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
5 Worst Returns on Your Home Renovation Dollars
renovation returns

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

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

First and Foremost: Personalization Has Limits

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

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

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

Renovation Loss Leaders By the Numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When It Comes to Home Renovation Projects, Think Small

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

Philip Schwartz
What’s a Reverse Mortgage?
reverse mortgage

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

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

Reverse Mortgages and Their Bad Reputation

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

This was good for no one but the scammers.

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

How Do Reverse Mortgages Work?

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

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

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

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

Reverse Mortgage Payment Options

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Spring Cleaning Your Air Conditioner
cleaning air conditioner

First, A Basic Explanation of Air Conditioning Technology

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

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

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

So What Does the Outside Condenser Do?

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

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

Your Air Conditioner Spring Cleaning Checklist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Kind of Smart Cameras Are Available?

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

Type of Security Camera

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

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

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

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

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

Important Points to Ponder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Philip Schwartz
Table Saw Safety Tips
table saw safety tips

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

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

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

What is a Table Saw Made For?

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

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

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

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

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

Safety First with Table Saws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting Your Best Foot Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Top 5 Remodeling Mistakes to Avoid
DIY remodeling mistakes

Remodeling 101: There’s More To It Than Trying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Patio Planning 101
pergola

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

Patio Planning: The Basics

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

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

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

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

Bringing It All Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even Simple Changes Create Huge Home Impacts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz