Your Step-By-Step Guide to Mortgage Pre-Approval
preapproval

Let’s talk mortgage pre-approval step-by-step.

Step One: Mortgage Pre-Qualification Versus Pre-Approval

You probably already have a pre-qualification letter saying that you can probably buy a house in a particular price range, so why isn’t this enough? A lot of homebuyers find this part of the process confusing, and frankly, it can be. Your pre-qualification was probably done over the phone or on your first meeting with your lender. They asked you a bunch of questions about your income, your job and maybe even pulled a “soft” credit report to get some idea about your debts.

Based on this information, they gave you the details on the kinds of programs you’re eligible for and how much you can expect in buying power. You probably got a letter that you could show your Realtor to help guide the buying process. The difference between the pre-qualification and the pre-approval is simple: a pre-qualification is based largely on your word. If you give the lender incorrect information, they’ll give you a pre-qualification letter that’s not right.

A pre-approval, on the other hand, takes a harder look at your background, work history and requires a full credit report and FICO score to ensure that you can, in fact, pay back a note.

Step Two: Documentation

Your next meetup with the nice banker is going to be to deliver documents, provide consent to pull a full credit report and, if you’ve already found one, give them the information on the home you’ve put under contract (in some areas your Realtor can do this last bit for you).

Documentation you’ll be asked to bring will include pay stubs, bank statements and tax returns, along with other information that may be needed to verify your income source or sources. Self-employed people, for example, are sometimes required to prepare profit and loss statements (or just pony up more tax returns). If you have assets like a 401(k) or even a CD, you’ll want to bring the details on these, too.

Step Three: The Loan Estimate Form

You’re going to get a copy of something called the Loan Estimate Form, probably at the same meeting where your lender pulls that full credit report and takes all your papers away. This form explains exactly how much they expect you’ll need to bring to closing, along with itemized estimated fees to plan for at closing. If you’re shopping your loan, collect these and compare them side by side before you make your final choice.

But don’t spend too much time crunching the numbers. Just like your contract (and the National Association of Realtors) says, “Time is of the Essence.”

Step Four: Acceptance

Once you’ve had a few minutes to review the paperwork and you’ve made your final pass through the numbers, all that’s left is to call the lender you’ve chosen and let them know you need that pre-approval letter sent over to your Realtor.

Understand that a pre-approval is not a guarantee that you’re going to get the money you need to close. Several things can go wrong along the way through underwriting, including, but not limited to:

– Unverifiable income (this is often due to issues with overtime)
– A change to your credit score.
– An increase in your debt to income ratio
– An undocumented change in employment
– Assets that are unverifiable

The best plan is be totally honest with your lender when you get your pre-approval so that you don’t get a last minute call telling you that your loan has been denied (this actually happens, so pay everything on time and don’t take out new credit lines or add to old ones until you’ve got the keys in your hand).

When is the Best Time to Make an Offer?

Ideally, you should have a pre-approval letter in hand before you so much as set foot into the first house you’re considering for purchase. After all, the seller isn’t going to think you’re all that serious without one, nor will they be keen to want to negotiate under these circumstances.

Help your banker help you get the best deal on the house of your dreams, save everybody a lot of headaches and get that pre-approval first. Knowing how much your closing costs are going to be will also help your Realtor write your contract accordingly if they should need to be wrapped into your mortgage.


Philip Schwartz
5 Things to Keep in Mind When Buying a Vacation Home
cabin

Just imagine it! Waking up to the sound of silence crisp, clean air outside your very own home. You don’t have to call ahead for reservations, you don’t need to ask anyone for a key or have a check-out time. It’s all yours to do with as you will, and you’re going take advantage of it constantly because now you own your very own vacation home.

Not to burst any vacation home-shaped bubbles, but before you get too lost in the fantasy, you need to consider some of the many pros and cons of owning a home away from home.

