Appealing Your Property Taxes, a Primer
appeal property taxes

Spring is here and that means it’s time to… well, it’s time to appeal your property taxes. Not everyone needs to do this, obviously, but there are plenty of people who should. Do you feel like your most recent tax assessment was pretty high? Alternatively, is your tax record (you can usually find these online through your county assessor’s office) stuffed with wrong information that could be affecting your tax bill?

We’ll help you get it figured out. Welcome to your introduction to appealing your property taxes.

Is it Worth the Effort to Appeal My Taxes?

Everyone has their own idea as to what their labor is worth, so jumping through all the hoops to appeal your property tax is a decision that only you can make. But if you live in a high tax state like New Jersey, Illinois or Texas, the new tax laws may be really hurting you with deductible property tax now capped at just $10,000.

The process can be very time consuming, so a few hundred dollars might not be worth the fight, but a few thousand almost certainly are. You should ask a similar question before you hire a lawyer to handle a tax battle for you — will it be worth it in the end?

If you’re certain that you’re ready to dig in for a fight, then read on so we can help you lay the groundwork.

Challenging Small, But Significant Errors

One of the most common reasons that homes are improperly taxed is because their tax record is incorrect in some way. Common problems stem from the house being listed with more square footage, more bedrooms or more land than is actually there.

Older homes, especially, suffer from these problems because so many people have had their hands on these records over the years. Every time the government caught up to the latest tech, someone had to transfer all that information over again by hand. That makes it too easy to swap a three for a two, or transpose 2300 square feet into 3200 square feet.

To successfully fight your property taxes, no matter how you choose to do it, you’ll need to know what the tax assessor thinks about your place. If the assessor’s office believes you have an additional 900 square feet or an acre that you definitely don’t have, you should have very little trouble appealing your taxes.

Philip Schwartz
Saying Goodbye to Your Family Home
selling family home

It’s easy to tell yourself that your house is just a building made of walls and ceilings and light fixtures and flooring, but when it comes time to sell, you may start to feel the sting of grief.

After all, you don’t know if the new owners will take care of the rows and rows of brilliant iris that line the fence in the spring or if they’ll cut down the crepe myrtle because they don’t realize it waits for the first kiss of summer heat to spring back to life.

Will they paint your son’s former bedroom and cover up the mural he spent so much time creating? Will they take out the built-in desk and bookcases you made for your daughter?

Maybe saying goodbye isn’t the easy process you thought it would be.

Selling Your Family Home is a Type of Loss

When you’re selling your family home, it’s not just a building that you’re saying goodbye to. It’s all the memories you made there, the familiariarity and, maybe most importantly, the security of that one place you could always fall back to if life started kicking you too hard. This goes for the house that you raised your kids in as well as the house where you were raised — both are genuine losses.

“You’re dismantling something that was once precious, and you have to go through grief and mourning when this happens.” psychologist Dr. Arthur Kovacs explained in an interview with the Chicago Times.

Of course, that’s only part of the story. Another element that makes it so hard to quit a family home is the link between memory and physical space. When your memories are tangled in with your home, it can be hard to let go.

“We have memories and associations that are connected to all of those things that make houses so heavily connected to ourselves,” Duke University’s department of psychology and neuroscience chair, Dr. Scott Huettel, goes on to explain the phenomenon to the New York Times.

Easing Into Selling Your Family Home

Much of the time when you’re looking to sell a family home, it’s due to a big change in life. Maybe your kids have all left home and you’re planning to downsize or maybe your parents have died and you’re having to liquidate their estate. No matter the reason, it’s one of the hardest things you can do, even if you think you’re totally prepared.

How do you get ready for such a big sacrifice? It’s all about your mindset. Start to detach from the house by taking down and packing anything that’s personal. This includes photos, crafted decorations, paintings and so forth. As you take these things off the walls, the space starts to become more generic, less personal and it gets easier to consider selling the house.

If you’re still feeling the pain at this point, work on other parts of the house. Remember that crack in the wall from four years ago when the game controller flew from your daughter’s hand and hit the drywall at full force? Patch that up. Your buyer probably won’t even notice it, but you will. Sterilize your home until you can bear to sign the papers

When the Offer Comes Through

The day will come that you get an offer. Resist the urge to flat out reject it, no matter the price. This is where the rubber meets the road — it’s now grossly apparent that you’re selling the house you poured so much of yourself into rather than just thinking about it.

