How to Create a Marshmallow Snowman

Snowmen have always been one of the more fun images of winter, as they literally stand in snowy landscapes as symbols of wintertime happiness. And snowmen have become even more popular in recent years, thanks mostly to Olaf, the lovably goofy snowman in Frozen.

Now you can bring the snowman enjoyment inside—for both kids and adults—with this recipe for a marshmallow snowman! Put him together and rest him on top of your kids’ hot chocolate or your homemade gingerbread latte for a fun added touch to a warm winter’s drink.


Ingredients:

  • 3 marshmallows
  • 3 pretzel sticks
  • black gel food coloring

Instructions:

  1. Break 1 pretzel stick into 4 pieces: 3 equal pieces and one small piece. Keep the small piece for later, and use the 3 larger pieces to attach the 3 marshmallows together, angling the bottom 2 so that the marshmallows sit.
  2. Break the other 2 pretzel sticks in half. Put 2 pieces in the sides of the middle marshmallow to make arms, and put the other 2 in the bottom marshmallow as legs.
  3. Put the small pretzel in the middle of the top marshmallow as the nose, and use the black gel to make the eyes, mouth, and buttons. Your marshmallow man is ready to take a refreshing float atop your latte!

3 Ways to Restructure Mortgage and Save Thousands

You can refinance or recast your mortgage. Or you can create your own DIY mortgage restructuring plan. We compare so you can decide.

The way your mortgage is structured today doesn’t have to be the way it’s structured tomorrow. What are your goals? To free up funds, reduce your monthly nut, or pay off your loan more quickly?

These three strategies offer something for most everyone.

  • Send in extra money to pay down principal.
  • Recast your mortgage.
  • Refinance your loan.

Send in Extra Money to Pay Down Principal

In the mid-1970s, Marc Eisenson coined the term “banker’s secret,” which promoted a cost-saving idea: Pay more than required on your monthly mortgage, and you’ll save a pile of money. Eisenson says, “It was a secret that bankers knew, but didn’t share with their customers.”

Here’s how it works. If you take out a $200,000 30-year mortgage at an interest rate of 6%, and hold it to term, you’ll pay a total of $382,537.97 for your home, including interest of $182,537.97. However, if you send in just $100 each month in additional principal, you’ll save more than $49,000 in interest over the term of the loan.

There’s another huge perk: You’ll pay off the loan five years and five months ahead of schedule. This strategy puts you in total control of the restructuring process, and there are no fees involved.

Another way to pay off your loan early is to use a bi-weekly payment plan. Banks and third-party companies can implement this plan for you, but they’ll charge hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees. We don’t recommend you pay for the service unless you lack the self-discipline to make the payments yourself.

With this strategy, you make half your monthly mortgage payment every two weeks, which equals 13 payments a year instead of 12. With bi-weekly payments on a 30-year $200,000 loan, you’ll save more than $49,000 in interest over the course of the loan, and pay it off approximately five years earlier.

Other ways to easily do it yourself:

  • Make one additional mortgage payment per year at any time.
  • Divide your monthly payment by 12, and add that extra amount each month when you pay your mortgage.

Recast Mortgage for Lower Payments

If you want to lower your monthly payment and have at least $5,000 to contribute, you can request a mortgage recast. In this scenario, you don’t change the interest rate or term of your mortgage, you change the principal balance, and the term begins anew.

Here’s how it works: After 10 years of paying your 30-year mortgage with a 6% interest rate and a monthly payment of $1,432.86, your balance is $200,000. With a mortgage recast, you contribute an additional $20,000, and have a new principal amount of $180,000, with the same remaining 20 years to pay it off at 6%. However, your new monthly payment is $1,289.58, for a savings of $143.28 per month.

There’s a small fee for this service — approximately $250. The bank gets nothing out of this except retaining your loyalty, so they don’t promote it. It’s up to the lender whether it’ll do it, so all you can do is ask. It’s also likely to be a lengthy process. You have nothing to lose, however, except a higher monthly payment.

Refinance Your Loan

The most common way to restructure your loan is with a mortgage refinance, where you replace your current mortgage with a new one at a lower interest rate. If you took that same $200,000 balance on your 6% mortgage and refinanced into one with a 5% interest rate, you’d reduce your monthly payment from $1,199 to $1,074, saving $125 monthly.

