Spring Cleaning Your Air Conditioner
cleaning air conditioner

First, A Basic Explanation of Air Conditioning Technology

Your air conditioner isn’t magic, but it’s pretty close. These devices were actually invented in the early 1900s as a way to reduce indoor humidity in paper plants. It just so happened they have a side effect that we rely on even today.

Air conditioning systems depend on the expansion and contraction of gasses to pull moisture out of the air by cooling it down. This is basic physics at work — warm air holds more water, cool air holds less.

When air is pulled into your air handler (for many, this is a furnace) through your warm air return, it’s forced over a tent-shaped coil that uses refrigerant to cool the air as it passes. A blower then blows that cooled air back into the house.

So What Does the Outside Condenser Do?

The air conditioning condenser that most people consider to be “the air conditioner” is actually a giant heatsink. See, when the air is cooled inside your air handler, the refrigerant is what’s absorbing most of the heat. It then gets pumped to the condenser, where the heat collected inside your house is released to the environment.

It’s really a pretty simple idea that has made a huge change to how we live, play and work.

Your Air Conditioner Spring Cleaning Checklist

There’s no time like spring to do a little air conditioner tune-up. A lot of the heavy lifting will have to be performed by HVAC professionals, but there are things you can do to keep your system running longer as a homeowner. Generally, these items should be done at least once in the spring before you start using the A/C and again in the fall when you’re ready to put it away for the year.

Change your furnace filter. Whether it’s on the ceiling, on the floor or inside your furnace or air handler, a clean filter is a filter that can let the most air through for cooling. And the easier it is for the system to pull air in and cool it, the more comfortable you’ll be with the least amount of cost. Investing in an electrostatic filter that you can wash and reuse is a smart move for the long term.

Flush your condensation line. There’s a pipe or tube that comes out of your furnace or air handler and runs to a drain somewhere. This is the condensation line. All the moisture your system is pulling out of that warm air has to go somewhere, you know? That somewhere is a pan that empties via this tube. Just open it up from the top (which tube it is should be obvious, but if you can’t find it, ask your HVAC professional), slowly pour in about a cup of vinegar or bleach. If the liquid moves, you’re gold. If not, you may need to spend some time investigating the issue. More often than not, it’s algae growth in the tube or mineral deposits, both things you can flush out, but require some patience to remove.

Clean your a-coil. That tent shaped coil mentioned above is called the “evaporator coil” or the “a-coil.” It can get dirty, which makes it a lot less efficient at removing moisture and cooling the air. If you feel brave, and you’re careful, you can wipe the coils clean or use a shop vac. They’re very similar to the coils on the back of your refrigerator, treat them the exact same way.

Comb the fins on the condenser. If you look closely at your outside condenser, you’ll notice that the part that’s inside the cage is made up of a whole bunch of teeny fins. These little guys can get damaged by accident, causing them to be less efficient because they’re not really in an optimal configuration anymore. All you need to fix this is a fin comb. This simple device lets you straighten bent fins, restoring your unit to its former glory.

Spray the condenser down. Last, but far from least, you’ll want to spray your air conditioner’s condenser down with a hose. Start by wetting all the fins with a garden sprayer, then go back around and spend some time slowly flushing out the dirt, one section at a time, working top to bottom.

Philip Schwartz
What Should I Look for in a Smart Security Camera?
ring security

Once upon a time having a security system or even just some video cameras meant that you either lived in a dodgy neighborhood or you had something really awesome to steal. Today, home security devices are common, inexpensive and can be used for all sorts of things, from watching your dog run around like a maniac while you’re at work to checking in to make sure the kids made it safely home from school.

Thanks to the magic of WiFi, you can even keep an eye on vacation homes or empty rentals if you’re willing to invest a little bit extra to keep the internet going or to upgrade to camera that can connect to your cellular account. Basically, if there’s something you want to see on the regular, a modern smart security camera can handle the job!

What Kind of Smart Cameras Are Available?

There are several major players in the smart security camera space, from easily recognized names like Nest and Ring to lesser known companies like Vimtag. The brands of the cameras don’t matter as much as you might think, but their features sure do. Let’s break it down.

Type of Security Camera

First and foremost, there are several types of cameras lumped in under the security camera header. Those are:

Webcams. These are cameras that you can check in with, but won’t necessarily alert you to movements or unusual sounds. They literally just give you a live feed of whatever you’re pointing them at.

Video Doorbells. Offering a decent view of the porch area, a video doorbell is a great solution if you receive a lot of packages or simply don’t want to get up to answer the door only to be surprised by solicitors. You can interact with people who ring the bell and when placed properly, the camera can alert and record quite a bit of activity within its field of vision.

Indoor Security. True security cameras have a great deal of customization so users can set them up to their exact needs. Some are able to be moved back and forth or up and down based on user input, even remotely. This can give you a better idea of what’s going on in the room.

Outdoor Security. Outdoor security cameras are much like the indoor ones, except that they have more durable housing and may be powered using things like solar panels to keep the maintenance to a minimum. Attach it, point it and forget it until it wakes you up at 2 am because someone is walking their dog down the street in front of your house.

Important Points to Ponder

Choosing a camera type is just the beginning. There are several features bundled with cameras that you may find incredibly valuable. Before you buy, check off these important points:

Power Source and Connectivity. Does your camera need a power plug? Can it draw power from existing wiring or will you need to upgrade to make it work? Furthermore, can it connect to the Internet using your WiFI or does it run on your cellular network?

What’s the App Like? Each camera company will have an app that’s slightly different. Check them out in your Android or Apple store before choosing a camera. It’s important that you can use the software without a lot of headaches.

Feed Type. There are generally two types of feeds that come with smart home security cameras: live or triggered. The live feeds are going to always show you what’s happening when you decide you want to take a peek. Triggered feeds record based on detected movement or sound, only giving you a picture of what was happening during that time. Many devices offer both, but if your eye is on a camera with a single option, choose the one you think you’ll use more.

Storage / Subscription Offerings. Your new camera probably comes with the option to use some amount of the company’s cloud storage for your video. Generally, packages are set up based on the length of time a video is saved, with options like 24 hours, a week, two weeks and a month being quite common. There’s no set price point between different companies, so be sure you’re comfortable with what they’re charging before buying the camera since you can’t use them on platforms other than the one owned by the parent company.

Smarter Features. Cameras like the Nest IQ series have advanced features that teach them the people who come and go from your home regularly. Instead of getting a generic alert that someone is on the property, you’ll be told that your friend Bob is there. Features like this save a lot of time spent guessing who might be lurking around your home.

Some of the smarter cameras are also Alexa, Google Home or Apple HomeKit enabled. If you’re already using smart home products, make sure the camera you choose matches the smart home devices you have in place.


Philip Schwartz
Table Saw Safety Tips
table saw safety tips

Interestingly enough, if you’re looking for images of table saws in any of the places where you get that sort of thing, you’ll see a lot of things that scream “hold my beer!” Although some are certainly stock photos being stock photos, there are people every day making the same kind of mistakes as the people in these stock photos.

Almost certainly, plenty of corresponding people in real life have said one of these two things: “I’ve done it like this for the last 20 years and never had an issue.” or “OUCH! There went my finger.”

For your own safety, and the safety of those around you, it’s time for a talk about table saws and how to use them correctly. They can be really dangerous, they can be really useful — you just have to know what you’re doing and how to do it safely.

What is a Table Saw Made For?

Beginning DIYers often assume that a saw is a saw and a hammer is a hammer. The truth is a little less simple. Sure, you can cut anything you want with a table saw, but you may not like the results. Or, you may be ok with the results, but your methodology is going to earn you a nickname like “Stubs.” And, Stubs, that’s not a thing you want.

Table saws are at their best when they’re ripping or crosscutting.

Ripping is when you take a board and you feed it through the saw the long way, so that you get a board with a custom width. For example, you have a two-by-four and want it to be more of a one-and-a-half-by-four. You’d set the fence, set the blade height, turn on the saw and slowly and carefully feed the lumber through until you reached the end. (Please note, always feed material into a table saw using a push stick or other device that will keep your hands as far away from danger as possible)

Crosscutting means taking that same board, but cutting the length down (feed it in the short way). You’ll want to use a miter gauge for this move. In this situation, you’re removing two feet from an eight foot long stud, or what have you. It’s really tempting to push these through by hand, but don’t do it!! The aftermath could be pretty horrifying.