It’s time for a wake.

Maybe you’d be better to call it a “remembrance party” or something a little cheerier, but the whole point is to say goodbye in a big way so you can get the closure you need. Some people go room by room to have one last good walk down memory lane, others celebrate by doing something they hadn’t gotten around to doing, like hosting a luau.

Your goodbye will be best if you do it in a way that’s meaningful to you and your family. There aren’t really any shortcuts when it comes to grief, unfortunately. Don’t beat yourself up, it’s not “just a house.” That’s the building that sheltered and protected you year after year. That’s the stuff that attachment is made of.

Philip Schwartz
Halloween Decor Trends
halloween

Decorating for Halloween is a tradition that many families take part in year after year. As with most traditions, though, the decorating trends that dominate Halloween change from time to time. Giant inflatables and laser light shows were all the rage just a few years ago, but now things are starting to shift a bit more toward subtle. The over-the-top Halloween decorating style will likely never fully go away, of course; there’s at least one house in every town that goes all out with its display and people always love it. If you’re looking for something simpler (and easier on the power bill), here are a few trendy options to keep in mind.

Candles

With the right candleholders, basic white candles can add a spooky ambiance that hearkens back to older Halloween traditions. Specialty candles are available that are carved to look like bones or horns as well. No need to go overboard with effects-candles, such as those that “bleed” when lit; just a few tapers burned to different lengths and then extinguished serve as the perfect subtle candle accent to your other decorations.

Pumpkins

What would Halloween be without pumpkins? While the traditional jack-o-lantern is still great, there’s an increasingly common trend to display uncarved pumpkins as well. White pumpkins are also seeing an upswing in popularity to really help set your decorations apart from the norm.

Halloween Wreaths

Also seeing an increased popularity are Halloween wreaths. Coming in a variety of styles, these wreaths have a lot more room to experiment than more traditional Christmas wreaths because of the generally spooky nature of the holiday. You can DIY a wreath yourself or buy one of multiple pre-made varieties to give your home a really unique Halloween look.

Lighting and Signs

Halloween lights have been growing in popularity in recent years, providing a decorative option that can be enjoyed even once the sun goes down. Signs, both lighted and non-lighted, are also firmly establishing themselves as Halloween must-haves. Combining the two can give your home a unique look that neighbors can enjoy both during the day and after the night descends.

Window Décor

Instead of going all-out with inflatables, animatronics and big clunky pieces made of plastic and rubber, an up-and-coming trend is to make use of silhouettes in front of plain curtains to give your decorations a more subtle flair. Some homes even take this a step beyond, using white sheets or similar coverings on the interior windows and then using creative lighting and figure placement to actually cast shadows onto the waiting windows. The shadow puppet feel gives the effect an extra layer of spookiness.

Black and White and Purple Trappings

While black and orange are the dominant colors of Halloween, a big trend in recent years has been to move away from the orange and embrace the holiday’s darker tones. White is used for contrast, with the predominant colors in decorations being black and dark purple. Splashes of other colors may be added as well, but the black, white and purple theme is definitely striking.

Zombie Flamingos

While there has been a move away from some of the cheesier parts of the holiday, the kitsch of putting zombie flamingos on your lawn is a bit too fun to ignore. There are a variety of styles of flamingoes available ranging from silly to gory, giving you plenty of room to find birds that match both your personal tastes and decorating style. Best of all, they can be mixed with a few traditional pink flamingos to give everything a splash of color while totally buying into the Halloween fun.

Philip Schwartz
5 Things to Consider When Planning a Family Picture Wall
gallery wall

One of the best parts of owning your own home is that you can do pretty much whatever you want when it comes to hanging things on the wall. No landlord will charge you $5 per hole you poke through the sheetrock. It’s kind of nice. You can let your creative side have a heyday with a hammer and a bunch of nails.

For a lot of families, putting a family picture wall together is a high priority in their new homes. It can be a fun project that can be the very first of many happy memories in the new place.

Planning Your Picture Wall

If you hop on Pinterest and search for “family picture wall,” you’re going to find an overwhelming number of ways to put one of these together. There’s no one way to do a family picture wall, since every family is different. There are lots of things to consider while you’re planning your wall, though.

