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

Almond Butter Energy Bites – Quick and Easy Source of Nutrients

It seems like no matter what I do to try and find any extra time, there just aren’t enough hours in a given day. I know I’m definitely not alone in feeling that way either. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to share this recipe for almond butter energy bites with everyone. Sometimes you just need something quick and easy to grab to snack on so that you can get that boost of energy you need in order to get through your day. These energy bites are perfect for that, and the best part is they take next to no time to prepare either. You can make these energy bites from start to finish in only 10 minutes — they’re a perfect choice for anyone out there who is constantly pressed for time.

Ingredients

    • 1/2 cup almond butter
    • 1 cup fresh dates, pitted
    • ¼ cup raw cacao powder
    • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
    • 1 ½ cup raw almonds
    • 2 tsp hot water (or as necessary)

Directions

  1. Place all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse to combine.
  2. Roll tablespoons of the mixture into balls.
  3. Refrigerate and serve.

 

What a Government Shutdown Means for REALTORS®

(As of January 4, 2019)

As of midnight on December 21, 2018, the President and Congress were unable to agree on the provisions of a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the federal government. As a result, a partial shutdown of some government operations has occurred. This partial shutdown includes some federal housing, mortgage, and other programs of interest to the real estate industry. A summary of the impact on selected agencies is provided below.

While this is a very politically dynamic event, NAR staff continue to monitor federal agencies and work with Congress, the Administration, and other groups to assess ongoing impacts to NAR members and their businesses.

Environmental Protection Agency

Under EPA’s shutdown plan(link is external), most employees are now furloughed. This will affect various regulatory programs and compliance activities, such as wetlands determinations under the 404 program and enforcement of the lead-based paint disclosure and renovation, repair and painting programs.

Federal Housing Administration

HUD’s Contingency Plan states that FHA will endorse new loans in the Single Family Mortgage Loan Program except for HECM loans. It will not make new commitments in the Multi-family Program during the shutdown. FHA will maintain operational activities including paying claims and collecting premiums. FHA Contractors managing the REO/HUD Homes portfolio can continue to operate. Some delays with FHA processing may occur due to short staffing. Read more about these delays(link is external).

Government Sponsored Enterprises (GSEs)

During previous shutdowns, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have continued normal operations since they are not reliant on appropriated funds. On December 26th both GSEs updated or clarified their loan purchase requirements in case of a shutdown. Freddie Mac requires all borrowers to sign a 4506T request form prior to close, but the request does not have to be processed prior to close. Fannie Mae requires the same unless the borrower’s income can be verified though Fannie Mae’s proprietary Desktop Underwriter verification system in which case no 4506T is required.

Internal Revenue Service

The IRS will close and suspend the processing of all forms, including requests for tax return transcripts (Form 4506T). While FHA and VA do not require these transcripts, they are required by many lenders for many kinds of loans, including FHA and VA. Delays can be expected if the shutdown continues. Some loan originators may adopt revised policies during the shutdown, such as allowing for processing and closings with income verification to follow, as long as the borrower has signed a Form 4506T requesting IRS tax transcripts. On loans requiring a Form 4506T, see the GSE section above for additional details.

National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)

After NFIP operations were initially suspended over questions raised by government attorneys, NAR worked with the White House and Congress to clarify that the government shutdown does not affect the sale or renewal of flood insurance policies or the payment of claims on existing policies. Disaster relief, airport screenings and other essential homeland security functions are unaffected. View the FEMA release(link is external) resuming the full and normal operations of the NFIP.

Rural Housing Programs

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will not issue new rural housing Direct Loans or Guaranteed Loans. Scheduled closings of Direct Loans will not occur. Scheduled closings of Guaranteed Loans without the guarantee previously issued will be closed at the lender’s own risk.

Visa Programs – EB-5 and H-2B

Until the shutdown ends and the Regional Center EB-5 program extension is signed into law, the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Regional Center Program is suspended and no new I-526 petitions can be filed. Investors must continue to file timely responses to USCIS Requests for Evidence (RFE) and Notices of Intent to Deny (NOID). In addition, investors may continue to prepare and file I-829 petitions.

While the Department of Labor was funded for 2019, the Department of Homeland Security was not. Therefore, while the H-2B Temporary Worker Visa program is still operational for workers currently in the U.S., the DHS is unable to approve any new or returning workers under an H-2B visa.

Personal Goal Setting

Planning to Live Your Life Your Way

Many people feel as if they’re adrift in the world. They work hard, but they don’t seem to get anywhere worthwhile.

A key reason that they feel this way is that they haven’t spent enough time thinking about what they want from life, and haven’t set themselves formal goals. After all, would you set out on a major journey with no real idea of your destination? Probably not!

How to Set a Goal

First consider what you want to achieve, and then commit to it. Set SMART (specific, measureable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals that motivate you and write them down to make them feel tangible. Then plan the steps you must take to realize your goal, and cross off each one as you work through them.

Goal setting is a powerful process for thinking about your ideal future, and for motivating yourself to turn your vision of this future into reality.

The process of setting goals helps you choose where you want to go in life. By knowing precisely what you want to achieve, you know where you have to concentrate your efforts. You’ll also quickly spot the distractions that can, so easily, lead you astray.

Why Set Goals?

Top-level athletes, successful businesspeople and achievers in all fields all set goals. Setting goals gives you long-term vision and short-term motivation. It focuses your acquisition of knowledge, and helps you to organize your time and your resources so that you can make the most of your life.

By setting sharp, clearly defined goals, you can measure and take pride in the achievement of those goals, and you’ll see forward progress in what might previously have seemed a long pointless grind. You will also raise your self-confidence, as you recognize your own ability and competence in achieving the goals that you’ve set.

Starting to Set Personal Goals

You set your goals on a number of levels:

  • First you create your “big picture” of what you want to do with your life (or over, say, the next 10 years), and identify the large-scale goals that you want to achieve.
  • Then, you break these down into the smaller and smaller targets that you must hit to reach your lifetime goals.
  • Finally, once you have your plan, you start working on it to achieve these goals.

This is why we start the process of setting goals by looking at your lifetime goals. Then, we work down to the things that you can do in, say, the next five years, then next year, next month, next week, and today, to start moving towards them.

Step 1: Setting Lifetime Goals

The first step in setting personal goals is to consider what you want to achieve in your lifetime (or at least, by a significant and distant age in the future). Setting lifetime goals gives you the overall perspective that shapes all other aspects of your decision making.

