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.

Finding and Fixing Leaks in Your Home

ceiling leak

Anything in your home that’s attached to the water supply runs the risk of springing a leak. That also includes anything that drains water away. With so much riding on your pipes and appliances holding all their water inside, you’d think it would be easier to locate something leaking in your home. As it turns out, it can be kinda tricky. So, grab a flashlight and let’s start sleuthing!

Ask Yourself: Is it Really a Leak?

This may sound like common sense, but when you’re new to homeownership, or even just to leaking stuff, you may mistake condensation for leaks. There’s a good reason for this. Older pipes do sometimes condensate so hard that they drip. This is especially common in high humidity areas like basements and crawl spaces.

Before you panic because your pipes are leaking, take a hard look at where that water is coming from. Is it intermittent? Just when it’s muggy? Run a dehumidifier near the condensation pipe and, like magic, your condensing pipes will be no more! If the problem is in a crawl space, try opening up your foundation vents so outside air can move in and push built up humidity out. Adding pre-formed foam pipe insulation in both locations will also help fight the drip.

On the Hunt for Leaks

Usually, a homeowner will stumble across leaks on pure accident. They’re rarely loud, raging rivers, most are gentle trickles at best. In fact, you could have a leak for months and not even realize it! So how do you go about tracking one down?

  1. Look for signs of moisture damage. A leaking toilet, for example, will almost always leak at the wax ring that creates the seal between the stool to the drain pipe. When leaking happens here, it’s common that the water goes under the flooring and causes it to bubble up or soften.

  2. Smell around. This sounds ridiculous, but if you can’t see any damage, you may be able to smell the distinctive scent of mildew and moisture. Follow your nose to the source of the problem.

  3. Listen for dripping sounds. Even a tiny leak can sometimes be heard, especially if the leak in question is dripping into a closed area. For example, an air handler with a clogged or rusted condensation pan may drip into the space below, until a significant amount of standing water collects. The drip, drip, drip you hear when you walk by the utility closet could be a warning sign.

If your basic senses fail you, it’s time to start a systematic search. When you just know there’s a leak, but you can’t quite find it, make a list of all the things in your house that use water, including appliances like the dishwasher and the icemaker. Don’t forget all the drains, which can be really frustrating since a leaky drain literally comes and goes as it fills with water.

Fixing a Leak

Fixing your leak is going to depend heavily on where it’s located and what kind of materials are involved. For a basic homeowner-level repair, limit your efforts to plastic pipes and screw-on braided cables like the water lines to the toilet and sinks. Copper, galvanized steel and cast iron require special tools and specific expertise to fix.

Then again, your leak might not even be related to pipes — it could be coming from a backed-up condensation line at your air handler. In that case, running vinegar through the line will loosen the clog and let water flow freely again. If it’s a rusted condensation pan, though, you’re going to need a pro. The same goes for a hot water heater that’s leaking out the bottom.

Ultimately, leaks are huge pains, but many can be repaired easily with a few bits and pieces from the hardware store. It’s more important to know when you’re in over your head because it’s easy to make the problem worse. If you can’t fix the leak, make sure to put the shut-off valve into the “off” position until a pro can help.

6 Tips for Concrete Painting

concrete painting

Painting Concrete Isn’t Like Painting Your House

Concrete is a tricky substance. Unlike wood that is relatively non-porous, concrete literally breathes and wicks water constantly. This is why you’ll see older homes with miserable paint jobs on their patios, in the basement, or anywhere there’s a lot of concrete. That paint didn’t stand a chance of bonding to the concrete without a lot of help.

But your paint job will be different, that’s why you’re here! Removing old paint from a concrete slab can be a challenging job, but the end result is a glorious floor that twinkles in the sunlight. How about some tips for doing the job right?

#1. Choose concrete stain or dye. One of the main reasons that house paint peels off of concrete is because it doesn’t breathe like the concrete surface. This leads to moisture build-up below the paint, causing adherence to be lost entirely. Concrete stains and concrete dyes are different — they breathe just like the concrete. Stains are made of a blend of acrylic polymers and pigments that react chemically with the concrete surface; dyes, on the other hand, are nonreactive and color the cement when the very small particles penetrate into the surface.

#2. Epoxy garage floor paint is another option. Although it’s much more challenging to apply correctly, if you really want to “paint” the floor, an epoxy-based garage floor paint can be applied to your cleaned and prepped concrete surface. Bear in mind that epoxy takes time to dry and then has to have an additional curing period to harden properly. If you’re dealing with an interior space, you’ll also need lots of ventilation, otherwise the fumes could be your downfall.

#3. Take the time to prep the floor right. This may mean removing old paint with chemical paint remover, power washing the surface or even renting a grinder and roughing up the floor while eliminating old paint. When you’re prepping a concrete floor for painting, it should be just slightly rough, similar in texture to 120 grit sandpaper. Take your time and don’t settle for “good enough.”

#4. Always wash the bared floor thoroughly. With all that old paint gone and traces of various chemicals left behind, it’s definitely time to wash the concrete. Not only does this remove any stray material that might have been missed, you’ll ensure that no unplanned chemical reactions occur (you’re not going to blow up the house, but your paint may fail to adhere). Let it dry thoroughly, for days if possible.

#5. Test for moisture penetration. You’ve cleaned your concrete slab and you’re ready to paint! Except you’re not. You still need to check out the level of moisture penetration coming through the slab. Remember how you can’t use wall paint on concrete floors because it needs to breathe? It’s still breathing. The question now is just how much.

You can test this by covering a three foot by three foot area of the floor with heavy clear plastic sheeting. Tape it down completely and just walk away. Check in with it in a couple of days. If there’s no moisture collecting under the plastic, you’re golden. If there is, you may need to apply a masonry sealer first and retest before applying the final color (ask your paint monger what solution works best in your area).

#6. Priming is vital to success. You’ve probably painted walls and other things without applying a proper primer and it worked just fine, but we’re comparing apples to space ships here. Concrete not only is expected to take a lot harder beating than any random wall, it has all that complicated breathing going on. Skip the primer and you might as well just not do the project at all because you’ll just have to redo it in a few weeks or months.

Killer Vines and How to Stop Them

house ivy

There’s nothing as stately as a red brick house covered in green vines. This iconic image has been portrayed on television, in movies and, sometimes, in actual neighborhoods. Little does the general public that are busy oohing and awing at these buildings actually know, they’re really watching a house being destroyed bit by bit.

Clinging vines are some of the worst things nature throws at your home on a regular basis, but a lot of homeowners have no idea because it’s death by a thousand cuts. Any one day isn’t probably hurting your house much, but as time passes, more and more hidden damage is taking place.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but if your house has vines running up it, it’s time to figure out what you’ve got growing and start getting aggressive about destroying damaging vine infestations.

Telling the Good Guys From the Bad

Not all vines are evil — it just so happens that most of the ones people like to train up their houses are. This may be because they hang on for everything they’re worth, so a strong wind or a violent storm won’t result in a massacre. Whatever the reason, it’s led to a lot of damage to homes for hundreds of years, even if the homeowner never knew it.

Identifying damaging vines isn’t difficult, even the beginner horticulturalist can spot the differences once they’ve been shown what to look for.

Elements of a Damaging Vine

Vines don’t set out to destroy your home, they’re merely doing what vines do: climb. It’s just that some of the climbing methods that vines use tend to be fairly destructive in a long term kind of way. Vines have several different methods they use to climb. Some will literally grow in a spiral form to wrap around a nearby support, others send out specially modified parts called tendrils that coil around whatever they can find.