Don’t just start hanging pictures willy-nilly. Do some real prep work to ensure that your wall turns out as special as what you have envisioned rather than yet another #PinterestFail. These tips should help:

Pick a theme. You need something concrete to get you started in the planning stage. Choosing a theme can be a good place to start, since it’ll inform your image choices as you go through your Google Drive. A theme could be anything from “vacation photos” to “photos with the color blue in them.” The best photo walls have some kind of unifying theme, choose one before you get started.

Use technology to simulate your photo wall. Art.com’s iOS app gives you the capability to not just imagine what an image or set of images will look like on your wall, it actually can virtually add those photos to the wall using augmented reality. The same technology that powers Pokemon Go can help you get great results with your family picture wall.

Choosy kids choose cool frames. The frames you choose are just as important as the images. If you’re looking for something pretty unusual, scour flea markets and antique shops for old frames with unique designs. If you can’t find anything that tickles your fancy, your home improvement store’s trimwork aisle will have some really fancy trim that you can use to build your own frames!

Incorporate more than photos. Sure, it’s called a “family picture wall,” but who says you have to stop there? Memorabilia from favorite spots, items that reflect interests and hobbies, even accolades like medals have a place on a wall like this. Just make sure that you’re using sturdy materials and secure shelves tightly to the wall to avoid long term issues.

Sometimes, fewer is better. Family picture walls can get pretty overwhelming fast. Instead of hanging every photo you’ve ever taken of your kids, pick the two best from now and the two best from their early childhood. Capture those moments that really meant something and remember that sometimes less is way more. Besides, you’ll want to save some of those embarrassing pictures for leverage later.

Philip Schwartz
What Do You Get with a Home Warranty?

By now, you’ve likely seen the ads, gotten the emails and maybe even hung up on a few robocalls going on and on about the benefits of a home warranty. Are they actually worth getting, though? Let’s take a closer look at home warranties and what they really have to offer. This will help you to decide if a home warranty is right for you or if it would just be a waste of your money.

What Is a Home Warranty?

First of all, just what is a home warranty? This is an important question, because many people don’t actually know what a home warranty is for. A common assumption is that a home warranty is like some version of homeowners’ insurance, perhaps offering short-term coverage after closing on a home. While the timing aspect is pretty close, a home warranty is actually significantly different than a homeowners’ insurance policy. Instead, a home warranty covers certain things within the home to allow for their replacement in case they break soon after buying the property.

What Does a Home Warranty Include?

The specifics of what a home warranty covers can vary a bit depending on the specific home warranty plan you purchase. In general, though, home warranties are designed to cover major systems and appliances within the home. When you’re buying a home, your home warranty will have you covered if something like the refrigerator or water heater breaks down a few months after you move in. In most cases, major systems such as plumbing and HVAC are covered as well. The policy functions like most standard warranties, allowing you to get needed repairs or replacements while the warranty is still in effect.

What’s Not Covered?

Unless it’s specifically mentioned in your home warranty, general home repairs or other maintenance are not included in the warranty. This means that something like a broken window, a weak spot in the floor or peeling paint would have to be repaired as an out-of-pocket expense if they aren’t covered under your homeowners’ insurance. The home warranty is designed to cover only your new home’s appliances and major systems.

How Long Do Home Warranties Last?

Again, the term of a home warranty depends on the specific warranty policy you take out. One of the most common warranty periods is one year, giving you a full year’s worth of peace of mind after you take out the policy. Depending on your needs, however, you may be able to get a home warranty for shorter or longer periods as well.

Can You Add Extra Services?

Depending on the home warranty provider you choose, there may be add-ons that you can include with your warranty service for an additional cost. These can include things like swimming pool maintenance and repair, well maintenance and expanded services such as maintenance tune-ups for your HVAC system. Some providers even use add-ons to create customizable warranty plans, offering up a basic general plan and then expanding it to meet your needs by letting you add only the features you want.

Do You Need a Home Warranty?

Whether you actually need a home warranty or not is kind of a big question. The answer depends on a lot of factors including the age of the home that you’re buying, the amount of coverage you get from your homeowners’ insurance and even what you have in the house that would be covered by the home warranty. The price of the warranty plan should also be a consideration, since this can vary by several hundred dollars depending on the provider and the amount of coverage included. The right home warranty can be a good buy, but it’s worth looking at the cost and coverage to make sure the plan is actually what you need.

