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Home energy efficiency ratings, explained.

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Energy efficiency is one of the top priorities for homeowners. No one wants to waste energy (or money) on a home, appliances, or systems when there are ways to avoid it.

You’ve probably seen many of the ratings systems and codes tossed around, but do you know what they mean? Here’s a quick guide to the most common energy efficiency ratings and how to interpret the scores.

HERS. The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) measures the energy efficiency of a home and assigns a performance score. This rating is based on the efficiency of a standard new home. A home that was built according to the 2004 International Energy Conservation Code receives a HERS score of 100.

The survey, which must be conducted by a certified HERS professional, examines your home’s construction and systems:

  • Ceilings and roofs
  • Exterior walls, both above and below grade
  • Attics, foundations, and crawl spaces
  • Garage and basement floors (over unconditioned spaces)
  • Windows, doors, vents, and ductwork
  • HVAC, water heating system, and thermostats

A score of 70 indicates that your home is 30% more energy efficient than a standard new home. U.S. Department of Energy estimates that an average resale home has a score of 130, meaning a home that is 30% less efficient than the standard.

The program was developed by RESNET (The Residential Energy Services Network), which created the training and certification standards for HERS Raters and Home Energy Survey Professionals. Look for a RESNET qualified home energy professional to conduct a HERS survey.

What this means to you: The lower the HERS score, the greater your energy savings. A score of 80 or below might qualify you for an energy-efficient mortgage and increase your home’s resale value.

ENERGY STAR. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed this program in 1992 to assess the energy efficiency of products, systems, and even buildings. ENERGY STAR certification can be awarded to anything from a major appliance to a light bulb, from your central air conditioning system to a ceiling fan. Even those strings of holiday lights are measured for energy efficiency. Your home’s electronics account for 21% of your annual energy usage, so all those televisions, external power adapters, printers, and small appliances account for a significant amount of the overall expense. Compare that to your major appliances, which constitute about 12% of the annual usage.

ENERGY STAR certification is awarded after a third-party organization tests and verifies that the product or home meets the stringent requirements of the program. An ENERGY STAR-rated home is evaluted with a HERS index, as well as other criteria.

What this means to you: The average annual energy cost for a single-family home is estimated at $2,060. By investing in ENERGY STAR products and systems, you can lower your cost and contribute to preserving our natural resources.

SEER. The Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) was established by the U.S. Department of Energy to identify the efficiency and operating costs of air conditioners. SEER is a measurement of the total cooling output (measured in BTUs) divided by the total energy used for that output—similar to the MPG rating for a car. A higher SEER rating indicates a more efficient air conditioner.

In 1992, a SEER 10 was the standard, but that rating was increased to 13 in 2006. A central air conditioning system was required to have a minimum 14.5 to qualify for ENERGY STAR.

What this means to you: The higher the SEER, the greater the energy efficiency. A higher SEER will cost more to purchase, but can save you up to 40% in cooling costs.

Yes, you DO need a home theater system

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Televisions keep getting bigger and “smarter”. Video streaming selections keep getting broader and better. Siri, Alexa, and Google make it easier than ever to find the movies and programs you want,

A home theater system is no longer a matter of enjoying the occasional movie in the comfort of your home. Today, it’s how people are experiencing entertainment—from sports to movies to everyday programs

So, if you’ve been wondering whether you should invest in expanding your viewing quality, the answer is, yes, you DO need a home theater system.

To retrofit your current home with an integrated home theater system, you’ll need more than televisions. Preferably, speakers are fit into the wall, rather than exterior speakers mounted on them, and cables must be run to give you the connectivity. For true surround sound, you’ll be installing a speaker in the ceiling as well.

Are you considering a move to a new home? If you’re building from the ground up, adding a home theater is not complicated. Your builder can work the design and infrastructure into the plans so that it fits seamlessly. This opportunity also allows the homebuyer to expand the system into more rooms. For example, add the viewing to your kitchen, where your family and guests often congregate, and install a wall-mounted television for your outdoor living space.

A home theater system isn’t as complicated or expensive as you might think. In addition to the televisions, you’ll need a home theater receiver (also known as AV receiver or surround sound receiver) with Bluetooth connectivity, and the speakers. You might also want to consider the lighting in your media room. It’s easy to add dimmer switches for the existing light fixtures. Do you need room darkening shades?

You can expand your technology from the basics, depending on your desired home theater experience. Here’s a great guide to all the bells and whistles.

Are you ready to go from renter to homeowner?

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For the past few years, you might have been watching the real estate market with interest, but didn’t feel ready to make the leap from renter to homeowner. You can still take advantage of low interest rates.

Why are you hesitating?

Here are some telltale signs you might be more ready than you think.

You’ve been paying rent on time for years. That monthly payment shows you’re responsible, and that you’re used to committing a sizeable sum each month to your living expenses. When you consider that your monthly mortgage payment could be even less than your rent, then you should feel confident that you can handle it.

You have a secure job. You’re getting good performance reviews and your employer is in a solid position, possibly even growing. If you like your job and see your future there, you have the job security that’s important when you commit to a mortgage.

Your credit is good. A good FICO score is 700 or higher, but you can get a loan with a lower credit score, as long as your debt-to-income ratio is within the acceptable range (e.g., your total debt is less than 30% of your annual income). The higher your credit score, the better you will do, both in terms of how much you can borrow and at what rate. Talk to a lender about mortgage pre-approval so you know where you stand before you start your new home search. Many lenders can give you direction for improving your credit score to qualify for the home you want.

You know what you want in a home—and it’s probably not roommates (or parents). You’re becoming more aware of home designs, wandering through home centers, and exploring neighborhoods. You’re imagining yourself as a homeowner, instead of seeing it as a distant reality.

