Tax Credits for Installing Biomass Stoves

biomass-cast-iron-wood-stove_1x1_165x165_q85If you warmed your chestnuts cost-effectively by installing a biomass stove recently, you may be eligible for a tax credit.

Did you install an efficient biomass stove recently? If so, you may be eligible for a $300 energy tax credit.

  • The credit is limited to 10% of expenditures, up to a lifetime amount of $500, for all energy improvements combined, although the stoves themselves have a $300 limit.
  • File IRS Form 5695.
  • Save receipts and labels.
  • Installation costs are covered.

Here’s What You Need To Know:

The Energy Star site has guidelines on what exactly is covered. It’s your safest bet for information on how to get the credit. Don’t rely solely on contractors who may not know the details or who promise their products will get the credit in order to make a sale.

Who doesn’t want to curl up in front of a cozy fire? Unfortunately, while flickering flames are inviting, most of the heat generated by a traditional fireplace escapes up the chimney rather than warming the house. Not only are you wasting money on firewood, but you also aren’t saving a dime on heating bills.

So-called biomass stoves, either freestanding models or inserts that fit inside a traditional fireplace, offer an energy-efficient solution. Most of these stoves burn wood or small wood pellets made of compressed sawdust. Some can use other sustainable energy sources like corn or grass for fuel.

The stoves burn cleaner and more efficiently than fireplaces, not to mention the wood-burning stoves of yesteryear, and are designed to radiate heat into a room.

Keep in mind that a stove usually heats only the portion of the house where it’s located, not the entire house.

A typical biomass stove costs between $3,000 and $4,500, including installation. In fact, installation is a critical part of the biomass stove. They must be:

  • Sized for a room
  • Vented to the outside
  • Installed on proper surfaces at a safe distance from walls.

Incorrect installation may lower energy efficiency. Look for an installer who’s certified by the National Fireplace Institute.

Besides the stove, you’ll need a steady supply of fuel. Costs vary widely depending on time of year, availability, and the region where you live.

Let’s say wood pellets are selling for $5 per 40-pound bag, and you use half a bag a day for six months. That adds up to $450, plus you need a dry place to store nearly two tons of pellets.

Budget three hours a week during heating season for fueling the stove and removing ash. (Seasoned wood and premium wood pellets leave less ash than low-grade fuels.)

In general, a wood or wood pellet stove can cut heating costs by 10% to 40% when combined with zone heating techniques, according to Leslie Wheeler of the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. That’s a savings of $64 to $255 a year for the average home owner. Though fuel prices can fluctuate wildly, savings could be even greater if you rely on pricier electricity or fuel oil for heating, rather than natural gas or propane.

EPA regulations for biomass stoves changed in 1991, requiring them to be more efficient and to produce less smoke, about 60% to 80% less than older stoves or traditional fireplaces. Thermal efficiency for tax credit-qualified stoves must be rated at least 75%, meaning three-quarters or more of the fuel is turned into heat.

Although wood and wood pellet stoves are most common, biomass fuels can come in a number of renewable forms such as corn or even aquatic plants. Stoves capable of burning a variety of fuel types are more expensive.

In addition to lowering heating bills, biomass stoves reduce emissions as well as dependency on non-renewable fuels like heating oil, kerosene, and natural gas. But before you commit to one of these stoves, inquire about local laws governing wood burning. Some areas, particularly in California, limit when you can burn wood due to pollution concerns.

This article provides general information about tax laws and consequences, but shouldn’t be relied upon as tax or legal advice applicable to your particular transaction or circumstance. Consult a tax professional for such advice.

How to Make Lovely Lemon Candles

citruscandle_headerAdd a little end of summer flair to your home with handmade citrus candles made from hollowed-out lemons. These candles are really adorable, and the lemon scent from the rind will fill your home with a sublime freshness.


Materials:

  • Lemons
  • Cutting board
  • Knife
  • Spoon
  • Paper towel
  • Scissors
  • Wick
  • Metal wick holders (or aluminum foil)
  • Wax flakes (soy or paraffin preferred)

Instructions:

  1. Slice lemons in half lengthwise, and use a spoon to scrape out all insides of the lemons, leaving only the peels. Pat dry with a paper towel.
  2. Cut your wicks slightly longer than you will need, about 3 to 4 inches long. Insert the wicks into the metal wick holders. If you do not have those, you can fold aluminum foil into small, thick squares, and poke a hole through the squares. Tie off or fold over the end of the wick once inserted into the holder. Place wick standing upright in each of the lemon rinds.
  3. Heat wax flakes as directed on package (directions will vary depending on type of wax). Using a double broiler will yield the best results, but if you do not have one, you can insert a bowl on top of a pot with boiling water in it. Once wax is melted, carefully pour into the prepared lemons. (TIP: Spoon a small amount of wax into the lemons first, and then place wicks and holders on top of the wax to glue them into place. Once that sets, pour the rest of the wax to fill each lemon.)
  4. Leave on the counter to cool until wax has completely hardened. Trim excess wicks before lighting.

 

They’ll Think You Cheated and Hired a Pro If You Use These 5 Painting Hacks

painting-tips-tricks-standard_1x1_4dd353ea840ede7e884f8f7ba8bab48b_440x440_q85DIY home painting tips give you professional results and a whole lot less hassle.

A DIY painting job doesn’t have to equal crooked lines, besmirched floors, and ceramic sinks speckled with robin’s egg blue.

Use these simple painting tips and tricks from the pros to make the process faster and less messy — and ensure a gorgeous end result.

1. Soak Brushes in Fabric Softener to Keep Bristles Soft

Every DIY painter has been privy to the horrors of a day-old brush with stiff bristles that makes round two nearly impossible. To prevent your brushes from becoming hard and unusable, make sure to rinse thoroughly (no soap), and swish them in a mixture of fabric softener and warm water (half a cup of softener to a gallon of warm water) for 10 seconds or so.

Then lay them flat or hang them on a peg for overnight storage.

“That way, the bristles won’t develop a bend and will retain their usefulness for your next painting adventure,” says Artem Filikov, vice president of marketing and product development for home improvement website HomeYou. Also, there’s no need to rinse before using. The softener actually helps distribute paint more smoothly.

2. Use Plastic Wrap to Prevent Mishaps

When painting around a large, awkward item you want to keep clean, like a toilet or a standalone sink, surround it with plastic wrap to keep drips from destroying its finish.

For an extra tight wrap, choose a wrap with an adhesive backing — your hardware store will even carry special painter’s plastic wrap, if you really want to go all out — which will help it stick to the surface and prevent the odd drop from inching its way in. Once you’ve finished the job, just unwrap for a paint-free finish.

3. Look in Your Pantry to Reduce Paint Odor

Paint’s intense odor can get really old really fast. Overpower it with a little bit of vanilla. Although there are vanilla-scented products specifically designed to use with paint, you can get the same effect with what’s in your kitchen cabinet.

For darker paints, add a couple drops of vanilla extract (artificial is fine) per gallon to reduce the nasty smell and keep your room smelling sweet for weeks to come. Because you don’t want the tint of vanilla to ruin the color of your paint, swap it with lemon extract for light-colored paints.