Philip Schwartz
Smart Homes Need Smart Protection: Getting to Know Smart Cameras
nest cam

Things seem to be getting smarter and smarter these days. From smartphones to smart pressure cookers, anything that can be built with a brain or an internet connection seems to be being bulked up. Some items that are getting brains don’t necessarily make a lot of sense (smart toothbrushes?), and others seem like they should have gotten smarter sooner.

Smart cameras are a perfect example of the latter. They’re a good balance between smart and sexy, and they will keep your smart home safer.

Getting to Know Smart Cameras

A smart camera is different from a regular home security camera in that one camera can integrate with lots of sensors in your home and actually learn your behavior. So, if you normally disarm the alarm at 8:00 am and rearm it at 4:00 pm, that camera will begin to build that information into its profile of your household.

This way, when someone comes in at 8:00 pm and tries to disarm the alarm, even if they’re successful, the camera will be on alert for more clues about who this person is and if they belong in your home. You’ll be notified through an app in your phone that someone is lurking about.

Some smart cameras, like the Nest Cam IQ are even able to learn faces and distinguish friends you designate from strangers. When a stranger appears in this camera’s sight, it notifies you right away. If it’s simply a friend stopping by to see if you’re home, you can ask the Nest IQ to essentially ignore their activity.

Benefits of Modern Smart Security Cameras

Security cameras have been in homes for decades now, but today’s security cameras bear very little resemblance to their ancestors. Although they share functionality, that’s about all they have in common today. Here are a few things to keep in mind about modern smart cameras:

They’re tiny, with great big brains. As mentioned above, some smart cameras learn patterns of behavior, others go further and learn faces and names. All of this is made possible by modern computing and it’s stuffed into a tiny little package that’s hardly noticeable.

Minimal wiring is required. Old school security cameras required you to run new wiring from them to the television and recording device you were utilizing. Assuming the place you’re stashing the camera already has power, that’s still a lot of extra cabling to deal with. Smart cameras connect to your devices using WiFi, though they may need a wire for power.

Monitoring is DIY. Gone are the days of paying a company to do your monitoring or having way too much space in your house devoted to self-monitoring of those big ancient cameras. Now, you can monitor your camera in real time, no matter where you are. It’s a snap to just drop in and see how things are going in your vacation home or review videos from last night to see if your kids threw a house party while you were away.

Video storage is in The Cloud. The one drawback to smart cameras is that you will have to pay for storage for your recordings if you want to keep them. Most companies offer packages by time spans that range from about 24 hours to weeks and weeks. You can download your videos, but what you don’t download will disappear after the length of your storage subscription.

Philip Schwartz
5 Reasons to Try a Ductless Mini-Split Air Conditioning System
ductless mini split system

It’s almost spring in much of North America, which means it’s time once again to tune up your air conditioner or send it to the big home improvement store in the sky. Even an older A/C unit that’s still functional may need to be replaced simply because of how inefficiently it’s running.

Before you shell out for a new central air system for some or all of your living space, it might be time to look at your options. Here are five good reasons to switch to a ductless mini-split air conditioning system.

What Is Ductless Mini-Split System?

Like all air conditioners, ductless mini-split systems rely on the expansion and contraction of refrigerant moving through a closed system to affect the temperature of a room. But instead of pushing cold air through long networks of ducts and vents, mini-splits cool the air right where it’s needed. This means that air never has to travel through ducts and complicated installations aren’t necessary.

These systems are incredibly popular in parts of Asia, especially where small living spaces are the norm. They are slowly catching on in the US as an alternative to both central heat and air systems and older forms of non-ducted climate control.

The Big Secret of Mini-Splits and Five Other Reasons to Own Them

The neat thing about most ductless mini-splits is that they’re actually heat pumps, rather than air conditioners. A heat pump is nearly identical to an air conditioner, but it has a switching valve that can change whether it’s pushing hot air into a room or pulling it out, giving you more climate control options.

Pretty cool, huh?

