3 Brilliant Hacks to Make Snow Shoveling Less Miserable

shovelDon’t break your back shoveling snow. Try these tips to make winter less of a burden.

If you’re a homeowner in a snowy climate, chances are good you rue the winter: All that snow has to go somewhere, and it’s not getting there itself.

Cue the snow shovel.

Barring a move to a snow-free state or barricading your family inside all winter, there’s no way to avoid the endless task of shoveling snow. There are, however, ways to make the process much easier. Here are three simple hacks to make the morning after a snowfall much less stressful.

1. Spray Your Shovel with Cooking Oil

Snow sticking to your shovel makes an already arduous task even more obnoxious. Avoid it with this hack: Lightly coat your shovel with non-stick cooking oil to make snow slide right off. No more time wasted removing snow from your snow remover. (You can substitute a spray lubricant like WD-40, but the downside is it’s toxic.)

2. Lay Out a Tarp Before the Snow

If you like short cuts, this technique, billed as “the laziest way imaginable” to clear snow, according to a tutorial from “Instructables,” has got your name on it. The day before an expected snowfall, lay a tarp on your walkway. When the snow finishes falling, just pull out the tarp, and voilà: an instantly cleared walkway. (Word to the wise: Make sure pedestrians won’t trip on your tarp; include a sign or use this technique in your backyard walkway if you’re concerned.)

The technique requires a tarp, firewood, and twine as well as some prep work. Pre-storm, use firewood to weigh down your tarp — you don’t want it flying away in the wind! — and tie the twine to both the tarp and to a shovel standing upright in your yard. You’ll use the shovel to pull out the snow-laden tarp.

Although this method might be faster than shoveling, it does require manpower. After all, a cubic foot of snow can weigh between 7 and 20 pounds. So don’t get too ambitious with the size of your tarp or you might not be able to pull it once it’s full of snow.

3. Make a Homemade De-icing Cocktail

De-icers make snow removal easier by cutting through the tough, icy layers that are a pain to remove with a shovel. But an easy solution should be easy on your property as well. Many commercial de-icers are pretty harsh.

Commercial ice-melting substances — magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride (salt) — all cause damage to the environment, according to the University of Maryland’s Home and Garden Information Center. They can also damage concrete sidewalks and driveways, which mean hefty repair costs later.

A better solution: Make your own de-icer using rubbing alcohol or vinegar. You’ll save money, too. Commercial melters typically cost $8 or more. Plus, you’ll avoid the hassle of trekking to the hardware store to stock up.

Use vinegar before a storm to make ice and snow removal easier:

  • Combine 3 parts vinegar to 1 part water.
  • Spray or pour gently (you still want to avoid runoff into your landscape) before a storm.

To keep the sidewalks and steps from icing after a storm:

  • Combine 2 parts rubbing alcohol with 1 part water.
  • Apply to minimize runoff.

Real Estate Pros Divulge Top Design Features

BUILDER recently asked real estate professionals to share their thoughts about the top design trends their clients are currently requesting. Here are some of the top design trends that real estate pros said are in demand:

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  • Open layouts
  • Neutral color schemes
  • Multigenerational floor plans
  • First-floor master suites
  • No dining rooms
  • White kitchens
  • Extra-large garages
  • Big closets
  • Finished basements with 9-foot high ceilings
  • Barn sliding doors

Congress could play Grinch this Christmas for homeowners

Kenneth R. HarneyContact ReporterThe Nation’s Housing

Could it be a grim and Grinchy December for thousands of homeowners facing ongoing challenges with their mortgage payments and property values? Could popular deductions for mortgage insurance premiums and energy-efficient home improvements abruptly vanish?

That’s the way things are shaping up in the closing weeks of the post-election lame duck congressional session. Republicans controlling the tax-writing committees in the House and Senate say they have no plans to extend expiring tax code provisions such as mortgage debt forgiveness for financially troubled owners; mortgage insurance write-offs used by moderate-income first-time buyers; and deductions for purchases of energy-saving windows, insulation and other improvements.

RELATED: TRENDING LIFE & STYLE NEWS THIS HOUR

All three benefits terminate Dec. 31. Unlike previous years, when Congress extended them, this year is different. There is strong sentiment, especially in the House, that a comprehensive overhaul and simplification of the tax code should be the priority, rather than piecemeal, end-of-the-year extensions of special-interest provisions that complicate that objective.

The failure to pass so-called extenders would be especially painful for large numbers of underwater owners who are unable to complete short sales, loan modifications or foreclosures before year-end. Many of them could face crushing tax demands from the IRS— or be forced to declare insolvency or file for bankruptcy.

Under the federal tax code, when a creditor cancels a taxpayer’s debt, the IRS treats the amount forgiven as income, taxable at ordinary rates. But in 2007, as foreclosures and short sales began to explode across the country, Congress enacted a temporary exemption for homeowners who received cancellations of mortgage debt as part of their loan modification deals with lenders. That exception has been extended periodically by Congress ever since.

Over the years it has provided crucial relief to thousands of owners, many of whom fell behind on their loans because of job losses and medical bills. And although the total volume of short sales and foreclosures has declined since the height of the Great Recession, 3.6 million owners nationwide remained underwater as of midyear — their home values were less than their mortgage balances, according to analytics firm CoreLogic.

David Berenbaum, CEO of the Homeownership Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps financially challenged owners work out their mortgage problems, told me that his group is expecting 300,000 “hotline” calls for help from troubled owners in 2017, and that fully one-quarter of them are underwater. In Maryland, Illinois and New Jersey, 40 percent of owners requesting help remain underwater, he said.

In a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a member of the tax-writing Finance Committee, Berenbaum said “failure to extend the mortgage debt forgiveness tax provisions will reduce the options available to these distressed homeowners” and have “a chilling effect on short sales.”

Cassell von Baeyer, a partner in the Incline Law Group in Nevada who specializes in real estate, said that “we still see on a daily basis” people who are working on foreclosures or short sales and face huge tax liabilities if the debt forgiveness exemption is not extended into 2017. In some cases, she said, the potential tax bills run as high as $100,000, simply because the owners will not be able to close their transactions by Dec. 31.

Congress’ failure to extend the deduction for mortgage insurance premiums would be another blow to homeowners. Under current rules, married owners filing jointly with adjusted gross incomes no higher than $100,000 ($50,000 for single filers) can write off mortgage insurance premiums they pay on their loans. On incomes up to $109,000 ($54,500 filing singly) they can deduct lesser amounts using a phase-down schedule.

In a letter to the Republican and Democratic leaders in both houses last week, three major trade groups — the Mortgage Bankers Association, the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors — called for retention of the current deduction, along with mortgage debt forgiveness. On a $200,000 home, they said, moderate income buyers are now able to deduct between $600 and $1,000 using this provision — money that is often important to their family budgets.

Energy savings through home improvements are also on the chopping block. Currently owners can write off expenses on insulation, high performance windows, hot water heaters and the like with a $500 lifetime cap. Come Jan. 1, they can’t.

Bottom line: The outlook is dim for all three of these popular tax benefits. Though December legislative miracles happen, the odds this year are long. Don’t bank on them for 2017.

