Smart Blinds for Homeowners
smart blinds

It seems that everything is getting smarter these days. You’ve got your basic smartphone, your smart security system, your smart speakers and even smart refrigerators. It should come as no surprise that someone managed to make window blinds that are pretty smart, too.

On first glance, these things look like one of the least useful smart products out there. When you dig a bit deeper, though, it’s clear that smart blinds, much like smart thermostats, are actually a great way to save energy and make your home safer, all while you lounge on the couch conversing with Alexa and Siri.

What are Smart Blinds?

Smart blinds, like most things that are considered “smart,” are literally window blinds that can be controlled remotely through a smartphone app, and, in this case, by the voice assistant of your choice. You can use the app to open the blinds, close the blinds or set them somewhere in between.

While this doesn’t sound like much, if you think about the regularity at which you perform these mundane tasks, having smart blinds take care of themselves is a huge time saver in the long run. But, that’s not really what’s so cool about them. Here are a few things that are, though:

  • They help people with disabilities. People with a variety of disabilities are benefiting from smart homes in lots of ways. When it comes to blinds, it means making it easier for everyone to let the sun shine in or to shut the blinds at night for a little privacy.

  • They increase safety. Whether you’re going on vacation or you’re just working late, having blinds that are able to shut on their own makes it look like someone is home, even when you’re not. It helps to deter crime, which is a good thing, for sure.

  • They can save energy. By cleverly orchestrating the times that your blinds are open or closed, you can help reduce the use of your HVAC system all year long. More on this later.

There are few drawbacks to having smart blinds, if you can get beyond the price point. Many manufacturers are still treating these devices as luxury buys, pushing the cost of a single blind into the hundreds of dollars.

Ikea recently announced it would be releasing its own line of basic smart blinds in the US on April 1, 2019. They’re still not in everybody’s price range, but are far more accessible with units starting around $135.

How Do Smart Blinds Save Energy?

Before you rush out to buy smart blinds because your electricity bill is out of control, keep two things in mind: first, not all blinds will perform the same or have the same features, so make sure to read the packaging or ask a knowledgeable person about those energy saving functions. Secondly, smart blinds are only as good as the person telling them what to do. So, if you don’t tweak your programs a little bit to dial in your settings, you’re not going to get great results.

Like any blind, smart blinds can be used to help reduce the strain on your HVAC system. This is done largely by blocking the sun’s rays that warm up your home. Other types of smart window treatments can act as insulators against the cold. Neither is perfect, but they do work pretty well.

When it comes to saving energy, you will have to tell the blind what you want it to do. If you want the smart blinds on the west side of your home to close entirely around 1 pm and stay closed until 4 pm, set it in the app. Some blinds, like those from MySmartBlinds, can automatically determine when to open or close, but you’ll need to enable this feature if you want your blinds to close in response to solar radiation.

Smart blinds are a great investment if you plan to stay in your house for a while. Not only are they neat and gadgety for anyone interested in the Internet of Things, they can really reduce your utility bills. It could take a while for them to pay for themselves, though — shop carefully!

Philip Schwartz
3 Better Ways to Track Your Home-Related Expenses
tracking home inspections

Owning a home means having a place that’s safe and secure to come back to after a long day at work, every day, forever, until you decide it’s time to buy a different home. In exchange for all this homeiness, all you have to do is keep all the broken bits together, maintain the grass and track home-related expenses.

Oh yes. If you don’t do a little bookkeeping, the tax man gets his and more. Might as well keep that cash as not, right?

Why You Should Track Home-Related Expenses

Your primary residence isn’t an investment, this has been said time and again (especially since the market crashed entirely), but that doesn’t mean that when you go to sell you have to take a loss. Far from it.

In fact, as of the writing of this article, you’ll likely qualify for a tax exclusion (meaning you won’t pay taxes on this amount of profit from your home sale) of $250,000 if you file on your own or $500,000 if you and your spouse file your taxes together. But, if you sold and there was more than the applicable amount in gains, you’ll have to pay taxes only on the profit above the mark. When you have all your ducks in a row, it gets a lot easier to see what side of that line you stand on.

Reducing Your Tax Burden is the Goal

When your gain from your home sale exceeds your tax exclusion, there are two ways to help improve the situation with all those receipts you’ve been saving (you have been saving them, haven’t you?). First, you can deduct expenses related to selling your home, provided these are not expenses that affect the house physically. Think closing fees, brokerage commissions, and some seller-paid closing costs.

The other way to reduce your capital gains burden is to produce records that account for your extensive remodeling. These are the kinds of projects you definitely need a hand with. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Adding an additional room

  • Upgrading your kitchen

  • Replacing flooring

  • Having new landscaping installed

  • Putting on a new roof

The best part? These don’t have to be from the same tax year as when you sold. If you added that bedroom three years ago, pony up the receipts and reduce your tax burden. Unfortunately, regular home maintenance isn’t included on this list of ways to save a few dollars. Make sure you keep those receipts separate.

Get a Little Help From Your Friends

Keeping track of your personal finances, let alone the expenses related to your home, can be a daunting task. There are so many ways to pay these days and so many different kinds of things to pay for. This is the very reason, though, that you must be even more careful when tracking home-related spending.

Everybody has their own system, to be sure, but some are clearly superior to others. For example, if your plan is just to toss a bunch of receipts in a bucket until you get around to sorting them and manually recording each one, you may want to look into something a bit more efficient.

Even an Excel workbook is out-modeled these days, but there are several different types of apps you can use to help track your expenses, including:

  • Complete personal finance apps. Popular apps like Mint and Wally are essentially full personal finance packages that happen to store receipts. While you can give these apps permission to grab you bank information from a variety of banks all at once, you may end up with enough data that it’s a trick to find those old receipts down the road.

  • Dedicated receipt storage. ShoeboxedReceipts by Wave and Expensify are far more focused on the receipt part of your financial picture. All allow you to photograph and upload the receipts in question, can export the data you collect as a variety of reports and have a cloud-storage option, so you don’t have to worry that you’ll lose your receipts if you change phones or need to reload your operating system. PS. BTW, Shoeboxed will actually take that bucket of receipts and process them for you if you mail them in.

  • Receipt storage designed for homeowners. Not to toot our own horns, but toot toot. HomeKeepr allows you to scan your receipts in and helps you track home-related expenses automatically. All you need to do is snap a picture of your receipt and the software does the rest. You can then sort your receipts by the service type or business so you can see at a glance how much you’re spending on your project. Unlike other receipt trackers, HomeKeepr can track and maintain records for related items like appliance manuals and maintenance tasks that are due for your home.


