7 Things to Consider When Choosing New Windows
new windows

The first few years of owning your home mean discovering lots of things about it. Every house is different and some almost seem like they have a personality of their own — which isn’t too surprising since they have literally thousands of individual parts that can combine their own quirks in nearly endless ways. Although plenty of these combos create something beautiful, it’s never a guarantee.

Take your windows, for example. As your home shifts and ages, your windows can end up being a huge source of drafts and thermal loss. Sure, you can weatherstrip them and recapture some of that warmth, but ultimately, window technology will leave you behind if you put off replacing those windows for too long.

Windows: Here’s What You Need to Know

Shopping for windows is kind of like shopping for a car. It’s a big investment, you may not know a whole lot about what you’re buying, but you absolutely know that you need to replace your old one(s). You don’t have to go it alone, though. You can take this list of seven things to consider and consult it before pulling out your Visa or Mastercard.

  1. Window configuration and features. Not only do windows come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, they also come with lots of different features. Simply matching the new windows to those of your existing ones is generally a good bet, but features that newer windows offer, like double hung windows with tilt-in glass sections, can give you added functionality inside the original framework.

  2. Frame materials. Depending on your window budget, you may have a pretty wide selection of materials to choose between. Vinyl and composite windows tend to be popular choices since they neither sweat nor require a lot of maintenance throughout their lifetimes, but other materials like aluminum and wood are commonly used in frames, too.

  3. U-Factor: The U-Factor tells you just how well the window insulates by reducing the rate of heat transfer. You’ll find windows with U-Factors from about 0.25 to 1.25 Btu/h-ft²-°F.. Choose the lowest value that fits reasonably into your budget because the lower the value, the better it’ll insulate.

  4. Solar Heat Gain Coefficient (SHGC): Like the U-Factor, the SHGC is a measurement of how well a window insulates. But this time, we’re talking about how hot the sun makes the window and then how much of that transfers into your home. SHGC, in short, is how well the window blocks incoming heat. Interestingly enough, both ends of this figure can be of use to different kinds of homeowners. If you own a house that uses passive solar heat, you’re going to want to take advantage of this property and go for the highest number you can find (on a scale of 0 to 1). Homeowners with more traditional setups will want the lowest number their money will buy.

  5. Air Leakage (AL). Those drafty drafts are often caused by a property known as air leakage. Windows are tested for just how much air passes through the joints while in the factory. The less air leakage, the better, obviously. Industry standards require an AL at or below 0.3 cf-m/ft².

  6. Visible Transmittance (VT). Because windows are full of neat and precise measures these days, it’s possible to have a window that blocks outside heat without blocking all that precious light. The visible transmittance is the figure that tells you just how bright your room will be after this window goes in. A higher number (on a 0 to 1 scale) means more light.

  7. Condensation Resistance. Although it’s a much smaller concern than the four performance ratings above, condensation resistance should be taken into consideration before you pony up the window dough. Measured on a scale of 0 to 100, the highest figures resist condensation better than those lower down.

What Do Windows Cost?

Of all the possible non-answers to this question there could be, this might be the worst. Windows cost varies widely by size, material, insulating factor and number needed for your home. As aggravating an answer as that may be, a quick flip through your favorite home improvement store catalog will back it up.

A joint report from the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry estimates that replacing old windows with new vinyl windows will run a homeowner around $18,975 or about $35,000 for wood windows.

Since this report is more about return on investment, though, the additional data provided indicates that your money is well-spent: 79 percent of the cost is recovered at the sale for vinyl windows and 57 percent of the cost of wooden windows comes back to your pocket.

Philip Schwartz
Sewer Line Repair for Homeowners
sewer-line-repairs-homeowners.jpg

Your basic household drain pipe is a fairly simple device. It has one job: to take liquids away to the sewer, where water treatment experts somehow magically turn those contaminated fluids into clean ones again. The circle of inside plumbing is really kind of magical. Until, of course, something causes the system to grind to a halt.

If your sewer isn’t sewering, you’ve got big problems.