Kitchen Countertop Triage: First Aid for Scratches

repair-kitchen-counter-granite-scratch-standard_1x1_d59b6f024df3364ad84e130349bcd176_620x620_q85You can repair kitchen counter mishaps with only a little time and money. Big boo-boos, however, will need professional help.

Repair kitchen counters that show a history of wine spills, dropped pans, and unidentified sharp objects, and you’ll maintain the value of your kitchen and home. You can easily hide some counter mishaps, while only professional contractors can solve other surface problems.

Here’s a look at counter cures and lost causes.

Granite

Even granite counters suffer kitchen wear and tear. But you can make them shine with a little time and know-how. After you fix them, don’t forget to reseal them.

Cracks, chips, scratches: Fill nicks in granite by building up layers of epoxy resin colored to match the stone. Clean the area first with acetone, which breaks down grease. Be sure to open a window for ventilation.

Stains: The type of stain — wine or ink, oil or bleach — determines the type of poultice you’ll need to suck it out. A paste of flour and hydrogen peroxide pulls out grease, oil, bleach, and ink stains; a mix of flour and bleach cleans wine stains. If you want to go commercial, check out Alpha, Aqua Mix, and StoneTech stone cleaners. Cost: $6 to $20.

Solid-Surface Counters

Solid-surface countertops, such as Corian, are man-made from resin, acrylic, and other materials. They’re tough but not impervious to scratches and stains. To repair minor scratches, rub a white polishing compound on the area with a wool pad, then apply a countertop wax.

For deeper scratches or cuts, call a professional. Figure labor costs at about $15 to $35 an hour. If you need to replace portions of the counter, figure at least $35 to $65 per square foot.

Laminate

Fixing gouges or covering burns in laminate is tough for mortals, though repairing minor problems is doable.

  • Fix small chips with laminate repair paste that matches the color of the countertop.
  • Cover scratches with countertop polish or car wax.
  • Fix peeling laminate with contact cement applied to both surfaces and pressed back into place.
  • Remove coffee and tea stains with vinegar or a paste of baking soda and household cleaner.

Bigger problems will require replacing the damaged stretch. Laminate comes in a billion colors, but finding an exact match for an old counter could be difficult.

To get the look you want, replace the counter. Labor will cost $15 to $35 per hour; countertops range from $3 per linear foot for Plain Jane straight-edged laminates to $100 per linear foot for laminates with a beveled edge that look like granite.

Tile

If you’ve planned ahead and stockpiled old tiles, then grab a few and replace cracked or scratched areas. If you don’t have extra tile, then attempt the following first aid:

  • Wipe away scratches with a dab of toothpaste on a clean cloth.
  • Work epoxy glue into cracks with a toothpick, then color with matching oil-based artist paint.
  • Remove old grout with a utility knife, then replace with a rubber trowel.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel countertops become scratched, stained, and dull over time. Although you’ll never completely remove scratches, you can buff them into a warm patina by massaging with vegetable oil.

Remove stains with a paste of baking soda and dish soap. A sprinkle of Barkeeper’s Friend will remove stains without scratching.

Bourbon Sweet Potatoes Recipe

sweetpotatoesThis Nashville-inspired sweet potato dish fits in fine on the holiday table, showcasing the simplicity of sweet potatoes dressed up with bourbon. The inspiration for this pairing comes from a 1979 collection of recipes called Nashville: 200 Years of Hospitality, a collaboration by the Tennessee Federation of Women’s Clubs, Inc.

 

Ingredients:

  • 4 pounds sweet potatoes
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup bourbon
  • ⅓ cup orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • ¼ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ¾ cup pecan halves

Step 1:
Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Step 2:
Peel, wash, and quarter the sweet potatoes. Place them in a stockpot, add enough water to cover them by 2 inches, and bring them to a boil. Continue boiling them until they are fork-tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and transfer them to a large bowl.

Step 3:
Add the butter, cream, bourbon, orange juice, orange zest, brown sugar, salt, and nutmeg, and mash everything together with a potato masher or an electric mixer. Spoon the sweet potato mixture into a casserole dish, and top it with pecan halves. Bake it for 30 minutes.

How to Deduct Your Mortgage Interest & Equity Loan Costs

imagesDeducting mortgage interest, as well as interest on home equity loans and HELOCs, can save money on taxes.

Deducting mortgage interest is a great tax benefit that can make home ownership more affordable. Your first mortgage isn’t the only loan that qualifies, either. In many cases, you can also deduct interest on home equity loans, second mortgages, and home equity lines of credit, or HELOCs.

You need to itemize your return to reap the benefits of these deductions. Calculations can be complicated, so consult a tax adviser.

Know Your Loan Limits

A good place to check out what you can deduct before you borrow is the chart on page 3 of IRS Publication 936. It’ll walk you through the requirements you must meet to deduct all of your home loan interest.

The first hurdle you’ll run into is the total amount of your loan or loans. In general, individuals and couples filing jointly can deduct interest on loans up to $1 million ($500,000 if you’re married and filing separately). The money must have been used for acquisition costs — that is the cost to buy, build, or substantially improve a home, explains Scott O’Sullivan, a certified public accountant with Margolin, Winer & Evens in Garden City, N.Y. Any interest paid on loan amounts above the $1 million threshold isn’t deductible.

The same $1 million limit applies whether you have one home or two. Buying a vacation home doesn’t double your loan limits. And two homes is the max; you can’t deduct a mortgage for a third home. If you have a mortgage you took out before Oct. 13, 1987, you have fewer restrictions on claiming a full deduction. The calculations for “grandfathered debt” can get complex, so get help from a tax professional or refer to IRS Publication 936.

Whatever you do, don’t forget that you can also deduct the points and fees associated with a first or second mortgage when you initially buy your home, says Jeff Rattiner, a CPA with JR Financial Group in Centennial, Colo. If you refinance the same house, you have to deduct those costs over the entire term of the loan. If you refinance again, you can deduct all the costs from the earlier refi in the year you take out the new loan.

Spend Loan Proceeds Wisely

The other limitation comes into play when you take out a home equity loan or HELOC, even if you don’t use the proceeds to buy, build, or improve your home. In that case, you can deduct interest on up to $100,000 ($50,000 if married filing separately) on outstanding home equity debt. This loan limit also applies in a cash-out refi, in which you refinance and take out part of the equity you’ve built up as cash, says John R. Lieberman, a CPA with Perelson Weiner in New York City.

That means if you decide to take out a $115,000 home equity loan to buy that Porsche, you can deduct the interest on the first $100,000 but not on the $15,000 that exceeds the limit. Use the same $115,000 to add a new bedroom, however, and the full amount is allowable under the $1 million cap. Keep in mind, though, that the $115,000 gets added into the pot of whatever else you owe on your other home loans. In many cases, points and loan origination costs for HELOCs are deductible.

Consider this simplified scenario: You borrow $250,000 against your home at 8% interest. That means you’ll pay $20,000 in interest the first year. Spend the $250,000 on home improvements, and all of the interest is deductible. Spend $150,000 on improvements and $100,000 on your kids’ college tuition, and all the interest is still deductible.