4. Repurpose Old T-Shirts as Rags to Reduce Waste

Painting’s a messy job, but using roll after roll of paper towels is neither efficient nor environmentally-friendly. And while you could pick up a mega-pack of plain cotton towels to keep paint from splattering, why not use something you can find stuffed at the back of a drawer? Geoff Sharp, the owner of Sharper Impressions Painting Co., recommends cutting up old T-shirts to use as rags, saving money and resources (not to mention a trip to Goodwill).

“If paint runs down your roller or brush, it gets really messy, really quick,” he says. “Always have a rag in your pocket so you and your brush or roller stay clean.”

5. Keep Q-tips Handy for Emergencies

Oh no! A drop of Naples Sunset just splashed on your white window frame. You’ve only got a few minutes to clean up the mess before your mistake is sealed for eternity. That’s where Q-tips come in handy. Just stash some in your pocket for these types of emergencies.

Here’s another use for that pile of cotton swabs tucked in your jeans pocket: Use them to touch up imperfections on newly-painted walls without dirtying an entire paintbrush.

6. Apply Petroleum Jelly to Places You Don’t Want Painted

A little bit of Vaseline can go a long way toward keeping your paint job clean. Using a Q-tip (another reason to keep them handy), go over all the bits and pieces you don’t want painted, like screws or hinges. With the petroleum jelly applied, even an accidental slip won’t leave you heartbroken.

Here’s another tip for a hassle-free paint job: “Run petroleum jelly along the seals of your doors and windows to prevent them from sticking,” Sharp says.

7. Blow Dry Painter’s Tape for Easy Removal

Painter’s tape is supposed to make your paint job easier and stress-free. But when strips of perfect paint peel off along with the adhesive — or you just can’t get the darn tape to come off at all — you might feel like you wasted your effort.

To help stubborn painter’s tape get a move on, turn a hair dryer (low heat only) toward your handiwork. Holding it about three inches from the wall will help soften the adhesive and ensure an even line, making removal a stress-free affair — and ensuring you keep that dreamy, crisp paint line.

A Delightful Side Dish for Autumn Dining

butternutsquashheaderOne of the standout features that makes fall special is the colors: reds, oranges, and yellows pop in nature and in many decorations during the season. Now you can bring a burst of autumn to the dinner table with this butternut squash recipe—made with cranberries and honey, it’s a delightful dish that tastes as good as it looks!

Serves: 6-8


Ingredients:

  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large butternut squash, peeled and chopped into cubes
  • Salt, pepper, and garlic powder, to taste
  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
  • 2-3 tablespoons honey
  • ¼ cup finely crumbled feta
  • Ground cinnamon, to taste
  • Fresh parsley, for garnish

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Lightly spritz a baking sheet with olive oil, add the butternut squash along with another drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
  2. Place in the oven on the center rack, and roast for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven, add the cranberries, and mix to combine.
  3. Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until the cranberries have started to soften and burst a bit.
  4. Remove from oven, and transfer the squash mixture to a large bowl. Add the honey and feta, plus a touch of cinnamon, based on taste, and mix well. Transfer to a serving platter, and garnish with the parsley.

 

Don’t Forget These 4 Key Factors for Your Next Home Location

readytosellHome location plays a major role in your life. Property taxes, school districts, and the cost of living are standard details that go into choosing the best-fit location . . . but what other factors could you be forgetting? Here are 4 home location components that deserve a spot on your house-hunting priorities list.


  1. Daily commutes and ease of getting around
    A daily commute can directly impact your quality of life. It tends to dictate what time you wake up, how much free time you have after work, and your daily stress levels. Do some dry runs to see what your new commute would be like during your travel times. And if you don’t have the ability to physically check out the commute, most online map programs or mobile apps will show you traffic volumes and estimated travel times in real time so you can estimate your morning and evening drive times.
  2. Walkability and public transportation options
    The freedom of around-the-corner shopping, walking to work, and using public transit can be desirable for some, but uncomfortable or limiting to others. Consider everything from your travel preferences to your shopping habits. Do you tend to pick up your groceries fresh as you need them, or are you a buy-in-bulk kind of family? Looking at how you shop now will make you more aware of the options to look for in your new locale.
  3. Square footage, lot size, and privacy
    How much house you can afford is going to change based on location. A willingness to live in a distant suburb most often translates into more square footage on a larger lot. Most people are going to know what they want in lot size, but when house hunting, it’s all about priorities. Make a list of your must-haves (have your partner make one, too), and you may be surprised at what you’re unwilling to sacrifice in exchange for that extra half-bathroom.
  4. Social life and cultural amenities
    A major draw to city life is an abundance of activities. However, some suburbs boast city-like activities on a smaller scale, or you might find that the occasional city trip is enough. Think about how you spend your weekends now, where and how often you eat out, and where your social circle is. Even if you’re moving to a different side of the country, you’re likely to carry those same habits and preferences with you.

11 Hacks for Annoying Household Headaches

household-hacks-standard_1x1_94388c14e049044ed438147189891150_620x620_q85Cruddy bathroom fixtures? Sticky door locks? Fix those maddening nuisances fast.

A slow-draining guest bathtub, a squeaky linen closet door: Fixing routine household issues is très boring when you’ve got sexier projects on your mind, like building a kitchen that would make Ina Garten jealous.

Over time, though, those everyday annoyances will get. on. your. nerves. That’s why we rounded up 11 clever fixes for the tasks that float to the bottom of most homeowners’ to-do lists. You can knock them out in a single weekend and still have plenty of time to get back to looking up remodeling ideas on Pinterest when you’re done.

1. Remove Shower Drain Gunk with a Zip Tie

Retrieve a wig’s worth of hair by connecting three or four zip ties and notching them every half inch with a pair of scissors. Remove the drain catch and feed the chain into the drain. Swivel it around to catch as much clog-causing hair as possible, pull out, remove gunk, and repeat as necessary. Rinse off the makeshift chain and stash it for your next clog. In the meantime, use a drain plug to catch some of the hair.

2. Un-Stick Door Locks

Artfully wiggling your garage key works for getting to your lawnmower, but it won’t do in case of an emergency. Save yourself a trip to the home center for powdered graphite lubricant and DIY your own to oil up tumbler locks.

Twist a mechanical pencil or whittle away a traditional pencil’s wood to expose a few inches of graphite. Slip the exposed graphite into the sticky lock. You can force it if needed, as it will become powder anyway. Slide the key in and out to break up the graphite and turn it in the lock cylinder to lube it for loose unlocking.

3. Refinish Cruddy Bathroom Fixtures with Spray Paint

No matter how much you scrub, those polished metal fixtures that were supposed to look shiny and clean all the time just don’t. Most of the time, they just look gross. That’s why interior designer Lara Fishman of Storm Interiors in Los Angeles warns clients that polished metal can be tough to maintain. They’re magnets for dirt and fingerprints.