To give a broad, balanced coverage of all important areas in your life, try to set goals in some of the following categories (or in other categories of your own, where these are important to you):

  • Career – What level do you want to reach in your career, or what do you want to achieve?
  • Financial – How much do you want to earn, by what stage? How is this related to your career goals?
  • Education – Is there any knowledge you want to acquire in particular? What information and skills will you need to have in order to achieve other goals?
  • Family – Do you want to be a parent? If so, how are you going to be a good parent? How do you want to be seen by a partner or by members of your extended family?
  • Artistic – Do you want to achieve any artistic goals?
  • Attitude – Is any part of your mindset holding you back? Is there any part of the way that you behave that upsets you? (If so, set a goal to improve your behavior or find a solution to the problem.)
  • Physical – Are there any athletic goals that you want to achieve, or do you want good health deep into old age? What steps are you going to take to achieve this?
  • Pleasure – How do you want to enjoy yourself? (You should ensure that some of your life is for you!)
  • Public Service – Do you want to make the world a better place? If so, how?

Spend some time brainstorming these things, and then select one or more goals in each category that best reflect what you want to do. Then consider trimming again so that you have a small number of really significant goals that you can focus on.

As you do this, make sure that the goals that you have set are ones that you genuinely want to achieve, not ones that your parents, family, or employers might want. (If you have a partner, you probably want to consider what he or she wants – however, make sure that you also remain true to yourself!)

Step 2: Setting Smaller Goals

Once you have set your lifetime goals, set a five-year plan of smaller goals that you need to complete if you are to reach your lifetime plan.

Then create a one-year plan, six-month plan, and a one-month plan of progressively smaller goals that you should reach to achieve your lifetime goals. Each of these should be based on the previous plan.

Then create a daily To-Do List of things that you should do today to work towards your lifetime goals.

At an early stage, your smaller goals might be to read books and gather information on the achievement of your higher level goals. This will help you to improve the quality and realism of your goal setting.

Finally, review your plans, and make sure that they fit the way in which you want to live your life.

Staying on Course

Once you’ve decided on your first set of goals, keep the process going by reviewing and updating your To-Do List on a daily basis.

Periodically review the longer term plans, and modify them to reflect your changing priorities and experience. (A good way of doing this is to schedule regular, repeating reviews using a computer-based diary.)

SMART Goals

A useful way of making goals more powerful is to use the SMART mnemonic. While there are plenty of variants (some of which we’ve included in parenthesis), SMART usually stands for:

  • S – Specific (or Significant).
  • M – Measurable (or Meaningful).
  • A – Attainable (or Action-Oriented).
  • R – Relevant (or Rewarding).
  • T – Time-bound (or Trackable).

For example, instead of having “to sail around the world” as a goal, it’s more powerful to use the SMART goal “To have completed my trip around the world by December 31, 2027.” Obviously, this will only be attainable if a lot of preparation has been completed beforehand!

Further Tips for Setting Your Goals

The following broad guidelines will help you to set effective, achievable goals:

  • State each goal as a positive statement – Express your goals positively – “Execute this technique well” is a much better goal than “Don’t make this stupid mistake.”
  • Be precise – Set precise goals, putting in dates, times and amounts so that you can measure achievement. If you do this, you’ll know exactly when you have achieved the goal, and can take complete satisfaction from having achieved it.
  • Set priorities – When you have several goals, give each a priority. This helps you to avoid feeling overwhelmed by having too many goals, and helps to direct your attention to the most important ones.
  • Write goals down – This crystallizes them and gives them more force.
  • Keep operational goals small – Keep the low-level goals that you’re working towards small and achievable. If a goal is too large, then it can seem that you are not making progress towards it. Keeping goals small and incremental gives more opportunities for reward.
  • Set performance goals, not outcome goals – You should take care to set goals over which you have as much control as possible. It can be quite dispiriting to fail to achieve a personal goal for reasons beyond your control!

    In business, these reasons could be bad business environments or unexpected effects of government policy. In sport, they could include poor judging, bad weather, injury, or just plain bad luck.

    If you base your goals on personal performance, then you can keep control over the achievement of your goals, and draw satisfaction from them.

  • Set realistic goals – It’s important to set goals that you can achieve. All sorts of people (for example, employers, parents, media, or society) can set unrealistic goals for you. They will often do this in ignorance of your own desires and ambitions.

    It’s also possible to set goals that are too difficult because you might not appreciate either the obstacles in the way, or understand quite how much skill you need to develop to achieve a particular level of performance.

Achieving Goals

When you’ve achieved a goal, take the time to enjoy the satisfaction of having done so. Absorb the implications of the goal achievement, and observe the progress that you’ve made towards other goals.

If the goal was a significant one, reward yourself appropriately. All of this helps you build the self-confidence you deserve.

With the experience of having achieved this goal, review the rest of your goal plans:

  • If you achieved the goal too easily, make your next goal harder.
  • If the goal took a dispiriting length of time to achieve, make the next goal a little easier.
  • If you learned something that would lead you to change other goals, do so.
  • If you noticed a deficit in your skills despite achieving the goal, decide whether to set goals to fix this.

Feed lessons you have learned back into the process of setting your next goals. Remember too that your goals will change as time goes on. Adjust them regularly to reflect growth in your knowledge and experience, and if goals do not hold any attraction any longer, consider letting them go.

Example Personal Goals

For her New Year’s Resolution, Susan has decided to think about what she really wants to do with her life.

Her lifetime goals are as follows:

  • Career – “To be managing editor of the magazine that I work for.”
  • Artistic – “To keep working on my illustration skills. Ultimately I want to have my own show in our downtown gallery.”
  • Physical – “To run a marathon.”

Now that Susan has listed her lifetime goals, she then breaks down each one into smaller, more manageable goals.

Let’s take a closer look at how she might break down her lifetime career goal – becoming managing editor of her magazine:

  • Five-year goal: “Become deputy editor.”
  • One-year goal: “Volunteer for projects that the current Managing Editor is heading up.”
  • Six-month goal: “Go back to school and finish my journalism degree.”
  • One-month goal: “Talk to the current managing editor to determine what skills are needed to do the job.”
  • One-week goal: “Book the meeting with the Managing Editor.”

As you can see from this example, breaking big goals down into smaller, more manageable goals makes it far easier to see how the goal will get accomplished.

Key Points

Goal setting is an important method for:

  • Deciding what you want to achieve in your life.
  • Separating what’s important from what’s irrelevant, or a distraction.
  • Motivating yourself.
  • Building your self-confidence, based on successful achievement of goals.

Set your lifetime goals first. Then, set a five-year plan of smaller goals that you need to complete if you are to reach your lifetime plan. Keep the process going by regularly reviewing and updating your goals. And remember to take time to enjoy the satisfaction of achieving your goals when you do so.

If you don’t already set goals, do so, starting now. As you make this technique part of your life, you’ll find your career accelerating, and you’ll wonder how you did without it!

Preparing a Hoarder Home for Market

Sometimes, listing a home for sale can involve multiple moving parts.

Initially, I was invited to visit this 4 bedroom 2,5 bathroom property to meet the son and the daughter. When I had talked to the son on the phone to set the appointment, I had asked if there was anything I needed to know ahead of time. He said; “Yeah. My Mom is a hoarder”.