But spend $100,000 on improvements and $150,000 on tuition, and the improvement outlays are deductible, though $50,000 of the tuition expense isn’t. That’ll cost you $4,000 in interest deductions. Preserve the $4,000 deduction by coming up with the extra money for tuition from another source, perhaps a low-interest student loan or by borrowing from a retirement plan. For someone in a 25% bracket, a $4,000 deduction lowers taxes by $1,000, plus applicable state income taxes.

Beware the Dreaded AMT

images-1Even if you’ve followed all the loan limit rules, you can still get stuck paying tax on mortgage interest. How come? It’s all thanks to the Alternative Minimum Tax. Congress created the AMT, which limits or eliminates many deductions, as a way to keep the wealthy from dodging their fair share of taxes.

Calculating the AMT can be complex, but if you make more than $75,000 and have several kids or other deductions, you might well be subject to it. Problem is, if you fall into the AMT group, you may not be able to deduct interest on a home equity loan, even if the loan falls within the $1 million/$100,000 limit. If you’re subject to the AMT and borrow money against the value of your home, you’ll have to use it to buy, build, or improve your place, or you may not have a chance to deduct the interest, says Rattiner, the Colorado CPA.

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

Garage Organization Ideas for Under $50

saferackIf clutter trumps cars in your garage, get organized (and make room for your vehicles) with these smart, budget-friendly garage storage solutions.

If you’ve got a garage, most likely you’ve got waaayyyy more than cars in there. It’s the catch-all place to keep stuff (mostly) out of sight and out of mind.

Put order to the chaos and protect your car’s paint job with simple storage systems and organizing hacks for everything from sports equipment to tools.

Bikes, Skates, and Other Wheels

Hoist bicycles to the rafters with a rope-and-pulley system (starting around $40) that makes it easy to raise the bike and lock safely in place. When you’re ready to ride, release the lock and lower your bike to the garage floor. You’ll need an hour or two and basic tools to secure the pair of pulleys to ceiling joists and thread the ropes. (Similar hoists are available for kayaks or small boats; starting around $25.)

Use a specially designed wall rack to hang helmets and skateboards together; starting around $20. Secure this one to wall joists in less than an hour.

Keep scooters and bikes out of the way with tool hooks installed on a length of 1-by-6-inch lumber. You’ll pay $3 for each pair of vinyl-coated screw-in tool hooks and $1 per foot for lumber. You’ll need only an hour or two to secure the lumber to wall joists and screw the hooks into place along the board.

Sporting Goods

wall-system-pageBring together balls and bats on a convenient wire rack equipped with hangers that hold gloves too; starting around $35.

Stash two pairs of snow skis, poles, and boots in one handy steel ski rack;$45. Securing this rack to wall studs helps it hold the weight of the equipment. If you can’t position it on studs, use wall anchors for a secure installation. You can do the task with or without anchors in an hour or two.

Stow your fishing rods by suspending two wire shelves from your garage ceiling about 5 feet apart, then threading the rods through the openings. Use shelves left over from a project or purchase a 4-foot-by-16-inch vinyl-coated wire shelf for less than $9, and saw it in half crosswise (or clip with bolt cutters) to make two 2-foot shelves. Snip additional wires where you need wider slots to accept pole handles or reels.

Tools

Hang wrenches and bungee cords using an ordinary vinyl-coated wire tie-and-belt rack, available at big box stores; $8.

Hang metal tools on a magnetized rail, keeping items in view and easy to retrieve; starting around $30. Simply screw the rail to wall studs to safely hold the weight of the tools (it’s an idea you may be drawn to.)

Cushion and protect tools by padding your toolbox drawers with a soft, non-slip liner. The open-weave design keeps moisture away and prevents tools from rolling around. Enough material to line eight average-size drawers is $15. Just cut the liner to length to fit and slip it into the drawer.

Organize small items — such as pencils, box cutters, and tape measures — by stashing them in electrical junction boxes; about $2 each (free if you have spares). Purchase a variety of sizes and shapes and secure them to studs or pegboard.

Yard and Garden Gear

garage-organizers-wood-pallet-standard_3x2_aaae84cf9c5474f680790a9ebe4af5e9_540x360_q85Transform an old filing cabinet into storage bins for various yard tools.Remove the drawers, turn it on its backside, and use a couple afternoons to apply paint and pegboard sides. Less than $25.

Mount heavy tools, long-handled implements, and ladders on long steel railswith extruded holes high on the garage wall and secured to studs. Add hooks and pegs on the rail to hang big tools. Two 48-inch rails sell for $22.

Secure a wooden pallet to wall studs to create a pocket for holding long-handled garden tools. To find free wooden pallets, check with local businesses as well as online classifieds, such as Craigslist. Cost: Free.

Use a can rack to keep bottles of fertilizers, repellants, and lubricants upright and easy to retrieve. Rack ($15) prevents cans and bottles from tumbling off shelves.

Want to make your Garage “Swanky”, reach out to the guys at Garage Store 847-428-8862.

5 Things You Need to Ask Yourself Before Turning Down a Low-Ball Offer

lowball-offer12A low-ball offer on your home feels insulting, but before you say ‘no,’ ask yourself these questions.

It’s the place you’ve lived for years — maybe even decades. The pencil marks measuring each kid’s height are still behind the pantry door, and the sapling you planted in the front yard is now a towering tree.

You’ve invested a great deal in this house. So when the time comes to put it on the market, you expect potential buyers to recognize its true value. But sometimes, you get an offer that’s so far below your asking price it feels like someone pitched a baseball straight at your stomach.

Should you simply walk away from such a number? Or does it make sense to pause and weigh your options? Here are some points to consider before you decide:

1. Is It Really Low-Ball, or Just Lower Than I Wanted?

Some agents define a low-ball offer as 25% or more below list. In areas where there’s a shortage of available homes, that figure may drop to 20%.

“What defines low-ball varies from market to market and even submarket to submarket, but certainly from price range to price range,” says Steve McLinden of Bankrate.com. In other words, it’s likely that an offer of $80,000 on a $100,000 home will be more quickly dismissed than a $1.6 million offer on a $2 million home, he says.

2. Should I Immediately Reject a Low-Ball Bid?

Although your feelings may be hurt, giving in to the drama monster won’t get your house sold. “When the low-ball offer comes in it can be upsetting, but it doesn’t have to be,” says Bill Gassett of RE/MAX Executive Realty in Hopkinton, Mass. “The fact that someone wants to buy your home is a good thing and you should deal with every offer — unless it’s just completely ridiculous.”

What constitutes a “ridiculous” offer? Anything significantly less than 25% below your list price should probably trigger warning bells. However, it pays to rely on your agent’s expertise to help you decide on the right response.

Countering, rather than ignoring, a low offer is often the smartest strategy. A low-ball offer “shows buyers you’re willing to work with them,” says Eric Snyder of Douglas Elliman in Boca Raton, Fla. After all, he reasons, “it’s not about where buyers start, it’s where they end up.”

And you’ll never have a chance of getting to that final number if you allow your emotions to cloud your judgment.