But if they work fine, replacing them is a waste of landfill space. So create your own do-over and spray paint them with a coat of matte, metallic paint. It’s easier than you think. Simply remove them from your bathroom sink, spread them out on a protected surface, and give them a sharp new coat of primer and the color of your choice.

4. Stop a Spewing Shower Head with White Vinegar

Your hair looking a little flat after a shower? Not able to rinse out all that deep conditioner? Could be the spray isn’t forceful or targeted enough because of sediment build-up in your showerhead. Fill a medium-sized freezer bag halfway with white vinegar and submerge your shower head in it. Wrap a thick rubber band around the bag to secure it to the shower head and leave it overnight. In the morning, remove the bag and let the shower run at least two minutes before showering (so you won’t smell like vinegar).

5. Silence Noisy Hinges with Olive Oil

Or grease. Seriously. Skip the commercial lubricants, which, according to internet lore, may or may not be the cause of your door’s horror movie sound effects. The point is, your hinges need lubricating. And the oils in your kitchen will do the job just as well, and probably better. Olive oil, veg oil, coconut oil, etc. Just be careful to clean first, and don’t overdo it. Leaving excess oil on a dirty surface can make the oil turn rancid.

6. Smooth Out Beaten-Up Wood Trim with Nail Polish

A nick on a gorgeous, shellac-ed windowsill that’s original to your 1955 bungalow may go unnoticed for now, but it’ll grow worse over time. Grab a bottle of clear nail polish topcoat and fill in the wood craters for an even surface. Let it dry completely and gently even out any resulting bumps with fine sandpaper.

7. Clean Gutters Without a Ladder

Clearing out the gutters gets a (deserved) bad rap for being a total pain. Cindy Stumpo, founder of C. Stumpo Development Inc. and an expert featured on HGTV’s “Tough as Nails,” has hacked the annoying task. She attaches a long PVC pipe to a leaf blower to avoid hauling out the ladder. Genius!

8. Fix a Vinyl or Linoleum Floor Tear with a Hair Dryer

The oddly placed floor mat hasn’t fooled anyone since you accidentally tore up a spot or two on your linoleum floor when you dragged in that (fabulous!) flea-market hutch find. Don’t fret, just pull out your hair dryer. Use the warm air to stretch out the material and reattach it to the subfloor as the glue melts. (Don’t worry. The material is malleable enough to stretch without causing burns to the skin.)

9. Silence Squeaky Floorboards with Talcum Powder

The spot in the hallway you’ve trained yourself to avoid is actually a super simple low-maintenance fix. Sprinkle talcum powder over the trouble boards, then sweep the powder into the cracks between the boards with a makeup brush. Because it’s actually moisture that causes the creaks (who knew?), and the powder will soak it right up.

10. Stretch Out Light Bulb Switches with LEDs

You’d rather endure a dark driveway for weeks than go through the hassle of dragging out a ladder to reach the security light. Sean Dore, owner of Mr. Electric of Baton Rouge, La., says invest in LEDs already. You’ll get bright light and not have to change them for years and years!

11. Stash Paint Samples for Quick Touch-Ups

Those wall scuffs from the backs of your chairs, furniture rearrangements, and trying to cram a dining room table through a doorway without taking it apart first give your walls a sad, dingy look. Forgo the drop cloth and white overalls for big paint jobs by stealing this trick from Monica Mangin, DIY expert and host of the new Lowe’s original series “The Weekender”: Keep small containers of your paint colors and a small brush handy. Covering up knicks and dings will take five minutes flat!

How to Stop Your Dog From Digging In Your Yard

how-to-stop-your-dog-from-digging_1x1_68ef255383baa399dbda12a6d07efc82_165x165_q85Don’t let your dog wreck your yard by digging up your lawn. Here are 5 foolproof ways to stop doggie destruction.

We love our dogs, but our yards don’t. Dogs dig up the lawn in a heartbeat, eager to bury a bone or chase a gopher, leaving gaping holes and piles of dirt.

Here’s how to keep your dog from digging up your yard. (If it’s your garden instead, here are tips on how to keep dogs out of your garden.)

1. Tire out your dog

A napping dog is not a digging dog, so exhaust your pet with regular walks and active play.

“Home owners with big yards think they can just open the back door and their dogs will be entertained,” says Tim Link, a dog expert and author of Wagging Tales.

“That’s boring for an animal,” says Link. “You have to mix it up. If a dog is stimulated, he’ll get into a lot less mischief.”

To activate your animal, try:

  • Hiding a favorite indoor toy outdoors so he can hunt for it.
  • Playing catch with a ball or Frisbee.
  • Taking her on frequent walks.
  • Setting up an agility course.

2. Offer a digging spot of his own

Dogs dig for thrills, for a cool place to lie down, and for a place to bury bones. It’s an instinctive behavior you can’t eliminate, but you can redirect it by building your pet a digging box.

It doesn’t have to be big – a shaded, 4-by-4-foot space will do. Fill it with sand, cat box filler, or wood chips. Then let your dog watch you bury a toy or treat in the box. When he goes after it, praise his efforts — dogs would rather be rewarded for digging in their box than scolded for digging in your garden.

3. Nix the bones

Instead of offering your dog a bone that he’ll want to hide in a hole, give your pet rawhide or veggie-based chews that he’ll eat rather than bury.

Also, buy your puppy a busy ball ($10-$15) that dispenses treats as he bats it around. It’s a challenge and exercise, which will keep your dog’s body and mind active.

4. Get rid of unwanted pests

Dogs often dig around fences and shrubs to hunt prey — such as rats, gophers, and moles. Beat him to the job by humanely getting rid of rodents. Don’t use poison to kill the critters, because it could kill your pet, too.

5. Keep your dog company

If you know your dog likes to dig or eat outdoors, don’t leave him unattended. Let him watch you plant your garden and explain what you’re doing and the behavior you expect.

Yep, your read that right.

Link says dogs understand and respond to human conversation, so long as it contains high praise and clear directions, and is followed by a reward for good behavior.

You might say, “Sebastian, you’re the best dog in the world, and I know you love to dig. But I don’t want you digging up the lawn and ruining our beautiful yard. Now, let’s get a treat.”

Fix Noisy, Rattling, Energy-Sucking Windows for Good

how-fix-drafty-windows-standard_1x1_4fc9e8ce8dfe95e76e914a62c16dcfac_620x620_q85Quick, affordable ways to address those annoying windows now — plus some ideas for the long term.

Do your friends nominate your house for the Halloween bash every year because your rattling windows with their billowing curtains add that just-right eerie feel they want for their creepy celebration?

Maybe that’s fine for fall, but when winter temps set in, those rattling, drafty windows will bug you to no end, as well as hike your heating bill beyond your comfort zone. Best to get rid of that headache now.

So, Why Do They Get Drafty?

With old windows, the glazing putty may have grown brittle and fallen away, leaving the glass rattling in place. Double-hung sashes of wood windows can shrink with age and wear, letting in cold air. Even newer vinyl or aluminum windows may have worn-out gaskets and weather stripping.

