Couples (Couch) Therapy: How to Choose a Sofa You’ll Both Want to Snuggle On

Just as it’s no simple feat to find your soul mate, it can be equally challenging to score a sofa that ticks all the boxes for quality, style, and comfort. And that’s before taking your significant other’s opinion into account.

A recent study found that one-quarter of couples get frustrated when furniture shopping with their partner. The same survey found that 15% actively avoid going to the furniture store altogether if it can be avoided.

Snuggle up, because we’ve got tips that’ll help you shop with your partner to choose a new sofa that makes you both happy.

Find the right fit—for both of you

Photo by Van Metre Homes

Even if you and your significant other are prone to disagreements, you can’t dispute the hard facts of room dimensions. Remember this rule above all others: Measure your space before you go shopping. (And then measure again.)

“There’s nothing worse than getting your heart set on a sofa that ultimately won’t fit in the space and have to start all over,” says Washington, DC–based decorator and real estate agent Amber Harris of At Home DC.

And when you break out the measuring tape, make sure you do it together so you agree on the measurements—this will quash any fight over who didn’t measure properly.

Aside from taking measurements of the sofa’s final destination, you should also measure doorways, stairways, and hallways to make sure you can get your new sofa in your home, around corners, and into the desired space.

Do a little online sleuthing

Before you step foot in a furniture showroom, sit down with your sweetheart and assess your options online. This preshopping exercise will ensure you both have an idea of what a sofa costs—and allow each of you to discuss frankly how much you’re willing to spend. (Don’t forget to factor in delivery fees!)

Starting online also gives you a crash course on the variety of sofa options available, including sectionals and sleepers. Plus, retailers such as Crate & Barrel share dimensions for furniture online so you’ll know whether a sofa will fit your space before you go to a showroom. Send, pin, and share ideas about the kind of sofas you like with your partner.

Decide on your sofa vibe

Photo by Tara Bussema

“A sofa is just one piece of the design puzzle,” notes Beverly Solomon of Beverly Solomon Design outside Austin, TX. “A couple should first have a clear idea of how they want their living space to look and feel, as well as the image they want to project.”

So if he wants a comfy, overstuffed sofa ideal for football Sundays, you might need to remind him it doesn’t jibe with your home’s midcentury aesthetic. It can be a fraught discussion, but make sure your decor preferences are aligned.

Lay out your lounging style

Photo by Dotter & Solfjeld Architecture + Design

Consider how a new sofa will be used on a daily basis, including how you and your partner prefer to lounge around. Love to doze off on the couch? A firm sofa with deep button tufts might not be the best pick.

Then, pull out that measuring tape again because you’ll want to consider the depth and height of the sofa seat.

“A sofa should fit the person with the shortest leg length for proper seat depth and seat height,” advises interior designer Steven C. Adamako of Spectrum Interiors in Kalamazoo, MI.

Keep in mind seat cushion materials play a factor as well. Soft cushions will cause you to sink into a seat more than a firm cushion. A lower seat height can offset a deeper seat depth to help ensure good back support.

Think about who’s going to clean it

There’s form, and then there’s fabric—which is a key factor to consider if you have kids, pets, or just generally plan to use the sofa on a daily basis.

“Pay close attention to the durability and washability of the fabric you choose,” Harris says. An argument about who’s cleaning (or refusing to clean) the new sofa might mean someone might be sleeping on it.

Engineered fabrics such as indoor-outdoor upholstery have come a long way. They’re easy to clean, and many are as supple as indoor fabrics. Protectant sprays (e.g., Scotchgard) can also help keep your new sofa clean.

Canoodle to test comfort

Photo by Alex Maguire Photography

Your partner is the center of your life, and your new sofa will be the centerpiece of your living space. When shopping together, don’t hesitate to spend time sitting, lounging, and stretching out on floor models. Give your bodies time to sink into a sofa and evaluate the feel of the fabric.

Keep in mind that a sofa may feel like the right fit in the showroom, then lose its comfort and appeal halfway into a Netflix binge. With this in mind, do a deep dive into the company’s return policy so you’re not stuck with a dud.

Shop as a team (the same team)

Photo by Danielle Trippett Interior Design & Decoration

To make it as a team in life, you must first make it past the hurdles of furniture shopping. Neither partner should feel snubbed, unheard, or disappointed.

Set a budget, educate yourselves on options, and get excited about (don’t just settle on) a brand-new sofa to feather your nest.

And remember: You probably didn’t find your partner on the first go, so don’t feel pressured to find a sofa you both love on your first shopping trip.

Article by Erin Gifford

Spicy Rapid Roast Chicken

“This is the kind of recipe that you just throw together. No need to truss or fuss. Pop it into a very hot oven and it is ready in a hurry.”

Ingredients

  • 1 (3 pound) whole chicken
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C).
  2. Rinse chicken thoroughly inside and out under cold running water and remove all fat. Pat dry with paper towels.
  3. Put chicken into a small baking pan. Rub with olive oil. Mix the salt, pepper, oregano, basil, paprika and cayenne pepper together and sprinkle over chicken.
  4. Roast the chicken in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Lower the oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) and continue roasting to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees F (74 degrees C), about 40 minutes more. Let cool 10 to 15 minutes and serve.

Take the Plunge: The 4 Best Reasons to Buy a Home This Year

The housing landscape of the past several years hasn’t exactly been friendly to buyers: the bidding wars, the eye-popping prices, the houses that sold before a “For Sale” sign even went up. It’s enough to make any of us put our search on hold until we have a fighting chance at landing a home—without draining our bank accounts.

If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, we’ve got good news and we’ve got bad news: Things are finally slowing down. But they might not slow down fast enough for your liking.

Don’t despair, though—this year still stands to look better than last for aspiring home buyers.

“If your resolution is to buy a home in 2019, you’ll have some challenges to contend with, but also some opportunities,” says Danielle Halerealtor.com‘s chief economist.

The devil’s in the details, though, and there are quite a few factors that could dictate whether this is your year to buy. Here are the four biggest reasons to take the plunge now

1. There will be more available homes—or at least, not fewer

Tight home inventory has sidelined would-be buyers for several years now. Even if you could afford a home, too few of them were hitting the market to keep up with demand. Or, when they did, there was a good chance they were snapped up before you could even call your real estate agent.

House hunting felt especially bleak last winter, when nationwide inventory hit its lowest level in recorded history. By the end of 2018, though, things finally started looking up, and in 2019, experts predict more opportunities—and less frustration—for buyers.

But there’s a catch: Not everyone will be able to afford those opportunities. That’s because the markets seeing the most increases in available homes tend to be more expensive, Hale says.

“For buyers, there is going to be more inventory. So that’s a bright spot,” she says. “The downside of that bright spot is it might not be in their price range.”

If you don’t have big bucks, though, all is not lost. The news is still good—just tempered. The supply of affordable homes for sale (under $300,000, which is about the median home price right now) might not be growing dramatically just yet, but it’s certainly not decreasing anymore.

2. Skyrocketing prices will slow their roll

While inventory went down, down, down over the past few years, home prices did the opposite. Will we still see staggering dollar amounts throughout 2019?

It’s another mixed bag here: Expect home prices to continue to rise (blah), but at a slower pace than they have been (yay). Hale predicts a 2.2% increase in home prices this year—compared with a nearly 5% increase last year.

That’s not nothin’. And if you can get in the market before those moderate increases, all the better.

“We do still anticipate rising home prices, particularly for below-median-priced homes, so buyers in that price range may have some incentive to buy sooner rather than later,” Hale says.

And there’s a silver lining to those climbing home prices, too—again, for some of you.

“As rising costs raise the bar to homeownership, some would-be buyers will be knocked out of the market, so that remaining buyers may have less competition to contend with than they saw in 2018,” Hale says.

3. Mortgage rates are lower than expected

There was a lot of discouraging talk at the end of 2018 about increasing rates—and there was good reason to be nervous. Rates on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, the most popular home loan, were approaching 5%—and expected to trend upward throughout 2019.

But that hasn’t happened.

In fact, rates have been falling—perplexing the pros but creating a prime opportunity for home shoppers. Rates did tick up slightly last week—for the first time in 2019—to 4.46%. But that’s still historically low.

“That’s definitely a huge opportunity for buyers because it drastically improves affordability,” Hale says. “And I think that if these low rates persist for a little while, then we’ll actually see stronger sales than we originally forecast.”

“Lower mortgage rates will get buyers off the sidelines,” adds Ali Wolf, director of economic research at Meyers Research. “Consumers should take advantage of the returned purchasing power, and in fact, we’re already seeing early 2019 data that suggest they are.”

But don’t get complacent, Hale warns: “I do think that the long-term direction of mortgage rates is going to be back up. We’ve still got a strong economy.”

4. Rents are rising—and won’t be falling anytime soon

Buying a home is a scary-expensive endeavor in the best of circumstances, and when prices are climbing, it can be downright soul-sucking.

