3 Tips for Pet Owners When Purchasing a Home

When you treat your furry, feathered or scaly friend as a member of your family, it’s important to keep your pet’s needs in mind in any pending home purchase.

Ensuring whether local ordinances, regulations and neighborhood environment welcome pets will affect how well your beloved acclimates to your new home and how much freedom there is for his or her activities.

Here are some tips to help ensure your future home and neighborhood are pet-friendly:

1. Check local requirements
For any potential home purchase, familiarize yourself with city and county ordinances that are in place for health and safety reasons. Often, they require you to obey leash laws and clean up after your pet in public places. Noncompliance can result in a fine. Many communities are striving to create and maintain environmentally friendly and pet-friendly parks. Information on what pet parks and playgrounds exist in the area of a potential home should be available from the local parks and recreation department.

If you plan to house farm animal as a pet, such as a goat or a donkey, clarify the zoning regulations and ordinances with the proper officials. While house pets such as cats, dogs, birds, fish and rabbits are acceptable in most types of housing, there may be restrictions on the total number of animals allowed in a single dwelling.

2. Ask for apartment or HOA rules

While a single-family home is likely to provide your pet with the most freedom, a townhouse, apartment or condominium may be what fits your budget. For these options, check the townhouse or condo board rules and regulations for pets. Homeowners associations (HOAs) typically govern condos and townhouses with rules and bylaws for what’s allowed, disallowed and required. Some HOAs will allow pets but restrict them to certain areas on the property. You may face fines for violating the rules and bylaws.

3. Assess the home layout
Consider creature comforts inside and outside the home. Will your pet have enough yard our living space to live and play in without difficulty? Will your pet be happier with carpeting or tiled floors? Note whether the windows are at floor level, as your pet can accidentally run into them. Check the layout of the home and think about what would be needed to make your pet comfortable there. If your pet is older, stairs may be difficult and your pet could be confined to a single floor in the house.

Examine the outside of the home, too. Is there a doghouse or place for your pet to roam? Is the yard fenced? If you have a big, hairy dog, you might want a garden faucet to use when bathing your pet.

If a pet is a central part of your life, you will find personal enjoyment in your future house only if it accommodates the needs of your pet. As you consider the needs of your family, including pets, decide what you must have and what you can compromise on. You can also speak casually to potential neighbors to see if they are pet-friendly. After all, a happy pet makes a happy owner.

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7 Smart Strategies for Kitchen Remodeling

Follow these seven strategies to get the most financial gain on your kitchen remodel.

Homeowners spend more money on kitchen remodeling than on any other home improvement project. And with good reason: Kitchens are the hub of home life and a source of pride.

A significant portion of kitchen remodeling costs may be recovered by the value the project brings to your home. A complete kitchen renovation with a national median cost of $60,000 recovers about 67% of the initial project cost at the home’s resale, according to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

The project gets a big thumbs-up from homeowners, too. Those polled in the “Report” gave their new kitchen a Joy Score of 9.8 — a rating based on those who said they were happy or satisfied with their remodeling, with 10 being the highest rating and 1 the lowest.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

CHICKEN MEATBALLS WITH MARINARA SAUCE

Nothing really sounds quite as Paleo-friendly then meatballs, right? Unfortunately, traditional meatball recipes nearly always contain a very non-Paleo ingredient – breadcrumbs. In order for meatballs to retain their shape while cooking, some kind of bonding ingredient (usually breadcrumbs or some variant) is needed. This recipe substitutes almond meal (aka almond flour) in place of a traditional grain-based bonder so that you can enjoy meatballs while not turning away from your Paleo diet.

One important thing to note about this recipe is that it does not include your ingredients for marinara sauce, just that you’ll need about 2 – 3 cups of it. You can always grab an off-the-shelf sauce for the quickest prep time (after carefully reading through your ingredients list first); but, if you have more time, consider prepping your own sauce in advance. Homemade marinara sauce made from fresh tomatoes is the kind of thing you can make in batches and freeze for later – a great way to save time on nights where you just need to get something on the table.

If you are hoping to go for a Paleo spaghetti and meatballs dish (probably the most kid-friendly and inexpensive bet), you can pair these meatballs with your choice of zoodles. But your options aren’t limited to just a spaghetti substitute! Try serving these meatballs atop a plate of this scrumptious Eggplant, Tomato, and Zucchini dish, or as part of a kabob recipe like these Tomato and Mushrooms skewers to build some versatility into your meal plan.

Chicken Meatballs with Marinara Sauce Recipe

Serves:  4     Prep:  15     Cook: 20 min

Protein:  38grams  Fat:  22grams  Carbs: 15grams

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 lbs. ground chicken or turkey;
  • 1 egg, beaten;
  • 1/4 cup almond meal;
  • 1 garlic clove, minced;
  • 1 tsp. dried basil;
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano;
  • Fresh basil;
  • 2 to 3 cups marinara sauce;
  • Cooking fat;
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper;

Preparation

  1. In a bowl, combine chicken or turkey with egg, almond meal, garlic, dried basil, and dried oregano; season with salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Scoop and form the meatballs with your hands (to avoid stickiness, rub your hands with olive oil).
  3. Melt some cooking fat in a skillet over high-heat.
  4. Brown the meatballs in batches on all sides, 1 to 2 minutes per side.
  5. Lower heat to medium and add all the meatballs to the skillet; pour the marinara sauce over the meatballs.
  6. Cover and simmer 12 to 15 minutes or until meatballs are cooked through.
  7. Serve topped with fresh basil.

 

How Much Are Closing Costs? What Home Buyers and Sellers Can Expect

Closing costs are the fees paid to third parties that help facilitate the sale of a home, and they vary widely by location. But as a rule, you can estimate that they typically total 2% to 7% of the home’s purchase price. So on a $250,000 home, your closing costs would amount to anywhere from $5,000 to $17,500. Yep that’s one heck of a wide range. More on that below.

Both buyers and sellers typically pitch in on closing costs, but buyers shoulder the lion’s share of the load (3% to 4% of the home’s price) compared with sellers (1% to 3%). And while some closing costs must be paid before the home is officially sold (e.g., the home inspection fee when the service is rendered), most are paid at the end when you close on the home and the keys exchange hands.

How much are closing costs for buyers?

Home buyers pay the majority of closing costs since many of these fees are associated with the mortgage.