Easy Fixes for Right Now

shrink-filmHere are five fast solutions (all under $8!) that’ll fix them for awhile, or at least to get you through to spring when more permanent fixes are easier:

1. V-seal weather stripping. Add this plastic weather stripping along the sides of the sashes. Windows can open and shut even with the V-seal in place.

2. Rope caulk. This soft, sticky stuff can be molded to suit the gap — and removes easily at the end of the season.

3. Shrink film. Applied with double-sided tape, this clear plastic sheeting shrinks drum-tight when heated with a hair dryer. The film seals off drafts and captures an insulating buffer of air. Use rubbing alcohol to help release the tape in the spring to avoid pulling off paint. (My husband is an expert at this)

4. Nail polish. If carefully applied, clear polish fills the crack almost invisibly. Once hardened, the polish will stabilize the glass until you can replace it in the spring. Or, apply clear weather-seal tape to the crack.

5. Draft snake. If the bottom of your window leaks cold air, buy a foam-and-fabric draft snake kit. Cut the 36-inch foam tube provided to length and slip the washable cover over it. Then place the snake on the sill and shut the window on it to seal the deal.

3 Fixes for the Long Term

1. Replace loose or missing glazing. The glazing putty that seals window panes can crack and fall out with time. Doing a great job of glazing takes practice, but even a mediocre job will do a lot to eliminate leaks. Best part is it only costs a few bucks. Some quick tips:

  • Begin by removing all the old putty.
  • Detach the pane and add a bed of fresh putty.
  • Gently press the glass into the putty and add glazing points — small metal points that push into the sash to secure the pane.
  • Push points into place with a flat-bladed screwdriver.
  • Apply a long thin roll of putty and use a clean putty knife to smooth it in place.

2. Rejuvenate storm windows. If you have old storm windows stacked in the garage rafters, reglaze and repaint them, and put them up every fall. Storm windows not only cut drafts, they insulate. Cost: Once they’re fixed up, it only costs an afternoon of washing and installing the storms.

3. Replace the window. A worn, rotted, or chronically rattling window is simply past its useful life. Replacing old windows is a job for a pro. You’ll be able to take your pick of low-maintenance frame materials, as well as low-E and insulated glass options. Cost:About $600 per window.

Try This Delicious Duo of Trail Mix Treats

Oftentimes, snacks are oh-so-tasty but not-so-good for you. One exception, which has become more popular in recent years with the trend of health-conscious food, is trail mix. Hikers and other outdoorsy people love it because it provides a healthy source of energy. But it’s also quite delicious and provides a seemingly endless variety of ingredients, including nuts, seeds, fruits, and granola.

Perhaps best of all, making your own trail mix is easy! Whether you enjoy sweet or salty sensations, the recipes below will excite your taste buds—and provide your body a healthier snack to keep you satisfied.

trailmix_savory-300x225

Savory Nut-Free Trail Mix

Ingredients: 

  • ¾ cup sunflower seeds
  • ¾ cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1½ cups plantain chips
  • ¾ cup baked chickpeas
  • 2⅓ tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne powder
  • ½ teaspoon chili powder
  • ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt

Instructions: 

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Combine the sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, plantain chips, and baked chickpeas in a bowl. Evenly mix olive oil through the ingredients. Add the cayenne powder, chili powder, garlic powder, and sea salt; coat evenly.
  3. Spread the mixture onto a baking sheet, and bake for 12-16 minutes, or until golden brown, stirring halfway through. Remove from heat, and let the trail mix cool for 20 minutes before serving.

trailmix_sweet-300x225

Sweet n’ Salty Chocolate Drops

Ingredients:

  • 1½ tablespoons almonds
  • ¾ tablespoon sunflower seeds
  • 3 tablespoons dried cranberries
  • 12 ounces dark chocolate chips

Instructions:

  1. Combine the almonds, sunflower seeds, and dried cranberries in a bowl to make the trail mix.
  2. In a separate bowl, melt the dark chocolate chips in the microwave for 20-30 seconds, and stir occasionally. Add time if needed.
  3. Lay out a piece of wax paper and, using a spoon, pour the chocolate in quarter-size circles onto the paper.
  4. Pressing lightly, lay the trail mix onto each of the chocolate drops.
  5. Allow each of the drops to harden, about 45-60 minutes. For quicker results, you can put the drops in the refrigerator.

– See more at: http://americanlifestylemag.com/try-this-delicious-duo-of-trail-mix-treats/#sthash.gBkDugKg.dpuf

Should You Look for Your First House — Or Renew Your Lease?

buying-your-first-home-standard1_3x2_5fe13140669c7ebee84ce49d0a9f28a2_540x360_q85Consider 5 key questions in your quest to decide whether you’re ready to go for it.

Tired of working so hard just to build your landlord’s equity instead of your own? Been dreaming about paint swatches and obsessing over Pinterest projects? Making that leap from renting to owning a home comes with many perks — both financial and emotional. And even though home ownership comes with great responsibility, you might be surprised how achievable it can be.

Certainly, the best time to trade security deposits for a down payment is different for everyone. If you’re thinking about switching from renting to owning, ask yourself these five questions to decide if you’re ready to embark on the home ownership adventure.

Money and House1. Are You Financially Prepared?

Let’s not beat around the bush: Buying a home requires a substantial financial commitment.

There’s the down payment, of course. “On average, you want to have a minimum of 5% to 7% of the cost of the home you’re targeting,” says Jason Harriman, a REALTOR® with San Antonio-based Heyl Real Estate Group at Keller Williams Realty. Then, add 3% to 6% more for closing costs, which will vary based on where you live and what taxes your state and city require you to pay.

Tip: Keep in mind if you put down less than 20%, you’ll pay PMI, private mortgage insurance, which protects the lender in case of default. Usually, it’s about $50 to $200 a month. But once you reach a certain threshold on your loan to value ratio, you can cancel PMI.

A healthy credit history is also important. Most borrowers will start to qualify for a mortgage with a minimum score of 620 — but the most competitive interest rates will be offered to those with a score of 700 or above. So if you haven’t started practicing those good credit habits yet, it’s time to start developing them.

One of the trickiest hurdles for young adults, so many of whom are lugging around student loan debt, is the debt-to-income (DTI) ratio. Mortgage companies want borrowers to have a certain level of cash flow each month, and that means taking into account how much you’re paying out to other lenders. Ideally, a borrower’s debt-to-income ratio — how much you pay toward debt each month divided by your gross monthly income — should fall below 36%. (Strictly speaking, a loan is considered able to be paid if the DTI doesn’t exceed 43%.) If yours doesn’t, think about how you can get that debt needle moving in the right direction.

“The best way to do this is to pay off any unsecured debts like credit cards and personal loans, and keep them as close to a zero balance as you can,” says Harriman.

2. Are You Prepared to Make Compromises?

Kathleen Celmins, who manages the personal finance site “Stacking Benjamins,” was financially prepared to manage a mortgage. But once the house hunting began, she quickly realized she was priced out of the homes she had envisioned for herself.

“I originally wanted a single-family home with a yard and in a great neighborhood,” she says. But given her price point, the homes she could afford ended up being in, well, not the greatest neighborhoods. “At one point, we looked at a property that was directly behind a strip club,” she laughs. “We didn’t even go inside.”

