Garage Door Care

garage door care

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

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

Parts of a Garage Door

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

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

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

Taking Care of Your Home’s Biggest Front Door

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Feeling a Bit More TGIF Than DIY?

Not everyone wants to take their garage door into their own hands. Even people who do sometimes hit problems that they simply don’t have the expertise to handle. That’s ok, that’s why the HomeKeepr community is such a thriving resource — everyone you could ever need to call is participating! Just log in and check out the overhead door experts that your Realtor has already recommended. They can come out and give your door a quick one-over, then set up inexpensive regular maintenance, saving you thousands of dollars in major repairs.

Easy Ways to Keep Cool This Summer

maintain ac.jpg

 

How Air Conditioners Work

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

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

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

Help Your Air Conditioner Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the Bigger Stuff?

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

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

Native Planting: Low Maintenance Landscaping

native plants chicago

What’s the Difference Between Native Plants and Weeds?

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

How to Care for Native Plants

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

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

Other Advantages to Native Plants

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

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

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

Creating Easy Care Landscaping

easy landscaping

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

What’s Wrong in the Landscaping?

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

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

This is not awesome, as you might have guessed.

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

The Pros and Cons of Geotextiles

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

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

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

Another Option: Mulch and Lots of It

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

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

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

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

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

Home Gardening: The Dirty Work

soil testing

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

Soil Testing 101

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amending the Garden

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

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

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

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

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

DYI Backsplash

DIY Backsplash

Choosing Backsplash Materials

Anything you can glue to the wall can be used as a backsplash. How effective it will be, on the other hand, is a point you really need to consider. Sure, that wine cork backsplash you saw on Pinterest is cool, but how well will you be able to clean it the first time you splatter spaghetti sauce on it? Remember that backsplashes are exposed to tough conditions, including:

High heat.
* Steam.
* Water.
* Food splatter.

Even though you may love the idea of making your kitchen backsplash out of old newspapers, ask yourself how you’re going to address these issues. If, for example, you somehow transfer the images from a newspaper onto a piece of tempered glass, you might be on to something. On the other hand, just taping newspaper to the wall is going to result in a very short-lived mess.

What the backsplash is made of is almost the most important question there is to answer. Many homeowners choose tile because it’s easy to install, universal and, hey, it’s what’s in the bathroom so you know it’s great with moisture. Before you rush out the door to buy supplies, consider the pros and cons of the materials you’ve been imagining as you cook dinner every night.

Prepping the Space

Changing out the backsplash in the kitchen isn’t the hardest job out there, but it can be an incredibly gross one, especially if the old backsplash was tile. You’ll want to move all the appliances out of the way (don’t just dodge around them, people get hurt this way), don’t forget to take the range hood down for access behind it. At the store, you’ll want to pick up some heavy drop cloths, either thick plastic or the reusable canvas ones. Also nab a respirator for each person who will be helping. You really don’t want to breath in the dust you’re about to generate.

Turn the power to the kitchen off, and with a heavy metal putty knife or small claw hammer, lift the first tile off the wall. Just shimmy under it and give it a twist of the wrist. Also have a bucket or something nearby to toss the tile into. Repeat this until all the tiles are gone. You’ll also need to have a plan for leveling the wall afterward — it should look nearly new, in a perfect world.

Depending on what was used to attach the tiles, you may be able to just knock the ridges down with your putty knife and sand the rest out or you might be able to go over the top of old, existing mastic with new mastic and tiles. Ask your home improvement store for specific help on this because the combinations and solutions are nearly limitless.

If you’re dealing with a formica backsplash (the same material as many countertops and a common backsplash choice for homes built and remodeled in the 1970s and 80s), you’ll need a heat gun to melt the glue, but you can essentially just peel it off as the glue is heated. The same applies to any other glued-on materials, short of wallpaper. Don’t heat that with a heat gun unless you like kitchen fires.

Is it Prepped Yet?

You’ll know your kitchen wall is ready for action when there’s no sign of anything behind the new material, including bumps, discoloration and the like. For glass tiles, for example, this might mean you’ll need to go over the drywall with a thin coat of white mastic for consistency, false tin tiles might look better after you’ve completely stripped any evidence of old backsplashes down to the drywall.

If you neglect this very important step your backsplash will look awful. It might even fall off. So prep like crazy. If you spend half the time on your project doing prep work, you still might be better off prepping a little more. Ultimately, the quality of the project is primarily determined by the quality of your preparation.

Tips for Doing a Great Install

The worst feeling in the world is reaching the end of a project only to realize that it looks nothing like you had imagined. Pinterest (and pre-Pinterest) fails are common in home improvement projects, but you can avoid the worst of them with a little pre-planning. Consider these tips before you go back in with your new material.

Ensure your backsplash actually fits. Laugh all you want, but sometimes people are drawn to particular materials or tiles and can’t be swayed otherwise. Measure your space and then measure it again. Not all materials are easy to cut down, keep that in mind as you make the final decisions.

Consider grout color choices as a part of the process. If you’re going with tile, grout is not an afterthought. Grout colors can completely change the way a tile backsplash looks in the space. If you use black grout with a white subway tile, it’s going to pop like mad, but that might not work in a kitchen that’s otherwise pretty calm. The reverse is also a problem, a white grout with those white tiles is going to make a kitchen with a lot of energy feel sterile and lifeless.

Plan your cuts ahead of time. This applies to any material you can cut. When you’re making cuts, you’re changing the pattern just so much and sometimes that little bit matters a lot. For example, if you’re using a piece of heavy acrylic that has fish silk screened onto it, you don’t want to lob a head off or cut a fish in half. Consider where you’re going to place each piece of material, where it’ll be cut and how it’ll all fit together at the end and your backsplash will steal the show.

Number your pieces. Use an oil pencil (or a Sharpie works if you’re using tiles) and label each piece on the back, in order of application. It can get very confusing when you’re in the middle of an install, there are a lot of things to keep on the brain. Labeling everything and drawing out even a crude diagram to show yourself where they go will make your job so much easier.

Remember, it’s not a race. No matter what type of backsplash you’re installing, slow and steady is the way to go. Going too fast ultimately means sloppy work. You don’t have the experience of a pro, you can’t expect to have the speed. Just put one tile, panel, or chunk of glass in front of the other as you move across the kitchen.

You Could Dream Big and Have a Pro Bring it to Life

One of the most important skills any homeowner can develop is realizing when they’re in too deep or when it just makes sense to hire a pro over DIYing a project. Often, you’ll end up saving a lot of time and frustration by using someone who has already been there and done that hundreds or thousands of times.

What To Do When Storm Damage Strikes

storm damage

What to do Immediately After a Storm

If you’ve never handled a storm damage claim (or other homeowner claim), you know it can be incredibly intimidating. There are things you can do to help yourself and other things that will seriously hinder you. But, armed with the right information, your claim and clean up will be a (relative) breeze.

Your first instinct after a storm is probably to start cleaning up and making repairs. It’s a natural next step, there’s no doubt about it. But, if you start to clear the problem away, it’s going to be very difficult for your insurance adjuster to figure out what actually happened. Here are some dos and don’ts for the hours to days after a storm:

DO take lots of photos of the damage as soon as possible. Anything can happen between the time when you realize you have damage and when the adjuster shows up. So document, document, document. Get lots of photos from lots of angles so they can put together a complete picture of the situation. Every detail helps.

DON'T remove anything that isn’t going to contribute more damage to the house. If there’s a tree on your roof and it’s poking through the attic, you’re going to have to clear some of that away. If there’s a tree on your roof, but it’s small and just sort of lying there, it’s probably not hurting anything. The same goes for any sort of debris that might be hanging around. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to.