Philip Schwartz
How to Drain Your Water Heater
flush water heater

Of all the things that civilization has brought us, including sliced bread, hot water may be the very best. It’s certainly up there, without a doubt. So, it would follow that if you really value that hot water, you’d want to care for and protect the equipment that makes it possible.

Whether you’re doing it as a bit of regular maintenance or because you’re leaving a vacation or rental home unoccupied, draining said water heater is one of the easiest things you can do to keep that particular appliance in tip-top shape.

Why You Should Drain Your Hot Water Heater

Most water supplies contain lots of random minerals in various quantities. Get enough of them together and you get “hard” water, which really just means it has a lot of minerals in suspension. Over time, these minerals settle out and land in the bottom of your hot water heater. Given enough time, a layer thick enough to interfere with the function of the appliance will develop.

Before you reach that point, a maintenance flush is in order. How often you flush depends on a lot of factors, including the size of the hot water heater and how often it’s used. A good rule of thumb is to flush your water heater every six to 12 months, whether you think it needs it or not. It’s better to wash those particles out before they become a problem.

Of course, draining your water heater isn’t just about flushing particles. If you’re going to leave a house sitting empty for a significant period of time, you should empty the hot water tank. Draining the hot water heater is an important part of winterizing vacant homes, it helps to protect the heater itself from damage due to low temperatures. When the water lines are also drained, emptying them completely keeps them from freezing and bursting.

How to Drain a Water Heater

Draining a hot water heater is a really simple process. In fact, the hardest part is working with water hot enough to scald you. Before you even get started, snagging some thick dishwashing gloves or other heavy, insulated and very importantly, non-absorbent, form of hand protection.If you’re wearing thick cotton gloves, for example, they’ll just hold that extremely hot water against your skin.

With your skin adequately protected, draining or flushing your hot water heater is a piece of cake. Just follow these steps:

  1. Turn off the water heater. If it’s electric, flip the breaker; for gas units, turn the gas off or set the unit to “pilot.”

  2. Wait patiently for the water to cool a bit. The longer you give it, the safer you’ll be. (You can skip this step, but do so with caution)

  3. Turn the cold water off. You can’t drain a water heater that’s constantly filling up!

  4. Open some faucets. Pick a faucet or two close to the water heater and turn the hot side on and leave it on until you’re totally done with the draining portion of the show. This helps speed up the draining and prevents vacuums from forming in the pipes.

  5. Attach a water hose. It’ll screw onto the brass drain valve near the bottom of the unit.

  6. Pick a spot to dump the water. There’s a lot of water about to come out of that hose, so choose your disposal option carefully. Outdoors is a good place to run the hose (just not too close to the house), but if you can’t reach that far, a sump pit, floor drain or big bucket will do.

  7. Open the valve! This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Open the value (you may need a screwdriver). If you’re flushing the hot water heater, then let it run a few gallons at a time into a bucket so you can tell when the sediment has finished coming out of the unit.

If you’re draining your hot water heater because you’re leaving the house empty for a while, you’re essentially done with the water heater now (winterizing a home is a whole different blog). If you’re flushing sediment, keep going until you see the water run clear, then do all those steps in reverse for a hot water heater with shiny clean insides and hot water.

Philip Schwartz
Have You Made Any of These 5 Credit Mistakes As a Homebuyer?

You’ve been renting for a while now and it feels like the timing is right to make the leap to homeownership. After all, your friends are all buying houses and your job feels pretty stable, how many more hints that it’s time to settle down could you really need?

Well, if you’ve given it considerable thought, are certain you can cover emergency costs like unexpected roof replacement or furnace repair and you have a realistic expectation of what you can afford, then full speed ahead. Buying a house is a trying experience, only made significantly worse by credit mistakes.

Top Credit Mistakes to Avoid When Buying a Home

Everybody makes mistakes, especially when it comes to their credit. The process by which your credit score is generated has long been veiled in shadows, making it doubly easy to misstep without even knowing it. However, there are certain mistakes that homebuyers make again and again, including these items that are obviously impactful to your credit score:

1. Not knowing what’s in your credit file to begin with. The last thing you need is a bit of a surprise when you go to apply for a mortgage. If you have collections that you’re unaware of, judgements that were never served to you or just plain bad information in your file, these items have to be handle now. It can take a while to completely erase the effects of any negative information in your credit file, so you need to get started right away.

Go to annualcreditreport.com for your once a year free credit report, download that thing and print it out. Check it line by line for accuracy and contact any collection agents that may be listed so you can work out a payment plan on that cable bill you left behind in your college apartment and totally forget to pay.

2. Applying for mortgages over a long period of time. Sure, it makes sense to pull your credit file six months to a year ahead of when you plan to purchase, since there might be surprises that will require time to fix. If you pull your scores yourself, it’s not as big of a hit to you as it would be it you had a lender checking your scores, say, monthly. When you are definitely ready to buy, do all your mortgage shopping within a 14 to 45 day window (depending on the scoring model and version). Ask your lender how long credit inquiries for mortgages will remain grouped, only being counted as a single credit pull. Otherwise, so many hard pulls will ensure that you don’t move forward to purchase.

3. Opening new lines of credit in anticipation of closing. Did you give any thought to skipping the line and buying a new couch today, rather than after your closing? How about doing that while maxing out a brand new credit line? This is a huge and terrifyingly common mistake that people make. It makes sense, it really does, you just want to be ready to get your move over with quickly once you get the keys.

The problem with a new inquiry is sort of a double whammy. First, it’s a hard pull on your credit, which will reduce your score slightly. Secondly, if you use that credit line, your debt to income will increase. In fact, depending on how much of that credit line you use, your utilization rate may also increase.

TL;DR: don’t take out new credit. Your credit score, debt to income ratio and possibly your credit utilization will take a big hit and your loan may be cancelled at the last minute when underwriting is re-verifying your application.

4. Maxing out existing credit lines. Moving is really expensive, even if you’re just moving across town. The moving truck alone can cost hundreds of dollars, and that’s if you do the job yourself. There’s nothing wrong with renting a truck, hiring a mover or even hiring a whole lot of movers, just do it after closing. If anything changes to the negative about your credit score, credit utilization and your debt to income ratio, as stated above, your loan can be cancelled. This is not a drill.