After several weeks of searching, Celmins realized she needed to find a middle ground. “In my price range, I could get a not-so-great house in a not-so-great neighborhood. Or, I could get a really cute condominium with a gas range and granite countertops,” she says. “It was something I compromised on. I gave up a yard for having fancy stuff in my condo.”

3. Are You Emotionally Ready?

When it comes to renting, surprises don’t require much emotional investment. The rent goes up? You can move. The fridge is on the fritz? The landlord will send someone over. Home ownership is a bit more hands-on. If the toilet breaks, it’s time to start reading Yelp reviews. And if property taxes unexpectedly rise, it’s on you to appeal or pay up.

“My homeowners association fee doubled in the first year I owned my condominium,” says Celmins. “Then my real estate taxes were reassessed. My mortgage payment went up and I panicked. I didn’t even know that could happen.”

Of course, having the financial flexibility to cover those unexpected things is important, but don’t overlook the importance of having the mental and emotional capability of dealing with them responsibly when they arise. Everything could be peachy for months, and then three maintenance issues might spring up in the same week. Stress management and problem solving skills are home ownership biggies.

4. Will Owning Pay Off in the Long Run?

Depending on the home you choose and where you live, you may pay a lower mortgage than you paid for rent. But even if you don’t, there’s still the financial advantage of building equity in your home, instead of lining your landlord’s pockets.

financial literacy5. Has Your Lifestyle Outgrown Renting?

Many people find a rental can only take them so far. When you’re ready to start a family, you’re going to want a few extra rooms, and that can get expensive with rising rental rates. A yard also provides a safe place for Junior to play or for a dog to scamper around. And speaking of Fido, the vast majority of renters have trouble finding a place that will allow for their pet. Home ownership can end that stress for good.

Then there are the renovations. If you’re itching to test out your DIY skills and personalize your space, you’re probably ready to own. Landlords who allow property renovations — especially DIY projects — are few and far between.

Buying a first home is a big change — both from a financial and an emotional perspective. Still, for many, home ownership can be one of the most rewarding life choices one can make. “Turns out it’s awesome,” said Celmins. “I love it so much.”

Should You Refinish Hardwood Floors Yourself?

refinishing-wood-floors-professional-buffing-standard1_3x2_8cac78c4ea5ab45fa5a48e0a4591ef6d_540x360_q85Only if you like uneven surfaces and putting out fires.

Of course, refinishing hardwood floors is a DIY job. That’s why all the Big Box stores rent floor sanders, right?

But just because you can rent a sander doesn’t mean you should. Even if your friends did dub you “Jackie-Of-All-Trades” after that amazing bathroom re-do last spring, you still might not have the stuff it takes to refinish your floors.

Seriously, you could end up with a floor that has so many dips and grooves, you’ll get more seasick than you did on that Disney cruise when you were 10. Worse, you could make a dangerous newbie mistake and start a fire. (True! We’ll explain in just a bit).

Even if the cost of hiring a pro ($4 to $5 per square foot) makes you sweat, don’t consider taking on the job yourself without an (ahem) honest evaluation of your own skills. (Do you really want to put your home value on the line to learn a new skill?) But if after reading this, you still decide to DIY, we’ve got a few tips to help you avoid a costly #fail.

How Much of a DIY Superstar Are You?

If you’re a long-time DIYer, but first-time refinisher, ask yourself if you could do these two things:

#1. Push a grocery-store cart (that has a sticky wheel and a toddler in the seat) at a steady pace with no jerky movements and no stops for your entire lunch break.

#2. Paint an Impressionist masterpiece.

OK, maybe those are a bit over the top. But sanding and staining your floors is no cake walk.

A floor sander can weigh well over 100 pounds — and move like it has a mind of its own (not unlike a wobbly store buggy). Plus it’ll make a ton of noise the whole time, completely getting on your nerves.

“The process is quite time-intensive, and not recommended for first-time DIYers,” says Victoria Stepanov, an interior designer who’s been remodeling homes for more than 15 years.

It’s difficult to control the sander, and while the bare floor may look fine after you’ve sanded it, the flaws will come shining through once the finish is done. You could be creating hills and valleys as you go along, Stepanov says, and not even know it. But once completed, the floor will have an ugly, topographical appearance, inflicting a serious ding on your home’s value.

Stepanov also very strongly advises newbies to skip oil-based stains and finishes, which require a steady hand with a paintbrush and tons of patience.

Uneven, hurried brushstrokes can leave your precious floor 16 shades of brown — not to mention the possibility of spontaneous combustion if you don’t handle your oily rags correctly. That’s because some oils dry through a process of oxidation — the same process that causes fires (see, it really can happen!). So oily fabrics must be sealed in a metal can with water filling the remaining space, or laid out individually to dry quickly. Never, ever pile up oily rags.

If that isn’t enough to make you think twice, how about if you knew you’d have to apply two or three coats to make it worthwhile? Now you’ve multiplied your chances of screwing up times three.

Is Your Floor Even Refinish-able?

Double-check that your type of floor can actually be refinished. Attempting to refinish laminate floors — which aren’t made of wood — could ruin them. And engineered hardwood, which has a layer of hardwood over a plywood core, isn’t a much better candidate. But basically, only floors with real hardwood throughout can tolerate refinishing.

You should’ve been told what type of floor your home has when you bought it — either in the listing details or in the inspection report. Or you can usually figure it out by pulling up a floor register and looking at the side of a plank to see if it’s all wood, laminate, or engineered wood.

Think You’re Up to DIYing It? Some Tips to Help

Get a demo. Installing the belt on a sander incorrectly can ruin your floor. Ask for a demonstration of how the whole thing works when you rent it.

Test it. Pick a discrete spot to test your process before you ruin your entire living room. Some chemical- or oil-based cleaning products leave a nasty, nearly-invisible residue, which might bubble to the surface once you start to seal the planks. If anything looks odd during testing, strip your floors using a mixture of ammonia and water, or use a commercial hardwood cleaner.

“No one likes surprises,” says John DeWees, owner of Denver Carpet and Flooring. “It might have been 20 years since someone used a chemical-based product, but it still got into the wood, and you don’t notice until the job is complete.”

Skip the stain. Keep your wood natural, then finish it with a water-based polyurethane instead.

DeWees says the water-based finish dries quickly, which is a plus. It does mean you’ll need to work fast, though, he says. It can start feeling dry to the touch in as little as 15 minutes. If you don’t work quickly, you risk visible overlapping strokes on the finished floor. Not a deal-breaker, but it will look amateurish.

Take your time. Refinishing your floor can take a week or more. A lot of that time will be spent, well, watching paint dry. Pros will let you know how long to stay away and help you seal up the room, but doing it yourself means you’re on your own. It’s best to wait at least 24 hours before touching the floor after each coat of polyurethane, even if it feels dry.

Wear socks — just socks. Shoes, bare feet, and pets can easily ruin all your hard work. So make sure to wear socks during the entire process and for the first 48 hours after the floor is done. In fact, your socks will help buff the floor! Sock race, anyone?