DO stabilize serious problems like leaking roofs. The tree that’s punched into the attic is a big deal. You’re going to have to act on this to prevent further damage. Either call one of your HomeKeepr home pros or grab the chainsaw and clear it carefully from the roof. Then cover the hole with a tarp or take other temporary measures. The key here is temporary. You should not attempt to fix this permanently now. Again, the insurance adjuster needs to look at it first.

DON'T hire any roofers or other repair companies that are canvassing your neighborhood. If your whole neighborhood was hit by high winds or other severe weather, expect to be almost immediately mobbed by canvassing roofers and handymen. You need to know what your insurance is prepared to cover before you hire anyone. You generally have the option to choose your own repair people, within a reasonable price range, so do collect all the cards they bring by.

Once the Insurance Adjuster Arrives

They’ll take a look at the damage, possibly bring in a home pro to do a more detailed evaluation. Make sure that you show them everything you have while they’re at your doorstep, from the photos you took right after the storm to the measures you had to take to stabilize the damage. The more complete the details, the easier it is for them to figure out how much it’s going to cost to fix your house.

Get their phone number and an email address just in case you have anything else to send them. Staying in touch at this point is going to be vital, since there could be things you’ll need to do to keep the process moving along. This might include meeting home repair experts at your home to provide quotes, sending those quotes over to the adjuster and so forth.

A Few Things That Can Go Wrong

Dealing with storm damage is stressful. Depending on where you live, however, it can become a much bigger problem than just a basic hassle. Your insurance may not cover your damage because you weren’t carrying the right type of coverage. 

If you’ve not had a storm yet, you’re going to want to check your policies to see if the following items are included or if you have a separate policy or rider to cover them:

Sewage backups. Yes, it’s true that your basic homeowner’s policy probably won’t cover a sewage backup, even if it’s caused by surging storm drain water. Not only is this about the worst thing to clean up ever, it can be costly if you have a finished basement or other area that would need to be completely gutted in order to repair.

Flooding. Most flood insurance policies are issued through FEMA via the National Flood Insurance Program. The cost is relatively minimal, but because so many people assume they’re covered against floods under their homeowner’s, they don’t bother to look into this at all. The odds are good that your basic homeowner’s policy is not going to cover any water that seeps in from outside, though. You should call your agent to verify this information, but certainly don’t blindly trust you’re good to go.

Wind damage. In states where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plains (or where hurricanes are common), you may not have enough wind coverage with just a basic insurance policy. Often, there are serious restrictions on how much your policy will pay (usually as a percentage of the policy, not the actual cost of damage) and on what kind of damage it’ll pay it. Make sure you’ve got wind damage coverage that will pay out enough if you ever had to use it.

Vehicle damage. If a tree falls on your car during a windstorm and no one is around to see it, is it covered by your homeowner’s insurance? No. Not usually, anyway. That would be a job for your car insurance, so make sure it’s ample if you’re in a storm-heavy area. The only cases where you could pretty much count on the car being covered by your homeowner’s is if the car were inside the garage and then the garage fell on it. Even then there may be some limits.

How to Deal with Home Remodel Surprises

remodel surprises

Surprise! Your Remodel Just Got Weird

When you chose your home, you knew it needed work. But now that you’re about to dig in and tackle those projects, now is really the best time to prepare for as much as you can. The older your house, the more surprises you’ll likely find — time has a way of doing that to homes.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the International Code Council published the first edition of the International Building Code, which has been updated and reissued every three years since. Before that, many homes were built professionally, but when it came time to remodel anything there were zero standards to hold anyone to. Basically, you can kind of think of your home as a time capsule of the most terrifying variety.

Or, you know, it might be totally straightforward. There’s literally no way to know until you get started. So, are you ready?

A Few Surprises to Watch For

No matter how well you think you know your house, you should make sure you’ve got a respirator that can filter both lead paint and asbestos, as well as gloves and work clothing that will protect you from anything before you even think about getting started. These things aren’t a small investment, but if you want to do the work yourself, you need to protect yourself just like a pro would. There are so many things that can jump out and bite you during a remodel, this list contains a few of the most common:

Hidden metal, pipes and wiring. If you’re taking out walls or even taking out tiles with the hopes of replacing them with something more modern, you may discover that your wall interiors are a whole other world. Behind your kitchen’s wet wall, there’s a maze of pipes that snake around to nowhere. Your bathroom has random metal plates just stuck in the wall under some tiles. And, this wire… it goes nowhere. It should go without saying that you should always use tools that have non-conductive handles when you’re working in walls and behind objects that you can’t see through.

Surprise mold and pests. Surprise! You have mold and termites! Wait, that’s a bad thing… hopefully you had a home inspection and a termite inspection that would have found this problem ahead of time, but if you’ve owned your house a few years, pests and mold certainly could have popped up over time. Termites will likely require professional treatment (check the HomeKeepr community for a great pest control pro!), mold is a mixed bag. Some molds are very dangerous for people to breathe, but others are just kind of always in the environment.

At this point, you need to put all the tools away and have a mold test done. While you’re waiting for the results, figure out where the source of moisture that’s keeping this part of your house moist enough to let the various flora and fauna thrive is coming from and repair that problem right away. You may have to adjust your construction budget, but there’s no vessel sink that’s worth ignoring a termite-eaten sill plate.

Dry rot. Dry rot comes from similar conditions as mold and pests, but there’s not a pest or mold around. It’s just that your house is sort of rotting. This is not awesome, but it’s an easier fix than some things. Depending on the extent and location, you may want to bring in a structural engineer to assess the amount of repair that’s going to be needed to get your house back into shape.

A really good handyman or general contractor can take it from there. Structural repairs are not really a DIY situation, but if the dry rot is on outside trim pieces or somewhere your engineer doesn’t think is going to influence the way your house functions, go ahead and fix the source of the damage, replace the damaged boards, seal them and get back on track.

Poorly done prior work. This is what you’re hoping to avoid with your current remodel, so take photos as a sad remember that someday, someone else will Instagram your poorly done remodel if you don’t take this seriously. Whatever you uncover, you’ll need to correct it before you move forward. Don’t put good repairs over bad ones, you might as well not bother to remodel your home at all.

Really gross stuff. Homes that have had less than perfect owners or tenants often have less than perfect secrets. Sometimes they verge on the horrific when it comes to the gross out factor. Anything from lively, active pest infestations to evidence of old pest infestations that were completely out of control could be hiding under those layers of wallpaper. It’s alarming what an insect can hide under and still manage to completely disguise itself. (If you find something of this level, you’ll know — call a pest control pro immediately, you do not want to DIY this!)

Really illegal stuff. Sometimes a fixer upper or a repo has had a pretty sketchy history. Illegal activities, especially related to drugs, are not uncommon reasons for someone to lose their home. Most blogs on the topic of surprises in remodels won’t touch on this, but this is a very important consideration if you don’t know anything about the house. The very last thing you want is a needle with an unknown substance and origin falling on you from a drop ceiling you’re taking out piece by piece.

If you find drugs or paraphernalia during your remodel, call your local police department (not 911) for help with proper disposal. Make sure you have all the paperwork with you that proves you just bought the house and make it clear that you want to surrender these things you’ve found during your remodel that are absolutely and in no way related to you. Yet another reason to wear gloves and protective clothing.

Historical stuff. So as not to send you out on your remodeling adventure on a bad note, let’s talk about something fun you might find. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find some neat old stuff. You probably won’t see it in an easy to access place, but if you have some built-in cabinets that you’re trying to refinish, for example, make sure you look under and beneath all the drawers. Subfloors might yield coins of unusual age, basements and attics can have all sorts of treasures in them.

These things might not make the Antiques Roadshow, but they’re fun mementos to keep around and they’ll help you tell the story of your home.