Seeing is believing. That image of homeownership could be closer than you think. Talk to a real estate professional and a lender to explore your options. You’ll never know if you’re ready to buy a home if you don’t make the move!

5 Outdoor kitchen trends for 2017

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Outdoor living spaces have evolved dramatically in the past decade. The backyard grill has transformed to an outdoor kitchen, complete with everything you need to prepare, serve, and clean up after full-course meals.

Thinking of updating your al fresco culinary space? Here are the latest outdoor kitchen trends for 2017.

Expand the function. A kitchen requires more than a grill and a prep area. This year, homeowners are adding refrigerators, ice makers, sinks, dishwashers, side burners, smokers, and pizza ovens, so they can handle all the kitchen tasks outdoors, and avoid running in and out of the house. They’re installing more elaborate cabinetry for the added storage they need in the expanded outdoor kitchen (powder-coated metal cabinets offer style with durability). They’re adding or upgrading countertops, with materials like granite, soapstone, concrete, and stainless steel. Quartz, although a popular choice for the indoor kitchen, doesn’t stand up to direct sunlight.

Hatch an egg. The Kamado-style grill—like the Big Green Egg—has caught on in recent years, but the concept has been in use for thousands of years. These versatile ceramic grills can be used as a smoker, grill, and even a pizza oven. The design enables a broad range of cooking temperatures, from low (for smoking) all the way up to 800°.

Entertainment is a bigger priority than ever. You’ll be spending more time in your upgraded space, so your outdoor kitchen might include a separate bar or drink station, a large-screen television, wine cooler, and keg.

Fan the flames. An outdoor fireplace or fire pit add form and function to your outdoor living space. Cook over the open flame. Cozy up by the crackling fire. Mount your outdoor TV above the fireplace mantle. What better place to enjoy football games in the fall?

Chandeliers have stepped outside. While you’re installing or expanding the electrical wiring in your outdoor living space, now is a great time to change your exterior lighting. Chandeliers have found their way outdoors, and enhance the aesthetics.

Most commonly overlooked home maintenance chores

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Owning a home comes with lots of responsibilities. In addition to paying the bills, you also need to keep up with the upkeep. There are some basic, routine maintenance chores that will increase your peace of mind while also decreasing the repair bills that come with neglect.

Here are the most commonly overlooked home maintenance chores.

CLEAN…

Gutters. Dirt and debris builds up in your gutters and prohibits the flow of rain and melted snow. If the water backs up, it can cause damage to your home. Clean your gutters in both the spring and the fall.

Exterior dryer vent. You might remember to clean the dryer’s lint trap after every load, but don’t forget that lint is also collecting in the exterior vent. A clogged dryer vent is a fire hazard. Have your exterior vent checked and cleaned once a year, or when you notice that your laundry isn’t drying properly.

Refrigerator coils. Dust collects on the coils on the back of your refrigerator, reducing the appliance’s efficiency. Twice a year, summon up your courage and go where very few people ever venture.

REPLACE…

Curled or damaged roof shingles. Twice a year, inspect your roof as a proactive measure. Replace any shingles that aren’t in stellar condition, because ignoring this task could lead to leaks.

HVAC filters. A dirty filter makes your air conditioner and furnace work harder, which not only boosts your energy bill but reduces the air quality and the life of your HVAC system. Replace the air filtert monthly.

 

DRAIN

Water heaters. Sediment—sand, grit, and other minerals that haven’t dissolved into your water—collect at the bottom of your water heater. By flushing the water heater once a year, you enable your system to function at its best.

Outdoor faucets. Water expands when it freezes, and this ice can lead to burst pipes. Before the cold winter arrives, turn off the shut-off valve and drain any water remaining in the line.

CHECK…

Water pressure. Excess water pressure can burst hoses (e.g., washing machine). Low water pressure causes that rush of cold water in the shower when someone flushes a toilet. Use a simple pressure gauge to check your water pressure once or twice a year, or when you’re experiencing water flow issues.

Invest a little time in your home to keep everything working safely and efficiently. After all, you’ve invested so much in it already.

House-hunting tips for successful online home searches

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Nine out of ten people who search for a new home use the Web at some point. According to Google, the number of real-estate related searches appearing on this browser increased 253% in four years.

We rely on our mobile devices for all sorts of research and purchases, so why not use this power tool when tackling the hunt for the perfect home? But, like any other online research, make sure you’re using the right resources that will give you accurate and useful information. Here are some tips for successful online home searches

  1. Use a reliable real estate search site. RealtorZillow, and Trulia are the most common sites for browsing listings. Realtor is the most up-to-date of the three, but you probably won’t find “For Sale By Owner” listings there. The site is sponsored by the National Association of Realtors, so it feels no obligation to list properties that aren’t represented by one of its members. Zillow is useful for gauging home values (although the numbers are calculated using an algorithm, so don’t count on them as a negotiating tool). Trulia has some valuable features, like using map overlays to learn more about a neighborhood’s schools, crime statistics, and amenities.
  2. Know your priorities and deal-breakers. To avoid wasting your time with homes that just don’t meet your needs, make a list of your criteria—location, size, age, and maximum price of the home, number of bedrooms and baths, lot size, and home style (e.g., single-family, duplex, condo, townhome). Enter those into your home search, as well as any other important features, like a swimming pool, attached garage, basement, fireplace, central air, handicap accessible, hardwood floors, or water view. You can specify new construction or look only for homes within communities. Start with the “must have” list so you don’t exclude a possible winner that is only lacking a feature that you could honestly live without.
  3. Research the school system. If you have school-age children, you can easily learn about the quality of the schools in the district. Go to org to review the ratings of each school, including private, charter, and magnet schools.
  4. Check out the neighborhood. If you’re new to the area you’re searching, it’s important to learn about the neighborhoods. Sites like Neighborhood Scout show you statistics on crime, average income levels, public school test scores, and home value trends. HomeFair has a tool that lets you compare the population’s demographics, including cost of living, between two cities. Go to Google Maps to get a satellite view of the area, with locations of nearby schools, hospitals, restaurants, and other services. If you’re unsure about the weather in the new area, visit The Weather Channel’s website.
  5. Check out the social, cultural, and recreation scenes. The city or regional Chamber of Commerce is a great resource for identifying popular local attractions, historical sites, and activities. Visit Facebook pages for those areas, and also search in to see what’s happening.