“If you’re paying cash for a property, there are still a few closing costs, but they are significantly less,” says Cara Ameer, a Realtor® in Ponte Vedra, FL. Here are some of the fees home buyers should brace themselves to pay:

  • A loan origination fee, which lenders charge for processing the paperwork for your loan.
  • A fee for running your credit report.
  • A fee for the underwriter, who assesses your credit worthiness.
  • A fee for the appraisal of the home you hope to own to make sure its value matches the size of the loan you want.
  • A fee for the home inspection, which checks the home for potential problems from cracks in the foundation to a leaky roof.
  • A fee for a title search to unearth any liens on the property that could interfere with your ownership of it.
  • A survey fee if it’s a single-family home or townhome (but not condos)
  • Taxes, also called stamp taxes, on the money you’ve borrowed for your home loan.

How much are closing costs for sellers?

Here are the closing costs that sellers are typically responsible for:

  • A closing fee, paid to the title company or attorney’s office where everyone meets to close on the home.
  • Taxes on the home sale.
  • A fee for an attorney, if the home seller has one.
  • A fee for transferring the title to the new owner.

 

While this doesn’t seem like much compared with what home buyers have to cough up, keep in mind that sellers typically pay all real estate agents’ commissions, which amount to 4% to 7% of the home’s sales price. So, no one sneaks through a home closing scot-free.

Why closing costs vary

The reason for the huge disparity in closing costs boils down to the fact that different states and municipalities have different legal requirements—and fees—for the sale of a home.

“If you live in a jurisdiction with high title insurance premiums and property transfer taxes, they can really add up,” says David Reiss, research director at the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship at Brooklyn Law School. “New York City, for instance, has something called a mansion tax, which adds a 1% tax to sales that exceed $1 million. And then there are the surprise expenses that can crop up like so-called ‘flip taxes’ that condos charge sellers.”

To estimate your closing costs, plug your numbers into an online closing costs calculator, or ask your Realtor, lender, or mortgage broker for a more accurate estimate. Then, at least three days before closing, the lender is required by federal law to send buyers a closing disclosure that outlines those costs once again. (Meanwhile sellers should receive similar documents from their Realtor outlining their own costs.)

Word to the wise: “Before you close, make sure to review these documents to see if the numbers line up to what you were originally quoted,” says Ameer. Errors can and do creep in, and since you’re already ponying up so much cash, it pays, literally, to eyeball those numbers one last time before the big day.

Judy Dutton is a senior editor at realtor.com covering news and advice about home buying, selling, decorating, and everything in between (judy.dutton@move.com).

7 Organizing Strategies to Be More Productive When You Work From Home

Tips to create a home office space that makes the most of your time.

Working from home is the dream, isn’t it? No more long commute (or drama from your cubicle mate). It’s so much easier to be productive, right?

But then … something happens. Your Netflix queue beckons. You can’t unsee that pile of dirty laundry. Your fluffy bed seduces you into taking a two-hour siesta.

Now you’re behind and working weekends to catch up. You need help. You need an organized workspace. “It really allows you to focus on what’s important,” says Calabasas, Calif.-based organizer Lori Gersh.

Here’s how to fix your home work space to pump up your productivity:

1. Purge First

Sure, shopping for organizers is fun. They don’t call it “retail therapy” for nothing. But to create a system primed for maximum output, you first should soldier through the task of ditching paperwork and office supplies that clutter rather than help, and, most importantly, finding homes for all things unrelated to work (well, except for a sentimental photo or two — and plants; plants are good). Consider it boot camp to get your work life in shape. Plus, the more open and organized your space is, the easier it’ll be to focus.

2. Create a Work Hub — Even if Space Is Minimal

A separate room with only one function — work — is ideal, but so is a beachfront address. Just because you don’t have a spare room doesn’t mean you can’t have an “office.” You can easily create one.

A small desk and storage ottoman for files and supplies may be all you need.

Or a small coat closet could be repurposed if you need something more substantial. Relocate the coats and jackets to hooks in your entry or move them to other closets, and convert that closet into a work nook with a built-in tabletop and floating shelves.

But if you work from a multi-purpose space like the kitchen table, or prefer to roam from table to couch, it’s a bit more of a challenge — but still solvable.

Try a rolling cart loaded with your work supplies. “It helps you focus because you have things right where you need them,” says New York City organizer Stephanie Shalofsky. (There’s a ton of sizes and configurations to choose from, and most are less than $100.) Then simply roll it out of sight when company comes.

3. Use Vertical Space to Organize

It’s surprising how often wall space is overlooked as an organizing solution. When everything you need is right there on your wall and easy to find, your productivity jumps.

Buy ready-to-hang cubbies, or create your own system, and hang them just as you would a collection of pictures. Some other ideas:

  • Use a pegboard to store supplies such as scissors, calendars, and notes.
  • Stow files in magazine holders mounted to the walls.
  • Hang a shoe organizer with clear sleeves to keep supplies such as pens in plain sight (this will work on a rolling cart, too, if you cut it to fit).

4. Separate Household Files From Work Files

If you do business and household duties from the same space, you need separate systems to help you stay focused, Shalofsky says. This is super easy to do. You just need to commit to do it:

  • Keep two different calendars and to-do lists.
  • Use different drawers, cabinets, shelves, or file bins.

Then keep those household files out of sight when you’re working. Just like seeing a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, seeing bills waiting to be paid can entice your mind to wander.

5. Turn Away From Temptation

For most home-based workers, the comfort of home is the prime saboteur of productivity. Is your workspace in sight of distractions, such as your TV, or the dining room you still haven’t finished painting? “If it doesn’t have to do with your business, it will clog up your space and your head,” Gersh says.

If you have to work from the kitchen table, choose a seat facing a wall or window rather than the sink or stove.

If there’s no place to set up shop other than next to the TV, sit with your back toward it. If that’s not possible, think about hiding your TV, literally. You can disguise it behind a painting or mirror. That creates a barrier, forcing you to actively choose watching TV over doing business.

Or, if space permits, position a freestanding bookshelf or screen between your work space and household distractions.

Here’s a nice little bonus: These tactics also have the added benefit of putting your work out of sight when you’re ready to relax at home.

6. Set Boundaries on Browsing

OK, this is a challenge even people stuck in the office face: A little bit of Facebook browsing here and a few minutes of online shopping there is all too tempting. But it’s even worse when you work from home because your boss can’t see you.

But it’s your home. Your castle. Where you ARE the boss.

With that mindset, think about creating some accountability for yourself. Here are a couple of ideas:

1. Create a different browser profile for work use, so your favorite bookmarks aren’t beckoning during office hours.

2. Enlist the aid of an online tool, such as Focus or Freedom, which can keep you in check by blocking access to sites that’ll suck you in (ahem, Pinterest) when you’re working.