The Biggest Surprise of All May Be Your Project’s Timeline

Even if you don’t encounter mold or roaches or magazines from the 1950s during your remodel, you could come across the biggest surprise of them all: just how much time it really takes to do a proper remodel and still work a full time job. 

Congrats! Your fixer-upper is well on its way to be a fixed-upper now that you have a remodeling plan in place and a way to pay for it. You’re almost certainly imagining how lovely a soak in that new bathroom will be after a long day at work or how many family members you’ll be able to pack into your newly opened-up kitchen and dining area. The one thing you’re not thinking about right now is what could possibly go wrong.

That’s ok. We’re here to toss a little storm cloud over your remodeling plans, or at least bring you down to Earth a bit so you’re not blindsided by things you might have never thought to prepare for when redoing your home.

Surprise! Your Remodel Just Got Weird

When you chose your home, you knew it needed work. That wasn’t really a shocker, even as the list from the home inspector seemed to go on and on forever. But now that you’re about to dig in and tackle those projects, now is really the best time to prepare for as much as you can. The older your house, the more surprises you’ll likely find — time has a way of doing that to homes.

Houses constructed more than about 30 years ago were largely built to whatever code seemed fancy in the moment. It wasn’t until 1997 that the International Code Council published the first edition of the International Building Code, which has been updated and reissued every three years since. Before that, many homes were built professionally, but when it came time to remodel anything there were zero standards to hold anyone to. Basically you can kind of think of your home as a time capsule of the most terrifying variety.

Or, you know, it might be totally straightforward. There’s literally no way to know until you get started. So, are you ready?

A Few Surprises to Watch For

No matter how well you think you know your house, you should make sure you’ve got a respirator that can filter both lead paint and asbestos, as well as gloves and work clothing that will protect you from anything before you even think about getting started. These things aren’t a small investment, but if you want to do the work yourself, you need to protect yourself just like a pro would. There are so many things that can jump out and bite you during a remodel, this list contains a few of the most common:

Hidden metal, pipes and wiring. If you’re taking out walls or even taking out tiles with the hopes of replacing them with something more modern, you may discover that your wall interiors are a whole other world. Behind your kitchen’s wet wall, there’s a maze of pipes that snake around to nowhere. Your bathroom has random metal plates just stuck in the wall under some tiles. And, this wire… it goes nowhere. It should go without saying that you should always use tools that have non-conductive handles when you’re working in walls and behind objects that you can’t see through.

Surprise mold and pests. Surprise! You have mold and termites! Wait, that’s a bad thing… hopefully you had a home inspection and a termite inspection that would have found this problem ahead of time, but if you’ve owned your house a few years, pests and mold certainly could have popped up over time. Termites will likely require professional treatment (check the HomeKeepr community for a great pest control pro!), mold is a mixed bag. Some molds are very dangerous for people to breathe, but others are just kind of always in the environment.

At this point, you need to put all the tools away and have a mold test done. While you’re waiting for the results, figure out where the source of moisture that’s keeping this part of your house moist enough to let the various flora and fauna thrive is coming from and repair that problem right away. You may have to adjust your construction budget, but there’s no vessel sink that’s worth ignoring a termite-eaten sill plate.

Dry. Rot. Dry rot comes from similar conditions as mold and pests, but there’s not a pest or mold around. It’s just that your house is sort of rotting. This is not awesome, but it’s an easier fix than some things. Depending on the extent and location, you may want to bring in a structural engineer to assess the amount of repair that’s going to be needed to get your house back into shape.

A really good handyman or general contractor can take it from there. Structural repairs are not really a DIY situation, but if the dry rot is on outside trim pieces or somewhere your engineer doesn’t think is going to influence the way your house functions, go ahead and fix the source of the damage, replace the damaged boards, seal them and get back on track.

Poorly done prior work. This is what you’re hoping to avoid with your current remodel, so take photos as a sad remember that someday, someone else will Instagram your poorly done remodel if you don’t take this seriously. Whatever you uncover, you’ll need to correct it before you move forward. Don’t put good repairs over bad ones, you might as well not bother to remodel your home at all.

Really gross stuff. Homes that have had less than perfect owners or tenants often have less than perfect secrets. Sometimes they verge on the horrific when it comes to the gross out factor. Anything from lively, active pest infestations to evidence of old pest infestations that were completely out of control could be hiding under those layers of wallpaper. It’s alarming what an insect can hide under and still manage to completely disguise itself. (If you find something of this level, you’ll know — call a pest control pro immediately, you do not want to DIY this!)

Really illegal stuff. Sometimes a fixer upper or a repo has had a pretty sketchy history. Illegal activities, especially related to drugs, are not uncommon reasons for someone to lose their home. Most blogs on the topic of surprises in remodels won’t touch on this, but this is a very important consideration if you don’t know anything about the house. The very last thing you want is a needle with an unknown substance and origin falling on you from a drop ceiling you’re taking out piece by piece.

If you find drugs or paraphernalia during your remodel, call your local police department (not 911) for help with proper disposal. Make sure you have all the paperwork with you that proves you just bought the house and make it clear that you want to surrender these things you’ve found during your remodel that are absolutely and in no way related to you. Once it’s all gone, it’s all gone and you can move on like nothing happened. Yet another reason to wear gloves and protective clothing.

Really historical stuff. So as not to send you out on your remodeling adventure on a bad note, let’s talk about something fun you might find. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find some neat historical stuff. You probably won’t see it in an easy to access place, but if you have some built-in cabinets that you’re trying to refinish, for example, make sure you look under and beneath all the drawers. Subfloors might yield coins of unusual age, basements and attics can have all sorts of treasures in them.

These things might not make the Antiques Roadshow, but they’re fun mementos to keep around and they’ll help you tell the story of your home, assuming they’re fit for mixed company.

The Biggest Surprise of All May Be Your Project’s Timeline

Even if you don’t encounter mold or roaches or magazines from the 1950s during your remodel, you could come across the biggest surprise of them all: just how much time it really takes to do a proper remodel and still work a full time job. If you’re finding that you just can’t make yourself pick up a hammer or a paintbrush after a 9 to 5 at the office, you’re not the first and you’re not alone. We're able to help you identify a professional who can finish your project in no time. And, you know they’re going to be awesome because we vet all of our vendors personally.  We do not recommend anyone without having used them first hand. We'd love to help pair you with the right professional! 

Home Buying Checklist

home buying checklist

Your Home Buying Scorecard

This exercise is meant to help focus your home search, but you should also realize that it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to get everything you want out of one house without an incredible budget or very low standards. To the scorecard!

When shopping for a home, it’s useful to start your search online for houses in your price range to see what sort of features they usually have. For example, if a $250k house in your area tends to have a fireplace and a two car garage, you know you can reasonably expect that. You’ll probably quickly realize that your expectation of acreage or a private movie theater is a little out of reach.

Grab your tablet or a piece of paper, and draw four columns. Label them like this: Definitely Need, Want, Can Live Without and Definitely Don’t Want. If you have a spouse or other person you’re buying with, make sure they make their own scorecard — no sharing answers, yet!

Now fill those columns in!

This isn’t an exercise that you should finish in a few minutes. You should spend a good week or two really working on it. Think deeply and about the long term. A few questions you may want to ask yourself include:

  • Do I intend to age in place? 
  • Am I planning to start a family? 
  • Is there a style of house I’m attracted to? 
  • If I had a fireplace, how often would I use it? 
  • Do I plan to have pets? 
  • How close can I tolerate my neighbors?
  • Do I need a garage, or am I okay with street parking?
  • Consider the seasons when you are mulling over your commute. A mile walk in the summer may not seem like a big deal, but what about when there's a foot of snow?
  • What do I like about where I live now, that I'd like at my new home?
  • What do I dislike about my current home that I'd like to change at my next?
  • Do I have a budget for repairs, renovation, etc?