Refinancing may be challenging to get approved for in a tight lending environment, where you need stellar credit scores and a steady job history. You’ll also need to pay closing costs, which can run 3% to 6% of the loan amount.

These tips are appropriate if you’re current on your mortgage and have extra money. Struggling home owners should consider the government-sponsored Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) for mortgage restructuring.

How Much Snow is Too Much Snow on Your Roof?

Got snow on your roof? Here’s how to know if you should remove it.

Wow. That’s a lot of snow on your roof. So much snow that you’re not sure if you’re going to be able to sleep tonight for fear of it caving in. Well, odds are it’s not going to cave in.

But if you’re really worried, here’s how to figure out if your roof is at risk — and how to remove that risk.

How Much Does the Snow Weigh?

The critical factor in determining excessive snow loads on your roof isn’t the depth of the snow, it’s the weight, says home improvement expert Jon Eakes.

That’s because wet snow is a whole lot heavier than dry, fluffy snow. In fact, six inches of wet snow is equal to the weight of about 38 inches of dry snow. That’s a huge difference!

The good news is that your roof is required by building codes to withstand the heaviest snows for your part of the country.

“Theoretically, if your roof is built to code, it’s built to support more than the normal load of snow and ice,” says Eakes.

How to know if you’ve got wet or dry snow?  You back will let you know. Simply heft a few shovelfuls — you should be able to quickly tell. Plus, local weather forecasts should alert you if snow loads are becoming excessive.

How to Tell if the Snow Load on Your Roof Is Too Much

Your interior doors are a really good clue. If they begin to stick, that signals there’s enough weight on the center structure of the house to distort the door frame (yikes!).

Ignore doors on exterior walls but check interior doors leading to second-floor bedrooms, closets, and attics in the center of your home. Also, examine the drywall or plaster around the frames of these doors for visible cracks.

Homes that are most susceptible to roof cave-ins are those that underwent sloppy renovations. Improper removal of interior load-bearing walls is often responsible for catastrophic roof collapses from snow.

If You Think the Snow Needs to Be Removed

Most home roofs aren’t readily accessible, making the job dangerous for do-it-yourselfers.

“People die every year just climbing ladders,” Eakes points out. “Add ice and snow and you’re really asking for trouble.”

Instead, call a professional snow removal contractor to safely do the job.

Check to make sure they are licensed and insured — that immediately sets them apart from inexperienced competitors.

Expect to pay $250 to $500 for most jobs. That’s because they need special gear, including sturdy extension ladders, properly anchored safety harnesses, and specialized snow and ice-removal tools.

Don’t expect (or demand) a bone-dry roof at job’s end. The goal is to remove “excessive” weight as opposed to all weight. Plus, any attempt to completely remove the bottom layer of ice will almost always result in irreparable damage to your roofing.

If You Want to Remove Snow Yourself

If you have a small, one-story bungalow where the roof is just off the ground, taking matters into one’s own hands may be safe — if you can work entirely from the ground and have the right tools.

Long-handled snow rakes work great on freshly fallen snow, and at $45 they are relatively affordable. Look for models with sturdy telescoping handles and built-in rollers, which keep the blade safely above the shingles.

Other versions work by releasing the snow from underneath. These models slide between the roof and snow, allowing gravity and the snow’s own weight to do most of the work. These are more pricey, rising well above $100. But it’s a good idea to rethink their use. Eakes points out, “They tend to work their best on light, fluffy snow — the kind that probably doesn’t need to be removed in the first place.”

A couple of tips if you’re going to remove snow from the roof yourself:

1. You’ll need to anticipate where the snow and ice will fall as you pull it off your roof — you won’t want to pull a load of heavy, wet snow down on top of yourself or any helpers.

2. Remember, the goal isn’t to remove all visible snow and ice, but rather just enough to relieve the excessive load on the roof.

Ideas and Tips for Finishing a Basement Ceiling

Finishing your basement ceiling instantly turns your basement into a living area. Here are some smart ways to finish it off.

A typical basement ceiling is an unsightly maze of plumbing pipes, wires, ductwork, and structural bracing. But take heart: Hiding all those systems with a finish material will give your basement instant credibility as usable living space.

Finishing a basement ceiling often involves some compromises. In places, ductwork or plumbing pipes are lower than the joists, making it impossible to have a nice, smooth, uninterrupted ceiling. We’ll give you some ideas for getting around those problems.