But bear this in mind: Rents are rising, too. In fact, they very rarelydecline, Hale says. And while buying a home is generally going to cost you more in the short term than renting, you have to look at the bigger picture. Buying means you’re building equity—and not forking over your hard-earned dollars to a landlord.

“The challenge will be finding a home that fits needs, some wants, and still stays within the monthly budget,” Hale says.

If you can afford to buy now, you’ll thank yourself in the long run—and whenever your friends get their annual rent increases.

Article by Rachel Stults

Straighten Up Without Breaking Up: 4 Ways for Couples to Avoid Clashing While Decluttering

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about Marie Kondo‘s new Netflix show, “Tidying Up.” Known for her best-seller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” the organizing guru has made decluttering a phenomenon on the small screen.

So with all the buzz, there’s a good chance that the early weekends of 2019 have seen you diving headfirst into decluttering. But if you’re doing it with a spouse or a significant other, sorting through your shared possessions can be a relationship powder keg. Disagreements about what to keep and what to ditch can get heated, especially when you start tossing sentimental items.

“Opposites do seem to attract when it comes to people’s thoughts and feelings about their belongings,” says Lisa Zaslow, founder and CEO of Gotham Organizers in New York. “Clutter is more stressful for some people than it is for others.”

So how do you keep the (life-changing) magic, and tidy up with your partner without killing each other?

1. Talk through your decluttering goals beforehand

When it comes to decluttering, it’s easy for conflict to fester before you even get started. There’s a good chance that you and your partner have very different ideas of what a tidy space looks like.

“With one couple I worked with, the husband wanted the kitchen counters entirely clear, with not even the coffee maker in sight,” Zaslow says. “His wife didn’t even notice, or care, if the counter was strewn with bags of chips, a fruit bowl, a pile of mail, and four appliances.”

Keep the magic: The key to identifying and working through these differences is to talk through your goals. Decide what you both want out of the process before the first garbage bag comes out.

“Setting goals and determining functional needs of your space together is an essential part of beginning this process and honoring both of your needs and desires,” says Jessica Salomone, interior designer and owner of Lotus and Lilac Design Studio.

Salomone suggests asking yourself the following questions:

  • What isn’t functioning in the space due to the clutter?
  • What do you need to keep in the space?
  • What would you like to be hidden, but still accessible?

“Be realistic in your goals,” Zaslow says. “This is about creating a functional, pleasant home for both of you, not about being Instagram-perfect.”

2. Start by focusing on your own stuff

Once you’re aligned in your approach, the fun part (for some of us) begins: purging.

But before you go nuts tossing out your partner’s wagon wheel coffee table, take a step back—along with a good look in the mirror. You’ll want to ease into decluttering by focusing on your own corner of the room, not your partner’s.

“Since people are so different, it’s definitely helpful for each person to start by decluttering their own things,” Zaslow says.

Keep the magic: Think of it as a warmup: You can each begin with the stuff that’s clearly yours before you move on to work through common areas together.

But what if you’re raring to go and your partner hasn’t caught KonMari fever? Kondo herself recently told fans the best way to convert a skeptical partner into a tidying die-hard: Simply start decluttering your own possessions and let your S.O. witness the benefits. After all, who can resist the urge to organize after beholding the beauty of perfectly folded socks?

3. Withhold judgment on sentimental items

Eventually, you’ll begin to notice what your partner is (or isn’t) putting in the “purge” pile, and you might want to chime in with your 2 cents. Resist that temptation.

“The expression ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ often applies to couples,” Zaslow says.

Keep the magic: Even if you can’t comprehend why someone could possibly want to keep that ratty bar crawl T-shirt from college, remember that it can have sentimental value. Avoid accusatory language, and be mindful of the way you talk about items that are close to your partner’s heart.

“It’s not helpful to say, ‘You have too many CDs,’” Zaslow says. “It isuseful to point out, ‘With the bookshelves filled with CDs we rarely listen to, there’s no room to display our photos and travel mementos.’”

4. Set limits to your decluttering—and make it fun

Finding the right pace for decluttering can be rife with potential conflict. Maybe you want to clean the entire garage in a day, but your partner needs a whole day to focus on one corner of it.

Keep the magic: Give yourself a time limit for decluttering; try not to go more than a few hours at a time, to avoid burnout. Keep your favorite snacks and beverages stocked, and turn on some music or a podcast you both love. (Shameless plug: Check out realtor.com’s “House Party.”)

You can also plan a fun, nontidying activity for the two of you to enjoy after you finish decluttering a space—it never hurts to have a light at the end of the tunnel.

If things do get tense, remember that your stuff is just stuff—at the end of the day, your relationship matters more. Don’t lose sight of your love for each other over a disagreement about a box of Beanie Babies.

“Really listen to your partner to find out why certain things are important to them, paying attention to the needs and values that are connected to the stuff,” Zaslow says. “You may learn things about them that will make you fall in love all over again.”

Article by Lauren Sieben

Thank a Vet With Lunch

This week we thank Michael Davidson for his decorated service to the Illinois National Guard since 2001. He is currently serving as a Captain and Company Commander, 25 Alpha Signal.

Mike has completed 2 tours of duty, the 1st one in Afghanistan from September 2008 – September 2009  and the 2nd in Kuwait from January 2014 – October 2014. While Mike was in Kuwait, he was diagnosed with cancer. He returned stateside for successful treatment and is now considered a cancer survivor!

Currently, Mike lives stateside with his beautiful wife, Erin, and his son, Eric. He is a dedicated husband and father with a great sense of humor. He is preparing for his 3rd deployment in July of this year. We wish Mike good health and Godspeed.

 

 

As a past client and friend, we proudly thank Mike for his service and dedication to our country. If you are a current member of the military or have served, we would like to Thank a Vet With Lunch. Please feel free to contact us. We would love to hear from you! In addition, let us know if we can answer any questions about VA Loans ( Jim Francis at Fairway Independent Mortgage Company Jim.Francis@FairwayMC.com ) or your real estate needs ( Cindy Soderstrom at RE/MAX Signature Homes csoderstrom@remax.net ).

 

Pictured left to right;

Jon & Cindy Soderstrom, Erin, Eric & Mike Davidson

at Rock Bottom Brewery in Bolingbrook, IL

Sheet-Pan Chicken Fajitas

Making a whole recipe on one sheet pan is perfect for meal prepping. For these fajitas you simply toss all of the ingredients—chicken and vegetables—in an easy marinade of avocado oil and taco spices like cumin and chili powder and then bake it all together on a sheet pan.

INGREDIENTS

Cooking spray

2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2″ strips
red and yellow bell peppers, thinly sliced
yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. avocado oil
Juice of 2 limes
FOR TOPPING
avocado, diced
1/2 c. cherry tomatoes, halved

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 425° and grease a large rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. In a small bowl, whisk together spices.
  2. In a large bowl, combine chicken, bell peppers, onions, avocado oil, and lime juice. Add spice mix and toss until completely coated. Spread fajita mixture in an even layer onto prepared baking sheet.
  3. Bake until chicken is cooked through and no longer pink and vegetables are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
  4. Divide mixture among four resealable containers and store in the fridge until ready to eat.
  5. Serve topped with avocado and tomatoes.

3 Things You’d Better Know Before Applying for a Mortgage—or Else

Unless you’re sitting on a ton of cold, hard cash, you’re going to need a mortgage to buy a home.

Unfortunately, you can’t just show up at a bank with a checkbook and a smile and get approved for a home loan—you need to qualify for a mortgage, which requires some careful planning.

So, how do you please the lending gods? It starts with arming yourself with the right knowledge about the home loan application process.

Here are three things you need to know before applying for a mortgage.

1. What is a good credit score

Ah, the all-mighty credit score. This powerful three-digit number is a key factor in whether you get approved for a mortgage. When you apply for a loan, lenders will check your score to assess whether you’re a low- or high-risk borrower. The higher your score, the better you look on paper—and the better your odds of landing a great loan. If you have a low credit score, though, you may have difficulty getting a mortgage.

So, what’s considered a good credit score in the mortgage realm? While a number of credit scores exist, the most widely used credit score is the FICO score. A perfect score is 850. However, generally a score of 760 or higher is considered excellent, meaning it will help you qualify for the best interest rate and loan terms, says Richard Redmond, mortgage broker at All California Mortgage in Larkspur and author of “Mortgages: The Insider’s Guide.”

A good credit score is 700 to 759; a fair score is 650 to 699. If you have multiple blemishes on your credit history (e.g., late credit card payments, unpaid medical bills), your score could fall below 650, in which case you’ll likely get turned down for a conventional home loan—and will need to mend your credit in order to get approved (unless you qualify for a Federal Housing Administration loan, which requires only a 580 minimum credit score).

Before meeting with a mortgage lender, Beverly Harzog, consumer finance analyst and credit card expert at U.S. News & World Report, recommends obtaining your credit report. You’re entitled to a free copy of your full report at AnnualCreditReport.com. Though the report does not include your score—for that, you’ll have to pay a small fee—just perusing your report will give you a ballpark idea of how you’re doing by laying out any problems such as late or missing payments.