Upon visiting the property, I knew that this was going to be a big task. The son and daughter both told me that they did not know where to begin. I told them that I recommended bringing in a colleague who specializes in this type of situation. I also told them that we would meet again and map out a strategy to help them overcome their anxiety, sort through the household items and prepare the home for market.

 

I immediately called Maria Arsenijevich from Clearing Chaos. I explained the situation. We discussed not only the process of clearing the home of items and debris, but how to help the family emotionally deal with the stress and anxiety associated with the process.

The family seemed relieved to have direction and support from Maria and her crew, as well as, myself.

I know from watching the Hoarder programs on TV that this process seems like it may only take a few days or a week. So far, it has taken a crew of 6 more than 4 weeks to sort items that were to be donated, kept or discarded due to damage. As of yesterday, the crew had filled its 4th dumpster.

Maria and her crew have been absolutely amazing. They have systematically cleared each room, one at a time, carefully packing and labeling clothes, books, china, furniture, tools, etc. Maria is able to get books to places that are in need. The same is true for the clothing, dish ware, etc.

 

There is still more work to do. I am proud of the family for their patience, understanding and ability to stay focused on the project at hand. I am impressed by Maria and her crew. I look forward to the continued progress and hope that we might list this property by the end of January.

This is what I do for my clients. I will do it for you too!

9 Ways to Use Up Holiday Leftovers

Food took center stage this week, or, ideally, shares some of the limelight with family and friends. Which we’re all about here because, well, you know. Food and friends, right?

As is often the case, any major cooking endeavor presents that inevitable day-after challenge: We want to make sure there’s enough for everyone but that usually means leftovers. What to do with all that good food?

We’re here to tell you not to fear the excess. Whether you have extra turkey, mashed potatoes, green veggie sides, stuffing, or even wine (!), this roundup of recipes may just have you planning and hoping for leftovers.

One Roasted Chicken, Three Different Meals. All these ideas work with leftover roasted turkey, and frankly, we’d roast a slightly larger turkey just to have more of those BLT sandwiches.

Creative Ways to Use Leftover Pumpkin Puree. Sommer covers the whole gamut: sweet, savory, even drinks!

Leftover Stuffing, 3 Ways. Stuffing for breakfast? Why not!

Brown Rice Power Bowl. Got leftover turkey? Leftover roasted veggies? Extra salad ingredients? Make yourself a nice, healthy power bowl! Bonus points if you whip up a dressing with some leftover cranberry sauce. And healthy means you can feel good about having that slice of leftover pie.

Mashed Potato and Wild Rice Stuffed Mushrooms. We’d make extra mashed potatoes just to have a reason to serve these.

5 Ways to Use Leftover Wine. Yes, we know. Leftover wine is a rare phenomenon. But if you have lots of guests with different wine preferences, or when all that good food finally induces mass napping, you might be left with a few unfinished bottles.

Turkey and Biscuits Casserole with Lemon and Dill. Move over pot pie, there’s a new casserole in town. It’s enough to make you want to buy turkey anyway even if you aren’t hosting!

Pinwheel Sandwiches for Lunch Boxes. Put those leftovers to good use in school and work lunches after the long holiday. Dara has some great ideas here to get you started.

3 Easy Shredded Chicken Meals. Mmmm. Imagine that leftover turkey in a red curry and carrot bowl. Or enchilada tostadas. Yes, please!

Don’t these ideas from our contributors look incredible? Leftovers never had it so good! So go ahead and cook a little extra if you must. It just means you’ll have the makings of a few additional meals after the holiday!

Article by PW Food & Friends

The winter solstice is Friday: 8 things to know about the shortest day of the year

A short scientific guide to the solstice.

The winter solstice is upon us: Friday, December 21, is the shortest day of 2018 for anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere.

If pagan rituals are your thing, this is probably a big moment for you. If not, the official first day of winter is neat for other reasons too.

Technically, the solstice occurs when the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, or 23.5° south latitude. In 2018, this will occur at 5:23 pm Eastern time on Friday.

Below is a short scientific guide to the solstice and the longest night of the year.

1) Why do we have solstices?

The winter and summer solstices, the seasons, and the changing length of daylight hours throughout the year are all due to one fact: Earth spins on a tilted axis.

The tilt — possibly caused by a massive object hitting Earth billions of years ago — means that for half the year, the North Pole is pointed toward the sun (as in the picture below). For the other half of the year, the South Pole gets more light. It’s why we have seasons.

In the Northern Hemisphere, “peak” sunlight usually occurs on June 20, 21, or 22 of any given year. That’s the summer solstice. By contrast, the Southern Hemisphere reaches peak sunlight on December 21, 22, or 23 and the north hits peak darkness — that’s our winter solstice.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs when the sun is directly overhead the Tropic of Capricorn, or 23.5° south latitude.

2) How many hours of sunlight will I get on the solstice?

That depends on where you live. The farther north from the equator you are, the less sunlight you’ll get during the solstice — and the longer the night will be. Alaska climatologist Brian Brettschneider created this terrific guide for the United States:

Here in Washington, DC, we will get nine hours and 26 minutes of sunlight.

On the off-chance you live near the Arctic Circle, you’ll barely get any daylight during the solstice. Fairbanks, Alaska, for instance, will get three hours and 41 minutes. (If you live north of the circle, you’ll get none at all.) You can check out how much light you’ll get on the solstice on TimeAndDate.com.

3) Is the winter solstice the earliest sunset of the year?

Not usually. Just because December 21 is the shortest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere, it doesn’t mean every location has its earliest sunset or latest sunrise on that day.

Brettschneider also created this map showing earliest sunset/latest sunrise for different parts of North America:

If you live in DC, you missed the earliest sunset — it happened during the week of December 5. But you can still catch the latest sunrises on January 4, 5, and 6. If you like sleeping in, that’s arguably the most exciting day of the winter. No annoying sun bothering you in the morning.

4) Is the winter solstice the coldest day of the year?

Not usually! It’s true that the Northern Hemisphere gets the least direct sunlight on the winter solstice (which is officially the first day of winter). But the coldest months are yet to come — usually in January or February, depending on where you live.

A big reason for this “seasonal lag” is that the Earth’s massive oceans absorb much of the sun’s energy and release it slowly, over time, so there’s a delay between when there’s the least sun and when the air temperatures are actually coldest. The same thing happens in summer — there’s a delay between when solar insolation is at its maximum (the summer solstice in June) and when the hottest months are (usually July or August).

This seasonal lag varies greatly from place to place — during the summer, it’s pretty extreme in San Francisco, which is surrounded by water on three sides and where temperatures don’t typically peak until September. Likewise, places far from large bodies of water, like Iowa, can often see sharper swings in temperature than places like Rome that are surrounded by ocean.

5) What does the winter solstice have to do with Stonehenge?