Of course, there’s only one way to truly get the feel for a home, a street, a neighborhood, and a town. Go for a drive, look around, stop and talk to people—you know, the old-fashioned, “manual” method.

10 ideas for a pet-friendly home

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Your pet is part of your family, so make sure your furry friends feel like they’re also part of your home. Here are 10 ideas for pet-friendly home.

  1. Remove temptation. Dogs and cats have a powerful sense of smell, so they’re drawn to fragrant items and places, which could include your garbage, pantry, and countertops. Keep a strong lid on your trash can and keep food out of the reach of pets. Remember, certain foods are toxic to dogs and cats, like grapes, raisins, chocolate, onions, mushrooms, and xylitol (artificial sweetener). In addition, a dog can choke on small bones discovered in a trash can.
  2. Get rid of dangerous plants for pets. Some common house plants present a risk to pets, who often can’t resist chewing on foliage. English ivy, lilies, azaleas, mums, tulips, and oleander should be removed from any areas where your pets roam freely. Click here to browse the ASPCA’s complete list of toxic plants.
  3. Another reason to put down the toilet lid. The toilet bowl is a curious place for animals. Dogs and cats may go there for a drink, and end up ingesting chemicals. Small animals—hamsters, kittens, guinea pigs, gerbils—have been known to fall in and drown. For safety sake, make sure everyone in your family closes the toilet lid.
  4. Tuck strings, cords, and wires out of reach. Animals may chew or become tangled in the cords from your electronics or window treatments. Protect your animals and your home by keeping those pet hazards out of reach.
  5. Put a latch on cabinets. Cabinet doors can be easily opened with the nudge of a nose or paw. Prevent your pet from getting into your stash of cleaning supplies by putting a child-safe latch on your lower cabinet doors.
  6. Secure your screens. Cats and dogs love to look out windows. They might get a little too excited when they spot a squirrel or bird. If your window screen isn’t firmly secured, your cat or small dog can push the screen and fall out the window. Check your window screens to make sure they are tightly secured.
  7. Provide safe chew toys and scratching posts. It’s natural for dogs to chew and cats to scratch. Cats mark territory with scent from glands in their paws and also scratch to sharpen their claws and stretch their muscles. You can prevent them from taking out their natural instincts on your furniture, flooring, door trim, and windowsills by presenting palatable alternatives. Put healthy chew toys in various places for your dog. Place scratching posts and boards (preferably with coarse surfaces, like sisal rope) near the areas where you cat likes to scratch. Rub catnip oil on the scratching surface to entice the cat.
  8. Give them their own space. You have your bedroom, so why not give your dog or cat their personal space? A dog bed with toys and perhaps a blanket with your scent on it is perfect for your canine companion. Cats prefer to hide away in a secluded space, so a quiet retreat away from bustling activity will be ideal. A perch on a windowsill is also a welcomed space for a cat to relax.
  9. Shop wisely for home furnishings. Be sure your upholstery and carpets are stain-resistant and sturdy. Avoid anything with a thick nap or pile because pet hair will find its way in there and become difficult to remove. You might also consider purchasing furniture that blends in with your pet’s fur color!
  10. Top your bed with washable duvet covers. A majority of homeowners welcome their pets into their beds. A duvet cover is easy to remove and wash—and far less bulky that a comforter.

When you create a safe environment for your pet, you’re less likely to have those “oh no!” moments.

Tips for choosing a mover

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Moving to a new home is exciting. However, packing up your home and making the move can be stressful. You can make your life much easier by knowing how to choose a moving company that is reliable and affordable.

Here are some useful tips for choosing a mover that will safely transport your belongings to your new location.

  1. Ask for recommendations. Talk to family, friends, neighbors, real estate agents, and co-workers about their experiences with movers. What did they like or dislike about the mover they chose? Did the mover show up on time, deliver as promised, safeguard their property, and stick to its estimate?
  2. Check reviews. Do an online search of each mover you’re considering. Check the reviews on Google, Yelp, Angie’s List, com, and MovingScam.com. Be sure to look at any responses and resolution offered by the movers when there was a negative review. If they made amends, they are trying to live up to a standard.
  3. Get in-home estimates from at least three movers. No mover can give you an accurate estimate over the phone, and don’t hire a mover who estimates by cubic feet. They need to see your home and your belongings. Do they need to maneuver heavy furniture from an upper floor? Is access a problem? Once a mover has actually seen what you want to move, he can’t complain later that he didn’t know you had a piano on the second floor or a lot of breakables to be packed.
  4. Clearly communicate your needs and expectations. Surprises are wonderful at birthdays, but not when you’re moving. Tell the mover what you need and want—the date of the move, desired delivery, amount of packing to be required, and the type and frequency of communication with the driver along the route. If it’s critical that they movers arrive at a specific time, be sure that’s clear. Make no assumptions that what you want is a standard practice with every mover!
  5. Know the mover’s credentials, safety record, and insurance. Get the mover’s Department of Transportation (DOT) license, and verify it with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Ask which type of liability insurance they offer to customers, such as full value or released value. The FMCSA also has a website where you can check the safety record of a mover. Visit “Company Snapshot” on org.
  6. Know who is actually moving you. Some movers use subcontractors. Do you feel comfortable with this third-party approach? Also, take the time to visit the mover’s office. Look at the condition of the trucks and ask to see their storage facility. You’re trusting them with your life’s possessions, so they should respect your wish to know where and how your items will be handled, transported, and stored.
  7. Study the estimate. Carefully review each moving estimate so you understand what you will be agreeing to. Is there a “not to exceed” price? Is it a binding estimate? What are the possible additional costs? How much insurance is included? Are all the services you requested, like packing and unpacking, included? Finally, be clear about the payment process. When is payment required? What forms of payment are accepted? What is the cancellation policy?