3. Is My Price Too High?

Sometimes when a seller receives one — or more — low-ball bids, it may be because the asking price for the home is out of step with the market.

Before you set a price, your agent will provide you with comps – for-sale listings of similar properties in the area —  along with a pricing recommendation. Your best bet is pricing that reflects the comps. If you decide to “test” a higher price, you might have to tweak your price to invite more reasonable offers, which is just going to delay the sale.

4. What Do I Really Need?

There may be factors involved in selling your home that are more important to you than price. Perhaps you need to sell quickly because you’re buying another home. Maybe an all-cash deal would make your life a lot easier. There are a number of potential deal sweeteners that a potential buyer could provide that may make a low offer more appealing. These include:

  • A preferred closing date
  • A solid mortgage pre-approval letter from the buyer (not just a pre-qualification)
  • A larger down payment
  • Fewer inspection contingencies

5. Will I Look Too Desperate?

Don’t worry about how your willingness to entertain a low-ball offer is perceived. What matters most is the result, says McLinden.

“Some sellers get so wrapped up in righteous indignation following an ‘insulting’ offer that they tell their agent to refuse all further communication from the offender,” he says. And while that may soothe your wounded ego, it won’t help sell your house.

A Turkey Frying Safety Video With a Twist

william-shatner-fried-turkey_3x2_80dd17870c439125a0cffa7f8474907c_540x360_q85State Farm enlists staccato-speaking William Shatner to tell a ‘personal story’ about the dangers of turkey fryers.

Did you know that more cooking fires occur on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year?

State Farm knows. And in an effort to spread the word about turkey frying safety, State Farm enlisted the help of William Shatner to make this video (titled Eat, Fry, Love: A Cautionary Tale) that is quintessential Shatner:

Even if you’re not a Shatner fan, it behooves us all to pay attention. Grease and cooking-related claims more than double on Thanksgiving Day compared to an average day in November. And an astounding $15 million of Thanksgiving Day fire damage involves the ever-popular deep-frying of turkeys.

More than one-third of fires involving a fryer start in a garage or patio. Cook outdoors far from your house, trees, deck, or patio.

First fill the pot with cold oil and then lower the thawed turkey into the pot to determine how much oil to add or remove.

Shut off the fuel source or flame when you add the turkey so oil doesn’t spill over the rim and catch fire.

Never fry a frozen turkey.

Lower your thawed turkey slowly into the fryer.

Never leave a hot turkey fryer unattended.

Do not use ice or water to cool down oil or extinguish an oil fire.

Keep an extinguisher approved for cooking or grease fire nearby.

 

How do Consumers View Housing? 7 Facts We Should Consider

1611a1Fannie Mae’s National Housing Survey is among the more detailed inquiries into how everyday consumers view the U.S.’ housing market, and the Home Purchase Sentiment Index (HPSI) portion of the survey  which details how Americans view the buying and selling process  is particularly relevant to the day-in, day-out business of real estate agents.

Fannie’s latest survey, which sampled consumers in September, provided a nuanced portrait of how folks view the marketplace  and more importantly, how they view the market’s future.

Below, we have detailed seven of the survey’s biggest findings:

1.  A Relative High Note – The HPSI has been on an interesting trajectory, the last five years. After rising steadily from 2011 to the summer of 2013, the index has bounced around in a largely horizontal fashion, and has moved little the last two years. And although the index did decline 2.6 percent to a reading of 82.8, it remains far above the 60 of March 2011.
2.  A Good Time to Buy?  Even with the HPSI remaining at a high level, specific elements of the index declined in a marked fashion, most noticeably the section of the index that tracks consumer interest in home buying. According to the index, 60 percent of respondents think now is a good time to buy, down from 63 percent in August; meanwhile, the share who think it is a bad time to buy rose 2 percentage points to 31. Contrasting those two metrics  Fannie calls it the “Net Good Time” measure  comes out to 29 percent, which is tied for the lowest level in the survey’s history.
3.  A Great Time to Sell  While homebuyers are feeling pessimistic, home sellers are having the time of their lives. The share of respondents who think it a good time to sell was 53 percent, a slight dip from the summer’s 56 percent but far above the 39 percent of two years ago; amidst that rise, the share who think it a bad time to sell has fallen in equal measure, dropping from 51 percent in Sept. 2014 to 38 percent today.
4.  Home Price Expectations  The dividing line between buyers and sellers is likely one of home prices, and indeed, the HPSI found that very few consumers expect prices to decline in the coming year. Only 9 percent expect prices to fall, compared to the 43 percent who think they will continue their ascent.
5.  Mortgage Rate Armageddon  Another area contributing to the negative buyer sentiment is mortgage rates, where consumers are similarly united in their expectations. Forty-nine percent think rates will rise in the next 12 months, while only 5 percent think they will decline.
6.  A Tight Lending Environment  Although consumers expect mortgage rates to rise, a majority still think it would be relatively easy to get a mortgage, with 52 percent of respondents voicing that view (compared to 45 percent who think it would be difficult). Furthermore, consumer views towards the mortgage market have trended positive the last two years, with only one month (July 2015) seeing mortgage sentiment turn negative.
7.  Mixed Economic Messages  The HPSI also surveys consumers on their general economic sentiments, and the findings on that front were a spectacularly mixed bag. On one hand, consumers are feeling quite confident about their situation. Not only are 85 percent not concerned about losing their job, but 25 percent report a current household income that is “significantly higher” than it was 12 months ago, an increase from 22 percent during the summer. On the other hand, consumers are quite dour about both their financial situation and the state of the economy. The share of respondents who expect their finances to improve over the next year fell from 47 percent to 41 percent, while the share who think they will stay the same rose from 37 to 45 percent. Even more, the share who think the economy is on the wrong track rose from 52 to 57 percent, while the share who think it is on the right track fell from 38 to 35 percent.

Choosing Light Bulbs Based on Your Fixtures

buying-light-bulbs-store-selection-standard_1x1_87149b26781413f96266c5bde5691912_620x620_q85In the brave new world of light bulb choices, let your fixture be your guide.

Light bulb shopping used to be as simple as turning on a light switch. Today, it means weighing priorities for cost, energy efficiency, and aesthetics.

Since you’re probably replacing bulbs one fixture at a time, here are some best-bet picks for each type.

Table and Floor Lamps: Halogen Incandescent

  • Light shines in all directions, providing a warm glow.
  • Dimmable.
  • Looks most similar to the traditional incandescent.
  • Uses 25% to 30% less energy than the incandescent.

Table and floor lamps look best with omnidirectional light. “You probably don’t want a big bright spot in the middle of your lampshade,” says Jeff Harris of the nonprofit think tank Alliance to Save Energy. “You’re looking for a nice, warm glow.”

Halogen incandescents provide that, and are good with dimmers. You may be able to find a dimmable CFL, but it’s common to experience humming or flickering at low light levels.

For non-dimming lamps, CFLs are great if you can find a color temperature you like.