Additional tools can be added to a table saw to allow it to cut different kinds of joints and angles, like what you might need for crown molding, but there are also more specific and less dangerous tools that can do the same job. Bottom line? A table saw is not to be trusted, else it nips off your fingernails.

Safety First with Table Saws

The most common injuries caused by table saws, a whopping 85 percent, according to researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health, are to the fingers and thumbs. Most frequently, those are cuts, but 10 to 15 percent of the sampled population had digits amputated by their favorite tool. That blade rotates at around 4,000 RPM, it would go through a finger like a hot knife through butter.

Now, that being said, safety, safety, safety. Below are tips you should not ignore:

1. The safety guard is there for your safety. It’s not a perfect solution and it won’t protect you if you feed your hand straight into the blade, but the safety guard is there to help minimize the danger to you from your table saw. Many, many, many homeowners take the blade guard off because it’s easy to get a lot of dust up inside of it, making it hard to see what’s going on at the blade level. Instead of taking it off and leaving it off, though, remove the blade guard and clean it when you’re done using the machine. If it’s plastic (which most are), just hose it out and leave it to dry for your next project.
2. Goggles can save your eyeballs. Although less common injuries than those to fingers, hands and arms, your table saw can hurt your eyes, too. Always wear goggles when using a table saw, even if it has a dust collector attached. You never know when wood will do something squirrely and end up being sort of flung into your eye. You’re closer to the blade than you think.
3. Always use push sticks and other material feeding tools. Collect up your push sticks and miter gauges now and know where they are at all times. Never ever feed material into the blade with your bare hands (or even gloved ones, really). This makes it far too easy for the blade to cut the board and the the operator, which would be you. This is why the photo at the top of this article is so incredibly dangerous. Stubs didn’t think it was a big deal, though. Not until after, anyway.

4. Watch for kickbacks. Material fed improperly into a table saw will kick like a mule. A great big angry one. If you’re standing directly behind the blade and the material when that happens, it’s not going to be a great day for you. Instead, stand just off to one side of the material and feed it into an already turning blade, advancing slowly. Cutting boards isn’t a race, except on reality TV.

Philip Schwartz
7 Things to Do Before Listing Your Home This Spring
spring

As the snow starts to melt, revealing the brightly colored flowers of crocus, and robins bop merrily around the yard, another cycle of the real estate market begins. If you’re considering listing your home this year, it’s definitely not too late to get started. March and April can be great months for putting your house in front of prospective buyers, but the summer months are also great times to sell.

Regardless of your timing, there are a few things you need to do right now to start getting ready to list. It’s not as simple as sticking a sign in the yard and waiting for the calls to roll in.

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

You never know who will feel that special feeling people get when they find the house that is just right for them. But you can turn the odds in your favor if you and your home are both show ready long before you open up to potential buyers.

Before you sell your house, you’re going to want to run through this checklist.

Hire a Realtor. There’s a reason that 91 percent of home sellers used a real estate agent to sell their home in 2017: selling a home is a complicated process that really demands an expert. Just like you’d not try to DIY surgery, there are serious financial risks involved with selling your home without an education in real estate law.

In addition to being your safety net, a Realtor can point out items that you might not realize are big turn-offs to buyers, like dated lighting, so you can get started on the cosmetic stuff to make your home show at its best.

Have a home inspection. Wait. Isn’t a home inspection just for buying a house? No! You can have a home inspector out any time you want. Having a full blown home inspection before you put your house on the market gives you a chance to correct items that will likely come up for your future buyer when they have their home inspector out. Get ahead of issues and you’ll sell that house faster.

Get to decluttering. If you have to sell your home in order to buy the next, you’re going to be living in a showroom for the next few months. Take anything you don’t really need immediately and put it in a storage unit. Get it away from your house because pushing clutter around doesn’t really help anything. Declutter as much as you can bear to — it’ll make your house look bigger and more appealing to prospective buyers

Paint the front door. Your Realtor will probably drive home the importance of curb appeal, or how enticing your house is from the street (the curb). The better the curb appeal, the more likely potential buyers will come inside and look around. The interesting thing about curb appeal is how certain elements of your house affect the whole picture. Case in point, Zillow’s 2018 Paint Color Analysis found that a black or charcoal colored front door can bring in as much as $6,271 extra!

Spruce up the landscaping. Along with dressing the front of your house up a bit, make sure that your landscaping is up to par. Prune any unruly plants, replace perennials that may have patchy growth, refresh your mulch, give the lawn a mow. Now that your landscape is radiating amazing curb appeal, keep it that way until your home closes. If you need to hire a landscaper, consider it an investment.

Get copies of your utility bills. People will ask what kind of utility costs are associated with your home. Does it just burn through the natural gas? Does the electricity use seem excessive? This is another place where you can get ahead of potential buyers by putting this information together and giving it to your Realtor on the day you sign your listing agreement.

Deep clean like you’ve never cleaned before. And hey, maybe you haven’t, we’re not here to judge. Even though painting is a quick fix to renewing your home’s interior, deep cleaning is less expensive and can result in a better overall effect. For example, if you clean your windows, inside and out until they’re super clean, you’ll immediately notice how much more natural light penetrates the room.

Philip Schwartz
Top 5 Remodeling Mistakes to Avoid
DIY remodeling mistakes

Remodeling 101: There’s More To It Than Trying

1. Don't skip the permit office. It might seem like no big deal to skip a permit for knocking a small hole in the wall to add a window to your study, but your city’s Planning and Zoning department is going to disagree pretty hard. There’s a reason that certain types of work require a permit: they’re potentially damaging to the structure or otherwise dangerous and must be inspected for safety of current and future occupants. When it comes to permits, the rules were not made to be broken.

Often, if the work in question is to be done by the homeowner and it’s not a major structural change, your P&Z won’t even bother with a permit. But it’s still on you to find out if one is needed. If you complete permitted work without one, you may be fined, the work itself may be undone if there’s a safety issue involved or your home could be condemned. Don’t skip the permit.

2. Not budgeting enough money for the whole project. When you budgeted for your project, did you consider that box of nails that went missing last week? How about the trim that almost fit, but wasn’t quite the right width and had to be doubled up? There’s always something that gets missed in a remodel budget, they’re notorious for being more costly than originally budgeted as a rule, rather than an exception.

When you’re doing your budget, make sure to include extra fasteners, odds and ends and about 20 percent on top of that for whatever: pizza, trips to the ER — player’s choice. Try not to spend too much time in the ER, though, that’ll really eat into your pizza budget. All jokes aside, though, it’s always better to budget way over for a remodel and have money left for appliance upgrades or just to toss in a savings account than to have a half finished kitchen that you have no idea how you’re going to complete.

3. Forgetting to allow for waste when buying your supplies. Buying supplies can be harrowing, there is no doubt. You need how many board-feet of lumber for that deck? How many boxes of tile for the new kitchen floor? Whatever you figure, you’re going to want to buy more. You can always take the excess back to the store, especially when dealing with those big home improvement places.

When you’re figuring waste, do it a lot like doing your budget. Add 20 to 30 percent on the top, just to make sure you have enough. This is going to be kind of dependent on the size of your project, though. If it’s a very big project, give yourself lots of room. If you’re building a small thing, like a built-in desk, you can probably pretty easily buy the exact amount of lumber you need on the first go.

And while you’re at it, remember to get extra tile, hardwood or laminate flooring for later. That way, if the new floor or wall is damaged, you can easily fix it with pieces that match.

4. Improper or rushed prep work. Look, everyone knows you’re busy, but if you take on a remodeling project, you’re taking on a labor of love. You’re also taking on a project that’s at least half prep work, maybe more. Someone once said that a remodeling job is only as good as the preparation that you did, and that’s as true a thing as has ever been said.

Take the time to pull down the wallpaper and sand the wall, scrape the floor until it’s clean enough to eat off of, level that wall until it’s smooth as silk. Whatever you’re doing, do it until it’s done. Don’t rush it. Don’t make us show you photos of the “after” when the prep work is sloppy.

5. Underestimating the difficulty of a project. This may be the most difficult and most common mistake of them all. Everybody wants to believe that they’re the next Bob Vila, but the truth is that unless you’ve worked in the construction field, you’re probably unprepared for what you’re jumping into. Some projects are great for beginners, like installing small shelves or learning how to paint (provided you have lots of time, this is a job you can’t rush), but others aren’t beginner ready, no matter how easy Vanilla Ice makes it look on TV.