Do You Really Need to Clean Your Air Ducts?

cleaning-air-ducts-dog-standard_1x1_ebbd5beaaac0a8fd2e67fb6aed2b5059_620x620_q85Do you really need to pay good money to have your air ducts cleaned?

(Because some people actually should. Sorry! Hope it’s not you!)

Clean Air Claims

In order for your forced-air furnace or HVAC to deliver warm and cool air into your rooms, that air has to go through a system of ducts. So technically, you’re breathing in any dust, cobwebs, pet hair, and dander that line those ducts. Sounds harmful, right?

Not according to the experts. Dan Stradford, National Air Duct Cleaners Association treasurer and CEO for Action Duct Cleaning in Los Angeles, says there are no conclusive studies saying that duct cleaning will improve your home’s indoor air quality.

Asa Foss, LEED residential technical director for the U.S. Green Building Council, concurs. “I’ve never seen any data that suggests duct cleaning has a positive impact on indoor air quality and human health,” he says.

But Foss also says that’s only true when your ducts are airtight. Leaky ducts can pull in dirty air and allergens from basements, crawlspaces, garages, and attics — and blow it all around your house, Foss says.

So unless your ducts are leaky (easily fixed with foil-backed duct tape and insulation), or you have a special need, like a compromised immune system, nasty allergies, or you just did major construction, you probably don’t need to worry about air quality when it comes to the state of your air ducts. Woo!

Special (Super Gross) Circumstances

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Both the EPA and the National Air Duct Cleaners Association recommend professional duct cleaning if you have mold growth, vermin (vermin!), or excessive amounts of dirt and debris in your ducts.

Ahh! How do you know if you have vermin in your ducts? You can actually look yourself. Do a visual inspection by pulling off the register grill and looking around with a flashlight, or stick your arm in and take a photo with your phone. (Finally, an excuse to use that selfie stick you got stuck with at your work’s white elephant gift exchange.)

If you see mold, or a dead mouse, or any run-of-the-mill nasty stuff like droppings (ew, we’re so sorry), go ahead and call in a pro. Get those ducts cleaned.

Another situation that calls for cleaning, says EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre, is right after lead paint remediation. “You wouldn’t want to have that being dispersed into the house when you turned on the heat.”

And finally, if you’re just finicky, you just be you. Be your own special circumstance.

“We have customers [for whom] just the thought of dirty ducts is upsetting to them,” says Stradford. “It’s individual preference.”

Scam Alert!

OK, so you’re gonna clean your ducts. Your dad will be proud. But be wary of scams. Stay away from companies willing to clean your ducts for $49 or another lowball figure, Stradford says. Often they’ll do a quick inspection and some vacuuming, tell you there’s mold growth and charge you thousands for clearing it out. It’s common enough that the National Air Duct Cleaners Association has an anti-fraud task force.

Look out for duct cleaners claiming they will sanitize your system. “We can’t legally use the words ‘sanitize’ or ’disinfect,’” Stradford says. “By definition sanitizing or disinfecting requires extremely high kill rates and there’s no way we can guarantee 100 percent saturation.”

Also, cleaning your ductwork alone is not going to make a difference. A real professional knows that, and should do annual maintenance on your entire system, including the air handler (that’s what they call that big metal box outside that cranks out the noise). {{ start_tip 7 }}Otherwise it’s the same as dusting your ceiling fan after you’ve vacuumed.{{ end_tip }}

So how much will it cost, and how long is it going to take? Typically, duct cleaning takes two to five hours, but it can go on for two days if you have a large house with lots of ducts, Stradford says. On average you should spend $300 to $700.

BBQ Wok-Grilled Vegetables with Feta

wok-fried-vegIdeally suited for summer grilling a medley of mixed vegetables, a non-stick grill wok or basket is an indispensable cooking tool for effortless al fresco dining. Simply placed on the barbecue with a bundle of seasonal vegetables tossed with a little olive oil, they can be cooked beside a couple of chicken breasts, omega friendly salmon filets or plump juicy tiger prawns and timed to be ready at the same time. Any combination of your favourite vegetables are great, but I love the colour and flavour of broccoli, red pepper, mushrooms and baby red onions garnished with a little feta once served. Easy, healthy and delicious, BBQ Wok-Grilled Vegetables make a fabulous summer side dish when it’s just to hot to do anything else.

BBQ Wok-Grilled Vegetables with Feta
Serves 4

1 head of broccoli, cut into small bite size pieces
1 pint cremini mushrooms, cleaned and halved
1 red pepper, seeded and chopped
6 baby red onions, skins and halved
1/4 cup olive oil
4 oz Greek feta

Place all of the chopped vegetables in large bowl and toss with a little olive oil. Preheat the BBQ to high heat. When hot, pour the vegetables into a non-stick grilling basket and place on the BBQ grill. Cook while tossing the vegetables frequently for about 10-12 minutes, or until the vegetables are just done. To serves, spoon the grilled vegetables into a serving bowl and garnish with the feta cheese.

From Elegant to Traditional: How to Enhance Your Home’s Exterior for the Holidays

porchheaderOne of the joys of the holidays is going out and about to see how others have decorated their homes. It not only adds an excitement to the air, but also may inspire you for how you’d like to decorate the exterior of your own home.

Perhaps the best place to start is the front porch, which is your home’s holiday greeting to all who visit or pass by. Whether your style is glam and glitz or traditional and country, these tips will make it easy to decorate your porch to celebrate fall, and then transition it seamlessly to winter holiday decor in no time!


GO FOR GOLD WITH GLAM DECOR

A simple, clean, elegant decor never goes out of style. And nothing says glamour quite like the color combination of black, white, and gold, which works quite well as a tool to show your style throughout the seasons.

In the fall, take advantage of front door planters by mixing autumn vegetables such as white gourds and cornstalks with pinecones.

Plus, you can add a striking focal point to your autumn decor by hanging a gold-painted harvest wreath on your door—this will maintain your glam theme while adding an extra touch of the season.

In the winter, switch out the autumn vegetables with more seasonal ornament-style decor, and forgo the usual pine wreath by opting for a clean gold straw wreath, to which you can add your own personalized touch of the season.

Cross-seasonal tip: Stringing pinecones around your door is an ideal transitioning tool—you won’t have to switch them out during the change of seasons!

traditionalfall-300x225KEEP IT COUNTRY WITH RUSTIC DECOR

The autumn and holiday seasons both evoke a sense of home and tradition, which is not only appealing to a lot of people, but also a hot design trend. You can reflect this style by implementing the tips below and bringing them all together in a bronze-colored tub.

In the fall, incorporate the colors of the season with fall vegetables, including mini gourds, autumn corn, and corn stalks; mix in some pinecones; and add a pop of white to contrast the oranges of autumn by including a white pumpkin in the mix.

traditionalwinter-300x225In the winter, switch out your traditional autumn colors with all white items, and frost the pinecones from your fall decor to bring the holidays to your doorstep; add a touch of green with some pine branches, which will also welcome guests with the scent of the season.