Those two types of climbers are basically harmless, at least as far as your siding is concerned. The real killers are the vines that climb using an adhesive disk or adventitious roots. Both adhesive disks and adventitious roots are very difficult to dislodge once they’re established. You can imagine how this kind of tenacity could bust masonry, dislodge vinyl siding, pull down gutters and lift shingles from your roof.

virginia creeper

Adhesive disk of P. quinquefolia

Vines with adhesive disks literally have shoots coming off the vine tipped with roundish pads that grip tight using an adhesive that the plant produces. A common troublesome vine that uses this technique is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Virginia creeper is a beautiful disaster for houses pretty much everywhere. In the summer, it’s a deep green and as fall approaches, it turns to a burning red-orange. It can be hard to make a villain out of a vine like that.

english ivy

Adventitious roots on brick home

Adventitious roots are a little less complicated, biologically speaking. These are just extra roots that the plant uses to grab hold of things by penetrating any available crack or nook that’s available. The plant doesn’t care if that happens to be a crack in a brick on your house or a nook in a tree somewhere. These structures look a bit like the air roots that orchids produce, or, for those of you who don’t cruise the floral department at your market, they can appear much like thick hairs and cause a centipede sort of effect on the leafless parts of the vine. English Ivy (Hedera helix) is a champ at producing these roots and also climbing up houses.

Know Thy Enemy

The vines that could be destroying your house already aren’t some kind of plague or an unlucky hand you’ve been dealt. In almost every case, they were planted purposefully. In fact, you can get them at your nearest greenhouse or home improvement store. Neat, huh? People go in looking for a vine to train up their house, then they leave with a bag full, not knowing what they’re about to do. A few examples of the worst vine offenders include:

Wisteria (Wisteria spp.). This glorious vine with hanging purple, white or pink flowers can make a dramatic statement when raised in the right spot. When it’s close to your house, however, the statement it makes is, “I’m about to destroy your siding and your roof.” There have been many cases of Wisteria getting out of control, climbing to the roof, invading the gutters and lifting shingles off of homes. It’s an amazing plant, but keep it far from your home.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). The configuration of the five-part compound leaves of Virginia creeper has caused a lot of confusion for homeowners, with some believing it to actually be poison ivy. Virginia creeper is not a plant to worry about from a medical standpoint, but it does put out both adhesive pads and, as it grows, adventitious roots, making it one tough sucker to uncling from your house.

English Ivy (Hedera helix). If there was an Olympic category for climbing and also plants were allowed to compete, English ivy would probably lose to a human that can move faster than it can. But, for a plant, English ivy is quite fast and strong. It’s also enormous. A single English ivy vine can grow to 80 feet in length. That makes it more than capable of climbing to the roof, consuming your television antennae and anything else that it fancies.

Climbing Hydrangea (Hydrangea petiolaris). Like English ivy, climbing hydrangea can be a tough number to contend with. The masses of white flowers are awesome, but the adventitious roots will invade any space they find to hold tight, allowing the plant to achieve its full potential: 80 feet of vine growth. Don’t kid yourself, this isn’t a plant to put near structures.

The Indirect Problem With Climbers on a Structure

Beyond being able to cause direct damage to your home anywhere and anywhere they can get a root in sideways, growing climbing plants on a house opens you up for all sorts of interesting problems. Remember that the environment under that mass of leaves is generally very humid, making a perfect place for mold, insects or rot to take hold.

There’s no question about it, growing a vine on a house is really a very bad idea. It was traditional at one point, but now we know better, so we should do better. Tackling an established vine is no picnic, but with patience, consistency and plenty of herbicide, you can wrestle the monster to its death. Removing all the attachments is a different story, though. Depending on your siding and the type of vine you’ve killed, you may just have to learn to live with root remains until they finally dry up and blow away.

Are You Really Ready to Buy? Factors Beyond Financial

buying a house

Spend Some Time Soul-Searching Before You Pre-Qualify

There are far too many articles out there that discuss homebuying readiness in terms of dollars and cents, neglecting all the other things that are involved in a truly successful homeownership experience. So, we’re going to assume you’re able to qualify for a loan and just skip that part. You’ve read enough of that by now, that’s old news.

Anyone who tells you that buying and owning a house isn’t a deeply emotional experience is someone who has never done it. People become strangely attached to their homes, they experience deep heartbreak when a contract falls through at the last minute, they feel almost rapturous when they finally sign on the dotted line. The first problem their home develops gives them a sick feeling in their gut. There’s a huge emotional and social component to homeownership, but no one ever talks about it.

What even drives us to buy? Two main things: an urge to increase our social standing and a hope to give ourselves some kind of financial security. Theoretically, right? At the end of the day, that’s what it amounts to. In some economies one or both of those may be on pretty shakey ground, but they’re always beneath it all. Before you get there, let’s do a reality check.

Reality Check: Are You Really Ready?

You’re qualified, you’re flush with cash, but you may or may not be really ready to buy a home. After all, these are untested waters for you. It’s not as if no one has gone this way before, plenty have and even lived to tell the tale. But for you to really get off on a good foot, you should dig deep and make sure you have these items in check:

Wanderlust. Think of buying a house a little like getting a tattoo. It’s not a thing that’s easily undone. Even if you just walk away, you have a foreclosure hanging over your head for years and years, your credit’s damaged, you could even owe some balance from the sale of that house (depending on the local laws). If you have wanderlust left in you, get it out now. Go live in Nepal while you can, because once you buy, you’re going to have to live in it for a while. That’s not to say you can’t visit Nepal, but you can’t stay around for months on end once you have a mortgage that has to be paid.

Emotional Maturity. Living in a neighborhood with people you can’t easily move away from also requires a bit of emotional maturity. The guy across the street may drive you nuts because he loves bright, annoying Christmas lights. Don’t punch him in the face, just hang some blinds. In addition, learn to tame your inner worrier. All houses have problems, every single one, even the brand new ones. So when you notice that the air conditioner’s condensation line is backed up, take a deep breath and get to flushing it or call in a pro. In short, don’t panic, there’s a solution to everything.

Career Security. All jokes aside, it’s really very important that your career is fairly secure before you jump into a mortgage that’s 30 years long. If you hate what you do or you’re not really sure you want to do it over the long term, you may not want to commit to a mortgage just yet. Maybe wait until you get that first year under your belt and see if what you learned in class is anything like what the field really is in practice. If you would need to return to school or move out of state to find a new opportunity, it could be very difficult while trying to maintain a mortgage.

Relationship Security. The thing no one wants to say to you is the thing this blog is going to say right now. Is your relationship really sure enough to be buying a house with that person? No, really. This is on the level of having a child with someone, it’s a huge financial commitment and one that could obliterate you for years and years if things soured quickly. Whether you’re married or not, make sure this person is one you can count on for the rest of the term of that loan, as romantic as that notion may be. You’re in this mortgage together, make sure it’s an equal partnership.

These are really important parts of your life to examine before you decide to buy a house. It also helps to be a good saver and a little handy (or at least brave enough to try to fix the small stuff). Not every problem will be one your can handle on your own, but you should at least be able to stabilize your issue so it doesn’t get worse before you call the experts in!

Curb Appeal

curb appeal

First impressions are everything. That’s as true for job interviews as it is for making your house the best version of itself it can be. No matter how big or small your remodeling budget, your first plan of attack needs to aim at improving the curb appeal of your home. Aside from major system issues, this is the decision point where a future buyer is going to eventually come inside or drive on by. No matter how flashy your interior is, if your exterior doesn’t say “love me!” you’ve already lost the real estate game.

What, Exactly, Is Curb Appeal?

Not that long ago (in the early days of the Internet, even), it was a lot harder to get an idea of what a house looked like simply from a listing. Instead of an online database, many markets had giant bound books that looked a lot like a phone book. But instead of telephone numbers, there were listings upon listings of properties for sale. Realtors would send their clients to drive by these homes to see if they thought they’d like to have a proper viewing. These potential buyers would pull up to the curb to take a look, and thus, the concept of “curb appeal” was born.

You may not think that how your house looks from the street really matters. After all, you’re going to live there forever / you have years and years to tick that box / you think a sterile lawn and worn out shutters are fine. Whatever your reasoning, you’re looking at this all wrong. It’s not just that curb appeal is good for a sale (though it is), it’s also a powerful tool for maximizing the property’s appraisal value. If you need a home equity loan or to refinance down the road, you’ll wish you had bothered.