5. Failing to forward your bills. After closing, you could still make a few credit mistakes problems related to your move. Did you remember to pay the last utility bill at your old place? How about the broadband? It may seem like an obvious error to avoid, but when you’re in that moving stress haze, sometimes it’s all you can do to grab a pot of coffee and get moving again. Your credit is pretty good right now, don’t forget to pay those final bills.

Buying a house with a mortgage can feel like an exercise in paperwork collection, but the truth is that all of it is necessary for you to get the very best price from your lender. After all, what they’re really doing is trying to ensure your success with their loan. When you succeed, they succeed.

Philip Schwartz
5 Tips for a Healthy Chimney Flue
chimney flue

For many people in North America, the weather outside is still pretty frightful, but a fire is so delightful. That is, as long as their flues are in good shape. Homeowners, especially in their first home, may not realize how much maintenance a flue requires if it’s part of a wood-burning fireplace.

But you can absolutely have the whole crackling fire experience in your own house with a little care and planning. After all, a dirty flue is a deadly flue.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Flue Care

Owning a fireplace is a little like owning an exotic sports car. It’s nice to look at, you might use it now and again, but most owners don’t really know how to properly care for them. That’s ok, that’s what we’re here for. If you’re eyeballing that firebox right about now, make sure your flue is totally safe and ready to go with these five tips:

  1. Check that the bricks are secured and not falling apart. Don’t even think about firing up the fireplace until you’ve thoroughly inspected the brick on the outside. As fireplaces age, the bricks experience a condition known as spalling, where the faces of the bricks literally fall off due to repeated exposure to the environment. Bricks that are spalling have got to be repaired or replaced, otherwise your brick flue may not be able to tolerate the heat from the fire. They can also randomly fall and injure people below.

  2. Have a chimney Inspection. Did you have your chimney inspected? Ever? If not, now is the time. Many chimney fires go undetected because they’re slow burning and occur in the upper portion of the flue. Although these are often minor fires, over time, the wear to the chimney is for real and can cause much more serious problems like heat damage to your attic, damaged roofing or destruction of the chimney liner which can then lead to carbon monoxide leaking into the house You can inspect the lower part of your flue fairly easily, but you will need a pro for the upper portion, so you might as well let them take a look from top to bottom.

  3. Clean that chimney. If your inspection determined that there was some sort of issue or significant creosote build-up, you want to have your chimney professionally cleaned before using it. Again, this is not something you can really do yourself and skipping it is putting you at serious risk of a flue fire, which is not something you want to wake up to at 2 am. Your chimney inspector is likely also a chimney sweep, just ask them to do the work while they’re there and you’ll save a separate trip charge.

  4. Legally remove any unwanted visitors. Even if that flue is totally clean, you’re still not necessarily in the clear. There are a number of animals that tend to take up residence inside unguarded flues. Do you ever hear strange noises or scratching coming from the inside of the flue? It could be all sorts of critters, from chimney swallows to bats and even raccoons. Adding a special chimney cap that allows the pest out after their young have been raised (check your local laws because some of these animals are considered protected species) will keep them from coming back again.

  5. Install a new liner. Older brick chimneys are notorious for leaking dangerous gasses and smoke into homes because the aged clay liners crack and break down over time. It’s not that you can’t use them, but you’ll need to replace the interior lining first. Chimney pros can generally install a new clay, metal or cast-in-place cement-like liners in almost no time and with little stress to you. In fact, you’ll find that you can rest a lot easier knowing that your flue liner is all brand new and with proper care, can last a very long time.

It’s hard to stress enough that major flue care is not a do-it-yourself project. Even if your local building codes allow you to make changes to your flue without a permit, don’t do it. This is a recipe for a house fire. Instead, always call a chimney pro to ensure that all is well. A yearly chimney inspection is a good idea if you intend to use your fireplace a lot. Having a wood-burning fireplace insert installed is another way to help reduce the risk of unwanted fires.

Philip Schwartz
Pursuing a Historic Designation for Your Home
Pullman Historic District on Chicago’s south side

Pullman Historic District on Chicago’s south side

You knew the moment you walked through the perfectly preserved arch-topped doors that this was one very special house. As your real estate agent guided you from room to room, all you could think was that there had to be a catch to this house. Something had to be really wrong for such a gem to even be available in your price range. The history, the craftsmanship, the neighborhood! It was all too much.

So you bought that fabulous house. And now you’re thinking about applying for a historic designation, since it is such a lovely, special structure.

Types of Historic Designations

Before you jump in with both feet, it’s a good idea to get a feel for what type of designation would be most appropriate for your home. There are three main designation levels and multiple registers that you could pursue. The historic designation levels are:

  • Federal. Managed by the National Park Service, both the National Historic Landmarks Program (NHL) and the National Register for Historic Places (NR) accept the right homes. These properties are strongly associated with significant events and people from America’s history, as well as buildings that stand as excellent examples of construction or engineering methods. NHL properties must be important on a national level, but NR homes can be of strictly local significance.

  • State. Not every state has a register, but plenty do. The requirements vary widely, but you can expect that the home in question will need to meet much of the same criteria as for the NR. Contact your State Historic Preservation Office for detailed information on its application process.

  • Local. If you already live in a historic district, you may be familiar with the workings of local historic designations. Often, homes already within a district with special zoning that is worded such that their historic integrity is preserved by default are easy to get onto a local registry. Otherwise, you may be able to secure a stand-alone historic designation (or band together with the neighbors to create a historic district). Creating a new district means that a new preservation ordinance will have to be created, too. It will govern how properties are designated as historic properties within the district, as well as establishing a design review board.

Note: Your home can easily qualify for all three designation levels, so research your history carefully in order to build the best case possible for the historic designations you’re seeking.

Pros and Cons of Owning a Historic Home

Buying that potentially historic home may have been one of your best decisions ever, even if you don’t end up getting a historic designation. Older homes have so much about them to love, along with a lot of things you’ll quickly learn are (potentially unlovable) quirks unique to that property. Turning your older home into an officially historic property is an involved process, but for many homeowners it’s worth the effort. Let’s look at the pros and cons of it.

Pros:

  • Grants, low interest loans and tax credits. Depending on where your home is located, the shape it’s in and whether or not the area is already a designated historic district, you may be able to rack up the dollars to help fund your remodeling projects. Keep in mind that you’ll probably have a lot of rules to follow to keep the home as close to historically accurate as possible, but that will absolutely vary from district to district.