Cross-seasonal tip: Fill your tub with plenty of newspaper to add lift to your items so they stand out more.

 

Top-Notch Tailgating Tips

tailgateheaderFor millions of people, football is an integral part of the holiday season, as high school, college, and pro football teams create their own unique level of excitement and local pride during the autumn and winter seasons.

To join in the excitement, many enjoy the long-held tradition of tailgating before the games. However, hosting the ultimate game-day football tailgate takes a lot of food, drinks, accessories, and planning. To get started, use this quick reference tailgating guide to get the game-day essentials for your tailgate, plus planning advice.

tailgateguideEvery good coach also knows that attention to detail is important for success, especially when you have a team (of fellow fans, in this case) depending on you. Download and print out this tailgating essentials checklist to make sure you have all your Xs and Os in order so you can keep your eyes on the prize—an unforgettable tailgating experience!

Hamptons Farmhouse Rebuild: James Huniford Design Studio

hamptons-farmhouse-rebuild-headerRustic meets modern in the rebuilding of this Hamptons farmhouse. James Huniford, a renowned New York-based interior designer whose distinctive style is on glorious display in this Water Mill, New York-based home. His design ideas and philosophy are currently being  highlighted in the featured AMERICAN LIFESTYLE article “Hamptons Farmhouse Rebuild: James Huniford Design Studio.”

hunniford-1James Huniford is known for having a distinguished style, but he prioritizes the uniqueness of his clients’—and their properties’—personalities. He combines contrasting elements and often features muted and more neutral colors in conjunction with defined lines, all of which he infuses with his clients’ individual tastes to produce unique modern masterpieces.

hunniford-2In fact, for the Water Mill project, Huniford drew inspiration during a drive with one of the home’s owners. The two were driving and noticed a barn that would be perfect exterior elevation for the home, which they were rebuilding from the ground up. That became the launchpad for the project. The combination of that rustic exterior with a clean, refined interior now makes for a perfect weekend home for the two creative minds who live there.

hunnifordWhere else does this prominent designer find inspiration? Huniford says that he draws his primarily from the ever-evolving Big Apple, which can fill him with ideas even as he walks through the streets, and he also looks to Paris, London, and Rome as other hubs for creativity. But he is also inspired to give back, which he does with his yearly benefit event Design on a Dime.

Harry’s Chana Masala: Vegan and Gluten-Free

Chana Masala doneA popular vegetarian dish throughout Northern India, Chana Masala is both vegan and gluten-free but definitely not lacking in flavour. “A dollop of comfortingly bolstering pulses bathed in a thick, tangy, deeply spiced gravy, it’s the kind of food that tastes of home”, whether home is Ahmedabad, Aberdeen or Asakura. Mumbai-born chef Maunika Gowardhan simmers her chickpeas with a black teabag, which she says is “common practice in Punjabi households”, lending the dish a rich smoky flavour and deep colour. One can’t taste the tea, but it does give the dish a lovely warm hue. In this recipe, my stepson Harry starts by soaking the chickpeas overnight in cold water then simmering them for a hour until tender. Once cooked, the chickpeas and tomatoes are simmered with a mixture of fried garlic, ginger, onion, and green chiles with a flury of traditional Indian spices including ground cumin, garam masala, coriander, and turmeric. A tin of San Marzano tomatoes are then added along with the cooked chickpeas and simmered until thick and lovely, about 20 minutes. Garnished with chopped cilantro before serving, Harry’s Channa Masala is definitely “pukka” or as he is currently living in Japan he would say — Oishii!

Harry’s Chana Masala
Serves 4-6
Recipe adapted from Felicity Cloake, The Guardian UK

8 oz dried chickpeas, soaked overnight
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 large onion, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves
1 oz fresh ginger, minced
1 oz fresh cilantro
1 hot green chilli, finely chopped – seeds optional
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 14 oz tin plum tomatoes, mashed
1 1/2 tsp fine salt
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp lemon juice

Place the dried chickpeas in large pot and cover with water twice the amount of chickpeas and bring to a boil. Cover and allow to simmer one hour.

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based pan over a medium heat and when hot, add the cumin seeds. Fry until aromatic, stirring, then add the onion and turn the heat down. Cook until golden brown, stirring regularly.

Meanwhile use a pestle and mortar or stick blender to mash the garlic, ginger, cilantro and chillies into a paste, then place in the pan and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the ground coriander, chilli power and turmeric plus a splash more oil if necessary, and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, chickpeas and some salt to taste. Bring to a lively simmer, then turn down the heat to medium low and cook for 20 minutes or until thickened.

Stir in the garam masala and lemon juice, then allow to cool slightly before serving scattered with the remaining coriander leaves.

5 Ways You Didn’t Know You Could Save for a Down Payment

down-payment-assistance-doormat-standard_1x1_d9bedb7619d84178e3ee2d5902c00577_620x620_q85One of the biggest misconceptions of home buying? The 20% down payment. Here’s how to buy with a lot less down.

Buying your first home conjures up all kinds of warm and fuzzy emotions: pride, joy, contentment. But before you get to the good stuff, you’ve got to cobble together a down payment, a daunting sum if you follow the textbook advice to squirrel away 20% of a home’s cost.

Here are five creative ways to build your down-payment nest egg faster than you may have ever imagined.

1. Crowdsource Your Dream Home

You may have heard of people using sites like Kickstarter to fund creative projects like short films and concert tours. Well, who says you can’t crowdsource your first home? Forget the traditional registry, the fine china, and the 16-speed blender. Use sites like Feather the Nest and Hatch My House to raise your down payment. Hatch My House says it’s helped Americans raise more than $2 million for down payments.

2. Ask the Seller to Help (Really!)

When sellers want to a get a deal done quickly, they might be willing to assist buyers with the closing costs. Fewer closing costs = more money you can apply toward your deposit.

“They’re called seller concessions,” says Ray Rodriguez, regional mortgage sales manager for the New York metro area at TD Bank. Talk with your real estate agent. She might help you negotiate for something like 2% of the overall sales price in concessions to help with the closing costs.

There are limits on concessions depending on the type of mortgage you get. For FHA mortgages, the cap is 6% of the sale price. For Fannie Mae-guaranteed loans, the caps vary between 3% and 9%, depending on the ratio between how much you put down and the amount you finance. Individual banks have varying caps on concessions.

No matter where they net out, concessions must be part of the purchase contract.

3. Look into Government Options

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, offers a number of homeownership programs, including assistance with down payment and closing costs. These are typically available for people who meet particular income or location requirements. HUD has a list of links by state that direct you to the appropriate page for information about your state.

HUD offers help based on profession as well. If you’re a law enforcement officer, firefighter, teacher, or EMT, you may be eligible under its Good Neighbor Next Door Sales Program for a 50% discount on a house’s HUD-appraised value in “revitalization areas.” Those areas are designated by Congress for  homeownership opportunities. And if you qualify for an FHA-insured mortgage under this program, the down payment is only $100; you can even finance the closing costs.