2. What down payment you need

What’s an acceptable down payment on a house? In a recent NerdWallet study, 44% of respondents said they believe you need to put 20% (or more) down to buy a home. So, if you do the math, you’d have to plunk down $50,000 on a $250,000 house. Of course, that’s a big chunk of change for many home buyers.

The good news? That 20% figure is common, but it’s not set in stone. It’s the gold standard because when you put 20% down, you won’t have to pay private mortgage insurance, which can add several hundred dollars a month to your house payments. Another advantage of putting down 20% upfront is that that’s often the magic number you need to get a more favorable interest rate.

But, if you’re unable to make a 20% down payment, there are many lenders that will allow you to put down less cash. And there are a number of loan products that you might qualify for that require less money down. FHA loans require as little as 3.5% down. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs loan program gives active or retired military personnel the opportunity to purchase a home with a $0 down payment and no mortgage insurance premium. Same with USDA loans (federally backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development).

Another option worth pursuing is qualifying for down payment assistance. There are 2,290 programs across the country that offer financial assistance, kicking in an average of $17,766, according to one study. (You can find programs in your area on the National Council of State Housing Agencies website.)

There are some cases, though, where you’ll have to put more than 20% down to qualify for a mortgage. A jumbo loan is a mortgage that’s above the limits for government-sponsored loans. In most parts of the country, that means loans over $417,000; in areas where the cost of living is extremely high (e.g., Manhattan and San Francisco), the threshold jumps to $625,000. Since larger loans require the lender to take on more risk, jumbo loans typically require home buyers to make a bigger down payment—up to 30% for some lenders.

3. What is your DTI ratio

To get approved for a mortgage, you need a solid debt-to-income ratio. This DTI figure compares your outstanding debts (on student loans, credit cards, car loans, and more) with your income.

For example, if you make $6,000 a month but pay $500 to debts, you’d divide $500 by $6,000 to get a DTI ratio of 0.083, or 8.3%. However, that’s your DTI ratio without a monthly mortgage payment. If you factor in a monthly mortgage payment of, say, $1,000 per month, your DTI ratio increases to 25%.

Lenders like this number to be low, because evidence from studies of mortgage loans shows that borrowers with a higher DTI ratio are more likely to run into trouble making monthly payments, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

For a conventional loan, most mortgage lenders require a borrower’s DTI to be no more than 36% (although some lenders will accept up to 43%), says Ray Rodriguez, regional mortgage sales manager at TD Bank.

The good news? If you’re above the 36% ceiling, there are ways that you can lower your DTI. The easiest would be to apply for a smaller mortgage—meaning you’ll have to lower your price range. Or, if you’re not willing to budge on price, you can lower your DTI by paying off a large chunk of your debts in a lump sum.

Article by Daniel Bortz

That’s So 2018! The Most Outdated Home-Selling Advice You Should Now Ignore

There’s one thing more scary than buying a house, and that’s selling a house.

There is so much pressure to list your house and sell it quickly—and for a great price—that you probably find yourself turning to those who’ve been there before for advice.

But here’s the problem: The housing market changes on a dime, meaning whatever worked for them might not necessarily work for you. In fact, it may backfire, big-time! Here are some of the most outdated words of wisdom you might hear that you may be better off ignoring.

Wait for spring to sell your home

Odds are you’ve heard that the best time to sell your house is in the spring, because that’s when the buyers are out and about. But it also means you’ll be competing against a slew of sellers.

“Listing in the spring means you are positioning yourself to compete with several other homes. So as a seller in the spring, you have to price and market your home flawlessly to show buyers that your home is more desirable than the house next door,” says real estate agent Cheyanne Banks, of Nest Seekers International in Jersey City, NJ. “Because buyers have more choice in the spring market, they’re more likely to negotiate a lower price.”

In fact, Banks now advises her clients to list in the summer and winter, when there’s less competition.

Price your home high

Not too long ago, it was a seller’s market—meaning competition was so fierce between buyers that you could still almost guarantee a sale if you priced your home over market value. According to Daniel Martinez, real estate agent and founder of HOULIVING, a boutique real estate company located in Houston, that’s not the way it works these days.

“We are seeing homes on the market last longer and listings become stale one after another,” says Martinez. “In today’s market, we need to be realistic about what is selling for what dollar per square foot and adjust, because the market decides what it’s willing to pay for a home. Not you or me.”

And if you think you’re going to start it at a higher price just to test the market, you should think again.

“Testing the market with an above-market price means your home will not fly off the shelf, and the longer it’s on the shelf the more potential buyers wonder what’s wrong with it,” warns Phyllis Brookshire, president of Allen Tate Realtors in the Carolinas. “This results in more carrying costs for you and dramatic price reductions later.”

Leave room to negotiate

Another reason sellers were pricing high was to leave room for buyers who were eager to negotiate, but real estate broker Gill Chowdhury, with Warburg Realty in New York City, says today’s buyers won’t play that game.

“With supply higher than it was a few years ago, if you’re not priced at market, or at least very close, you’re not going to get that many people in the door to begin with,” she says. “Price your property to sell.”

Sell your home as is

As recently as just a few years ago, sellers were often told not to invest too much into remodeling, as buyers would want to customize themselves. Why worry about it when they’re going to do it anyway, right? Well, not only has the market changed, but so have the buyers.

“With many millennials entering the housing market, one of their biggest desires is to have a turn-key home, meaning they don’t want to have to make changes or repairs, such as modernizing appliances and amenities—essentially the home is move-in ready,” explains Nick Giovacchini, head of client services at AlphaFlow. “Not updating an older home could leave sellers at a disadvantage, especially if other homeowners have updated their homes before selling, even if the unimproved home is priced at a discount compared to more updated homes in the area.”

Even though home prices are going down, the  buyers that remain are willing to pay a premium for homes that look the part, so put in some elbow grease before you put up that “For Sale” sign.

Amateur photos of your house are fine

If you’ve ever sold a home before, you probably remember the real estate agent coming in and snapping a few quick photos of your home to place with your listing. Heck, you may have even taken the photos yourself. We’re sorry to say that’s just not going to fly this time around.

“How your property looks online will have a direct impact on the number of buyers who will be interested in purchasing your home,” says Nancy Wallace-Laabs, a real estate broker with KBN Homes, in Frisco, TX. “Hiring a professional photographer and adding drone pictures are an increased cost to a seller, but well worth the investment.”

In fact, it may be a good idea to take it even further, says Mark Cianciulli, real estate agent and co-founder of the CREM Group in Los Angeles and Long Beach, CA. “For instance, the benchmark has become getting professional photos taken of the property, creating high-quality videos for your property that allow buyers to see different perspectives inside and outside the home, as well as 3D tours of the home that allow buyers to navigate though the home at will and in any direction they choose,” Cianciulli explains.

So much for just snapping a few pics with your smartphone.

Holding an open house is a must

There was a time that hosting an open house (featuring freshly baked cookies, of course!) was a near guarantee that your house would sell before the weekend was over. Unfortunately, open houses aren’t the shoe-in that they used to be.

“In my experience, those attending open houses are just putting their toes in the water and seeing what’s out there—or they’re just your typical nosy neighbor. Serious buyers will be out looking at the houses they want any chance they can get and not waiting until an open house to submit an offer,” says real estate agent Heather Carbone, of Heather Carbone Team Big River Properties in Boston.

“Real estate agents like open houses because they create good opportunities for them to find unrepresented buyers, or to create a frenzy around the listing. Ultimately, an open house should be just one small piece of a bigger marketing plan for the property,” says Carbone.

Article by Whitney Coy

Debunked! 8 Myths About Renting You Should Stop Believing Immediately

Years ago, I discovered cockroaches in my Chicago apartment. I spent money on sprays, traps, and other gadgets to rid my place of the disgusting rent-free tenants, but I was no match for them.

So I turned to my landlord for help. If he refused, I’d withhold rent or break my lease—I was justified, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. Rental laws and tenant rights vary from city to city, and it actually might not have been OK for me to up and leave—even if my landlord wasn’t getting the job done. (Thankfully, it didn’t come to that: He quickly hired an exterminator, and I lived out the remainder of my lease roach-free.)

But like I did, many tenants believe that you can simply deduct or skip rent for problems or repairs. And there are other myths about renting that are widely believed. Here are some of the most common ones—and the truth behind them.

1. You’ll never land an apartment with a bad credit score

Yes, bad credit can make things more challenging, especially in a competitive rental market. But it doesn’t automatically disqualify you as a rental candidate.

When you fill out an application for housing, you’ll undergo a credit and background check. But other factors—such as applying with a roommate, proof of pay stubs, or letters of recommendation from your previous landlords—may help seal the deal.

2. The longer you’ve lived somewhere, the greater the chances you’ll lose your security deposit

So you’ve lived in a place for only a year, and there’s no damage to speak of—you’ll probably get your security deposit back, right? But if you’ve lived there longer, you’re probably thinking you can kiss that deposit goodbye.

It isn’t always so cut and dried, says Megan Perkins Roldan, property manager at Chestnut Tower Apartments in Chicago.