So, let’s bother today. We’ll take a walk around the yard and figure out how to turn your boring house into a dazzling wonder with the budget you have.

Tips and Tricks for Better Curb Appeal

First of all, you’ll want to get cozy with the neighbor directly across the street from you. You’ll be popping over pretty regularly to see how your house is looking to a passer-by. After all, how can you judge the effectiveness of your efforts without seeing it from the same angle they would? Curb appeal is a difficult concept, and often an overwhelming one, but that’s why we came up with these tips to get you started:

Clean up any debris. Hey, whether it’s your leaf collection or just a bunch of junk you’ve been meaning to get rid of, get rid of it. Think about your home the way some people think about mullets: “Business in the front, party in the back.” Or to put it another way, keep the front of your house clean enough to eat off of, do all your cluttery things in the back. Your neighbors will also thank you.

Trim the hedges. Overgrown shrubbery and beds that need to be weeded are worthless, trim those and clean them up so you can make use of them. If someone chose to plant a tree in a poorly chosen spot, you should be the one to correct that tragic error. You can always plant a smaller tree in a better spot to make up for the one you cut down.

Paint the front door and shutters. There’s something exceptionally special about a front door. It sets the whole tone for the rest of the house, so if the paint is worn out or just the wrong color, people will notice. Consult a color wheel for suggestions or spend a lot of time standing at a paint counter going through paint chips. This is a big deal, take your time. While you’re at it, buy some shutters or choose a paint color that will give your old ones new life.

Consider an all-over paint job that really makes features pop. Every house has some architectural features that make it special and place it within its own time. Unfortunately, too many people bury these features with the wrong paint pallet. Plan your home’s exterior colors to emphasize these good bits of awesome.

Replace the old, worn-out lighting. New lighting can make a huge difference to the way your home looks. Choose something that fills the space appropriately, but is also period appropriate. After all, you’re working on a theme here.

Add to the softscape. When you’ve got a yard that’s kind of meh, it’s important to pump it up a bit. Choose plants that will be easy to care for in your climate and that will come back year after year. These softscape elements can make your place far more interesting, plus perennials will multiply over time, giving a nice, full look to the garden.

Give the whole front yard white glove service. Whether that means rebuilding your cement driveway or adding a new mailbox, carefully go over the entire front of your property. Clean windows, take care of crumbling patios, make people eager to get out of the car to see what else you have in store.

3 Reasons You Need a Permit

building permit

Many DIY Jobs Require a Permit

Whether you’re a trained carpenter or a DIYer that binges HGTV, there are certain kinds of home remodeling that will always require a permit. This ensures that someone is looking over your shoulder to make sure that you’re doing the work correctly.

Advanced jobs in plumbing, electrical, HVAC and other specialty fields always require a permit to ensure that the home is and will remain safe for the occupants. Other jobs, like those that involve making structural changes, may or may not need a permit. That’s usually at the discretion of the permitting body.

You’ll want to speak to your municipal planning and zoning department to determine whether or not your job needs to be permitted. Typically, getting a permit requires that you describe the work you plan to do and pay a small fee that covers, in part, the cost of having expert inspectors ensure that your worksite is safe and your repairs are done correctly.

This is Why You Need a Permit

It can be a pain to go down to P&Z (or planning and development in some areas), but it’s really worth the effort in the long run. Despite the amount of documentation these can require, depending on the complexity of your project, you’ll find that going through the process properly will force you to really think about each step in your process.

Of course, that’s just one reason to get a permit, there are plenty more, like:

1. Avoiding serious legal ramifications. In any municipality that requires permits, there’s some kind of severe punishment for not getting one.

For example, in Dallas, Texas, the ordinance reads like this: “Punishment. Any person who knowingly violates a provision of this chapter or the codes is guilty of a separate offense for each day or portion of a day during which the violation is committed, continued, or permitted, and each offense is punishable by a fine not to exceed $2,000. (Ord. 26029; 26286).”

Or, if you’re in St. Paul, Minnesota, you can be charged with a misdemeanor — along with a stiff fine — for any work exceeding $500 that hasn’t been permitted first. Do you really want a criminal record because you wanted to install a bay window where two tiny windows used to be?

2. Being confident the work you’ve done is done right. Unless you have an expertise in construction, you probably have a lot of gaps in your knowledge base, including how to tell if a wall is a load-bearing (aka. structural) wall. This sort of mistake is more common than you might imagine and can be devastating to a home.

For example, when you pulled that wall down in the opening scenario, you didn’t know it was a structural wall. Now, months later, you’ve been noticing an increasingly deep sag where the wall used to be and the floor tiles are cracking here and there. The reason? Your house is under a lot more stress now because you took out a wall it needed and didn’t replace it with something to help carry the weight.

Had you sought a building permit, a housing inspector would have come by to check your work and advised you to put a 10-inch header up to make the project work without compromising the house’s structure. Inspectors aren’t always there to bust your chops, they can actually help.

In addition, when you go to sell your home, you will now have to disclose that you did this work without a permit and that it has caused some pretty serious problems. It’s a complete no-win and it’s going to be costly to have an expert come in and fix what your demo saw or sledge destroyed for peanuts..

3. Ensuring that all work is safe and up to code. If home pros shared some of the most terrifying things they’ve ever seen in homes, you would understand in an instant why permits keep you and your neighbors safe. These are the times when you can’t do much besides shake your head and laugh, because human ingenuity plus human sloth makes some really crazy work arounds.

Had these creative types of work been inspected, of course they wouldn’t have passed. Today’s building inspector and the permit office attached can prevent tomorrow’s house fire, ceiling collapse, or rapid structural degradation.

Not Sure If You Need a Permit…?

If you don’t know if you need a permit, call the authorities that issue building permits for your area. This is typically Planning and Zoning or Planning and Development within your city or county’s offices. They can explain what’s permitted and what isn’t, or at very least, send you some literature.

How to Unclog a Drain

how to unclog a drain

Your Basic Clog-Clearing Toolkit

Depending on the age of your home and the type of pipes in your plumbing system, any of these items may be useful to keep around the house:

Rubber gloves. There’s a lot of fairly gross stuff that could be causing your clog. You really don’t want to touch that. Trust us on this.
Pipe wrench. When your sink trap is the source of the clog, this is all you need.
Bucket. Buckets are good for many things, including bailing out tubs and keeping clogged drains from dripping all over when you take them apart.
Hand plunger. These tiny plungers are great for sinks and tubs. Make sure you have caps for any double sinks in your house to help you create a strong vacuum..
Manual auger. When the going gets tough, or your drain is clogged a little bit deeper than a plunger can handle, sending an auger into the pipe can help you get things moving again. The longer the auger’s line, the further you can reach. Some are even made to hook to a power drill, giving you a little extra torque.

What’s not on this list, you may notice, is a chemical drain cleaner. There are several reasons for this. First, chemical drain cleaners can also cause pipes to corrode from the inside. When that happens, bits of rust can break off over time and cause a really hard clog that’s impossible to remove on your own. Secondly, if you do need to call in a pro, or you get fiesty and want to give the drain another go, the standing water will be caustic. You seriously don’t want that.

Time to Get To the Drains!

Clearing a drain is a pretty simple process. You can approach most drains in this order:

Step 1: Remove any drain covers or plugs.
Step 2: Use a flashlight to look inside the upper part of the drain. If you see hair or other debris plugging the way, put on gloves and pull it out. For stuff that’s really stuck, try a pair of needle nose pliers to get a better grip.
Step 3: If you don’t see anything immediately clogging the drain, open the trap and clear it out with a burst of water from another faucet that doesn’t drain using that particular trap.
Step 4: Nothing in the trap? Take the manual auger and feed it into the drain with the trap still detached, going into the wall. You’ll be flying blind here, so go slow and easy. Keep feeding the line until you meet the obstruction or run out of line. When you do find the clog, you will be able to punch a hole in it by rotating the feed line rapidly. Once the feed line moves smoothly, withdraw it from the drain line.
Step 5: Put everything back together and test the drain line by running the water again.