You just might boost your productivity enough to take Friday afternoon off. So maybe you’ll get to finish painting the dining room after all, and still have the weekend off to enjoy it. How sweet is that?

7. Tidy Up Before Clocking Out

When you work from home, there’s no cleaning crew to spruce up your space after hours, and no peer pressure to maintain a somewhat-orderly space. So although it’s tempting to let it be, take just a few moments to toss unnecessary paperwork, remove trash, and make sure your work space is ready for work in the a.m. By clearing the way today, you’ll hit the ground running tomorrow.

Congratulations. You’re now living the work-at-home dream!

6 Heroic Pets That Went All Out Guarding Their Homes

Pets aren’t just beloved members of the family—they can also serve as the ultimate clawed, fanged, taloned, and hoofed home protectors.

Yes, that’s right: Canines are far from the only (or even best) watchdogs in town. Cats, pigs, ferrets, and even birds have proved their worth keeping homes and their inhabitants safe from fire, poisonous gas, bullets, and even bears.

While pets can’t always save a place single-handedly (or -pawedly), having them is good not just for the soul, but for our property, too.

Polly is a hero

Parrots can do much more than mimic human speech with disturbing (and highly annoying) accuracy, as evidenced by a parrot named Pearly.

In 2014, after a fire started in the laundry room of its owner’s home in Fort Lauderdale, FL, this Indian ringneck parrot actually beat the smoke detectors as an alarm (birds are extremely sensitive to fumes). Even though Pearly couldn’t leave its cage, the bird flapped and squawked until the owners woke up and called the fire department, avoiding major damage to the house.

Maybe now the entire family will come to love, or at least appreciate, the 3-year-old bird.

“My children never liked the bird and [my fiancé] Dave doesn’t like the bird either, so now maybe the bird will be [seen] in a better light,” homeowner Laurajean Nisel told ABC News Local10.

Three legs of fury

What has three legs and takes bullets to stop a robbery? That would be Levi, an affectionate 15-year-old pit bull in Janesville, WI.

During a home invasion in January, when a robber threatened Darcy Cherry and her boyfriend with a gun, the brave dog put himself between his owner and her assailant and got shot. Luckily, the bullet only grazed his head and lodged in his shoulder. But the dog did his job: The robber fled, empty-handed.

It wasn’t Levi’s first brush with the criminal element: A couple of years earlier, he had been dognapped. And did we mention that he had lost his leg after a hiking accident?! This dog has either the best luck or the worst. But suffice it to say, his owners feel very lucky to have him.

Super pig

Most people don’t take pigs for pets, but science has shown that, as far as animals go, pigs have pretty high IQs. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that a sweet-hearted swine named Lucky in Mt. Carmel, IL, saved an entire family from a fire in their trailer in June 2014.

“He jumped down, hit the bedroom door, jumped back up, hit the bed, and rooted me really hard. When I sat up, the room was really smoky,” owner Ina Farler told NBC News. She, her two grandchildren, and Lucky escaped the blaze. That’ll do, pig, that’ll do.

You rescue me, I’ll rescue you

A couple of years ago, Craig Jeeves rescued a stray cat named Sally. Well, Sally returned the favor and rescued the 49-year-old Australian right back: After a fire broke out in his home in September 2014, Sally woke Jeeves in time to escape the flames.

“She jumped on my head and was sort of, like, screaming at me,” Jeeves told On Demand News while he stood outside the blackened shell of his home. Fine, the home didn’t survive, but as long as these two have each other, we aren’t too worried.

Puppy battles a bear—and wins

Does a pint-size puppy stand a chance against a massive bear? It does if the pup in question is Coco, defending three sleeping kids.

After a black bear broke into Priscilla Epperson’s Gatlinburg, TN, house one evening in September 2014, it wandered into a bedroom where the tykes were snoozing. That’s when Coco went ballistic. Epperson, who was doing the laundry, went to see what the fuss was about.

Coco “had chased the bear outside and freaked it out. She was running so fast, it looked like the bear got confused and just took off running up the driveway,” Epperson told WRTV 6. “I’ve seen a million bears since I’ve been here, but I’ve never seen one run from a dog.”

The superior senses of Max

Somehow, dogs can tell when something’s wrong. In early March 2014, Max, a German shepherd from Novato, CA, dragged his 80-year-old owner into the hallway when a wall heater broke, pouring carbon monoxide and natural gas into the house. The owner, Jack Farrell, had succumbed to the fumes, but he was able to recover in the hall. He escaped, and Max got a whole lot of treats—as he should.

Big Banks Behind Growth in Home Flipping

Despite rising home prices, house flipping is still hot. And it’s the banks that are being credited as helping investors jump back in lately.

Banks are offering up greater financing vehicles for house flippers. Bank giants like Wells Fargo & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., for example, have extended credit lines to companies that specialize in lending to home flippers, The Wall Street Journal reports. J.P. Morgan reportedly is lending an estimated $60 million to 5 Arch Funding, a company that offers financing to home flippers in Irvine, Calif.

“The floodgates have opened,” Eduardo Axtle of Oakland, Calif., who has taken out about 50 home loans over the past five years.

In the first nine months of 2016, the number of investors who flipped a house reached the highest level since 2007. Further, about a third of the deals in the third quarter were financed.

Private lenders reportedly are even, in some cases, offering debt in excess of the value of the home (also known as a high loan-to-value ratio). Lenders reportedly also are loosening up their documentation rules. They may still require bank statements to get a loan but not a W-2 tax earnings statement. What’s more, home flippers are finding greater financing opportunities through online lenders, such as LendingHome Corp. and Asset Avenue Inc., or crowdfunding websites, such as Groundfloor Finance Inc.

DAILY REAL ESTATE NEWS | THURSDAY, DECEMBER 29, 2016

Pistachio Tiramisu Recipe

Tiramisu, meaning “pick me up” in Italian, has seen a rise and fall in popularity since its invention in the 1960s. Chopped judge, and one of New York’s favorite chefs, Marc Murphy, brings back the attention it deserves in his debut cookbook.