“We definitely take into account the length of tenancy when assessing wear-and-tear damages and expect that longer-term residents will need more work from us at move-out,” Roldan says. “But it’s not necessarily [considered] damage.”

The best way to avoid charges is to leave the unit in the condition it was when you moved in, whenever that was. Do a deep clean, patch large holes, and repaint any custom-colored walls.

3. Your landlord can evict you for any reason

If you’re on a signed lease, a landlord typically can’t evict you for any reason. The landlord must show sufficient evidence that you’ve broken the lease agreement, and your eviction is justifiable. (If you’re renting month to month, however, the rules get a little fuzzy.)

What’s more: You shouldn’t come home to find the locks changed and your stuff out on the street. To evict a resident, landlords or property management companies must provide sufficient and specific written notice, according to Nolo, one of the largest online libraries of legal information for consumers.

If you fail to move or change your behavior after receiving the notice, the landlord has the legal right to proceed with a lawsuit to evict you.

4. A landlord is responsible for all repairs and maintenance

The responsibilities of the landlord or property manager vary depending on where you live and the terms of your lease. In general, your landlord is on the hook to handle such things as general maintenance, noise complaints, plumbing issues, and pest control.

But there are some things that simply aren’t your landlord’s problem—usually if it’s something caused by you.

“If the damage is due to the tenant’s negligence, the landlord might choose to address the repairs and withhold the cost of the repairs out of the tenant’s security deposit,” says Daniel L. Staley, associate broker at Staley Real Estate in Rhinebeck, NY.

And, if damages are severe enough, it could cost you more than your security deposit—we’re talking lawsuits.

5. You can deduct rent when you do your own repairs or maintenance

While it might seem easiest to just subtract the money you spent on repairs, this could get you into trouble down the road—especially if you haven’t discussed this arrangement with your landlord.

Leave the work to your landlord, and make sure to send him an itemized list of what needs to be done. That way, if the landlord refuses to do the repairs, you have ammo to take to a higher power.

Renters can call their local building inspectors “to inspect [the place] and force the landlord to make the repairs that are required by code,” says Alicia Bosben, broker property manager at the Realty Tree in Madison, WI.

6. Rental prices are set in stone

We won’t lie: You don’t typically have much bargaining power when it comes to how much you’ll pay—especially in a hot rental market. But each landlord is different, and you do have a few tricks up your sleeve.

First, consider a longer lease. Landlords don’t usually want to deal with turnover. If you can commit to being in for the long(er) haul, they might be more willing to negotiate the rental price and lease terms.

Second, consider your time frame. There are typically more rental vacancies in winter, so landlords might be more inclined to strike a deal at that time.

Finally, arm yourself with info to help your case: Know the vacancy rate and the going rate for similar units in the area, and bring recommendation letters from your current landlord to show you’re a good tenant.

7. Landlords can enter your place whenever they want

A landlord may need to enter your unit for a variety of reasons—to show your unit to prospective tenants, to check the fire alarms, or simply to do routine maintenance.

But legally, a landlord can’t enter your apartment whenever he wants. He must provide you with sufficient warning, generally 24 hours.

There are some exceptions, of course: If there’s an emergency—like fire or a sever water leak—landlords can enter without notice.

8. You’re flushing away money by renting

Sure, buying a home is a good investment. But there are a ton of reasons why renting isn’t a bad investment.

It might be better for you financially, you might like having someone on call for maintenance and repairs, or perhaps you simply want the flexibility to up and move whenever you want. Plus, renting can allow you time to save for a down payment on that house.

So the next time well-intentioned friends or family members try to tell you that renting is a bad move, tell them it’s a myth—and you can debunk it.

Article by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio

Best Hot Chocolate

Homemade hot chocolate is infinitely better than boxed mix. And our recipe is extra decadent, thanks to the cup of actual chocolate (not just cocoa powder). For a perfect cup of cocoa every time, here’s what to remember.

Whole milk is preferable. 

When you’re drinking hot cocoa, you’re most likely trying to be festive and cozy, not healthy. Go all out with whole milk. Remember, fat = flavor. If you only have skim or low-fat, don’t worry. This recipe will still totally work.

 

Watch the milk! 

If you walk away as it’s coming to a simmer on the stovetop, it will likely boil over. Trust us, this has happened to us too many times to count.

Use your favorite kind of chocolate. 

We’re partial to semi-sweet (60% cocoa) or bittersweet (70%). But if you like your cocoa a little bit sweeter and creamier, feel free to use milk chocolate. We usually use chocolate chips because they’re always in our pantry. But if you want to splurge on a nice bar of chocolate, go for it. It’ll be worth it!

Have fun with the toppings. 

Homemade whipped cream is classic and always a good idea. But ice cream (to make hot cocoa floats!)  is really amazing too.

INGREDIENTS

2 c. whole milk
1/4 c. granulated sugar
2 tbsp. cocoa powder
1 c. chocolate chips (or chopped chocolate)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Whipped cream, for serving
Chocolate shavings, for serving

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring milk to simmer. Whisk in sugar and cocoa powder and stir until no lumps remain. Stir in chocolate chips and vanilla and cook, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is completely melted. Turn off heat.
  2. Pour hot chocolate into mugs, then top with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

Is a Mortgage Pre-Approval Letter Necessary To Make An Offer on a House?

Do you need a mortgage pre-approval letter to make an offer on a house? You know you need to get your ducks in a row before looking at homes, but does that include securing a pre-approval letter from the bank?

The truth is, getting pre-approved can actually improve your chances of falling into the sellers’ good graces, so you want to get it done as soon as possible in the home-buying process.

So how organized do your financials need to be before you start looking? Let’s take a look, starting with clarifying what a pre-approval letter actually is.

What is a pre-approval letter?

Mortgage pre-approval is assurance from a lender to provide you with financing to buy a home up to a certain loan amount.

“It’s a letter from your lender, written on the lender’s letterhead, stating that you are approved for a loan of a specific dollar amount,” says Denise Shur, a Realtor® with 1:1 Realty in San Jose, CA.

To get approved, your lender will collect a stack of paperwork from you that will include pay stubs, federal tax returns, W2s, investment accounts, and residential history. Once your complete financial portfolio is analyzed, the lender will decide whether or not to issue you a pre-approval letter.

Do you need a pre-approval letter to see a house?

Real estate agents prefer showing homes to buyers with a pre-approval letter, because it shows the buyer is financially capable of purchasing.

Agents “need to know if you can really buy a home,” Shur says. That said, a pre-approval letter isn’t mandatory to tour a home.

“All agents are allowed to show you homes, even if you do not have a pre-approval letter,” she adds. It just might not be in their best interest, so don’t be surprised if you get some pushback if you say you don’t have pre-approval.

How a pre-approval letter benefits you

If you don’t take the time to get pre-approval, it’s not just the real estate agent’s time you’re wasting—it’s possibly yours as well.

“There is no sense in wasting your own time and that of an agent to see homes until you are ready to purchase,” says Rosanne Nitti, a Realtor with RMN Investments & Realty Services in Laguna Beach, CA.

Getting a pre-approval letter should be one of your first steps in the home-buying process, she says. “Then when you see something you like, you can act on it.”

As a buyer, that ability to act quickly gives you an edge over people who don’t have certification from a mortgage lender.

How to get a pre-approval letter

Serious about getting serious? Here’s how to get started. You can work with either a loan broker, who can connect you with the right lender, or directly with a bank, if you like the loan program they offer.

“Some banks, like Wells Fargo for example, may even give you a ‘priority buyer’ letter, which puts you on a fast track to get your loan closed quickly once you find a home,” says Shur.

Shur describes the process as follows:

  • Fill out an application. This can be done in person, online, or over the phone.
  • The lender runs a credit check to get your FICO score.
  • It also determines your expenses and income by looking at your financial portfolio.
  • The bank then determines if you qualify for a loan, and if so, what kind and for how much.
  • Finally, the lender puts this in writing as the pre-approval letter.
Article by Adriana Velez

Wait! Are You Buying a House Contaminated With Meth?

The nation’s drug epidemic is generating some unexpected side effects for unlucky home buyers who find that their new property is contaminated with methamphetamine, a problem that is a health risk and is costly to fix.

Sellers in just over half of states are legally bound to disclose whether, to their knowledge, the property has been used as a meth lab. The laws are weaker when it comes to letting buyers know if meth was smoked there.

Just this month, Washington state lawmakers introduced a bill that would require sellers to inform buyers if the property was ever used to manufacture illegal drugs.

The bill was inspired by the plight of Jason and Amanda Gates and their three small children. Ten days after moving into their newly purchased dream home in Maple Valley, WA, the family was forced to evacuate after the house tested positive for crystal meth contamination, according to Seattle-area television station KIRO7.

When produced or heavily smoked in a home, the drug gets into the walls, carpets, and heating and cooling systems. The HVAC systems are the most problematic, as they suck in the drug’s fumes and then spit them out all over the home.