For veterans, the VA will guarantee part of a home loan through commercial lenders. Often, there’s no down payment or private mortgage insurance required, and the program helps borrowers secure a competitive interest rate.

Some cities also offer homeownership help. “The city of Hartford has the HouseHartford Program that gives down payment assistance and closing cost assistance,” says Matthew Carbray, a certified financial planner with Ridgeline Financial Partners and Carbray Staunton Financial Planners in Avon, Conn. The program partners with lenders, real estate attorneys, and homebuyer counseling agencies and has helped 1,200 low-income families.

4. Check with Your Employer

Employer Assisted Housing (EAH) programs help connect low- to moderate-income workers with down payment assistance through their employer. In Pennsylvania, if you work for a participating EAH employer, you can apply for a loan of up to $8,000 for down payment and closing cost assistance. The loan is interest-free and borrowers have 10 years to pay it back.

Washington University in St. Louis offers forgivable loans to qualified employees who want to purchase housing in specific city neighborhoods. University employees receive the lesser of 5% of the purchase price or $6,000 toward down payment or closing costs.

Ask the human resources or benefits personnel at your employer if the company is part of an EAH program.

5. Take Advantage of Special Lender Programs

Finally, many lenders offer programs to help people buy a home with a small down payment. “I would say that the biggest misconception [of homebuying] is that you need 20% for the down payment of a house,” says Rodriguez. “There are a lot of programs out there that need a total of 3% or 3.5% down.”

FHA mortgages, for example, can require as little as 3.5%. But bear in mind that there are both upfront and monthly mortgage insurance payments. “The mortgage insurance could add another $300 to your monthly mortgage payment,” Rodriguez says.

Some lender programs go even further. TD Bank, for example, offers a 3% down payment with no mortgage insurance program, and other banks may have similar offerings. “Check with your regional bank,” Rodriguez says. “Maybe they have their own first-time buyer program.”

Not so daunting after all, is it? There’s actually a lot of help available to many first-time buyers who want to achieve their homeownership dreams. All you need to do is a little research — and start peeking at those home listings!

Ready to get started? Click here!

7 Smart Strategies for Bathroom Remodeling

bathroom-storage-cabinet-kraftmaid_3x2_540x360_q85Here’s how to get the bathroom of your dreams without making your budget a nightmare.

You dream about a bathroom that’s high on comfort and personal style, but you also want materials, fixtures, and amenities with lasting value. Wake up! You can have both.

A midrange bathroom remodel is a solid investment, according to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. A bath remodel with a national median cost of $26,000 will recover about 58% of those costs when it’s time to sell your home.

Regardless of payback potential, you’ll probably be glad you went ahead and updated your bathroom. Homeowners polled for the “Report” gave their bathroom renovation a Joy Score of 9.3 — a rating based on those who said they were happy or satisfied with their project, with 10 being the highest rating and 1 the lowest.

remodel1. Stick to a Plan

A bathroom remodel is no place for improvisation. Before ripping out the first tile, think hard about how you will use the space, what materials and fixtures you want, and how much you’re willing to spend.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) recommends spending up to six months evaluating and planning before beginning work. That way, you have a roadmap that will guide decisions, even the ones made under remodeling stress. Once work has begun — a process that averages two to three months — resist changing your mind. Work stoppages and alterations add costs. Some contractors include clauses in their contracts that specify premium prices for changing original plans.

If planning isn’t your strong suit, hire a designer. In addition to adding style and efficiency, a professional designer makes sure contractors and installers are scheduled in an orderly fashion. A pro charges $100 to $200 per hour, and spends 10 to 30 hours on a bathroom project.

2. Keep the Same Footprint

You can afford that Italian tile you love if you can live with the total square footage you already have.

Keeping the same footprint, and locating new plumbing fixtures near existing plumbing pipes, saves demolition and reconstruction dollars. You’ll also cut down on the dust and debris that make remodeling so hard to live with.

Make the most of the space you have. Glass doors on showers and tubs open up the area. A pedestal sink takes up less room than a vanity. If you miss the storage, replace a mirror with a deep medicine cabinet.

3. Make Lighting a Priority

Multiple shower heads and radiant heat floors are fabulous adds to a bathroom remodel. But few items make a bathroom more satisfying than lighting designed for everyday grooming. You can install lighting for a fraction of the cost of pricier amenities.

Well-designed bathroom task lighting surrounds vanity mirrors and eliminates shadows on faces: You look better already. The scheme includes two ceiling- or soffit-mounted fixtures, and side fixtures or sconces distributed vertically across 24 inches (to account for people of various heights). Four-bulb lighting fixtures work well for side lighting.

Today, shopping for bulbs means paying attention to lumens, the amount of light you get from a bulb — i.e., brightness. For these bathroom task areas, the Lighting Research Center recommends:

  • Toilet: 45 lumens
  • Sink: 450 lumens
  • Vanity: 1,680 lumens

4. Clear the Air

Bathroom ventilation systems may be out of sight, but they shouldn’t be out of mind during a bathroom remodel.

Bathroom ventilation is essential for removing excess humidity that fogs mirrors, makes bathroom floors slippery, and contributes to the growth of mildew and mold. Controlling mold and humidity is especially important for maintaining healthy indoor air quality and protecting the value of your home — mold remediation is expensive, and excess humidity can damage cabinets and painted finishes.

A bathroom vent and water closet fan should exhaust air to the outside — not simply to the space between ceiling joists. Better models have whisper-quiet exhaust fans and humidity-controlled switches that activate when a sensor detects excess moisture in the air.

5. Think Storage

Bathroom storage is a challenge: By the time you’ve installed the toilet, shower, and sink, there’s often little space left to store towels, toilet paper, and hair and body products. Here are some ways to find storage in hidden places.

  • Think vertically: Upper wall space in a bathroom is often underused. Freestanding, multi-tiered shelf units designed to fit over toilet tanks turn unused wall area into found storage. Spaces between wall studs create attractive and useful niches for holding soaps and toiletries. Install shelves over towel bars to use blank wall space.
  • Think moveable: Inexpensive woven baskets set on the floor are stylish towel holders. A floor-stand coat rack holds wet towels, bath robes, and clothes.
  • Think utility: Adding a slide-out tray to vanity cabinet compartments provides full access to stored items and prevents lesser-used items from being lost or forgotten.

6. Contribute Sweat Equity

Shave labor costs by doing some work yourself. Tell your contractor which projects you’ll handle, so there are no misunderstandings later.

Some easy DIY projects:

  • Install window and baseboard trim; save $250.
  • Paint walls and trim, 200 square feet; save $200.
  • Install toilet; save $150.
  • Install towel bars and shelves; save $20 each.

7. Choose Low-Cost Design for High Visual Impact

A “soft scheme” adds visual zest to your bathroom, but doesn’t create a one-of-a-kind look that might scare away future buyers.

Soft schemes employ neutral colors for permanent fixtures and surfaces, then add pizzazz with items that are easily changed, such as shower curtains, window treatments, towels, throw rugs, and wall colors. These relatively low-cost decorative touches provide tons of personality but are easy to redo whenever you want.