  • Color temperature is measured on a warmness (candlelight) and coolness (blue sky) scale. LEDs, CFLs, and halogen incandescents all come in a wide range of color temperatures.
  • Buy covered globes or A-lamps — bulbs shaped like old-fashioned incandescents — rather than spirals if you can see the bulb and aren’t a fan of the spiral look.
  • Otherwise, just go with halogen incandescents and don’t sweat the fact that CFLs are more energy-efficient than halogens. Your still saving over a traditional incandescent and the glow is pretty.

So why not LEDs? LEDs point light in a single direction, although new LED-containing A-lamps are designed to compensate for that by using prisms or special coatings. But all that extra technology makes them expensive — probably not worth it for your bedside lamp, which isn’t a big energy hog anyway.

Recessed Ceiling Lights (Kitchens, Family Rooms): LEDs

  • Energy efficiency is key in high-use areas.
  • 80% energy savings over incandescents.
  • Bulb life (up to 50,000 hours) much longer than CFLs.
  • Shine light a single direction — rather than glowing.
  • Brighter than halogens or CFLs.

Overhead recessed lighting in the kitchen or family room gets lots of use, so energy efficiency is a big consideration; plus, you need bulbs that point light in a single direction so the light actually escapes the can or fixture.

LED reflector lamps, the flat-topped bulbs typically used as floodlights or spotlights, are designed to shine light in a single direction. And that means you’ll get a brighter look with less energy output than CFLs or halogens.

New conversion kits let you put LEDs into your old can fixtures designed for screw-in bulbs.

A word of caution: LEDs don’t dim well unless they’re connected to a wall dimming switch specifically designed for them. You can get LED-compatible dimmers at big-box stores starting at around $30. Same goes for CFLs.

If you do decide on CFLs or halogen incandescents for a warmer quality of light:

  • Buy reflector-lamp style bulbs, not A-lamps or globes, so the light isn’t trapped inside the can.
  • If you have multiple cans, you can probably get away with a lower-wattage halogen incandescent reflector bulb and save energy while still having plenty of light.

Bathroom Vanity Fixture: Halogen Incandescents

  • Better for showing color and texture than CFLs or LEDs.

Lighting over the bathroom vanity is a highly personal lighting choice, especially when there are women in the house. If the light isn’t flattering to your skin tone or makes it hard to apply makeup, you’ll be dissatisfied.

That’s why halogen incandescents, with their pleasing light, are a good bet.

However, if the bathroom where you primp is a high-traffic area and you’re concerned about energy use, experiment with CFLs in a warm color temperature and get a separate lighted mirror for your beauty routine.

Stairwell Light: LEDs

  • Inconvenient fixtures are a good place to use long-lasting LEDs.

How many times are you willing to drag out a ladder and change the bulb in a tough-to-reach fixture? Take advantage of LEDs’ long life by putting them in spots you don’t want to revisit often:

  • Fixtures hanging in stairwells
  • Track lighting suspended from a cathedral ceiling
  • Cabinets
  • Ledges
  • Tray ceilings
  • Recessed areas

Outdoor Floodlight: Halogen Incandescent

  • For security and efficiency, use fixtures with daylight/occupancy sensors.
  • Since outdoor lights aren’t used often, not worth investing in LEDs.
  • CFLs don’t come on easily in cold weather.
  • CFLs don’t last as long as advertised when turned on and off frequently.

If you don’t want to get new fixtures with sensors, you can buy a sensor attachment that screws into each socket.

Rarely Used Fixtures: Low-Cost Bulbs

  • Opt for what’s easy on your wallet.
  • Use the most energy-efficient bulbs, such as LEDs, in most-used fixtures.

If the total yearly hours for the fixtures in your closets, dining room chandeliers, and the naked bulb in your attic are low, go cheap.

10 Clever Uses for Hydrogen Peroxide

uses-for-hydrogen-peroxide-counter-standard_3x2_a7033f9c00de1234519a8419eac834a6_540x360_q85Is hydrogen peroxide a non-toxic weapon in your green cleaning arsenal? It should be!

When it’s time to clean, have your trusty green cleaners at the ready — baking soda, vinegar, castile soap — plus another ultra-cheap gem: hydrogen peroxide. You can use it anywhere, and can’t beat the price: A 16-oz. bottle only costs a buck.

Here are 10 ways you can use that ubiquitous brown bottle of 3% hydrogen peroxide to your home’s advantage:

In Your Kitchen

1. Clean your cutting board and countertop. Hydrogen peroxide bubbles away any nasties left after preparing meat or fish for dinner. Add hydrogen peroxide to an opaque spray bottle — exposure to light kills its effectiveness — and spray on your surfaces. Let everything bubble for a few minutes, then scrub and rinse clean.

2. Wipe out your refrigerator and dishwasher. Because it’s non-toxic, hydrogen peroxide is great for cleaning places that store food and dishes. Just spray the appliance outside and in, let the solution sit for a few minutes, then wipe clean.

3. Clean your sponges. Soak them for 10 minutes in a 50/50 mixture of hydrogen peroxide and warm water in a shallow dish. Rinse the sponges thoroughly afterward.

4. Remove baked-on crud from pots and pans. Combine hydrogen peroxide with enough baking soda to make a paste, then rub onto the dirty pan and let it sit for a while. Come back later with a scrubby sponge and some warm water, and the baked-on stains will lift right off.

In Your Bathroom

5. Whiten bathtub grout. If excess moisture has left your tub grout dingy, first dry the tub thoroughly, then spray it liberally with hydrogen peroxide. Let it sit for a little while (it may bubble slightly), then come back and scrub the grout with an old toothbrush. You may have to repeat the process a few times, depending on how much mildew you have, but eventually your grout will be white again.

6. Clean the toilet bowl. Pour half a cup of hydrogen peroxide into the toilet bowl, let stand for 20 minutes, then scrub clean.

In Your Laundry Room

7. Remove stains from clothing, curtains, and tablecloths. Hydrogen peroxide can be used as a pre-treater for stains — just soak the stain for a little while in 3% hydrogen peroxide before tossing into the laundry. You can also add a cup of peroxide to a regular load of whites to boost brightness. It’s a green alternative to bleach, and works just as well.

Anywhere in Your House

8. Brighten dingy floors. Combine half a cup of hydrogen peroxide with one gallon of hot water, then go to town on your flooring. Because it’s so mild, it’s safe for any floor type, and there’s no need to rinse.

9. Clean kids’ toys and play areas. Hydrogen peroxide is a safe cleaner to use around kids, or anyone with respiratory problems, because it’s not a lung irritant. Fill an opaque spray bottle with hydrogen peroxide and spray toys, toy boxes, doorknobs, and anything else your kids touch on a regular basis. You could also soak a rag in peroxide to make a wipe.

Related: Homemade Cleaners That REALLY Unclog Drains and Remove Stains

Outside

10. Help out your plants. To ward off fungus, add a little hydrogen peroxide to your spray bottle the next time you’re spritzing plants. Use a 1/2 cup of hydrogen peroxide added to one gallon of water for your plants.

Mold. UGH. Soooo Gross. Here’s How to Kill It Forever

bathroom-mold-standard_1x1_41a97a27dd68c1b54a9a171c29f6db49_165x165_q85Don’t let that nasty, mildew-y stuff set up shop on your watch.