Hiding Everything with Paint

One of the fastest and most economical ways to finish a basement ceiling is to paint everything. A monochromatic ceiling disguises all the pipes and ductwork — it’s a technique often used in urban spaces that are converted to coffee houses and shops.

A paint sprayer is ideal because it’s easy to coat all the various features from different angles. Rent a sprayer and DIY it for $100/day plus paint; have a pro do it for $300-$500 (400 sq. ft.), including paint.

Tips to remember:

  • Black and dark colors are more effective than light colors for masking components.
  • Use paint with a flat sheen; glossier sheens attract attention.
  • You can paint unusual surfaces, such as exposed fiberglass insulation and electrical wires, but prime metal ducts beforehand.
  • Clean off cobwebs and dirt before you spray.

Installing Drop Ceilings

A drop ceiling (also called a suspended ceiling) completely covers pipes and ductwork. It’s a metal grid that hangs on wires attached to the joists. Lightweight acoustical panels slide into the grid to form a continuous ceiling surface.

A drop ceiling has these advantages:

  • It’s simple to install.
  • The panels absorb sound, helping to muffle noise between floors.
  • The panels are easy to remove, allowing access to pipes and wires for repairs and making changes.

In the past, drop ceilings have gotten a well-deserved bad rap for being unattractive. However, you now can find acrylic or mineral fiber panels and matching grids that look like coffered frame-and-panel wood, decorative pressed metal, and other cool designs.

DIY your basement ceiling for $2-$3 per sq. ft. or have a pro do it for $3-$6 per sq. ft.

Tip: A primary goal is to install the ceiling grid flat and level. Renting a laser level ($90/day) helps keep your ceiling straight and true. Plan 2 days to install a 400-sq.-ft. drop ceiling.

Installing Paneling and Drywall

If you don’t have obstructions hanging below your joists, you easily can finish your basement ceiling using drywall or paneling, such as 4-by-8-foot sheets of decorative grooved wall paneling.

  • Sheet paneling is easy to install, but you’ll have to figure out what to do with the seams at the ends of the panels. If seeing the seams doesn’t bother you, then problem solved. Otherwise, cover the seams with a strip of molding. Plan your paneling layout so that seams occur every 4 feet; run molding all the way across the room for an even, textured look.

Pre-finished sheet paneling costs $12-$29 for a 4-by-8-foot sheet.

  • Individual boards, such as tongue-and groove pine, is a good-looking option. It’s more expensive, but it’s lightweight, goes up easily, and makes a good DIY project. You’ll pay about $1.25 per sq. ft. Leave it natural or stain it to let the grain show through.
  • Drywalling your ceiling is a good job for a moderately skilled DIYer; it costs about 50 to 60 cents per sq. ft., including materials. However, a pro will finish the job a lot faster and with better results. You’ll pay a pro $1.50 to $2 per sq. ft.

Tip: You’ll need a helper or two because holding 4-by-8-foot sheets of paneling or drywall overhead is awkward.

Getting Around Obstructions

In some basements, pipes or ducts might dip below joists only in certain areas. If that’s the case, you might be able to work around them by building soffits.

  • A soffit is a lowered part of a ceiling. It’s made using framing materials to build a box around the obstruction. Drywall or paneling goes over the new framing. Soffits make the most sense along walls, where their lowered height won’t get in the way.

With planning, you can get creative with soffits. For example, even if you only need to cover ductwork at one part of your ceiling, you can extend the soffit all the way around the perimeter of your basement to create a two-level ceiling, called a tray ceiling.

  • Box beams are another possible solution. A box beam is a fake, hollow beam made from three boards nailed together. Create a beamed ceiling and let pipes and wires run in the hollow channels. It’s an especially good solution if your basement has tall ceilings and you’d like an elegant look.

Tip: Before building soffits or box beams, explore the possibility of moving obstructions. Talk to your plumber or HVAC specialist to see if moving ducts and pipes is easier — and cheaper — than building around them.

Using Fabric

The simplest way to mask overhead pipes and ducts is with fabric. Nail or staple it to joists and let it hang down so it hides all that overhead stuff. It might make your basement look a sheik’s tent, but that’s not bad! Certainly better than pipes and cobwebs!