Before you jump into a project, do a little research. Find out what’s involved in installing a zero clearance fireplace, for example. Watch some videos about how they work, how they’re installed and decide for yourself if that’s something you’re ready for. You might be, depending on your home’s configuration and construction style and your own confidence.

Philip Schwartz
Patio Planning 101
pergola

This year, you’re resolved to install a patio once and for all. There’s a lot to consider when planning your shiny new patio, but don’t worry, we’re here to help make it simple.

Patio Planning: The Basics

If this is your first major home improvement project, you’ve picked one that should give you a real sense of satisfaction when it’s done. But you’ve also chosen to tackle a multi-part effort that’s not very cut and dry. Before you go out and rent a Skid Steer and hire three guys to pour cement, make sure you’ve checked these items off your pre-patio checklist:

  • Location, location, location. Although many patios are constructed as a transition from the house to the rest of the yard, there’s not a rule saying this has to be the case. Choose your favorite flat spot on your lot and try to imagine what it would be like having dinner there.

  • Materials. Many patios are poured concrete slabs, but there are also some fantastic stones and pavers out there that would make excellent patio surfaces. And don’t forget the brick. Patios are great because they can really stand the test of time when the right materials are chosen. Consider the weather in your area when you’re shopping.

  • Size and shape. Like there’s no required spot for your patio, there’s also not a standard size or a standard shape for them. You want a 10×16 rectangle? Poof! Done. What about a 15 foot long kidney shaped patio? No problem. Design the patio of your dreams, not the patio that other people think should be your dream.

Bringing It All Together

Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of what your patio will be made from and where you’re going to put it, it’s time to take the next step and put that pencil to paper. It can help to draw your entire lot on grid paper, adding buildings, plants and other noteworthy features in their correct spots (you’ll need to measure all of this for best results) will ensure that your patio plan doesn’t run into pesky problems from real life colliding with your perfect patio.

That handy drawing of your patio can become a map to something a little bit more impressive than a simple slab in your backyard. Consider drawing in (and including!) these user-friendly elements so you can make it do even more:

  • Pergolas. There’s nothing like a pergola to create a semi-shaded spot in your yard. If your patio is attached to the house, adding a pergola is just a natural step. If not, you can still anchor one in cement so it can be freestanding and won’t blow away. Pro tip: grow your favorite vines on that pergola and they’ll help shade you all summer long.

  • Built-in seating. Sure, you have a patio set, but sometimes it’s nice to have some extra benches in case you’re wanting to sit, but not at a table. Like deck builders put benches around the outside of decks, or use them to separate areas on a very large deck, you can do the same with benches made from the same materials as your patio.

  • Water features. Look, no one said you need a fountain or pond near your patio, but wouldn’t it be pretty cool? Small fountains add interest and ponds not only give you a place to keep impressively large koi, birds and other wildlife can use them for water.

  • Outdoor kitchen. This is the ultimate patio upgrade. Adding an outdoor kitchen, even if that’s just a built-in grill and a small sink, can make your home easier to sell down the line and possibly even increase your home’s value.

Philip Schwartz
5 Ways to Dress Up Your Home on a Budget
home on a budget

Owning a house is a never-ending adventure in investing your heart and soul into a wholly unique structure. Some homeowners have great big budgets for massive changes or enhancements to their home, others are working with a shoestring. If you’re in the second group, you can still put your mark on your house. There are plenty of ways to personalize it without spending a lot of money.

Even Simple Changes Create Huge Home Impacts

After the stress of moving is over and the dust has settled, you may start to ponder other ways to enhance your new home. When you moved in, it was pretty generic, with cream-colored walls, light brown carpet and an outside paint job that absolutely no one could find offensive. A lot of houses end up in this generic state when the owner is wanting a fast sale, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way!

Take a look at these small projects that can really make your home pop:

Replace the front door. Replacing your front door is one of the most value-packed changes you can make to your home. A new door not only creates a new focal point, it allows you to really get personal. These days you can special order doors in nearly any size with exquisite touches like frosted or stained glass, as well as bigger units that have full size windows on either side.

Remodeling Magazine ranked front door replacement third in cost recuperation; the best value return on the list was also a door. Consider your garage door while you’re upgrading. Like front doors, garage doors are becoming increasingly detailed, with lots of options for personalization. Because they take up so much real estate on the front of your house, a new garage door can make your home look completely different.

Choose a paint scheme with more than two colors. That’s not to say that you should go wild and paint your house in every color of the rainbow, but by using at least three colors, you can draw attention to the neat little details instead of letting them get lost in a monotone trim color. For example, if your post-World War two era home has neat porch brackets and dentils, you might paint those features to match the front door so they pop out from the trim. Just don’t go crazy with color or the effect will be lost in the cacophony.

Add shutters and window boxes. On the right house, shutters or window boxes can pack a huge visual wallop. Choose shutters that are appropriate for the style of your home, even if you need to special order them. You can keep them seriously low-maintenance by selecting vinyl shutters in the color you’re after — just hang them and forget it. The same goes for window boxes. Low maintenance boxes with colorful flowers can help perk up plain windows.

Relight the night. Details matter and that includes your lighting. Get rid of those generic carriage lights and clunky motion detecting flood lights and install some impressive lighting on the outside of your home. There are lots of styles to choose between, many with motion detection built-in, and several sizes. Lighting that fits in the space appropriately, provides lots of light and matches your home’s outer theme is an important element in a total shoestring makeover.

Raise some flower beds. Growing plants on your lawn can become a messy proposition as the summer’s heat starts to bear down. Built-up beds are easier to maintain than patches in the grass and they lend a bit of formality to the space. Choose a location that makes sense, like along a walkway or up against the porch so visitors are greeted with your cheery plants.

It doesn’t take a huge budget to make changes to the outward appearance of your home. Planning colors and accessories strategically makes all the difference, especially when you’re on a limited budget.

Philip Schwartz
Top 7 Tools for Homeowners
best home tools

Buying a house is a little like taking up a new hobby. There are lots of things you don’t know yet that you’ll learn as you go along, you’re also gonna need some specialized equipment to get very far. Whether you hope to become a top level home remodeler or simply want to put some new slats on your privacy fence, it takes the right tools to do the job.

The Right Tool for the Job

First, it’s important to note that you need the tool you need on any given job. Trying to improvise can result in connections that don’t connect quite fully, excessive and unnecessary damage to your home or damage to fasteners that will make them hard to back out later. Always use the right tool. If you don’t know which tool is the right tool, ask someone at the hardware or home improvement store — they’re usually pretty friendly and ready to help.

Without further ado, here are our picks for the top tools all homeowners need:

7. Stud finder. When you need to hang something heavy, you really should hang it on a stud. Although people with really good hearing can use the tap test on sheetrock, it’s always better to be certain that you’re hitting a stud, rather than tapping and hoping.

6. Hammers. Yes, it’s a broad category, but you really need one of each of these:

* 10 oz. hammer. This tiny hammer, otherwise known as the “tack hammer” is handy beyond imagination. Not only is it great for projects that require finesse (you can’t take a big whack at anything with this baby hammer), it’s also dainty enough to use to pull delicate trim work or tiles off the wall.
* Rubber mallet. It gets the award for best rubbery-headed hammer for its ability to pound things without leaving a dent. If you decide to put down certain kinds of laminate floors, for example, this guy is a must-have.
* Standard claw hammer. Everybody needs a standard hammer. They’re general purpose tools that can put nails in and take nails out. Claw hammers also double as pry bars in a lot of situations.

5. Pliers. Another combo group. It wouldn’t be fair to break the family up, after all. Plus, these pliers all do different jobs. Check them out:

* Locking pliers. These adjustable pliers also have a clamping feature, making them a multi-purpose wonder. You can clamp, you can hold, you can adjust! If you buy only one pair of pliers, choose a mid-sized pair of locking pliers. They’ll do everything regular pliers can do, plus some things groove joint pliers can.
* Groove joint pliers. This iconic plumbing tool is good for other stuff, too. The grooves allow you to expand the plier opening across a wider range of sizes than your locking pliers, but you have to hold them closed yourself. They are incredibly handy at 3 am when the plumbing’s sprung a leak.
* Needle nose pliers. In a totally different class, needle nose pliers are helpful when you’re trying to wire anything or fish out tiny things when you drop them in weird spaces. Primarily, though, wiring things in your home. Always turn the power off before wiring anything, even a new smart thermostat.