Did you succeed? If so, hooray!

If you still have standing water, you have a few options. You can plunge your heart out in hopes that you can move the clog along. You can also try repeating the steps above in case there is a clog deeper in the drain that you just missed.

This technique will work for most types of household drains, though those encased in cement or that drain up from a basement are a lot more complicated and will probably require a pro to unclog.

Drains can be incredibly frustrating to clear. Take your time and be thorough, that way you don’t have to keep going back into the drain.

What is Mortgage Insurance?

what is mortgage insurance

Mortgage insurance is not your enemy, but it can be a costly surprise if you’re not prepared.

What Exactly is Mortgage Insurance?

Mortgage insurance is a type of coverage that your lender will take out on your loan to help shield them against loss should you default. They generally only require it if you have less than 20 percent down and often, this monthly payment will drop off once you’ve paid your home loan down to the point that your house has about 22 percent in equity versus its mortgage.

To be clear, this insurance does not cover you — at least not directly. In the case of default, the bank gets the check, but you get something, too. In many states, even recourse states, the mortgage insurance can be enough to prevent the bank from coming back on you for the difference between what you owe and what it was able to recover at a public sale.

Having mortgage insurance does not guarantee you will be free and clear should you lose your home, but it sure helps, especially if that house is in good condition when you turn it over to the bank. Its original purpose was to make it easier for people to get mortgages, even if they couldn’t come up with a big down payment, but during the housing bubble a decade ago many homeowners discovered that it can help on the back end, too.

MIP, PMI and Funding Fees

Mortgage insurance is a blanket term for several different insurance programs that essentially do the same thing. Rather than just calling it “mortgage insurance” across the industry, due to the way each program came into being in sort of a vacuum, different loan types have different names for it. For example:

* FHA calls it MIP, the Mortgage Insurance Premium. It was one of the first programs and the name is an original, for sure. It requires both an upfront and monthly payment.
* Private Mortgage Insurance is available on conventional loans and will be provided by one of a few different companies, MGIC being one of the biggest.
* Many people think that VA loans don’t have mortgage insurance, but they do — it’s a one time charge at closing known as the “Funding Fee.”

For most people, having mortgage insurance is just a reality of life. They can either continue to give their entire payment to someone else to pay off real estate the renter will never have a stake in, or they can give a fraction of their payment over to the bank in order to be given a chance to establish some equity and build a little wealth, even if it’s in the form of the family home.

Since the pricing of your mortgage insurance is based largely on your outstanding mortgage balance, the payment will get smaller and smaller each year. You can expect to pay from a half percent to one percent of your total mortgage balance annually. So, for example, if you borrow $300,000 to buy your home, your mortgage insurance payment will be anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000, or $125 to $250 a month, the first year.

Getting Rid of Mortgage Insurance

Although mortgage insurance has its place, you don’t want to pay it forever. That’s where this section of the blog comes in! If you borrowed using an FHA program after the summer of 2013 and had less than 10 percent down, you probably have lifetime mortgage insurance. There’s no joking, this is not a great situation.

Usually, once you reach 78 percent loan to value, based either on the original appraisal or an updated one, the bank will drop your mortgage insurance. You may have to write a formal request, but it’s not that big of a deal. With these FHA products, the mortgage insurance is meant to stay for the entire life of the loan. So, your options to shed it are a little trickier. You can:

1. Avoid it entirely by using a piggyback loan. This is a combination mortgage made up of an 80 percent LTV conventional loan and a 15 percent LTV secondary loan. That secondary loan, however, can have a pretty high base interest rate and may have terms like an adjustable rate, a shorter amortization period or a prepayment penalty.
2. Bring more to closing. Hey, it’s not fun to crack your piggy bank or 401(k) to get extra money, but there are times when it makes sense. This is one of them. You always need somewhere to live, you might as well be building equity, too.
3. Refinance the monster. If you’ve noticed prices in your neighborhood rising dramatically or you’ve just been paying on your mortgage a while, it could pay to refinance your loan. Your Realtor can help you determine if it will be worthwhile to spend the money for a new appraisal and new loan paperwork. That’s also the downside, though. It can cost as much to refinance at the wrong time as you’re paying in mortgage insurance.
4. Sell your home. You know, it was a good home, but you’re sick to death of paying the mortgage insurance. You plan to take the sale proceeds to buy another place that you can put at least 10 percent down on to avoid further incidents of lifetime mortgage insurance.

Most of the time, if you compare your mortgage insurance to the alternatives, it’s not really that big of a deal to pay an extra percent for the ability to buy a home with five percent down, rather than when you finally have 20 percent down.

Keep in mind that although interest rates have been in the three to four percent zone for a while now, pre-bubble, they were between six and eight percent for a prime mortgage and no one blinked an eye. Effectively having a four to five — or even six — percent interest payment doesn’t have that much of a relative impact on your monthly housing costs.

5 Things to Consider Before Starting a Master Bath Remodel

bathroom remodel

Bathroom Remodels Can Be Good Investments

When it comes to remodeling projects, there’s the rare exception that will return the entire cost of the improvement when you go to sell your home or have it appraised for a home equity loan. Although they don’t typically have above-cost ROIs, Remodeling Magazine’s 2018 Cost vs. Value survey found that midrange bathroom remodels returned 70.1 percent of their cost for home sellers and universal design bathrooms returned 70.6 percent. Neither figure isn’t too shabby, especially when you consider that adding an entire midrange master suite only returned 56.6 percent!

However, even Remodeling Magazine is quick to point out that these gains only apply to well-executed bathrooms, and there’s no shortage of bathroom remodels that have gone horribly wrong. Before you even start to put a dollar figure on your remodel, take some time to hop on Houzz, Zillow or Realtor.com and look up houses like yours. See what their master baths look like, how people updated them, what seems to be working and what is a real mess. The research on this project is going to take time, but it’s necessary for the best results possible.

Some Practical Questions to Ask Yourself

Sometimes the idea of remodeling your own home can sort of supercharge a fantasy where gravity doesn’t pull down the roof if you take out a bunch of structural walls, anything can be made to fit anywhere and cost is absolutely not an issue. This is a good time to develop a list of things you really, really want. But before you so much as look at your credit card or touch your savings account, let that early excitement fade. You need to approach a bathroom remodel with a level head or you may end up spending a fortune to gain very little.

With a clear head, consider these items before starting a master bathroom remodel:

#1. How does the existing setup work for me?

Hey, you may not love that pink tub, but it does seem like it’s kind of perfectly placed. The vanity, however, seems like it was just kind of dropped in place randomly. It’s weird and you kind of really hate it. Make notes on how the current configuration works or doesn’t so you can work on arranging the new parts properly.

#2. What are my goals for this bathroom?

This might seem a bit of an odd question, but if you think about it, you use this bathroom differently than its last owners use it, more likely than not. Maybe you need more plugs or more wall space. Possibly, you’re tired of the wallpaper and how hard the vinyl floor is to keep clean. Figure out the why of your remodel long before you cut the first check.

#3. Should I be using Universal Design principles?

Universal Design is one of those things that you’ve probably never heard of, but you’re still kind of thinking about anyway. Basically, Universal Design revolves around making spaces like bathroomseasier to access by everyone. That means people with disabilities, the elderly, anyone that might normally be excluded. For you, this is going to be about both resell, if that’s in the future, and aging in place. While you’re young and able, convert as much of your home to a Universal Design if you don’t plan to move again — you’ll thank yourself later.

#4. How long will it take?

Any sort of remodeling project can take a very long time to complete, especially if you’re doing most of the work yourself. This isn’t likely to be a weekend project and everything will be gross, wet and awful for a while — possibly months or years, depending on your budget and motivation level. If you’re hiring the job out, the contractor can give you a much better idea of their schedule, but since they’re highly motivated to get a check from you, even a massive remodel that involves knocking out walls shouldn’t take more than a couple of months.

