Fun Facts About Animals-Did you Know???

happycoupleInterested to learn more about the fascinating world of animals? Read below to find some fun facts about animals.

  1.  Dogs only sweat through the pads on their feet. They pant to help keep cool instead.
  2. Studies have shown that people who own pets live longer, have fewer heart attacks and have less stress.
  3. Cats meow only to humans, not to communicate with other cats.
  4. A goldfish can live up to 40 years.
  5. Cats spend 2/3 of their day sleeping.
  6. In Arizona, you are not allowed to feed pigs garbage unless you obtain a permit, which must be renewed each year.
  7. A cat can jump as high as 7 times his height.
  8. In Colorado, since a horse is considered a vehicle, you are not allowed to drink an alcoholic beverage while riding horseback.
  9. Larger Parrots, such as Macaw’s and Cockatoo’s, can live more than 75 years.
  10. Giving fish alcohol is strictly prohibited in Ohio.
  11. Be careful at the next frog jumping event in California. If one of those frogs dies during the contest, it must not be eaten. You’ll have to get your fresh frog legs elsewhere.

Not Sure How to Price Your Home? Avoid Mistakes With These Tips

how-much-home-worth-standard_1x1_cacf8c63189c0e0e1c54afb7f26dd1ec_620x620_q85Pricing based on data, not emotion, can mean a swift sale.

You don’t need to be Bob Barker to know when the price just isn’t right. Just ask Candace Talmadge. She originally listed her Lancaster, Texas, home for $129,000, but “eventually had to accept the market reality” and chop $4,000 off the price.

The home’s location proved challenging: Buyers were either turned off by the area — a lower-income neighborhood south of Dallas — or unable to afford the home.

“Sellers have to keep in mind the location,” says Talmadge. “Who are going to be the likely buyers?”

Home pricing is more of a science than an art, but many homeowners price with their heartstrings instead of cold, hard data. Here’s why crunching the numbers is always the better route to an accurate home price — as well as what can happen when home sellers overlook those all important data points.

The Pitfalls of Overpricing

Homeowners often think that it’s OK to overprice at first, because — who knows? — maybe you’ll just get what you’re asking for. Although you can certainly lower an inflated price later, you’ll sacrifice a lot in the process. The most obvious damage: A house that remains on the market for months can prevent you from moving into your dream home. Already purchased that next home? You might saddle yourself with two mortgages.

“You lose a lot of time and money if you don’t price it right,” says Norma Newgent, an agent with Area Pro Realty in Tampa, Fla.

And worse: Continually lowering the price could turn off potential buyers who might start wondering just what is wrong with your home.

“Buyers are smart and educated,” says Lisa Hjorten of Marketplace Sotheby’s International Realty in Redmond, Wash. “You’re probably going to lose them.”

The Pricing Traps

It’s easy for homeowners to stumble into two common traps:

  1. Conflating actual value with sentimental value — how much they assume their home’s worth because they lived there and loved the time they spent there.
  2. Assuming renovations should result in a dollar-for-dollar increase in the selling price — or more.

“Many homeowners think, ‘Of course my home is worth a bazillion dollars,’” says Newgent. If they put in a few thousand dollars worth of new flooring, for example, they might overestimate the upgrade’s impact on the home’s value into the tens of thousands.

Talmadge’s Texas home came with a built-in renovation trap: It was already the nicest home in the area, making it harder to sell. Major additions had inflated the square footage — and the price, according to one appraiser — without accounting for the surrounding neighborhood. That created a disconnect for buyers: Wealthier ones who might be interested in the upgraded home disliked the neighborhood, and less affluent buyers couldn’t afford the asking price.

“Don’t buy the nicest home on the block” is common real estate advice for this reason.

That’s not to say that renovations aren’t worth it. You want to enjoy your home while you’re in it, right? Smart renovations make your home more comfortable and functional but should typically reflect the neighborhood. A REALTOR® can help you understand what certain upgrades can recoup when you sell and which appeal to buyers.

Another culprit for many a mispriced home is online tools, like Zillow’s “Zestimate,” that prescribe an estimated market value based on local data.

The estimate is often wildly inaccurate. A Virginia-area real estate company, McEnearney & Associates, has compared actual sold prices with predicted online estimates for several hundred homes in the area for the past few years and concluded the predictions failed half of the time.

The Right Stats for the Right Price

The best pricing strategy? Consult a real estate agent, who will use something called comps (also known as “comparable sales”) to determine the appropriate listing price. They’re not just looking at your neighbors; they’re seeking out near-identical homes with similar floor plans, square footage, and amenities that sold in the last few months.

Once they’ve assembled a list of similar homes (and the real prices buyers paid), they can make an accurate estimate of what you can expect to receive for your home. If a three-bedroom bungalow with granite countertops and a walk-out basement down the block sold for $359,000, expecting more from your own three-bedroom bungalow with granite countertops and a walk-out basement is a pipe dream.

After crunching the data, they’ll work with you to determine a fair price that’ll entice buyers. The number might be less than you hope and expect, but listing your home correctly — not idealistically — is a sure way to avoid the aches and pains of a long, drawn-out listing that just won’t sell.

Knowing When the Price is Too High

Once your home is on the market, you’ll start accumulating another set of data that will serve as the ultimate price test: how buyers react.

Agent Hjorten says there’s an easy way to tell if you’ve priced too high: “If we have no showings, it’s way too high. Lots of showings and no offer means you’ve marketed well — but it’s overpriced once people get inside.”

Talmadge didn’t struggle with showings. She says a number of people were interested in the home, but not enough at the price. In the end, Talmadge sold her home for $125,000, with a $5,000 seller’s assist, a discount on the cost of the home applied directly to closing costs.

“It all boils down to location, location, location. In [another] neighborhood, our house might well have sold for well over $130,000,” Talmadge says.

When it comes to finding a buyer, pricing your home according to data — and the right data, at that — is crucial to making the sale.

Need more answers to your questions? Click here!

Cherry pie, French style

maxresdefaultAs a painless alternative to traditional ear piercing, why not hang a pair of fresh cherries from your ear? No? Well luckily, this sweet fruit tastes as wonderful as it looks. After you buy your next batch of cherries – or pick them from a tree! – why not try making this classic French dessert: cherry clafoutis.

You will need:

  • 21 oz cherries
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 and 1/4 cup flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. almond extract
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/8 cup melted butter

Here’s how:

  1. First comes the annoying part: pitting the cherries. If you have a cherry pitter, it’s easier and quicker to do this by hand, but you can also use this trick: Remove the stems, and then place the cherry on the opening of a bottle (the opening must be smaller than the cherry so that the cherry does not fall through). Using a chopstick, press through the cherry and watch the pit fall into the bottle! Now the cherries can be eaten safely.
  2. Use the butter to grease a quiche pan, or any round baking dish. Don’t forget the edges!
  3. Sprinkle a generous tablespoon of your sugar into the greased pan, and carefully shake so that the sugar is distributed evenly, even on the edges. Now add your pitted cherries.
  4. In a separate bowl, add the eggs, the remaining sugar, and the salt. Mix well.
  5. Add the flour, vanilla extract, almond extract, melted butter, and milk to the egg mixture. Beat until smooth.
  6. Pour the mixture evenly over the cherries and bake for 45 minutes at 350°F until golden brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve!

Is it a cake? Is it a pie? No matter! It’s wonderfully sweet and brings the taste of summer directly to your plate. Try the recipe using other fruits, depending on what’s in season. Enjoy!

The Mistakes Renters and Buyers Make That Could Cost Them Big by Cathie Ericson

1607014hackerKyle Alfriend, a real estate agent in Dublin, OH, was with his contractor at a vacant home he had for sale, changing the locks after someone had broken in.

Imagine his surprise when a couple walked in, thinking they were meeting someone who was going to rent it to them. Turns out the trespasser had taken photos and posted an ad seeking renters on Craigslist.

The couple had brought along two months’ rent, plus their security deposit – a total of $5,700 in cash. Had Alfriend not intercepted them, they would likely have met with the fraudulent advertiser and lost their money.

“Renters and buyers can never be too vigilant in today’s marketplace where REO fraud can be prevalent,” notes Kimberly Ellison, manager of mortgage fraud investigation for Fannie Mae’s Mortgage Fraud Program.

Here are some current scams Fannie Mae has been seeing:

No Legal Title

The Scam – People trying to rent or sell a home to which they have no legal title. Often it’s a foreclosed property where someone gained possession through squatting and then tries to profit by renting out the place, says Shaolaine Loving, an attorney in Las Vegas.

The Fix – Avoid REO fraud by searching online for the name of the property owner and other information related to the property’s history, and be particularly vigilant if the property has recently gone through foreclosure.