  • Potential bump in value. This is a tricky one. If you’re working with a real estate agent and an appraiser that understand the value of a historic designation, then you may see a bump in your home’s value once you’ve secured it. This is good if you’re looking to sell, possibly better if you’re just looking to refinance and shed some mortgage insurance. It could also increase your taxes, though, so keep that in mind.

  • Protection from federal government work that may threaten it. This is a little trickier, but any property listed on the federal registers is protected from threats from federal building projects. If the federal government wants to build a highway through your front yard, you can waggle your brass plaque at them and they’re generally not able to interfere.

Cons:

  • Can come with lots of rules and slow red tape. Getting a house designated as “historic” means doing some major paperwork, but you knew that was coming. You might have not expected the years-long wait for the designation to be approved or denied. Even if it is approved, you may have a lot of new rules from your municipality to deal with. So, basically, you’re going to be dealing with red tape and government bureaucracy as long as you own that historic property.

  • Insurance may be higher. You may pay more for insurance due to extra costs associated with rebuilding a historic structure, plus the likelihood that something in your house isn’t up to code. After 50 or 100 years, it’s to be expected, really. Things in the walls you just can’t get to pose risks and your insurance company knows this.

  • You may have to bring systems completely up to code. Generally, building codes allow for older homes to kind of get a pass if they’re not totally up to code. As long as the item in question was up to code when it was installed, then it’s ok for now, but if you put in a new one, it’ll have to meet the current building codes. For example, if you ever want to upgrade the ungrounded electrical panel that was put in during the 70s, it’s not a small thing. You’ll have to have your home’s electrical system evaluated by a professional, permits pulled to update your connection to the power grid to match the new panel and an inspection from the municipal inspectors to ensure the work was performed to code.

After all of the paperwork and red tape, finally receiving your historic designation can be a huge relief. Except there’s one thing no one apparently mentioned…. when you sell that property, the new owners don’t have to maintain the house or even keep up its historical appearance unless there are other rules in play, like being located in a tightly-regulated historic district.

Still, if you want a historic designation, you may find the benefits are well worth everything. You might as well go for it as not. Get that historic designation for yourself, not because you want to protect your home from future owners and for generations to come.

Philip Schwartz
7 Things to Know About Whole-Home Generators
frozen chicago

There’s little more frightening than losing your electricity in the middle of a big winter storm. Whatever natural disaster is common in your area, you have probably experienced at least one major disaster in your life. Because of that, you may tend to linger around the generators at your favorite home improvement store when bad weather season starts.

Is this the year you’ll finally install a whole-home generator? Before you swipe that card, take a look at these must-know things about choosing a whole home generator so you’re not stuck when you need power and heat when it matters most!

frozen chicago

A Generator Can Be An Investment In Your Home

You probably know that in some areas you can get tax credits for installing efficient whole-home generators, but what you may not realize is that a permanently installed generator can also increase your home’s value. According to Consumer Reports, a three to five percent increase in appraised value after a generator is installed isn’t uncommon.

But, you can’t just stick any old generator in the yard and call it a home improvement. The generator you choose will be part of your home’s electrical system for the foreseeable future, so it has to be able to do the job you need it to do. Here are seven things to keep in mind while you’re shopping:

  1. Generators are far from universal in size. You should make a list of the items you intend to keep turned on while you’re running on generator power before you start to shop. Appliances, HVAC systems, hot water heaters and even light bulbs add up when you’re talking about an entire home. Although your appliances may differ in their power consumption, in general, refrigerators use about 600 watts of electricity, your lights can soak up to 600 watts, even your computer may need 300 watts to stay running.

  2. Portable generators can be an inexpensive alternative. If you’re only hoping to keep a few lights on and maybe a small refrigerator running during a power outage, you might be able to limp along with a portable generator. These smaller units can be loud and require lots of manual intervention, including refilling their fuel tanks multiple times during prolonged use, but can push out 3,000 to 8,500 watts reliably for under $1,000.

  3. Generators run on different types of fuel. Those portable generators almost exclusively run on either gasoline or kerosine, though some can be converted to run on propane or natural gas with a special kit. A whole house generator connects to a gas line by default, be that propane or natural gas. Depending on where you live and what your utility supplies, you’ll want to choose one that matches your fuel supply. If you live in a rural area, you may have to rely on your propane tank to run your generator, keep it full through the toughest weather of the year.

  4. Regular maintenance on generators includes running them frequently throughout the year to ensure that there isn’t an unplanned problem when an emergency does crop up. Some whole home generators have an automatic maintenance cycle, allowing you to ignore them most of the time. However, these auto-run cycles can be very noisy, so you’ll want to consider the decibel level of the generator you choose.

  5. You’ll need a transfer switch, but there are several options. Transfer switches are electrical devices that allow you to change the power source that runs your home from the utility grid to your home generator. There are many different types, rated both by amps and switching type. Manual switches are less expensive, but require you to make the connection in all kinds of weather, automatic switches will flip on the generator when they detect a lack of power from the grid.

  6. Older homes may need electrical panel upgrades. Even homes that aren’t considered antiques can have very limited electrical systems that aren’t compatible with a large transfer switch. If you want to use, say, a 200 amp transfer switch and your house will only support 100 amps, either your system needs to be upgraded or your generator transfer switch will need to be downgraded.

  7. It needs to be installed by a professional. There are people who have installed their own whole home generators, but because of local building codes and the general difficulty of the project, this is not something that’s generally encouraged. You’ll be tapping into gas lines, electrical systems and you’ll need to place the unit a very specific distance from combustible materials and above areas that may flood.

Philip Schwartz
Is it Time for New Windows?
replace-windows-jacksonville-300x226.jpg

Whether you just bought your home or you’ve owned it a while, it can be easy to overlook the windows that open it up to the world, as if they didn’t even exist. Even if you don’t, you probably know that a lot of glass and natural light is awesome, but it comes at a cost. As windows age and homes settle, windows can distort ever slow slightly. It’s not enough that you’d notice, at least until the first cold blasts of Arctic air are blowing into your home.

Short of waiting for a major blowing snowstorm, how can you tell if it’s time for new windows? We’ll walk you through it. Read on, reader!

Signs Your Windows are Giving Up the Ghost

When it comes to the big things in your house, windows are pretty huge. On the hassle scale, replacing windows is up there with a new roof or trying to retile the busiest room in your home. Unfortunately, these are all jobs that you’ll eventually need to tackle, but sometimes you can make repairs rather than start a replacement project that will eat up your money, your time and turn your home into a construction zone.