Even traces of the drug in the walls or furniture in a home can cause headaches or nausea, and potentially lead to childhood developmental issues.

“As a parent, you feel guilt for exposing your children to that kind of situation and environment,” Jason Gates told the station.

The couple had picked up the home in a foreclosure auction. But drug labs aren’t always distressed properties sold at auction, nor rural fixer-uppers. Cops raided a drug lab in a luxury high-rise building last year in the trendy New York City neighborhood where Amazon is slated to open one of its new headquarters.

And once a home is contaminated, it’s not always easy to clean it up.

“Think about [meth] as going into a house with heavy smokers. Nicotine will adhere to the walls,” says Kirk Flippin, owner of Texas Decon in Seguin, TX. The company cleans up former meth labs, hoarder homes, murder scenes, and other sorts of unpleasantness. “That’s what methamphetamine does.”

As pervasive as it may be, meth contamination is not as easy to detect as potential buyers might think. Folks can check the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s drug lab registry, but there’s no guarantee that the property is on it. They can also look for burns in the carpet or patches of dead grass outside where chemicals may have been dumped. But they won’t always find any telltale signs.

“[In] 95% of the places I’ve walked into, you’d never know,” says Flippin. “I usually don’t smell anything, I don’t see anything.”

Since most home inspectors don’t test for the presence of meth, folks can check out a potential home purchase using inexpensive kits available online. It’s cheaper than having to drop anywhere from $2,500 to $40,000 and up to get traces of the drug out of a home you’ve already bought. And that cost doesn’t include replacing carpeting, furniture, or even entire walls.

“The most important advice I would give anybody is, if you’re going to buy a home, talk to the neighbors,” Flippin says. “The neighbors are going to know.”

Article by Clare Trapasso

Thank a Vet With Lunch!

This week we thank Steven Fay for his service to the United States Navy and our Country. Steve served in the United States Navy as a Ship Serviceman from 1994 – 1999.

Steve served aboard the USS Independence (Aircraft Carrier) and the USS Jarrett (Fast Frigat), His travels took him around the world but most of his time he was stationed near Japan.

Over lunch, Steve told us about his time aboard both ships. As a Ships Serviceman, Steve was responsible for Laundry, Vending and Barber details. More importantly, he was a member of the “Snoopy Team”. This special group keeps cameras by their sides and ears glued to the 1MC (Main Circuit Public Address System).

The Snoopy Team springs into action when they hear the words – “Away the Snoopy Team, away!” They rush topside with their cameras ready to document any unusual contacts the ship comes across.

“Our primary mission was to take pictures of any surface contact the ship may have,” said Steve. “Once we heard, ‘Away the Snoo-‘, we were gone. It’s that fast. We would have to drop whatever we were doing and make it up three decks and 10 levels in a matter of minutes.”

“Once we would get the call and start making our way up the ladderwells,” Steve said, “people realize we’re on Snoopy and just step to the side.”

“What we were really looking out for, for the most part, was the merchant traffic in the area whenever we were arriving or departing,” said Steve. “If we were away from the heavy traffic, whenever there is a ship in sight that hasn’t established contact with us, we would be called for Snoopy to see exactly what’s out there.”

“No matter what surface contact there was, we were up there getting those pictures, because it is number one priority to visually identify whatever is out there within sight,” Steve said. “It’s primarily for merchant purposes, but overall, it all comes down to situational awareness.”

 

As a past client and friend, we proudly thank Steve for his service and dedication to our country. If you are a current member of the military or have served, we would like to Thank a Vet With Lunch. Please feel free to contact us. We would love to hear from you! In addition, let us know if we can answer any questions about VA Loans ( Jim Francis at Fairway Independent Mortgage Company Jim.Francis@FairwayMC.com ) or your real estate needs ( Cindy Soderstrom at RE/MAX Signature Homes csoderstrom@remax.net ).

 

Loan Modification for HELOC is APPROVED in 4 weeks!

Could this be you? Do you have a 2nd mortgage or a HELOC that is due?  Are you behind or barley making ends meet? We understand.

Foreclosure starts are up by 43% nationwide. Why? It is mainly due to the 5/1 and 10/1 ARMs that were written in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. The expectation was that these loans would be paid off or could be refinanced. However, the truth in the matter is that this is not possible. Increased interest rates reset on the ARMs, property taxes increased along with cost of living but wages remained relatively unchanged.

Now, we have homeowners with few options. It has been our goal to assist homeowners by reviewing their situation and creating a strategy to overcome their financial obstacles.

Our recent success comes from helping a family that was forced into early retirement which resulted in reduction of income. They have a first mortgage and a HELOC. The monthly payment for the HELOC became un-manageable. It was suggested that the bank “recast” the mortgage or reset the payment but the homeowners had poor credit and the bank would not help them. When they got behind on the payments, only then the bank was willing to assist with a loan modification.

Our secret is knowing what the bank needs for documentation and then leveraging our relationships with the banks to get the modification packet to the proper department quickly and efficiently. The key is to follow up and communicate with all parties associated with the file.

We have been focused on helping homeowners with Loan Modification, Short Sales and Deed-in-Lieu for 10 years. Please feel free to contact us for a confidential review of your situation. We offer Red Carpet treatment in everything we do!

Is Your Furniture Cruel to Animals? That Leather Couch Is the Least of It

Concerned about animal cruelty? You might abstain from eating meat, or at least very much of it, and mink coats are not exactly the thing these days, anyway. But if you’re patting yourself on the back while snuggled under an angora blanket, we’ve got news for you: The furniture and decor in your home can be cruel to animals, too.

Welcome to the latest movement in the home decor world: cruelty-free furniture! We’re talking couches made of faux leather, pillows stuffed with down alternatives, and other substitutes for animal skins or materials. A whole host of home furnishing manufacturers are on board too, including Ikea (which offers vegan leather sofas), Crate and Barrel (animal-free upholstery), and Land of Nod (soy-based foam cushions).

And—surprise!—the offenses stretch far beyond the obvious culprit of leather (and contrary to popular belief, animal skins are not a byproduct of the meat industry). Rugs, blankets, and furniture stuffing are often made from wool, the product of an industry repeatedly accused of abusing, maiming, and killing sheep. Comforters and pillows are often made with down, feathers that are live-plucked from geese.

And if you truly care for all animals regardless of size, you might be horrified to learn that silk lampshades are often made from fibers obtained by boiling silkworms alive inside their cocoons. Why have all that on your conscience when you can easily find perfectly fine furnishings without this black mark in their past?

“It’s never been easier to furnish our homes without animals, as more and more companies are offering fabulous vegan options,” says Lisa Lange, PETA’s senior vice president of communications. “Compassionate consumers are snapping up these eco-friendly items because they understand that a home should be a haven, not a showcase of suffering.”

Benefits of cruelty-free furniture

The benefits of cruelty-free furniture go far beyond just knowing that no animals were harmed in the name of furnishing your home.

  • It’s healthier. “Vegan alternatives are healthier,” points out Deborah DiMare, founder of DiMare Design, which exclusively offers vegan design for residences and businesses around the world. “Animal skins and hides that are used for furniture are treated with toxic poisons that penetrate our skins. Vegan materials are gentler, cleaner, and overall more beneficial for newborns, babies, children and adults.”
  • Easier to clean. “Faux leather does not attract dust, insects or hold moisture,” DiMare adds; it’s also more scratch resistant than real leather. Meanwhile, “rugs made from cotton or synthetics are easier to clean and more stain resistant than those made from animal skins.”
  • Hypoallergenic. Those who are allergic to animal fur and feathers will be a lot less sniffly if they switch to down or fur alternatives in their pillows, bedding, and cushions, providing a better night’s sleep.

DiMare also says that transitioning to a cruelty-free home can be easily done whether you’re sticking to a budget or looking for something more high end and luxurious.

How to find cruelty-free furniture

Want to learn more? DiMare Design offers an accredited online course called Vegan Design 101 for professional designers and anyone looking for cruelty-free decor. The website also includes links to shop anything and everything you might need to decorate your home humanely.

“I want to make it easy for the busy parents and for the designers,” says DiMare, who went completely vegan three years ago, after watching PETA’s investigation into China’s dog leather industry. “I don’t want there to be any excuse for anyone who wants to go vegan in their decor.”

If you’re interested in switching out some of your decor to cruelty-free alternatives or you’re ready to completely veganize your home, consider some of these options—all of which get a thumbs up from PETA, DiMare, or other animal rights experts.

Vegan leather chair

Vegan leather has come a long way since the “pleather” you may know from the past. Today’s animal-free leathers are as soft, breathable, and as comfortable as the real thing; this vegan leather chair ($178.99, Amazon.com) also comes in six unique colors to fit any home decor motif.

Faux fur throw

Enjoy the luxurious feel of fur without all the cruelty, thanks to this faux-fur throw ($44.45, Amazon.com) made from polyester as well as synthetic/imitation versions of fleece and sherpa.

Wool and silk-free area rug

Many rugs are made from wool and silk, but this colorful, vintage-inspired, shed-resistant rug ($274, Amazon.com) is completely animal-free, making it a statement piece in more ways than one.