As you start to take inventory of your actual wants and needs, you’ll also be eliminating huge swaths of houses in single blows. This makes your home search a lot easier. 

When your scorecard feels pretty complete, make sure to compare notes with your spouse. You may have some compromising to do, especially if you’re dead set on a house with a pool and they want a small yard. With all of the details decided, you can finally call us and we'll get shopping for your dream home!

INSURANCE FOR YOUR HOME: HOMEOWNER’S POLICIES 101

homeowners insurance

A homeowner’s policy is designed to protect you, your family, your dwelling and your personal property from damage, both physical and financial, to some extent. Most policies are essentially the same, containing these components:

Dwelling coverage. Your lender will require that if your property is severely damaged, it’s able to recover the amount of the loan you’ve borrowed. This is what dwelling coverage is for, when it comes down to it. In the case that your house were a total loss, you’d have the option to either rebuild with those insurance funds or give them to the bank and own the lot free and clear (then you could rebuild with cash or sell the lot off).

Oh, but it gets better! Dwelling coverage will also cover major damage to your home, like when a bad wind or hail storm comes through and causes your roof to spring a leak. You will likely have a deductible around $1,000 or higher to deter you from making too many claims, but it is handy to have when big issues crop up.

It’s extremely important to note that while many acts of nature (tornadoes, fires, wind storms, etc.) are covered by your dwelling coverage, most policies specifically exclude floods, earthquakes and sinkholes. Check your policy carefully and ask your agent about additional coverage if you’re in a flood-, quake- or sinkhole-prone area.

Other structure coverage. Other structure coverage does exactly what it says it does: covers other structures. There’s usually a dollar cap, which is a percentage of the value of your home, but it can be applied to major damage to sheds, detached garages, fences, greenhouses and any other permanent structure you have on your property.

Personal property coverage. This is the part of the insurance policy that’s just exactly like renter’s insurance. If your property is damaged during a storm, stolen during a robbery or severely damaged by something out of your control, you can file a claim and possibly have some kind of reimbursement. Replacement cost coverage provides the amount necessary to replace your items, so if this is an option, choose it. Again, though, there is probably not coverage for flooding, earthquakes or sinkholes, so be ready to ask about it.

Personal liability coverage. If the neighbor pops by to bring you a pie and accidentally slips and is injured, you don’t have to worry about how much her hospital bills are going to be. Your insurance will cover it (to a specified amount). The same applies if your tree drops a limb on the neighbor’s roof and they sue you for the costs. Accidents happen, that’s what insurance is for.

Other things that are covered by this part of the policy may include dog bites that occur on your property, if you were honest with the agent and your dog wasn’t on a prohibited dog list (some insurance companies won’t insure homes with “pitbull” type dogs, German shepherd, rottweilers, and others). It’s essentially a general liability policy tied to your home, so if you can imagine an accident stemming from your family, it’ll probably cover it.

Loss of use coverage. Many homeowner policies will also pay for you to live elsewhere while your home is being repaired after major damage. This is the loss of use coverage portion of the policy. It, of course, comes with a cap, so don’t get too cozy at the Ritz. Your dollars — and days — are limited.

Additional Coverage. You can choose from a number of additional coverages, from extra coverage for valuable collectables to coverage for identity fraud, at an additional cost. Most of these extra coverages won’t apply to most buyers, but there’s one that you may want to consider if you’re buying a house with a basement or in an area with a high water table.

That’s the “Water Backup and Sump Pump Discharge or Overflow” coverage. Now, this still won’t cover flooding, but it will cover any water that’s forced back into your house through the sewer system due to excessive ground- or wastewater causing backflow in the sewage system. So, it’s not for flood waters that enter your house the normal way, but if they come in through the sump pump, you’re gold.

If you’re in an area where this is a possibility and the coverage isn’t much extra, definitely get this. The sheer nightmare that is water backup from a basement drain due to oversaturation is unspeakable and the smell unforgettable. You’re going to be happy to leave that one to the pros.

Flood Insurance: What’s That All About?

Flood insurance primarily comes up when you’re looking to buy a house sitting on a piece of land that has even a tiny corner poking into a floodplain. The fact that most homeowners don’t know they can buy flood insurance no matter where they live is a serious disservice to all of them, especially considering how many homes have been flooded in recent years without being located in flood plains. The issue usually comes up when your bank requires a flood insurance certification to process your home loan for a house in a flood plain, otherwise, figuring flood insurance out is in your court — and most people would rather skip the additional $600ish dollars a year.

That’s right. For $50 a month, your $250k home can be insured against flood damage. Or thereabouts, the price varies with your risk. Some homes are less, some are a bit more. This is the coverage that fills in the flood gapthat your homeowner’s leaves totally open. It only pays on flood damage, and there are plenty of exclusions, including anything located in a basement or other room that’s below the level of the ground, but it’s a lot better than the nothing you’ll have otherwise. Ask your agent about optional flood insurance while you’re discussing homeowner’s.

The Seller Provided a Home Warranty, How Does This Figure In?

Getting a home warranty at closing is a good move. Although the companies behind them can sometimes be slow to get the wheels moving, they can protect you from major repair expenses in your early homeownership years. But, they can also be a little confusing because they sort of work like insurance, even though they aren’t technically insurance.

Home warranties help you cover the cost of repairs for common small household issues, like leaky plumbing, air conditioning hiccups and electrical shenanigans. You pay a portion of the cost of the service call, depending on what level of plan was purchased, and the warranty company pays the rest.

In this way, it behaves a bit like health insurance. Everyone pays into one big pot and the money is used where it’s needed. Not everyone will need to use their home warranty, but those people who do need it may require a considerably larger chunk than they contribute. Everybody understands that’s the deal when they sign up, though. They know they may not actually use the coverage, so it’s all on the up-and-up.

 

Wrap Your Home in a Warm Layer of Insurance Bubble Wrap

A lot of home buyers and homeowners think that insurance is a waste of money. After all, it’s designed so that you never use it. While that may be true, the fact remains that if you do need it, you’re really going to need it and there’s no take-backs. You can’t change your mind and load up on coverage after that giant tree has fallen through your bathroom ceiling.

For the relatively small cost (when compared to your house payment) of the right insurance coverages, it’s nice to be able to sleep at night without having to worry about what you’ll do if water comes in under the front door from the storm that’s brewing. Getting good insurance is a snap, too.

You can ask your Realtor to recommend an agent that they like through the HomeKeepr community — that agent’s contact information will then appear instantly. A short call later, you’ll walk a little taller and feel a little bit better about the next windy day.

Your Flooring Options: A Journey Underfoot

Wide-Plank-Hardwood-Flooring-1.jpg

Whether you’ve owned your house for a day, a year or a decade, picking the flooring you’re going to have to live with for a while can be stressful. There are so many materials available and within those, a huge array of colors and designs. It’s the paradox of choice at work, you have so many options you may literally freeze. That’s why we’re going to break it down for you, in hopes that the overwhelm is minimized when your time comes.

Next time you’re in the mood to look at flooring patterns online or in your home improvement stores, here are some things to consider about the most common flooring options available.

Carpet

The fuzzy stand-by for living areas and bedrooms, wall-to-wall carpet has been a popular flooring choice for a century. The materials may have changed, but the basic configuration is the same. All carpets are just a series of fibers woven onto a flexible grid, topping a uniformly thick padding.

When choosing a carpet, look for one with a face weight of at least 30 ounces. These are just above builder grade and should last six to 12 years. Always choose the best mid-grade carpet you can afford, you can’t go wrong that way. It’s where value and durability meet. Don’t skimp on carpet pad, either. Let the carpet shop match a pad to the carpet you’ve chosen so that you get the most life out of them both.