No one knows for sure why Stonehenge was built some 5,000 years ago (at least we don’t, sorry). But one strong possibility is that it was used to mark solstices and equinoxes. That’s because the structure is directly aligned toward the sunset during the winter solstice. (The sun also rises directly over the Heel Stone during the summer solstice.)

Why was the winter solstice a big deal? Here’s Teresa Wilson of the American Astronomical Society to explain: “While the summer solstice draws a larger crowd, the winter solstice may have been more important to the ancient builders. At this time, cattle were slaughtered so the animals did not need to be fed through the winter, and wine and beer made previously had finally fermented.”

Nowadays, humans still gather to pay homage the winter solstice at Stonehenge — they just use modern technology.

6) Is Friday night the longest night in Earth’s entire history?

Probably not, although it’s close. And the reason is quite interesting. Joseph Stromberg did a fantastic deep dive into this topic for Vox, but here’s the two-minute version.

Ever since the Earth has had liquid oceans and a moon, its rotation has been gradually slowing over time due to tidal friction. That means that over very, very long periods of time, the days have been getting steadily longer. About 4.5 billion years ago, it took the Earth just six hours to complete one rotation. About 350 million years ago, it took 23 hours. Today, of course, it takes about 24 hours. And the days will gradually get longer still.

Given that, you’d think the winter solstice of 2016 would be the longest night in all of history. But while it’s certainly up there, it doesn’t quite take top honors.

That’s because tidal friction isn’t the only thing affecting the Earth’s rotation — there are a few countervailing factors. The melting of glacial ice, which has been occurring since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago (and is now ramping up because of global warming) is actually speeding up Earth’s rotation very slightly, shortening the days by a few fractions of a millisecond. Likewise, geologic activity in the Earth’s core, earthquakes, ocean currents, and seasonal wind changes can also speed up or slow down the planet’s rotation.

When you put all these factors together, scientists have estimated that the longest day in Earth’s history (so far) likely occurred back in 1912. That year’s summer solstice was the longest period of daylight the Northern Hemisphere has ever seen. And, conversely, the 1912 winter solstice was the longest night we’ve ever seen.

Eventually, the effects of tidal friction should overcome all those other factors, and Earth’s days will get longer and longer as the planet’s rotation keeps slowing (forcing timekeepers to add leap seconds to the calendar periodically). Which means that in the future, there will be plenty of winter solstices that set new records as the “longest night in Earth’s history.”

7) Are there solstices on other planets?

Yes! All the planets in our solar system rotate on a tilted axis and therefore have seasons, solstices, and equinoxes. Some of these tilts are minor (like Mercury, which is tilted at 2.11 degrees). But others are more like the Earth (23.5 degrees) or are even more extreme (Uranus is tilted 98 degrees!).

Below, see a beautiful composite image of Saturn on its equinox captured by the Cassini spacecraft (RIP) in 2009. The gas giant is tilted 27 degrees relative to the sun, and equinoxes on the planet are less frequent than on Earth. Saturn only sees an equinox about once every 15 years (because it takes Saturn 29 years to complete one orbit around the sun).

8) I clicked this article accidentally and really just want a cool picture of the sun

We got you:

The image above was taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft launched in 2010 to better understand the sun.

This past summer, NASA launched the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that will come within 4 million miles of the surface of the sun (much closer than any spacecraft has been before). The goal is to study the sun’s atmosphere, weather, and magnetism and figure out the mystery of why the sun’s corona (its atmosphere) is much hotter than its surface. Still, even several million miles away, the probe will have to withstand temperatures of 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Happy solstice!

Are You a Cheap vs. Frugal Homeowner? How to Tell the Difference

Sometimes trying to save will actually cost you more. Here’s when that happens.

You’ve got all the loyalty apps (free burrito after you buy 10!), you shopped around for the lowest rate on your mortgage, and you never go to the grocery store when you’re hungry. You’re frugal, and the rising amount in your savings account is a testament to that.

Since saving cash is never a bad thing, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?

Unless, of course, you venture so far past frugality you enter the world of cheap. And cheap homeowners always end up paying more in the end when quick fixes and half-solved issues become big, pricey problems.

Here are six things homeowners do when they’re trying to be frugal, but instead they’re really being cheap (yikes!):

Using the Wrong Tool

You’ve finally decided to paint the molding in your foyer. There’s not much to paint, so you figure you can get by with that 2-inch flat brush in your garage cabinet, even though the paint guy recommended a different (and pricey!) one. Why buy a new one when you already have a perfectly good one at home?

Halfway into your project (which you thought would take two hours, and now you’re into hour four), your back is aching from trying to get those bare spots in tight spaces. And the paint just doesn’t look right. It’s uneven and splotchy.

Turns out you used a brush meant for latex paints, and you’re using oil paint, which requires natural bristles to get a polished look. Plus, you needed an angled brush to get into tight corners. Four hours wasted, and it looks worse than when you started. Now you’ve got to buy more paint — and that darn brush!

Financial planner Daniel Grote says not buying the brush the paint guy recommended is a classic sign of cheapskate-ness: “Frugal homeowners buy when it’s necessary — and are fanatical about good-value purchases. Cheapskates don’t buy, even when they should.”

Some other cheap tool moves homeowners often make instead of spending money:

  • Using glue when you really should use a screw.
  • Using chemicals for clogs instead of calling a plumber or investing in an auger.
  • Using cheap screwdrivers that strip screws.
  • Using a hammer in place of a mallet.
  • Using a manual saw in place of a table saw.

How to be frugal: Invest in the right tools, not cheap knockoffs. “Finding the right tool is important,” says personal finance expert Bob Lai. “It will take less time and money in the long run.” If it’s an expensive one that you only need once or twice, rent it or borrow it.

Bonus: You’ll find DIY projects get easier because your skills (and the results) will improve with the right equipment.

Letting the Yard Wither Away to Avoid High Water Bills

You swear your water bill is trying to topple your heating bill as the king of Utility Mountain. You’re terrified it just might do that next month. You may just as well give up and stop trying to nurture your landscaping. Survival of the fittest, right? Besides, that means less time maintaining it.

But a wilting yard also means a drop in the value of your home (read: $$$ lost when you sell). Or if you’re in an HOA, you could face costly fines that’ll make you pine for those high water bills.

How to be frugal: Invest in water-wise landscaping. It’s not just about desert-friendly plants, it’s about plants that thrive on the amount of rain that naturally occurs in your climate, which translates to less watering and lower utility bills. And if done right, it can actually boost your home’s asking price when you sell. Plus, you’ll still get the advantage of less maintenance. For even more savings, invest in rain barrels. That water is free.

Never Paying Retail

Everyone knows that if you’re patient enough, you’ll be able to get that slate flooring (it’s slip resistant, yay!) for your new bath at a deep discount.