Short Sale

The Scam – People trying to sell a short sale home they have obtained fraudulently. In this twist, individuals will ask the owner to deed the property over to them, claiming they have a buyer. In this title/deed fraud scheme, the criminals will keep the money the “buyer” gave them. And, if you’re the seller who was deceived, they also have the title to your house, and you still have responsibility on the loan, says Cory Turner, manager of Fannie Mae’s Single-Family Business Anti-Fraud Team. “The house is in limbo with multiple parties facing financial loss.”

The Fix – Buyer beware: If someone guarantees you foreclosure assistance, be cautious. “Only a servicer has the discretion to grant a loan modification,” Turner says. And as a homeowner, you should never sign over paperwork before reviewing thoroughly. In addition, use your resources (aka, servicer, real estate professional, attorney, lender) to understand any and all questions that you might have.

Hacking

The Scam – Stealing transaction funds by hacking into emails. A criminal will hack into or spoof the emails of various parties to a real estate transaction, such as the buyer, seller, agent, and/or escrow officer. Then, at some point before the close of escrow, the criminal will send the buyer an email supposedly from one of the other parties and include instructions for wiring funds, such as a deposit or closing costs. “Of course, the wiring instructions lead to the criminal’s bank account, rather than to the escrow company,” says Sam Kraemer, general counsel at the John Aaroe Group, a Los Angeles real estate brokerage.

The Fix – Never send any personal information, including Social Security or bank account numbers, electronically, without encryption and always examine the full email address for evidence of spoofing. Kraemer advises clients to hand deliver or call with the information instead. “Before wiring any money, call to confirm the instructions,” he says, adding that most trustworthy escrow companies only send wiring information through encrypted emails.

6 Red Flags

Although those are some common REO fraud scams, the list can be endless. That’s why savvy renters and buyers should watch out for these six red flags to minimize their chances of being defrauded.

  1. The deal is too good to be true. You know the rest of this adage: “And it probably is.” Turner says to watch out for online postings that have rents that are obviously below market rate.
  2. The seller is not familiar with the neighborhood. “They should be able to answer questions about shopping or schools,” says Becky Walzak, president and CEO of rjbWalzak Consulting, in Deerfield Beach, FL, who holds workshops on REO fraud in the housing and lending market.
  3. Something about the house seems off. Walzak suggests you be wary of new locks or a property that is in obvious need of repair or is missing appliances or features you would expect.
  4. Something about the seller seems off. “Watch out for overly accommodating landlords willing to forego their own due diligence,” says Than Merrill, CEO of FortuneBuilders and CT Homes LLC and a real estate investor. Other signs may be owners who want to settle quickly or who can’t meet in person because they are out of the country. “If you can’t meet face to face, see the apartment in person, or sign a lease before your first payment, continue your search,” Merrill advises.
  5. The paperwork is already done. Watch out if sellers have their own title policy they offer to the buyer or already have an appraisal done, cautions Walzak.
  6. The seller requests an immediate wire transfer of funds. “There’s never a good reason to wire money to pay a security deposit, application fee, first month’s rent, or vacation rental fee without knowing who it’s going to,” Merrill says.

Due Diligence Pays Off

“Scam artists are typically after one of two things: your money or your identity, so don’t make yourself an easy target,” Merrill says.

The best way to avoid these scams? Do your due diligence.

Turner advises knocking on neighbors’ doors to ask about the property. They might tell you it’s not a rental house or that the bank just foreclosed. They might describe the owner, and you’ll realize it’s not who you’ve been dealing with.

Even a simple online search can yield the name of the property owner and other historical property-transfer information.

“You can find a lot of information on a county’s assessment and taxation website,” says Turner. “The resources are out there, but people aren’t utilizing them. They see a good deal and want to jump on it, but it’s worth it to perform due diligence for the biggest purchase of your life.”

Ready to get started with an experienced, reliable Real Estate Broker? Click here.

What Do Real Estate Pros Look for When It’s Their Turn to Buy?

new homeWhat you really need to know about buying — from the people who house hunt for a living.

One house you’re looking at has the wraparound porch you’ve fantasized about, but it’s on a high-traffic street. The condo you like has a doorman in the lobby (finally you can become an Amazon Prime member!), but it has no dedicated parking. What to choose?

It’s not every day that you buy a home and make decisions about the next three, five, or 10 years of your life. Since you can’t exactly take a home on a test drive, how do you decide? That got us to thinking about real estate pros. When they’ve seen practically everything on the market, how do they choose?

Four pros who’ve seen it all share their advice and their stories of hunting for just the right home.

Be Willing to Compromise for Your Priorities

Veteran real estate agent Nancy Farkas knew exactly what she wanted in her home: ranch style, three bedrooms, high ceilings. But you know what she bought? A two-story Colonial.

Huh?

For Farkas, an associate partner with Coldwell Banker Heritage REALTORS®, in Dayton, Ohio, the home’s location and price trumped style. “I had a dog I had to go home and walk at noon, and the house was close [to work] and the right price,” she says.

Her advice: Make sure your practical and functional priorities don’t get lost in all the home buying hoo-ha (sparkling granite counters, new hardwood floors, a steam shower!). Remember, you can always add the hoo-ha, but you can’t make a home fit all priorities, such as location and price.

homerepairsDig Into the Details

When Grigory Pekarsky, co-owner and managing broker with Vesta Preferred Real Estate in Chicago, was looking for his first home, one of his priorities was to minimize his maintenance costs. He made sure to find out if the house had a newer roof, good siding, and a newer furnace. But he recommends you go even deeper to uncover a home’s not-so-obvious maintenance costs:

  • Scope out the sewer line — especially if you’re interested in an older home — to make sure there aren’t any tree branches or other debris clogging up the works. Otherwise, you might find some nasty sludge in the basement.
  • Look at the trees. How mature are they? Roots from older trees can invade the sewer line; untrimmed branches can pummel your gutters during storms.
  • Know what’s not covered by homeowners insurance. “I learned seepage isn’t covered. Shame on me,” he says.
  • Ask how old the appliances are. You might need to budget for something new in a few years. Sellers are only required to fix what the inspector finds is broken; they’re not going to upgrade working appliances for you.

Focus on Lifestyle

Minority FamilyHaving lived the high-rise apartment life as a renter, Pekarsky knew a single-family home was just what he wanted. He was tired of living in a relatively small space with no yard. He wanted a house he could “grow into in the next three to five years.” That meant multiple bedrooms and bathrooms for the family he plans on having. So what he bought — a three-story, single-family with a finished attic bedroom (shown below) on Chicago’s North Side — suits his lifestyle perfectly.

In addition, “you get the biggest value from owning the land,” he says. “In a single-family [home], people aren’t telling you what to do with the investment.”

On the other hand, Matt Difanis wished he’d bought a condo when he bought his first home, a small bungalow ranch in a charming, historic neighborhood in Champaign, Ill. It was first-home love — until it rained.

“If I didn’t clean out the gutters before every rainstorm, the basement would leak,” says the broker-owner of RE/MAX Realty Associates in Champaign. He didn’t realize that taking care of a single-family home wouldn’t be his cup of tea. “I should have opted for a condo without gutters to clean and a lawn to mow,” he says.

Agent Amy Smythe Harris of Urban Provision REALTORS®, in Woodland, Texas, bought a home with a sizable downstairs suite her parents could use now (and she could use years from now). She says her millennial clients aren’t forward-thinking about their lifestyles. Some are childless and say they don’t care about schools, pools, and tennis courts. Then they become parents a few years later and have to move.

“Once they have kids, the first question [they] ask is about school districts, and the second is about where the parks and pools are,” she says.

The pros’ bottom-line advice: Think of your lifestyle preferences and how those might change in the next few years. After all, the typical homeowner lives in a house for a median of 10 years before selling, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® data shows.

Money and HouseFilter Your Choices Through the Lens of Resale

All the real estate pros we talked to — no surprise here — emphasized resale. Take appraiser Michelle C. Bradley of Czekalski Real Estate Inc. in Natrona Heights, Pa. When she built her current home — a 2,200-square-foot ranch — she included a full, unfinished basement, even though she has no use for one and rarely ventures into it.

Why would she do that? Because basements are standard in her southwest Pennsylvania market. But Bradley’s not going to finish the basement until she’s ready to sell. That way, she avoids having to clean it and ensures she’ll install the most fashionable bathroom fixtures at sell time.

Her advice: “Don’t buy or build something unique that you can’t resell. If you’re not in an area with log homes, don’t choose a log home. If you’re not in an area with dome homes, don’t choose a dome home.”

Likewise, don’t buy a home that’s not in line with the neighborhood’s average price. When you go to resell, you’ll find yourself in an uphill battle to maintain your higher price.

Other advice from the pros: Watch out for unfixable flaws that could affect resale, like:

  • What’s next to the home, such as vacant land that could be developed, high-traffic businesses, noisy power generation stations, a cell tower, etc.
  • Lot issues, such as a steep driveway that could double as a ski slope in winter, or a sloped yard that sends water special delivery to your foundation.

