Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Genius yard upgrades even a klutz can crush


You don’t need to be the host of an extreme home makeover show to build an amazing backyard. In fact, the transformative projects below are easy enough for even the klutziest home improvement newbie to complete. Just don’t be shocked when the Johnsons appear at your door with hot dog buns in hand, begging to throw a cookout at your place.

#1 No-Blow Outdoor Curtains

When Cara Daniel of “The Project Addict” blog spied a neighbor’s unruly outdoor curtains, she hacked some for her porch that could withstand a gusty Tornado Alley afternoon without upending a glass of lemonade or ensnaring an unsuspecting guest.

She found the sweet spot by slipping conduit pipes through the curtain tabs up top and a hem at the bottom, and securing the pipes with wires (taut, but not too tight).

Daniel did all the hard work of dreaming up the curtains, so a DIY newbie can definitely recreate the project, which uses easy-to-find materials like washers and camping stakes.

Upkeep has been equally simple thanks to her sturdy choice of fabric. “The marine fabric is better than outdoor fabric that I bought,” says Daniel. The easy-to-wash choice has kept the curtains looking picturesque after five years of use.

#2 Shutter Privacy Fence

No fence? No problem! Daune Pitman of the “Cottage in the Oaks” blog MacGyvered an attractive privacy feature from a friend’s pile of discarded shutters.

The $0 price wasn’t the only thing that made the material desirable for an outdoor nook’s privacy screen, though. “They were tall,” says Pitman, “could easily be attached to posts, had the vents — which allows air to flow through — and didn’t weigh too much.”

After nailing the shutters to four-by-fours cemented into the ground (an easy task with a store-bought bag of pre-mixed cement), the nook-facing side got a charming French-blue facelift and the back a coating of foliage-matching bark brown paint.

It’s a kind of self-explanatory project because all you need is:
Shutters
Posts
Cement
Hinges (plus screws) for the shutters
Paint
What could be easier?

#3 PVC Pipe Pergola

Suburbanite Monica Mangin of the site “East Coast Creative” jumped at the chance to rehab a client’s neglected urban patio.

The showstopper was a clever PVC pergola decked with industrial-style lights. She was inspired by traditional wood pergolas, but wanted an easier material. “A lot of mason jar light fixtures were trending,” says Mangin.”I liked the look of that but wanted to turn it a little more industrial.”

PVC pipe — with rebar inside as an anchor — won out for its ease on the DIYer and wallet. Could it get any easier?

A simple coat of hammered metallic outdoor spray paint gave the pipe a pricier look, and industrial-strength zip ties kept the string of dimmable, Edison bulb-style lights in place. Although the project doesn’t take much time or skill, Mangin recommends recruiting two friends to help. Have one hold each end of the pergola while the third secures the lights with zip ties. Overall, it’s a dinner party-friendly cinch that’s surpassed the one-year mark.

4. Solar Light Hose Guards

Topping the list of Sad Gardening Ironies is when the hose you’ve lugged out to help your landscaping stay lush mows over a bed of delicate flowers you just planted. Sigh.

Lynda Makara of the blog “Home of Happy Art” figured out a pretty and pragmatic solution using affordable solar lights.

The DIY part entailed trashing their original plastic stakes (they weren’t strong enough to hold a hose in place), hammering 24-inch pieces of rebar into the ground, and slipping a light over each piece.

Those sturdy posts could handle even the bulkiest hose, protecting Makara’s plantings during waterings then casting a lovely spotlight on them post-dusk.

“The rebar is maintenance free,” says Makara. “I have had to replace some of the batteries in the solar lights, but I think that’s pretty normal.”

It doesn’t get much easier than hammering a stake into the ground. Although Makara suggests straightening the rebar with a level, that’s about as technical as it gets to create a more functional, flowering garden. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Costly missteps new homeowners make in their first year

The negotiations are over. Your mortgage is settled. The keys to your first home are in hand.

Finally, you can install your dream patio.

You can paint the walls without losing your security deposit.

Heck, you could knock out a wall. You’re soooo ready to be a homeowner.