Vacation Homes Aren’t For Everybody

As the real estate market begins to respond to financial pressures from higher interest rates that are only set to increase further, as well as trade wars and tariffs with some of the country’s best trading partners, more people are just waiting for their favorite vacation spot to experience a market correction. If you’re one of them, don’t jump into the vacation home market without seriously considering what you’re doing.

Sure, it can be cool to have a vacation home. It can be the very best thing. But if you never use it or you never go anywhere else, it might be the wrong call. Consider these five points when buying a vacation home today or tomorrow:

1. What can you afford on your own?

It’s no secret that many vacation homes will go for several times what your personal home may be worth. Because of this, buyers like to try to pool their assets to pull off a vacation home purchase with friends or family. Don’t let your vacation home become a cautionary tale: buying a vacation home with anyone that you’re not married to could become a long term problem.

What if you and the friend or relative don’t like the same beach? What if you can’t agree on the property to purchase? Will you be resentful the rest of your life? Most importantly, perhaps, is what to do if your co-borrower has poor credit, can’t come up with their part of the downpayment or is otherwise creating a giant problem for your mortgage?

After you’ve actually bought the property, who pays for what repairs? Don’t buy with friends or family, but if you do, get a lawyer to draw up a maintenance and payment agreement that you both sign to get everything on paper and make it official.

2. Even if you do buy a vacation home on your own, it will be complicated.

This isn’t your momma’s FHA loan. When you buy a vacation home, you’re almost always going to use a conventional mortgage. You’ll need stellar credit, an excellent debt to income ratio and, most importantly, a lot of cash. Unlike primary homes, which rarely require reserves, being the lender on a secondary home feels awfully risky to the bank.

They may still lend to you, but they’ll want to see that you have anywhere from two to 12 months of reserves on hand. If you’ve not heard the term before, “reserves” are funds already in an account somewhere that are equal to a certain number of months’ worth of payments for both of your homes. This also includes anything wrapped into your payment due to escrow, like homeowners’ insurance and taxes.

3. Do you have a plan for off-season care and maintenance?

If a friend or relative lives nearby, you probably are set for someone to look in on your place, but if not, you’ve got to get this part figured out before you sign on the line. Just like an occupied home, your vacation home will develop problems over time. Wear and tear happens even when you’re not home and pipes love to freeze and burst when no one’s looking. You have to have a plan.

You should hire a handyman, property manager or other real estate expert to keep an eye out and call in help when necessary. That’s a cost you’ll have all year, so make sure you figure it into your budget. Since your property is a vacation home, it will also require more expensive insurance coverage, as well as specialty insurance if it’s in an area where floods, hurricanes or earthquakes are common.

4. Renting it out when you’re not using it makes your vacation home a rental, not a vacation home.

You absolutely can rent your vacation home from day one, provided that you purchased it as an investment home. Some buyers think this will save them a bunch of money, since someone else will take care of it part of the year, at least. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between a glorious rental partnership and a home that’s been burned to the ground. If your neighborhood, for example, won’t allow AirBnBs and their ilk, or has strict rules about maintenance, you are responsible for the rebound from missteps there, no matter how good your renters.

You will have to find the guy to mow the lawn, you’re paying for clean up every time renters move out, you’re paying for repairs and so forth. Did you want to be a long-distance landlord? A property manager can help ease the pain, but it will still cost plenty. If you do decide to proceed with a rental situation for your vacation home, make sure the house you buy is in a location that’s really hot, otherwise you may not be able to get enough rent to cover all the expenses.

5. Oh, hey, and selling can be difficult and costly.

For every one of the real estate experts who claim that buying a vacation home is a great way to make money, there are experts who realize that the market is unpredictable and you may find that you don’t love that vacation home as much as you thought in a few years.

After spending two years dealing with short term renters, you may decide it’s easier for you to go back to renting a nice hotel for your vacation stay, rather than owning a headache of a property. That’s all fine and good, until you find out that not only has the market bottomed out, you can’t even get enough money out of the place to cover the mortgage and your closing costs.