Of course, a home isn’t just about resale. It’s just one factor to consider. Remember the first point: Be willing to compromise for your priorities. If the home meets your priorities and you’re going to stay there awhile, then resale might be where you compromise.

Ready to get started? Click here.

Wildlife Pest Control for Your Community

wildlife-pest-control-coyote-fishwildlifesvc_1x1_f35054c648466ef6ecf03e6eb972e08b_165x165_q85Uncontrolled wildlife can wreak havoc in your community. Here’s what you can do to improve local pest control.

Are droppings from a multitude of Canada geese covering the patios in your neighborhood, while uncontrolled deer populations strip gardens bare, and skunks roll up your turf to get at the grubs below? Before reaching for your shotgun, try these simple steps for dealing with nuisance wildlife.

Nuisance or health and safety issue?

First, consider whether your wildlife issue is an immediate health and safety issue or a less serious nuisance problem that doesn’t immediately threaten community members, suggests Paul Curtis, an associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at Cornell University.

“If a coyote is in the area and killing small dogs—as happened recently in New York State—you should call the local police or animal-control officer to deal with the situation,” he says. But if you have a non-urgent problem, like an urban crow roost, you have more time to get local officials to tackle the issue.

Work with local officials

Bring local officials into your wildlife pest-control problem from the very beginning. Start with the lowest level of government and work your way up. For example, if you have rats and you live in a condominium or neighborhood with a homeowners association, contact the board of directors to see what they are willing to do.

If a pest problem is community-wide, the best way to solve it will involve tactics that target the entire community. Some communities contract with private vendors supplying wildlife control services. The Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management lists U.S. wildlife-control professionals, along with tips for finding the right contractor.

Don’t assume that you can simply kill an animal that’s bothering you—it may be a federally protected species. Ask town, county, or other local officials whether the animal you’re trying to control falls under the jurisdiction of the local, state, or federal government.

If the animals causing trouble in your neighborhood are federally protected, then your local officials will have to consult with their federal counterparts at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to create animal control plans.

If the animals are not protected, the local government can decide how to deal with them.

Whether or not the animal is federally protected, local officials are in the best position to bring together all interested parties in a community, reducing conflict as animal-control planning progresses.

“People have very strong feelings about wildlife control—especially related to deer and geese. So it’s important to try to work out differences from the beginning,” Curtis says. “In the end, we all have the same goals: to find the best way to coexist with the wildlife around us.”

17 Simple Tips for a Successful Move

Shot of a young man and woman sealing boxes in their apartment

From planning to unpacking, there are a lot of moving parts when relocating yourself or your family. Even if you’re moving on up, the process can still lead to some stressful situations. Minimize the hassle—and save time and money in the process—with these moving tips.

Planning for Your Move
• Collect free boxes. Call your local grocery stores for extra boxes, and ask wine/package stores for wine cases, which are great for packing glassware.
• Invest in custom boxes. Wardrobe boxes and custom containers are worth the money for keeping items like artwork and flatscreens safe.
• Calculate moving costs. Include supplies (boxes, tape, etc.), on-the-road expenses, storage, and moving trucks or movers. Check out unpackt.com for a comprehensive guide on calculating moving costs.
• Keep, sell, donate, or toss. Having trouble letting go? Keep in mind that sold items make you money, donated items equal tax deductions, and tossed items lessen the amount you have to move.
• Organize a moving folder. Include moving quotes, contracts, and all receipts (as many moving expenses are tax deductible).
• Organize and draft a floor plan. Start planning the layout of your new home, and assign functions to rooms in advance.
• Color code. Assign a color to every key area of your home. Print colored labels to tape onto boxes with clear tape, and add a splash of the color to all sides with colored duct tape or markers.
• Create a number system for boxes. This will help you prioritize boxes you should unpack first and ones that can wait.
• Create a moving key to follow. Include your color code and number system, and then print multiple copies to place in every room.

Smart Packing Solutions
• Take photos of cords. A quick snapshot of the cords on the back of complex electronics is a small action that you’ll be thankful for later.
• Keep hardware organized. Tape screws, bolts, and nuts directly to furniture, appliances, and picture frames. Use a ziplock bag for larger hardware, label it, and attach the bag to the item.
• Pack heavy items in rolling luggage. Books, for example, are nice to store together, but their weight adds up quickly. Avoid heavy lifting by wheeling them in your luggage.
• Contain with plastic wrap. Use plastic wrap around drawers and other storage items, like a silverware tray. It’s cheap, doesn’t leave sticky residue, and saves time by allowing you to avoid emptying every container.
• Protect mattresses. Put your extra fitted sheets to good use by doubling them up around mattresses to keep them clean.
• Pack small kitchen items in larger ones. Try putting spices in the Crock-Pot and measuring cups in a mixing bowl. Get creative!
• Use towels for cushioning. Wrap delicate items in towels for an extra layer of protection that costs nothing.
• Clean as you go. As you pack, quickly clean off items to avoid carrying excess dirt into your new digs.

To help make the process as organized as possible, plan out your big event with this moving time-frame worksheet. And don’t forget to let your cable company know. Use this change of address checklist to make sure all of your accounts are notified of your change in residence.

 

Tomato Pie

tomato-pie-headerThe colorful palette of tomatoes makes this dish a double threat of being both delectable to taste and dazzling to the eye.It’s bursting with creative flair and can be presented as an amped-up BLT wrapped up in the charm of a pie.

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium-size tomatoes in various colors
  • ½ teaspoon fine kosher salt
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ cup shredded sharp white cheddar cheese
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan
  • 1 (9-inch) piecrust, store-bought or homemade
  • ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 to 6 slices thick-cut bacon, fried crisp and broken into small pieces
  • 10 basil leaves
  • Handful of cherry tomatoes in various colors
  • 4 thyme sprigs

Step 1:

Slice the large tomatoes into rounds ¼-inch thick, and place them on paper towels. Let them sit for about 10 minutes, then flip them over onto fresh paper towels, and sprinkle them with the salt. Let them sit about 10 minutes more. You don’t want them to be too juicy before baking, because that could make your pie soupy.

Step 2:

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Step 3:

Prepare the filling by combining the mayonnaise, cheddar, and Parmesan. Arrange a layer of tomatoes in the bottom of the piecrust. Sprinkle on the pepper and half of the bacon, then layer on five of the basil leaves, and spread half of the mayonnaise mixture over the basil. Repeat, ending with a final layer of sliced tomatoes, placed so that you can fit the cherry tomatoes on top as well.

Step 4:

Scatter the thyme sprigs across the top of the pie. Bake the pie for about 30 minutes, then fold strips of aluminum foil around the rim of the pie to keep the edges from turning too brown, and continue baking for another 15 minutes. Allow the pie to cool before serving.

 

5 Secrets Your Contractor Doesn’t Want You to Know

general-contractor-secrets-standard_3x2_93627b61fadf1f7e5fa73ebbf5228184_540x360_q85You think of your contractor as an ally and partner — but he’s a primarily a businessman who may not reveal all. Here’s how to level the playing field.

You’ve asked friends to recommend great contractors, picked your favorite, checked references — and maybe even conducted an online background check on his business. So you know you’ve found a top-notch guy for your home improvement project.

But remember that his bottom line is getting you to sign a contract, and he’s not going to mention anything that might get in the way. Before you make a commitment, here’s what you need to know in order to protect your own bottom line.

1. He’s Not the Only Game in Town

Even if you believe you found the best contractor in the area, don’t hire him unless you’re sure he’s right for your project.

Homeowners should solicit at least three bids from three different contractors before awarding a home improvement project. This way you can make an educated hiring decision by comparing costs, methods, and materials.

What you should do: Make sure you have a basis for comparison when asking for bids. Provide each contractor with the same project details. This may include materials you wish to use and floor plans. Although cost should be one of your deciding factors, other points to consider include scheduling and communication style.

TIP: Once you picked the best contractor for the job, keep your project on track with an ironclad contract.

2. He’s Going to Farm Out the Work

General contractors often don’t do the physical work themselves. They might have been carpenters or plumbers, but now that they run their own businesses, they’ve retired their tool belts.

Instead, their role is to sign clients, manage budgets, and schedule a cast of subcontractors. When he’s trying to win your business, a contractor can be pretty vague about how involved he’s going to be — and who will be running the job day-to-day.

What you should do: Inquire who will be in charge of the job site. Ask to meet the job foreman, preferably while he’s at work on a current job site. “Maybe he’s a chain smoker or doesn’t speak English or who knows what?” says Stockbridge, Mass., contractor Jay Rhind. “You want to make sure you feel comfortable with him.”