 


Ingredients

  • 4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 16 ounces mascarpone
  • 2 tablespoons pistachio paste
  • 2 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • Pinch of cream of tartar
  • 2 cups brewed espresso or strong coffee
  • 1 tablespoon brandy
  • 24 ladyfingers
  • Pistachios, for garnish

Step 1: 
Bring 1 inch of water to a simmer in a saucepan. In a large bowl that will fit snugly over the saucepan, combine the egg yolks with 2 tablespoons of the sugar. Place the bowl over the simmering water, making sure the bottom does not touch the water, and cook, whisking continuously, until the sugar dissolves into the yolks and the mixture becomes thick and pale, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat. Whisk in the mascarpone and pistachio paste.

Step 2: 
In a medium bowl, combine the egg whites with the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Using a hand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar, and raise the mixer speed to high. Whip the egg whites until they are glossy and form stiff peaks. Whisk half of the whipped egg whites into the mascarpone mixture to lighten it. Fold the remaining egg whites into the mixture until combined.

Step 3: 
In a small, shallow dish, combine the espresso and brandy, and swirl around. Dip each ladyfinger into the espresso mixture for just 5 seconds. (Letting the ladyfingers soak too long will cause them to fall apart.) Place the soaked ladyfingers over the bottom of a 9-inch square baking dish; you should be able to fit two rows of 6 ladyfingers on the bottom. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture evenly over the ladyfingers. Arrange another layer of the soaked ladyfingers over the mascarpone, and top with the remaining mascarpone mixture. Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight. Decorate with pistachios before serving.

Makes 6-8 servings.

8 Hidden Costs When You Buy a Home

Now that you know what they are, you can plan ahead.

With your focus on building your down payment fund and figuring out what your mortgage payment will be, it’s easy to overlook some of the smaller fees that come along with a home purchase. Here are eight and what they could cost you.

1. Home Inspection

A home inspection helps protect you from purchasing a home that could be a lemon. So you don’t want to forgo it. Your inspector isn’t required to be an expert in everything. If you suspect termites, asbestos, and foundational issues, for instance, you’ll need to hire a specialist.Inspectors will look for signs of structural issues, mold, and leaks; assess the condition of the roof, gutters, water heater, heating and cooling system; and more. Inspections cost between $300 and $500, and whether or not you end up purchasing the property, you still need to pay this fee.

2. Appraisal Fee

This appraisal report goes to your lender to assure it that the property is worth what you’re paying for it. This report worked in our favor a couple of years ago when our home came back appraised for $10,000 less than our bid; the sellers had to reduce their asking price in order to move forward. If you’re selling, review the appraisal thoroughly for any oddball numbers or descriptions that could affect the value of your home. An appraisal can take about 2 hours and costs between $200 and $425.

3. Application Fees

Before ever approving you for a loan, the lender is going to run your credit report and charge you an application fee, often lumping the credit report fee in with the application fee. This can run $75 to $300. Be sure to ask for a breakdown of the application fees to understand all costs.

4. Title Services

These fees cover a title search of the public records for the property you’re buying, notary fees for the person witnessing your signature on documents, government filing fees, and more. These can cost between $150 and $400, and it’s important to get a line item for each cost.

5. Lender’s Origination Fees

Your lender will charge you this upfront free for making the mortgage loan. This includes processing the loan application, underwriting the loan (researching whether to approve you), and funding the loan. These fees are quoted as a percentage of the total loan you’re taking out and generally range between 0.5 to 1.5%.

6. Survey Costs

This report ($150 to $400) confirms the property’s boundaries, outlining its major features and dimensions.

7. Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI)

When you put down less than 20% on your new home, the lender requires that you purchase Your lender must cancel PMI once you reach 78% of your loan-to-value ratio or you have 22% equity. But you can petition to cancel early when your LTV hits 80%.Read More InCancel Your Private Mortgage Insurance PMI,  which is a policy that protects the lender from losing money if you end up in foreclosure. So PMI is a policy that you have to buy to protect the lender from you. PMI rates can vary from 0.3% to 1.5% of your original loan amount annually.

8. Tax Service Fee

This is the cost (about $50) to ensure that all property tax payments are up to date and that the payments you make are appropriately credited to the right home.

Always ask questions when it comes to understanding the fees you’re paying. If possible, print out documents and go through them with a highlighter to indicate any areas you have concerns about. Discuss them with your lender or real estate agent and determine if you can negotiate any of them down.

Don’t be afraid to price shop to ensure you’re getting the best value. Just because you’re spending hundreds of thousands on a home doesn’t mean you should be comfortable throwing thousands of dollars at fees.

This article was contributed by financial expert and blogger Mary Beth Storjohann, CFP, author, speaker, and founder of Workable Wealth. She provides financial coaching for individuals and couples in their 20s to 40s across the country, helping them make smart, educated choices with their money.

Save the Drawers! 3 Shabby Chic DIY Projects

Before throwing out that old dresser you’ve had since college, save the drawers!

Believe it or not, drawers can be used to make all sorts of creative storage solutions—and even a favorite resting place for your furry, four-legged family members! These three easy DIY projects are the perfect balance of form and function, turning once-loved furniture into brand new pieces to treasure for years.

Hanging Storage
Old drawers are perfect to transform into a trendy hanging storage solution. Using just a drill, some rope, and paint, you can easily turn a drawer into a hanging shelf, or even a handy message center. All of the practicality and use of a bookshelf —but more fun and affordable! Perfect for any room in the home where you could use more organization.

Materials:

  • Old drawer
  • Drill
  • Rope
  • Paint
  • Screws
  • Level

Directions:

  1. Drill 2 holes on the back side of the drawer. Put the rope through each hole and tie knots. This will be used to hang the shelf.
  2. Paint the inside of the drawer a different color than the outside of the drawer.
  3. Depending on the size and depth of the drawer you are working with, you can add a shelf to the middle of the drawer for extra storage. Measure a piece of wood to fit in the space, and then screw the wood into the sides of the drawer.
  4. Drill your screws into the wall where you want your shelf. Hang on the wall with the rope, making sure it is level.

What’s Hiding Under the Bed?
Drawers make a great solution for under-the-bed storage. Simply add casters to the bottom of your old drawers, and you have the perfect place to store just about anything. You can even paint the drawers for a decorative touch, or leave them as-is. Corral extra sets of bed sheets, store out-of-season clothes, or wrangle the kids’ toys with this brilliant DIY solution.

Materials:

  • Old drawer
  • 4 rolling casters
  • Paint
  • Scrap wood

Directions:

  1. Screw the rolling casters into the four corners of the bottom of the drawer.
  2. Paint the front and inside of the drawer as desired.
  3. Depending on the size and depth of the drawer, you may be able to add dividers. Simply measure a piece of scrap wood to fit your drawer, and screw into the sides.