Signs Your Sewer Line Needs Attention

When your sewer line is working, you barely notice it. But when things start to go wrong, well, life gets pretty interesting. A failing sewer line can be a huge mess and a big expense that just gets worse the longer you ignore it. This isn’t a problem you can handle yourself, you will need an expert to help.

Watch for these signs if you suspect there may be a problem with the sewer line:

  • Gurgling noises in your pipes

  • Water backing up in the lowest drain in your home.

  • Slower drainage house-wide.

  • Water from one drain backing up into others.

If these things happen occasionally, you may not have a real problem, but it’s still a good idea to call a plumber to check out the sewer line to ensure that any issues are addressed before they become nightmares.

Causes of Sewer Line Failure

Sewer lines fail for many different reasons, often depending heavily on where your property is located. For example, you’d be more likely to have sewer problems due to ground shifting in an area prone to earthquakes. That’s just one cause of line failure, though. Here are some others:

  • Material Failure. Although there are some clay sewer lines from Ancient Rome still intact and theoretically functional, your sewer lines are probably going to reach a tipping point where the materials begin to erode, corrode or weaken until they fail entirely. Modern materials like PVC may be able to outlive older pipes made of cast iron or bituminized fiber, but even PVC can and will fail eventually.

  • Tree Roots. If you have trees and you have a sewer line, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Large trees often have a very wide root zone that can eventually penetrate anything in the way. Roots in sewer lines is a very common issue in areas hospitable to large trees. If this is the heart of the matter, you may find that you only have intermittent problems with the line backing up. You still need to call a plumber.

  • Shifting Earth. As previously mentioned, earthquakes and other natural events that cause the ground to shift can also cause your sewer line to shift. Even very heavy rains could result in pipe shifting, depending on your local soil makeup. A pipe that has shifted may end up with too little slope to carry water reliably to the sewer.

  • Crushed Pipes. Although it’s uncommon, you can actually crush a sewer pipe that’s installed and actively functioning. Again, the soil makeup matters here, but you should never drive heavy machinery over your sewer lines — that extra weight is felt below the surface, too.

These are the most common causes for sewer line failure. Other very rare situations do occur and ultimately, the only way to be sure what’s going on with your sewer line is to send a camera inside to look around.

Replacing Your Sewer Line is a Big Deal

If your plumber determines that your sewer line has failed, it’s going to be a big deal. There’s no sugar coating this. Depending on what type of solution you and your plumber decide on, you may have deep trenches dug across your yard and a lot of chaos until the work is complete. However, at the end of the process, you’ll know your sewer line is in working order, so you’ve got that going for you.

There are two main methods that are used to repair sewer lines: total replacement of the old line (or the part that has failed) and relining.

Total Replacement: The Scorched Earth Approach

Having a brand new sewer pipe is worth a lot of agony, especially when you consider that most plumbers have the equipment to dig up your old sewer line, inspect it and replace the damaged bits. This is generally a less expensive method of sewer line repair, but it comes with a lot of hassle and mess.

Relining the Pipe

When your sewer line issues are minimal and involve cracked or root-invaded sections of pipe, it’s possible to reline the pipe using one of several methods, including cure-in-place and pull-in-place pipes. Essentially, what your plumber will do is recoat the inside of your sewer line with a stabilizing material. Digging is minimal, but the price is often substantially higher and not every plumber has the training and equipment to perform this task.

Paying the Plumbing Bill

Many homeowners are under the impression that the sewer line coming from their homes is the municipality’s responsibility. Those people get a very rude awakening when they learn that they are actually footing the bill. The city will absolutely fix anything going wrong in the main, a larger sewer pipe that your whole neighborhood drains into. But any drain lines from your house to the junction of your sewer line and the main sewer line is on you.

It’s a big purchase, no matter how you slice it. Right now, the national average cost for repairing a sewer line is about $2,570, with a typical range running from $1,071 to $4,078. What you’ll actually pay is based on how much work it takes to get to your sewer line, as well as the remedy you choose, from partial replacement to cast-in-place pipe.