So ready in fact, you’re about to make some costly mistakes.

Wait, whaaat?


“You have to rein it in and be smart,” says Daniel Kanter, a homeowner with five years under his belt. Especially in your first year, when your happiness, eagerness (and sometimes ignorance) might convince you to make one of these eight mistakes:

#1 Going With the Lowest Bid
The sounds your HVAC system is making clearly require the knowledge of a professional (or perhaps an exorcist?).

But you’ve been smart and gotten three contractor bids, so why not go with the lowest price?

You might want to check out this story from a Michigan couple. Rather than going with a remodeler who’d delivered good work in the past, they hired a contractor offering to complete the work for less than half the cost, in less time.

A year later, their house was still a construction zone. You don’t want to be in the same spot.

What to do: Double-check that all bids include the same project scope — sometimes one is cheaper because it doesn’t include all the actual costs and details of the project. The contractor may lack the experience to know of additional steps and costs.

#2 Submitting Small Insurance Claims
Insurance is there to cover damage to your property, so why not use it?

Because the maddening reality is that filing a claim or two, especially in a relatively short period, can trigger an increase in your premium. “As a consumer advocate, I hate telling people not to use something they paid for,” says Amy Bach, executive director of nonprofit United Policyholders, which works to empower consumers. But, it’s better to pay out of pocket than submit claims that are less than your deductible.

Save your insurance for the catastrophic stuff. “You want the cleanest record possible,” Bach says. “You want to be seen as the lowest risk. It’s like a driving record — the more tickets you have, the more your insurance.”

Some insurance groups, like the Insurance Information Institute and National Association of Insurance Commissioners, say it’s hard to generalize about premium increases because states’ and providers’ rules differ. But this stat from a report by UP and the Rutgers Center for Risk and Responsibility at Rutgers Law School is pretty sobering: Only two states — Rhode Island and Texas — got top marks for protecting consumers “from improper rate increases and non-renewals” just for making:

• An inquiry about a claim
• A claim that isn’t paid because it was less than the deductible
• A single claim

Your best protection? Maintaining your home so small claims don’t even materialize.

#3 Making Improvements Without Checking the ROI
Brandon Hedges, a REALTOR® in Minneapolis-St. Paul, recalls a couple who, though only planning to stay in their home for a few years, quickly replaced all their windows. When the time came to sell, he had to deliver the crushing news that they wouldn’t get back their full investment — more than $30,000.

New windows can be a great investment if you’re sticking around for awhile, especially if windows are beyond repair, and you want to save on energy bills.

Just because you might personally value an upgrade doesn’t mean the market will. “It’s easy to build yourself out of your neighborhood” and invest more than you can recoup at resale, says Linda Sowell, a REALTOR® in Memphis, Tenn.

What to do: Before you pick up a sledgehammer, check with an agent or appraiser, who usually are happy to share their knowledge about how much moola an improvement will eventually deliver.

#4 Going on a Furnishing Spree
When you enter homeownership with an apartment’s worth of furnishings, entire rooms in your new home are depressingly sparse. You want to feel settled. You want guests at your housewarming party to be able to sit on real furniture.

But try to exercise some retailing willpower. Investing in high-quality furniture over time is just smarter than blowing your budget on a whole house worth of particleboard discount items all at once.

What to do: Live in your home for a while, and you’ll get to know your space. Your living room may really need two full couches, not the love seat and a recliner you pictured there.

#5 Throwing Away Receipts and Paperwork
Shortly after moving in, your sump pump dies. You begrudgingly pay for a new one and try to forget about the cash you just dropped. But don’t! When it comes time to sell, improvements as small as this are like a resume-builder for your home that can boost its price. And, if problems arise down the road, warranty information for something like a new furnace could save you hundreds.

What to do: Stow paperwork like receipts, contracts, and manuals in a three-ring binder with clear plastic sleeves, or photograph your documents and upload them to cloud storage.