Whether you are moving across town or across the country, you need a mover that will reliably handle the critical task of getting your belongings from your current home to your new one. Be sure you’re placing your trust in the right company.

Selling Your Home to the Millennial Homebuyer

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There’s a new generation of homebuyers out there, and they are distinctly different than those who came before them.

Millennials—a total of about 80 million people born between 1980 and 2000—constitute about 35 percent of today’s homebuyers, according to a 2016 National Association of Realtors study. Although many of them have school loan and credit card debt, they’re also living with their parents longer (a lot longer) to save money. It’s a market segment you can’t ignore, but you also can’t overlook the fact that they have strong preferences in their home choices. If you want to successfully sell to this generation, you need to learn how to appeal to the Millennial homebuyer. Here are some home staging tips.

They live lightly. Millennials aren’t clutterbugs. They aren’t likely to be weighed down by possessions, as they prefer to feel unencumbered, to pick up and go on a whim. They like simplicity in their surroundings. When you’re preparing to sell your home, be sure to remove all the extra décor and furnishings. What you might think of as “cozy” or “charming”, they might perceive as “mom’s house”.

DIY doesn’t cut it. This is a generation that has been accustomed to instant gratification. They want a home to be move-in ready. That means updated and clean. They want stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. Carpets are passé to this group; they prefer the natural look of wood flooring, so even manufactured wood, laminate, or wood-like tile is a plus.

Open spaces are preferred. This generation of homebuyer is looking for something more modern than their parents’ home. They want an open floor plan that is conducive to the frequent entertaining they anticipate. They prefer multi-purpose space to defined areas (like dining rooms). Show them how to use a space as a media room (with Internet connectivity, please) and you’ll get their attention.

Go for the green. Millennials are more committed to eco-friendly living than any other generation. They want energy efficiency in the construction (insulation, windows), systems (HVAC), appliances, and fixtures (toilets, showers, LED lighting). Be sure to point out any repurposed or recycled materials used in the home (cork or bamboo flooring, recycled glass surfaces).

Every year, more Millennials will prepare to buy a home. Are you ready to sell to them?

Take your spring cleaning outside: Exterior maintenance checklist

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Spring cleaning is not just an indoor sport. The outside of your home needs some sprucing up this time of year, too.

Follow this exterior maintenance checklist and take your spring cleaning outside.

  1. Wash the walls. You might be surprised at how much dirt has built on your home’s exterior walls. Use a pressure washer to clean it, but be careful if you have vinyl siding or damaged shingles. The best way to clean vinyl siding is with soapy water and a long-handled brush.
  2. Inspect the roof. Snow and ice might have caused damage to your home’s roof. Check for cracked, loose, or missing shingles, and replace any that you find. Also, look for water stains on your ceilings. Melting snow might have left marks where you have roof leaks.
  3. Clean the windows and screens. No one enjoys washing windows, but you’ll enjoy the results of a better view. The best window cleaning solution is a mixture of equal parts of white vinegar and water. And don’t waste paper towels. Use crumpled newspaper, which doesn’t leave lint behind.

Scrub your screens with warm, soapy water and a soft brush. Small holes can be repaired by pressing the mesh back in place and applying a few coats of clear nail polish to hold them there.

  1. Clear out the gutters. Twice a year (spring and fall), you should remove all the debris from your gutters and flush out the gutters and downspouts with a hose. Build-up can lead to water damage to your home. Inspect your gutters for cracks and make sure they’re firmly attached.
  2. Refresh your patio, porch, and deck. Get ready for outdoor entertaining by pressure washing your outdoor living space surfaces. Reseal the decking. Check the steps and railings to be sure everything is firmly in place.

The upside of this side of spring cleaning is that you can enjoy the outdoors while you’re working through your exterior maintenance checklist!

2017 design trends for outdoor living spaces

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For months, you’ve been looking outside, yearning for the days when you could relax, play, and entertain out there. With all this time to think about it, have you considered ways to improve or upgrade your outdoor living spaces?

New products have been introduced and we’re seeing a variety of 2017 design trends for outdoor living spaces. See if any of these decorating ideas sparks your desire to make some changes.

Outdoor kitchens are growing. The grill just isn’t enough for the person who likes to cook and entertain outdoors. The outdoor kitchen now incorporates a refrigerator, sink, warming drawer, smoker, beer tap, wine chiller, and maybe even a pizza oven or cooktop. Homeowners are installing cabinets that can withstand the weather, to complete this fun and functional space.

Outdoor fireplaces and fire pats sparked a frenzy. At the end of the day, relax in front of a crackling fire and indulge in gourmet s’mores. From simple to sophisticated, the scope of your fire feature can reflect any style. Create a hearth on your patio or build a fire pit that can be rustic, sleek, or anywhere in between.