Starting at a few hundred dollars each, a house full of windows can be a huge investment that you’re unlikely to get back. Before you go window hunting, check this list to see if buying new windows is the right move after all:

  • Are your energy bills climbing or already high? A significant rise in your utility bills over the last year, or even five years, that comes from an increased use of power or gas and not simply a rate hike means you’re leaking somewhere. Windows are often the culprit. If you can borrow an infrared camera, you can track exactly where the energy loss is coming from. If you don’t have a friend with such fun toys, many home pros offer this service.

  • Are they tricky to open or won’t stay open without a prop? Really old windows may have a problem staying open because their corded weights have broken after decades of use and fallen into the interior space between the window and the wall. Newer windows might refuse to close because they’ve shifted ever so slightly. Either way, these are windows that are a huge pain to operate. That alone can be a good reason to replace them.

  • Can you hear your neighbors when you’re indoors? Cars, kids and pets, they’re all part of living in most communities, but they also make a lot of noise. Good quality windows will help reduce the volume, though none can block noise entirely. If you can hear your neighbor’s car like it’s in your own driveway, you definitely need to consider a window replacement.

  • Do you wake up to condensation between the window glass panes? A small amount of condensation isn’t really anything to worry about, but when it’s widespread or happens every day and hangs around for most of it, your window pane seal has probably been compromised. Sometimes you can contact the manufacturer or the reseller where the window came from and order a replacement pane, but they can be difficult to install and costly, which is why many people choose new windows at this stage. A window with a busted seal is one that’s costing you serious cash. The air trapped between those two (or three) panes of glass act as insulation, reducing the rate at which the window cools.

  • Is there extensive damage? Sometimes the damage to your windows can’t really be seen until you open them up, examine moving parts closely and, when necessary, remove some trim to look for rot that’s hidden inside the wall. Small sections of damage can sometimes be repaired, but larger areas indicate that you need to fix whatever cause the damage in the first place and then replace that window with one that’s new and healthy.

What if My Windows aren’t Damaged?

If your windows are in great shape and the only problem you’re having is heat loss, you can do a few different things to maximize your efficiency when the cold wind blows. Those include:

Winterizing. Go around the house and seal up all the nooks, crannies and cracks you might find. A new bead of caulk around each window and door and along all the trim will help reduce drafts.

Sticking up window insulation film. For a temporary fix this winter, you can install window insulation film on the cold windows in question. When installed properly, you can barely tell there’s anything between the room and the window.

Installing heavy curtains. Like a warm blanket on a cold night, a thick insulating curtain can help reduce both heat loss and drafts. The only catch is that you have to keep them closed, which can make your cabin fever burn this winter.


Philip Schwartz
8 Reasons You Need a Realtor to Ease Your Home Purchase
real estate agent

If you’re shopping for a house, or even just considering buying one, there’s one person that you absolutely need on your side: a Realtor. Potential buyers often think they can go it alone, but there are a number of things they may not be considering.

What is a Buyer’s Agent and How are They Compensated?

A Buyer’s Agent is your representative throughout the transaction. When you choose a Buyer’s Agent to represent you, they’re going to keep your best outcome in mind. They’re not only legally bound to protect you throughout a real estate transaction, many Buyer’s Agents are also naturally protective of their clients.

Many people are nervous about choosing a Buyer’s Agent because they’re under the impression that they may have to pay an extra fee for their services. However, the fees that the real estate agent and their company earn are set long before you walk in the door. Buyers don’t typically pay their agent directly since the brokerage commission is figured into the price of the house. So cost is not typically an issue for a buyer.

Buyer’s Agents Make Everything Easier for You

Furthermore, your Buyer’s Agent is a lot more than a pencil pusher. They can help make your purchase so much easier in a million ways. Here are just eight of them:

  1. Knowing the market inside and out. There’s only so much you can learn about your housing market from looking at houses online. A Buyer’s Agent can tell you what part of town is poppin’ and which areas are not as popular. Getting in on a little-known up and coming neighborhood can mean a very happy long term financial forecast. Remember, typically Realtors are long time members of the community(s) they service.

  2. Wanting you in the right house, not just any house. Good Realtors will understand their clients wants and needs. Your Buyer’s Agent is going to pound the pavement looking at houses for you while you’re off working or having a life. Then they’ll make a shortlist, saving you time and effort by eliminating houses you’d never buy, and take you shopping! Most will keep at it until the right house appears, no matter how long it takes.

  3. Being a shoulder during the stressful buying process. There’s no better way to say it, buying a house is emotionally draining. It becomes exponentially harder when you add a spouse or partner in the equation. Your Buyer’s Agent has walked lots of people from home shopping to the closing table and will be there for you when you start to panic or the stress is just too much.

  4. Giving you advice on creating a reasonable offer. Your Buyer’s Agent has typically written lots of offers, some that were accepted, some that were not. You can take advantage of their professional experience and ask for help creating an offer that will stick. After all, if you offer too little, the seller may not even respond and if you offer too much, you might kick yourself later.

  5. Protecting you and your rights throughout the buying process. Your Buyer’s Agent is basically a human shield that stands between you and all the worst things in the market. They’re the ones who will point out shoddy workmanship in homes you’re considering, as well as recommending home pros who can fix it. They also go to bat when it’s time to negotiate repairs after your home inspection. With every step, your best interest is their first priority.

  6. Fighting for you if a contract goes south. Hiring a Buyer’s Agent (or a Seller’s Agent when you’re selling, for that matter) is a little like taking out an insurance policy. They help you write your contract and walk you through the buying process, but they also have another vital role to play. If things go sour, they’re going to help you fix it. Buyer’s Agents are the ones helping you weave your way through messy issues, like who should be getting the fridge or whether or not certain items remain with the home.

  7. Spotting value you may not see. You’ve decided on a budget and certain specs you want in your home. Well, maybe you can achieve those goals by knocking down a wall or converting an attic into a bedroom. Oftentimes it is very hard for buyers, especially first time buyers, to see beyond the listed specs of a home. Good Realtors have seen and experienced all kinds of renovation projects, conversions, purchases and sales — and can add a perspective you may not be considering on a home that may not check every box you initially thought you needed.

  8. Serving you even after closing. Buyer’s Agents don’t just drop you once they’ve cashed their checks. They’re around for you no matter what it is that you need help with, real estate-wise. Need the name of a good painter? A place to buy architectural salvage? Your Buyer’s Agent can set you up.