TIP: Don’t underestimate the power of being nice. It can help keep your contractor and crew on track while improving the quality of their work.

3. A Big Deposit is Unnecessary — and Possibly Illegal

When you sign a contract, you’re usually expected to pay a deposit. But that’s not for covering the contractor’s initial materials or set-up costs.

If his business is financially sound and he’s in good standing with his suppliers, he shouldn’t need to pay for anything up front. In fact, many states limit a contractor’s advance. California maxes out deposits at 10% of the job cost, or $1,000 — whichever is smaller. To find out what the law is in your area, check with your local or state consumer agency.

What you should do: A small deposit is reasonable to kick off a project. But your payment plan should be based on a defined amount of work being completed. This way, if the work isn’t proceeding according to schedule, the payments will be delayed.

TIP: When possible, charge it. The Federal Trade Commission suggests when paying for home improvement work, use a credit card. Doing so may protect homeowners if a project goes south. After making a good faith effort to workout any problems with your contractor, consumers have the right to withhold payment up to the amount of credit outstanding for the purchase. This includes any finance or related charges.

4. He’s Not Only Marking Up Labor, But Materials Too

No contractor wants to talk about it, but he’s going to mark up everything he pays out to make your job happen. That’s fair; it’s how he pays his own overhead and salary. Keep it in mind that the 50% or more mark-up may apply not just to materials but labor costs, too.

What you should do: If you can handle buying items such as plumbing fixtures, cabinetscountertops, and flooring, ask your contractor to take them out of his bid price. Be sure to agree on specific numbers and amounts of what you’ll be buying, and that you’ll have the items to the job site when they’re needed. You could save 10% to 20% or more on the overall cost of the project.

TIP: Salvage materials are one way to save on building costs. Just make sure you use upcycled stuff wisely so you don’t harm your home’s value.

5. He’s Not the Design Whiz He Claims to Be

Sure, there are contractors who have strong design abilities. Chances are, however, they’re spending a lot more time running their businesses than honing their design chops.

What you should do: Depending upon the complexity of your project, you may need a number of skilled pros to get the job done. So don’t count on a contractor to design your space and add clever details, unless he clearly demonstrates his abilities and has a portfolio of his own work.

Ask his references specifically about his design skills. Keep in mind, in some instances you might be better off hiring an architect for overall planning, and a kitchen and bath designer for the details.

Pet Projects That Repurpose Unwanted Stuff

pet-projects-repurpose-pet-bed_3x2_b63f82af5b95fed5f8630abcbd927959_540x360_q85These 5 repurposing tricks turn unwanted stuff into cool pet things.

Today is America Recycles Day, so we turned to some of our favorite online sites for penny-pinching repurposing ideas that will benefit cats and canines.

But before we dive in, keep the following in mind: When it comes to buying or making repurposed stuff for pets, make sure all materials are non-toxic and don’t pose a hazard to Spot or Kitty.

(If pets aren’t your thing, then check out yesterday’s post about repurposing burnt-out light bulbs, or come back tomorrow, when we’ll tell you how to repurpose leftover chopsticks and plastic containers from your takeout dinners).

One-of-a-kind pet beds

Most store-bought pet beds are eyesores. But something repurposed from old furniture or even an outdated consumer electronic makes a great conversation piece — in addition to a cool pet nook.

1. Dresser drawer pet bed: StephanieJane Upcycle, an Etsy seller, turned a drawer from a broken dresser into an eco-friendly pet bed. They kept animal and human wellness in mind while adding the final touches. The drawer was stripped and refinished using biodegradable and non-toxic products.

Recycling tip: There are organizations that specifically recycle broken furniture. To find a local solution for your broken stuff, visit Earth911.com.

pet-projects-repurpose-toaster-bed_a2edb1cf69ddf9d813bf9c9f92f655412. A toaster oven pet bed: The Etsy shop Recycled Arts gave an outmoded kitchen appliance new life as a pet crash pad (albeit for pint-sized pets). A fleece blanket was added for comfort. And just for fun, they left the timer intact.

Recycling tip: Have a bunch of old blankets and linens that you want to get rid of? Donate them to your local animal shelter. By doing so, you’ll keep rescued dogs and cats warm this winter.

Fun pet toys 

You know how you can keep small kids entertained for hours with a big cardboard box? Well, you can do the same for cats with a toilet paper tube.

pet-projects-repurpose-cat-toy_f016611fabcbf08efdb37fda21a0cd763. Toilet paper tube cat toy: Holly Tse is the blogger behind the eco-friendly site Green Little Cat. She keeps her feline friend entertained with balls of rings made from cardboard toilet paper tubes. All you need to do is flatten one crosswise and then, using a pair of scissors, cut into 1/3” rings.

Afterwards, pop the flattened rings back into a circle and form them into a ball. When you’re finished, grab the kitty’s attention and toss the new toy in the air. Your cat will have a ball chasing the rings that fall across the floor.

Recycling tip: The Humane Society also has a few ideas for repurposed cat toys: round plastic shower curtain rings make great toys for cats to bat around; plus large paper bags (never plastic) with the handles removed are perfect for a game of kitty hide and seek.

Give doggie dining a leg up

Large dogs, especially those in their senior years, can experience joint stress and other painful issues from repeatedly crouching down to reach their meals. Here’s an idea that alleviates discomfort by raising food and water bowls off the ground.

pet-projects-repurpose-dog-feeder_05f7967fe3e1136d8eb7534862f00a804. Eco-friendly canine feeding station: This clever food and water bowl set by For Love of a Doggives canine meals a lift using small vintage school chairs. A foam gasket was added to stabilize the dog bowls; plus, the seats were water-sealed to protect the wood from spills.

Recycling tip: In addition to blankets and linens, many pet shelters will accept non-breakable dishes that can function as dog and cat bowls.

Give plastic bags a new leash on life

Here’s a green idea worthy of man’s best friend that turns pesky plastic bags into a dog leash.

5. Grocery bag dog lead: You’ll need a clasp for the dog’s collar to compete this project, plus a plastic clothesline clip, glue, and scissors. Keep in mind: While this leash does look sturdy, it is not suited for large dogs and aggressive leash-pullers.

Home Remodeling: 6 Improvements to Increase Home Value

low-maintenance-house-composite-decking-standard_1x1_23ba87f585e215b70278f34fe2fb002e_165x165_q85Not all home improvements are created equal. These will reward you the most when it comes time to sell.

Dreaming of stainless this and marble that, with a dash of hip color? Sloooow down. See what your wallet has to say first. Some projects will protect your dollars more than others, especially if you’re planning to sell in a few years.

How do we know? Since 2002, a trade magazine for contractors and builders called “Remodeling” has been tracking common home improvement projects and how much of the cost of each project is recouped when the home sells.

We sifted through years of past results and aggregated the numbers to get an idea of what projects made the most of your dollars year after year. Then we overlayed that background with the data from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ “Remodeling Impact Report” to determine current project costs and the cost recovery percentage, and to get some other fun facts, such as how satisfied homeowners are with the projects when finished.

They also have a few things in common. The projects are:

  • Low-maintenance
  • Good — but not necessarily the highest — quality
  • Energy-efficient
  • Not too costly

These projects are the best long-term remodeling investments you can make:

1. Replacing Your Front Door

Your faithful front door works tirelessly — day in and day out — to usher in you and your guests, and to seal your house up tight. But when Old Faithful gets tired and worn out, don’t hesitate to call in a replacement. Year in and year out, replacing your old front door with a new steel door is a project that kicks up curb appeal and yields the best payback.

“It gives you the best bang for your buck in terms of transforming the look and feel of your home,” says Brandon Erdmann, president of the remodeling firm HomeSealed Exteriors in Milwaukee. “Plus, old exterior doors can be a huge source of energy loss. So you’re improving the look of your house, improving energy efficiency, and you’re able to do it without breaking the bank.”

It’s also a relatively low-cost project. According to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report,” a new steel front entry door has a national median cost of $2,000 installed, and can recover 75% of that cost at resale.

2. New Siding

Old, worn siding, along with generally sad curb appeal, can contribute to a loss of up to 10% of your home’s value, according to some appraisers. New siding, on the other hand, practically screams “my owner takes care of me.”

What to choose? Both vinyl and fiber-cement siding are good replacement options.

Vinyl siding is low-cost, durable, and easy to install, and it hits all the right notes when it comes to getting a return on your home improvement dollars. Best of all: It’s a low-maintenance feature that frees up your time.

Today’s vinyl siding includes fade-resistant finishes and transferrable lifetime warranties that are much better than the 10-year guarantees of just two decades ago. There’s good payback, too. According to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report,” the $12,000 national median cost of a vinyl siding replacement job returns a solid 83% if you should decide to sell your home.

Fiber-cement siding also shows a strong payback of 79% in the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report.” Although its national median cost of $19,100 makes it the pricier option, it has one thing vinyl still lacks — the perception of quality.