Ugh. Mold. It’s ugly. It’s tenacious. It’s the uninvited guest that keeps visiting — no matter how rude you are to it. But, unwittingly, you may be setting up the perfect conditions for mold’s return: a food source, lots of moisture, and a pleasant temperature.

“You’ve got to eliminate one of those three legs of the stool so mold won’t grow,” says Pete Duncanson, director of system development for ServiceMaster Restore. “And it’s always easier to prevent than to remediate.”

Assuming you like warm showers and a comfy thermostat setting, there’s not much you can do about the temperature mold loves. But you can get rid of mold — and permanently prevent it — by controlling the other two factors: food and moisture. Here’s how.

Starve It Out

Mold is a horror flick cliché. It’s everywhere. It’s alive. It spreads by spores floating in the air. And it can grow on any surface — porcelain, plastic, copper, silicone — as long as that surface is coated with organic matter.

“Mold doesn’t live on your shower walls or the grout or caulk; it actually lives on the deposited skin cells and soap residues (which have your skin cells in them),” Duncanson says. So. Gross. So, yes, if you want to get rid of mold you gotta break out the cleaning bucket. There’s no way around it. But the good news is that you don’t need toxic cleaners. Soap and water works just fine with some elbow grease, says Bob Justewicz, a director at the National Association of Mold Professionals. But two warnings:

  1. Don’t bleach it. Online chat rooms and myriad websites might have you believe that bleach kills mold. Both professionals say it’s not true. “Bleach or peroxide removes the stain, but they don’t kill the mold,” Duncanson says.
  2. Don’t scrape it.Remember, mold is alive (it’s ALIVE!) and reproduces through microscopic spores. “If you brush [mold spores] with your hand, they just go into the air and look for new places to colonize,” Duncanson says.

What about those daily shower sprays? Will they work? They are of some benefit, says Duncanson, in that they help push mold’s food sources down the drain. But as a solo act, no, they won’t keep your bathroom clean.

Dry It Out

How? Use your exhaust fan. “Running the fan any time the bathroom is in use is a good idea,” Duncanson says. “Then leave it on for 30 minutes after or at least as long as the shower ran.”

But make sure your fan actually exhausts outside through the roof or a side soffit and not into the attic. “If it’s going into the attic, you’re causing moisture to go into an unconditioned space, and you can cause mold growth there.”

No exhaust fan? “Any movement of air will help dry out the bathroom,” says Justewicz. “Even a desk fan on the vanity will help.”

After a shower, use a towel or squeegee to wipe down shower walls. Open the shower curtain to let it dry. Mop any water spills on the floor and counters. Avoid piling in too many shampoo and body wash bottles. They’re a perfect place for moisture and mold spores to hide.

Make It Stay Away

Here are a few more tips if your bathroom mold seems especially strong-willed:

Re-caulk.Mold adores crevices — probably because it knows you can’t reach it there. If lots of mold has built up on your caulking, it’s probably because it’s spread deep into unseen spaces behind it. If so, re-caulking may solve the problem. Just be sure to follow these tips to keep the problem from getting worse:

  1. Once you’ve removed the compromised caulk, be sure to thoroughly clean and dry the area before putting down new caulk.
  2. Use caulk labeled specifically for the bathroom, which means it will be mold resistant.
  3. Let it cure for at least 24 hours (or as long as it needs to) before taking a shower or bath. If it’s not dry, it’ll allow moisture to creep back in, undoing all your hard work.

Check everywhere for mold. If it keeps coming back, it may have a colony somewhere you haven’t found. Check behind the toilet and under the sink. Moist drywall and wallpaper are tasty treats for mold.

Install a humidity monitor. Affordable at around $10, they can let you know when moisture is building before it turns into an indoor rain forest.

Know when to get help. If it keeps coming back, or you see areas of mold the size of a quarter or bigger you want professional help. “You’re dealing with excessive moisture or a food source that needs to be controlled,” Duncanson says.

Liven Up Your Soup Selection—with Lemon!

chickensoup_headerNothing hits the spot on a cold, wintry day like a filling bowl of chicken soup. What can make it even better? When it’s homemade! Try this lemon-tinged take on the classic comfort food, which is bursting with chicken, onions, couscous, and lemon flavor—so it hits the spot!

Servings: 6-8


Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 sweet onion, peeled and sliced into thin strips
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 10 cups chicken stock
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper, crushed
  • Zest from 1 large lemon
  • 1 cup pearl couscous
  • 2 ounces feta, crumbled
  • ⅓ cup chives, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Pepper, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan on medium-low; sauté the onions and garlic until soft, 3-4 minutes.
  2. Add the chicken, stock, red pepper, and lemon zest. Turn heat to high, cover, and bring to a boil; then reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Stir in the couscous, and add salt. Add pepper to taste. Simmer for another 5 minutes.
  4. Remove the chicken, and shred it with a fork or tongs. Place the meat back in the pan, and mix in the feta cheese and chives. Add more salt and pepper, if desired. Enjoy!

Try your hand at this recipe, and let us know what you think!

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.

1. 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.

5. 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.”

Ready to get started? Give us a call.

Master Closet: Organization and Layout

Master closet organization creates ample space for one or two users and includes storage features to make the space easy to arrange and maintain.

master-closet-layout-closetmaid-standard_1x1_12cb4bf1e4ccf92596cca824914b87f3_165x165_q85Remodeling a master bedroom, adding on a master suite, or building a new home all afford opportunities to create your ideal master closet — a gift to yourself that keeps on giving. Use these organization and storage ideas to develop your personalized plan of action for installing a great and practical closet.

Expect to pay $1,500-$5,000 and up to equip an 8-by-10 foot, well-outfitted walk-in closet, assuming you hire a pro to build the room as part of a master suite addition. A DIY installation costs at least $800.

Layout and Space Requirements

A walk-in master closet should be a minimum of 7-by-10 feet, and preferably 10 sq. ft. for two users. That gives you space to line two or three walls with shelves, cubbies, and poles, and the elbow room to reach them easily.

For added convenience, include about 3 sq. ft. of floor space for a chair where you can perch to put on socks and fold laundry. If possible, leave enough room in the middle for a folding luggage table or built-in storage island with countertop, so you can open your suitcase when you’re packing for a trip.

Options for Storage and Organization

You could include a dresser in your master closet, but that isn’t the best way to store clothes. You can only see what’s on top of each drawer, and trying to pull a shirt from the bottom of the pile always leads to a jumbled, wrinkled mess.

A better option is a closet-organizing system. These storage units have an array of compartments, each designed for specific pieces of your wardrobe, from individual shelves and bins for sweaters and tops to small drawers for lingerie and accessories to cubbies or racks for shoes, bags, and hats.

The components for master closet organizing systems cost $800-$5,000 or more, depending on whether you go with ready-made or custom-designed.

Home Maintenance for People with Better Things to Do

home-maintenance-list-relax-standard_66e02625e89445a596cee35ca29dd78c_3x2_jpg_518x345_q85Owning your own home shouldn’t mean an endless list of chores.