4. Utility knife. If you don’t have one of these, it’s high time you got one. Or six. Skip the disposables and go for the heavy metal options, you will not regret it. A good utility knife is perfect for cutting through boxes, carpet and vinyl flooring.

3. Level. Everybody’s seen those pictures on your wall, but they’re afraid to say anything about how badly leveled they are. Is it because you didn’t own a level when you hung them? The level on your phone is all fine and good for an estimate, but things like cases change how well they can work. An old fashioned level will never steer you wrong. Ideally, you’ll want a set, including one that’s about six inches long, another that’s two foot long and a third that’s four feet long if you intend to do any construction work in your home.

2. Tape measure. Look, I know you know exactly how long your shoe is and that you never vary in your strides, but for the sake of appearances, pick up a good tape measure. The wider models with 25 feet of tape are really flexible choices. Guess what? You can also use a tape to level if you didn’t pick up a level. Just choose either the ceiling or floor to level with, then measure from either point to the place where your shelf or picture is going to go. Make a mark, then go to the other side and repeat, making sure your tape isn’t slacking. Set as many points as you need between the two ends, being sure to mark at the same height each time.

1. Screwdrivers. You’re not going to get very far in your homeownership without interacting with a screw. That’s why you need screwdrivers. But instead of keeping track of a pile of screwdrivers, choose a really good model with magnetic bits. The longer the bit shaft, the better for the really tough jobs. You can also get kits that contain sockets, as well as hex and torx bits. This will be your favorite screwdriver — and your only screwdriver. Ratcheting screwdrivers can be more trouble than they’re worth, but well-made models do significantly cut down on wrist strain.

If you have a little extra cash rattling around, you should seriously consider a battery powered tool set that contains, at minimum, a drill and small circular saw. These two tools can get almost any job done, though you may have to buy different bits or blades. Eighteen volt models are much better at being tools than the lower voltage units, many are designed for professional work, they’re that tough.

Happy home improvement!

Philip Schwartz
How to Build a Fence
how to build a fence

Building a fence isn’t just a matter of nailing a few boards together. Even though it’s a good project for new homeowners, there are a few things to keep in mind before taking the plunge.

The Before You Build Boogie

If you’ve read any of these blogs, you know that the planning and prep are keys to success with any sort of project, whether that’s repainting your house, sealing your driveway or, in this case, building a fence. The legwork involved in fence building is nearly as involved as the actual fence building, but doing it right means a fence that will last and last.

Do these things before you even start to think about digging the first post hole:

Find Your Neighborhood’s Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions

The Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions dictate what can and cannot be done to property belonging to a particular homeowners’ association. If you have HOA fees or commonly owned property (playgrounds, pools, etc) in your neighborhood, you probably have a CC&R somewhere that you need to read.

Understand that you are legally obligated to this agreement since you signed what amounts to a contract to abide by the rules at closing. They can literally dictate anything, from how tall the fence can be to what type of materials are allowed (or required). If you can’t find your copy in your closing documents, call your closing company, they can get you a new copy.

Go Visit Planning and Zoning

Your city’s Planning & Zoning department makes lots of rules about things you’d never imagine there needed to be a rule made about. Things like sign setbacks, minimum sizes for new homes and minimum required green space per residential lot are a few that drive real estate pros up the wall.

The P&Z rules that will get you are going to be related to the height of your fencing, how far it has to be off of the road and, like in your CC&R, the materials the fence is made of. In areas with high winds or other regularly destructive forces, there may be specific requirements for construction style in order to minimize the chances your fence becomes a weapon in the next big disaster.

Get Your Permit!

Not every municipality will require that you have a permit to build a fence, especially if you’re just replacing an existing fence with a new one, but some do. This is not something to take a chance on, just go to the city and apply for one. The chances are great that you’ll be granted an approval, but an inspector will still come by to make sure your fence is sturdy and sound. This is good in the longer term, don’t be confused. If you built the fence wrong, you’re really just wasting your money on a structure that won’t last.

Invite a Surveyor Over

Surveyors have a tough job. They know where the property lines are supposed to be, and too often, they’re forced to have to tell a homeowner that the lines aren’t exactly where they thought they should be. Breaking the bad news is basically their job, so along with having great working knowledge of surveying, they also have to be good at telling people they’ve been wrong all this time.

Now, this may not be the case for you, but before you even think about putting in a fence, have a survey. You don’t want your neighbor to sue you because the fence was put in the wrong place, forcing you to do it all over again, or buy them out of the land that should have not been fenced in.

Actual, Factual Fence Construction

Now that you’ve managed the details, you can start thinking about your fence. It’s ok. Do it. You know what materials are allowed and which aren’t, plus the heights and setback requirements. You are a fully loaded fence-building machine now.

When you choose those fencing materials, you’ll have a few important choices to make. It’s important at this stage of the game to figure out the purpose for your fence. Do you like having company over and don’t want to disturb the neighbors? Are you putting in a pool? Does your dog need a place to romp?

Although all three can be serviced by a fairly generic fence type, there might be more specific advantages to particular fence styles whether you’re trying to keep the noise level down or want to make sure neighborhood kids don’t sneak into your pool at night. The pool is better protected by a sturdy wooden fence or tall metal fence, where your noisy parties can be dampened with a lower maintenance PVC or vinyl fence. Focusing on your intent makes it easier to narrow the huge field of fencing materials and styles.

Once you know what you’re going to use to make that fence, the rest is a piece of cake. It goes something like this:

1. Plan your post positions ahead of time so you don’t end up with some weird little section of fence at the end. Recommended spacing of posts will depend on your fence style, height and materials.
2. With the posts planned, it’s time to dig. Depending on your location, holes as deep as 30 inches are recommended. You’ll want to backfill the hole with cement or crushed angular gravel until it’s tightly packed. Leave the posts a day or two for your material of choice to set and settle in place.
3. Run your horizontal rails across the fence posts, either on your side of the fence (so you have the nice side of the fence facing you) or on your neighbor’s side (so the nice side is facing them). Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to have wooden fence pickets face an area you will always have access to in case any need to be replaced or treated.
4. Once you’ve chosen a side and installed the rails, you can put on the pickets. At this point, you’re done, save sealing wooden fences. You should wait a few days after installation for sealing.

Philip Schwartz
Welcoming Your Plants Back After a Long Winter
garden

If you’re a gardener, or at least want to be one, there’s no time as amazing as early spring. This is when your plants are starting to wake from their long winter’s sleep. The white snow and frost flowers are giving way to green grass and emerging vegetation that seems to multiply like magic day after day.

Although a lot of people sit back and wait for their plants to do whatever it is that they do in early spring, others, like you, are eager to help them be all they can be this year.

The Results of Minimum Plant Care

Many homeowners just let their plants come and go as they please. Usually, they’ve inherited the vegetation from the former owner and have little interest in gardening. It’s ok, it’s not for everyone. But, due to this minimal care for the plants, many varieties will start to die off from neglect. A slow death is still a death.

Obviously, you’re looking to do a bit more to help your plants get off to a good start. Because of this, your landscape will be healthier, live longer and produce more ornamental flowers than those of the neighbor who would have preferred a lot of grass and no plants to tend.

First Thing’s First, Reduce Your Plant’s Risk of Early Season Fungus

There are varieties of herbaceous perennials like bananas, cannas and elephant ear that can survive the winter in many climates if they’re tucked in under a layer of organic mulch that’s two to four inches deep. While mulch protects them from drying out or freezing to death when it’s cold, once these types of plants start to grow in the spring, that life-saving mulch can become a real enemy.

It’s vital that you pull back the mulch from your plants every few days to check for green growth above ground. Once you see it, hollow a moat out between the plant and the mulch. Make sure no mulch is touching the new growth and that the moat you’ve scooped is about two inches wide to allow for further safe development.

Several opportunistic fungi will take advantage of young, green growth that’s constantly touching something moist, like that mulch. There’s a fine line here, tread carefully.

Soil Testing and Amendment

If you have a garden plot and failed to fertilize it in the fall, now is the time to get to it. As soon as you can work the soil, take several samples and either use a home test kit to determine the condition of the soil or have them analyzed by your local university extension’s lab. The extension tests are generally around $10, but the cost varies by location.

Either way, you’ll have some kind of indication about the condition of your soil, as well as what you can do to fix any problems. For example, you may find that your soil is low in nitrogen, a vital nutrient for plants that grow a lot of leaves very quickly, like your lawn. In this case, you’ll follow the instructions for feeding the type of plant you intend to place in the tested area, using a precise amount of fertilizer, so as not to encourage long, spindly growth in those eager plants.