And quality matters. In a survey from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), “quality” was the one of the most important traits that home buyers focused on when shopping for a house. A final word: 100% of homeowners responding to the “Report” said they were happy or satisfied with the result of their fiber-cement siding replacement project.

3. Kitchen Upgrade

We’re not talking about the dream kitchen remodels that are plastered on Pinterest and Houzz. But a minor kitchen remodel — one that keeps a lid on costs by refacing instead of replacing cabinets, and includes new flooring, countertops, and modestly priced appliances — is an ever-popular project.

“People are always willing to update their kitchens,” says Dale Contant, 2016 president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and owner of Atlanta Build and Design. “It’s the hub of the home.”

Although the ROI on a kitchen update is relatively modest — the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” says you can expect a return of 67% on the $30,000 national median cost of a kitchen upgrade — you’ll get lasting satisfaction. Eighty-two percent of homeowners said their updated kitchen gave them a greater desire to be at home, and 95% were happy or satisfied with the result.

4. Deck and Patio Additions

Like alfresco living? You’re in good company. According to a 2014 Home Trends Survey from the American Institute of Architects, our love of outdoor living spaces — especially decks and patios — is on the rise.

One big reason is that decks and patios are a sweet way to expand living space at a low cost of $8 to $35 per square foot — a bargain compared to the $150-and-up per-square-foot cost of a new addition.

5. Turning an Attic into a Bedroom

When it comes to romantic rooms, a bedroom retreat is hard to beat. But a treetop boudoir is much more than a daydream — it’s a good investment. You’ll gain living space without having to add on to your home’s footprint — the walls, floor, and ceiling already exist. That helps keep remodeling costs under control.

There are code restrictions you’ll have to navigate when converting an attic to a bedroom, but if your house qualifies and you can cover the cost (about $65,000 says the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report”), chances are you won’t regret your decision. Some 94% of homeowners responding to the “Report” said they were happy or satisfied with their new attic space.

6. New Garage Door

No surprise that a garage door replacement project made it onto our list of all-time winners — a new garage door provides a big boost for your home’s curb appeal at a relatively modest cost. That’s especially good news if you’re thinking about selling your house.

A project that replaces an older, two-car, embossed steel door has a current cost of about $2,300, according to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report.” If you sell, you can expect a healthy ROI of 87% on your investment.

There are options galore, too. A host of factory-finish colors, wood-look embossed steel, and glass window insets are just some of the possibilities that’ll give your doors bankable personality.

Looking to buy or sell your home? Click here.

Rice, Zucchini, and Feta Frittata with Fennel Pollen Yogurt

frittata-feature

Ingredients for the frittata
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
10 baby zucchini, sliced lengthwise
4 scallions, sliced
1 cup cooked white rice
½ cup chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 eggs
¼ cup heavy cream
¾ cup crumbled feta cheese

Ingredients for the yogurt
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
2 pinches fennel pollen
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground
black pepper to taste


Step 1: 
Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Step 2: 
Heat the butter and oil in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini and scallions, and sauté until soft. Mix in the rice, mint, and dill, and season with half of the salt and pepper.

Step 3: 
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, cream, and remaining salt and pepper. Pour over the rice mixture, and cook without stirring for 3 minutes. Sprinkle the crumbled feta on top.

Step 4: 
Transfer the skillet to the oven, and bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden.

Step 5: 
In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, fennel pollen, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour to allow the fennel pollen to release its flavor and aroma. Yogurt will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator.

Step 6: 
Serve frittata with fennel pollen yogurt.

Who’s Got Your Back When Your Credit Report is Wrong?

credit scoreWith some credit report errors not getting fixed by either the credit reporting bureau or credit card companies, at least you have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in your corner.

When you find an error in your credit report and send the credit bureau proof that your creditor was wrong when it said you paid late, didn’t pay at all, or, worse yet, are deceased, you expect the bureau and your creditor to do the right thing.

Like acknowledge the error and correct your credit report to show you paid on time, paid off your debts, or are still alive.

And yet, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently had to tell the credit bureaus (and the companies that report your payment record to the bureaus) to pay attention to your complaints and take more care investigating your disputes.

It’s like the Department of Transportation having to order school bus drivers to use the brakes to stop their buses.

How Errors Get Perpetuated

Keeping track of your payment history is the credit bureau’s job. Nevertheless, a 2012 Federal Trade Commission report found 20% of consumers had errors in their credit report. And about 5% of consumers had errors in their credit report that could affect the likelihood of receiving credit or the terms of credit received.

To do their job right, the credit bureaus have to get accurate information each month from the companies that report data to them — parties like credit card issuers, mortgage lenders, auto loan companies, and student loan lenders.

When you tell a credit reporting bureau there’s an error in your report, the bureau contacts the company that furnished the information about you. You’d think the bureau would pass along whatever documents and proof you have to show you paid on time.

Not so much. In the past, they’ve simply boiled down your issue into a data code and sent that, not your proof (a letter explaining the issue, supporting documents) to the data furnisher. Evidence is important in establishing that the data furnisher made an error.

That’s why the CFPB stepped in and told the credit bureaus they need to pass along the evidence that supports your dispute.

Regardless of whether they see your proof, credit furnishers sometimes respond to an error report by simply deleting the disputed account, the CFPB said.

That’s not good for you because the furnisher isn’t:

  • Correcting your information, or
  • Telling the other two credit reporting companies (there are three big ones) that it made a mistake in the information it provided about you.

Here’s an example of how this might work:

Suppose you have an auto loan that you paid on time every month for 60 months. But the auto loan company says once you paid 90 days late. You dispute, and the auto lender removes your account from the data it reports to the credit bureaus.

Now, you don’t have the late payment report on your record, but you also don’t have the 60 months of on-time payments either. A mortgage lender pulling your credit report, for instance, won’t see that positive payment history, so your credit rating might decline just when you’re trying to get a home loan or refi.

Catch Credit Report Errors Early

In a related move, the CFPB also suggested credit card companies follow the example set by Discover, Barclaycard, and First Bankcard and start showing consumers the credit scores they use to set the rates their customers pay.

Discover shows credit scores on customers’ monthly statements. Barclaycard and First Bankcard give customers free access to their scores via a website.

The CFPB is asking for credit score disclosure because it wants you to pay closer attention to your credit standing.

“Consumers often learn the importance of their credit standing when it is too late — after a credit application is denied or identity theft has occurred,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a letter to credit card companies. “Sometimes they fail to see the importance of their credit standing even if it has affected them in material ways, such as being rejected for a job or charged a higher price for a loan.”

How Do I Get Errors Fixed? 

It’s up to you to guard your credit. The first step is checking to see what’s in your credit report. You can get one free credit report from each of the three bureaus once a year. Then, if you find mistakes, get to work trying to correct them.

If the credit bureau doesn’t fix the error, complain to the CFPB. You can:

  • Call the toll-free phone number at 855/411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 855/729-CFPB (2372)
  • Fax the CFPB at 855/237-2392
  • Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244

The CFPB will give you a confirmation number immediately, email updates along the way, and you’ll be able to check the progress of your case online.

If you need to fix an error, you’ve got a lot of company. Between Oct. 22, 2012, and Feb. 1, 2014, roughly 31,000 consumers complained to the CFPB about credit report problems, the agency says. About three-quarters of those complaints came from consumers who had trouble fixing a credit report mistake.

Think you can’t buy a home because of your credit??? Click here.

7 Things You Should Paint Instead of Replace to Save Money

painting-ideas-save-money-standard_074f4a971417f69ffec0fadba3191df2_QDaDNH7_1x1_165x165_q85Paint isn’t just for walls. Here’s how to breathe new life into old stuff.

You know a fresh coat of paint can give any room a quick and inexpensive facelift. But did you know that a little paint can also perk up carpets, appliances, and even vinyl floors?

Basically, if it doesn’t move, you can paint it. But only after you’ve paid special attention to prep — cleaning, patching, and sanding (generally) the area.

Painting isn’t brain surgery, but it’s not a breeze, either. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • Prime before painting. Primer will allow the paint to adhere better.
  • Most hard surfaces will take primer better if they’re roughed up a little with fine-grade sandpaper.
  • When using spray paint, multiple, thin layers are better than one, thick coat. Ease up on your trigger finger, and spray in short bursts.
  • Wait for the previous coat of paint or primer to dry completely before adding another coat.

With proper prep, you can paint just about anything. Here are seven of our favorite ideas:

1. Door, Drawer, and Cabinet Hardware

Spray paint can turn builder-grade brass locks and hinges into fashion-forward hardware with an oil-rubbed bronze, pewter, or stainless look.