  • Best places for carpet in your home:
  • – Bedrooms
  • – Living rooms (excluding the traffic zones)
  • – Offices
  • – Formal living rooms
  • – Dens

Tile

Today’s tile comes in a huge range of colors, shapes, sizes and materials, but it all shares one thing in common: it’s nearly indestructible when installed properly and should be considered a permanent decision. It’s not that you can’t untile your entryway, but it’s going to be a difficult job, so take this decision carefully and skip the trendy stuff.

There are several grades of tile, but in general, they’re divided into two camps: wall tile and floor tile. While you can use floor tile on the wall with the right adhesive and a lot of patience, you should never use wall tile on the floor. It’s simply not hard enough and will end up cracking or otherwise failing.

The other major consideration is your floor. Is it a perfectly smooth, flat floor, or does it have some minor bumps and ridges? Even minor settling needs to be kept in mind when you’re choosing a tile size. Small tiles are far more forgiving of uneven floors than huge tiles. When a tile doesn’t make full contact with the mortar bed, it will come loose, then others will follow.

Popping tiles can become a major problem in older homes that are built on crawl spaces or basements, and although there’s a certain amount of compensation offered by cement board, it’s just better to hedge your bets by choosing smaller tiles.

  • Best places for tile in your home:
  • – High traffic areas
  • – Kitchens
  • – Bathrooms
  • – Dining rooms
  • – Mudrooms
  • – Laundry rooms
  • – Sunrooms

Wood

Wood floors are timeless and sturdy, and these days, come in both solid wood and engineered formats. Solid wood floors will give you a floor that’s more or less just like those floors of yesteryear, completely seamless and total class all the way. Many people choose prefinished wood floors to make installation easier, but unfinished wood floors are still available and make a vibrant, albeit expensive, statement.

Engineered wood floors, on the other hand, are made from layers of wood and plywood. They look just like finished solid wood floors, but are not as durable overall. Most people won’t be able to tell the difference, however, and engineered wood floors can perform better than solid wood floors in wet places, so you’ll just have to strike a balance between your needs and the materials that are available.

  • Best places for wood flooring in your home:
  • – Living room
  • – Bedroom
  • – Dining room
  • – Staircases
  • – Entryways
  • – Offices
  • – Kitchens (engineered, with proper precautions)

Laminate

Laminate flooring is a very durable, flexible and affordable hard surface for all sorts of homes and situations. Like engineered wood flooring, it consists of several layers of material, including a clear wear layer, a design layer that can simulate wood, stone and a variety of other patterns, an inner core that provides the majority of the structural stability of the product and a backing layer that helps to protect from warpage.

Unlike a wood floor, laminate floors are installed without glue or nails, which is why some people still refer to them as “floating floors.” They don’t actually float, but walking on one for the first time can be interesting if you’re very sensitive to that sort of thing (many of them are also very slick, just something to keep in mind). Because the material is designed as tongue and groove boards, everything fits tightly as your jigsaw puzzle of a floor is constructed. When it’s done, all that’s required to hold it in place is properly installed trim.

It’s an easy floor. In fact, this is one flooring option you might even want to DIY if you’re the handy type.

  • Best places for laminate flooring in your home:
  • – Living room
  • – Bedrooms
  • – Bathrooms (choose one that’s water resistant)
  • – Kitchen
  • – Foyer
  • – Office
  • – Pretty much anywhere

Vinyl

It wasn’t that long ago that vinyl flooring meant tired patterns on reliable, but boring sheet material that had to be painstakingly glued to the floor. One bubble, one wrong cut, and the whole install might be ruined. Today’s vinyl is anything but fussy, with sturdier and more attractive tiles, planks and glue-free sheet goods. Vinyl is also an affordable solution that can be DIYed fairly easily.

It’s naturally water-resistant, making it a great match for basements and places that get damp. Unlike many other types of non-carpet floorings, however, vinyl can be fairly soft, so if you’re putting it in an area like a dining room, you’ll have to take a lot of care not to gouge it when you’re moving chairs under the table. Overall, vinyl provides a good bang for your buck, and since it’s time-tested, you know exactly what you can expect from it: a long, useful life provided you give it the minimal care it needs.

  • Best places for vinyl flooring in your home:
  • – Kitchen
  • – Laundry room
  • – Basement
  • – Mudroom
  • – Foyer

Time to Get Your Flooring On!

Now that you know what your flooring options are, it’s time to get shopping. Even if you’re not confident in your flooring installation skills, you can still pick out the patterns and materials you want to use in your home. A quick visit to HomeKeepr will set you up with the right flooring installer for a floor you’re gonna love for a long, long time.

Which Home Updates Result in the Best Return?

home-value-updates.jpg

You’ve lived in your home a little while and you think you sort of understand how it should flow. You’re starting to see the warts and little bits of rough that people tend to gloss over when the neighbors pop by to borrow the lawnmower. It’s not that these things make your home flawed — all homes are flawed, they’re made from flawed materials, after all.

But, which projects make the most sense to do first? Will any of them actually pay for themselves in gained home equity, or are these changes things you’ll have to consider sunk costs in your home and investments strictly in your own enjoyment? And furthermore, are there even changes you can make yourself that will be worth the bother? 

Say Hello to Renovation Magazine’s Cost Vs. Value Report

For the past 31 years, Renovation Magazine has been trying to answer these and other questions by performing a national survey about home renovations and the resell values that tended to accompany them. It comes out early in the new year, giving everyone in the industry something to look forward to after the holiday season. The 2018 report was no less exciting than any other year has been, though there were few surprises.

For example, the top returns in 2016 and 2017 came from midrange fiberglass attic insulation, at 116.9 percent and 107.7 percent, respectively. This year, the number one spot went to another small project: upscale garage door replacements, recouping 98.3 percent of the job cost. In fact, this year’s Top 10 is almost entirely made up of smaller, more simple projects, just like the last two years have been, many of them the same projects, just in different slots.

There’s a helpful chart below:

Cost-Recouped-2.png

What does this mean? Well, it means two things, especially if you dig deeper into the data. As a national average, the same projects have been worth making the investment in for the last few years and secondly, there are very few things you can do to your home and get the full cost back out.

Your home is like a piggy bank, but it has some sort of containment issue. You put in a dollar, it only manages to hold on to 90 cents. But, you can think of that loss as the price you pay for getting to use all that cool new stuff while you’re there. Maybe that’ll soften the blow a bit.

Ok, So What Bigger Projects Will Help My Home’s Value?

Again, according to the data provided by Remodeling Magazine’s well-respected survey, bigger projects that should get you some attention (and recoup decently on their own costs) this year include:

#4. Adding on a wooden deck. (82.8 percent)
#5. A minor midrange kitchen remodel. (81.1 percent)
#7. Replacing your windows with vinyl thermopanes. (74.3 percent)
#8. Upgrading your bathroom to a universal design. (70.6 percent)
#9. Just upgrading your bathroom, period. (70.1 percent)

You may notice a trend here. Kitchens and bathrooms are a big deal. They’re always a big deal. In fact, for most houses, it’s the kitchen and the bathroom that really sell the house. You can have the best curb appeal possible, but if your bathroom is difficult to use or your kitchen has no cabinets or non-functional work spaces, you put your money in the wrong places.

Curb appeal does matter, otherwise, that garage door and the stone veneer wouldn’t appear in the chart above so many times. People want to buy a nice looking home, which is what your home values are really based on. An appraisal is nothing more than a complicated calculation that determines what an average buyer would give for your house in its current condition in the current market, after all.