A Place for Fido
If you have pets at home, you know how fun it can be to spoil them! Turn your old drawer into the perfect resting place for your pet. Just add some legs to the bottom of the drawer, toss in a decorative cushion or pillow that fills the drawer, and that’s it! You can even paint the drawer and/or customize the bed with your pet’s name for added personalization.

Materials:

  • Old drawer
  • Decorative table legs
  • Cushion or pillow to fit the drawer

Directions:

  1. Gather your four decorative table legs to use as the base.
  2. Pre-drill holes into the drawer, and then screw the legs into the drawer.
  3. Fill the drawer with fluffy cushions or pillows, creating a soft and inviting environment for your furry family member.

Once you get started with these fun projects, you will begin to see new uses for old drawers everywhere you look!

Dog Poses as Burglar in Home Security Scare

A Utah man thought someone was robbing his home, but he was in for a surprise.

The call was coming from inside the house, which is why Bruce Gardner feared the worst.

The Orem, Utah, resident had been at work for only a few minutes when his cell phone rang. His home phone number showed up on the caller ID, but there wasn’t anyone at his house at the time.

“I knew nobody was home, so I answered it,” Gardner told the Deseret News in Salt Lake City. “I said, ‘Hello,’ and all I could hear in the background was all this rustling noise. I wasn’t quite sure what it was.”

Scratching and heavy breathing could also be heard, and Gardner became frightened.

“My mind immediately went to, ‘I’m being robbed,’” he said.

As he rushed home, he called police and alerted them to the suspected break-in.

“So you can hear something?” the 911 dispatcher asked.

“Yeah, I kept yelling, ‘Hello, hello,’ and all I can hear is things being thrown around and stuff,” Gardner replied.

When police arrived at Gardner’s home, they found no sign of a break-in, and Gardner was stumped.

“Sure enough, nothing was stolen; nothing was taken,” Gardner told Salt Lake City TV station KTVX.

Gardner began looking for the phone, and when he found it, he realized what had happened. The phone was lying in the garden in the backyard.

“It was really dirty. I picked it up and sure enough, there are teeth marks on it,” Gardner said.

And then the furry culprit came forward. Gardner’s dog, Maya, had gotten the phone and chewed it, her teeth hitting the redial button and calling Gardner’s cell phone. A robbery scare turned into a case of a bad dog causing mischief.

“The cops got here so fast, they probably distracted Maya from finishing eating the phone,” Gardner told local TV station KSL.

The silly story has become somewhat of a talking point at the police station in Orem, police Sgt. Craig Martinez told KSL.

“I’ve heard of some pretty strange things, but this ranks right up there with something I’ve never heard of happening before,” Martinez said. “The whole thing is curious. It’s just really odd.”

Hello Dolly Cookie Bars

This cookie bar is a classic, crowd-pleasing favorite, and is perfect for any potluck and gathering. These Hello Dolly cookie bars are not only delicious but also easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 2½ cups finely crushed crumbs from your favorite cookies
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 6 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips
  • 3 ounces unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

Step 1:

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Step 2:

In a medium bowl, combine the cookie crumbs, salt, and melted butter. Scatter the mixture onto a parchment-lined 8-inch square baking pan. Press the cookie mixture flat into the pan.

Step 3:

In another medium bowl, combine the chocolate, coconut, and pecans, and scatter the mixture over the crust.

Step 4:

Drizzle the condensed milk across the top. Bake the bars for 25 to 30 minutes or until they turn a light caramel color.

Step 5:

Let the bars cool, and then cut them into squares to serve.

 

Fixed Mortgage Rates Move Higher

On a short week following the Christmas holiday, the 10-year Treasury yield was relatively unchanged. The 30-year mortgage rate rose 2 basis points to 4.32 percent, closing the year with nine consecutive weeks of increases. As mortgage rates continue to increase, home sales and affordability will continue to be a concern for housing in 2017.

 

  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgage (FRM) averaged 4.32 percent with an average 0.5 point for the week ending December 29, 2016, up from last week when it averaged 4.30 percent. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 4.01 percent.
  • 15-year FRM this week averaged 3.55 percent with an average 0.5 point, up from last week when it averaged 3.52 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 3.24 percent.
  • 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 3.30 percent this week with an average 0.5 point, down from last week when it averaged 3.32 percent. A year ago, the 5-year ARM averaged 3.08 percent.

Average commitment rates should be reported along with average fees and points to reflect the total upfront cost of obtaining the mortgage. Visit the following link for the Definitions. Borrowers may still pay closing costs which are not included in the survey.

Are you ready to make your next move? Click here.

DIY Mudroom Ideas: Organizing Tips for Winter Gear

Easy DIY mudroom ideas for keeping messy winter stuff organized.

With admirable upcycling ingenuity, 28-ounce food cans become helpful storage cubbies on the back of a door — perfect for stuffing with soft wintry hats and gloves. Remove labels with hot water and some isopropyl alcohol to get rid of stubborn glue, and file off any metal burrs on the inside lip of the can. Screw the cans to a mounting board and get ready for organized bliss.

 

With a smallish entryway and no real back door, this homeowner had to get creative when it came to dealing with winter gear, especially boots. The solution: a combo bench and boot rack that keeps drippy footwear off the floor. The bench is perfect for changing into or out of boots, and a cloth mat catches excess water before it can hit the floor.

 

A simple over-the-door shoe organizer ($13 to $25) is great for storing (and organizing) hats and gloves. Get clear plastic so everyone can see what’s what at a glance. Also perfect for stashing orphaned mittens until a mate finally appears.

 

A plastic tray filled with a layer of black river rocks ($3 for 28-ounce bag at craft stores) lets boots drip dry inside without messing up floors. Got some four-legged friends? Leave space on the tray for dog booties ($12 for a pack of 12) that’ll keep paws dry and warm your heart.

 

Keep messes and drips outside with a homemade boot rack. This rustic version features trimmed tree branches, complete with bark. Upright branches are screwed in place from underneath the long support. Parking your boots (or wellies, if you’re English Canadian or a Brit) upside down ensures good drainage and prevents snow and other precipitation from getting inside.

Think That’s Going to Decompose? Think Again!

More than half of the waste generated in the United States each year ends up sitting in our landfills. With a current annual rate of 220 million tons of waste generated, we add more than 110 million tons to landfills each year—many of which are already at capacity.

These numbers are staggering. Yet most of us don’t stop to think about how long all of that waste will sit in the landfill before it naturally decomposes.