Prep:

  1. Clean hardware with a fine steel wool to remove grease and grime.
  2. Rough up the surface with fine-grain sandpaper.
  3. Before you paint, insert a tiny strip of painter’s tape into the keyhole to make sure paint doesn’t gunk it up.
  4. Prime with a metallic primer, then paint with metallic spray paint.

Tip:

  • Insert the door lock’s spindle into a square of Styrofoam, which will hold it upright while you spray around the knob.

2. Brick Fireplace

When you paint your red brick fireplace, you transform the entire room. But beware! Once you paint brick, it’s nearly impossible to return it to the original brick color.

You can paint brick a single color, or achieve some variation — like the variations in real brick — by sponging on slightly lighter and darker hues.

Prep:

  1. Lightly sand away any loose bits of brick or mortar with 120-grit sandpaper.
  2. Clean dirt and soot with a wire brush and heavy-duty cleanser.
  3. Allow to dry completely before applying an oil-based, stain-blocking primer.
  4. Paint with a semigloss latex.

Tips:

  • Never paint the firebox.
  • Brick is porous and drinks paint, so buy twice what you think you’ll need.
  • Wear safety glasses and gloves when cleaning anything with a metal brush.

3. Ceramic Tile

Imagine how sweet it is to update ceramic tile without having to bust up and cart away tons of old tile.

Play it safe and avoid painting tiles in high-traffic and high-moisture areas. Some good places are laundry room floors, backsplashes under cabinets (but not above ranges where pasta sauce splatters), and walls around tubs you rarely use.

Prep:

  1. Repair cracked or chipped tile with caulk or grout before painting.
  2. Give patching material ample time to dry, then lightly sand before applying an epoxy or urethane bonding primer.
  3. Sand after priming and between each coat of quality latex paint.
  4. Wait several days for the paint to cure completely, then seal with two or three coats of clear, water-based polyurethane.

Tips:

  • To get a smooth look, apply paint in zigzags, then roll down in one, smooth motion.
  • Use 240-grit wet/dry sandpaper for prep and between coats.
  • Don’t forget safety goggles and masks when sanding tiles.

4. Wood Floors

When wood floors are beyond another refinishing, painting can give them a second life — and give you a chance to add a personal touch to your home.

Prep:

  1. Slightly sand the surface so your primer will adhere better. No need to sand down to the wood; even roughing up the seal coat will help the primer adhere better.
  2. Vacuum and mop with a damp cloth to remove all the dust — nothing ruins a paint job faster than dust.
  3. Tint your primer to reduce the number of coats you’ll need of latex enamel floor paint.

Tips:

  • Before you commit to a paint color, paint a large piece of foam board with a sample of your desired color and put it on the floor to give you a good idea what the finished floor will look like.
  • It takes each coat about 24 hours to dry completely. So don’t jump the gun when applying the next, thin coat.
  • Your painted floor won’t completely cure for almost a month, so hold off on moving back heavy things like pianos and chests of drawers.
  • Protect your painted floor by putting mats down at the sink (wood and paint hate water) and high-traffic entryways.

5. Carpet

We love the idea of covering stains and reviving a carpet with upholstery paint. It saves hundreds of dollars and the hassle of getting rid of an old carpet.

Kathie Smula of Spray It New upholstery paint says carpets with a short pile are the best candidates for painting; long-pile carpets become hard and matted when painted.

Prep:

  1. Thoroughly clean the carpet before painting. You don’t have to steam clean it, but scrub up the worst stains and vacuum so dust and dirt don’t mix with the paint.
  2. Skip priming and just spray paint two or three coats, depending on how deep you want the color. Make sure it’s dry to the touch before spraying another coat.

Tips:

  • Don’t confuse upholstery paint, good for carpets, with fabric paint, good for T-shirts.
  • If you get heavy handed and paint clumps, loosen the area with a bristle brush and dab up excess paint.
  • Six cans of spray paint will cover an 8-foot-by-10-foot carpet with at least two coats.

6. Vinyl Floors

Painting is an inexpensive way to get a few more years out of old vinyl floors in kitchens and laundry rooms.

Prep:

  1. Wash the floor with a TSP (tri-sodium phosphate) solution to get rid of built-up dirt and grime.
  2. Rough up the shiny surface with 180-grit sandpaper. If some nooks and crannies remain glossy, apply a deglosser (paint stores sell it) to remove shine.
  3. Prime with a latex primer.
  4. Paint with a porch/floor paint.

Tips:

  • Save your back when sanding floors by using a sanding pole, like the ones drywall installers use.
  • Highly textured vinyl floor may require another sanding and a second coat of primer.

7. Appliances

Heat-resistant appliance paint will perk up your kitchen. Use an indoor appliance paint to change colors, or a liquid stainless steel application to give your appliance the stainless steel look.

Use a roller for small touchups; two or three thin coats of spray paint is better for total appliance coverage.

Prep:

  1. Clean appliance exteriors with a heavy-duty cleaning solution and, if needed, a scrubbing pad.
  2. Remove handles and hardware; place painters tape over trim and logos.
  3. Sand the exterior.

Tips:

  • Make sure the front of your appliance is metal, not plastic. Plastic exteriors will require priming, while appliance paint will stick more easily to metal exteriors.
  • If you’re spray-painting, haul the appliance outdoors to avoid getting paint on cabinets and floors. If you paint indoors, open windows to assure proper ventilation.
  • For the stainless look, Liquid Stainless Steel is the go-to product. It’s got real flakes of stainless steel. Apply with a brush.

5 Beloved Pets Who Tried to Burn Their Owners Alive

The top 5 pyro pets and the crimes that made them famous.

Almost 1,000 cases of pet arson are reported every year, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. Two years ago, the American Kennel Club decided to take action against these pyromaniac pets by launching National Pet Fire Safety Day (July 15) to warn unsuspecting owners of the potential danger. Here are the top-5 most notorious pet arsonists and the crimes that made them famous.

notorious-pet-arsonist-dog-istock_337c99ea67aeba061d9bf838f689c35c_3x2

5.  Lucy the dog denied cake; sets blaze

Just this February, Lucy nearly burned down her owner’s Jacksonville, Okla., house when she tried to eat a cake sitting on the stove. Lucy’s “big paws” turned on the gas burner, setting the kitchen on fire.

notorious-pet-arsonist-flameless-candle-istock_c283d9d00a070aa3d618c45047190089_3x24. Pyro cat waits for owner to fall asleep to burn down house

Also in February, a Lake Worth, Fla., family’s pet cat, Stewie, waited until his owners were asleep and then knocked over a candle to start a raging house fire, leaving them homeless.

notorious-pet-arsonist-rat-istock_3x2_f1bf2c3e2a1738450f052bc6378f6fd73. Rat’s flaming leash causes $30,000 in damage

In October 2008, a Florida teen tried to make a leash out of twine for their frisky pet rat, Amelia Earhart. Instead of using scissors to cut the twine, he used a lighter to burn it. A freaked out Amelia took off through the garage trailing the flaming “leash” behind her. The resulting inferno caused nearly $30,000 in damage.

notorious-pet-arsonist-squirrel-istock_ea1537db1acd073dbf41a92ff191016c_3x22. Gang of squirrels wanted for arson

In January 2009, a gang of hungry squirrels chewed through electrical cables in the Kent cottage of a former UK attorney general. The munching rodents set off an inferno that blazed through the property for hours.

1. Fish watch as apartment goes up in flames

Last May, comedian Tracy Morgan’s (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock) apartment caught fire, reportedly caused by a faulty aquarium light. Although the fish aren’t officially to blame for this one, they still watched it happen with cold, emotionless little fish eyes.

Kitchen Remodeling Decisions You’ll Never Regret

classic-kitchen-remodeling-white-cabinets_d313c2b197ce7b6e9c38338352ae8b0f_860x645_q85These 7 ideas will make your kitchen timelessly gorgeous and functional.

Chances are you’re only going to remodel your current kitchen once. After all, a complete kitchen renovation has a national median cost of $60,000, according to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. With that much on the line, you want to make all the right moves. If you do, you could recover about 67% of your investment if you sell.

So we’re here to future-proof you from angst by naming the seven definitive kitchen features that will retain their beauty, marketability, and value — all while giving you lasting enjoyment.

#1: White is the Dominant Color

Bottom line: White is the most marketable color. You’ll always find it atop the National Kitchen and Bath Association’s annual survey of most popular kitchen colors. It simply doesn’t go out of style.

  • Throughout history, it’s been associated with happiness, purity (think Snow White), and new beginnings.
  • It’s a bright color that reflects light and makes even small kitchens feel larger.
  • It’s a neatnik’s dream — dirt has no place to hide.

Even better, it’s uber-tolerant of both your budget and taste: A standard color for any manufacturer, you’ll find white cabinets, tile, counters, faucets, sinks, and appliances at any price point.