Weekends are meant for coaching a youth soccer team to victory, chopping your way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” or training for a 5K to help save the pandas — not working your way through a tedious, 30-item maintenance checklist. But then, taking care of the home you love is important, too.

So how do you have your fun and keep a well-maintained home?

It’s simple: Just be mindful of your home. You don’t need a rigid maintenance list. (They work best for Type A people anyway.) Instead, train your senses to warn you of these problems, and then act ASAP:

Your Dryer Seems Hotter Than Usual

If your clothes and your dryer are super, super hot or, conversely, your dryer is taking longer to dry, you could have a clogged lint vent, a leading cause of house fires. “Sometimes the dryer connection will wiggle loose going to the outside, causing all sorts of issues with lint,” says Jeff Devlin, licensed contractor and host of DIY Network’s “Stone House Revival and “I Hate My Bath.” Heat and packed lint make the perfect recipe for fire. To defuse that combination:

  • Pull out the dryer connection — this is the tube or pipe that connects the dryer to the window vent.
  • Suck out all the lint from the pipe and pipe connection with a vacuum attachment.
  • Re-attach, making sure it’s not loose or bent.

You can also hire a pro to do it.

You Smell Something Musty

Your nose knows what’s normal in your home. “If you go into a room and it smells musty, there’s something going on,” says Frank Lesh, executive director of American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). When you smell that mildew-y smell, you know you’ve got a problem, he says. What kind of problem? Read on.

You Can See Mold or Mildew

Mold and mildew are the banners for moisture, your home’s No. 1 enemy. If you see them, you know moisture has broken through your home’s defenses and is bringing reinforcements. Find out where the water source is and eradicate it ASAP. Moisture is like cancer to a home. If you don’t catch it early, it will eat away at your home’s very structure, causing major damage to its foundation, walls, floors, and ceilings.

You Spot a Water Stain

You get it now. Water = bad. So even a faint water stain should light a fire under you. Zero in on the source before moisture can settle into your home’s bones. A water stain on the ceiling could signal a leak in your roof, or if it’s under a bathroom it could be a pipe that’s leaking. Stain under a window? Your window may need caulking.

Your Drain Is Really Slow (and It Gurgles)

Showering in water up to your ankles defeats the purpose. “A clean drain is a healthy drain,” says Devlin. If your drain makes odd noises and takes foreeeeeeever, you could be at risk of a sewer backup, which is not only a moisture issue, but one that ranks high on the stinky scale. If you’re lucky, it could be a simple clog, but either way it might be a good idea to put your plumber’s number in your cellphone’s favorites list.

You Hear Something That’s Alive

The pitter-patter of tiny rodent footsteps is enough to send shivers down your spine — and can quickly multiply into a mini stampede. One couple found out the hard way.

“We found that a squirrel had taken up residence in the attic and was chewing through electrical wires,” says David Bowers. By the time he and his partner, Sharon Bowers, (BTW, they co-authored “The Useful Book: 201 Life Skills They Used to Teach in Home Ec and Shop”) got around to calling a pro, an entire squirrel family (with more on the way!) had settled in to dine on those wires — a costly fix that was also a fire hazard.

If you hear unwanted visitors, evict them quickly, then block the entry they used. With squirrels, it might be an overgrown tree limb, which they use to jump onto your roof and then slip through a hole under roof flashing or rotting fascia, or an open window. For smaller pests, keep in mind they can come in through the tiniest of holes. (Mice can squeeze through a dime-sized opening.)

Your Gutters Create Waterfalls

You may love the smell and sound of rain, but when it’s cascading off your gutters in torrents instead of traveling neatly through them … well, remember those warnings about moisture? Cleaning the gutters is home maintenance 101 for good reason. “It can lead to exterior damage, as well as water damaging the foundations,” says Bowers. If you spot a gutter clog, clear it. You’ll be happier for it. It’s probably the best thing you can do to protect your home.

How to Make Homemade Apple Cider

applecider_headerApple cider has been enjoyed in America since the country’s inception, as colonists heavily relied on the drink as a beverage of choice (and currency) in the New World.

Today, apple cider is more of a traditional treat, especially at this time of the year, when a nice mug of cider hits the spot. Make your own to share some warmth and comfort with your family and friends on a chilly day.

Servings: 8-10


Ingredients:

  • 6 medium apples, assorted types of your choice
  • ½ orange
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon whole allspice
  • 8 cups water
  • Brown sugar, to taste

Ingredients:

  1. Wash the apples and the orange, and then cut them into quarters, keeping the peels, seeds, and stems intact.
  2. Put the fruit slices in a slow cooker, and add the cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, cloves, and allspice. Add water until the cooker is almost full, about ½-inch from the top. Cook on high heat for 3-4 hours, or on low heat for 6-8 hours.
  3. One hour before the cider is done cooking, use a potato masher to mash the fruit slices until they are soft. Continue cooking for the remaining hour.
  4. Strain out the apple cider juice into a pitcher. To get the most juice, press the apples through a cheesecloth or fine mesh strainer. Add the brown sugar to your liking, and stir until it’s dissolved. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to 5 days.

 

Facing Foreclosure: What to Do Right Now

foreclosureIf you’re facing foreclosure, don’t panic: Take steps right now to save your home or at least lessen the blow of its loss.

A record high 2.8 million properties were hit with foreclosure notices in 2009. That’s the bad news. The good news: About two-thirds of notices don’t result in actual foreclosures, says Doug Robinson of NeighborWorks, a nonprofit group that offers foreclosure counseling.

Many homeowners find alternatives to foreclosure by negotiating with lenders, often with the help of foreclosure counselors. If you’re facing foreclosure, call your lender right now to determine your options, which can include loan modification, forbearance, or a short sale.

Working with knowledgeable industry professionals can make a big difference in the outcome of your situation.

Foreclosure Process Takes Time

The entire foreclosure process can take anywhere from two to 12 months, depending on how fast your lender acts and where you live. legal-noticeSome states allow a nonjudicial process that’s speedier, while others require time-consuming judicial proceedings.

Once you miss at least one mortgage payment, the steps leading up to an actual foreclosure sale can include demand letters, notices of default, a recorded notice of foreclosure, publication of the debt, and the scheduling of a foreclosure auction. Even when an auction is scheduled, however, it may never occur, or it may occur but a qualified buyer doesn’t materialize.

Bottom line: Foreclosure can be a long slog, which gives you enough time to come up with an alternative. Meantime, if your goal is to salvage your home, think about keeping up with payments for homeowners insurance and property taxes. Otherwise, you could compound your problems by getting hit with an uncovered casualty loss or liability suit, or tax liens.

Read the Fine Print

Start by reviewing all correspondence you’ve received from your lender. The letters—and phone calls—probably began once you were 30 days past due. Also review your mortgage documents, which should outline what steps your lender can take. For instance, is there a “power of sale” clause that authorizes the sale of your home to pay off a mortgage after you miss payments?

Determine the specific foreclosure laws for your state. What’s the timeline? Do you have “right of redemption,” essentially a grace period in which you can reverse a foreclosure? Are deficiency judgments that hold you responsible for the difference between what your home sells for and your loan’s outstanding balance allowed? Get answers.