#5. What’s it going to cost?

There are so many ways to remodel a bathroom that it’s as difficult to estimate costs in general as it is the timeframe it takes to spend that money. However, there are a few surveys that can help give us a peek at something like an answer. Remodel Magazine says that a mid-range bathroom remodel will run about $19k and an upscale remodel over $61k.

That being said, there are a lot of factors that can change that price dramatically. Obviously, the size of the bathroom now and the size it’ll be when you’re done are both huge variables. Another is whether or not you’re moving plumbing. Believe it or not, if you can work with plumbing where it sits, you’re going to save a lot of money. Sometimes all you need to do is twist a fixture around a bit to make it work better in the space.

If you’ve never remodeled a bathroom before, it might not be the best idea to start by yourself on your own. At very least, find a friend or family member who has a lot of DIY experience before you dive into a project of this scale on your own.

Closet Storage Systems Basics

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Your new home has an amazingly huge closet, but a startling lack of places to hang stuff. Sure, you could pile all your extra clothing, shoes and accessories in the corner, or move your antique dressers into the empty space, but there’s probably a better solution. Why not try a closet storage system?

Getting Started with Custom Closet Storage Solutions

If you cruise the aisles of your favorite home improvement store, you’ll eventually come to the DIY closet storage systems. Here, you’ll find a wide range of products, from basic wire shelving to wire and metal kits and laminated wood kits. The choices are sometimes overwhelming, to be quite honest.

Do you need a double rod system? Should you get one of those fancy cubby hole pieces for your shoes? Where will your winter boots go in the closet? Abort! Abort!! You have too many questions to do any buying today.

Now that you sort of know what’s available, take a step back and do some real planning. First, the budget. Can you afford a closet system? According to Fixr.com, even the cheapest closet systems run $200 to $500 when you do your own install. If you’ve hung long shelves before, this won’t necessarily be too much of a stretch of your skillset.

Considerations Before You Buy Your Closet System

You know what you like, and really, you probably know what you need, even if you’re doubting yourself right now. Start with a basic sketch of your closet, preferably on graph paper or something similar on your phone. You need to know exact dimensions, after all.

Now, ask yourself these questions:

  • * How much upper rod space do I really need?

  • * Do I need lower rods for jackets, shirts and the like?

  • * How many shoes do I actually own?

  • * Would it be handy to have drawers in my closet?

  • * Is my closet big enough that an island makes sense as a way to create more useable space?

  • * Where will I put my hamper(s)?

  • * Is this a shared space? If so, how will it be divided?

Once you’ve figured all of that out, you can sketch your closet out. This is just for the storage system, for this blog we’re going to ignore any lighting or electrical issues that could be applicable. Remember that if the space you have is 2 foot 3 inches wide, a cabinet that’s 2 foot 5 inches wide won’t fit. You can’t just smash these things and there’s no room to shave a little bit off, they either fit or they don’t — plan carefully.

What’s the Right Height for My Closet Rods?

Remodelers the world over have asked this question again and again. Technically, you can hang those rods anywhere you please. That goes double for an odd-shaped closet like those that often go with upstairs bedrooms or converted attics. However, according to the Family Handyman, this is where you should place rods for best results:

Double hung rods. The bottom should be at waist height, about 42 inches above the floor. The upper should be around 84 inches, so that each level has the same amount of vertical hanging space for shirts, jackets and other shorter items.

Long hang rods. For your dusters, your long dresses, your overalls — anything that’s long enough that it’s going to reach close to the floor when you’re wearing it goes on this rod. Because of the length of the items on it, it should be set about 70 inches off the floor.

Medium hang rods. Items that are roughly knee-length may fit better in your closet on their own rod. Hang them 60 inches off the floor and free up space on your long hang rod.

Pants rods. Do you wear pants? If so, you may need some of these rods in your closet. Set them at 54 inches off the floor.

Also, when installing these systems on your own, remember that closet rods need support at least every three feet, otherwise you risk bowing or collapse. However, adding one every two feet creates a much more secure setup if you have a lot of clothing.

Save Money and the Environment One LED Bulb at a Time

led bulbs

Way back in 2012, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was being phased in. One of the most useful — and controversial — results was that old fashioned light bulbs had to be reinvented. All light bulbs manufactured after the phase out dates, which varied from state to state, had to use 25 percent less energy than their ancestors.

With that one change in the way light bulbs would be made rose three major options for homeowners: the curly compact fluorescent bulb, halogen incandescents and the light emitting diode. Although there are some specific uses for halogen incandescents, the most commonly used bulbs in residential settings are CFLs and LEDs. Of the two, the LED is currently the most cost-effective option, even when adjusting for the difference in price.

What is an Light Emitting Diode?

The part that actually creates the light in an LED bulb is a tiny cell the size of a fleck of pepper. Using a mix of blue, red and green LEDs, a bulb manufacturer is able to create white, directional light that costs almost nothing to power.

Unlike incandescent bulbs that waste electricity by converting up to 90 percent of the energy they use into heat and CLFs that release about 80 percent of their energy as heat, LEDs release so little heat that they’re often cool to the touch even after hours of use.

An Energy Star rated LED bulb uses significantly less electricity (up to 75 percent!) and lasts up to 25 times longer than traditional lighting. This is no small thing, especially when you consider that every home, every business, every street light, may eventually sport these bulbs.

Doing the Math: Cost Savings With LEDs

The United States Department of Energy already did the math, a lucky break for bulb-shoppers everywhere. When new bulbs are compared to a traditional 60 watt bulb, the 12 watt LED outshines them all.

According to the Department of Energy, those LEDs use 75 to 80 percent less electricity than the 60 watt bulb and only costs about $1.00 to use for two hours each day for a year. Oh, and the bulb life is approximately 25,000 hours, compared to 1,000 hours for the old reliable.

This means that if you have, say, 50 bulbs in your house and they’re all running for five hours a day (a more realistic number than two hours), your cost to light up with an LED is about $125 each year, for 13.7 years, provided energy costs remain stable.

The same lighting use with the old fashioned incandescent would cost you $600 each year, plus you’d be replacing bulbs every 6.57 months. Sure, maybe they cost a buck or two each, but the constant replacement and increased electricity costs certainly can make a big impact on your pocketbook.

Choosing the Right Bulbs

Along with better lighting standards came a way to compare bulbs across platforms. After all, who really knows which CFL is equivalent to that LED or halogen incandescent option? The Lighting Facts Label solved that problem. Instead of measuring bulbs by the power they consume, it measures them by the light they produce.

Now, a 1600 lumen CFL, LED and halogen incandescent are easy to price compare. This label also includes information on how much energy the bulb uses annually, its lifespan and what color the light is that it produces, measured by the correlated color temperature on the Kelvin scale. It’s an easy way to know that you’re getting exactly what it is that you want in a bulb.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Radon

radon

You found the perfect home. It’s gorgeous, energy efficient, in a great neighborhood and well within your budget. You wonder to yourself, “why is this perfect home still on the market?” Then you read the disclosures. Your perfect pad has a serious radon problem.

Radon and You: 7 Things to Know

Radon is a reasonably common problem in homes, so if you come across a house that you absolutely adore, you’re not even remotely out of luck. Instead, you may reap the benefits of someone else’s lack of information about the gas. Here are seven things to know if you’re considering a home with a radon problem:

  1. Radon is a radioactive gas. You can’t smell it, see it or taste it, but it’s the second leading cause of lung cancer anyway. Of course, it doesn’t go straight to cancer right away, but exposure over time will increase the likelihood of lung cancer in the home’s occupants if it’s left alone.

  2. Testing for radon is simple. You can choose to perform a short-term, long-term or continuous test for radon levels in a building. The short-term tests are active charcoal-based and only take about a week to complete. These are the kind that are typically used by radon inspectors.