Philip Schwartz
Your Need to Know Guide to Buying a New Home
new construction chicago

If you’ve been following along, you know that last time around we covered a lot of the important things you should be thinking about when buying an older home. They’re great, but they can also be expensive and needy — definitely not for everybody.

Today, we’re looking at buying a new construction home. Although it’s a chance to get the house you’ve long wanted, buying a brand new house can also be fraught with problems.

New Construction Homes and Their Builders

There are no two ways about it, a new construction home can be the best decision you’ve ever made. Not only are they up to current building codes, they’re well-insulated, nothing needs to be fixed — all you have to do is move in and keep your new house clean.

There are essentially two distinct types of builder: custom and speculative.

Custom home builders wait for a person who wants a house built to come along, then they work closely with the home buyer, architects, electricians and other home pros to create your dream home. That being said, custom home builders tend to be on the upper end of your local housing market, but some also cater to people who want a smaller home.

Speculative builders (also known as production builders) build a bunch of houses and hope someone will come to buy them. These folks are generally responsible for creating whole neighborhoods out of thin air. One day, you’re driving by a field, the next week it’s a 100-lot development with 20 houses already going up. Speculative builders are nothing if not fast. You won’t necessarily get the house of your dreams unless your dreams are pretty vanilla, but you will have a home that’s new, up to code and that will keep you out of the rain. Super important, that.

New Construction Pros and Cons

You may be considering a new house, but aren’t sure you’re totally willing to wait for one to be finished. If only there were a place you could get an overview of the pros and cons of buying new. Wait, there’s a list below!

Pros of New Construction:

Owning a brand new house is a pretty sweet deal for most people. Here’s why:

  • Low maintenance requirements. A new house is, well, new. From the bottom to the top, everything is yours to break in. What this means for you is that you can expect to have several years to ease into learning how to do home maintenance and the bigger ticket items like your air conditioner condenser won’t need replacing (with normal use) for at least a decade.

  • Warranties on pretty much everything. Did you know that most new homes come with a warranty? Sometimes it’s a builder’s warranty, meaning the builder themselves will fix any problems that crop up during the specified period. Sometimes it’s a home warranty through a warranty company. Either one will help you sleep better at night knowing that you’re not on your own if something breaks.

  • Less risk of neighborhood blight. Unless you buy an infill home (a new house that’s built in an older neighborhood), new homes virtually guarantee you won’t have to worry about neighborhood blight for a while. Blight can occur in any neighborhood, but it’s far less likely where most of the occupants are owners and the houses are all the same age. It’s the ultimate in peer pressure, really.

  • It’s a blank canvas. Your new home has never been lived in by anyone, ever. You probably realize that, but it can still be sort of a shock to know that you are the one who will start this particular home on its road to being a quaint and charming place fifty years down the road.

New House Drawbacks:

Of course, a new house isn’t for everyone. There are a few drawbacks to building from the ground up, including:

  • Higher monthly costs. Unlike an older home, where you may find an owner who just wants to get out from under their loan so they can move across the country, a brand new house is pretty much priced where it’s priced. You’ll have to pay what the builder is asking if you want it, which may push the price of your house to the top of your price range. If you request any changes to the plan of a home in progress, or one that hasn’t had the ground broken yet, you may be asked for a larger escrow deposit in case something happens to prevent your being able to close when the house is finished.

  • It’s a blank canvas. As noted above, a new house is a blank canvas. For some people, this is pretty intimidating, since that also means that more often than not, there’s not a lot in the way of storage systems or other handy aftermarket items that houses that have been lived in are generally fitted with. You can ask your builder about closet systems that go beyond a single bar for hanging clothing, but generally you’re better off to install these yourself so you can get exactly what you want.

  • You’re probably subject to an HOA. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a homeowner’s association, but it’s an additional cost that you may not have budgeted for. The additional amenities that an HOA provides are often worth the extra spend to homeowners, but if you’re already tight, it’s going to make things even tighter.