But that’s not all there is to these tiny wonders. Oh no. These are other great reasons to install a mini-split system this spring:

  • You can finally afford to cool spaces that weren’t built into your home’s original ductwork.Because mini-splits are inexpensive to acquire and need very little in the way of installation, your garage, workshop, added-on rec room, attic conversion and so many other spaces can finally be appropriately climate controlled. The small size of the units and tiny holes that are required to connect the indoor unit to the outdoor one make them good for almost any room.

  • Every room in your home can be custom climate controlled. Yes, you heard it here first. Because each indoor mini-split unit is essentially its own system, you can set each one to a different temperature and expect that the room will actually reach the target temp. No more trying to balance your 80 degree office with your 70 degree living room, they can both cruise at a comfortable 72 degrees all the time.

  • You’ll save money and use less energy. They do tend to go hand-in-hand. Since you’re not having to produce enough cold air to push through ductwork that is likely both a bit leaky and also just inefficient due to a lack of insulation, your ductless mini-splits are already hugely more efficient than their central cooling counterparts. According to Fujitsu, just one manufacturer of these units, homeowners generally see a savings of up to 24 percent on their utility bills when they make the switch.

  • They’re so smart! Smart home technology isn’t anything new, but it has yet to gain wide acceptance in the heating and air space. Ductless mini-splits are often fully loaded with WiFi controls that you can access from anywhere without adding any additional equipment like a smart thermostat, which can run you a couple hundred dollars extra per room.

  • And super reliable. Because they have so few moving parts and no ductwork to speak of, mini-splits rarely suffer significant breakdowns. They’re easy to maintain and they only need a little bit of attention throughout the year.

Philip Schwartz
What’s New in High End Garages?
garage.jpg

Your garage is a big deal. Even if you totally ignore that your garage doors themselves can take up a significant portion of your home’s street facing surface, there’s all that (often unfinished) space inside that you’re just leaving to its own devices (and possibly growing lots of brown recluse spiders).

Your garage doesn’t have to be an afterthought, though! You, too, can have a super fancy garage that feels almost like another living area. We’re talking taking garages to the next level today.

The Garage Reimagined

There was a time, not so long ago, when simply having an attached garage was kind of a big deal. Then it was a two-car attached garage, then an extra-deep third garage bay, and onward and upward. A garage, even at the four-car level, was still just a garage: a poured concrete slab, some drywall (finished if you were lucky), a couple of four foot long fluorescent shop lights and maybe a workbench in one corner.

garage

Then suddenly something happened. People started demanding more out of their garages. Like so many other spaces in a modern household, the garage needed to be more than a mere storage unit, it needed to become a flexible living area.

Dolly Holmes, garage designer and owner of San Antonio’s Premier Garage, put it best in an article in The San Antonio Express-News, “I recently had a customer come to me and say they wanted to drive into a garage that looks as good as the rest of [their] home.”

garage

Turning an old grimy, potentially frightening, garage into a gorgeous and welcoming living space where your car just happens to hang out is no small feat. It takes the concept to a whole new level, really.

From car-safe flooring that can resist oil stains to gorgeous cabinets that can hold chemicals that are traditionally banished to the garage, plus all those accessories for home theaters, pool cues and ping pong tables, today’s high end garage can become far more than anyone ever believed.

Beefing Up Your Garage’s Storage Potential

It can be easy to let your garage turn into a storage unit, that’s why so many of the fanciest garages start with a really amazing plan for dealing with the clutter. If you walk through your favorite home improvement store, you’ll notice an entire section of cabinetry just for the garage. These durable options offer more than just a place to put all your stuff, they give you a huge start on a high end garage that you’ll love.

Cabinets might not be the sexiest part of your high end garage, but they will help calm the overwhelm that a garage lacking storage for all those random things that end up being stacked to the ceiling can create. And hey, if you want to get really neat, use those cabinets to create a wet bar or a media center fit for the inside of your home.

Unappreciated Garage Tech

Even though garages have been getting smarter for years, most people haven’t noticed and these technological leaps have gone largely unadopted. Garage tech ranges in complexity from simple swaps of equipment already in your garage to quite complex undertakings that definitely will require a construction crew.

garage doors

Smarter Garage Doors

Smart garage door openers have been around for a while, but they fail to get the kind of attention that other smart gadgets have seen. For example, this unit from Ryobi was named “The Most High-Tech Garage Door Opener in the World” back in 2016, but apparently no one read this particular article.