Remember, when you sell, you may also be on the hook for capital gains taxes, and you can’t take a capital loss if the property in question is classified as a second home.

If you still have the stomach for a second home after running through this list of things to consider, then proceed with caution. Don’t buy a project house unless you have someone else to do the work and even then, make sure that the only thing you do at that vacation home is relax. Going on vacation just to stress out about the lawn isn’t a fun kind of vacation, you know?

Philip Schwartz
7 Must-Know Smoke Detector Facts
smoke detector

Every morning, it’s the same thing. You get out of bed, take a shower, burn the toast and then curse the smoke detector. Although its singing the song of its people can be incredibly loud and awful to hear, the truth is that smoke detectors save lives. So, while your smoke detector may sing way off tune, it’s trying very hard to protect you and your family from smoke- and fire-related hazards, like your morning toast.

It’s time to check your smoke detector batteries yet again — and to learn more about those white pucks that hang out on the ceiling.

Meet Your Friendly Neighborhood Smoke Detector

Every single day, your smoke alarms hang around next to the ceiling, just waiting for something to go wrong. They don’t ask for much, which is why most people tend to forget they even exist. But the job they do is vital to the safety and security of not only you and your family, but the families that neighbor you.

You’ve heard it a hundred times: check your smoke detector batteries. Check those batteries! Hey, by the way, have you checked your smoke alarm batteries? But for most people, that’s as intimate as they ever get with these clever devices. Here are some things to know about smoke detectors:

1. Working smoke alarms give you additional escape time in the case of an actual fire. Thirty-eight percent of home fire deaths from 2009 to 2013 were do to a lack of functioning smoke alarms. In the homes that had smoke alarms that failed, 46 percent had missing or disconnected batteries.

2. Best places to install smoke alarms are in each bedroom, in halls outside of bedrooms and in every major living area. Why so many? Closed doors can slow the spread of smoke and living areas on upper or lower floors may have a significant blaze going before smoke is noticeable.

3. Interconnected smoke alarms are considered the safest option currently on the market. These alarms are connected to each other and often directly powered through your home’s electrical system, with a battery backup. When one detects smoke, they all go off. It can be annoying if you tend to burn the toast, but when it’s a real fire, all that noise will be a life saver.

4. Smoke detectors work in one of two different ways. One type, called an ionization detector because it uses electrically charged particles to detect smoke in the air, is faster to respond to flaming fires with small smoke particles. The other, known as a photoelectric detector, uses beams of light to check for smoke particles in the air. These are better for smouldering fires. Both will get the job done, though!

5. Most people don’t realize that smoke detectors need maintenance, too! You should check the battery monthly and use the bristle attachment on your vacuum to clean any debris off of your detector twice a year. You’ll also want to change the battery twice a year. Many people do this when they change their clocks for Daylight Savings Time.

6. Smart Smoke Detectors can save you money on insurance. It’s true! If your smoke detectors are connected via WiFi, they can call for help or send you a message about their status. Many insurance companies love these features, as they reduce the amount of damage insured homes suffer in case of a fire. Break out the cool new tech and reap the savings!

7. There are other, similar detectors on the market. While you’re shopping for smoke detectors, you may come across heat or carbon monoxide detectors. These units look very similar, but they function very differently. Heat detectors literally detect high heat, so aren’t very fast to respond in a residential setting. They’re best used in small, confined spaces.

Carbon monoxide detectors, however, are very suitable for home use. They measure the amount of carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas created by combustion, in the air. If dangerous amounts are detected, you’ll know and be able to make your home safe again. Most homes use these in conjunction with smoke detectors.

Philip Schwartz
5 Ways to Stick to Your New Home Furnishing Budget
furniture shopping

You’ve finally done it! You bought the house of your dreams and closing is just around the corner. Then it occurs to you. Your aged and creaking futon, cement block and raw lumber bookshelves and that one lone chair in your kitchen might not be anywhere near enough furniture for the new space.

What’s a new homeowner to do?