  3. Radon is everywhere. Radon occurs naturally in the environment as a result of the breakdown of radioactive elements, such as uranium. Because of that, it’s literally everywhere, but typically in very small amounts. It doesn’t become a problem until you’re exposed to high concentrations of the gas.

  4. Smokers are at higher risk of radon-related lung cancer. A 4pCi/L, the level at which radon mitigation is typically recommended, non-smokers have about the same risk of cancer as they do of dying in a car crash, that’s about 7 in 1,000 people. Smokers, on the other hand, are at a risk five times that of dying in a wreck and 62 out of 1,000 may develop lung cancer.

  5. You can mitigate radon in any home. With enough money and effort, any home can become a low radon zone. One in 15 homes has an unacceptably high radon level, which is why it’s so important to test yours. Note to home buyers: this is one of those things you can ask the seller to do prior to your occupancy.

  6. DIY is possible for radon control. Only attempt it if you’re intimately familiar with your home’s construction methods, radon gas and sampling procedures. A bad DIY radon job isn’t like a bad paint job — incorrect processes can result in higher radon levels than before.

  7. It’s possible that your house itself is causing your radon levels to be high. Certain building materials that happen to be almost everywhere in your home, like drywall and concrete, tend to radiate radon in very low levels. Once in a while, though, the radon coming out of the walls is more than just a little bit. In this case, you definitely need an expert to guide the mitigation.

Just because radon is everywhere doesn’t mean you have to live with it. Radon mitigation systems are very good at removing large amounts of radon from any home. Most work by literally sucking the radon right out of the crawlspace or from underneath a poured concrete slab like what you’d find in a basement.

Slabs must be sealed and barriers installed in crawl spaces to ensure that the radon has no place to go but up and out the vacuum system. Once released into the air above your home, it’s no longer a threat and you can breathe deeply once again.

If you need a radon vacuum, make sure yours comes with a continuous monitoring system as well. It might cost a little bit extra, but you’ll know exactly if or when radon levels are unacceptable. Since levels vary throughout the year, this is a good investment in your future.

5 Tips for Buying Power Washers

power washer

As summer slowly gives way to fall, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to clean up all the mess that’s accumulated around your house. You know the kind: algae growing on your siding, dirt and dust that’s discoloring your sidewalk and whatever that black stuff is on your deck.

It’s all gotta go and the best tool for the job is a power washer. 

Power Washers Can Be Dangerous

With any luck, this will the one and only time you’ll have to confront the idea that a pressure washer can be extremely dangerous. This isn’t just a high powered garden hose we’re talking about. Consumer units can send water out at 3,000 PSI or greater. When that’s matched with a narrow nozzle setting, you have a disaster waiting to happen.

Even pros have been known to make mistakes with high powered pressure washers, with results ranging from damage to the surface they were cleaning to more serious incidents like slicing through boots and flaying digits.

Don’t be a statistic. Always exercise caution with pressure washers.

Time to Go Shopping for Pressure Washers!

Find the pressure washer that’s best for the work you plan to throw at it. As a rule of thumb, the more water (measured in gallons per minute) coming out at a higher pressure rating (PSI) will do a job faster. However, there’s a balance to be struck here because there is such a thing as too much with these machines.

Here are our five top tips for choosing your own pressure washer:

1. Try before you buy. When it comes to tools, especially bigger items like power washers, it’s important to try one out before you buy it. Whether you rent one or you borrow one from a friend, note the GPM and the PSI of the machine so you have a baseline to start with. Then try it out. Do you like the results you’re getting? Does it seem like overkill? These questions can help you decide what, if any, machine will be best for your needs.
2. Err on the side of caution. Normally with tools you want to buy for the widest functionality possible, but when it comes to a pressure washer, you’re best to spend a little more time working the grime away with a lower powered unit. Not only will this save money, it could save you or a family member from major injury one day. Instead of jumping into the super industrial model, maybe consider the higher end homeowner model and see if it’ll do the job.
3. Go mobile! You can buy pressure washers that are portable, but you have to drag all over the place, or you can choose one with wheels that will follow where you pull it. If you’re going to be moving around with the unit a lot, opt for wheels. You’ll save time, energy and trouble — and it’ll help you get jobs done faster since you’re not having to constantly step it along as you spray.
4. Consider both the power and the flow. When you’re comparison shopping for your unit, take a look at both the PSI and the GPM. Together, these numbers tell you how the unit will perform overall. For most jobs around the house, units that produce about 2,000 PSI at 2 GPM will do the job. However, if you plan to clean a lot of siding or a big deck, a unit that generates about 2,800 PSI at 2 to 3 GPM may be more appropriate.
5. Choosing between electric and gas. Most of the lower end units that are meant for easy jobs around the house are powered by electricity. Despite their light weight and easy start up, you’ll probably end up lugging an extra cord around as you go. That being said, the heavier duty models will almost all be gas-powered, which means you’ll have to maintain them just like a lawnmower, even if you only use them once a year.

Garage Door Care

garage door care

You pull into and out of your garage hundreds of time a year, ever expecting your door to reliably open and close at your whim. Going up and down so much can be pretty taxing, which is why after being neglected for months or years, garage doors rightfully start to complain loudly.

If your door sounds more like a train’s “clack-clack” as it runs down the track, you’ve definitely let things go way too far. Fortunately, garage doors tend to be pretty foolproof and tolerate neglect more than other important parts in your home. But you’re not going to be neglectful, you’re going to do regular inspections and maintenance so it’ll last even longer, right?

Parts of a Garage Door

This may come as some surprise, but a garage door is more than a door. It’s a system of moving parts that we conveniently label as a “door.” Modern garage door systems include important pieces like:

* Opener. You know this one, it’s that big box in the center of the garage ceiling. The opener is designed with a shuttle that moved the door up and down with the help of a chain, screw or belt-driven motor. You can even get Smart Garage door openers now.
* Springs and cables. Your door might feel light if you manually lift it while it’s hung, but this is because of a highly tensioned giant spring (or two) mounted above your door and the cables that are attached. Always treat these with the respect required, they can be very dangerous to work on directly (call a pro!).
* Sensors. If you look closely near the bottom of each garage door track, you’ll see sensors that resemble tiny cameras. As a team they maintain an almost invisible laser beam that causes the door to reverse if something suddenly breaks it during door decent.

Of course, there are other bits and pieces we could talk about, but this is about taking care of your door, not examining its anatomy. We’ll do that another time. Just understand that these three systems are vital to the door’s function and without all of them in working order, the door becomes very unsafe and unreliable

Taking Care of Your Home’s Biggest Front Door

If you can’t remember the last time you did anything with your garage door, now is the time to get on this. The weather’s perfect and you could stand to get outside anyway. There are a few tasks that you should absolutely not attempt without help or considerable experience, like replacing a broken spring, but for the most part, garage door maintenance is a snap.

Run down this checklist and your door will be ready to roll again!

* Tighten all screws and bolts. That rattling sound isn’t just for ambience, your garage door vibrates as it moves up and down, slowly backing screws and bolts out. Start at the bottom and work your way up, tightening all fasteners and replacing any that seem to be missing or broken. Don’t forget to check the hinges between door panels!

* Pull the manual garage door release. With the garage door closed, pull that handle hanging down from your opener. With the opener’s shuttle unlocked, check your door’s balance by opening the door about half way. If it stays where you put it, you’re gold. If not, call a pro to help — rebalancing a door can be difficult and dangerous. Don’t forget to push the door open all the way to re-engage the opener’s shuttle.

* Check the safety reversal system. Grab a scrap 2×4, cement block or something of similar size and shape and place it directly in the path of the garage door. Make sure that the object isn’t breaking the beam, since this is testing a different part of your system. Now, shut the door using the garage door opener.

If the door stops as soon as contact is made, your safety reversal system is set properly. If not, you’ll need to find your manual and look up which knob or button is used to decrease the force required to stop the door. This is one of those things you’ll test way more often than you’ll have to adjust.