  • Flexibility is key. Building a house is an exercise in patience. Sure, you think you’re going to be able to move in on February 1, but sometimes things get in the way and construction is delayed. You’ll need to be flexible, otherwise you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to guess when you’ll have the keys.

Philip Schwartz
Tips For Running a Successful Garage Sale
garage sale tips

Awww, springtime. It’s a great time to go through the closets and find anything you’re not using. But what do you do with all that junk that’s no longer in your trunk? For lots of homeowners, the choice is clear: it’s garage sale time. Or it’s yard sale time. A garage is not a prerequisite for the sale part.

Running a Successful Garage Sale is Simple

There are so many things in life that people will remark, “if it was easy, everybody would be doing it….” when presented with a related struggle. This is not the case with a yard sale. They’re a lot of work, but they’re not all that tricky to pull off. If this is your first yard sale or you simply want to be sure you’re doing all you can to make it a success, these are tips just for you:

Check your insurance policy. Hey, it seems innocent enough until someone slips and falls and breaks a bone. Suddenly you’re on the hook for their medical expenses. Do you have enough coverage for this? Check with your agent before you start that big sale.
Label everything. It can be tempting to simply put things in bins that are labeled with prices, but it’s much better to label everything so no one is confused. Your kids can be great helpers here, it’s a low risk job that will keep them busy for hours.
Group like items. When you set things out, group them by use or some other common theme. After all, if you sell someone a bucket, they might also want to buy that hose.
Pretend you have an outside store. Everything in a store is for sale for the right price, so make sure that you clear the area of anything you’d rather not sell (or at least put a sign on it). Also, keep your money in a safe place like a money box, keep records on sales, and while you’re at it, get a credit card reader that will work with your phone (many companies offer these for low or no cost swipe fee).
Line up plenty of help. Buying stuff at a yard sale can be fun, but running said yard sale is generally pretty boring. Make sure you’ve got plenty of help so that you’re not forced to spend the whole weekend sitting all alone at the check-out table.
Advertise liberally. If you want to sell something, you have to tell people it’s for sale. Advertise liberally, using social media, local media like newspapers and signs that you’ll post a day or two before the big day.

Donating to Charity

Many people make arrangements with a local charity to collect the items that did not sell. You can do this, too, just keep in mind that most charities will not allow their volunteers inside your home. In these cases, you’ll have to be present in order to donate stuff. It might be just as easy to box up the remains and toss them in the back of your vehicle for a ride to the Goodwill.

Philip Schwartz
Your Need to Know Guide to Buying an Older Home
buying an older home

For a lot of homebuyers, buying their dream home means choosing an older structure that has passed the test of time. These grand places have an undeniable charm about them, with classic styling that can be adapted to nearly any taste. Older homes can be incredible places to live and love, but no home is perfect. The history of your older home may include skeletons in the upstairs bedroom closet.

Five Amazing Reasons to Choose an Older Home

Buyers who are into the details are going to love owning an older home. Not only do you get all those little bits of period hardware, real wood floors and intricate trim work, your home has a real history that you can trace should you be so interested. Older homes can become a real love story really fast.

There are a lot of reasons to choose an older home, here are five to get you started:

The neighborhood is established. You may not be giving any thought to this particular item right now, but when you’re living with the sound of bulldozers, skid loaders and other heavy equipment nearby as they add even more streets to a newer neighborhood, you might wish you had gone another way. Established neighborhoods don’t give you a lot of room to move, but you also know exactly what to expect day to day.

Mature landscaping! Even if you’re not a gardener, you can appreciate that 50 or 80 year old shade tree that protects your house like a giant leafy umbrella. If past owners put in plants, you may also have bought into a hedge or foundation plantings that will give you lots of green without lots of effort.

High ceilings. Although the types of ceiling treatments that are in modern homes rarely pop up in older homes, you may find high ceilings in older homes (this will depend on how old of a house you’re looking for). Before air conditioning, those high ceilings helped keep occupants cooler in the summer. Today they give you a more spacious atmosphere and more room for vertical storage.