And with a white backdrop, you can be as conservative or expressive as you want. After all, it’s about your enjoyment, not just dollars and cents. For example:

  • Add your personal touch with colored glass knobs and pulls!
  • Show off antique Fiesta ware on open shelves or in upper cabinets with glass fronts.
  • Paint walls the color du jour — even off-white!

Heck, with a white palette, you can change your mind about paint color on a whim. Those all-white basics will make any hue you choose look fresh and contemporary.

classic-kitchen-remodeling-wood-floor-standard_524e855cd4c28ea487d1636ded871659_860x472_q85#2: Hardwood for Flooring

It’s been our foot fetish for years. That’s especially true ever since hardwood flooring was mass-produced during the Industrial Revolution, making beautiful flooring readily available at a reasonable cost.

Today, more than half of home buyers who purchased a home without hardwood floors say they would have paid an extra $2,080 for them, according to the “2013 Home Features Survey” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. And among buyers of any age, upwards of 80% say hardwood floors are “somewhat” or “very important.”

“It’s the one feature men and women agree on,” says Debe Robinson, NKBA treasurer and owner of Kitchen Expressions Inc. in Sheffield, Ala., who’s also worked in the flooring industry.

Why? The love of wood is in our genes. Our nesting instincts know that hardwood has warmth, personality, and makes our homes cozy and inviting. That’s why this clever chameleon pairs well with any kitchen style — from casual cottage and sleek contemporary to the most chi-chi Park Avenue traditional.

More reasons why wood flooring is the goof-proof option:

  • Perfect for open floor plans. It flows beautifully from the kitchen into adjoining rooms.
  • It’s tough. Hardwoods such as oak, ash, and maple will shrug off your kitchen’s high-traffic punishment for years. Solid hardwood flooring can be refinished 10 to 12 times during it’s typical 100-year lifespan.
  • It’s eco-friendly. Hardwood is considered a green building material when it’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and comes from sustainably managed forests.

classic-kitchen-remodeling-shaker-cabinets-standard_fcc97e6e03907f7bc739caae4c3fabbf_860x404_q85#3: Shaker Style for Cabinets

Thank heaven for the Shakers. While they were busy reducing life to its essentials, they made cabinets with clean, simple lines that will forever be in style.

Shaker cabinets are an enduring legacy of American style and, like wood flooring, have the knack for looking good in any setting. Their simple frame-and-panel design helps reduce the amount of busyness in a kitchen, making it a soothing, friendly place to be.

“In a kitchen with a timeless look, you want the cabinets to be part of the backdrop,” says Alan Zielinski, a former president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. “You don’t want to be overpowered. You’re looking for plain, simple, clean lines.”

Those plain, simple, clean lines are a perfect fit for transitional style — a beautiful combo of traditional and contemporary styles. In fact, the National Kitchen and Bath Association says that after creeping up on traditional for years, transitional is now the most popular kitchen style.

As our families grow more diverse, transitional style will only get more popular. It lets us personalize and blend cultural influences — Latin, Asian, Mideastern — into our homes; it’s the perfect balance of old and new, just like Shaker-style cabinets.

classic-kitchen-remodeling-calcatta-marble-standard_892806527ad71431c41229412e392bb3_860x572_q85#4: Carrara Marble for Countertops

Carrara marble is a timeless classic that’s been used in homes for thousands of years. (Michelangelo’s “David” was carved from Carrara.) It’ll look as good in the next millennium as it does now.

Here’s why:

  • Carrara’s lacy graining and subtle white colors look terrific in a white kitchen (or any kitchen, for that matter).
  • It has a whiteness you won’t find in other natural stones.
  • It’s readily available, making it less expensive than other high-end choices, such as quartz.
  • It’ll last for generations.

If you Google it, you’ll find a lot of debate about it (and marble in general) because it stains easily. But if you want something truly timeless, Carrara is the answer. And with today’s sealants, the problem of staining is almost moot if you reseal once or twice a year.

Still not sold? Or don’t have the budget? Laminate countertops are relatively inexpensive and can be upgraded to stone when you do have the budget.

#5: Subway Tile for the Backsplash

Subway tile goes back to the early 1900s, when it was used to line New York’s first subway tunnels. Classic subway tiles are white, 3-inch-by-6-inch rectangles — a look that became popular in American kitchens and baths, and has stuck around ever since. Now it’s an iconic part of the American design vernacular, destined never to go out of style.

In the kitchen, ceramic tile excels as a backsplash, where it guards against moisture, is a snap to clean, lasts forever, and always looks classy.

Sure, a backsplash can be an opportunity for a blast of color and pattern, but neutrals will always be current and blend with any look. Plus, a subway tile backsplash and a marble countertop make a dashing couple that will stand the test of time.

To make it even more enduring, keep it achromatic and camouflage dirt with gray or beige grout.

#6: Ergonomic Design

Adaptability and universal design features mean easy living at any age. A recent survey on kitchens from the American Institute of Architects points to the growing popularity of smart ergonomic design, a sign that kitchen adaptability will stay in vogue.

Smart ergonomics simply mean convenience — for young or old, party people or homebodies — a key factor when remodeling a kitchen that will function well, retain its value, and always feel right.

No matter you or your buyer’s current or future needs, everyone wins with these approaches:

  • Create different countertop heights. Standard height is 36 inches, but you can raise or lower sections of cabinets by altering the height of the base. Add color-match shim strips to the bases of countertops that don’t include sinks or appliances. You (or a new owner) can easily remove them or add to them to adjust the height.
  • Swap a standard range for a wall oven and a cooktop. Ranges have fixed heights. There’s no getting around the fact you have to bend to access the oven. But a wall oven conveniently installs about waist-high.
  • Add pull-out shelves to base cabinets. Lower cabinets with doors mean having to twist like a pretzel to see what’s inside. Pull-out shelves put everything at your fingertips.
  • Keep wide clearances. Kitchens attract people, and with open floor plans, you’re apt to have folks hunting for snacks, helping you cook, or just hanging out while you prep meals. Keep traffic flowing with a minimum of 42 inches between counters and islands.

#7: Smart Storage

Today’s families store about 47% of their kitchen stuff outside the kitchen — in laundry rooms, basements, even sheds — according to data released at the 2013 Kitchen and Bath Industry Show.

We blame it on the fact that kitchens have evolved from a tucked-away place at the back of the house into a multiple-chef, multi-tasking space that’s the hub of family life. Plus, our love of open kitchens and stocking up at warehouse stores means less wall space and more stuff, kitchen design expert Robinson says.

The solution: smart storage. Cabinet manufacturers have you covered with nearly unlimited storage options — shelves and compartments that unfold, turn, extend, and slide.

But it’s not just about having storage, it’s about designing it smartly. Follow these guidelines to make your storage timeless:

Create a primary storage zone. This is an area 30 to 60 inches high and within two feet on either side of your body. Store your most-used items here — your favorite work knives, measuring cups, salt and pepper for cooking, your trusty pots and pans. With one easy motion, you can grab what you use all the time.

Plan for the unknown. A truly timeless kitchen anticipates and adapts to future needs, such as:

  • A space that can easily convert to an office, wine storage, or a closet.
  • Lower cabinet spaces that can accommodate a wine cooler, under-counter refrigerator, a second dishwasher, or new must-have kitchen appliances on the horizon. (Remember when microwaves didn’t exist?)
  • An open space that fits a freestanding desk or favorite antique that can personalize the kitchen — no matter who owns the home.

Looking to buy or sell a home? Click here.

Ricotta Fritters with Grape Jam

Ricotta-Friters-Feature

Ingredients for the jam
2 pounds very ripe red-fleshed grapes
Pinch of granulated sugar, if needed

Ingredients for the fritters
2 quarts vegetable oil, for frying
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean
2 cups ricotta
Confectioners’ sugar or granulated
sugar, for dusting


Step 1: 
In a fine mesh strainer set over a bowl, pull open the skins of the grapes to expose the flesh. Holding the skins, press the flesh against the strainer to extract the juice, and allow it to drain into the bowl. Discard the skins and seeds. Use as is, or season the juice with a tiny pinch of sugar if needed. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use, up to 1 day.

Step 2: 
In a wide medium stockpot, Dutch oven, or deep fryer, heat the oil until it registers 365°F on a deep fry thermometer.

Step 3: 
Meanwhile, in a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and kosher salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, granulated sugar, orange zest, vanilla seeds, and ricotta. Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet just until incorporated. (The batter can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for several hours or up to 1 day.)

Step 4: 
Working in batches of about 8, gently drop 1-tablespoon balls of the batter into the hot oil, and fry, turning them occasionally, until golden all over, about 3 minutes per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain. (Allow the oil to come back to temperature between batches.)

Step 5: 
Sprinkle the fritters with confectioners’ sugar, or coat them with granulated sugar. Serve warm with the grape jam.