So you waited, and, yes, the price was cut almost in half. But, wait, there’s not enough tile left to cover your entire floor. Sigh. Back to square one.

In the meantime, your contractor is threatening to walk out because you’re running more than two weeks behind schedule, and he’s got another job lined up he doesn’t want to risk losing while sitting around waiting on you.

How to be frugal: Definitely do some serious comparison shopping, but don’t forget to consider delivery times and prices as part of the equation. Once you’ve identified the most-value-for-your-money price, lock it in.

Otherwise, you risk costly delays and disappointing results if you keep waiting for a lower price.

Focusing Only on the Bottom Line When You Get a Bid

Crooked countertops. Misaligned tiles. Paint that warps and cracks if it’s even the slightest bit humid. Cheap contractors often cut corners to give you that low quote — and fixing their errors is definitely not cheap.

How to be frugal: 

  • Make sure each bid has the same line items.
  • Ask why high prices are high and low prices are low.
  • Check references.
  • Scour online reviews.

Putting Off Maintenance Tasks to Save Money

You know you’re supposed to keep your gutters clear, but, geez, it’s like your trees are laughing at you and raining down debris as soon as you get them clear. You don’t have the time to deal with it, so you’re going to have to pay a pro.

That being the case, what’s the real harm in waiting until the end of the leaf-falling season to clear the gutters? Pay to have it done once instead of twice or thrice? That’s how to save, right?

While you’re waiting for all the leaves to fall, your gutters already are full. And that means water could already be sneaking into your foundation because it’s spilling over the sides instead of through the downspouts that take water away from your foundation. Clogged gutters can also damage your gutter system, forcing you to replace part of it or suffer even more costly damage. A clogged gutter can also create an ice dam, which can slowly release water into your home’s walls and roof causing thousands in damage. So much for saving a couple of hundred of dollars.

How to be frugal: Anticipate maintenance costs, knowing that they are insurance against more costly repairs. Build them into your budget so they don’t feel like unexpected expenses.

Overestimating Your DIY Skills

When you got the bid for refinishing your hardwood floors, you thought, “Why not do it myself and save that $5K?” So off you go to your big-box store to rent a sander. How hard could it really be?

You’d be surprised. You could create dings, dents, and even valleys if you’re not sure what you’re doing. And keeping it dust-free during the polyurethane stage is practically impossible unless you’re such a neat freak that no speck stands a chance.

It’s not just the sander. Other powerful tools, like power washers and lawn aerators, can cause more harm than good in the hands of amateurs.

How to be frugal: Concede that sometimes paying someone else really is the better fiscal thing to do. If you ruin your floors, you’ve hurt your home’s value. If you sell, you might not get the best price. Or you’ll have to replace the floors completely, which would cost more than hiring a pro in the first place. Research the difficulty of projects and tools before committing to them.

No one wants to be a cheapskate. Now you can be sure you’re not.

Article by Jaime Wiebe

The Right Smell Can Help Sell Your Home

What kind of smells can help sell your home?

Every house smells like something. We all know that no matter how scent-free our homes seem to us, someone else can walk in and instantly pick up on last night’s sautéed fish or the garlic that went into Wednesday’s spaghetti. Maybe the recycling needs to go out, or litter box odor lingers no matter how often the pan is changed. There’s always something. Even the fragrance products you buy might strike a guest as stinky.

Those odors are all fine if they’re fine by you, but they are not smells that can help sell your home. For that, we’re looking for light, clean and neutral.

First off, neutralizing a home’s air does not mean spraying a product that claims to neutralize or freshen. Scented sprays mask odors and often create the unpleasant effect of, for example, cheap artificial gardenia perfume layered over old cooking grease. Neutral means clean, as in nearly without smell.

Research shows complex smells may not sell

Eric Spangenberg, Dean of the College of Business at Washington State University, has spent years studying the effect of smell on buying behavior. He says complex scents — such as the intermingled chocolate and vanilla of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies — are distracting. They plain make our brains work too hard trying to figure them out. Spangenberg knows of what he speaks. His research published in the Journal of Retailing shows that sales in retail stores are lower when complex scents are present.

While homes aren’t retail stores, home buyers are buyers, and their behavior can be affected by smells. Spangenberg told the Chicago Tribune in December 2012: “I’ve noticed in some homes for sale that they will scent with a potpourri blend that may be very pleasant, but it’s just too complex. … There are too many scents in potpourri.”

Sales in Spangenberg’s study were higher when a store had no scent at all. But the study found sales to be highest when a simple scent was in the air.

So what smells can help sell your home?

What are these simple selling scents? Professionals offer some suggestions. If you want to use scent to help sell your home, try deploying a hint of a single-note organic one such as:

  • Orange
  • Lemon
  • Pine
  • Basil
  • Cedar
  • Vanilla
  • Cinnamon

“When you’re in the real estate business, you want someone to walk in and want to stay in the house, so you want (the scent) not to be overbearing, but familiar. You want it to encourage revisiting, because sometimes it takes several visits to decide to buy,” Spangenberg told the Chicago Tribune.

And if you’re stuck on baking, he suggests, skip the chocolate chips or anything gourmet in favor of a simply scented cinnamon bun.

Article by By Joni Branch

What We Learned From Losing Our Home in the California Fires

In October 2017, I was one of many who lost a home in the Northern California fires. Little did I know the financial and emotional toll this event would take on me and my family.  It has taken me over a year to have the strength to write about this and relive the obstacles we had to overcome to come out on the other side.

I want to share what I have learned from this painful process with the hope that it will spur others to begin to better prepare themselves before a catastrophic event occurs.  Or, if you have family or friends who are disaster victims, you can provide the needed support and better understand the emotional distress it may cause.

1. Understand your homeowner’s insurance policies inside and out.  After a disaster is not the time to dig into your insurance policy’s “declaration page” to understand your coverage in plain noninsurance language. If you are like many Americans, your home is your largest asset. According to Nationwide, about two out of every three homes in America are underinsured.

As a result, it’s crucial that people meet with their insurance agent pre-disaster to fully understand their coverage. I recommend exploring different scenarios with your agent and asking detailed questions. Among them:

  • If my house burned down partially or fully, what would I receive?
  • Does coverage include replacement value or some other measure of loss?
  • What are the exclusions to the policy?
  • What information, including documents, photos, etc., would I need to provide the insurance company to receive my full payout?
  • What are my deductibles?
  • Who would be my point person during the claims process?
  • Are there additional steps I should take now to protect myself?

After our disaster, I called my insurance agent immediately to get our claim started.  Our homeowners policy was quite extensive with coverage including: dwelling/dwelling extensions/other structures, personal property, loss of use/additional living expenses, and other coverage. Obviously, insurance companies don’t issue 100% payouts the day after a tragedy. In fact, what you ultimately receive may never be the maximum benefit, so plan to work for every penny and be your own advocate. We had a claims adjuster bring us a check that was an advance against our claim and then we sat down with him to review what coverage we had under the policy.