Lots of natural light. One of the best features of many older homes is the sheer number of windows that have been installed. So many windows means so much more light inside your home. When you’re buying a glass house, though, make sure that those windows have been replaced or brace for high winter energy bills.

You become part of the story. Older homes tell the story of the lives of past owners, in small and large ways. Every owner left a mark somewhere in that place, just like you will. For example, you may decide you’re not so fond of the carpets, instead choosing to recover the wood floor underneath. Your fingerprint was just added to the collection.

Owning an older home can be a home ownership dream come true. But don’t fall headfirst yet. Read on so you know when to walk away.

Five Reasons to Reconsider That Older Home

Although older homes can be charming and even decadent with the details, there’s a lot more to them than history and natural light. Every house is the result of its cumulative care over its lifetime. The longer the house has been around, the more care (or neglect) it receives. Even so, there are many reasons to be wary when it comes to buying an older home.

Vital systems may not be to code. When that house was built in 1940, there weren’t really building codes to adhere to. In fact, that house might have come from a catalog and was shipped in pieces for a homeowner to build like a giant Lego set. The fact that it’s still standing is probably a good sign, but you’ll want to have a very thorough home inspection before you get your hopes up too high.

Owners adding defects when trying to repair things. Homeowners regularly make repairs without the proper permits or inspections, leaving you to wonder how good the work really went. Whether the repair was made in the 60s or last week, discovering that a closet light was wired using lamp wire is a terrifying discovery that should leave you wondering what other “repairs” are hiding behind the wall, in the attic and under the floor.

So many windows means thermal leakage. All that natural light is awesome, until it gets cold or hot — then you’ve suddenly got a major issue with thermal leakage. Even the best weather seal isn’t much on a single pane window when compared to modern engineered double and triple paned windows with Low-E coatings. If you like a drafty house, by all means go for it. If not, at least look for a place with upgraded windows.

Add-ons should get the side eye. Above we discussed how each owner touches a house in a unique way. One of those ways is to add more square footage. There are good add-ons that flow seamlessly from the original structure to the new part without it being obvious. Then there are the others. Does this place have something that’s akin to a shanty attached to the back side and called a bedroom? Run away.

Infestations. Another gift former owners may leave you is pest infestations. From bats to cockroaches and mice, older homes are accidental havens for all sorts of creatures. Along with a termite inspection, you definitely want to have a pest control expert out to look for signs of other things that you’d probably rather not be sharing your home with.

Living in a remodeling zone is not a party. Some people gravitate toward older homes because they believe this will save them a lot of money. There’s certainly a chance of that, but market forces are finicky, so you definitely want to talk to some pros before putting the numbers together. Even if you do find that you’re sitting on a gold mine, consider what this is going to do to your life and family. Living in a construction zone means that you never get away from the destruction and that you’re potentially dumping a lot of money into upgrades and fixing old “repairs.”


Philip Schwartz
The Beauty of Breakfast Nooks
breakfast nook

It’s the most important meal of the day, so why are you spending your mornings eating over the sink on your rush to get ready for work? For many homeowners there’s a perfectly cozy and wonderful alternative in their home that they might not even be using: the breakfast nook.

From Formal Dining to Chaotic Meals in the Open

Many people have long ago converted their formal dining rooms into home offices, instead opting for kitchen bars or dropping a dining set close to the kitchen in their open floor plan homes. These options are ok if all the chaos of eating in a non-space doesn’t put you off your feed.

For those who need a little more privacy, a quiet place to drink their morning coffee and contemplate life for a few minutes, the breakfast nook cannot be matched.

It’s simple enough. Take a house, add a little space off of the kitchen that’s just big enough for a dining set. Upgrade with a killer view. Insert your table and chairs. Nothing could be easier.

Styling Your Breakfast Nook

The word “nook” would imply a very informal space, or a dark and tight room. The word, certainly originally used to make the concept feel even more quant, is incredibly misleading. Although breakfast nooks are usually small, they’re not dark and they aren’t uncomfortable.