Philip Schwartz
Carpet Cleaning 101 for Pet Owners
pets carpet

It’s amazing how much a pet can give you just by simply existing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, owning a pet can help increase your fitness level, lower stress, help improve your health and generally make you happier. And, although not specifically mentioned by the CDC, any pet owner can add a few more contributions, like urine stains on the carpet, fur clinging to every surface and the occasional hairball (unless your pet is a fish, then all bets are off).

For owners of terrestrial animals, cleaning the carpet is going to be a necessity sooner rather than later. And doing it right means not having to do it over and over again (hopefully). Because animals tend to do their business where they’ve done it in the past, getting that particular smell out of the rug is an important art to learn if you intend to share your life with a cat or a dog.

First, About Carpets and Liquids

There’s a lot of very bad advice online about how to clean up your pet’s urine spots. You know the ones. You walk through the bedroom at night and — bam — there it is. Some random bloggers would have you put down a paper towel and then basically try to absorb the liquid by stomping it out. Unfortunately, that’s about the worst thing you can do.

Carpets are really absorbent, but much of that absorbency is down below, in the pad, which is covered up by the rug. So when you stomp on a liquid mess, what you’re really doing is spreading it further through the pad, creating an even wider puddle in a place where your flimsy paper towels can never go.

Unless you’re prepared to rip up the carpets and deal with the puddle, consider purchasing a tool that can extract fluid from rugs, like a handheld extractor, a floor cleaner with an extract-only mode or, in a pinch, a wet/dry vac (this one is harder to get smelling fresh and clean again). Any of these tools is far more effective than a paper towel — or even a whole roll.

When it comes to cleaning urine out of carpet, always follow the same procedure:

  1. Use an extractor to pull as much fluid as possible out of the carpet and pad. Remember that the small spot on top of the carpet may be hiding a lake of urine that’s locked in the pad. Keep extracting in a wide arc until nothing else comes out.

  2. Treat your carpet with a bio-enzymatic cleaner like Nature’s Miracle Urine Destroyer. Don’t use a carpet cleaner first or you may lock any stains in to the carpet permanently.

  3. If a spot remains, use a stain remover to help break it up. You’ll want to be sure the enzymes have finished doing their thing, though.

Of course, liquids aren’t the only gifts your pets will leave behind. When it’s a bit more solid, you’ll want to follow similar guidelines, except when you clean the solids, use a putty knife to avoid pushing the solids deeper into the carpet. If it’s any serious kind of solid, you’ll want to swap the bio-enzymatic cleaner for one that’s also oxygenated.

So Much Hair, Everywhere

You love your pet. You do. But he has so much hair and he’s just carelessly leaving it wherever it happens to fall. This is why it comes to you to clean up behind what may be the worst roommate there has ever been. Pet hair in carpets can require a lot of effort to keep cleaned up, but if you can’t choose between the pet or the carpet, give these tips a try:

  1. Wrap masking tape around an old paint roller attached to a broom handle. You’ve literally just built a giant lint roller, now go forth and roll all the hair off the surface of the carpet. You’ll still need to vacuum afterward, but you might not have to empty the bin as often.

  2. There’s a device called a carpet rake that is basically what you might imagine. Choose one with rubber bristles, like this one, then run it over the carpet collecting hair until you regret having purchased a carpet rake.

  3. Choosing a high powered, pet-focused vacuum with a HEPA filter is probably the best general purpose tool you can get for dealing with hair in carpet. You’ll need to vacuum frequently, as much as three times a week, to keep ahead of your favorite hairball.

Ultimately, many pet owners decide that they spend way too much time cleaning up after their pets instead of interacting with them and install hard flooring. Sure, the dog hair may start piling up in the corners and behind the doors, but those ten hours a week you could be spending with him rather than cleaning up after him are a pretty important part of his short life.

Philip Schwartz
What is Mortgage Insurance?
private mortgage insurance

There’s a lot of confusion over mortgage insurance, what it is and what it isn’t.

Some people think that mortgage insurance is the same as homeowners insurance, but they are not. Homeowners is yet another monthly expense you need to count on when buying a house.

Others think that mortgage insurance is some nebulous thing that bankers are billing you for just to get your money for no reason. This is also missing a few facts.

Let’s take a step back.

In the days before mortgage insurance, practically no one could get a mortgage with less than a 20 percent downpayment. That meant, at best, years of saving up or in many cases, simply never getting a chance at homeownership at all.

Over time, banks agreed that if there were some sort of insurance policy protecting their interest in the mortgages they wrote, they might be willing to take a smaller down payment, thus opening up homeownership to a lot more people.

And that’s exactly what it does today. It protects banks and enables more people to buy homes. If it weren’t for some form of mortgage insurance, there’d be no chance a bank would agree to a mortgage for someone with as little as 3.5 percent down.

This is the primary benefit for homeowners. Obviously the main benefit for banks is that they don’t get hit nearly as hard in case of a foreclosure, since the insurance will pay a percentage of the mortgage value directly to the lender.

Types of Mortgage Insurance

There are several entities that offer mortgage insurance (though you generally don’t get to choose), including MGIC, National MI, the Federal Housing Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs. These private companies and government departments have procedures in place to help determine how risky you are as a borrower and then assign a price to your mortgage insurance costs. There are three main types of MI to be aware of:

Private Mortgage Insurance. When you get a conventional loan with less than a 20 percent downpayment, you’ll also be paying for a private mortgage insurance policy. Generally the price of these policies is based on a combination of your credit score and the terms of your mortgage. MGIC has a handy matrix here that can help you figure out what you’ll be paying. Some lenders may offer you an option to pay part of the policy upfront and the balance monthly, or they may offer to pay it for you in exchange for a higher interest rate.

Mortgage Insurance Premium. Mortgage Insurance Premium (yes, it’s really called that) is the insurance program that all homes purchased or refinanced using an FHA loan with less than 80 percent loan to value require to secure the note. While having MIP means you’ll be able to take advantage of FHA mortgage benefits like lower qualifying scores and those 3.5 percent downpayments, you do so with one big disadvantage.

Unless you bring a downpayment of at least 10 percent to the closing table, your mortgage insurance will stick around as long as the loan does. That means if you pay your mortgage off in 25 or 30 years, you’ll still be making MIP payments, too, even though you long ago built a pad of more than 20 percent equity in your home (more on this later). Oh, and MIP is a split premium, meaning you’ll pay an upfront fee plus a monthly fee.