5 Real Estate Trends to Expect in 2017

Gazing into a crystal ball requires a leap of faith, but if you’re willing to take a look, you might find a few insightful nuggets that could help you and your clients make more informed decisions. Zillow’s predictions for 2017 include a change in course for the housing market as it continues to reflect the nation’s economic recovery. For more information on the housing market Click here

 

Cities will get cozier

Smaller homes will crowd each other in new, denser developments, and they will be closer to public transit and urban centers. Knowing that square footage is off the table, your buyer clients might ask you to focus more on finding homes with upscale features or green technology.

Millennials will move out of the nest

No surprise here if you’ve read the Zillow Group Report on Consumer Housing Trends. In 2017, millennials will continue to drive up the homeownership rate by finally buying homes of their own. As millennials are the most racially diverse cohort, it also means more people of color will become homeowners. Your marketing efforts might include updated strategies to attract this new generation of buyers.

New construction buyers will pony up

Labor shortages in the construction industry — possibly compounded by the President-elect’s proposed immigration policy crackdown — have resulted in rising construction wages, which will be passed on to buyers who choose new construction homes. It will be vital to let buyers know they can negotiate for upgrade credits, floor plan options or reduced closing costs to recoup some value when they choose a new construction home.

Commuters will get comfortable

In their cars, that is. As homeowners move deeper into the suburbs — and farther away from viable public transportation — in search of affordable housing, the percentage of people who drive to work will increase. Although inventory remains low, farming local suburban homeowners might help you drum up some listings.

Current homeowners will continue to prosper

National home values rose 4.8 percent between December 2015 and 2016, and the trend is likely to continue past the New Year’s celebrations. In 2017, Zillow predicts home values will grow 3.6 percent. It’s an opportunity to check in with homeowners who might have been waiting for a better list price.

If you would like additional information, Click here

6 Things Everyone Should Do When Moving Into a New House

Skip potential trouble by doing these 6 things.

When I bought my first house, my timing couldn’t have been better: The house closing was two weeks before the lease was up on my apartment. That meant I could take my time packing and moving, and I could get to know the new place before moving in.

I recruited family and friends to help me move (in exchange for a beer-and-pizza picnic on the floor) and, as a bonus, I got to pick their brains about what first-time homeowners should know.

Their help was one of the best housewarming presents I could have gotten. And thanks to their expertise and a little Googling, here’s what I learned about what to do before moving in.

1. Change the Locks

You really don’t know who else has keys to your home, so change the locks. That ensures you’re the only person who has access. Install new deadbolts yourself for as little as $10 per lock, or call a locksmith — if you supply the new locks, they typically charge about $20 to $30 per lock for labor.

2. Check for Plumbing Leaks

Your home inspector should do this for you before closing, but it never hurts to double-check. I didn’t have any plumbing leaks to fix, but when checking my kitchen sink, I did discover the sink sprayer was broken. I replaced it for under $20.

Keep an eye out for dripping faucets and running toilets, and check your water heater for signs of a leak.

Here’s a neat trick: Check your water meter at the beginning and end of a two-hour window in which no water is being used in your house. If the reading is different, you have a leak.

3. Steam Clean Carpets

Do this before you move your furniture in, and your new home life will be off to a fresh start. You can pay a professional carpet cleaning service — you’ll pay about $50 per room; most services require a minimum of about $100 before they’ll come out — or you can rent a steam cleaner for about $30 per day and do the work yourself. I was able to save some money by borrowing a steam cleaner from a friend.

4. Wipe Out Your Cabinets

Another no-brainer before you move in your dishes and bathroom supplies. Make sure to wipe inside and out, preferably with a non-toxic cleaner, and replace contact paper if necessary.

When I cleaned my kitchen cabinets, I found an unpleasant surprise: Mouse poop. Which leads me to my next tip …

5. Give Critters the Heave-Ho

That includes mice, ratsbatstermitesroaches, and any other uninvited guests. There are any number of DIY ways to get rid of pests, but if you need to bring out the big guns, an initial visit from a pest removal service will run you $100 to $300, followed by monthly or quarterly visits at about $50 each time.

For my mousy enemies, I strategically placed poison packets around the kitchen, and I haven’t found any carcasses or any more poop, so the droppings I found must have been old. I might owe a debt of gratitude to the snake that lives under my back deck, but I prefer not to think about him.