When you’re thinking about putting money into your home to increase the equity you hold or to improve its value for a sale down the line, just ask yourself if the thing you’re about to do is something that a random person off the street could appreciate. For example, do not paint your ceiling blood red. No matter what HDTV says. Do paint an accent wall red if you really need to paint something.

How Do I Get Started on Bigger Projects?

If you’ve never been part of a larger remodeling project, you will most definitely need the guidance of a pro, at minimum. There’s a lot of planning and a whole box of tools (both literal and metaphorical) that it takes to put together an effort like that. After all, you want your project to look like it does in your mind’s eye, don’t you?

Don’t worry, the home pros of the HomeKeepr community are there to help. They have the skills and experience to explain the remodeling process to you and even take the wheel if you feel like it’s a bigger task than you can handle. They come recommended, so you know you can trust them with your home and your vision.

Which Home Assistant Should I Buy?

google home

Home assistants: they’ll turn on your television, open the shades, adjust the thermostat and turn on the lights. Once in a while they may think you’re asking for “pickled gallows” when you’re trying to have them add “pico de gallo” to your shopping list, but all and all, they’re pretty helpful.

Personal assistants are so helpful that, according to Pew Research, 46 percent of Americans today take advantage of digital voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. And why not? They can make life a whole lot easier, one little voice command at a time.

But which one is properly suited to your smart home configuration?

Breaking It Down: Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri

The best minds of tech and business have put Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri head-to-head and each came back with the same results. There is no clear winner in the digital assistant world. There are some things that Alexa does phenomenally that Siri can’t and vice versa. Often, the best digital assistant is the one that works with devices you already have and fits into your budget.

So, instead of wasting your time with yet another face-off, let’s just talk about what each brings to the table so you can decide for yourself what you really want your digital assistant to do. 

Alexa: Great for Shopping, Smart Home, Helping Out

Since she’s linked to Amazon’s massive shopping database, she’s great at helping you find deals on items you may be interested in, reordering supplies you buy on the regular and keeping track of your shopping lists. A few clicks in the Alexa app gives her access to your Google calendar, allowing her to add or recite the day’s events.

As an added bonus, the standard Amazon Echo is a solid speaker for music or audio books. There’s even a second generation model available with a device hub already integrated to make connecting smart home devices easier. The price point on these two devices ranges from $99.99 to $149.99.

Google Home: Full of Answers, Gets Your Pizza Right

Google Home will work with some of the most popular smart home devices, with more being added all the time. Like its parent, Google, this device is all about finding answers to everything and anything. If that’s the kind of assistant you need, then this is the one you want. Reviewers have proclaimed, hands down, that Google Assistant has the best voice recognition overall, which leads to a lot less frustration in general.

Ordering food is a breeze with Google Home, provided it supports the food app you’re trying to use. Plan on watching a movie with that pizza your Home just ordered? Have it fire up the Chromecast while you get the blankets and wine glasses out! 

The Google Home unquestionably wins the aesthetics award when compared to clunky Alexa. With it's sleek design and changeable base colors and wraps available, it can blend seamlessly into your home, or stand out as an attractive accent! Priced around $129.99, and Google Mini clocks in at about $50 (but they're pretty easy to find sale for less).

Siri: The New Kid on the Block

Siri’s just now moving into the Apple HomePod, so what she’ll be capable of is anyone’s guess. She was finally freed from the confines of the smartphone on February 9, 2018. Now, you need only hand over $349 to Apple and you can have your very own speaker version. Like Google Assistant, Siri can do some smart home stuff, but she’s limited to Apple Homekit compatible devices. Because she grew up inside a telephone, though, she’s still pretty great at connecting you to friends and family, making her an awesome tool for hands-free calling from anywhere in your home.

Apple HomePod does a few things that no other voice assistant enabled speaker can do. First, it requires almost no setup, since it auto-detects where it is in the room by sending out audio blasts and listening for them to bounce back. That’s a pretty slick trick and ideal for anyone who struggles with technology.

Secondly, the folks at Apple have given a lot of thought to security and decided their best response was to untangle your searches from your account. Instead of associating your data with your name, Apple HomePod associates your data with random numbers, then deletes the associated data every six months. That way if the government were to request your data for some reason (like they think you’re the Scranton Strangler), Apple can honestly say they don’t know what data is yours and refuse to comply. This has roots in an old dispute with the federal government over the creation of a backdoor into the iPhone for surveillance purposes.

Make Your Home Smarter, Any Way You Can

Really, it doesn’t matter which digital home assistant you choose in the end. They’re all going to make your life a lot easier in the end. 

One final word of advise: don't choose one over the other because of brand recognition. I have an iPhone I couldn't live without, am way too dependent on Amazon, and refuse to use and Android phone, but in my household we've adopted to Google Home after giving Alexa a shot. Have your friends with these devices show you how they use them, and ask what their frustrations are. 

Snow Day Lavender Hot Chocolate

lavender hot chocolate

The snow has been falling here in Chicago for 14 hours with no signs of stopping. If you're in search of a hot beverage to warm you up after shoveling, elevate your average hot cocoa with this lavender hot chocolate! It can be made vegan with nutmilk if you choose. Enjoy - and stay warm!

Since lavender is quite fragrant, adjust amount according to your preference. For a creamier hot chocolate, a 1 to 1 ratio of dark to milk chocolate can be used. Makes 2 servings.

hot chocolate:

  • 2 cups soy milk
  • 3 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao)
  • 1/4 teaspoon lavender buds

whipped cream:

  • 1/2 cup cold heavy whipping cream or soy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or seeds from 1/4 of a whole vanilla bean pod
  • 1/2 tablespoon granulated white sugar or stevia

For whipped cream, place cold cream, vanilla, and sugar into a cold mixing bowl. Beat the mixture with a whisk or mixer until stiff peaks form. keep refrigerated until ready for use.

For hot chocolate, heat soy milk and lavender over medium heat, whisking occasionally until the milk begins to simmer. Remove from heat and let lavender steep for 5 minutes. Strain lavender and return milk to saucepan. Over medium heat, add chocolate and mix until chocolate is melted and incorporated. Whisk milk mixture for 10-20 seconds until frothy. Pour into mugs or bowls and serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

Via Buzznet

Your Need to Know Guide to the Debt to Income Ratio

debt to income ratio

You’ve decided it’s time to stop renting and become a homeowner. Let's talk about your debt to income ratio and why it matters to your future mortgage.

What is My Debt to Income Ratio?

If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t be shy, it’s one of the most common questions that first time homebuyers have when applying for a mortgage. At a very basic level, your debt to income ratio is simply what it sounds like: all your long term, semi-permanent debt compared to your current income.

Usually your mortgage lender will do this as a monthly comparison to make it easy, but the ratio’s the same whether you compare month to month or year to year. If you have $1,200 a month in debt and $5,000 a month in income, that’s the same as if you had $14,400 in yearly debt and $60,000 in yearly income. Both come out to 24 percent, which is a pretty good debt to income ratio.

But, of course, it can’t be that easy, can it.

What’s Included in a Debt to Income Ratio?

Things that are included in your debt to income ratio are secured loans like a car loan, which are sort of guaranteed by the property that you’ve borrowed the money to purchase; unsecured loans like credit cards and lines of credit; student loans and any debt you’ve co-signed.

Let me repeat that last thing. Any debt you’ve cosigned is part of this figure. So, if you agreed to cosign a loan for your sister 20 years ago and she’s still paying on it, that’s still going to count against you, even though you’ve totally forgotten about it. 

Things that aren’t included are items like your car insurance, your utility bills, your cable bills, subscriptions and so forth. Basically, if you can cancel the payment at will (whether or not there are serious consequences like having no lights or being able to watch Game of Thrones), it’s probably not going to be included on your credit report unless you fail to pay as agreed. While you’re at it, it might be a good idea to go ahead and get yourself a credit report from a reputable site like MyFICO.com, just so you can see what is actually reporting.