* Break the beam. Check that the indicator lights on your infrared sensors are showing that the eyes are adjusted properly. Once they’re looking deeply into each other’s eye, close the garage door. Before it reaches the ground, pass a broom between the sensors. The door should stop, otherwise your sensors may need to be cleaned or replaced.

* Grease some squeaky wheels. You’ve tightened hardware, tested the door’s safety features and you’re ready to go nap in your hammock. But wait! There’s one more thing. It’s time to lube the beast. You won’t actually be lubricating a lot of the system, you’ll be cleaning it, but it’ll run more smoothly and that’s the point.

Start with the track itself, cleaning it with carburetor or brake cleaner and a cloth. Next, using a silicone based garage door lubricant, spray between the pin and wheel on each roller, wiping off any excess (lubricant doesn’t belong on the track). If your rollers are nylon, take extra special care because they slip easily.

You can also use the same lubricant to coat the outside of your torsion spring (the one above the door itself). Again watch for drips.

Easy Ways to Keep Cool This Summer

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How Air Conditioners Work

To really get to the heart of the matter, it’s important that you understand how an air conditioner works. This way, you can strategically plan ways to help it work better, rather than doing things that are counter to its function.

Room air is cooled by an air conditioning unit (or heat pump) in three basic steps:

1. The fan located inside your indoor air handler or furnace kicks on, sucking room air in through your cold air returns. The air passes through your filter, so make sure it’s clean!
2. The warm room air then moves over a set of coils that contain a refrigerant, which cools the indoor air and causes it to release water. The water drops into a pan and is removed via the condensation line. At the same time, the liquid refrigerant inside the coils absorbs the heat, changing into a warm vapor, which is then pushed outside to the condenser coil in your outdoor unit, where it releases the heat from your home.
3. Since the fan is still running on your air handler, cold air comes out the vents and more warm air is sucked across the evaporator coil (also known as the a-coil because of the inverted v shape). Meanwhile, the fan in the outdoor unit is cooling the refrigerant down until it turns back into a liquid and moves back into your home toward the evaporator coil where this whole cycle started.

Help Your Air Conditioner Out

Though your A/C unit is absolutely doing the best it can, it could probably do a lot better if you’d lend it a hand. As a homeowner, this benefits you in two ways: first, your house is cheaper to cool and secondly, not pushing your condenser unit as hard as it possibly can go can help prolong its life. Some of the things that can make a big impact should really be performed by a pro, but there are lots of little ways you can contribute to the health and happiness of your entire household. Try these out:

Start with the outside unit. Your condenser unit should always be free of weeds and debris, no matter what time of year it is, but it’s doubly important in the summer. The more garbage that’s plugging up the fins on the coil, the less air movement — and more effort required — for cooling the refrigerant down.

You can also help your unit by giving it a bath at least once a month. Just take a regular garden hose with a trigger sprayer and go all the way around the unit, spraying between the fins, until the water runs clear. Lots of dirt and sand could be hiding up in there, reducing your unit’s efficiency. A fin comb can also help straighten bent fins.

While you’re at it, make sure that unit has plenty of shade. Plant a tree, erect a sunshade, build a little roof over it (but allow at least two feet all around and on top for adequate air flow). The heat from the sun is yet another enemy of the refrigerant in the coil. Keep it as cool as you can with what you have to work with.

Take advantage of those ceiling fans. As the days get warmer, make it a point to set your ceiling fans to rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, pushing air down. You do double duty with this one. The proper rotation creates a chilling effect that allows the average homeowner to keep their thermostat as much as four degrees Fahrenheit higher than they would without the fans blowing. It also helps keep the cold air more evenly distributed, assuming you have ceiling fans in all or most of your rooms.

Cover the windows. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how good your windows are when the worst of the summer’s heat is beating down on them, there’s going to be a noticeable warming coming from that direction. This is when having heavy curtains, thick blinds or other heavy-duty window coverings comes in handy. During the part of the day when the sun hits your windows the hardest, cover them up to reduce heat radiating into your cool spaces. Another option for places where it stays hot a lot of the year is to add awnings over windows that are chronic sources of radiant heat.

Do hot stuff at night. Meaning your cooking, your drying, your extra hot baths — whatever produces heat that’s not really tied to any specific point in the day should be moved to the night shift. If you absolutely need to do these things during the day, keep the cooking limited to the small appliances, dry your laundry outside in the smouldering heat and maybe try a warmish shower. Remember, the more heat you add to the house, the more heat your air conditioner has to move out of your house. Don’t make it an unwinnable battle.

What About the Bigger Stuff?

There are other improvements to your home that can help keep the heat out — they should be performed by a professional installer. Most of this takes place in the attic or on the roof, including installing radiant barriers to reflect the sun’s heat, attic fans that can push the super hot air out and suck in relatively cooler outside air and verifying that you have adequate attic ventilation and insulation.

There are plenty of pros in your HomeKeepr community who can help you get on the road to a totally chill summer this year. Your Realtor has already recommended them and they’re ready to get to work!

Native Planting: Low Maintenance Landscaping

native plants chicago

What’s the Difference Between Native Plants and Weeds?

Native plants are plants that have evolved in a particular location and ecosystem over hundreds or thousands of years. For a plant to be considered native by the USDA, it must have been growing in the ecosystem before European settlers came to the Americas. Weeds are a threat to agriculture and/or natural ecosystems. 

How to Care for Native Plants

If you want an ornamental garden without all the fuss, native plants are for you. Caring for them is simple once they’re established (usually after the first year for perennials and shrubs), but not much more difficult when they’re just starting out. Your particular area may have native plants that need different conditions, so be sure to ask nursery personnel before committing. Below you’ll find recommended care for native plants in general:

Light. The amount of light your plants will need is dependent on where they come from. Woodland edge plants like violets prefer part sun to part shade, where desert favorites like barrel cactus prefer full sun.
Soil. Your plants are native to your area. In a perfect world, this means that they like the soil that you happen to have around. If you’ve got a low spot where water tends to gather in an area that’s otherwise pretty dry, you need to check the plant’s ability to tolerate the moisture in that small area before planting. If it’s not water-tolerant, you can amend the soil with organic material like peat to increase the rate at which it drains.
Water. For the first year or so, you will need to water your baby plants. Summer is generally when these little guys dry out and die, so take a walk through the landscape in the morning and give them all a good dousing. You can also set up drip irrigation to continue your low maintenance theme.
Mulch. Every plant that you don’t want to turn in a weedy mess needs mulch. Dress your natives with two to four inches of organic mulch, but do not install a geotextile. Garden fabric will prevent the plants from spreading.
Feeding. If your natives are truly well-suited to your yard, you won’t need to feed them much at all. In fact, feeding them could kill them. Always soil test before feeding natives — with these plants, a little dab of nutrition will do it.
Other Care. Yearly, add more mulch. You can also deadhead flowers that have dried up to make the plants look nicer. Otherwise, if the plants you choose are good matches for your conditions, you can expect high disease and insect tolerance and low input on your part.

Other Advantages to Native Plants

Besides being super easy to care for, native plants offer a slew of other benefits. Most importantly, they fill a unique spot in the local ecosystem. That means birds, butterflies and wildlife may take shelter under your bigger natives or use them as a food source. Since your landscape will accept the water that nature provides, you’ll also not need to water as much, or at all. That’s a huge savings in both cash and resources.

Oh, and your native plant garden may help to keep other native plant populations going, especially if your neighbors also get on the native plant bandwagon. Your plants could literally be seeding the next generation down the street with the help of some bee or passing moth. It’s the circle of life.

But most importantly, when you’re looking out over your coffee cup in the morning, you’ll be greeted by a living painting that changes with the seasons and you didn’t have to do much to make happen. That’s really the ultimate reason to plant natives!

Creating Easy Care Landscaping

easy landscaping

Is your landscaping full of weeds? Are you finding yourself driving by neighbors’ homes, envying their perfect, weed-free plantings? If so, you may be in need of some easy landscaping. You can have a low-care landscape, even if the upfront labor means giving up a few weekends.