Step One: Don’t Do ANYTHING Until After Closing

Before going into detail on how to keep your budget under control when buying new furniture, it’s important that you actually close your loan. It’s a common pitfall for new home buyers (and really, even home buyers who have bought before). Of course you’re excited, you got a clear to close — but you’re not closing for another week because there’s just not another day that works for everyone.

THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO BUY FURNITURE.

If you buy furniture, especially if you buy it on credit, you can literally have your loan approval revoked. You were approved based on your debt to income ratio, your credit score (which heavily weights how much of your credit is used at any given time) and your cash reserves. Whatever you do, don’t upset the balance. Don’t even breathe too hard. Window shop, but don’t buy anything yet.

You’ve Closed, Green Light on Shopping!

Because you were patient, your loan closed and all is well. The thought of moving into your new house with your sad, saggy furniture is almost too much, though. You want to get to it: new house, new furniture, new life. Before you do, consider these five tricks to help you stick to your home furnishing budget:

1. Actually have a budget. It’s easy to walk into the Pier Ones, Ikeas and Crate and Barrels of the world and lose all sense of self-control. Before you take your first step, determine how much you really can afford, whether you’re paying cash or putting your home’s furniture on a card. When using credit, be realistic because if you can’t pay the payment you’re going to suffer a lot for an overstuffed couch you bought on a whim.

2. Wait until you know how your space will function. Many new homeowners will be so excited about getting on with the furniture purchase that they buy furniture before they really understand how their new space works. Every house has a flow about it — when you add that to your own personal behavior patterns, you get rooms that are unique and require careful furnishing.

This means that the amazing coffee table you bought the day of closing may not end up working as well as you thought, but now you’ve got it and that money is just out the window. Each piece you buy should work with the way you envision the space. Save money by not wasting it, that’s a winning scenario.

3. Try online outlet stores. There are lots of places to buy furniture these days. If you’re handy with a tape measure and your imagination, sites like Overstock.com and Wayfair.com can bring you brand new furniture and decor at a discount. Since you’re working out of an online shopping cart, it’s easy to compare different pieces or build a customized set of furniture for any given room and know exactly where you are price-wise. You can’t always say the same for brick and mortar furniture galleries where it’s easy to get turned around and allow yourself to be talked into upgrades or additional items you don’t actually need.

4. Wait for sales or open box items. Even if you prefer a real life store, you can clean up if you’re patient. Most home furnishing stores have regular sales, especially for big holidays. Think Presidents Day, Memorial Day and so on. It might be madness inside the shop, but you can start shopping a few weeks ahead to pick out your furniture in your own time. Write down the SKUs and bring them back during the sale to finish the deal.

These same shops do sometimes get items returned for any number of reasons, including that the product was delivered and it wouldn’t fit through the home’s front door. Minor scratches and dents are also possible when dealing with these “open box” furnishings. Often, though, those dings are in a place where no one will ever see them, they’re so small that no one would notice them or they’re the sort of damage you’ll eventually inflict upon the item through regular use. When it’s inevitable, you might as well get a discount.

5. Check out upscale resellers. So you bought your dining table at Havertys, but you hated the chairs they had on offer. Why not save some dough and check out your area thrift stores and other resellers like Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore? These are always gambles, you may go in one week and there are sixteen couches and the next there aren’t any. If you’re building your furniture collection bit by bit, though, resellers will make your dollar go further, while often benefiting a charity. Don’t believe what you’ve heard about these places being cash and carry, most will offer local delivery for a small fee.

Philip Schwartz
Do You Need an Emergency Plumber to Save the Day?
plumber

You didn’t do anything different, but all of a sudden the garbage disposal is smoking and water is backing up in the sink. Is your plumbing possessed? Should you just set the whole house on fire and run? The answer is almost certainly no. What you may have, though, is a plumbing emergency on your hands. After all, that sink is pretty important and the reasons it’s backing up could be many.

But how do you know if you need an emergency plumber to save the day?