The same applies to other types of fertilizer, including balanced fertilizers like 10-10-10 and 15-15-15. Most established perennials are fine with fertilizer that’s mixed into the top two to five inches of soil, but always check before you get too wild with it. A few species may have unusual reactions, including but not limited to developing an overall burned or wilted look due to root destruction. Never apply more fertilizer than necessary due to the risk of runoff and pollution of waterways.

Turn the Sprinklers On!

Once the nighttime temperatures are consistently above freezing, you’re ready to turn the water back on. Your plants will appreciate the long, deep drink and you’ll be happy to not have to water each one by hand. Remember, when turning irrigation systems back on after being drained, do so slowly. Opening the valve too quickly can result in a high-pressure water surge that can rupture sprinkler heads or burst fittings.

Be prepared to turn the system back off if a surprise freeze creeps on, but waiting as long as possible to get the irrigation started again is also a fairly safe bet.

Check for Signs of Insect Infestation

As your plants start to bud, you’ll be able to tell if they’ve developed any problems during the winter. Generally, these are caused by insect infestations, but in ornamental and fruit trees, a whole range of fungal invasion is also likely.

Small holes in the trunks of trees and shrubs are likely caused by boring insects like clearwing moths, which spend most of their life cycles inside the plant. This makes them very hard to get rid of and often results in the hollowing of the interior of limbs and branches. Those hollow branches pose a major risk to anyone walking below, as they can reach a point where they are no longer structurally sound and suddenly break away from the tree.


Philip Schwartz
5 Better House Painting Hacks
painting hacks

House Painting Hacks

The word “hack” is kind of loaded. To some, it means cheating your way to success, to others it can be code for “low quality work or unadvisable actions.” Since you don’t really need either of those things to have really good results from your paint job, replace the word “hack” in your head with “tip.” After all, you should listen to tips, they’re helpful.

Without further ado, five tips for your big paint job this summer:

Prepwork: The Biggest Hack of All

“But wait, prepping isn’t painting,” you just shouted at the screen. It’s true that your prep isn’t actual painting, but the fact is that prepwork is everything. Without good prep, you might as well not bother with the painting because the lack of non-painting work will show. Depending on which area of your house you’re painting, these are a few prep items to get you started:

Outside
* Go over all the painted areas, even on windows, with a metal putty knife or 5-in-1 tool to get rid of all loose paint chips. If you’re dealing with lots of layers and they’re flaking randomly, use a pressure washer set around 2,500 PSI to blast the paint away.
* Remove and repair any rotted window sills or siding now, before you paint. Make sure to apply a coat of primer to them once they’ve been put in place.
* Paint stripper can be useful to get paint off of finely detailed trim pieces that you risk damaging by power washing.

Inside
* Paint a test area on popcorn ceilings before doing a whole room. Sometimes, they’ll slough off, leaving you with a mess–better to know before you’re in elbow deep.
* It’s not enough to just patch holes, you also must sand them. If drywall seams are bothering you, the same rule applies after you’ve skim coated them with additional joint compound.
* Clean walls thoroughly. A once-over with a broom followed up by a pass with an electrostatic cloth mop will grab all the dirt, helping you create the perfect paint job.

Painting on the Dark Side

Painting your house is important maintenance, but it can also be a difficult one in the summertime. When you’re ready to paint, really ready, start on the dark side of the house. As the sun shifts, so should you. This will give you the most time to work with wet paint, helping you to avoid dried-on drips and visible brush strokes. Treat your primer just like your paint and circle the house with the sun when applying.

Improve Trim Appearance By Reducing Strokes

Painting trim should be a challenge to see just how little you can touch it. The end result will be a smoother finish with fewer brush strokes. Work in small sections, no more than about 18 inches long. Start your paint work by loading the brush on the heavy side, then wipe as much paint onto the trim as possible. Level the blob with just one or two strokes that fill into the previously painted section.

Paint Brush Storage

Whether you’re going to lunch or just taking a break to heed Nature’s call, there are going to be times that you really don’t want to bother to clean your brush just to stick it back in the same color paint again. Desperate times call for desperate measures. There are various tricks for this, these are our favorites:

* When you paint, wear disposable gloves. If you need to pause, just grab the brush bristles with one hand and turn the glove inside out until it covers. A quick knot will keep that brush ready to go again.
* Ziptop bags are great for taking a lunch, but they can also be used to keep brushes wet. Just snip one corner open to the width of the handle, slip the brush in, burp the bag and zip it up. Problem solved.
* Between coats, you can drop brushes into water that reaches to the handles or higher (don’t mix colors, that’ll make a mess). When you’re ready for the next round of painting, swish the brush around in the water to get most of the thin, wet paint out and then use a paint brush and roller spinner to spin out the water. Do the spinning outside or deep in a tall bucket to avoid getting paint water everywhere.

Catalog Those Paints!

Hey, this may not sound like a useful thing, but will you really remember the color you used on the trim work on your house in five years? Be honest here. Cataloging the paint you’re using, including manufacturer, formula, name and a photo of what the finished result looked like fresh will help you immensely should you need to touch the paint up before the next big repainting job. If you used the paint in more than one place, note what areas were painted, as well.

Some pro painters make custom labels for the can they leave behind for touch-ups that contains excess paint. These labels includes detailed information about the paint color, sheen and so forth. You have a computer, you could do the same if you really want to keep it organized.

Philip Schwartz
Your Step-By-Step Guide to Mortgage Pre-Approval
preapproval

Let’s talk mortgage pre-approval step-by-step.

Step One: Mortgage Pre-Qualification Versus Pre-Approval

You probably already have a pre-qualification letter saying that you can probably buy a house in a particular price range, so why isn’t this enough? A lot of homebuyers find this part of the process confusing, and frankly, it can be. Your pre-qualification was probably done over the phone or on your first meeting with your lender. They asked you a bunch of questions about your income, your job and maybe even pulled a “soft” credit report to get some idea about your debts.

Based on this information, they gave you the details on the kinds of programs you’re eligible for and how much you can expect in buying power. You probably got a letter that you could show your Realtor to help guide the buying process. The difference between the pre-qualification and the pre-approval is simple: a pre-qualification is based largely on your word. If you give the lender incorrect information, they’ll give you a pre-qualification letter that’s not right.

A pre-approval, on the other hand, takes a harder look at your background, work history and requires a full credit report and FICO score to ensure that you can, in fact, pay back a note.

Step Two: Documentation

Your next meetup with the nice banker is going to be to deliver documents, provide consent to pull a full credit report and, if you’ve already found one, give them the information on the home you’ve put under contract (in some areas your Realtor can do this last bit for you).

Documentation you’ll be asked to bring will include pay stubs, bank statements and tax returns, along with other information that may be needed to verify your income source or sources. Self-employed people, for example, are sometimes required to prepare profit and loss statements (or just pony up more tax returns). If you have assets like a 401(k) or even a CD, you’ll want to bring the details on these, too.

Step Three: The Loan Estimate Form

You’re going to get a copy of something called the Loan Estimate Form, probably at the same meeting where your lender pulls that full credit report and takes all your papers away. This form explains exactly how much they expect you’ll need to bring to closing, along with itemized estimated fees to plan for at closing. If you’re shopping your loan, collect these and compare them side by side before you make your final choice.

But don’t spend too much time crunching the numbers. Just like your contract (and the National Association of Realtors) says, “Time is of the Essence.”

Step Four: Acceptance

Once you’ve had a few minutes to review the paperwork and you’ve made your final pass through the numbers, all that’s left is to call the lender you’ve chosen and let them know you need that pre-approval letter sent over to your Realtor.

Understand that a pre-approval is not a guarantee that you’re going to get the money you need to close. Several things can go wrong along the way through underwriting, including, but not limited to:

– Unverifiable income (this is often due to issues with overtime)
– A change to your credit score.
– An increase in your debt to income ratio
– An undocumented change in employment
– Assets that are unverifiable

The best plan is be totally honest with your lender when you get your pre-approval so that you don’t get a last minute call telling you that your loan has been denied (this actually happens, so pay everything on time and don’t take out new credit lines or add to old ones until you’ve got the keys in your hand).

When is the Best Time to Make an Offer?

Ideally, you should have a pre-approval letter in hand before you so much as set foot into the first house you’re considering for purchase. After all, the seller isn’t going to think you’re all that serious without one, nor will they be keen to want to negotiate under these circumstances.