These door openers range from being simply controlled by your phone to being part of a complete safety system for your home. For example, some will notify you if they’re opened when you’re not home and most will tell you if you’ve left them open on those mornings you need a lot more coffee to get the job done. You can then tap into a security camera and even shut the door from anywhere.

How About an Elevator for Your Car?

Of course, simply replacing your garage door opener with one that inhabits the Internet of Things is one thing, but literally being able to park your car underground is quite another. This is major stuff here. Instead of wasting valuable above-ground garage space with dedicated areas for your car, motorcycle, boat or other garaged vehicles, a garage lift can kill two birds with one stone.

Basically, your garage can now be your own personal Bat Cave.

Garage lifts are pretty cool, but they will require a professional installation and work best when incorporated into the building plans of your garage. Still, if you’re building and you’re hoping to use your garage as a rec room, you can recapture lots of square footage with one of these amazing things.

Philip Schwartz
How Are My Property Taxes Calculated?
property taxes

Understanding how your property taxes are calculated can often feel like unraveling one of the deepest mysteries of the universe. However, it’s vitally important that you get your arms around this tax, if you are subject to it, as it’s often a large expense that you may be saddled with for a lifetime.

Property taxes can vary wildly, not only between different areas of the country, but even between different parts of the same municipality.

Just how do property taxes work? Shouldn’t they be the same for everyone?

First, Real Property Versus Personal Property

When we refer to “property taxes,” what we really mean is “real property tax.” The term “real property” means the land you own and everything that is permanently affixed to it. For example, if you have a stick-built house, a garage, a shed with a permanent foundation — these are all things that would be considered “real property.”

On the other hand, you may also have “personal property,” which is basically anything else that you own that may have a title and can be moved, even if it takes a bit of work. Your fishing boat, your car and, to confuse matters further, most manufactured homes, are considered personal property – not real property. Manufactured homes specifically can be a bit of a sticky wicket because you can often affix one to your real property in such a way that it also becomes real property.

For the purposes of this discussion, when we say “property tax,” we’re talking about real property, less any specially qualified manufactured homes.

Your Property Taxes Are Made Up of Layers

Most people know that their property taxes are calculated based on the value of their property, but there are lots of homeowners who don’t realize that what we all generally refer to as “property tax” are actually several different taxes smashed into one greater tax sandwich… or layer cake, if you will.

Your home is very likely located in several intersecting tax jurisdictions that can vary greatly from area to area. The taxing jurisdictions that homeowners most often encounter are your:

  • City

  • School district

  • County

  • State

  • Fire district

  • Cemetery district

  • Library district

Each of these layers will have their own tax rate, making the calculation of your property taxes even more confusing. And by the way, the value used to determine your taxes isn’t necessarily your home’s appraised value, it’s something called the assessed value.

An Aside for Assessed Values

Property tax assessments are often one of the most confusing concepts for most new homeowners. However, you need to have a handle on it in order to understand your property taxes. The assessed value absolutely is what your taxes are based on, but there’s no set way for any tax jurisdiction to determine this number.

In some places, your property’s assessment and your home’s market value may be more or less the same, in others, the assessment is a stated percentage of the market value. In addition, these values might be updated yearly, every other year or only when the home is resold. If you meet certain requirements, you can also have your assessment frozen so that your taxes can only increase if the rate itself increases (and even then, there are a few states that will freeze your actual tax rate).

Put another way, knowing how your property assessment will work is kind of the key to how everything behind the scenes works. Without that, all the layers of government grabbing at your wallet are pretty meaningless. Fortunately, if you’re just looking to simple math, this figure is provided for you by your taxing bodies. We recommend you call or drop into your local tax assessor’s office to get a detailed explanation of your specific tax situation as every taxing body may be slightly different.

Wait, What’s a Mill Levy?

You’ve probably seen the term “mill levy” tossed around if you’ve been reading up on property taxes. A mill levy is just another way to describe the tax rate that’s being applied to your real property’s assessed value. One mill is equal to a buck per $1,000 of the real estate’s assessment, or 1/1,000 of a penny. The mill rate that determines your tax is set by the taxing authorities themselves.