Most Homeowners Can Handle Basic Plumbing Issues

There are plenty of plumbing issues you can DIY. After all, plumbing is just a set of fancy tubes that connect in a logical way to move water around. It’s not magic. It is, however an incredible inconvenience to have indoor plumbing sometimes. Certain issues like minor leaks, problems with your toilet tank like a flapper that doesn’t quite seal or a handle that won’t flush, and household clogs are often entry level homeowner difficulty.

With the right tools, you can totally handle that! Bigger problems, though, require bigger guns (and more experience). Don’t be ashamed to call a pro in if you don’t think you can handle a plumbing issue. Here are some signs to look for:

* No results in about 10 minutes. That is to say, after you located the problem. It can be very time consuming to track down a clog, leak or other faulty plumbing part. But once you find it, if you’re not starting to make any headway within about 10 minutes, you need help. You’re just going to get more frustrated and tired and it’ll take even longer for the plumber to get there.
* Your pipes are cast iron, steel or copper. Metal pipes are great for some things, but they’re not for beginners. If your pipes are basically made of anything but plastic, you need a pro. Each type requires specific knowledge and tools to manage.
* Every drain is backed up. If you notice your tub is backing up and every drain that’s before it in the plumbing architecture is also backing up, you have a big problem. I’m not saying it’s roots in the line, but it might be roots in the line. Or a toy your child flushed. Either way, this is where the kind of cameras that plumbers use to evaluate sewer lines come in really handy.
* You have no water pressure to more than one outlet. No pressure to one sink or appliance might indicate a bit of sediment in the little screen filter that is sometimes fit between the device and the water line or that you forgot to turn the shut off valve all the way back to the “on” position. However, if a few of your plumbing fixtures are suffering this problem, you could have rust in the lines or other problems that need a pro to fix.
* You just really don’t know where to start. There are some plumbing issues that aren’t all that complicated once you know how to fix them, but figuring them out on the fly in a semi-panicked state is not going to be easy. This is where you call a pro sooner rather than later. Ask if you can watch, often they’ll show you how to perform basic plumbing jobs. You get a lot of value for the fee that way — if the problem ever happens again, you know exactly how to go about fixing the problem.

When you encounter a plumbing issue that feels like you might be able to fix it, given enough time, ask yourself seriously how much your time is worth. The thing that many homeowners neglect to figure into the equation is how long that job will take to DIY. If you’re going to have the kitchen torn apart for days because you’re working a full time job and also you’re following instructions from the internet that you have to keep referring back to, maybe it makes more sense for the plumber to come and knock the issue out in an hour.

It’s not that you shouldn’t do your own plumbing, just that it’s often not really worth it when you juggle the extreme inconvenience of not having functional indoor plumbing. This is the line that homeowners have to walk every time their house needs work. Do you call someone or do you try to fix it yourself?

Philip Schwartz
3 Points to Ponder Before Starting Your Kitchen Remodel
kitchen diy

For the third time this week, you’ve found yourself cursing your kitchen. The drawers come out in all the wrong directions, the cabinets are so shallow that you can barely use them and the entire layout just puts you off. You’re ready to talk about a kitchen remodel.

Or maybe you just want a shiny new kitchen — there’s nothing wrong with that. Shiny new kitchens are amazing and give you the opportunity to create the space you need, rather than forcing your existing kitchen to kinda sorta work.

The Three Big Questions of Any Kitchen Remodel

You went to the home improvement store and found some samples of tile, backsplash and counter that you really love, but that’s about as far as your planning has gone so far. That’s ok, there’s a lot to think about when you’re considering ripping out one of the most important (and complicated) rooms in your home.

Now is a great time to stop where you are and ask yourself a few very important questions.

#1. What Will It Cost, Really?

Estimating the cost of a kitchen remodel is a bit like trying to nail a runny egg to a tree: messy and tragically frustrating. This is because there are lots of parts that have to be considered. Due to the various pieces involved and their corresponding quality levels, a custom quote from a contractor is the best way to know for sure how deep you’re getting into the savings account.