Furnish it in style. With the passion for more stylish outdoor living spaces, you have more choices in outdoor furniture that’s durable, comfortable, and attractive. This year, expect to see natural materials—like wicker and rattan—in more vibrant colors than the traditional white. Accent pieces—like ottomans, side tables, and outdoor rugs—are showing up in every style imaginable. No matter what color palette you choose, you can find cushions and pillows to match.

Exterior lighting choices are broader and brighter. With new technology, you can add light outdoors, where you need. Solar lights can stick in the ground, hang from a tree, sit on a table, or be strung around, across, or above your spaces. Lanterns, lamps, and chandeliers allow you to create the style of indoor living outside the walls of your home. LED bulbs are also lighting the way for homeowners who want more light with less energy use.

Low maintenance is a high priority. Homeowner don’t want to spend long hours keeping their outdoor spaces looking good and staying safe. Stain-resistant concrete paving provides an easy-care surface that has become the preference over wood flooring outdoors—and the wide range of colors and patterns gives you the look you want.

Reduce lawn care by converting lawn to garden and planting perennials and sprawling ground cover. Some homeowners are also trending toward the use of synthetic grass and artificial turf, which have grown to appear far more realistic than the plastic grass you might recall.

With all the time you’ll be spending outdoors in the months ahead, isn’t it worth sprucing up your outdoor living space?

What’s in your dream kitchen?

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Kitchens have evolved from the functional space of earlier generations to more creative and aesthetic areas. Thanks to today’s technology, storage options, and design details, the kitchen is grown exponentially in its functionality. With so many choices for flooring, countertops, cabinetry styles and materials, sinks, plumbing and lighting fixtures, there’s no end to what you can do with your kitchen design.

So, what’s in your dream kitchen?

From the food preparation perspective, plenty of counter space is essential. Whether those counters are made of natural stone, stainless steel, wood, or a combination, today’s homeowners want elbow room.

Under the counter, the dream kitchen should have drawers—deep ones, partitioned ones, and heated ones. Pulling out a drawer is preferred over opening a cabinet door. In fact, many of those cabinet doors are hiding pull-out drawers. In this dream world, there would be double drawers and divided drawers, so everything from a wooden spoon to a pot lid would be easily within reach, without the hassle of shuffling things around.

A top-notch kitchen would feature cabinetry that provided storage for everything, and in the color and style that blends with the rest of your home. A pull-out pantry cabinet, for example, would store canned goods and spices. Glass doors on upper cabinets would allow lighted displays of your nicest pieces.

With more and more foodies, kitchens need all the culinary wizardry. Today’s dream kitchen would include a commercial gas stove—possibly in a retro color—or a steam-assist oven or double oven, a third-rack dishwasher, fully appointed coffee bar, and a four-door refrigerator. In addition to the pull-down faucet, there would be a pot filler faucet by the stove to make it easy to fill large pots with water without leaving your cooking area. The must-have center island would include a second sink for prep work.

The lighting would combine style with function, to provide both ambience and task lighting, like under-cabinet lights.

Finally, this wonderful kitchen must include a restful place to sit and enjoy the sound of silence when everyone in your household is somewhere other than your kitchen. Whether you have an island with a breakfast bar or a sun-filled nook with perhaps a window bench, you could sit and take in the pleasure of this dream kitchen.

Mortgages 101: It’s not as scary as you think

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Financing a home can seem intimidating to the first-time homebuyer. If you’ve never applied for a mortgage before, don’t be afraid of the process. When you break it down and understand what is involved, you will be prepared to sail through the process!

Check your credit report.

First and foremost, review your credit report. Your credit score is a major factor in qualifying you for a mortgage and the amount you can borrow. A score of 720, for example, is excellent, and you can take your pick of lenders to secure the mortgage and terms you want (e.g., interest rate, no points). But even a lower score can be acceptable, depending on the lender and the mortgage program.

In addition to your credit score, review the entries on your credit report. It’s not unusual to find mistakes, which can be corrected with a letter to the credit reporting company (Equifax, Transunion, and Experian are the top three) or the business that reported the debt.

Late payments can also cause a problem when you’re seeking a mortgage. Try contacting those businesses to see what can be done to remove those “black marks”.

Collect your financial information.

You’ll need to prove your income, which requires two recent paycheck stubs and the last two years of income tax returns. You’ll also be asked for the past two months’ bank statements, so the lender can see how much is in your account as well as how you manage your funds. When you’re preparing to apply for a mortgage, spend a few months in advance ensuring you have reasonable cash flow without overdrafts.

If you receive any other income (e.g., alimony, commissions, investments), have the paperwork that documents it.

Research your loan options.

Mortgages come in all shapes and sizes—adjustable or fixed rate, 15 or 30 years. There are programs to assist first-time homebuyers. Veterans may qualify for a VA mortgage, a low-interest mortgage that requires no down payment. An FHA mortgage is a government-insured loan that requires a smaller down payment and accepts people with a less-than-stellar credit score.

Pre-qualify before you start your new home search.

Armed with the financial documents, you can contact lenders to be pre-approved for a mortgage. Your pre-approval letter will be submitted with your purchase and sale offer, showing the seller that you can actually purchase the home.

Builders usually have a preferred lender. There are many advantages to working with this lender if you are buying a new home or building one. In order to earn the “preferred” status from the homebuilder, the lender has proven himself as a resourceful professional who is committed to helping the buyer.

Don’t fear the mortgage process. It’s the pathway to homeownership!

14 questions to ask your homebuilder

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The process of progressing your custom home from vision to move-in should be an exciting experience. Choosing the right homebuilder is the first step toward ensuring your satisfaction. Here are 14 questions to ask your homebuilder before making this important choice.