Lender Alternatives to Foreclosure

house-debtThere are alternatives to foreclosure that your lender might accept. The most attractive option that’ll allow you to keep your home is a loan modification that reduces your monthly payment. A modification can entail lowering the interest rate, changing a loan from an adjustable rate to a fixed rate, extending the term of a loan, or eliminating past-due balances. Another option, forbearance, can temporarily suspend payments, though the amount will likely be tacked on to the end of the loan.

If you’re unable to make even reduced payments, and assuming a conventional sale isn’t possible, then it may be best to turn your home over to your lender before a foreclosure is completed. A completed foreclosure can decimate a credit score, which will make it hard not only to purchase another home someday, but not impossible: The foreclosure disappears within 7 years or even less, especially if there are extenuating circumstances.

The more quickly you get steady employment and repair your credit score, the more quickly you’ll be eligible to buy a home again. It also may be difficult to rent a home in the short term, but working with professionals who are experienced in this specialized field should be able to help you find a place to live. There are programs like Home Partners of America who may assist you with bridging the gap for home ownership.

But you’re better off if your lender can approve a short sale, in which the proceeds are less than what’s still owed on your mortgage. A deed in lieu of foreclosure, which amounts to handing over your keys to your lender, is another good possibility.

Although a deed in lieu of foreclosure or successfully navigating the short sale process will have virtually the same effect on your credit score as a foreclosure, you will likely be able to buy another home more quickly than if you go through a foreclosure. The earlier you begin talks with your lender, the more likelihood of success.

Explore Government Programs

The federal government’s Making Home Affordable program offers two options: loan modification and refinancing. A self-assessment will indicate which option might be right for you, but you need to apply for the program through your lender. A Making Home Affordable loan modification requires a three-month trial period before it can become permanent.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have their own foreclosure-prevention programs as well. Check to determine if either Fannie or Freddie owns your mortgage. Present this information to your lender and your counselor. Fannie and Freddie also have rental programs under which former owners can remain in recently foreclosed homes on a month-to-month basis.

The federal Home Affordable Foreclosure Alternatives program, which takes full effect in April 2010, offers lenders financial incentives to approve short sales and deeds in lieu of foreclosure. It also provides $3,000 in relocation assistance to borrowers. Again, talk to your lender and counselor.

Red Carpet Enterprises, Inc has been assisting homeowners find solutions to their mortgage issues for almost 10 years now. Please feel free to reach out to us for a free consultation. There are many options available. Which one is right for you???

When Getting Organized Goes Wrong

how-get-organized-home-standard_1x1_455656374f281a0948f6ed1070d598df_620x620_q85Wonder why your efforts to organize never stick? Maybe you’re a victim of one of these pitfalls.

It’s time. You’re getting organized. Finally. Kudos on making the smart homeowner choice, but don’t get too self-congratulatory while you’re still in the IKEA parking lot. Organization is about giving everything the right place (sometimes the donation bin), and while that sounds straightforward, it’s pretty easy to choose the wrong places, turning your attempt at a tidier home into wasted effort.

These pros have seen it all, and they’re here to save you from making these home organization mistakes.

Trying to Do It in One Fell Swoop

Clutter is overwhelming; getting overwhelmed is a great way to make no organizing progress. The Clutter Cowgirl, professional organizer Jeni Aron, recommends decluttering and organizing one room at a time before you move on to the next. And give yourself more than the sliver of Sunday between your golf outing and dinner with each spot.

Starting Without a Plan

Tidying is tidying. Organizing is changing the way you live.

Meg Ricard of Simply Organized by Meg says having a plan is essential to transforming your tidying into organizing. “A lot of people will tidy up a space, tucking things away, and then find that two days later it’s a mess again,” says Ricard. “It takes longer to think about and implement a system, but the long-term results of organizing instead of tidying will be that you remain organized.”

A shelf allows you to tidy by getting random hoses and yard waste bags off the garage floor — until they’re used again and tossed wherever. A well-planned system, like filling those shelves with appropriately sized, easy-to-access, labeled bins, can keep your garage organized long term.

A successful organization strategy is one that fits your life. If you’re short, don’t store things you need often way up high. If you change your purse as often as your shoes, store them near the entryway — that’s where they pile up anyway, right?

Tackling The Paper Mountain First

Certain tasks can bring decluttering down to a crawl — and even a halt. Amber Kostelny, the Chicago-based certified professional organizer behind Amber’s Organizing, finds sorting out papers and mail is a surefire way to get overwhelmed fast.

“Don’t start with paper,” she says. “It will bog anyone down because it is tedious and the most frustrating.” We hear that. Save that un-fun task for when your organizing momentum is already rolling.

Trying To Buy Your Way Into Organized

Sorry, shoppers: Organization is an action, not something you can buy. Common culprits: renting storage space — which costs around $600 a year for a small unit — or sinking $400 into some deliciously chic, handwoven baskets (they’d look amazing in your living room!). When you invest big in one decluttering effort, you end up feeling super accomplished when all you’ve done is drain your bank account — and maybe put a few things in one pricey, new container.

Avoid overspending (and under-organizing) with two rules of thumb:

First, if you can live without something for months or years at a time, you likely don’t need it. Storage units are handy for moves and remodels, but in most cases, long-term use is an unnecessary budget-buster.

Second, an organized life requires very little investment. Clear plastic tubs cost $1.50 at IKEA. Plus, simple, clear containers allow you to actually see what’s inside, so you’ll never forget which $100 basket is storing your scarves again.

Failing to Donate Your Donations

Ricard often spies abandoned piles slated for the local charity shop in clients’ households. “After going through the energy of sorting things to get rid of, make sure to complete the task by actually taking them out of the house,” says Ricard. “The cleared space will be a relief!”

To avoid the build-up, don’t wait until you have a trunkful to run over to the donation center. Drop off a box after each room you organize. Hoarding items you want to give to a friend or family member? Put those things in a box by the door, and give loved ones a drop-dead date for picking them up. Don’t feel badly if they no-show. You don’t actually want it either, remember?

Buying Storage Without Measuring

Shopping is fun. Measuring things is not. But don’t even think about walking into The Container Store before you know the size, shape, and dimensions of organizers you need. Homeowners are constantly “buying things first, and getting lured in by cute containers,” says Aron. “But then they realize the stuff they have doesn’t work for the containers.”

Additionally, Kostelny recommends shopping for function over appearance. But bonus if you can find the perfect fit and function, and it’s super cute (obviously).

Ignoring Your Wall Space

Sometimes the best storage option has been right next to you all along: your walls. Forget tucking everything into a bin or taking up more precious floor space with yet another shelving unit. Wall space isn’t just available and efficient, it can make storage more accessible.

“Adding hooks to make it easy to pick up and go is important — especially for the kiddos,” says Monica Friel, the president and cofounder of Chicago-based Chaos to Order.

Sturdy mudroom hooks are just the beginning. Floating shelves, pegboards, corner shelving, built-ins — even attaching finished wooden crates or hanging a shoe organizer on the wall — can transform your everyday vertical space into an organization mecca.