can’t tell you how happy this makes me! For anyone that is unfamiliar with Dorothy’s, she was recently featured on the Food Network. She is open 7 days a week from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Of course her tamales are amazing, but the Tortilla Soup is the best I have ever had. If you’re looking for the biggest and best breakfast burrito ever, Dorothy’s is the place! Their phone number is 719-836-9120. Enjoy!!