  1. Will you build on my lot or do I need to purchase property from you? Some homebuilders focus on their own communities, while others will build elsewhere. Certainly, if you already have land in mind, you need a homebuilder who will build on your lot.
  2. Can I provide my own plans or do I need to choose one of yours? Some homebuilders stick with their own home designs because they’re “tried and true”. Others are comfortable working with quality home plans from another source (emphasis on “quality”).
  3. How many homes like the one I’m looking for have you built in this area? When a homebuilder is familiar with the geography, regulations, and challenges of building a home of a particular size and with certain features, you have the peace of mind that he is experienced with successfully navigating each one. That means timely construction without unanticipated overruns.
  4. Are you licensed and insured? Protect yourself by choosing a builder who can provide proof of insurance and a current builder’s license for the state where your home will be built.
  5. Do you offer a financing option? Is there a preferred lender you use? It can be convenient to use a homebuilder’s preferred lender, and they might offer better options than another lender. Before you decide on your homebuilder, determine your choices and whether or not you must use a preferred lender.
  6. What is standard in your homes and what is considered an upgrade? You need to determine what’s included in your price, so you’re comparing apples to apples with all of your homebuilders. Some standard features are options for other builders. Be clear about what you’re getting, particularly for those features that are important to you.
  7. Can I make changes after the construction has begun? It will cost more to make changes, and that price often goes up the farther along your home is in the building process. Discuss how your homebuilder handles changes so you know what to expect.
  8. What type of home warranty do you include? Appliances are covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. The quality of the structure (workmanship, systems, materials) should be covered by the builder’s warranty. The builder will specify the time period, so ask how long they guarantee your home and how repairs are handled during this time.
  9. What energy-efficient features do you include? Today’s appliances, construction materials (windows, doors, insulation), and HVAC systems are geared toward energy efficiency. Ask each builder to explain the extent of their energy efficient commitment.
  10. Can you provide references from your homeowners, and can I tour a few of your homes? With any major purchase, you check reviews of past customers. Don’t be shy about asking for references. A reliable homebuilder will proudly share his successes.
  11. Who will be in charge of building my home? Can I meet this person? The contractor or project manager will become your close friend during the construction of your custom home. Learn that person’s experience and then talk to him before making your decision. Is he easy to work with and accessible? Does he understand and appreciate your concerns? How is communication handled?
  12. Is landscaping included in the price? If so, what exactly do you provide? Know whether you are getting a lawn, shrubs, and/or trees, and specifically which plants are included.
  13. How often can I tour the worksite? It’s your home, and you should be able to visit during construction, but showing up unannounced or too frequently can impede the progress. Determine the best process and schedule for arranging these tours.
  14. What is the estimated time to complete the homebuilding? When can you start? One builder might be able to complete your home in three months but has a backlog and can’t start soon enough to meet your deadline. Ask for realistic start and completion dates, and any factors that will impact them.

Are you ready to right-size your home and your life?

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We’re hearing so much talk about “down-sizing” these days. People are finding ways to step back from quantity, and focus on quality. Simplify. Get rid of the excess. Live with less.

But is “down-sizing” really the right term? Maybe “right-sizing” is more accurate. Find the lifestyle that provides a better fit to your current priorities. Ten or twenty years ago, living in a suburb, for example, might have been the right choice, and the commute was worth it because your kids were in a great school district. Now, you might be yearning for a more walkable way of life. Conversely, your “right-size” lifestyle could include a stronger sense of community that comes with living in a non-urban neighborhood.

Are you ready to right-size your home and your life? Here are some clues that it’s time to consider that shift.

Your home feels cluttered.

Are you tired of navigating around the furnishings or spending too much time dusting all the items you’ve collected over the years? Is your closet overflowing with clothes you haven’t worn for a year or more? Has your attic or garage grown into a stash for things you really shouldn’t hold on to?

When the walls start closing in from the clutter, treat yourself to a good purge. Put sentiment aside. You don’t need all your kids’ homework papers and artwork. And just because that chair is comfortable, be honest—it’s an eyesore.

Donate usable items that have outlived their life in your home, but could be valuable to others. As you sort through what’s worth keeping, ask yourself, “Would I miss this?” When you’re truthful with yourself, you’ll discover you’ve been cluttering your life with things that have lost their meaning.

Your home feels larger than it used to.

Have you become tired of traipsing up and down the stairs? Do you have rooms that you’re not using regularly? Has it become more of a chore than a joy to maintain your yard?

It’s almost inevitable for a spacious home that was the right size for your life a few years ago to seem to grow as you reach a point when bigger isn’t better. Do you need extra bedrooms or that extra bathroom that is rarely used? You just might be ready to move to a right-sized home.

You want to lower your expenses.

When you’re in a home that doesn’t fit quite right, you’ll notice that certain household costs don’t feel right either. Your utility bill seems high for your current household. You might not feel that paying a monthly HOA is worthwhile now. Possibly, maintaining things like a pool aren’t delivering an appreciable return on investment. And you’re seeing the expense of costly replacements, like a new roof, furnace, air conditioning system, or other feature that is seeing the end of its life.

You’re more actively browsing home and interior designs.

You find yourself poking around HGTV, Pinterest, and home improvement shows, magazines, and websites for ideas to spark change—interior, exterior, or both. The fact that you’re straying this way shows you’re not satisfied with your home. Maybe you can make cosmetic changes, but ask yourself if that’s enough to fit your lifestyle in the years ahead.

Consider your needs today, not in the past. Determine what your right-size life and home would look like. Then take action to reshape it!

Clutter versus Keepers: How to get (and stay) organized

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When you move into a new home, you usually start by getting organized. When you were packing up your belongings, you probably purged a lot of items, just to lighten your load.