For example, let’s say your property is assessed at $250,000 (by whatever method). If your county mill levy is 5, then for every $1,000 of assessed value, your bill goes up $5. In this case, that’s a very reasonable sounding $1,250. Remember, though, this is just one layer of the tax layer cake. You’ll need to add all the layers together to get your actual tax bill. Get your calculator ready and pour yourself a stiff drink – this could take awhile!

Philip Schwartz
Weatherstripping Windows and Doors: Technology and Techniques
weatherstripping

In the first part of this two part blog on weatherstripping, we walked through ways to detect leaks and how to determine if you even need to weatherstrip your home this year. You didn’t think there was more that could be said about weatherstripping, did you?

That’s ok. You’re forgiven.

Believe it or not, weatherstripping is actually a fairly complex topic and you deserve to know everything there is to know.

Which Materials Make Good Weatherstripping?

Theoretically, you can use about anything for blocking air leaks, but some materials do a lot better job than others. The very best weatherstripping does two things: it physically blocks drafts and it acts as insulation, slowing the transfer of indoor heat to cooler air outside via convection. Just blocking air flow isn’t enough to stop heat loss when the material blocking said cold air is a poor insulator.

These are some of the most common materials used for modern weatherstripping:

  • Felt. Matted fabric fibers do seem like they’d be a great insulator. They do ok, but they’re also really super visible.

  • All-Wool Felt. Felt made of wool is more durable than the standard grade stuff. It’s still really visible, but at least it’ll last and last.

  • Vinyl. It’s not the most durable material, but it can get the job done if you have a low traffic spot with a draft.

  • Foam. There are several different kinds of foam used as weatherstripping, they pretty much all do the same thing, though some are easier to install than others. Bonus: PVC foam weatherstripping is basically one long, skinny pool noodle.

  • Aluminum and stainless steel. While not particularly good insulators by themselves, aluminum and stainless steel are used in high traffic areas along with plastic, vinyl, foam and felt. The combination helps the less durable materials survive the stress, while slowing the heat loss you’d normally expect from metals.

Each of these materials can be used to plug up common sources of leaking air around windows and doors. When you add a nice heavy caulk bead to the mix, suddenly you’ll find your home is a lot warmer than you might have imagined it could ever be.

Weatherstripping Technology

It might seem strange to talk about weatherstripping and technology together, but without some kind of way to put it into use, you’d just have a bunch of garbage. When you go to the home improvement store to buy weatherstripping, you’re going to find tons of different configurations requiring a whole variety of installation techniques and tools (check the package before you leave, just in case you don’t have all the necessary equipment!).

Mostly, weatherstripping is pretty self-explanatory once you find the right thing for the job. But when you’re shopping for, say, weatherstripping to squish in the window sash to stop the leaks there, you may realize there are more options than you bargained for. This rundown of some of the most common should help you find just what you need:

  • Tension seals. They’re best used inside the track of a double-hung or sliding top windows. When they’re properly installed, they’re practically invisible and the self-stick vinyl makes them easy to install.

  • Reinforced foam. Great for door and window stops or the bottom or top of window sashes. They work well, but can be tricky to install and even with a good install, can be very visible.

  • Compressible tape. It comes in a variety of materials, all are great for blocking irregular spaces or in corners where it’s often hard to effectively seal. These tapes work best when compressed, but they are visible and should be used in light duty areas because they can’t handle a lot of wear.

  • Rigid strip gaskets. Use these for door or window stops, at the top or the bottom of a window sash or at the bottom of a door. They have a low price point, are easy to install (often self-adhesive) and are highly visible, but come in a variety of colors to help them better blend in.

  • Door sweeps. Generally your best choice for the bottom of a door, hence the name. They’re easy to install, can be adjusted for uneven thresholds, but are highly visible and can catch on carpets if not set properly.

  • Magnetic gaskets. Welcome to the future! Magnetic gaskets work a lot like the gaskets inside your refrigerator door. They’re best installed on the top and sides of doors, double-hung windows or in sliding window channels. They’re not cheap, but they are extremely effective and have few downsides.

Installing weatherstripping is a matter of choosing the right kind of weatherstripping, both in materials and technology, cleaning the surfaces well and, after cutting to length per package instructions, simply sticking the self-adhesive materials (or nailing non-adhesive ones) to the cleaned surface. Truly, the harder part of weatherstripping is buying it.

Philip Schwartz
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?
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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
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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