#6 Ignoring Small Items on Your Inspection Report
Use your inspection report as your very first home to-do list — even before you start perusing paint colors. Minor issues that helped take a chunk of change off the sale price can cause cumulative (and sometimes hazardous) damage. Over time, loose gutters could yield thousands in foundation damage. Uninsulated pipes? You could pay hundreds to a plumber when they crack in freezing temperatures. And a single faulty electric outlet could indicate dangerous ungrounded electricity.

What to do: Get the opinion and estimate of a contractor (usually at no charge), and then you can make an informed decision. But remember #1 above.

#7 Remodeling Without Doing the Research
No one wants to be a Negative Nancy, but there’s a benefit to knowing the worst-case scenario.

Homeowner Kanter tells the time he hired roofers to remove box gutters from his 1880s home. Little did he know, more often than not aged box gutters come with more extensive rot damage, which his roofers weren’t qualified to handle.

“We had to have four different contractors come in and close stuff up for the winter,” he says. Had he researched the problem, he could have saved money and anxiety by hiring a specialist from the start, he says.

What to do: Before beginning a project, thoroughly research it. Ask neighbors. Ask detailed questions of contractors so you can get your timing, budget, and expectations in line.

#8 Buying Cheap Tools
You need some basic tools for your first home — a hammer, screwdriver set, a ladder, maybe a mower.

But if you pick up a “novelty” kit (like those cute pink ones) or inexpensive off-brand items, don’t be surprised if they break right away, or if components like batteries have to be replaced frequently.

What to do: For a budget-friendly start, buy used tools from known quality brands (check online auctions or local estate sales) that the pros themselves use.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

11 Ways to create a welcoming front entrance for under $100

First impressions count — not just for your friends, relatives, and the UPS guy, but for yourself. Whether it’s on an urban stoop or a Victorian front porch, your front door and the area leading up to it should extend a warm welcome to all comers — and needn’t cost a bundle.

Here’s what you can do to make welcoming happen on the cheap.

#1 Get Rid of Overgrowth
The path to your front door should be at least 3 feet wide so people can walk shoulder-to-shoulder, with an unobstructed view and no stumbling hazards. So get out those loppers and cut back any overhanging branches or encroaching shrubs.

#2 Light the Pathway
Landscape lighting makes it easy to get around at night. Solar-powered LED lights you can just stick in the ground, requiring no wiring, are surprisingly inexpensive. We found 8 packs for under $60 online.

#3 Paint Your Door
Borrow inspiration from London’s lovely row houses, whose owners assert their individuality by painting their doors in high-gloss colors. The reflective sheen of a royal blue, deep green, crimson, or whatever color you like will ensure your house stands out from the pack.

#4 Add a Door With Glass
A door with lots of glass is a plus for letting light into the front hall -- but if you also want privacy and a bit of decor, check out decorative window film. It’s removable and re-positionable, and comes in innumerable styles and motifs. Pricing depends on size and design; many available for under $30.

A way to get the look of stained glass without doing custom work or buying a whole new door: Mount a decorative panel on the inside of the door behind an existing glass insert, $92 for an Arts and Crafts-style panel 20-inches-high by 11-inches-wide.

#5 Replace Door Hardware
While you’re at it, polish up the handle on the big front door. Or better yet, replace it with a shiny new brass lockset with a secure deadbolt. Available for about $60.

#6 Add a Knocker
Doorbells may be the norm, but a hefty knocker is a classic that will never run out of battery life, and another opportunity to express yourself (whatever your favorite animal or insect is, there’s a door-knocker in its image).

#7 Plant Evergreens
Boxwoods are always tidy-looking, the definition of easy upkeep. A pair on either side of the door is traditional, but a singleton is good, too. About $25 at garden centers. In cold climates, make sure pots are frost-proof (polyethylene urns and boxes mimic terracotta and wood to perfection).

#8 Make Your House Numbers Stand Out
Is your house number clearly visible? That’s of prime importance if you want your guests to arrive and your pizza to be hot. Stick-on vinyl numbers in a variety of fonts make it easy, starting at about $4 per digit.