2. Document your home. Documenting our loss was by far the most laborious process I have ever undertaken, not to mention emotionally draining. While we had numerous photos of the inside and outside of our home uploaded to the cloud, they were not nearly sufficient to the task.  For months, my husband and I devoted our evenings to sitting in front of excel spreadsheets rebuilding our home on paper.

First, we were required to list the interior finishes of our home such as crown molding, baseboards, countertops, cabinets, flooring, etc.  This step was hindered by the fact that we weren’t the original owners of the property and didn’t have architectural drawings or specifications. Second, we had to list outdoor items, including every plant and tree on our property.  Third, we had to document the loss of all of our personal-property content down to the number of forks and socks.

The personal-property spreadsheet required the following information: item number, quantity, detailed description of item, brand name/model number, age of item, condition, today’s repair cost/replacement cost/amount of loss and documentation attached.

Logging and documenting thousands of items was a time-consuming and daunting task. It would have been easier if our photos and videos had included literally everything inside our home, as well as everything on the outside. And in a perfect world, receipts and appraisals would have been uploaded to the cloud.

One thing we learned while I was already well along in the process of documenting the content loss was that my insurance company was willing to pay 75% of the personal-property content loss without any documentation. Being so far along in the process ourselves we did not use this option, but it may be worth considering in your particular situation.

In addition, we found out that the insurance company had its own software program to record and document the loss. Using the insurance company’s software could have saved us the time we spent in creating our own Excel spreadsheets. Evaluate both options before starting the process.

Another option if you want help with the claims process is to hire a public adjuster to negotiate with the insurance company on your behalf.  Some people go this route in hopes of receiving more money than if they had done everything themselves. However, public adjusters will charge for their services.

3. Know your game plan during and after the disaster. None of us want to confront the possibility of catastrophe or imagine what we should do during and after such an event. However, preparation in advance is essential. There are a number of questions we all need to think about and answer:

  • What items will I absolutely need to take with me in the event of an evacuation order?
  • If I lost my home, where would I go?
  • Who would I need to call?
  • Do I have money that I can access until I get an advance from the insurance company?
  • How will I ensure my pets are taken care of if I dont have a home?
  • If the family is separated during the disaster, do we have a rally point or some other means of finding each other?

When it is safe to return to your home site, take photos and videos of whatever is left. If you are living in temporary housing, you will need to review with your adjuster what is and is not covered under “loss of use” coverage. And make sure to keep all receipts for expenses covered under that provision.

It may seem counterintuitive, but continue to pay insurance premiums and make your mortgage payments even if your home is completely destroyed–at least until you have determined what your legal rights are and how nonpayment will affect you. You also should apply for FEMA assistance.

Be careful. After the loss of your home you will be vulnerable and there are people who are willing to take full advantage of your vulnerability.

A vital lesson we learned is that the cost of rebuilding a home in an area where much of the housing has been destroyed is significantly higher than building costs before the disaster. Construction prices will go up significantly simply due to the forces of supply and demand. This issue, and ways to mitigate its effect such as replacement cost coverage, should be a focus of any discussion with your insurance agent about your current policy. I highly recommend you have that discussion now.

I’m so thankful to be past this chapter in our lives.  It was a difficult experience but I am grateful for the many people who helped us along the way–and to the firefighters, police officers and neighbors who tried to save our home and the homes of so many others.

If this piece motivates readers to begin the process of preparing now for disasters–whether they be fires, earthquakes or hurricanes–it will have well served its purpose.

Article By Michelle Perry Higgins

5 Home Staging Ideas That Work Wonders During Winter

Winter is the time of year when most home buyers, like bears, retreat to their own cozy homes and hibernate. So what if you have a house you must sell right now, winter be damned?

Despite what you’ve heard, winter can actually work to a home seller’s advantage. With fewer homes on the market, it’s easier to stand out with some home staging—i.e., a few little tweaks to presentation that make your place shine like that crown jewel you know it can be.

So before you throw up your hands and take a home-selling hiatus, try these home-staging ideas for the winter months to make your house stand out.

Don’t skimp on curb appeal

If you live in a snowy climate, you know there’s little you can do about the white stuff piling up outside. But you can stay on top of your yard maintenance, so buyers have an easy path to your front door and walk away with a feeling that your place is easy to maintain. Shoveling the driveway and paths to your home is a must. And you’ll want to clean out your gutters, so ice isn’t backing up and giving the impression that you have roofing issues.

You can also add some winter-themed outdoor decor.

“I love putting evergreens next to the door and on the porch,” says Rebekah Scott, real estate broker for Atlas Real Estate Group in Denver, CO. “Everyone knows how elegant evergreens look with snow on them, so it’s a good way to really showcase the snow.”

If you can, now’s also the time to make sure your front door has a fresh coat of paint. A bright, colorful front door will stand out all the more in the snow, and that can really wow your buyer.

Turn up the heat

Many homeowners like to keep the thermostat set down in the 60s to save on their heating bills, but you don’t want a potential buyer to think they’re visiting a house that’s hard to heat.

“A cold house can hurt the sale,” explains Scott. “When a buyer enters the house and wants to hurry up and get out of there because it is so chilly, it probably means they are going to have a bad memory associated with the home, no matter how great it is. You want to provide a warm and inviting environment so buyers will want to take their time and linger. ”

To make buyers feel they’re right at home, turn up the thermostat. You’ll also want to fix any drafty spots around the house. You may be fine shoving a towel under the front door to keep the cold air out, but buyers will not look kindly on linens on your floor, or a chilly breeze on their feet.

Fire up the fireplace

Not only is it a good way to ensure the house feels warm, but making use of the fireplace is a good way to show off a great feature of your home.

“I love when a home has a fireplace, and I can highlight that feature by turning it on during open houses,” says Scott. Whether it’s wood-burning or you have gas logs in that fireplace, by lighting that fire, you’re giving potential buyers a window into what it would be like to cuddle on the couch with a cup of hot cocoa and their feet in front of the fire.

“Hitting all of the buyer’s senses creates a memorable experience that will hopefully lead to them purchasing the home,” she adds.

No fireplace? Play up the warm ambience with candles, fur throws, and other items that give off cozy vibes.

Add seasonal scents

It’s always wise to clean your house and make the place smell nice and fresh, but the winter months are a time to focus on seasonal scents, Scott says. That means mulling seasonal spices such as oranges, cloves, and cinnamon on the stove, to go along with freshly baked holiday cookies cooling on a rack in the kitchen.

Music should also be seasonal, though not too heavy on the silly Santa songs. Scott suggests some smooth jazz that evokes the festive feel of holiday entertaining.

It’s not a bad idea to have hot coffee on hand, says Dale Schaechterle, broker/owner at Realty Executives Integrity in Milwaukee, WI. Not only will it cut the cold, but it can boost the mood of potential buyers.