They’re often the best seats in the house!

Nooks are a flexible space that can do a lot.

There’s no wrong way to nook, work with the space and view that you have and the rest will follow. You don’t even need a traditional dining set! Plenty of breakfast nooks are outfitted with booths permanently affixed to the wall.

Who needs beaches when you can have a view of the neighbor’s garden?

Other contemporary nooks mix and match chairs and booths in order to get as much useful seating as possible in the small, but amazing space. Watching the sun rise over the morning head lines from your breakfast nook is an unmatched experience, even if your nook doesn’t have a dramatic overlook.

But some like to keep dining a formal activity, even in their nooks.

These people aren’t nooking wrong, they’re just serious about their space. That’s ok, nooks are for everybody, casual or formal.

Philip Schwartz
5 Worst Returns on Your Home Renovation Dollars
renovation returns

There are a whole boatload of articles on the Internet about the home renovations that offer the best return on your hard-earned cash, but not so many about the ones that are literally just black holes that suck said cash out of your pocket and never, ever tell you where it went.

That changes today. Everybody talks about the good, let’s talk about the bad and the ugly!

First and Foremost: Personalization Has Limits

When you bought your house, there were probably some very specific things about it that you promised yourself you’d change as soon as possible. From dated light fixtures to unbearably pink carpet, there’s always something. Hold on to that thought for a moment.

Now, pretend that you’re the person looking at this same house after you pulled out the pink carpet and changed those fixtures. Is this a house that now has wide appeal, or does the fact that you hung floral wallpaper on the ceiling create a whole new level of problems?

Of course you want to make your house your own, but if you think you’ll be selling in the near future to relocate, upgrade or downsize, maybe don’t go too nuts. Keep in mind that most buyers will accept some level of personalization, provided you don’t push it. You don’t have to live in a bland cracker box, but there’s something between that and a 1970’s disco inferno.

Renovation Loss Leaders By the Numbers

It’s really important that you consider future owners when you go to the trouble to make a major upgrade to your home. But sometimes, even the most thoughtful and beautiful renovation can cost a lot more than it will ever be worth (and often, the most beautiful are the most susceptible to this).

It’s a good thing, then, that Remodeling Magazine has been tracking the average costs of the 21 most popular projects since 2002 and the value they retained at sale. If someone told you that adding eccentric details like green shag carpet can be a big punch to the checkbook, it probably wouldn’t shock you. But you might be surprised at these projects Remodeling Magazine turned up as the worst investments, based on national averages:

5. Upscale Bathroom Remodel. Cost: $61,662. Return: $34,633 (56.2%)

There isn’t a person in this country who hasn’t dreamed of a bathtub the size of a swimming pool, glass tile surfaces everywhere and a shower with five or six different shower heads. And although this will be an absolutely amazing experience while you own your home, you can’t take that stuff with you. It also won’t return anywhere near what you’ve invested in it.

If you’re thinking about a bathroom remodel, consider sticking to the midrange. They cost about $19,134 on average and return $13,422, or about 70 percent of your investment.

4. Upscale Bathroom Addition. Cost: $83,869. Return: $45,752 (54.6%)

Adding a bathroom on to a house was a big return bust in 2018. Not only did the upscale bathroom addition return just 54.6%, even the midrange bathroom add-on, where returns tend to be a bit better, returned just under 60%. That midrange bathroom remodel is looking better all the time.

3. Upscale Major Kitchen Remodel. Cost: $125,721. Return: $67,212 (53.5%)

Despite the fact that a midrange minor kitchen remodel will return about 81 percent of its value, an upscale major remodel doesn’t even come close. This is probably because of budget-consuming components like new cabinets, new granite or marble slab counters, floor tile and high end appliances from manufacturers like Viking. Honestly, if you’ve done this kind of remodel, why are you even moving? Seems you’ve found your perfect house already.