#9 A Nice Door Mat
A hardworking mat for wiping muddy feet is a must. A thick coir mat can be had at the hardware store for less than $20. Even fancier varieties can be found well under $50.

#10 Porch Lights
Fumbling for keys in the dark isn’t fun. Consider doubling up on porch lights with a pair of lanterns, one on each side of the door, for symmetry and twice the illumination. Many mounted lights are available well under $100.

#11 A New Mailbox
Mailboxes run the gamut from kitschy roadside novelties masquerading as dogs, fish, or what-have-you to sober black lockboxes mounted alongside the front door. Whichever way you go, make sure yours is standing or hanging straight, with a secure closure, and no dings or dents. The mail carrier will thank you.First impressions count — not just for your friends, relatives, and the UPS guy, but for yourself. Whether it’s on an urban stoop or a Victorian front porch, your front door and the area leading up to it should extend a warm welcome to all comers — and needn’t cost a bundle.

Here’s what you can do to make welcoming happen on the cheap.

#1 Get Rid of Overgrowth
The path to your front door should be at least 3 feet wide so people can walk shoulder-to-shoulder, with an unobstructed view and no stumbling hazards. So get out those loppers and cut back any overhanging branches or encroaching shrubs.

#2 Light the Pathway
Landscape lighting makes it easy to get around at night. Solar-powered LED lights you can just stick in the ground, requiring no wiring, are surprisingly inexpensive. We found 8 packs for under $60 online.

#3 Paint Your Door
Borrow inspiration from London’s lovely row houses, whose owners assert their individuality by painting their doors in high-gloss colors. The reflective sheen of a royal blue, deep green, crimson, or whatever color you like will ensure your house stands out from the pack.

#4 Add a Door With Glass
A door with lots of glass is a plus for letting light into the front hall -- but if you also want privacy and a bit of decor, check out decorative window film. It’s removable and re-positionable, and comes in innumerable styles and motifs. Pricing depends on size and design; many available for under $30.

A way to get the look of stained glass without doing custom work or buying a whole new door: Mount a decorative panel on the inside of the door behind an existing glass insert, $92 for an Arts and Crafts-style panel 20-inches-high by 11-inches-wide.

#5 Replace Door Hardware
While you’re at it, polish up the handle on the big front door. Or better yet, replace it with a shiny new brass lockset with a secure deadbolt. Available for about $60.

#6 Add a Knocker
Doorbells may be the norm, but a hefty knocker is a classic that will never run out of battery life, and another opportunity to express yourself (whatever your favorite animal or insect is, there’s a door-knocker in its image).

#7 Plant Evergreens
Boxwoods are always tidy-looking, the definition of easy upkeep. A pair on either side of the door is traditional, but a singleton is good, too. About $25 at garden centers. In cold climates, make sure pots are frost-proof (polyethylene urns and boxes mimic terracotta and wood to perfection).

#8 Make Your House Numbers Stand Out
Is your house number clearly visible? That’s of prime importance if you want your guests to arrive and your pizza to be hot. Stick-on vinyl numbers in a variety of fonts make it easy, starting at about $4 per digit.

#9 A Nice Door Mat
A hardworking mat for wiping muddy feet is a must. A thick coir mat can be had at the hardware store for less than $20. Even fancier varieties can be found well under $50.

#10 Porch Lights
Fumbling for keys in the dark isn’t fun. Consider doubling up on porch lights with a pair of lanterns, one on each side of the door, for symmetry and twice the illumination. Many mounted lights are available well under $100.