Before long, you see signs that the clutter bug is back. Mail, magazines, and an assortment of papers are scattered on tables, counters, and other surfaces. Your once-tidy closets are in disarray. The kitchen cabinets are so crammed, it’s hard to find the one thing you need, when you need it.

It’s time to channel that new home mindset, the one where you put everything in a logical place and don’t cling to the unnecessary.

Here are some tips to get and stay organized by separated the clutter from the keepers.

Do you need it? Are you keeping things “just in case”? A half-empty bottle of lotion, cleaner, or other item that has been sitting on a shelf somewhere for ages is taking up space. If “just in case” hasn’t used up the remainder by now, throw it out.

Also, remember that “want” and “need” are two distinctly different categories. You need to have a first aid kit on hand. You want to have an overstuffed supply of extras. Distinguish between want and need so that you avoid keeping things where the clutter quotient outweighs its value.

Does it function properly? Do you have something you’ve been holding on to, until you can get around to repairing it? This could be a pair of pants, a small appliance, a piece of furniture, or maybe chipped pottery. If you haven’t fixed it by now, you’ve been living quite nicely without it. Diagnosis: Clutter.

How sentimental is it? Quite likely, a large percentage of possessions you’re clinging to have sentimental value. Ask yourself how much sentiment you need. Your child’s first tooth is a keeper. All the ones that followed are not. Your college diploma is a keeper. Your participation certificate from the intramural soccer club is not. You don’t have to be ruthless (well, maybe a little). Just be realistic. Something with true sentimental value is worth having close at hand—displayed on a shelf, hanging on the wall, or among your valuables. If it’s not worth looking at on a regular basis, the sentimental value has depreciated considerably.

Once you’ve gone through the task of purging, organize what remains by storing it in a logical location, in proper containers (not cardboard), and with clear labels, so it’s easy to find when needed.

Before you toss out some of your things, determine if it can be donated to local charities, churches, schools, libraries, senior centers, or other groups.

As a rule of thumb, schedule a purge annually. Make it a part of your spring cleaning routine so you keep the clutter bug out of your home.

10 ways to improve your indoor air quality

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You spend a lot more time inside your home during the cold weather. Did you know you could be breathing in more pollutants inside your home than outside?

Dust mites, pet dander, second-hand smoke, and mold are the obvious culprits, but the problem goes deeper. Household cleaners, air fresheners, carpets, furniture, and even the paint on your walls could be releasing harmful toxins. Other allergens and irritants are being tracked into your home. With the improvements in insulation being installed in today’s homes, you’re living (and breathing) in an airtight environment that is comfortable but could be harmful.

Protect your household by making healthier choices. Here are 10 ways to improve your indoor air quality.

  1. Use a good vacuum with a HEPA filter. Don’t skimp on your choice of vacuum. A lesser quality vacuum will suction up the dust, mites, allergens, and pollutants, but then sends them back into the air via the exhaust. Choose a vacuum that features a HEPA filter, rotating brushes, and strong suction. Be sure to clean the filter regularly, for best results.
  2. Mop after vacuuming. It’s not enough to vacuum. Go over the laminate, wood, and tile floors with a wet mop (no cleaners) after you’ve finished vacuuming, to ensure you’ve removed as much unwanted debris as possible.
  3. Protect your entryways. Prevent dirt, pet dander, chemicals, pesticides, and other traveling pollutants from walking into your house. Place a durable mat at each doorway. Ask people to remove their shoes when entering your home.
  4. Manage the humidity. Moisture is a breeding ground for mold and mites. Keep your humidity to no more than 50% by using a dehumidifier in the months when your home is closed tight, and empty the drip pans as needed.

You can also reduce the humidity by using an exhaust fan in the bathroom and kitchen (particularly when the dishwasher is running). Be careful not to overwater your house plants. Repair leaky pipes and faucets, and vent your clothes dryer to the outside of your home.

  1. Use natural cleaners. Many store-bought cleaners contain harmful chemicals that you’re spraying into the air and wiping onto your home’s surfaces. You don’t need those chemistry experiments to keep your home clean. Some of the best cleaning products are in your pantry: lemon slices, baking soda, white vinegar, tea tree oil, olive oil, salt, and castile soap.
  2. Avoid artificial fragrances. Plug-in air fresheners have been proven to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are considered toxic. Laundry detergents, air fresheners, dryer sheets, and other consumer products that boast a “fresh scent” are the result of harsh chemicals, such as phthalates. Avoid any products with artificial fragrances. For indoor air that is healthy and smells fresh, use an air diffuser with essential oils.
  3. Read labels. Some of the woods and wood products used in furniture are treated with chemicals, like formaldehyde, and assembled with toxic glues. Look for furniture, electronics, building products (e.g., cabinetry, countertops, lighting, flooring), mattresses, wallcoverings, and windows treatments that carry the GREENGUARD Certification,
  4. Look for low- or no-VOCs. If you’ve ever walked into a room with fresh paint, you know the odor. You might have even experienced a headache from the VOCs in the paint. Choose only low-VOC or Zero VOC paint.
  5. Add plants. Some house plants remove toxins from the air and emit healthy oxygen in return. These detoxifying plants include the areca palm, bamboo palm, gerbera daisy, spider plant, variegated wax plant, and Boston fern. They remove chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene from your air, AND they’re safe for pets (cats and dogs).
  6. Open the windows. There’s nothing like airing out your home. Yes, it’s cold outside, but let in some fresh air occasionally—and let the bad air get out.