However, if you’re just starting to think about a kitchen remodel, it may help to know that the national average cost for your project is $22,768. The typical price range is $12,554 to $34,104. The low end is listed at $4,000. Please note that these numbers are based on user contributions, so your mileage may vary.

The largest cost by a bit is the cabinetry. Cabinets and hardware usually make up about 30 percent of the budget. This is a great place to save some cash, especially if your cabinets are in good shape and can simply be repurposed. Adding new hardware or doors often changes the whole equation. If those cabinets absolutely gotta go, then you can use this as a good starting point for estimating your dream kitchen cost.

#2. Will I Get My Money Back If I Sell?

The short answer is no. The rare few remodeling projects will return your entire investment. You should instead consider the value you’ll get from the use of that new kitchen along with any potential resell returns down the road.

That being said, Remodeling determined that among many common remodeling jobs, a midrange minor kitchen remodel was the fifth best returning update for 2018. The magazine estimates the cost of this type of remodel at about $22,000 and the associated increase in resale value of the home at $17,193. In this generic nationwide situation, the homeowner could expect to recoup 81.1 percent of their investment.

This same type of remodel was worth a little more in 2018 than the year prior. In 2017, an updated kitchen only recouped 80.2 percent of the money put into the effort.

#3. Can I Survive It?

This is perhaps the question you should ask yourself first, even though it’s the last one on the list. Any time you remodel a heavily used area of your home, it’s going to be a nightmare. Not only will there be lots of mess, dust and debris, you’re not going to be able to use the kitchen at all. All the stuff you have stored in there has to go somewhere else and you’ll have to figure out what you want to do about meals.

Hold on, I have a few tips that might help make this time lots more bearable:

Get it on paper. Make sure that you have a written agreement with your contractor and your spouse about what goes into the new kitchen. Spell it out in painful detail, both for clarity and so that when you or your spouse starts to think the cabinetry is the wrong color, you can refer back to the agreement. Adding photos will help ensure that your kitchen is exactly what you wanted and your lack of proper nutrition doesn’t trick you into thinking you ordered the stainless steel appliances when you actually got the black ones.

Move your kitchen into your garage or spare bedroom. Ahead of the project start date, box everything in the kitchen as if you were moving, making sure to label everything completely so you can get the most important things out as soon as the remodel is over. This way nothing gets damaged or lost in the confusion.

Set up a temporary kitchen elsewhere. It’s not going to be a five star restaurant, but a folding table with a coffee maker, microwave and a mini fridge can make things a lot easier while your kitchen is out of service. You can only stand (or afford!) so many restaurant meals.

Along with juggling all the stresses of having workers in your house making a ton of noise and mess (that you’re paying them for!), you may start to have real relationship problems. Living through a remodel is not for the faint of heart. If your spouse doesn’t really have a great picture of what this remodel will do to your home during the construction phase, now is the time to talk about it.

There are few things that will destroy a marriage like a remodel. The stress is high and there’s a lot of money on the line — not to mention the major disruption remodels can be to your routine and life in general. It’s really important that your spouse is all in on this project with every step, from looking at lighting to choosing the perfect counters, even if they’re not really a kitchen person.

Philip Schwartz
5 Tips for Choosing a Home Inspector
home inspector

You’ve finally done it! You have a house under contract and you’re doing the paperwork to get your mortgage lined up. When your Realtor calls to ask you who you want to use for your home inspection, you freeze. Your brain has to go back and repeat that part. You get to pick your own home inspector? How do you even go about doing that?

Choosing a home inspector isn’t a difficult process, but as usual, we have tips to help you make it even easier.

Inspectors, Assemble!

When you don’t have an existing relationship with a home inspector, your Realtor will likely present you with a list of pros that they recommend highly. Even though time is of the essence because your inspection period is ticking away, you can quickly assess each recommended inspector to find the one that’s right for your home purchase. After all, not every inspector can be an expert in every type of construction or neighborhood. You need the person who best fits your purchase!