Adding It All Up

Figuring your debt to income ratio is pretty easy. The hardest part is figuring out what counts and what doesn’t. Just add up your monthly expenses and divide by your monthly gross income, before any taxes, insurance, 401k withdrawal and the like come out. There you go. That’s your debt to income ratio. Now we can do some stuff with it!

There are three major programs that most home buyers utilize across most of the United States. These are the FHA, VA and Conventional mortgages. Each has its own requirements and debt to income ratio ceilings. Some are more complicated than others.

FHA and Front End and Back End Ratios

For FHA, there are two kinds of debt to income ratios to keep in mind. One is called the front-end ratio, the other is, unoriginally, named the back-end ratio. The front-end ratio is only your potential future housing debt; the back-end ratio includes all your debts. With that in mind, the chart below shows how you’d look to an FHA lender as of the writing of this blog.

The first number in the column labeled “Maximum Qualifying Ratios (%)” is the front-end ratio, the second is the back-end ratio. Compensating factors can be thought of as other things you bring to the table to make you into a really awesome borrower. Since you have little to no experience at this mortgage thing, your FHA lender is understandably afraid of your eventually missing a payment in the 30 years you’re going to have a relationship, so they want evidence to show that you’re a stand-up person.

compensating factors

FHA loan debt-to-income guidelines. Source: HUD Handbook 4000.1

Fannie Mae and DTI

Conventional loans are a bit easier. Fannie Mae is the principal agency that guarantees what’s known as a “conventional” or “conforming” loan. Fannie has siblings like Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, but they’re at the movies right now and we’re not going to involve them in the conversation. For our purposes, conventional loans are all about Fannie Mae.

In general, conventional loans tend to be more difficult to land, in part because they have more rigid income to debt requirements. For borrowers with credit scores of 680 or better and less than a 25 percent down payment, Fannie won’t allow more than a 36 percent debt to income ratio (but she only uses the one number, so at least it’s not more complicated than that). If your credit score is above 700 and your down payment is less than 25 of the home’s price, she’ll allow a 45 percent debt to income ratio.

When it comes to Fannie, bringing more money to the table will absolutely catch her eye. That magic number is 25 percent of the sales price of your home. So, if you’re floating in cash, but have a higher debt to income ratio or a little bit lower credit score, you could win brownie points this way.

Veterans Get More Leeway

If you’re a military vet and you’ve not used your VA mortgage benefits, you may be wondering about cashing in that particular chip. When it comes to the debt to income question, it’s a harder one to answer. Generally speaking, the VA wants to see a debt to income ratio below 41 percent, but like with other qualifiers under VA, the rules aren’t really all that hard and fast.

VA loans tend to be a lot more flexible in general, and debt to income ratios are no exception. Although all the loans mentioned in this blog can be manually underwritten, the guidelines only allow for so much deviation outside the rules. VAs give a lot more wiggle room, so if you’re at a 45 percent debt to income ratio, for example, it might not be out of the question if everything else is in line.

Time to Go Apply What You’ve Learned

Figuring out your debt to income ratio is just one of the very first steps you should take on your path to getting a mortgage. Once you can see how much each of your debts affects your ability to get a home loan, you can either refinance those debts into loans with better terms or work extra hard to pay them down before approaching a mortgage lender.

Light It Up! Home Lighting 101

home lighting tips

Light has a powerful influence over the way your home feels to you and how others perceive your space. It can affect how you use different areas, too. If you’re looking for a quick and relatively inexpensive way to give your home an attitude overhaul, consider a change in lighting. There are tons of fixture options available to help you create the exact look you’re going for without having to make any major changes. 

So, how will you light up your life?

The First Order of Business: Choose a Theme

Before you buy anything lighting-related, have a plan. You can play it safe and select standard fixtures, all in polished nickel, or you can be bold and choose fixtures that may fall out of fashion, like shiny brass Sputnik chandeliers. As long as you’re consistent, it’ll be ok in the end.Decide what color your fixtures will be, and, really, what the overall feel you're aiming to create.

The Light Layering Two-Step

In most modern homes, you walk into a room and you’re greeted by one weak light coming from the center of the ceiling. This infirm little bulb is trying very hard to pull the weight of several light fixtures and lamps that should be in the room. One sluggish fixture needs a team to back it up! One light bulb simply isn’t enough; that’s why most interior design experts recommend light layering.

There are three main components to light layering. Your space may not need them all, so feel free to toss out what doesn’t work:

Ambient lighting. This sort of lighting is what that tiny light in the center of the room is trying to be. Ideally, ambient lighting provides a comfortable level of brightness for the entire room. At minimum, you’ll want a multi-bulb central fixture, be that a chandelier or ceiling fan, but some people also incorporate recessed lighting or track lights as well.

Task lighting. You’ll see a lot of task lighting in well-lit kitchens and other work spaces. That under cabinet lighting you were admiring at the home improvement store is a good example of task lighting. It can be any sort of light that’s placed in such a way to make performing a task easier. Just make sure that when you place said task lighting, it doesn’t increase the shadow or create glare.

Accent lighting. Does your house have some really cool stuff in it? Well, this is where you can use lighting to really point it out. You can use accent lighting to highlight artwork, draw the eye to interesting architectural features or simply influence where visitors look around the room. To be most effective, accent lighting should shine three times brighter on the focal point than the general room light.

Small Changes, But High Praise

Simply making small lighting changes can completely change the way your home looks, from top to bottom. Your paint may even be a slightly different shade when it’s all said and done! So many homeowners don’t take advantage of this one simple investment that can give their home such a big boost.

Preventing Ice Dams Before They Start

ice dam

Icicles hanging from power lines, trees and other people’s homes can be absolutely gorgeous, but when those delicate frozen water daggers are hanging from yours, it may make your stomach do a barrel roll. Why? Well, it’s just one of many signs that your home is at risk for ice dams.

What’s an Ice Dam, Anyway?

An ice dam occurs when there’s a disparity in the temperature of your roof that causes snow and ice to melt off of the main portion of the deck, then refreeze at the eaves. This results in a sort of hump that slows or prevents further run-off of that same type of melt — it’s a dam literally created out of ice. It may cover the edge of your roof or spill over into your gutters, but either way it’s not good news. You might also notice icicles forming, this is a sign you absolutely need to get in gear and figure out what’s going on upstairs.

Ice dams are no good for several reasons, including the potential to damage your gutter and roofing materials or divert water into your attic or inside the exterior wall. They’re spendy problems that can have you standing on the ground in the snow shouting and shaking a fist at the sky. It’s much better to prevent them now than to have to deal with them later.

The Mechanics of an Ice Dam

Ice dams are the result of attics that are improperly sealed or insulated. There, I said it. It’s probably not your fault, your house may be really old or maybe you have an addition that wasn’t quite ventilated properly. Let me explain how they work, then we’ll get to how to make them stop.

When it snows, it’s actually good if that snow accumulates on your roof. That means that your living space, the part that you’re heating, is tightly sealed and there’s not heat leaking into the attic. A warm roof is never consistently warm, it’s only warm from the peak (remember, heat rises) to some point below, but never to the eaves (the most narrow bit of the roofline). The eaves are just as cold as it is outside, no matter how much heat you pump into the attic — that’s where the problem lies.

So the ultimate end goal is to keep the attic as cool as you can in the winter, as well as the summer.

Getting Started with a Permanent Fix

We’ll hit on temp fixes for ice dams later, but first I want to go over how to actually fix this problem for good. It will be better for your house, your roof and your wallet if you cure the ill rather than bandaging it year after year. Below, you’ll find a checklist of things you can do to cool that attic off!