VA Funding Fees. Although you don’t pay it monthly and it’s not called “mortgage insurance,” the VA funding fee functions in the same way as other mortgage insurance programs. It protects the lender, allowing them to make more loans to more military vets. The funding fee itself is highly variable based on a whole matrix of qualifiers, but at least it’s a one-time fee that you can wrap into your mortgage.

Saying Goodbye to Mortgage Insurance

When you get a conventional loan, you don’t have a lot to worry about when it comes to mortgage insurance. Just make all your payments on time and occasionally check your bills to see just how much equity you’ve managed to earn. Once your home has at least 22 percent of its value paid down (based on the appraisal made when the loan in question was acquired, or a fresh appraisal that you’ve paid for on speculation), making your loan to value 78 percent, mortgage insurance should drop right off. This is the most common situation homeowners with conventional loans find themselves in.

However, conventional mortgage insurance may also be cancelled once you’ve reached an 80 percent loan to value if you ask for it specifically and have a good payment history with no late pays in the last year. If you’re still paying mortgage insurance by the time you’ve reached the midway point of your loan, you can request the MI be dropped — this might happen if you’ve had a mortgage with a very high interest rate, for example.

When it comes to FHA loans, unless yours was made prior to June 3, 2013 or you had a 10 percent downpayment (as mentioned above), you can’t get rid of your MIP and keep your mortgage. This is a distressing thought for a lot of borrowers, but many end up selling before it really becomes an issue. Those that don’t still have the option of refinancing, with some notes eligible for the low-pain FHA streamline programs.

Philip Schwartz
5 Easy Ways to Keep Water Out of Your Basement
flooded basement

All homes have quirks that require special care and consideration, but when it comes to homes with basements, it’s a whole different ball game. Instead of fighting with the lightswitch on the north wall, you’re trying to keep the carpet dry and catch any water long before it becomes a problem.

Waterproofing the basement can be useful if water is seeping in, but there are also plenty of easy DIY friendly things you can do around the house to keep more water out of your basement.

Basements Aren’t Swimming Pools

Your basement is more than just a cement-lined hole in the ground, it’s a part of your home like your kitchen or your bedroom. Unlike those rooms, many basements can develop problems with water, either coming in from outside or coming down from the floor above. Water in a basement can result in higher humidity levels, musty odors and the rapid growth of mold colonies.

Your basement isn’t meant to be a swimming pool. It’s high time you found out where your water is coming from so you can cure it for good.

Keeping the Water Where It Belongs

Even a little bit of water seeping into your basement on the regular is cause for concern. Besides the mold and foul smells mentioned above, that water helps encourage pests that need moist environments, like, say, cockroaches.

Don’t encourage mold and bugs. Instead, try these easy ways to keep that water out of the basement:

  1. Check the grading around your house. As water flows around a home’s foundation year after year, it’s reasonable to expect that some erosion will occur. A little bit is not a big deal, but that little bit usually turns into a lot as time goes by. Eventually, you may even end up with a negative grade, essentially a grade in your yard that diverts water to your house rather than away from it. It’s not difficult to regrade the land around your house, though it can mean a lot of labor.

  2. Ensure that all gutters and downspouts are in working order. Water that spills over the sides of your gutters is water that can go anywhere it pleases. That’s why clean gutters are so important to keeping water out of your basement. Clean those gutters at least twice a year (and be extra thorough right after the last leaves have fallen) and check that all your joints are fitting well. Water from the garden hose can help you figure out where problems exist, if any. Other add-ons like splash blocks and downspout extensions further redirect water once it’s on the ground.

  3. Maintain basement window wells. Not every basement house will have window wells. But if yours does and they’ve been neglected a good long while, they could be contributing to your water issue. Clean them out, lay down some fresh gravel and put new window well caps on to drive water away from your basement windows. You may end up needing an expert to help, depending on how much damage water and wet leaves sitting against the window frames has caused.

  4. Check the plumbing. It may be unpleasant to consider, but if that water isn’t coming from outside, then it has to be coming from inside. Leaky toilets and shower drains are always suspect, but any part of the plumbing system could have a small persistent leak. If you can find it, you can fix it and stop any potential damage that could be happening overhead, too.

  5. Examine your furnace air handler. When your run your air conditioner, room air is pulled into your furnace or air handler, run across something called an a-coil (due to its shape) and pushed back out much colder than when it started. In the brief moments that the room air is above the a-coil, it drops a significant amount of water into a pan below as it rapidly changes temperature. From there, the water goes away through a condensation line. This is what happens in a perfect world. In a world where people don’t’ always maintain their air handlers like they should, the condensation line can get plugged up, causing the pan in the furnace to overflow onto the floor. If this looks to be the case, it’s often a fairly easy fix. With the HVAC system turned off, remove as much water as you can from the condensation pan, then fill the condensation line with vinegar. Let it sit until it’s freely draining once again.

These tips should help solve your basement water problem, but if it continues to reoccur, waterproofing or installing a sump pump (or both!) may be warranted. Generally, if your water issue is more than a small puddle, it’s better to just to go ahead and call in a pro rather than to continue to beat your head against the problem.

Philip Schwartz
5 Things to Consider Before Listing Your Home as a Short Term Rental

As the march into winter gets underway, a lot of people are already starting to plan their spring and summer vacations. Oh, they’ll go somewhere sunny, or to a fantastic resort or maybe, if you’re lucky, your house.

They might as well, you’re going to be going on that fantastic cruise after all. Besides, you’ve heard such good things about being an AirBnB host. Your guests will end up paying for most of your trip, it’s totally win-win.

Isn’t it?

Short Term Rentals and You: The Tip of the Iceberg

Using your personal home, in whole or in part, as a short-term rental can certainly help pay the bills, but the truth is that short-term rentals also have huge issues you have to consider. It’s not as easy as listing on AirBnB and hoping for the best. You’ll need to do considerable legwork before getting started, otherwise you may find yourself in a lot of trouble and with expensive problems that eat all your profit.

Still, it can be a solution for some homeowners. Before you list, make sure you’ve considered these five things that might complicate your situation:

Does your mortgage allow you to rent the property without penalty? Many loan programs that help people buy with a low downpayments have restrictions on renting the building. If the short-term rental you’re offering was purchased with you as an owner-occupant, there is likely language in your agreement that spells out what constitutes a breach by turning your house into an “investment property.” Generally, if you rent your property for more than 14 days in a year, you risk having to face the music.