Now, for some helpful tips!

1. Check that all potential inspectors are members of a reputable home inspector association. InterNACHI and ASHI are the two largest. ASHI, for instance has been accrediting home inspectors for more than 40 years and requires that inspectors complete at least 250 inspections before they can call themselves “certified.” It’s a high achievement for a home inspector, and a confidence builder for their clients. You want someone who is willing to do the work and go the extra mile. Your new mortgage isn’t chump change, so it’s important you go in with your eyes open.

2. Ask what inspections they perform. Some home inspectors only do a general home inspection, which can be fine if you’re not afraid of that 15 year old air conditioner condenser. But because home inspectors come from all areas of the construction industry, some have specific expertise that can be helpful in finding problems that you probably didn’t notice when you walked into the house of your dreams.

3. Have they inspected houses like yours? There’s a huge, huge difference between a brand new house and one built in 1904. Not only are construction techniques very different, the sort of strange upgrades that may have been made to the older home would never be seen in a newer house. An inspector that has little to no experience with a house like yours may flag things wrong that are actually very typical for a home of that age. You don’t want to get your inspection back and panic because your inspector held an older house to a newer standard, for example.

4. Do they provide photos within their reports? There’s no standard format for a home inspection report, though there are a limited number of software packages for inspection companies. They have a lot of options, including providing optional photos of trouble spots or other items the inspector may feel needs pointing out. If your potential home inspector doesn’t provide photos, it can be hard for you to monitor potential problems or for future pros to find and fix the issues pointed out. Photos are absolutely a must-have.

5. How soon can they come out? It might seem like a silly question, but you’re very likely working with a limited window of time to ask for repairs. That means the sooner your new home inspector can get out, the better. It takes several hours to complete a home inspection, as well as time to compile the report and deliver it to your agent. You also never know when you’re going to need an additional specialty inspection of systems like your HVAC, roof, foundation and so forth. If you’re down to your final cut and one can come out tomorrow and the rest can’t until next week, it’s not a hard call.


Philip Schwartz
Changes to Real Estate Tax Deductions for 2018
taxes

As a homeowner, or soon to be homeowner, you can get some pretty sweet tax deductions from things related to your home. Some tend to change from year to year, like those for energy-efficient upgrades, others are pretty stable, like being able to deduct mortgage interest.

The tax bill that will be in force in the up and coming tax season, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), has made some fairly dramatic changes to how many homeowners will file their taxes this year. Take a look at this preview of home-related points to ponder for your 2018 tax filings.

TCJA Items to Watch in 2018

When the TCJA was pushed through Congress in December 2017, many people were up in arms. The overhaul, they said, was going to be problematic for a number of reasons, which, we’ll see how that pans out. It does seem that when it comes to real estate, the TCJA is going to be a pretty prickly thorn in a lot of property owners’ sides.

These are the top items you’ll want to pay close attention to this year:

Item #1: SALT

The state and local tax deduction (SALT) is set to be a problem for homeowners in high-tax areas. In the past, you could claim an unlimited amount of already-paid personal state and local income taxes, as well as your property taxes, as a deduction to offset your tax bill. From now until 2025, you’ll only be able to use your Schedule A to itemize $5,000 worth of these taxes if you’re married filing separately and $10,000 if you are single or married filing jointly.

This looks like a bear of an issue for many people in those high tax areas on both coasts, but for some, the increase of the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles or $24,000 for couples may balance the equation.

Item #2: Your Mortgage Interest Deduction

If your home was purchased after December 14, 2017, you will be subject to the new limits on mortgage interest deductions. Instead of being able to deduct the interest on up to a $1,000,000 mortgage, you’ll be capped at the interest on only $750,000. Now, if you’re in the less spendy parts of the US, you probably don’t need to worry about this at all, but again, for those of you on the coasts where real estate prices are often hugely inflated by comparison, it may make a weighty difference.