2. Upscale Master Suite Addition. Cost: $256,229. Return: $123,797 (48.3%)

Downgrading to a midrange master suite addition won’t help you get much more out of your dollar, it only changes the return from 48.3% to 56.6%. A new master suite is one of those things that you may find you use extensively, but shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for one may be a sign you’re not ready to give up on your existing home after all.

1. Midrange Backyard Patio. Cost: $54,130. Return: $25,769 (47.6%)

Generally speaking, outdoor-facing projects tend to return better because they increase the overall curb appeal of a home. And even though midrange wooden deck additions return 82.8% and midrange composite deck additions return 63.6%, the backyard patio is the single worst return on your home renovation dollars in 2018. This may be due, in part, to the fact that it adds nothing to curb appeal and is almost assumed to be the norm in most markets.

When It Comes to Home Renovation Projects, Think Small

The key to better returns on home renovation is to think small. Replace that ugly light fixture in your foyer, swap the vinyl flooring in your entry for tile. A home that is neat, clean and well-lit will always sell better than one that has something a bit quirky about it, no matter how much it cost to install.

Philip Schwartz
What’s a Reverse Mortgage?
reverse mortgage

“What goes up must come down,” so goes the saying. And, to that end, what goes forward must also go in reverse. Turns out the same also applies to mortgages, sort of. Except, instead of being a direct inverse from a “forward” mortgage, reverse mortgages are kind of their own special thing.

If you don’t read beyond this opening section, just remember that the big takeaway here is going to be that some reverse mortgages are good, some are bad and you need to always, always read the paperwork before signing on the dotted line. This goes doubly if your parents are considering a reverse mortgage and you’re going to be helping them deal with their finances as they age.

Reverse Mortgages and Their Bad Reputation

When reverse mortgages were first becoming fairly popular, banks willing to make the loans proliferated. And so did con artists who took advantage of an aging population made of people who were often desperate to hold on to their homes or simply were medically incapable of understanding the consequences of the monthly payment they’d receive.

This was good for no one but the scammers.

That’s why a whole lot of legislation has been written to remedy these kinds of situations. Now, if you or your parents are worried that a reverse mortgage offer might be a scam, you can opt for an FHA reverse mortgage. It’s easy to verify that an FHA lender is legit, where it may be less clear if certain brokers are on the up and up. You may get a better deal with a non-FHA reverse mortgage, but they provide confidence that you’re on the right path and that’s worth something, too.

How Do Reverse Mortgages Work?

Reverse mortgages are designed to help people who are retirement age afford to stay in their homes longer. Generally, this means that mortgage payments stop and there might even be some form of payment to the homeowner. So, if your grandmother shows up to the next family gathering in a brand new convertible roadster, it might be a good idea to ask her about the terms of her reverse mortgage. Some are genuinely helpful and decent; others are not so much.

The good part is that reverse mortgages are now heavily regulated by the government, so it’s much harder for scammers to take advantage of older people who may be having money problems already.

They don’t require a credit pull or even decent credit. You just need a home that’s free and clear, or has a significant amount of equity, and be 62 or older. You’ll pay some fees upfront and be required to complete HUD-approved counseling (you will pay a fee for this, too) that will help you determine if you’re really a good fit for a reverse mortgage.

If you happen to die while you still own the house, your heirs have the option to redeem it from the reverse mortgage lender by paying off the borrowed amount in full. Usually this is achieved with another “forward” mortgage.

Reverse Mortgage Payment Options

One of the best things about a reverse mortgage is the money that comes back into the pocket of the borrower. You or your parents can choose how that money is distributed, too. Essentially, you have three options: taking a lump sum, taking a monthly payment or using it as a line of credit. There are also ways to mix and match these, so you might take a percentage as a lump sum for that flashy convertible and the rest as a line of credit to use as you need to fill up on gas.

For a lot of seniors, a reverse mortgage will allow them to age in place without fear of losing their home (provided they keep up with the taxes and insurance). This can be a great option as long as the source of the funds is fully vetted, all the paperwork is in order and read from top to bottom and they have a plan to make the money last as long as possible.

Philip Schwartz
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