– See more at: http://americanlifestylemag.com/ricotta-fritters-with-grape-jam/#sthash.Wj5knaUM.dpuf

How to Help Troops and Veterans: Operation Gratitude

operationgratitudeYou’ve served your country. Let us serve you.

A Veterans’ Administration loan is one small way we can repay you for your service to America.

No down payment, no monthly mortgage insurance, minimal out-of-pocket expenses and a low interest rate from Sierra Pacific Mortgage unlock the front door to home ownership for you.

Bob ArnoldVA Features

  • Provides a wide range of rate, term, and cost options.
  • Doesn’t require monthly mortgage insurance.
  • Provides the potential for minimal out-of-pocket expenses with possible contributions.
  • No down payment, no closing cost option.

Please allow me to introduce Bob Arnold. “As a Sierra Pacific Mortgage Retail Branch Manager, I am dedicated to helping my team assist clients in finding the perfect loan tailored to their unique financial needs.”

Below, please find additional ways to help our troops…

One of the obstacles people face when they want to help veterans is knowing how to start. The nonprofit organization Operation Gratitude makes it easy to help.

Operation Gratitude’s main focus is on gathering items and letters to send to our troops, veterans, new recruits, and wounded warriors, in addition to military children. They’ve been sending over 150,000 care packages a year since they first started in 2003, and veterans are the primary recipients of all the charitable efforts, with over 95% of donations being put toward program services.

How can you work with Operation Gratitude help veterans? There are many easy, wonderful ways to do so; here are just a few of them.

Write a letter to a soldier or a veteran. People who are defending or have defended our country say that getting encouraging words from fellow Americans often means more than just about anything, and knowing what to write about is easier than you think.

Send items to be included in care packages. There are so many much-needed items that you can provide for Operation Gratitude’s veteran care packages, from food to clothes to toiletries.

Recycle your old cell phone or other electronics for soldiers. There’s no need to trash your old devices, when they can be put to good use by an appreciative member of our military.

Organize a collection drive in your area. Taking the lead in gathering items for veterans not only shows you care, it also spreads the word to others about veterans’ needs.

Arrange a veterans fundraising event. Much like a collection drive, volunteering to raise much-needed money for veterans goes beyond the giving—it also increases awareness for our veterans.

Donate money to cover shipping costs of care packages. If you’re more the type to help behind the scenes, you can make a tax-deductible donation to cover shipping costs for sending an Operation Gratitude care package (which is $15 a box).

To get more great ideas for ways you can help veterans, visit the Operation Gratitude website.

Are you looking for additional information? Please click here.

Unexpected Planters

recycledplantersWith the large variety of plant options available, it makes sense that picking a plant is often the first step to incorporating nature into your space. But what if you start by making the right vessel to hold your plant? Your planter makes a huge impact on the look and feel of the overall display, so get creative! Whether you want to personalize your planter with your initials or want to incorporate your love of reading, we have an original idea for your plant’s new home.

Rain Boot Flower Pots Brighten up your patio with the rain boots of past years. They make great planters because they are sturdy, waterproof, and deep enough for plants to take root. Best of all, this clever upcycle project is quick and easy to complete. Just drill some holes in the bottom of your boots, add some potting soil in the base, and place a colorful plant inside. With proper care, your flowers will be blooming in no time.

Book Lover’s Succulent Garden Show your appreciation for reading with this unique planter. Give an old book 
a fresh purpose by cutting out the middle section of the pages and making it into a garden by adding some interesting succulents and moss.

Ladle Garden Here’s a great way to make a big impression in a small space. Recycle retired soup ladles to create a kitchen wall plant display. You can paint the spoons to match your decor, and vary the layout to fit your available space. When you have your design, simply attached the ladles to the wall with hooks. Then place succulents into the bowl of each ladle for a low-maintenance, one-of-a-kind feature in your home.

Letter Centerpiece Personalize your table with vibrant flowers in the shape of a letter. All you have to do is buy a metal letter at your local craft store, and plant your flowers of choice. Your living centerpiece will be the talk of your next dinner party!

Petite Seashell Planter Hey beach lovers: even if paperwork is piling up, you will want to make room on your desk for this miniature planter. (Not that it takes up much room.) Just place an air plant into the base of your favorite small seashell to remind yourself of the sun, sand, and sounds of the waves gently lapping the shore, even when you’re at work and there’s rain falling outside. And there’s no need to worry about sunburn!

 

You Can’t Detect These 4 Stinky Smells, But Your Guests Can. Smell Better Fast

stinky smellYou’re noseblind to your home’s odors. Here’s how to find and eliminate the smelly culprits.

Stand in your kitchen and take a deep breath. Smell that? From last night’s fish to your son’s nasty lacrosse pads (why did he leave them on the table?), you probably can’t detect any of your home’s rankest odors. You’ve got nose blindness.

“You adapt to the smells around you,” says Dr. Richard Doty, the director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania. On a sensory level, your processing mechanism becomes less sensitive to the continuous stimuli. Or, on a cognitive level, you can become habituated to the smells and basically learn to ignore them. Or you can do both.

But on a I-don’t-want-my-house-to-stink level, you don’t have to be resigned to living with odors — even if you can’t smell them yourself. Here are some of the most common nose blindness culprits, and how to ban them from your home.

1. Love Your Pet. Destroy Their Smells.

There’s one easy way to tell if your home smells like pets: Do you have them? Then yeah, unless you’re an obsessive cleaner and groomer, your abode has at least some Fido funk. It could be pee, but more likely it’s just hair, gunky ears, and weeks-old slobber.

The first step to cleaning up pet smells is — sorry, pets — cleaning the pets themselves. Bathe and groom them regularly.

Then, vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. If they have a favorite couch or cushion, cover it with a blanket and run it — and the cushion cover — through the wash weekly. Every time you vacuum, start with a hearty sprinkle of baking soda on the carpet. And use that crevice tool liberally; pet hair loves tight spaces like the border between the carpet and the wall, the edges of your steps and that little crack of space between the stove and your cabinets.

Hopefully urine isn’t the issue, but to be sure, you can use a black light to out any dried stains your pet was hoping you’d never notice. Use more of that baking soda followed by a half-water, half-vinegar solution to neutralize the odor. Lots of people also swear by store-bought neutralizers, like Nature’s Miracle.

2. Battle Basement Mustiness … With Onion?

Fortunately, nose blindness only affects one of your senses, and you don’t need your nose to verify a basement with a musty smell. Mustiness is caused by mildew and mold, which — for better or for worse — your eyeballs can easily detect. Do a careful inspection of your basement, from the darkest corner to the surface of every cardboard box or bookshelf. If you find gray or white splotches anywhere, it’s probably mildew. If it’s fuzzy, (oh no!) it’s mold.

First, you’ll want to bust up those existing odors. Then, you’ll want to make sure they never return. A solution of one-part bleach to four-parts water and some elbow grease will help you scrub away mildew. Although bleach can be used to clean mold too, it usually isn’t necessary. A regular household cleaner can do the trick.

To prevent mildew and mold from returning, consider running a dehumidifier or improving air circulation and sunlight exposure in the affected area if possible. For chronic mustiness, you can deodorize rooms by setting out bowls of vinegar, cat litter, baking soda, or — as crazy as this sounds — an onion also will do the trick. Cut one in half and let it sit in a bowl in the room. The onion smell goes away in a few hours, and so will the dankness.

3. Mind Mattress Smells

Similar to pet odors, knowing if your mattress could smell is easy: Do you have a human body with skin and oils? Do you sleep on it? Eventually, all the dead skin and body oils you shed while sleeping are going to build up, and stink they will, especially if your bedding is older.

You can’t exactly toss your mattress in the washing machine, so you’ll have to deal with it where it lies. But it’s an easy fix: Sprinkle baking soda on it, let it sit for an hour or more, and then vacuum up the soda. (This works for memory foam, too.) Add a couple drops of essential oil to the soda (drip directly into the box and shake it well to mix evenly) for a pleasant smell. Bonus: Lavender has been shown to help you sleep.

4. Fade Fridge and Freezer Funk 

It’s your fridge and freezer’s job to keep your food fresh, but they need a little help staying fresh themselves. Itty bitty food bits hang out long after you’ve tossed the item from which they came. Although you might not notice the odor creep, you may notice your ice starting to taste funny or see those food morsels start to accumulate in the corners of your fridge shelves. If you see or taste something icky, you can bet others can smell something icky.

To zap odors from from your freezer and fridge, unplug and empty them and do a thorough cleaning with a mix of hot water and baking soda. You can sanitize with a solution of one tablespoon bleach and one gallon of water. Let it air out for 15 minutes. Try wiping it down with vinegar for extra odor eliminating, or even leave the door open for a few days. What better excuse is there for a long weekend away, or to treat yourself to takeout?

Do you need assistance with any of these issues?  Let me know.