When you compare how long it takes for common items to break down on their own to how quick the recycling process can be, it’s easy to see how recycling is a crucial piece to reducing the volume of our landfills.

These 7 items and their decomposing times will likely surprise you:


#1. Glass Bottles
Believe it or not, glass takes up to 1 million years to decompose naturally. By contrast, it takes only 8 hours to recycle 160 tons!

#2. Aluminum Cans
Left in a landfill, it can take aluminum cans anywhere from 80 to 200 years to oxidize and break down on their own. However, when an aluminum can is recycled, it is often back on the shelf in just 6 short weeks.

#3. Foamed Plastic
Foamed plastics can sit in a landfill for 50 years before decomposing. Fortunately, recycling programs are available for these types of plastics. If your local recycling center doesn’t accept it, there are mail-back programs that do, including the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers.

#4. Paper Products
Left to their own devices, paper products are one of the most earth-friendly when it comes to decomposing time. Paper takes anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks to break down on its own. However, it only takes 1 hour to recycle paper, making recycling the obvious winner for disposal.

#5. Batteries
Batteries are one of the most dangerous items to leave in a landfill. The thin metal exterior of a battery will decompose within 100 years, exposing the heavy metals inside, which will never decompose and are toxic to the environment. Fortunately, both single-use and reusable batteries can be recycled easily. Some stores have drop-off centers for your used batteries.

#6. Energy-Efficient Bulbs
Energy-efficient bulbs will never decompose; rather, they will sit in a landfill indefinitely. However, these bulbs can usually be quickly recycled. In fact, many home improvement or hardware supply stores will often offer in-store recycling centers for them.

#7. Appliances
Like many bigger items, appliances will never decompose. Instead, they will remain relatively intact in landfills indefinitely, taking up valuable space. The good news is many appliances can be recycled—and some recycling companies will even offer to pick up the appliances from your home or your curb.

Taking the Responsible Next Step
When comparing not only the length of time it takes for these various items to decompose, but also the effects they have on the environment, it is easy to see the importance recycling plays in protecting our environment.

20 Small Bathroom Ideas that Save Time and Money

Clever, readers! Your ideas on water-wise bathroom remodeling deserve a special blog post of their own.

Planning a Bath Makeover

1. Do your planning as if it were an empty room.

  • Are the fixtures placed in the most advantageous places in the room?
  • Can they be moved?
  • Can the space be expanded?
  • Visit model homes and open houses to get ideas of what other home owners have done. — William

Buying and Installing Fixtures

2. You can save a lot of money by going to a Habitat for Humanity Restore for fixtures, tiles, and towel racks. — Annalisa

3. Check with some of the big-box stores and see if they’ll take [an old toilet] in trade. Sometimes you can save a few pennies on a new one that way and then they will dispose of [the old one]. [With a small footprint,] consider some of the shallower vanities, which will give you more floor space, or even a floating vanity, which will help the room look larger. — Christine

4. A trick that might help with shower arm removal/installation: Buy an oil filter wrench at an auto store — the kind that has a handle and a rubber belt that adjusts by slipping through an eye in the handle. You can easily adjust it to fit the pipe and it doesn’t mar the finish.  — Mike

5. Sometimes paint and accessories/fixtures make all the difference. Plus the added shower, however small, is hidden up the steps and behind the wall. (See below) Will be great for resale. — Jessica

Saving Water

6. Cheapest, most cost-effective modification:

  • Remove the shower head.
  • Cut a circle from side of plastic milk jug sized to fit the interior of shower pipe.
  • Cut an X in the center of the circle.
  • Insert the circle into the pipe, reapply teflon tape, and screw shower head back on.
  • Use a 5 gallon bucket to measure amount of water coming out in a minute’s time.

You may need to adjust the cut to get a lower flow. It took me three tries to reach 1.5 gallons per minute. (My husband never guessed it had been done!!) But it’s now 2 gallons/minute less. — EB

7. The bathroom redo pictured below includes:

  • Low-flow faucets
  • Tiled showers
  • Only one tub in the master bath
  • Roman slate (helps keep baths clean and warm when showering)
  • Floor drains (no more accidents and it’s easy to clean the floors when baths are done)
  • Tankless on-demand water heater (a big penny saver)

We even have the grandkids involved in saving water. They know where to stop filling the tub. We wash in cold water always, and only use the dishwasher when it’s totally full. Proof was when we cut our water bill in half, and the utility bill is never over $175 a month! — Cathy

8. A huge water- and energy-saving item is an on-demand hot water recirculating pump. You can do on-demand with either a sensor or a switch. Either way you’ll save lots of water and energy. You’ll also need to insulate your water pipes. If you open up any walls, that’s the time to insulate. — Daniel

Debating a Shower Curtain vs Shower Door

9. I suggest a bowed shower curtain rod — makes shower feel more spacious without increasing footprint. — Marie

10. I recommend getting rid of the [shower] rod [for] either a shower screen (if washing your children in the tub is necessary) or a frameless shower enclosure.

If these options are too expensive, raise the shower curtain as high to the ceiling as possible. Then, using an existing shower curtain, add a coordinating fabric to the bottom for the extra length to compensate for raising the rod. Trim could be used to hide the seam between the two fabrics. This would seem like a custom shower curtain and the rod would no longer be in the sight line! — Jeff

11. If you have small children, consider a bath screen, [which are] gaining in popularity. These help out Mom and Dad when they bend over to give their little ones a bath, i.e., no track on the tub deck to annoy your ribs. — Tracy

12. We recently moved back from living in Europe, where we came to appreciate the setup in our last apartment there: a glass panel in the shower instead of a shower curtain or shower door. It fastened to the wall at the front of the tub [to keep] the water in, but only ran about a third of the length of the tub. It was on hinges so you could swing it out, which made it easy to clean the faucets, etc. It looked a lot nicer than a curtain but wasn’t as confining or dirt-collecting as a shower door. — John

13. A quick word in favor of shower doors: Clear ones can give you the same open feeling as curtains. And for pet owners (like myself) who bathe their furry family members in the tub/shower, not only is a handheld shower attachment a must-have, but so are shower doors. Being able to bathe [my cat] in a securely enclosed space makes her more cooperative, and virtually eliminates my need for boxes of Band-Aids. — Johnna

14. A 1/4” or 3/8” semi-frameless chrome/clear shower enclosure (bypass doors) like the one below would make [a] small bathroom larger AND even more elegant. Add hydroshield (a Rain-X-type material to aid in cleaning). — Tracy