Help your banker help you get the best deal on the house of your dreams, save everybody a lot of headaches and get that pre-approval first. Knowing how much your closing costs are going to be will also help your Realtor write your contract accordingly if they should need to be wrapped into your mortgage.


Philip Schwartz
5 Things to Keep in Mind When Buying a Vacation Home
cabin

Just imagine it! Waking up to the sound of silence crisp, clean air outside your very own home. You don’t have to call ahead for reservations, you don’t need to ask anyone for a key or have a check-out time. It’s all yours to do with as you will, and you’re going take advantage of it constantly because now you own your very own vacation home.

Not to burst any vacation home-shaped bubbles, but before you get too lost in the fantasy, you need to consider some of the many pros and cons of owning a home away from home.

Vacation Homes Aren’t For Everybody

As the real estate market begins to respond to financial pressures from higher interest rates that are only set to increase further, as well as trade wars and tariffs with some of the country’s best trading partners, more people are just waiting for their favorite vacation spot to experience a market correction. If you’re one of them, don’t jump into the vacation home market without seriously considering what you’re doing.

Sure, it can be cool to have a vacation home. It can be the very best thing. But if you never use it or you never go anywhere else, it might be the wrong call. Consider these five points when buying a vacation home today or tomorrow:

1. What can you afford on your own?

It’s no secret that many vacation homes will go for several times what your personal home may be worth. Because of this, buyers like to try to pool their assets to pull off a vacation home purchase with friends or family. Don’t let your vacation home become a cautionary tale: buying a vacation home with anyone that you’re not married to could become a long term problem.

What if you and the friend or relative don’t like the same beach? What if you can’t agree on the property to purchase? Will you be resentful the rest of your life? Most importantly, perhaps, is what to do if your co-borrower has poor credit, can’t come up with their part of the downpayment or is otherwise creating a giant problem for your mortgage?

After you’ve actually bought the property, who pays for what repairs? Don’t buy with friends or family, but if you do, get a lawyer to draw up a maintenance and payment agreement that you both sign to get everything on paper and make it official.

2. Even if you do buy a vacation home on your own, it will be complicated.

This isn’t your momma’s FHA loan. When you buy a vacation home, you’re almost always going to use a conventional mortgage. You’ll need stellar credit, an excellent debt to income ratio and, most importantly, a lot of cash. Unlike primary homes, which rarely require reserves, being the lender on a secondary home feels awfully risky to the bank.

They may still lend to you, but they’ll want to see that you have anywhere from two to 12 months of reserves on hand. If you’ve not heard the term before, “reserves” are funds already in an account somewhere that are equal to a certain number of months’ worth of payments for both of your homes. This also includes anything wrapped into your payment due to escrow, like homeowners’ insurance and taxes.

3. Do you have a plan for off-season care and maintenance?

If a friend or relative lives nearby, you probably are set for someone to look in on your place, but if not, you’ve got to get this part figured out before you sign on the line. Just like an occupied home, your vacation home will develop problems over time. Wear and tear happens even when you’re not home and pipes love to freeze and burst when no one’s looking. You have to have a plan.

You should hire a handyman, property manager or other real estate expert to keep an eye out and call in help when necessary. That’s a cost you’ll have all year, so make sure you figure it into your budget. Since your property is a vacation home, it will also require more expensive insurance coverage, as well as specialty insurance if it’s in an area where floods, hurricanes or earthquakes are common.

4. Renting it out when you’re not using it makes your vacation home a rental, not a vacation home.

You absolutely can rent your vacation home from day one, provided that you purchased it as an investment home. Some buyers think this will save them a bunch of money, since someone else will take care of it part of the year, at least. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between a glorious rental partnership and a home that’s been burned to the ground. If your neighborhood, for example, won’t allow AirBnBs and their ilk, or has strict rules about maintenance, you are responsible for the rebound from missteps there, no matter how good your renters.

You will have to find the guy to mow the lawn, you’re paying for clean up every time renters move out, you’re paying for repairs and so forth. Did you want to be a long-distance landlord? A property manager can help ease the pain, but it will still cost plenty. If you do decide to proceed with a rental situation for your vacation home, make sure the house you buy is in a location that’s really hot, otherwise you may not be able to get enough rent to cover all the expenses.

5. Oh, hey, and selling can be difficult and costly.

For every one of the real estate experts who claim that buying a vacation home is a great way to make money, there are experts who realize that the market is unpredictable and you may find that you don’t love that vacation home as much as you thought in a few years.

After spending two years dealing with short term renters, you may decide it’s easier for you to go back to renting a nice hotel for your vacation stay, rather than owning a headache of a property. That’s all fine and good, until you find out that not only has the market bottomed out, you can’t even get enough money out of the place to cover the mortgage and your closing costs.

Remember, when you sell, you may also be on the hook for capital gains taxes, and you can’t take a capital loss if the property in question is classified as a second home.

If you still have the stomach for a second home after running through this list of things to consider, then proceed with caution. Don’t buy a project house unless you have someone else to do the work and even then, make sure that the only thing you do at that vacation home is relax. Going on vacation just to stress out about the lawn isn’t a fun kind of vacation, you know?

Philip Schwartz
7 Must-Know Smoke Detector Facts
smoke detector

Every morning, it’s the same thing. You get out of bed, take a shower, burn the toast and then curse the smoke detector. Although its singing the song of its people can be incredibly loud and awful to hear, the truth is that smoke detectors save lives. So, while your smoke detector may sing way off tune, it’s trying very hard to protect you and your family from smoke- and fire-related hazards, like your morning toast.

It’s time to check your smoke detector batteries yet again — and to learn more about those white pucks that hang out on the ceiling.

Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Smoke Detector

Every single day, your smoke alarms hang around next to the ceiling, just waiting for something to go wrong. They don’t ask for much, which is why most people tend to forget they even exist. But the job they do is vital to the safety and security of not only you and your family, but the families that neighbor you.

You’ve heard it a hundred times: check your smoke detector batteries. Check those batteries! Hey, by the way, have you checked your smoke alarm batteries? But for most people, that’s as intimate as they ever get with these clever devices. Here are some things to know about smoke detectors:

1. Working smoke alarms give you additional escape time in the case of an actual fire. Thirty-eight percent of home fire deaths from 2009 to 2013 were do to a lack of functioning smoke alarms. In the homes that had smoke alarms that failed, 46 percent had missing or disconnected batteries.

2. Best places to install smoke alarms are in each bedroom, in halls outside of bedrooms and in every major living area. Why so many? Closed doors can slow the spread of smoke and living areas on upper or lower floors may have a significant blaze going before smoke is noticeable.

3. Interconnected smoke alarms are considered the safest option currently on the market. These alarms are connected to each other and often directly powered through your home’s electrical system, with a battery backup. When one detects smoke, they all go off. It can be annoying if you tend to burn the toast, but when it’s a real fire, all that noise will be a life saver.

4. Smoke detectors work in one of two different ways. One type, called an ionization detector because it uses electrically charged particles to detect smoke in the air, is faster to respond to flaming fires with small smoke particles. The other, known as a photoelectric detector, uses beams of light to check for smoke particles in the air. These are better for smouldering fires. Both will get the job done, though!

5. Most people don’t realize that smoke detectors need maintenance, too! You should check the battery monthly and use the bristle attachment on your vacuum to clean any debris off of your detector twice a year. You’ll also want to change the battery twice a year. Many people do this when they change their clocks for Daylight Savings Time.

6. Smart Smoke Detectors can save you money on insurance. It’s true! If your smoke detectors are connected via WiFi, they can call for help or send you a message about their status. Many insurance companies love these features, as they reduce the amount of damage insured homes suffer in case of a fire. Break out the cool new tech and reap the savings!

7. There are other, similar detectors on the market. While you’re shopping for smoke detectors, you may come across heat or carbon monoxide detectors. These units look very similar, but they function very differently. Heat detectors literally detect high heat, so aren’t very fast to respond in a residential setting. They’re best used in small, confined spaces.

Carbon monoxide detectors, however, are very suitable for home use. They measure the amount of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas created by combustion, in the air. If dangerous amounts are detected, you’ll know and be able to make your home safe again. Most homes use these in conjunction with smoke detectors.

Philip Schwartz
5 Ways to Stick to Your New Home Furnishing Budget
furniture shopping

You’ve finally done it! You bought the house of your dreams and closing is just around the corner. Then it occurs to you. Your aged and creaking futon, cement block and raw lumber bookshelves and that one lone chair in your kitchen might not be anywhere near enough furniture for the new space.