Tencel bedsheets and linens

 

Tencel is an extremely soft fabric that is made from wood cellulose in eucalyptus plants—an excellent alternative to silk and wool. Tencel can be found in sheets, pillows, mattresses, and more, including this duvet cover and sham ($59.99-$79.99, West Elm). 

Down-alternative pillow

If you’re up for a high-end splurge, consider this cute throw pillow ($240, DiMare Design), which is stuffed with a down alternative. It’s also 100% vegan and actually Certified Cruelty Free.

Article by Wendy Herman

How to Fix Common Wall and Floor Problems

Although some maintenance projects are best left to the pros, these three easy DIY fixes will give you bragging rights.

We turned to three bloggers for ideas on how to tackle some little, but nagging, household wall and floor issues.

A Made-Up Drywall Repair

The problem: Concealing drywall damage is a tricky business that requires a handful of drywall tools and materials to make walls look like new. To fix coin-sized holes, many traditionalists use mesh or paper tape. But not Lesli DeVito, the DIY blogger behind My Old Country House.

The fix: Cosmetic wedges! DeVito first tried patching the two nickel-sized openings with cement board she had lying around, but the pieces didn’t fit as you can see in the picture.

Tool list:

  • Make-up sponges
  • Scissors
  • Spackle
  • Putty knife
  • Sandpaper

How to:

  1. Cut the wedges into pieces that are slightly larger than the holes.
  2. Spackle the drywall and wipe off the excess.
  3. When the spackle dries, sand the area until it’s smooth.
  4. Add a fresh coat of paint.

Now DeVito challenges people to find where the holes were; go ahead, take a peek.

A Seamless Way to Remove Nails from Trim and Flooring

The problem: You can save some dough by using salvaged materials like trim and oak flooring. But before you can install or even safely store them, you have to pull out any old nails — without damaging the wood.

The fix: Although you might be tempted to whack the nail from the back with a hammer and then yank it, don’t. That can mar the surface. Instead, pull the nails out from the back, says Peter Fazio from the site Dadand.

Tool list:

  • Pliers
  • Work gloves
  • Drop cloth

How to:

  1. Put the trim or floorboard face down on a drop cloth to protect the front surface.
  2. Using your pliers, grab the nail and gently roll onto the curved part of the tool until the nail pops out.

If the old filler used to conceal the nail on the front side pops out, it’s easy to fix. Refill the hole with color-matched wood filler (it’ll work for composite trim, too). Scrape the top of the repair gently with a putty knife to remove excess filler — otherwise you’ll leave a noticeable bump.

If you can’t find color-matched filler, repair the hole and gently sand the area smooth. Spot paint to match.

The Trick to Spiffing Up Grody Grout

The problem: When Virginia from LiveLoveDIY painted her kitchen cabinets bright white, her dingy tile grout became a real eyesore.

Sure, cleaning agents like hydrogen peroxide can brighten discolored floors, but they won’t do much for grout. Grout is gritty and easily stains; despite scrubbing, it may never appear clean.

The fix: Using what she calls the “best product ever,” a bottle of Polyblend Grout Renew (there are other brands, too), a stain- and fade-resistant grout paint in snow white. It cost $10 for an 8-ounce bottle, which was enough to cover the all grout in her kitchen.

Tool list:

  • Grout paint
  • Toothbrush
  • Rags or paper towels

How to:

  1. Squeeze a dollop of paint on the grout and scrub it in with a toothbrush. (The paint Virginia used dries fast, so you’ll need to work quickly.)
  2. Wipe off the excess from tile with a paper towel.

Including a few breaks, it took her about four hours to complete the job, which she says was time well-spent. Virginia also says the grout paint is easy to keep clean.

Tip: You might also want to seal the grout paint after it dries.

Article by DEIRDRE SULLIVAN

Documents You Need for Mortgage Pre-Approval: A Checklist for Each Type of Loan

Whether you’re self-employed or applying for an FHA or USDA loan, here’s the pre-approval paperwork you need.

If you’re serious about buying a home, getting pre-approved for a mortgage is a critical step. It’s also a tedious one. Lenders seem to want a mountain of documents and have so many documents.

Yet the payoff is worth it. Most agents recommend mortgage pre-approval because it strengthens your offer. Sellers like to know the buyer already has financing secured.

Plus, you’re going to need that same hefty stack of paperwork for your official mortgage application once you’ve got a contract on a home, so you’re really knocking out two tasks at once.

To help, we’ve created a documents checklist for each type of mortgage pre-approval. Warning: Some lists are longer than others:

Conventional Loan | FHA Loan | Buying an Investment PropertyIf You’re Self-Employed | VA Loan | USDA Loan | Job-Based Incentive Loan

Conventional Loan Documents

[Download the printable version]

If you’re employed and get regular paychecks, plus a W-2 every year, and you’re not going through FHA, USDA, or an incentive-buying program, these are the documents you need to apply for mortgage pre-approval:

  • Identification (one of these, which you will need to show in person)
    1. Driver’s license
    2. Passport
    3. Other state- or federal-issued ID
  • Income
    1. Pay stubs for the last 30 days
    2. Last two federal tax returns
    3. Last two W-2s
    4. Proof of any additional income (second jobs, social security, alimony, etc.)
  • Accounts
    1. Last two statements on all bank accounts — be sure to include all pages, even blank ones
    2. Statements for all investment and/or retirement accounts
  • Property
    1. Settlement statement from previous home sale, if applicable
  • Additional documents
    1. Contact information for your landlord(s) for the last two years, if applicable
    2. Divorce decree, separation agreement, and/or property settlement agreement, if applicable
    3. Gift letter if a family member is helping with down payment (lender will have form)
    4. A letter of explanation (LOE) for late payments, collections, judgments, or other derogatory items in your credit history, if applicable

FHA Loan Documents

[Download the printable version]

If you’re applying for mortgage pre-approval with the Federal Housing Administration, you’ll need these documents:

  • Identification (one of these, which you will need to show in person)
    1. Driver’s license
    2. Passport
    3. Other state- or federal-issued ID
  • Income
    1. Pay stubs for the last 30 days, if applicable
    2. Last two federal tax returns
    3. Last two W-2s or 1099s, if applicable
    4. Proof of any additional income (second jobs, social security, alimony, etc.)
  • Accounts
    1. Last two statements on all bank accounts — be sure to include all pages, even blank ones
      1. Statements for all investment and/or retirement accounts
  • Property
    1. Closing disclosure (or HUD-1 if the sale took place before Oct. 3, 2015) for previous purchase
  • Additional documents
    1. Contact information for your landlord(s) for the last two years, if applicable
    2. Divorce decree, separation agreement, and/or property settlement agreement, if applicable
    3. Gift letter if a family member is helping with down payment (lender will have form)
    4. A letter of explanation (LOE) for late payments, collections, judgments, or other derogatory items in your credit history, if applicable

Documents For Buying an Investment Property

[Download the printable version]

If you’re buying a property you plan to rent, these are the documents you should have in hand to apply for pre-approval:

  • Identification (one of these, which you will need to show in person)
    1. Driver’s license
    2. Passport
    3. Other state- or federal-issued ID
  • Income
    1. Pay stubs for the last 30 days, if applicable
    2. Last two federal tax returns
    3. Last two W-2s or 1099s, if applicable
    4. Proof of any additional income (second jobs, social security, alimony, etc.)
  • Accounts
    1. Last two statements on all bank accounts — be sure to include all pages, even blank ones
    2. Statements for all investment and/or retirement accounts
  • Property
    1. Settlement statement on any recent home sales
    2. Recent mortgage statements on all properties you own
    3. Proof of insurance for all properties you own
    4. Current leases for all rental properties you own
  • Additional documents
    1. Contact information for your landlord(s) for the last two years, if applicable
    2. Divorce decree, separation agreement, and/or property settlement agreement, if applicable
    3. Gift letter if a family member is helping with down payment (lender will have form)
    4. A letter of explanation (LOE) for late payments, collections, judgments, or other derogatory items in your credit history, if applicable

Self-Employed or Business-Owner Mortgage Documents

[Download the printable version]

If you’re self-employed or own a business, these are the documents you need for the mortgage pre-approval process:

  • Identification (one of these, which you will need to show in person)
    1. Driver’s license
    2. Passport
    3. Other state- or federal-issued ID
  • Income
    1. Pay stubs for the last 30 days, if applicable
    2. Last two federal tax returns
    3. Last two 1099s
    4. Proof of any additional income (second jobs, social security, alimony, etc.)
  • Accounts
    1. Last two statements on all bank accounts — be sure to include all pages, even blank ones
    2. Statements for all investment and/or retirement accounts
    3. Last two years’ Corporate, S-Corp, LLC, or partnership tax returns
    4. Last two years’ 1099s, if applicable
  • Property
    1. Settlement statement from previous home sale, if applicable
  • Additional documents
    1. Contact information for your landlord(s) for the last two years, if applicable
    2. Divorce decree, separation agreement, and/or property settlement agreement, if applicable
    3. Gift letter if a family member is helping with down payment (lender will have form)
    4. A letter of explanation (LOE) for late payments, collections, judgments, or other derogatory items in your credit history, if applicable
    5. Last two months’ profit-and-loss statements (you can put one together in about five minutes)
    6. Balance sheet, if applicable (rules vary by state)
    7. Current business license