Grouting and Resurfacing

15. Nasty grout/caulk is the biggest turn-off to my buyers — and a pain to clean and maintain. Get an all-one-piece shower unit!! NO GROUT/CAULK LINES! Cleaning is a breeze since it’s an all-one surface. You may find you’ll spend nearly as much money — or more! — on resurfacing the tub, plus adding a surround, as you would if you purchase an all-one-piece shower unit. (I got mine at Lowe’s for around $300.) — Laura

16. [Tile-tub resurfacing] breaks down over time and amount of use. Get a good warranty/guarantee. — Angela

17. You can get a walk-in tub that won’t cost much more than refinishing the old one. Soak anytime you want without using any more water than the old one, enjoy the jets, and it’ll be easier on you as you age … unless you plan on selling your house before retirement. In that case a walk-in tub can only increase the value and desirability of your house. — Marcia

Creating Storage

18. Do away with [the vanity and cabinet]. Is there enough wall space for you to build a small linen closet? You wouldn’t believe how much stuff you can you can put in a small space with proper shelving. The inside of my linen closet is 2’ w X 12” d and holds everything with room to spare. — Paula

19. I swapped out the dinky medicine cabinet for much taller spaces built into the stud cavities created on each side of the mirror. I flipped up the 60-inch-wide mirror vertically to make space and it made a huge difference in seemingly expanding the room, as it takes the eye up. — EB

Related: See Creative Storage Ideas for the Bathroom

Lighting

20. I cringe every time I walk into a new or remodeled bath and see the standard over-the-mirror lighting. Why? Ever compared this “Halloween effect” to lighting (As we age this becomes even more pronounced; depressing sight first thing in the morning.) that comes from the sides near face level? I manage to figure out a way to move the lights down on all my bath designs. Clients are very grateful for that usually overlooked detail. — EB

How to Create a Marshmallow Snowman

Snowmen have always been one of the more fun images of winter, as they literally stand in snowy landscapes as symbols of wintertime happiness. And snowmen have become even more popular in recent years, thanks mostly to Olaf, the lovably goofy snowman in Frozen.

Now you can bring the snowman enjoyment inside—for both kids and adults—with this recipe for a marshmallow snowman! Put him together and rest him on top of your kids’ hot chocolate or your homemade gingerbread latte for a fun added touch to a warm winter’s drink.


Ingredients:

  • 3 marshmallows
  • 3 pretzel sticks
  • black gel food coloring

Instructions:

  1. Break 1 pretzel stick into 4 pieces: 3 equal pieces and one small piece. Keep the small piece for later, and use the 3 larger pieces to attach the 3 marshmallows together, angling the bottom 2 so that the marshmallows sit.
  2. Break the other 2 pretzel sticks in half. Put 2 pieces in the sides of the middle marshmallow to make arms, and put the other 2 in the bottom marshmallow as legs.
  3. Put the small pretzel in the middle of the top marshmallow as the nose, and use the black gel to make the eyes, mouth, and buttons. Your marshmallow man is ready to take a refreshing float atop your latte!

3 Ways to Restructure Mortgage and Save Thousands

You can refinance or recast your mortgage. Or you can create your own DIY mortgage restructuring plan. We compare so you can decide.

The way your mortgage is structured today doesn’t have to be the way it’s structured tomorrow. What are your goals? To free up funds, reduce your monthly nut, or pay off your loan more quickly?

These three strategies offer something for most everyone.

  • Send in extra money to pay down principal.
  • Recast your mortgage.
  • Refinance your loan.

Send in Extra Money to Pay Down Principal

In the mid-1970s, Marc Eisenson coined the term “banker’s secret,” which promoted a cost-saving idea: Pay more than required on your monthly mortgage, and you’ll save a pile of money. Eisenson says, “It was a secret that bankers knew, but didn’t share with their customers.”

Here’s how it works. If you take out a $200,000 30-year mortgage at an interest rate of 6%, and hold it to term, you’ll pay a total of $382,537.97 for your home, including interest of $182,537.97. However, if you send in just $100 each month in additional principal, you’ll save more than $49,000 in interest over the term of the loan.

There’s another huge perk: You’ll pay off the loan five years and five months ahead of schedule. This strategy puts you in total control of the restructuring process, and there are no fees involved.

Another way to pay off your loan early is to use a bi-weekly payment plan. Banks and third-party companies can implement this plan for you, but they’ll charge hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees. We don’t recommend you pay for the service unless you lack the self-discipline to make the payments yourself.

With this strategy, you make half your monthly mortgage payment every two weeks, which equals 13 payments a year instead of 12. With bi-weekly payments on a 30-year $200,000 loan, you’ll save more than $49,000 in interest over the course of the loan, and pay it off approximately five years earlier.

Other ways to easily do it yourself:

  • Make one additional mortgage payment per year at any time.
  • Divide your monthly payment by 12, and add that extra amount each month when you pay your mortgage.

Recast Mortgage for Lower Payments

If you want to lower your monthly payment and have at least $5,000 to contribute, you can request a mortgage recast. In this scenario, you don’t change the interest rate or term of your mortgage, you change the principal balance, and the term begins anew.

Here’s how it works: After 10 years of paying your 30-year mortgage with a 6% interest rate and a monthly payment of $1,432.86, your balance is $200,000. With a mortgage recast, you contribute an additional $20,000, and have a new principal amount of $180,000, with the same remaining 20 years to pay it off at 6%. However, your new monthly payment is $1,289.58, for a savings of $143.28 per month.

There’s a small fee for this service — approximately $250. The bank gets nothing out of this except retaining your loyalty, so they don’t promote it. It’s up to the lender whether it’ll do it, so all you can do is ask. It’s also likely to be a lengthy process. You have nothing to lose, however, except a higher monthly payment.

Refinance Your Loan

The most common way to restructure your loan is with a mortgage refinance, where you replace your current mortgage with a new one at a lower interest rate. If you took that same $200,000 balance on your 6% mortgage and refinanced into one with a 5% interest rate, you’d reduce your monthly payment from $1,199 to $1,074, saving $125 monthly.

Refinancing may be challenging to get approved for in a tight lending environment, where you need stellar credit scores and a steady job history. You’ll also need to pay closing costs, which can run 3% to 6% of the loan amount.

These tips are appropriate if you’re current on your mortgage and have extra money. Struggling home owners should consider the government-sponsored Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) for mortgage restructuring.

How Much Snow is Too Much Snow on Your Roof?