What’s a new homeowner to do?

Step One: Don’t Do ANYTHING Until After Closing

Before going into detail on how to keep your budget under control when buying new furniture, it’s important that you actually close your loan. It’s a common pitfall for new home buyers (and really, even home buyers who have bought before). Of course you’re excited, you got a clear to close — but you’re not closing for another week because there’s just not another day that works for everyone.

THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO BUY FURNITURE.

If you buy furniture, especially if you buy it on credit, you can literally have your loan approval revoked. You were approved based on your debt to income ratio, your credit score (which heavily weights how much of your credit is used at any given time) and your cash reserves. Whatever you do, don’t upset the balance. Don’t even breathe too hard. Window shop, but don’t buy anything yet.

You’ve Closed, Green Light on Shopping!

Because you were patient, your loan closed and all is well. The thought of moving into your new house with your sad, saggy furniture is almost too much, though. You want to get to it: new house, new furniture, new life. Before you do, consider these five tricks to help you stick to your home furnishing budget:

1. Actually have a budget. It’s easy to walk into the Pier Ones, Ikeas and Crate and Barrels of the world and lose all sense of self-control. Before you take your first step, determine how much you really can afford, whether you’re paying cash or putting your home’s furniture on a card. When using credit, be realistic because if you can’t pay the payment you’re going to suffer a lot for an overstuffed couch you bought on a whim.

2. Wait until you know how your space will function. Many new homeowners will be so excited about getting on with the furniture purchase that they buy furniture before they really understand how their new space works. Every house has a flow about it — when you add that to your own personal behavior patterns, you get rooms that are unique and require careful furnishing.

This means that the amazing coffee table you bought the day of closing may not end up working as well as you thought, but now you’ve got it and that money is just out the window. Each piece you buy should work with the way you envision the space. Save money by not wasting it, that’s a winning scenario.

3. Try online outlet stores. There are lots of places to buy furniture these days. If you’re handy with a tape measure and your imagination, sites like Overstock.com and Wayfair.com can bring you brand new furniture and decor at a discount. Since you’re working out of an online shopping cart, it’s easy to compare different pieces or build a customized set of furniture for any given room and know exactly where you are price-wise. You can’t always say the same for brick and mortar furniture galleries where it’s easy to get turned around and allow yourself to be talked into upgrades or additional items you don’t actually need.

4. Wait for sales or open box items. Even if you prefer a real life store, you can clean up if you’re patient. Most home furnishing stores have regular sales, especially for big holidays. Think Presidents Day, Memorial Day and so on. It might be madness inside the shop, but you can start shopping a few weeks ahead to pick out your furniture in your own time. Write down the SKUs and bring them back during the sale to finish the deal.

These same shops do sometimes get items returned for any number of reasons, including that the product was delivered and it wouldn’t fit through the home’s front door. Minor scratches and dents are also possible when dealing with these “open box” furnishings. Often, though, those dings are in a place where no one will ever see them, they’re so small that no one would notice them or they’re the sort of damage you’ll eventually inflict upon the item through regular use. When it’s inevitable, you might as well get a discount.

5. Check out upscale resellers. So you bought your dining table at Havertys, but you hated the chairs they had on offer. Why not save some dough and check out your area thrift stores and other resellers like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore? These are always gambles, you may go in one week and there are sixteen couches and the next there aren’t any. If you’re building your furniture collection bit by bit, though, resellers will make your dollar go further, while often benefiting a charity. Don’t believe what you’ve heard about these places being cash and carry, most will offer local delivery for a small fee.

Philip Schwartz
Do You Need an Emergency Plumber to Save the Day?
plumber

You didn’t do anything different, but all of a sudden the garbage disposal is smoking and water is backing up in the sink. Is your plumbing possessed? Should you just set the whole house on fire and run? The answer is almost certainly no. What you may have, though, is a plumbing emergency on your hands. After all, that sink is pretty important and the reasons it’s backing up could be many.

But how do you know if you need an emergency plumber to save the day?

Most Homeowners Can Handle Basic Plumbing Issues

There are plenty of plumbing issues you can DIY. After all, plumbing is just a set of fancy tubes that connect in a logical way to move water around. It’s not magic. It is, however an incredible inconvenience to have indoor plumbing sometimes. Certain issues like minor leaks, problems with your toilet tank like a flapper that doesn’t quite seal or a handle that won’t flush, and household clogs are often entry level homeowner difficulty.

With the right tools, you can totally handle that! Bigger problems, though, require bigger guns (and more experience). Don’t be ashamed to call a pro in if you don’t think you can handle a plumbing issue. Here are some signs to look for:

* No results in about 10 minutes. That is to say, after you located the problem. It can be very time consuming to track down a clog, leak or other faulty plumbing part. But once you find it, if you’re not starting to make any headway within about 10 minutes, you need help. You’re just going to get more frustrated and tired and it’ll take even longer for the plumber to get there.
* Your pipes are cast iron, steel or copper. Metal pipes are great for some things, but they’re not for beginners. If your pipes are basically made of anything but plastic, you need a pro. Each type requires specific knowledge and tools to manage.
* Every drain is backed up. If you notice your tub is backing up and every drain that’s before it in the plumbing architecture is also backing up, you have a big problem. I’m not saying it’s roots in the line, but it might be roots in the line. Or a toy your child flushed. Either way, this is where the kind of cameras that plumbers use to evaluate sewer lines come in really handy.
* You have no water pressure to more than one outlet. No pressure to one sink or appliance might indicate a bit of sediment in the little screen filter that is sometimes fit between the device and the water line or that you forgot to turn the shut off valve all the way back to the “on” position. However, if a few of your plumbing fixtures are suffering this problem, you could have rust in the lines or other problems that need a pro to fix.
* You just really don’t know where to start. There are some plumbing issues that aren’t all that complicated once you know how to fix them, but figuring them out on the fly in a semi-panicked state is not going to be easy. This is where you call a pro sooner rather than later. Ask if you can watch, often they’ll show you how to perform basic plumbing jobs. You get a lot of value for the fee that way — if the problem ever happens again, you know exactly how to go about fixing the problem.

When you encounter a plumbing issue that feels like you might be able to fix it, given enough time, ask yourself seriously how much your time is worth. The thing that many homeowners neglect to figure into the equation is how long that job will take to DIY. If you’re going to have the kitchen torn apart for days because you’re working a full time job and also you’re following instructions from the internet that you have to keep referring back to, maybe it makes more sense for the plumber to come and knock the issue out in an hour.

It’s not that you shouldn’t do your own plumbing, just that it’s often not really worth it when you juggle the extreme inconvenience of not having functional indoor plumbing. This is the line that homeowners have to walk every time their house needs work. Do you call someone or do you try to fix it yourself?

Philip Schwartz
3 Points to Ponder Before Starting Your Kitchen Remodel
kitchen diy

For the third time this week, you’ve found yourself cursing your kitchen. The drawers come out in all the wrong directions, the cabinets are so shallow that you can barely use them and the entire layout just puts you off. You’re ready to talk about a kitchen remodel.

Or maybe you just want a shiny new kitchen — there’s nothing wrong with that. Shiny new kitchens are amazing and give you the opportunity to create the space you need, rather than forcing your existing kitchen to kinda sorta work.

The Three Big Questions of Any Kitchen Remodel

You went to the home improvement store and found some samples of tile, backsplash and counter that you really love, but that’s about as far as your planning has gone so far. That’s ok, there’s a lot to think about when you’re considering ripping out one of the most important (and complicated) rooms in your home.

Now is a great time to stop where you are and ask yourself a few very important questions.

#1. What Will It Cost, Really?

Estimating the cost of a kitchen remodel is a bit like trying to nail a runny egg to a tree: messy and tragically frustrating. This is because there are lots of parts that have to be considered. Due to the various pieces involved and their corresponding quality levels, a custom quote from a contractor is the best way to know for sure how deep you’re getting into the savings account.

However, if you’re just starting to think about a kitchen remodel, it may help to know that the national average cost for your project is $22,768. The typical price range is $12,554 to $34,104. The low end is listed at $4,000. Please note that these numbers are based on user contributions, so your mileage may vary.

The largest cost by a bit is the cabinetry. Cabinets and hardware usually make up about 30 percent of the budget. This is a great place to save some cash, especially if your cabinets are in good shape and can simply be repurposed. Adding new hardware or doors often changes the whole equation. If those cabinets absolutely gotta go, then you can use this as a good starting point for estimating your dream kitchen cost.