Post-holiday home touch-ups

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The party’s over. Friends and family members have gone home. You’re taking down the holiday decorations, with far less enthusiasm than when you festooned your home with the sparkle, glitter, ribbons, bows, and scents that put you in the holiday spirit.

Now you’re seeing the fresh scars on the wood furniture, stains on the rugs and upholstery, nicks on the walls, and who put thumbtacks in the mantle?

Don’t assume the “bah, humbug” mode. These nagging little issues are simply an opportunity to start the new year fresh with some post-holiday home touch-ups.

  • Steam-clean your carpets, rugs, and upholstery. You’ve got a lot of indoor living to do in the months ahead. The fresh smell and revived look will perk up your spirits.
  • If you don’t want to patch and repaint the nail holes and nicks in your walls, apply wall decals. You can find anything from an inspiring quote to a panoramic image.
  • A minor furniture scratch can often be rubbed out with a 50-50 mixture of lemon juice and vegetable oil. Click herefor other furniture repair tips.
  • Don’t wait for spring cleaning. While you’re moving your furniture back from its holiday location, dust and vacuum those spots that are usually hidden.
  • You probably spent a lot of time in your kitchen over the holidays. Did you experience frustration with clutter or disorganization? Now is a great time to reorganize this vital space. Clean out your cabinets and determine a more convenient way to store those small appliances that you suddenly discovered have more value than you realized (e.g., the immersion blender you never took out of the box). Discard old herbs and spices, replace them, and create a better system for keeping stock so you don’t run out of ginger just when you’re ready to make gingerbread cookies with the kids.
  • Before you stash all your holiday decorations back where they live for 11 months of the year, do a quick inventory. Are there any you don’t want to keep? If so, purge now and lighten your load.

It’s a new year. Start with a clean slate, a clean house, and a fresh perspective!

The price of procrastination: Mortgage rates are rising

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Homebuyers have been reaping rewards of a struggling economy since the recession. Housing prices and interest rates dropped to historic lows in 2009, and have not fully recovered in the years that followed.

Like all good things—if you’re a homebuyer, that is—the bargain is coming to an end.

At this writing, the rate for a 30-year, fixed rate mortgage is 4.01%. Three months ago, it was 3.579%. On the plus side, the current rate matches where we were in January 2016. We had a dip this year, but it’s not expected to happen again.

When you compare these numbers with the significantly higher rates in the early 2000s (approximately 6.3%), does this small change make enough difference to push the procrastinators off the fence?

Let’s look at the price of procrastination as mortgage rates are rising.

Purchase price: $295,000

30-year FRM

At 3.6%           $1,341 per month

At 4.6%           $1,512 per month

Over the life of the loan, paying one percent more for your mortgage will cost you an additional $61,560.

Housing prices are rising. The Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) House Price Index posted a 6% increase in the past twelve months.

Based on the above scenario, you’ll spend $171 every month because you decided to wait. Are you getting more value? No. In fact, while you’re waiting, the price of your new home is increasing, along with the mortgage rate. That home you could have bought for $295,000 is probably going to cost you about $312,000 in six months or so.

If you don’t mind spending more money for a home, you can continue to wait, but be prepared to tack on the price of procrastination to your budget.

Take it easy with these Thanksgiving dinner cooking tips and time-savers.

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It’s coming. That time of year when the family descends on one another for a day-long feeding frenzy. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year, don’t panic. Take it easy with these Thanksgiving cooking tips and time-savers.

  1. Estimate 1 to 1 ½ pounds of turkey per person, to make sure you have enough. Too much never seems to be a problem (sandwiches, pot pie, a la king, soup, and good old casseroles).
  2. Remember that thawing a frozen turkey can take DAYS—about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. Do the math, and plan ahead so you’re not scrambling the morning of Thanksgiving—or serving up a turkey-sicle.
  3. In addition to the 12-minute-per-pound cooking time, allow 20 to 30 minutes at the end to let it rest before carving. This extra time lets the juices spread out and provides a moister bird.
  4. While the turkey is waiting to be carved, siphon up the juices and make the gravy. You can make it ahead, if you want, using broth or stock. Then, add the juices and thickener when you take the turkey out of the oven.
  5. Speaking of making gravy, don’t add cornstarch or flour directly into your simmering pot of would-be gravy. This leads to lumps. Instead, dilute the thickening agent in a liquid measuring cup with broth, water, or turkey drippings, to the consistency of a paste. Stir it well and add the thickener to your gravy for a lump-free result.
  6. For the tastiest mashed potatoesstart with the right tater. Yukon Golds give the creamiest texture. Red Bliss potatoes are nice (leave some of the skin on for added color). Russets are good and readily available. White potatoes lack the flavor of these preferred potatoes.
  7. Don’t mash potatoes with a hand-mixer or other electric tool. You’ll end up with a paste-like substance. For fluffy mashed potatoes, use a ricer or hand masher.
  8. Warm the milk a bit before mashing it into your potatoes (20 seconds on high in the microwave). Cold milk will only reduce the temperature of your potatoes.
  9. Pre-made pie crust is great! Why struggle with getting the perfect combination of flour and moisture for your pastry? The name-brand, refrigerated crust adds a flaky, tasty foundation to your pie (the store brand isn’t as good, in my humble opinion). Before rolling it out, let the crust come to room temperature (or thereabouts) on your kitchen counter.
  10. If you’re a pumpkin purist, you probably take the time to roast and puree the mighty gourd. But a very good substitute is pure pumpkin in a can—not to be confused with pumpkin filling.
  11. Be careful about trying a new recipe on the Thanksgiving dinner crowd. Do a trial run ahead of time to make sure you like the result. People don’t often remember their favorite dishes, but they somehow never forget the terrible ones!

Happy Thanksgiving! May the day be filled with blessings.