#11 A New Mailbox
Mailboxes run the gamut from kitschy roadside novelties masquerading as dogs, fish, or what-have-you to sober black lockboxes mounted alongside the front door. Whichever way you go, make sure yours is standing or hanging straight, with a secure closure, and no dings or dents. The mail carrier will thank you.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Rent vs. buying

The cost of renting vs. buying can be eye opening when you look at the numbers. Take a look at how much of your income goes to rent vs. a mortgage.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

5 Tips that will protect you from this (expensive) DIY mistake

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.
By: Stacey Freed

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

5 Secrets to get sellers to choose your bid in a hot market

Touring prospective houses can feel like wandering through an infinite, imaginary desert: You’re tired, you’re cranky, and you’re not sure if the experience is EVER. GOING. TO. END.
So when you’ve finally found “The One,” it’s an amazing feeling. You can already picture your first brunch in its adorable breakfast nook.
But wait. Before you summon the moving truck, your dream home’s seller has to pick you, too. Luckily, the key to locking down your ideal abode doesn’t always mean offering the most cash. Here are five ways to tip the odds in your favor.
#1 Negotiate with a Smile
Unlike most commercial real estate transactions, the buying and selling of a home is complicated by all kinds of emotions, explains Sara Benson of Benson Stanley Realty in Chicago. Often, how the seller feels about you can be more important than your money.
“People tend to do business with those they like and trust,” she says.
One of Benson’s favorite examples of this phenomenon occurred when one of her clients was second in line for a home. While the first-place bidders were negotiating their contract, they whipped out a long list of unreasonable demands for the seller.
“This infuriated the homeowner, who finally told them, ‘My property isn’t for sale to you at any price!’” Benson recalls. The seller ended up offering Benson’s clients the house, even though their bid was $10,000 below that of the first buyers.
Lesson learned? “Don’t nitpick over items that are insubstantial, like a torn window screen or a $50 valve on a hot water heater,” says Benson. “This will anger a seller more than anything.” And that, she says, could be a deal breaker.
#2 Get Personal
Bruce Ailion, an agent with RE/MAX in Woodstock, Ga., agrees that profit isn’t always the seller’s primary motivation. He recalls a recent deal in which he was representing an older couple selling their long-time family home.
“We had two offers: one from an investor paying cash, the second from financed first-time buyers.”
Despite Ailion’s recommendations, the sellers chose the first-time buyers, even though the cash offer was higher and would have been a much simpler transaction. Ultimately, what mattered most for Ailion’s clients was to pass their beloved home on to a deserving young family.
#3 Figure Out the Seller's Unique Motivation
Understanding why the sellers have put their home on the market is yet another powerful tool a buyer can bring to the negotiating table, says Ailion.
“Some sellers want a quick sale; others need time to find a home. Some are focused on price, others on certainty,” he says. “There are so many intangibles. It takes a deep understanding to make a good deal for everyone.”
See what information you can glean about the seller — from your agent or even from the seller’s neighbors — to arm yourself with as much information as possible.
“The more flexible a buyer can be on closing and possession, the more likely they’ll be able to negotiate a lower price,” agrees Benson. “They’re giving the seller peace of mind and the comfort of not having to rush out.”
#4 Write a Love Letter
Sometimes, a heartfelt note from a potential buyer can make all the difference, even when the chances seem pretty slim.
Darcey Regan, a Chicago-based HR executive, had already bid on another home when she and her husband stumbled upon a gorgeous old Victorian. Instantly, they were smitten. “I grew up in an old house, and the sellers had done a really great job of maintaining and renovating this one,” she says.
Unfortunately, multiple people had already placed offers on the house, including several developers who were planning to demolish the property. Regan felt her only hope was to write the sellers a letter. In it, she talked about growing up in a similar house, and how much she respected the owners’ efforts to preserve their home.
Within 24 hours, the sellers told her the house was hers. “It turns out they really wanted someone who would keep the house rather than tear it down,” she says.
Though it felt like a long shot, Regan believes her note was successful because it was genuine. Her advice? “Write a letter only if you’re really in love with the house, not because someone told you to.”
#5 Work With a Pro
It also helps to have a knowledgeable, well-respected pro on your side — someone who understands market realities and who will work well with the seller’s agent.
How do you find that seasoned pro with the sterling reputation? “Ask for referrals from your personal and professional network, and interview at least three different [agents] before you choose the one you feel most comfortable working with,” advises Benson.
Residential real estate is a game of both head and heart. Smart buyers who employ both are the ones most likely to win the home of their dreams.