Pump up the holiday decor

You don’t want to turn your home into the real-life version of Clark Griswold’s over-the-top house in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but Aaron Bowman, of Mazz Real Estate in Tolland, CT, says the holidays can actually make it easier to sell a home, if you decorate well.

“The main reason is that buyers like to picture themselves in the home hosting holiday get-togethers, and it’s much easier to show them the potential of a house when it’s decorated for the winter months,” he says.

He recommends a big wreath with a bright red bow on the front door and some (electric or battery-operated) candles in the windows. Avoid blow-up lawn decorations or anything over-the-top or garish inside and out, favoring the sort of classic decor you’d expect to see on a greeting card.

And if the holidays are over, and you’re still showing your home, remove the decor immediately! Got that?

Article by Jeanne Sager

5 Tips That Will Protect You from This (Expensive) DIY Mistake

DIY home remodeling is great — until it isn’t. Here’s how to keep it great.

It was their first plumbing project. “It was just a small crack in a pipe,” says Karah Bunde. She and her husband, Joel, had just purchased a fixer-upper they planned to renovate and rent.

They bought a new piece of PVC pipe to replace the cracked one. “We installed it, glued it, gave it 24 hours to cure. The next day we turned on the water and it busted at the seams. We had extra pipe and did it again, this time allowing it to cure for two days. Same story,” says Bunde, an avid DIYer who writes “The Space Between” blog.

The couple returned to the store and started asking questions.

Turns out they had made one of the most common DIY mistakes: choosing the wrong material for the job. “Our downfall was not doing enough research. Turns out we picked PVC pipe for drains and not one that would hold the pressure of water lines,” Bunde says.

Whether you’re choosing tile, flooring, lighting, or cabinets, making the right choice can make or break your success. Get the right materials by doing these five things:

1. Set a Budget for Every Item

Make a budget for every single item you’re purchasing, says architect Todd Miller, owner of QMA Architects & Planners in Linwood, N.J. Otherwise, you may blow it all on a sexy plumbing fixture, but then choose the wrong flooring, for instance, just because it’s cheap and you want to keep on track.

“There are always tradeoffs, but having a budget will help you manage the choices,” Miller says.

2. Shop Where the Pros Shop

Not to dis big-box stores; they’re great for many things. But you have to know what you’re getting into, says Gary Rochman, owner of Rochman Design Build in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Heeding the siren call from the big-box store can oftentimes go wrong. You’re not getting the service and the professional advice you’d need, especially if you’re a DIYer.”

For example, he says, “You might purchase treated lumber for an outdoor deck, but no one tells you the nails you bought aren’t for outdoor purposes. At a lumberyard, they’ll let you know those two items don’t go together.”

Additionally, Miller says some manufacturers will make two versions of the same product: a more cheaply made one for major retailers and another for supply stores that sell to contractors. “I purchased one product at a retail store that had PVC supply lines, and the exact same product from my supplier that had solid copper fittings,” he says. Homeowners can have access to suppliers through their contractor, but many stores also sell directly to consumers.

3. Try It Out Before Committing to It

Robin Flanigan, a homeowner in Rochester, N.Y., thought she was doing all the right things when she chose backsplash tile. She went to a local tile store. She schlepped along her cabinet sample, and they knew her floor — a wood-look farmhouse tile — which she’d purchased from them. “The owner took his time with me every time I went to the store — and there were a lot of times I went to the store,” she says. It took her two months to decided on a clear tile. “I thought clear tile would be less noticeable, not clash with the concrete.”

She hired an installer who put up the tile on two walls before Flanigan saw it. “I wound up in tears all night and asked them to take it down,” she says. The installer did beautiful work, but “what looked great in a small sample turned out to look way too futuristic once the walls were covered. It didn’t fit the rest of the industrial loft vibe at all.”

Flanigan says the mistake was a “huge budget buster” and posted the torn-down tile on Craigslist. She had a thin concrete backsplash installed instead. “If there’s a next time, I would order a box to see if I liked the look first,” she says.

4. Invest in the Right Tools

Here’s a good place to practice balancing durability and cost: Get the right tools for the job.

“You can buy a brush for 98 cents, but you won’t get good results,” says Les Lieser, who recently retired as owner of a painting company and now runs Front Range Coating Consultants in Greeley, Colo. “Good brushes cost more for a reason.”

Lieser says cheap brushes are like straw, flaring out and not holding their shape. A good quality nylon or bristle brush, on the other hand, will allow for nice, straight lines. For a few dollars more, you’ll save a lot of hassle and get a more professional-looking result.

“The same goes for roller covers and paint,” Lieser says. “Spend a little more money on a brand name or something of good quality.”

What if you need a costly tool? “We’ve rented a bunch of tools; it’s a great option,” Bunde says. In addition, many cities have tool lending libraries or a MakerSpace where you can borrow bigger items. “When you buy your materials, always ask what tools are going to aid in your success,” Bunde says.

5. Be Cautious About What You Buy Online

Buying things online might be less expensive and convenient, but when you’ve purchased a 700-pound cast iron tub from Craigslist only to discover it’s scratched or too heavy for your second-floor bath, you’re going to have a hard time sending it back. “It’s important to see and touch the products,” Miller says. “And you’ll have an easier time with returns at a retail shop or professional wholesaler.”

Although it’s enticing to think you’ll save money by purchasing the cheapest materials and save time by doing it yourself, you’ve got to weigh the value of your time against the inevitability of things not fitting, arriving broken, or not lasting. Otherwise, you’ll be spending your free time wandering the fluorescent aisles of the hardware store rather than kicking back and sipping lattes in your newly renovated space.

Article by 

BAKED HAM AND CHEESE ROLLUPS

This one made the top 15 Most Popular Holiday Recipe List!

These Baked Ham and Cheese Rollups, are an easy appetizer or dinner recipe that are always be a crowd favorite. They are made with crescent dough, Boar’s Head SmokeMaster Black Forest Ham, swiss cheese, and then topped with a delicious mustard glaze.

Ingredients

  • 1 tube crescent dough sheet
  • 3/4 lb. Boar’s Head SmokeMaster™ Black Forest Ham thinly sliced
  • 12 slices swiss cheese thinly sliced
  • 1/2 cup butter melted {I use salted}
  • 1 Tbsp. poppyseeds
  • 1 & 1/2 Tbsp. yellow mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. dried minced onion
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF and grease a 9×13 inch baking dish with cooking spray.
  2. Roll out your crescent dough and and press into an approximately 13×18 inch rectangle. Top with ham and cheese.
  3. Starting on the long side, roll the dough up tightly. Pinch the ends together and place with the seam facing down. Cut into 12 pieces.
  4. Place your rollups in your baking dish, evenly spaced.
  5. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the butter, poppyseeds, mustard, onion, and Worcestershire sauce. Pour the sauce evenly over the rollups.
  6. Bake, uncovered, for 25 minutes until lightly browned.