VA Loan Documents

[Download the printable version]

If you’re seeking pre-approval for a Veteran’s Administration home loan, these are the documents you will need:

  • Identification (one of these, which you will need to show in person)
    1. Driver’s license
    2. Passport
    3. Other state- or federal-issued ID
  • Income
    1. Pay stubs for the last 30 days, if applicable
    2. Last two federal tax returns
    3. Last two W-2s or 1099s, if applicable
    4. Proof of any additional income (second jobs, social security, alimony, etc.)
  • Accounts
    1. Last two statements on all bank accounts — be sure to include all pages, even blank ones
    2. Statements for all investment and/or retirement accounts
  • Property
    1. Settlement statement from previous home sale, if applicable
  • Additional documents
    1. Contact information for your landlord(s) for the last two years, if applicable
    2. Divorce decree, separation agreement, and/or property settlement agreement, if applicable
    3. A letter of explanation (LOE) for late payments, collections, judgments, or other derogatory items in your credit history, if applicable
    4. Certificate of eligibility (COE) from the Veteran’s Administration, which may require one or more of these documents, depending on your situation:
      • Form DD-214, certificate of release or discharge
      • Statement of service from the adjutant, personnel office, commander, or higher headquarters if still on active duty
      • Form 26-1817 or form 21-534 for surviving spouses, plus form 1300, report of casualty, or death certificate

USDA Loan Documents

[Download the printable version]

If you’re applying for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Loan, you’ll need these documents to seek pre-approval:

  • Identification (one of these, which you will need to show in person)
    1. Driver’s license
    2. Passport
    3. Other state- or federal-issued ID
  • Income
    1. Pay stubs for the last 30 days, if applicable
    2. Last two federal tax returns
    3. Last two W-2s or 1099s, if applicable
    4. Proof of any additional income (second jobs, social security, alimony, etc.)
  • Accounts
    1. Last two statements on all bank accounts — be sure to include all pages, even blank ones
    2. Statements for all investment and/or retirement accounts
  • Property
    1. Settlement statement from previous home sale, if applicable
  • Additional documents
    1. Contact information for your landlord(s) for the last two years, if applicable
    2. Divorce decree, separation agreement, and/or property settlement agreement, if applicable
    3. Gift letter if a family member is helping with down payment (lender will have form)
    4. A letter of explanation (LOE) for late payments, collections, judgments, or other derogatory items in your credit history, if applicable
    5. Form 410-4: Uniform Residential Loan Application, filled out by applicant(s)
    6. Form 3550-4: Employment & Asset Certification, a separate form filled out and signed by each applicant
    7. Form 3550-1: Authorization to Release Information, a separate form filled out and signed by each applicant and each adult household member
    8. Form 4506-T: Request for Transcript of Tax Return, a separate form filled out by each applicant
    9. Documentation of child care expenses for dependents 12 or younger, if applicable
    10. Life insurance policy
    11. For any household member who is a full-time student 18 years of age or older, a current school transcript
    12. Annual medical expenses for applicants 62 years of age or older, or with a disability (to be considered for a deduction in household income)
    13. A written explanation of two years of employment history, including an explanation of gaps

Job-Based Incentive Loan Documents

[Download the printable version]

Incentive-based programs — such as Good Neighbor Next Door, which provide mortgage assistance for public servants such as teachers, firefighters, police officers — have their own criteria. If you’re seeking one of these mortgages, you will need these documents for pre-approval:

  • Identification (one of these, which you will need to show in person)
    1. Driver’s license
    2. Passport
    3. Other state- or federal-issued ID
  • Income
    1. Pay stubs for the last 30 days, if applicable
    2. Last two federal tax returns
    3. Last two W-2s or 1099s, if applicable
    4. Proof of any additional income (second jobs, social security, alimony, etc.)
  • Accounts
    1. Last two statements on all bank accounts — be sure to include all pages, even blank ones
    2. Statements for all investment and/or retirement accounts
  • Property
    1. Settlement statement from previous home sale, if applicable
  • Additional documents
    1. Contact information for your landlord(s) for the last two years, if applicable
    2. Divorce decree, separation agreement, and/or property settlement agreement, if applicable
    3. Gift letter if a family member is helping with down payment (lender will have form)
    4. A letter of explanation (LOE) for late payments, collections, judgments, or other derogatory items in your credit history, if applicable
Article by KELLEY WALTERS

Solar Tubes vs. Skylights: Solar Tubes Win for Low-Cost Daylighting

By installing solar tubes, you’ll get the natural light that skylights provide — but with less cost and less hassle.

If you’ve been thinking of adding more daylight to a kitchen or dark hallway, a solar tube may be the way to go.

At a fraction of the cost of a skylight, a solar tube provides plenty of warm, indirect light.

How It Works

Known variously as a sun tube, sun tunnel, light tube, or tubular skylight, a solar tube is a 10- or 14-inch-diameter sheet-metal tube with a polished interior. The interior acts like a continuous mirror, channeling light along its entire length while preserving the light’s intensity. It captures daylight at the roof and delivers it inside your home.

On your roof, a solar tube is capped by a weather-proof plastic globe. The tube ends in a porthole-like diffuser in the ceiling of a room below. The globe gathers light from outside; the diffuser spreads the light in a pure white glow. The effect is dramatic: New installations often have homeowners reaching for the light switch as they leave a room.

Cost

A light tube costs about $500 to $1,000 when professionally installed, compared with more than $2,000 for a skylight. If you’re reasonably handy and comfortable working on a roof, install a light tube yourself using a kit that costs about $200 to $400. Unlike a skylight, a light tube doesn’t require new drywall, paint, and alterations to framing members.

How Much Light?

A 10-inch tube, the smallest option, is the equivalent of three 100-watt bulbs, enough to illuminate up to 200 square feet of floor area; 14-inch tubes can brighten as much as 300 square feet.

Popular locations for a light tube include any areas where constant indirect light is handy:

The only place you don’t want a light tube is above a TV or computer screen where it might create uncomfortable glare.

Bringing a Light Tube Through Multiple Levels

Channeling light down to the first floor of a two-story house is feasible if you have a closet or mechanical chase through which you can run the tube. The job can quickly become more complicated if there’s flooring to cut through, or if you encounter wiring, plumbing, and HVAC ducts.

Is Your House Right for a Light Tube?

Because installation requires no framing alteration, there are few limitations to where you can locate a light tube. Check the attic space above to see if there is room for a straight run. If you find an obstruction, elbows or flexible tubing may get around it. It’s relatively easy to install a light tube in a vaulted ceiling because only a foot or so of tubing is required.

Make these evaluations in advance:

Roof slope: Most light tube kits include flashing that can be installed on roofs with slopes between 15 degrees (a 3-in-12 pitch) and 60 degrees (a 20-in-12 pitch).

Roofing material: Kits are designed with asphalt shingles in mind, but also work with wood shingles or shakes. Flashing adapters for metal or tile roofs are available.

Roof framing spacing: Standard rafters are spaced 16 inches on-center; gap enough for 10- or 14-inch tubes. If your home has rafters positioned 24 inches on-center, you can special order a 21-inch tube for light coverage up to 600 square feet.

Location: A globe mounted on a southwest roof gives the best results. Choose a spot requiring a run of tubing that’s 14 feet or less. A globe positioned directly above your target room can convey as much as 98% of exterior light. A tube that twists and turns minimally reduces the light.

Weather: If you live in a locale with high humidity, condensation on the interior of the tube can be a problem. Wrapping the tube with R-15 or R-19 insulation greatly cuts condensation. Some manufacturers offer sections of tubing with small fans built in to remove moist air. If you live in a hurricane-prone area, opt for an extra-hardy polycarbonate dome.

Article by DAVE TOHT

How to Be a Savvy Open House Guest

Getting smart — about what to do, ask, and avoid — can move you ahead of the crowd.

Ah, the open house — a chance to wander through other people’s homes and imagine yourself knocking out walls and gut rehabbing their kitchens. This is what dreams are made of (or at least episodes of HGTV).

In all seriousness, going to open houses (and scheduled private showings) is one of the most exciting parts of the home-buying experience. Beyond the voyeuristic thrill, visiting houses allows you to assess things that you just can’t see online.

Anyone who has taken a super-posed selfie knows that a picture doesn’t always tell the whole truth. Professional listing photos can make small rooms look spacious, make dim rooms bright, and mask other flaws of a home — but you don’t know any of that until you actually see the house yourself.

You can tour houses at any point, but it can be helpful to first discuss your needs and wants with your partner (if you have one), do some online research, and talk with your agent and your lender. That way, you — and your agent — can take a targeted approach, which saves you time and can give you an edge over your buying competition.