Despite what many websites may say about a lack of punishment for using your home as a rental when it goes against your mortgage agreement, breaching this agreement is serious business. Your mortgage likely has an acceleration clause that explains under what conditions your loan will essentially be revoked, with the entire balance due immediately. If you can’t cough up those hundreds of thousands of dollars, your bank will foreclose.

Find this paperwork, then scour it (and have a friend or three take a look, too) before you move any further. You should have gotten a copy at closing, check the packet the closing company sent you home with.

Do you have the right Insurance coverage? Even if your mortgage lender is ok with your using your place as a vacation rental, you’re still going to need the blessing of your insurance company. Although places like AirBnB claim to offer insurance, the word on the street is that it’s very hard to convince to pay out on claims.

Don’t risk it, talk to your agent about the best way to cover your home and property. You may want to add a comprehensive insurance policy that will cover pretty much anything, including slips and falls, or your agent may advise you simply increase your current coverage.

What do your neighbors think? The number of articles that have been written about neighbors pushed beyond the brink by AirBnB and other short-term rental guests is staggering. Even if your homeowners association and zoning allows for short-term rentals (check with your HOA and planning and zoning), if your neighbors are becoming perturbed because your guests are real jerks, you may have bigger problems on your hands.

Check your zoning, then talk to your neighbors about your goals with the short-term rental, including the timeframe in which you intend to have guests and for how long they’re likely to stay. Starting a conversation with your neighbors about your vacation rental plans before things turn into a dumpster fire can make having an AirBnB-listed property less of a dramatic situation.

It’s also important to check with your municipality about how long a guest can stay before they become a bonafide renter. In many areas, a “guest” automatically turns into a renter if they occupy the property for 30 consecutive days. You’re then assumed to have a month-to-month rental agreement, which means that you will have to actually evict them if they refuse to go quietly.

Can you refinance your property? This is a tricky question, especially with rates on the rise. Still, you may need to refinance at some point, even if it’s not today. The bad news is that many lenders won’t count the AirBnB income you’ve generated when calculating your debt to income ratios.

Luckily, there are a few banks that are capable of dealing with AirBnB income properties. Even if your lender is open to a refinance, you may be forced into a commercial loan because you rent your property out too often, effectively making it an investment property in the eyes of the bank. If you purchased using a loan eligible for a streamline refinance, you may not have to explain the AirBnB stuff at all.

Do you really want a rental? There are so many people out there that believe owning investment property is key to a better retirement, increased wealth and easy peasy income.

Owning rentals, especially short-term rentals, is a lot of hard work. From stocking consumables like soap and toilet paper to keeping things in good repair, doing background checks on applicants and keeping your taxes straight, it’s not a low-stress investment. This is why so many property owners rely on property managers to handle the day-to-day stuff.

At the end of the day, even if your PM is doing everything right, you’ll have a decent work load of your own. If you’re not all in on owning a rental, don’t do it.


Philip Schwartz
Change Your World with Smart Plugs and Switches
smart plugs

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the world of smart homes and home automation, then the fact that smart switches and smart lights exist could not have escaped your notice. But if you’re like a lot of homeowners, you may still be scratching your head trying to figure out how these devices fit into your voice assistant-powered world.

Consider this your introduction to smart plugs, switches and lights.

What Are These Devices For?

Smart plugs, switches and lights are all small players in the greater plan of home automation. For people who come home after dark or even those that leave home overnight for business on the regular, smart automated lighting can deter burglars and make it look like someone is rattling around your place.

Then there’s the other neat trick smart plugs, switches and lights can do: they help people with disabilities live more independently. Although this was not necessarily part of the original intent, as it turns out, smart homes in general are — top to bottom — able to be specifically adapted for each person and their particular disability..

Despite their gadgety nature, smart plugs, switches and lights can literally change the lives of people from every walk of life and every ability level.

Breaking it Down: Plugs, Switches and Lights

Having voice-responsive or WiFi connected plugs, switches and lights may seem like you’ve basically got a set of things that all perform the same function. If you walk around in your house, smart or dumb, and note what sort of items you have plugged in versus what’s on a switch, you can start to see the subtle differences. But, let’s talk pros and cons:

Plugs. Smart plugs are the most flexible of this smart triad. You can plug in a lamp, or a crockpot or even a radio — you can plug anything into a smart plug and when the plug is switched on, the device (if left with the switch on) will power up.

Smart plugs are easy for anyone to install since they generally just plug right into your regular outlets. You don’t need to wire anything or make a mess. Definitely an A+ for ease of use. Many also monitor your energy use, another handy feature. However, many are so big that they take two outlets and turn them into a single smart plug — if you have a lot of things to plug in or a limited number of outlets, this is something to seriously consider before jumping in.

Switches. A smart switch can give you control over a lot of dumb bulbs and command them with one touch (or click). For people with disabilities, this can make it easier to deal with switches that might be across the room or too high for them to be easily reached from a seated position. Smart switches can also be programmed into complex routines for voice assistants like Alexa. You might have a routine that tells Alexa to turn the switch in the kitchen on, kick on the coffee pot and play some mood music in the morning, for example.

As great as smart switches can be for people with disabilities and gadget lovers alike, they can be a challenge to install since they will actually replace existing light switches. If your home wiring lacks a neutral wire, you’ll have to either have an electrician out to run the right lines or hunt down special switches that can run without one. These switches can have major limitations, since they often need specific bulbs in order to work.

Lights. Smart lights, the last on the list but hardly the least, give more people more options, especially when it comes to older homes. There’s no rewiring required, all you have to do is pop the bulb into a socket and poof! Instant smart lighting. Some even have bluetooth speakers built in to create a little extra ambience. What’s not to love?

Well, as it turns out, smart bulbs are only as smart as the people living in the house. If you, say, switch the fixture full of smarts off, suddenly your smart bulb is a regular bulb. You no longer have any control over it, the bulb has been rendered very dumb. And even when switches are left in the “on” position, there can be significant lag between command and execution since most are controlled through another device, like Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home Assistant.

The Bottom Line for Basic Smart Home Equipment

Although smart plugs, switches and lights still have significant limitations, they’re still worlds ahead of their old-fashioned counterparts when it comes to ease of access and remote control. There will certainly be updated versions that deal with many of the current problems, but until those are released commercially, a homeowner who wants to try out these bits of smart tech should absolutely do so.

How else will you turn on the mixer at precisely 6 AM, kicking off a Rube Goldberg machine that makes breakfast while you shower?

Philip Schwartz
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