According to a Zillow report published shortly after the TCJA passed, “Under the current setup [Pre-TCJA], roughly 44 percent of U.S. homes are worth enough for it to make sense for a homeowner to itemize their deductions and take advantage of the mortgage interest deduction.Under the new bill (as reported), that proportion of homes drops to 14.4 percent. Interest on second/vacation homes will remain deductible, but will also be capped at $750,000.”

Item #2B: Home Equity Loan Interest Deductions

This one is being called out specifically because of the number of people who are likely to be affected by it. If you purchased a home at any time and took out a home equity loan, you may lose your deduction this year. The TCJA says that unless your home equity loan was used for home improvements, it’s no longer allowed.

There is no grandfathering for this clause, you are paying for decisions you made in the past, not knowing this bill would become a law.

How the IRS will be able to verify how you spent your funds, especially if the loan is 10 or 15 years old, is anyone’s guess.

Item #3: Gains From Home Sales Still Protected

Despite all the new rules that are taking deductions away, the home sale gain exclusion remains. You’ll still be able to exclude up to $250,000 ($500k for married filing jointly) of gain from a home you’ve owned and used as a primary residence for at least two of the last five years. So, you’ve got that going for you.

Philip Schwartz
Finding and Fixing Leaks in Your Home
ceiling leak

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

Ask Yourself: Is it Really a Leak?

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

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

On the Hunt for Leaks

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

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

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

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

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

Fixing a Leak

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
6 Tips for Concrete Painting
concrete painting

Painting Concrete Isn’t Like Painting Your House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Killer Vines and How to Stop Them
house ivy

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

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

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

Telling the Good Guys From the Bad

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

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

Elements of a Damaging Vine

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

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

virginia creeper

Adhesive disk of P. quinquefolia

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

english ivy

Adventitious roots on brick home

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

Know Thy Enemy

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

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

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

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

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

The Indirect Problem With Climbers on a Structure

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Are You Really Ready to Buy? Factors Beyond Financial
buying a house

Spend Some Time Soul-Searching Before You Pre-Qualify

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

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

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

Reality Check: Are You Really Ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Curb Appeal
curb appeal

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

What, Exactly, Is Curb Appeal?

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

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

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

Tips and Tricks for Better Curb Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
3 Reasons You Need a Permit
building permit

Many DIY Jobs Require a Permit

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

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

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

This is Why You Need a Permit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Sure If You Need a Permit…?

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

Philip Schwartz
How to Unclog a Drain
how to unclog a drain

Your Basic Clog-Clearing Toolkit

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

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

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

Time to Get To the Drains!

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

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

Did you succeed? If so, hooray!

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
What is Mortgage Insurance?
what is mortgage insurance

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

What Exactly is Mortgage Insurance?

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

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

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

MIP, PMI and Funding Fees

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

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

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

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

Getting Rid of Mortgage Insurance

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
5 Things to Consider Before Starting a Master Bath Remodel
bathroom remodel

Bathroom Remodels Can Be Good Investments

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

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

Some Practical Questions to Ask Yourself

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

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

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

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

#2. What are my goals for this bathroom?

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

#3. Should I be using Universal Design principles?

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

#4. How long will it take?

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

#5. What’s it going to cost?

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Closet Storage Systems Basics
closet systems.jpg

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

Getting Started with Custom Closet Storage Solutions

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

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

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

Considerations Before You Buy Your Closet System

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

Now, ask yourself these questions:

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

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

  • * How many shoes do I actually own?

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

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

  • * Where will I put my hamper(s)?

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

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

What’s the Right Height for My Closet Rods?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz
Save Money and the Environment One LED Bulb at a Time
led bulbs

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

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

What is an Light Emitting Diode?

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

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

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

Doing the Math: Cost Savings With LEDs

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

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

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

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

Choosing the Right Bulbs

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

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

Philip Schwartz
7 Things You Didn’t Know About Radon
radon

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

Radon and You: 7 Things to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Schwartz