What’s Wrong in the Landscaping?

It’s not hard to guess what’s gone wrong with your beds if weeds are popping up where they should never be or your mulch looks like it’s turning to dust. There’s something keeping that mulch from mixing with the soil and that something is probably a geotextile or plastic mulch.

Geotextiles are woven fabrics that allow water to pass through into the soil, but prevent evaporation. They can be good deterrents for weed seeds that are in the soil, but once an organic mulch like wood chips or pine needles is placed on top, they prevent the breaking-down mulch from mixing with the dirt below. Instead, that mulch powder creates a medium for new weed seeds to take root, eventually poking holes through the fabric below with their roots.

This is not awesome, as you might have guessed.

The best solution for this situation is to take out the old landscape fabric or plastic (if it’s plastic, you have a huge job ahead of you, as it tends to tear aggressively after only a few years in use) and rethink the whole situation. This is a demolition job that takes a lot of elbow grease, but no particular expertise. Just try to get most of the powdered mulch onto the bed below so it can finish breaking down.

The Pros and Cons of Geotextiles

As previously mentioned, geotextiles allow the soil below to absorb and retain water, but they don’t let nutrients from above mix in. They’re frequently used on landscape installations and overhyped as “maintenance free” barriers. What a typical homeowner hears is “I’ll never have to do anything with this again.” What the typical installer means is “you’re gonna get some good years of ignoring this, but wait too long and you’ll pay in backbreaking labor.”

Geotextiles are not a permanent solution, for a lot of reasons. We now know that they discourage insects and earthworms, since there’s not direct access to the surface of the soil. Since those creatures are needed to help aerate the various layers under your plants, soil compaction can become an issue. Then there’s the matter of that broken down mulch up above: it has nowhere to go. It can only clog the geotextile at worst and hang around to grow weeds at the best.

If you’re prepared to completely remove all your mulch when it starts to break down, or want to use inorganic mulches like stones, then a geotextile may be a fine solution. A careful installation of professional grade fabric, reserved for plants that have a central stem or that are already mature, is ideal. Keep in mind that spreading plants can’t function properly under any sort of weed fabric, as it stifles their growth, too.

Another Option: Mulch and Lots of It

For homeowners who are less interested in interacting with the landscape and more interested in just looking at it, organic mulch without a weed barrier is the best solution. You’ll need to replace broken down mulch yearly, but a few pre-emergent herbicide sprays throughout the season should be all you really need to keep the beds healthy.

Organic mulches like bark, shredded wood, pine needles and cotton seed hull break down, eventually feeding the plants below. They also allow you to plant whatever you want, since anything from single trunked trees to spreading rhizomes like Iris can move through and above the soil with equal ease when necessary.

If you’re installing a mulch-only cover, remember to use a four to six inch metal retainer so the mulch won’t slide away during heavy rains or winds. There are several on the market that you essentially just pound into the soil around your beds, they’re a snap to install.

With that skirting installed, you’ll want to fill your bed with two to four inches of fresh mulch, depending on local weather conditions and the size of your plantings. Just make sure that the mulch doesn’t touch any trunks or stems. Create a little donut-shaped moat around each plant for best results.

It may be less expensive to buy mulch by the truckload if you have a lot of beds, make sure to check with your local municipality about free or low-cost mulch created from limb and yard waste from your area. This isn’t the most attractive mulch sometimes, but it can help lower the costs of a whole yard makeover. Just top with about an inch of nicer mulch for a gorgeous, inexpensive mulch job.

Home Gardening: The Dirty Work

soil testing

Gardening is an exercise in improvisation, forcing you to work with soil that’s probably less than ideal to grow plants that may have very specific nutritional requirements. How do you know when your garden’s ready to grow plants?

Soil Testing 101

There are two ways to do a soil test, you can either buy a soil testing kit from a local home improvement store or you can connect with the local university extension office. A rapid test (the home test) can give you a lot of information to start with, but if it detects serious problems, you’ll need to resample and have the extension run it. The cost is typically minimal and the information they’ll provide can guide your amendment decisions.

It’s your call — doing a rapid test is a great way to get an idea about what’s up in the garden, but an extension test will give you deep level details. Their tests are designed for agriculture, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for your future blueberry patch.

Either way you choose, you’ll have to take some samples. Using a proper soil core sampling probe (or you can wing it with a pointy hand trowel), dig into the soil about eight inches, then bring up your first sample. You only need a bit, but it’s a good idea to keep each sample roughly the same size. When you’re done, you should mix all the soil together to create a combined sample (several plugs from across the whole area you’re trying to plant).

If you’re using a home test, you’ll get the basic information you really need to start. Your home soil test kit should contain these four tests, minimum:

pH. Some plants like acidic soil, others like alkaline. Obviously, you can’t plant the two types in the same garden, since it’s impossible to create both conditions at once. Many gardeners choose plants based on the pH of the soil, rather than trying to alter the soil to fit their plants of choice. The first option is way easier in the long term.

Nitrogen (N). Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients for most plants. It’s a major component of chlorophyll, the green substance that allows plants to make their own food. In general, more nitrogen is better than less, but there’s a limit on that. Too much of a good thing will cause your plants to grow rapidly, putting out a lot of leaves at the expense of flowers and fruit. Many overly-nitrogened plants will get “leggy,” that is to say that they’re taller, thinner and more frail than they should be.

There’s one exception to the “more is better” philosophy of nitrogen. If you’re planting legumes, either ornamental or edible, low nitrogen levels aren’t a problem. They have structures on their roots that harbor nitrogen-producing bacteria, so they’ve basically brought their own nitrogen to the party. If you turn annual or edible legumes back into the garden before they die naturally, you can also improve the nitrogen levels of the soil over time.

Phosphorus (P). Phosphorus helps plants mature, as well as being vital to flower and fruit production. Without sufficient phosphorus, your plants will be stunted, they may have a purple cast and they’re definitely going to be a serious let down. It’s difficult to get too much phosphorus in your soil, though. In fact, top dressing your plants with a little extra phosphorus can really get them going in the spring.

Potassium (K). Did you know that plants breathe? Well, they release oxygen regularly through openings on their leaves called stoma. If your plants don’t get enough potassium, they can’t open those stoma efficiently and their entire respiratory system starts to kind of fall apart. Potassium is used in many other metabolic and growth-related functions, as well. If you don’t have enough, your plants are doomed.

Amending the Garden

There are lots of different things that might be going wrong in your garden, which you’ll know all about because of your soil test results. Since the combinations are nearly endless, we’ll discuss amendment in a sort of general sense. Otherwise, you’ll be reading all night instead of taking care of your garden!

If you’re using a general purpose fertilizer to correct your N-P-K (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) issues, you’ll want to apply your fertilizer of choice to the bed you’re working long before planting. Typically, the bag will say how much to mix into the soil per square foot or per foot of growth if you’re fertilizing a tree or big shrub. All you need to do is scatter the granules across the soil and cover them with an inch or so of soil. Watering the whole thing will help prevent any sort of blow-away and allows the fertilizer to start moving deeper into the soil.

As for what to buy, if N, P and K are kind of the same on your soil test, go with a balanced fertilizer. A 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 will provide equal parts of each of the NPK components. If you have a lot of nitrogen, for example, and simply want to improve your potassium levels, then just buy a fertilizer that breaks down into potassium. It’s really that easy.

pH problems are harder. Much harder. You can get lots of different products to adjust that pH, some are organic, in that they’re made from plant materials, others are strictly chemical. The main advantage of the chemical treatment is that it can change the pH of the soil very quickly. Organic amendments, on the other hand, have to break down before they can start being effective. Those are really best applied in the fall so that they have all winter to turn into juicy plant nutrients. The fall is also a great time to apply compost to keep your soil light and airy.

No matter which products you choose, it’s important to give it a little time (at least a week) and sample again before making any other changes to the soil. Correcting soil problems is a slow process, but when you’ve mastered the garden, you’ll be able to plant exactly what you want there and find tremendous success.