Got snow on your roof? Here’s how to know if you should remove it.

Wow. That’s a lot of snow on your roof. So much snow that you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to sleep tonight for fear of it caving in. Well, odds are it’s not going to cave in.

But if you’re really worried, here’s how to figure out if your roof is at risk — and how to remove that risk.

How Much Does the Snow Weigh?

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 a whole lot heavier than dry, fluffy snow. In fact, six inches of wet snow is equal to the weight of about 38 inches of dry snow. That’s a huge difference!

The good news is that your roof is required by building codes to withstand the heaviest snows for your 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.

How to know if you’ve got wet or dry snow?  You back will let you know. Simply heft a few shovelfuls — you should be able to quickly tell. Plus, local weather forecasts should alert you if snow loads are becoming excessive.

How to Tell if the Snow Load on Your Roof Is Too Much

Your interior doors are a really good clue. If they begin to stick, that signals there’s enough weight on the center structure of the house to distort the door frame (yikes!).

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 sloppy renovations. Improper removal of interior load-bearing walls is often responsible for catastrophic roof collapses from snow.

If You Think the Snow Needs to Be Removed

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.

Expect to pay $250 to $500 for most jobs. That’s because they need special gear, including sturdy extension ladders, properly anchored safety harnesses, and specialized snow and ice-removal tools.

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.

If You Want to Remove Snow Yourself

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. These are more pricey, rising well above $100. But it’s a good idea to rethink their use. Eakes points out, “They tend to work their best on light, fluffy snow — the kind that probably doesn’t need to be removed in the first place.”

A couple of tips if you’re going to remove snow from the roof yourself:

1. 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.

2. Remember, the goal isn’t to remove all visible snow and ice, but rather just enough to relieve the excessive load on the roof.

Ideas and Tips for Finishing a Basement Ceiling

Finishing your basement ceiling instantly turns your basement into a living area. Here are some smart ways to finish it off.

A typical basement ceiling is an unsightly maze of plumbing pipes, wires, ductwork, and structural bracing. But take heart: Hiding all those systems with a finish material will give your basement instant credibility as usable living space.

Finishing a basement ceiling often involves some compromises. In places, ductwork or plumbing pipes are lower than the joists, making it impossible to have a nice, smooth, uninterrupted ceiling. We’ll give you some ideas for getting around those problems.

Hiding Everything with Paint

One of the fastest and most economical ways to finish a basement ceiling is to paint everything. A monochromatic ceiling disguises all the pipes and ductwork — it’s a technique often used in urban spaces that are converted to coffee houses and shops.

A paint sprayer is ideal because it’s easy to coat all the various features from different angles. Rent a sprayer and DIY it for $100/day plus paint; have a pro do it for $300-$500 (400 sq. ft.), including paint.

Tips to remember:

  • Black and dark colors are more effective than light colors for masking components.
  • Use paint with a flat sheen; glossier sheens attract attention.
  • You can paint unusual surfaces, such as exposed fiberglass insulation and electrical wires, but prime metal ducts beforehand.
  • Clean off cobwebs and dirt before you spray.

Installing Drop Ceilings

A drop ceiling (also called a suspended ceiling) completely covers pipes and ductwork. It’s a metal grid that hangs on wires attached to the joists. Lightweight acoustical panels slide into the grid to form a continuous ceiling surface.

A drop ceiling has these advantages:

  • It’s simple to install.
  • The panels absorb sound, helping to muffle noise between floors.
  • The panels are easy to remove, allowing access to pipes and wires for repairs and making changes.

In the past, drop ceilings have gotten a well-deserved bad rap for being unattractive. However, you now can find acrylic or mineral fiber panels and matching grids that look like coffered frame-and-panel wood, decorative pressed metal, and other cool designs.

DIY your basement ceiling for $2-$3 per sq. ft. or have a pro do it for $3-$6 per sq. ft.

Tip: A primary goal is to install the ceiling grid flat and level. Renting a laser level ($90/day) helps keep your ceiling straight and true. Plan 2 days to install a 400-sq.-ft. drop ceiling.

Installing Paneling and Drywall

If you don’t have obstructions hanging below your joists, you easily can finish your basement ceiling using drywall or paneling, such as 4-by-8-foot sheets of decorative grooved wall paneling.

  • Sheet paneling is easy to install, but you’ll have to figure out what to do with the seams at the ends of the panels. If seeing the seams doesn’t bother you, then problem solved. Otherwise, cover the seams with a strip of molding. Plan your paneling layout so that seams occur every 4 feet; run molding all the way across the room for an even, textured look.

Pre-finished sheet paneling costs $12-$29 for a 4-by-8-foot sheet.

  • Individual boards, such as tongue-and groove pine, is a good-looking option. It’s more expensive, but it’s lightweight, goes up easily, and makes a good DIY project. You’ll pay about $1.25 per sq. ft. Leave it natural or stain it to let the grain show through.
  • Drywalling your ceiling is a good job for a moderately skilled DIYer; it costs about 50 to 60 cents per sq. ft., including materials. However, a pro will finish the job a lot faster and with better results. You’ll pay a pro $1.50 to $2 per sq. ft.

Tip: You’ll need a helper or two because holding 4-by-8-foot sheets of paneling or drywall overhead is awkward.

Getting Around Obstructions

In some basements, pipes or ducts might dip below joists only in certain areas. If that’s the case, you might be able to work around them by building soffits.

  • A soffit is a lowered part of a ceiling. It’s made using framing materials to build a box around the obstruction. Drywall or paneling goes over the new framing. Soffits make the most sense along walls, where their lowered height won’t get in the way.

With planning, you can get creative with soffits. For example, even if you only need to cover ductwork at one part of your ceiling, you can extend the soffit all the way around the perimeter of your basement to create a two-level ceiling, called a tray ceiling.

  • Box beams are another possible solution. A box beam is a fake, hollow beam made from three boards nailed together. Create a beamed ceiling and let pipes and wires run in the hollow channels. It’s an especially good solution if your basement has tall ceilings and you’d like an elegant look.

Tip: Before building soffits or box beams, explore the possibility of moving obstructions. Talk to your plumber or HVAC specialist to see if moving ducts and pipes is easier — and cheaper — than building around them.

Using Fabric

The simplest way to mask overhead pipes and ducts is with fabric. Nail or staple it to joists and let it hang down so it hides all that overhead stuff. It might make your basement look a sheik’s tent, but that’s not bad! Certainly better than pipes and cobwebs!