So, before you start viewing, follow these tips to get prepared.

Make It Your Job to Know Which Houses Are “Open”

There are four ways to know when a house is available for viewing:

  • Ask your agent. He or she will have details on specific properties and can keep you informed of open houses that fit your criteria.
  • Use listing websites. A number of property sites let you search active listings for upcoming open houses. On realtor.com®, for instance, when searching for properties, scroll over the “Buy” tab and click the “Open Houses” link to see upcoming ones in your area.
  • Scroll social media. On Instagram, for example, you can search the hashtag #openhouse, or similar tags for your city (#openhousedallas, for example), to discover open houses. Many real estate agents and brokerages also post open house announcements on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter; find ones from your area and start following.
  • Drive around. Cruise through the neighborhoods you’re interested in — it’s a good way to get a sense of the area amenities — and look for open house signs.

And while you’re searching, be sure to jot down the location, time, and date for any open house that strikes your fancy. It will make it that much easier to plan times and routes for hitting as many homes as possible.

Get There Early (and Say Hi to the Neighbors)

If you’re seriously interested in a home, show up to the open house early. That way you’ll beat the rush, and the agent showing the house (AKA the host) will have time to focus on you and your questions.

And don’t be shy! Many home buyers hop from one open house to the next without talking to the listing agent. But chatting up the host can help you learn information that you wouldn’t get by only touring the premises.

If a house seems like a match, take a walk around the neighborhood. Strike up conversations with the neighbors to get an insider’s perspective on what life in that community is really like — families, singles, what the vibe on the block is like, and whether the homeowner’s or condo association (if there is one) is easy to work with.

Ask Lots of Questions, But Avoid TMI

To make the most of your open house visits, have a list of questions in mind for the host — and take notes while you’re there, so you can keep track of what you learned.

At the same time, remember this: Your interaction with the host could be the beginning of negotiations with them. If you end up making an offer, you’ll use the information you’ve gathered to inform your bid. (They’ll also remember that you were an engaged yet courteous person, which can’t hurt your cause.)

Equally important: Oversharing could hurt your negotiating power.

Be careful about what information you share with the agent hosting the event. This person works for the seller — not you. The host can and will use stats they’ve gleaned about you to counter, reject, or accept an offer.

Keeping that in mind, here are eight questions you can ask a host to help determine whether a house is a good fit for you:

    1. Have you received any offers? If there are already bids on the table, you’ll have to move quickly if you want to make an offer. Keep in mind: Listing agents can’t disclose the amount of any other offers, though — only whether they exist.
    2. When does the seller want to move? Find out the seller’s timeline. If the seller is in a hurry (say, for a new job), they may be willing to accept an offer that’s below list price.
    3. When is the seller looking to close? Price isn’t the only factor for many home sellers. One way to strengthen your offer is to propose a settlement date that’s ideal for them. For example, a 30- to 45-day closing is standard in many markets, but the seller may want more time if they haven’t purchased their next home yet.
    4. Is the seller flexible on price? Most listing agents won’t tip their hand when you ask this question, but there’s always a chance the agent says “yes.” And, in some instances, the seller has authorized their agent to tell interested buyers that the price is negotiable. In any case, you might as well ask. (It’s kind of like googling for a coupon code when you buy something online.)
    5. How many days has the home been on the market? You can find this information on the internet, but the seller’s agent can give you context, especially if the house has been sitting on the market for a while. Maybe the home was under contract but the buyer’s financing fell through, or the seller overshot the listing price and had to make a price reduction? Knowing the backstory can only help you.
    6. Has the price changed? You can see if there’s been a price reduction online, but talking to the listing agent is the only way to find out why the seller dropped the price.
    7. Are there any issues? Have there been any renovations or recent repairs made to the home? Some upgrades, like new kitchen appliances, are easy to spot, but some are harder to identify. Specifically ask about the roof, appliances, and HVAC system because they can be expensive to repair or replace. BTW, repairs like a leaky faucet, aren’t things that need to be disclosed.
    8. What are the average utility costs? Many buyers don’t factor utility bills into their monthly housing expenses, and these costs can add up — particularly in drafty older homes. Ask the listing agent what a typical monthly utility bill is during the summer and during the winter, since heating and cooling costs can fluctuate seasonally. Be prepared for higher utility bills if you’re moving from an apartment to a single-family home.

Now that you’ve got your answers, there’s one last thing to do: Thank the host before you go. You never know — you could be seeing them again at the negotiating table soon.

7 Important Repairs to Make Before Selling A House

The most critical things to do to increase your home’s value before putting it on the market.

As a smart seller, you’ll want your home in tip-top shape — but you don’t want to eat into your profits by overspending on home improvements. You won’t be around to enjoy them anyway. The key is to focus on the most important repairs to make before selling a house to ensure every dollar you spend supports a higher asking price.

“Smaller and less expensive updates in combination with good staging will have a great return,” says Colorado Springs agent Susanna Haynie. But how do you know what things to do before putting your house on the market? Prioritize these updates — and consider letting the rest go.

#1 The Most Important Repair to Make Before Selling: Fix Damaged Flooring

Scratched-up wood flooring; ratty, outdated carpeting; and tired linoleum make your home feel sad. Buyers might take one step inside and scratch the property from their list. Want to know how to increase the value of your home? Install new flooring.

“Replace what’s worn out,” says Haynie. “Buyers don’t want to deal with replacing carpet, and giving an allowance is generally not attractive enough. Spring for new, neutral carpeting or flooring.”

If your home already has hardwood floors, refinishing does the job. Expect to spend about $3,000 on the project — and recoup 100% of the cost, according to the “National Association of REALTORS® Remodeling Impact Report.”

Consider swapping any old flooring for new hardwood. This project costs more at around $5,500, but you could recoup more than 90% of that at resale. If that’s not in the budget, any flooring update makes an enormous difference.

#2 Fix Water Stains

You’ve learned to live with the results of a long-fixed plumbing snafu, but for buyers, a water stain suggests there could be a dozen pesky problems hidden beneath the surface. That’s why this is one of the things to do before putting your house on the market.

“No buyer wants to buy a money pit,” says Haynie.

First, make sure the problem is fixed: Bring in a plumber to look for leaky piping or poor yard drainage if your basement is damp. Diverting rainwater from your foundation may cost as little as $800, and repairing a leaking pipe costs approximately $300.

As for the repair work, replacing a water-stained ceiling runs about $670, and drywall costs around $1.50 per square foot.

All are cheaper than a lost sale.

#3 Repair Torn Window Screens

So super inexpensive — and even DIY-able. You can purchase a window screen frame repair kit from a home improvement store for $10 to $15.

Considering the simplicity of this repair, making the fix is always worth it — and so are other small but highly visible issues. When you’re debating how to increase the value of your home, nix any small problems, snags, or ugly spots that might make buyers scrunch up their brows.

#4 Update Grout

Is your grout yellowing or cracked? Buyers will notice. New grout, on the other hand, can make old floors look like they came straight from the showroom.

“The best return-on-investment projects before selling a home involve making a home look like new,” says Malibu, Calif.-based agent Shelton Wilder. She recently sold a home above asking price after a complete re-grout.

This is another small fix with a big impact: Simple bathroom re-grouting may cost just $1 to $2 per square foot, increasing to $10 per square foot for more complicated jobs. And if you’re handy, you can save even more DIY-ing it.

#5 Resuscitate a Dying Lawn

Nothing says, “This one’s gonna take some work” like a brown, patchy, weedy lawn.

Fixing the problem doesn’t cost a ton of money — and you’ll get it all back (and then some!) once you sell. Hiring a lawn care service to apply fertilizer and weed control will cost about $375. Once you sell the home, that comparatively cheap fix could recoup $1,000. That’s an unbeatable 267% return on investment.

#6 Erase Pet Damage

Did your (sort of) darling kitten scratch your bedroom door? Fix the damage before listing your home. Otherwise, buyers may consider the scuffs a canary in the coal mine.

”If you have pet damage, buyers will [then] look for pet stains on the floor,” says Haynie.

Refinishing a door costs between $100 and $215 (or less, if you’re willing to DIY). Replacing pet-damaged carpeting or hardwood may be a bigger job than buffing out some scuffs — but it’s worth the cash.

#7 Revive an Outdated Kitchen

full kitchen renovation is rarely worth it when it comes time to sell — even though buyers love a fresh look. “Kitchens are still one of the most important features for buyers,” says Haynie.

The problem is, this $65,000 upgrade isn’t something that buyers will pay you back for. Sellers recoup about 62% of a full-on kitchen renovation. If you’re updating the space just for your sale, focus on low-cost, high-impact projects instead.

“Updating the kitchen doesn’t need to be expensive,” says Wilder. “Painting wood cabinets, updating hardware, or installing new countertops or appliances could be enough.”

Setting up your home for selling success doesn’t have to be expensive. Focus on the most important repairs to make before selling a house by picking projects that do more than look pretty. Choose updates that get your home in selling shape and justify a higher asking price.

Article by JAMIE WIEBE