What Is a Special Assessment? Condo and Co-op Buyers Beware

What is a special assessment? It’s an added fee that can crop up for owners of a condo, co-op, or home belonging to a homeowner’s association (HOA).

Trust me on this: As vice president of my own condominium’s board of directors, I can assure you no one likes getting wind of a special assessment—which, put plainly, is a charge that homeowners must pay to fund a renovation on the property or to replenish an underfunded reserve.

Even just uttering the words “special assessment” makes my neighbors cringe! Let’s take a look at why.

What is a special assessment?

Most condo or HOA homeowners pay monthly fees. These fees typically range from $100 to $700 per month, but they can vary greatly based on what they cover. Some fees only cover exterior maintenance, while others are more comprehensive, and may also cover utilities (water, trash, sewer) and even security guards.

Typically, a portion of the condo fees is allocated to the association’s reserve fund—essentially a rainy-day fund for larger, occasional expenses such as paving, re-roofing, replacing water heaters, exterior painting, or hallway flooring.

Yet unexpected expenses can also occur. Every once in a while, something big gives out, like a roof or an elevator, and homeowners insurance may not cover the costs.

If your association’s reserve fund is low or depleted when disaster strikes, you and your fellow homeowners will have to pay a special assessment. In some instances, assessments are tacked on to the monthly condo fees in small amounts until the debt is paid off; in other cases, the assessment is a one-time charge that must be paid by each homeowner as a lump sum.

If you live in a well-run condo association or HOA, your community should have enough cash set aside in reserve funds to cover emergency repairs. But, alas, not every condo board is managed well.

Naturally, this raises the question: How much money belongs in the reserve fund? Unfortunately, there’s no magic number. It can range significantly depending on a number of factors, such as the number of homes in the community and their ages.

The good news? There is a formula, so to speak.

Many condo boards order an annual or biannual “reserve analysis study,” where a qualified engineer performs an architectural and engineering study of the entire complex—including a projection of the remaining life of items like the roof, boiler, or elevator—and reports back to the board with a recommendation on how large the community’s reserve fund should be. Though it’s not an exact science, this professional estimate is generally a good benchmark.

How much is a special assessment?

The fee depends on the cost of the repairs. For example, let’s say your condo building’s roof caves in and the board immediately needs $30,000 to install a new roof. If there are 40 unit owners, each owner would be required to pay about $750. Often the precise fee will vary, depending on the size of your condo or house. Generally, the larger your property is, the higher your portion of the assessment will be.

What’s my likelihood of receiving a special assessment?

If you’re searching for clues for whether a special assessment is in your future, you’ll want to review your association’s financial statements. These documents which will show you how much money is currently in the reserve fund. If the fund is relatively low, you may be at risk of a special assessment in the event of an emergency expense.

Also, take a look at the governing documents of your development. These are called “restrictive covenants”—also known as the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, Restrictions, and Easements (CC&Rs), and they usually outline procedures that the association must follow in order to levy a special assessment. In some cases, the entire community (not just the board of directors) votes before there’s an assessment.

In addition, some states have laws that restrict the amount of money an HOA can collect in special assessments in a calendar year.

Can I protest a special assessment?

Technically, you can protest a special assessment by filing a complaint with your board. However, if you don’t have buy-in from your fellow homeowners, your request is likely to be denied, in which case you’ll have to pay the fee. Also, bear in mind that rejection rights usually don’t apply to assessments for projects that are necessary for the health and safety of residents.

Your best odds of a successful outcome is when there’s a special assessment on the table for an unnecessary project, like adding a swimming pool or a fitness center, in which case, other unit owners may have your back in helping you revoke the assessment.

The bottom line

Special assessments are an inherent part of being a homeowner in a condo or HOA. No one likes them, but sometimes they’re necessary—and you just have to cope with the circumstances.

Article by Daniel Bortz

Extended Warranties for Stuff in Your Home: A Smart Buy or a Waste of Money?

When you buy a product or service for your home, you want peace of mind that you’re getting your hard-earned money’s worth. If things happen (and they do happen), you want to know the company will stand behind its product. That’s where a warranty comes in—it’s a guarantee from the manufacturer promising to repair or replace the thing you purchased within a specific period of time.

“Most of the things we buy today are reliable: They come with warranties that protect us, and last the amount of time we expect them to,” says Richard M. Alderman, professor emeritus and director of the Consumer Law Center at the University of Houston.

But for total peace of mind, companies will give you the option to purchase an extended warranty to cover additional repairs or problems that happen beyond the life of the standard warranty. These come with specific terms and conditions that dictate what types of issues the company will cover—and what you’ll still be on the hook for.

Most of us at some point will face the same “should you or shouldn’t you” dilemma of buying the extra coverage. We asked experts to give their take on when buying an extended warranty actually makes sense—and when it doesn’t!

Appliances

The projected life span of appliances is just that: a projection. There are a lot of factors that affect how long your appliances actually last.

But is it worth buying an extended warranty on one? Probably not.

“Paying for the extended warranty on home appliances is often a waste of money,” says Dan DiClerico, a home expert at HomeAdvisor. “Appliances have become more reliable, so the chance of your refrigerator or dishwasher needing a repair during the extended warranty period is low.”

Even if the appliance breaks down, DiClerico says what you pay out of pocket to fix it might be less than what you would spend purchasing the warranty.

Also, if you used a credit card to purchase the appliance, DiClerico says repairs may be covered for an additional year beyond the manufacturer’s initial warranty.

Pest control

A termite infestation is a huge problem that can be eradicated only by a professional. It’s costly, it’s intrusive, and it’s gross. The average price of a termite-control service exceeds $500; termite damage could cost thousands of dollars. That’s why many pest exterminators offer the option of an extended warranty.

The average extended termite warranty costs a couple of hundred dollars and typically includes an annual inspection and complimentary treatments during the year if needed. Sometimes it even covers damage. But does this mean you should spring for it?

It largely depends on how bad the termite problem is in the first place. Cindy Mannes, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association, is in favor of getting the extended warranty as long as you’re dealing with a qualified, licensed, and trained pest control company.

Roof and siding

Your home’s exterior takes a beating during freezing temperatures, sweltering heat, and torrential downpours. And your house’s roof and siding act as armor against the elements so you can avoid warping, cracking, and moisture from getting inside. But despite all this, experts agree you probably don’t need the extended warranty.

“Many roofing installers will offer a multiyear warranty on a new roof if they are providing the roof turnkey, meaning they provided both the materials and labor,” says Seth Argo, president of luxury custom home developer Focus Builders, based in Nashville, TN.

So, Argo advises against a warranty unless you’re using a true wood siding.

“Most of the siding materials used in modern construction are long-lasting products,” he says.

Article by Terri Williams