Seal all cracks, gaps or holes between the living space and attic. These can be hard to see if you have a lot of insulation, but if you’re having ice dam problems, the chances are good that you don’t. Go around the attic slowly looking for any points of light coming from your living space. Fill these with caulk or expanding foam, depending on the size of the hole and the location.

Exhaust everything to the outside. Does your bathroom fan exhaust into the attic? How about your dryer vent? Make sure all your exhaust ducts are venting to the outside of the house, not just to the attic. Those bursts of warm air are not your attic’s friends.

Check your HVAC ducts. If your HVAC system lives in your attic, it could be the main source of heat leakage. Check all the ductwork, starting at the unit and moving outward. Tape or screw together any ducts that are loose or have fallen apart. While you’re at it, make sure the vents are securely attached at the duct endpoints.

Add insulation. Check your insulation level. You probably need more, but go ahead and get a ruler to determine exactly what’s going on. If your insulation isn’t even coming up past the ceiling joists, you definitely need another blanket to help keep that warm air where it belongs. Don’t forget to insulate sealed can lights, attic hatches and cover your whole-house fan as well.

Ventilate the roof. You can’t prevent all heat from accumulating in your attic. Even with your best effort, the sun’s going to contribute something. That’s why adding soffit and roof vents is a good bet. Both types of vents should be sized so that there’s at least one square foot of opening for every 300 feet of attic floor. You want the intake and output to be roughly the same to create optimal flow. The soffit vent will pull cool air in from outside and the roof vent will push out hot air from the peak of your attic.

Flash your chimney. This isn’t Mardi Gras and you’re not getting any beads, but flashing your chimney is another way to seal away heat. Never use spray foam or similar products to seal gaps around chimneys unless you really want to experience a house fire. Instead, choose fire-safe L-shaped chimney flashing.

Short Term Fixes

I understand that you’re not ready to get into the attic and do all it takes to get it ready for winter. You’re busy, life is happening. You’re not the only one. There’s really only one great short-term fix for ice dams: heated cables.

You install these with clips along your roof’s edge (much like with Christmas lights) in a zigzag pattern so the entire eave has coverage. They plug in from the ground, so you can unplug them on nice days and save money on electricity. Heated cables are not a long term solution, however, and they’re costly in the long run. Go ahead and make plans to get your attic into ship-shape come springtime.

Safety First When Dealing with Ice Dams

There are a lot of things you shouldn’t do when dealing with ice dams. Don’t bang on your roof, don’t scrape your roof, don’t stab your roof, don’t do anything to your roof that involves violence or corrosive substances. These favorite DIY ice dam fixes end up damaging roofing, so you not only have an ice dam, you now have a roof to fix. You’re just compounding your issue. Be nice to your roof. Also be nice to yourself — all that banging around on a slippery ladder in the cold could easily result in a fall.

Instead of getting the right of way in traffic via ambulance, why not call a HomeKeepr home pro to come out and properly seal, insulate and ventilate your attic space? That way you can spend all winter thinking about sugar plums and snowmen instead of ice daggers and dams. HomeKeepr experts are just a click away and have the tools and skills to make ice dams one less thing to worry about this winter.

Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe: WiFi Security for Beginners

wifi security

Every morning, you ask your digital assistant for the news and weather while you’re getting ready for work. From there, you check the traffic with your smartphone, strap on your smartwatch, set some mood music for your pet for the day, have your digital assistant set your home’s thermostat to “away” mode and head out to the garage. You open your smart garage door before you realize you forgot to turn on your security system — but that’s not a problem, you have an app for that.

All of this technology seems perfectly normal these days. Absolutely everyone has a WiFi network at home to feed all of these neat tools that we collectively call the Internet of Things (IoT). Unfortunately, not everyone has a very secure WiFi network, which opens up IoT devices, computers and the network itself to attacks by nefarious types who would use them for tasks you probably didn’t have in mind.

Before you catch Alexa trying to order a DIY rocket kit from Acme without your authorization, let’s go through some basics of WiFi security to keep your home network and IoT devices protected.

Types of WiFI Security

There are basically four types of security you’ll find in a wireless router, some are much better at protecting you and your devices than others. As with anything to do with technology, the more modern protocols are going to be better at protecting you than older ones, so if your router is more than a couple of years old it might be time to consider an upgrade. Check this list to see if it has an appropriately secure protocol available first, though:

WEP. Wired Equivalent Privacy is a protocol reaching back to 1999. It was essentially the first wireless security type, so if this is the only option you’ve got available on your router, get yourself to Best Buy. This router cannot deal with modern challenges, bottom line. You might as well not have any internet security.

WPA. WiFi Protected Access was created in 2003 as a response to the many problems with WEP. A new security standard known as Temporal Key Integrity Protocol was developed that was much stronger than the encryption used with WEP, but it still used a similar implementation, so was problematic.

WPA2. WPA2 is an upgrade to WPA that was introduced in 2004. This upgraded version of WPA switched to a security protocol based on the US Government’s preferred choice of encryption known as the Advanced Encryption Standard. WPA2 is still the gold standard for home WiFi security, though older computers may not be able to utilize it. If your system or router is rated for 802.11g or less, you should consider an upgrade.

WPS. WiFi Protected Setup was supposed to make adding a device to a WPA2 network easier by granting people in physical proximity to the router the ability to just push a button and enter an 8-digit PIN to connect. Unfortunately, a well-known hack has been developed and distributed widely in the recent past, turning WPS into a very vulnerable convenience.

As of the writing of this article, most experts recommend that your router be secured using WPA2 with WPS disabled. This combination will give you the most bang for your security buck, keeping as many problems at bay as is possible with WiFi security protocols alone.

More Ways to Secure Your Network

Using the right security protocol is just the first step to protecting your WiFi network. There are lots of practical ways to keep yourself safe, too. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Change the name of your router. Your router came with a unique name called the Service Set Identifier (SSID). It might be random numbers and letters, or it might be something more readable like “Bob’s Network.” Your job is to name it something that doesn’t give away your location, but is also memorable so you know which network is yours. For example, if you’re a DC comic fan, you might name yours “SpiderLan.”

2. Also, change that router password. Never leave the default password on your router, especially if that password is blank! All anyone would need to do to access the settings is park close to your house and point their phone at it, then you’re in big trouble. Again, choose a password that’s secure, but memorable. Use numbers, letters and special characters. Short sentences can be good if you’ve got a poor memory, “N33d_M0ar_B33s!” is a surprisingly secure choice.

3. Remember to check for updates to your router’s software. Occasionally, your router’s manufacturer will push updates to the software that controls your hardware. Update this device as often as possible, it’ll give you the best security available.

4. Setup a secondary network. A lot of modern routers allow for a secondary network with a different SSID and password than the main network. This is a great way to give guests access to your network without compromising your data, as well as the ideal solution to IoT devices that may be less secure. When Alexa is on her own network, hackers can’t ask her how much money is in your bank account or where the nearest ATM for your bank is located.

5. Remember, no one is giving away free money. Last, but not least, remember that Nigerian princes and foreign lotteries just begging to give you cash are, sadly, just dreams we all wish were true. Get to know what scammy emails look like, never click on email attachments that seem a little weird and always ask yourself “Do I know this person and would they send me a thing like this?” You can lock your network down as hard as you want, but if you let a hacker in your front door, all your effort will be for nothing.

Secure Your WiFi Network to Protect Your Smart Home

There’s no feeling like knowing you’re doing all you can to keep your home safe. After all, you’d never post a giant sign saying “thieves, there’s money in here!” and then leave your front door unlocked. Your smart home is no different when it comes to digital criminals. There’s lots of valuable data to be had that could result in identity theft, or even old-fashioned theft, so the stakes are quite high.