#2. Will I Get My Money Back If I Sell?

The short answer is no. The rare few remodeling projects will return your entire investment. You should instead consider the value you’ll get from the use of that new kitchen along with any potential resell returns down the road.

That being said, Remodeling determined that among many common remodeling jobs, a midrange minor kitchen remodel was the fifth best returning update for 2018. The magazine estimates the cost of this type of remodel at about $22,000 and the associated increase in resale value of the home at $17,193. In this generic nationwide situation, the homeowner could expect to recoup 81.1 percent of their investment.

This same type of remodel was worth a little more in 2018 than the year prior. In 2017, an updated kitchen only recouped 80.2 percent of the money put into the effort.

#3. Can I Survive It?

This is perhaps the question you should ask yourself first, even though it’s the last one on the list. Any time you remodel a heavily used area of your home, it’s going to be a nightmare. Not only will there be lots of mess, dust and debris, you’re not going to be able to use the kitchen at all. All the stuff you have stored in there has to go somewhere else and you’ll have to figure out what you want to do about meals.

Hold on, I have a few tips that might help make this time lots more bearable:

Get it on paper. Make sure that you have a written agreement with your contractor and your spouse about what goes into the new kitchen. Spell it out in painful detail, both for clarity and so that when you or your spouse starts to think the cabinetry is the wrong color, you can refer back to the agreement. Adding photos will help ensure that your kitchen is exactly what you wanted and your lack of proper nutrition doesn’t trick you into thinking you ordered the stainless steel appliances when you actually got the black ones.

Move your kitchen into your garage or spare bedroom. Ahead of the project start date, box everything in the kitchen as if you were moving, making sure to label everything completely so you can get the most important things out as soon as the remodel is over. This way nothing gets damaged or lost in the confusion.

Set up a temporary kitchen elsewhere. It’s not going to be a five star restaurant, but a folding table with a coffee maker, microwave and a mini fridge can make things a lot easier while your kitchen is out of service. You can only stand (or afford!) so many restaurant meals.

Along with juggling all the stresses of having workers in your house making a ton of noise and mess (that you’re paying them for!), you may start to have real relationship problems. Living through a remodel is not for the faint of heart. If your spouse doesn’t really have a great picture of what this remodel will do to your home during the construction phase, now is the time to talk about it.

There are few things that will destroy a marriage like a remodel. The stress is high and there’s a lot of money on the line — not to mention the major disruption remodels can be to your routine and life in general. It’s really important that your spouse is all in on this project with every step, from looking at lighting to choosing the perfect counters, even if they’re not really a kitchen person.

Philip Schwartz
5 Tips for Choosing a Home Inspector
home inspector

You’ve finally done it! You have a house under contract and you’re doing the paperwork to get your mortgage lined up. When your Realtor calls to ask you who you want to use for your home inspection, you freeze. Your brain has to go back and repeat that part. You get to pick your own home inspector? How do you even go about doing that?

Choosing a home inspector isn’t a difficult process, but as usual, we have tips to help you make it even easier.

Inspectors, Assemble!

When you don’t have an existing relationship with a home inspector, your Realtor will likely present you with a list of pros that they recommend highly. Even though time is of the essence because your inspection period is ticking away, you can quickly assess each recommended inspector to find the one that’s right for your home purchase. After all, not every inspector can be an expert in every type of construction or neighborhood. You need the person who best fits your purchase!

Now, for some helpful tips!

1. Check that all potential inspectors are members of a reputable home inspector association. InterNACHI and ASHI are the two largest. ASHI, for instance has been accrediting home inspectors for more than 40 years and requires that inspectors complete at least 250 inspections before they can call themselves “certified.” It’s a high achievement for a home inspector, and a confidence builder for their clients. You want someone who is willing to do the work and go the extra mile. Your new mortgage isn’t chump change, so it’s important you go in with your eyes open.

2. Ask what inspections they perform. Some home inspectors only do a general home inspection, which can be fine if you’re not afraid of that 15 year old air conditioner condenser. But because home inspectors come from all areas of the construction industry, some have specific expertise that can be helpful in finding problems that you probably didn’t notice when you walked into the house of your dreams.

3. Have they inspected houses like yours? There’s a huge, huge difference between a brand new house and one built in 1904. Not only are construction techniques very different, the sort of strange upgrades that may have been made to the older home would never be seen in a newer house. An inspector that has little to no experience with a house like yours may flag things wrong that are actually very typical for a home of that age. You don’t want to get your inspection back and panic because your inspector held an older house to a newer standard, for example.

4. Do they provide photos within their reports? There’s no standard format for a home inspection report, though there are a limited number of software packages for inspection companies. They have a lot of options, including providing optional photos of trouble spots or other items the inspector may feel needs pointing out. If your potential home inspector doesn’t provide photos, it can be hard for you to monitor potential problems or for future pros to find and fix the issues pointed out. Photos are absolutely a must-have.

5. How soon can they come out? It might seem like a silly question, but you’re very likely working with a limited window of time to ask for repairs. That means the sooner your new home inspector can get out, the better. It takes several hours to complete a home inspection, as well as time to compile the report and deliver it to your agent. You also never know when you’re going to need an additional specialty inspection of systems like your HVAC, roof, foundation and so forth. If you’re down to your final cut and one can come out tomorrow and the rest can’t until next week, it’s not a hard call.


Philip Schwartz
Changes to Real Estate Tax Deductions for 2018
taxes

As a homeowner, or soon to be homeowner, you can get some pretty sweet tax deductions from things related to your home. Some tend to change from year to year, like those for energy-efficient upgrades, others are pretty stable, like being able to deduct mortgage interest.

The tax bill that will be in force in the up and coming tax season, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), has made some fairly dramatic changes to how many homeowners will file their taxes this year. Take a look at this preview of home-related points to ponder for your 2018 tax filings.

TCJA Items to Watch in 2018

When the TCJA was pushed through Congress in December 2017, many people were up in arms. The overhaul, they said, was going to be problematic for a number of reasons, which, we’ll see how that pans out. It does seem that when it comes to real estate, the TCJA is going to be a pretty prickly thorn in a lot of property owners’ sides.

These are the top items you’ll want to pay close attention to this year:

Item #1: SALT

The state and local tax deduction (SALT) is set to be a problem for homeowners in high-tax areas. In the past, you could claim an unlimited amount of already-paid personal state and local income taxes, as well as your property taxes, as a deduction to offset your tax bill. From now until 2025, you’ll only be able to use your Schedule A to itemize $5,000 worth of these taxes if you’re married filing separately and $10,000 if you are single or married filing jointly.

This looks like a bear of an issue for many people in those high tax areas on both coasts, but for some, the increase of the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles or $24,000 for couples may balance the equation.

Item #2: Your Mortgage Interest Deduction

If your home was purchased after December 14, 2017, you will be subject to the new limits on mortgage interest deductions. Instead of being able to deduct the interest on up to a $1,000,000 mortgage, you’ll be capped at the interest on only $750,000. Now, if you’re in the less spendy parts of the US, you probably don’t need to worry about this at all, but again, for those of you on the coasts where real estate prices are often hugely inflated by comparison, it may make a weighty difference.

According to a Zillow report published shortly after the TCJA passed, “Under the current setup [Pre-TCJA], roughly 44 percent of U.S. homes are worth enough for it to make sense for a homeowner to itemize their deductions and take advantage of the mortgage interest deduction.Under the new bill (as reported), that proportion of homes drops to 14.4 percent. Interest on second/vacation homes will remain deductible, but will also be capped at $750,000.”

Item #2B: Home Equity Loan Interest Deductions

This one is being called out specifically because of the number of people who are likely to be affected by it. If you purchased a home at any time and took out a home equity loan, you may lose your deduction this year. The TCJA says that unless your home equity loan was used for home improvements, it’s no longer allowed.

There is no grandfathering for this clause, you are paying for decisions you made in the past, not knowing this bill would become a law.

How the IRS will be able to verify how you spent your funds, especially if the loan is 10 or 15 years old, is anyone’s guess.

Item #3: Gains From Home Sales Still Protected

Despite all the new rules that are taking deductions away, the home sale gain exclusion remains. You’ll still be able to exclude up to $250,000 ($500k for married filing jointly) of gain from a home you’ve owned and used as a primary residence for at least two of the last five years. So, you’ve got that going for you.

Philip Schwartz