6. Introduce Yourself to Your Circuit Breaker Box and Main Water Valve

My first experience with electrical wiring was replacing a broken light fixture in a bathroom. After locating the breaker box, which is in my garage, I turned off the power to that bathroom so I wouldn’t electrocute myself.

It’s a good idea to figure out which fuses control what parts of your house and label them accordingly. This will take two people: One to stand in the room where the power is supposed to go off, the other to trip the fuses and yell, “Did that work? How about now?

You’ll want to know how to turn off your main water valve if you have a plumbing emergency, if a hurricane or tornado is headed your way, or if you’re going out of town. Just locate the valve — it could be inside or outside your house — and turn the knob until it’s off. Test it by turning on any faucet in the house; no water should come out.

 

Hoarding Cats, Stuff Detrimental to Home Values

unknownHoarding isn’t just a safety issue: It also harms home value.

The case of an upstate New York cat hoarder once again puts the complex problem of hoarding in the spotlight. But there’s a serious consequence of hoarding — aside from health and safety issues — that can be learned here: how hoarding hurts home values. Irene Vandyke, 50, of Wright, N.Y., could face charges after authorities found 67 dead cats wrapped in plastic bags in her freezer and 99 live cats stuffed in crates that were stacked floor-to-ceiling in her home. Her house was condemned and deemed unfit for human occupancy, the Times Union newspaper in Albany reported.

People who were aware of the situation in Vandyke’s home said they tried to help her and remove the animals from her house, but she repeatedly denied their offers. Kerrie Colin, manager of the Animal Shelter of Schoharie in Howes Cave, N.Y., where the live felines were taken for medical treatment, told the Times Union that Vandyke was resistant to previous intervention efforts. “The minute anyone tried to take her cats, she freaked out and threw them off her property,” Colin said. “She definitely had a hoarder mentality. She’s not a horrible person. She just needs help and counseling.”

Authorities, however, told WRGB-TV in Albany that Vandyke was “cooperative” when officers arrived to remove the felines and “relieved to see the cats go.” Authorities said they were tipped off to Vandyke’s animal hoarding after a neighbor called to complain about the smell of cat urine and feces coming from her home. The live cats are recovering well at the shelter, Colin said.

The often-deplorable conditions of a hoarder’s home such as this one is usually the biggest concern, but equally important is how the hoarding is dragging down the value of the home — and neighboring properties. One Yahoo! columnist wrote that she and her family were trying to sell her grandmother’s Victorian house after she died. It was worth $500,000, but because it was impossible to clear out the mounds of junk piled high inside, the family ended up having to sell it for $300,000.

The International OCD Foundation (hoarding is thought to be a symptom of obsessive-complusive disorder) says that hoarding can lead to structural problems in the home, causing it to become decrepit. That drags down its value and the values of neighboring properties. Rodent infestations can also spread from the home to neighboring homes, further dragging down values of every home affected. For landlords, hoarding can result in the loss of rental income when it becomes impossible for an apartment damaged by the effects of hoarding to be rented at market rate.

Also, home owners insurance may be difficult for a hoarder to get or renew. If a home owners insurance claim is filed, an agent may come to the home to assess the claim’s needs. If the agent finds a hoarding situation at the home during the visit, the claim — or the entire home owners insurance policy — could be denied.

Best Money-Saving DIY Projects (and Tips for Doing Them Right)

diy-how-much-save-entry-door-standard_1x1_f8d431e6db80d56d6319d72ef2816886_165x165_q85When you factor in return on investment, you’d be nuts not to DIY.

You’re going to save money with DIY home improvement projects. Sure, everybody knows that.

But did you know how much? Cut professionals out of the equation and you can save half the cost of a project — or more. On a minor bathroom refresh, that could be up to $10,000.

What’s more, you get a great return on your investment. Meaning, the financial value you get out of a DIY project is much more than what you put in.

Of course there are projects where pro installation is going to be much faster and safer, and worth the price of a hiring a contractor. Major exterior improvements, such as replacing roofing and siding, are prime candidates.

Nevertheless, going DIY is the ultimate money-saving tool. You’ll also get tons of satisfaction and enjoyment from creating a better home environment and learning home improvement skills that’ll last a lifetime.

Here’s a rundown of some top money-saving projects, using cost and recovered costs data from the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.

But before we get to that, let’s swat aside some concerns. Or go straight to the projects.

What If You Don’t Have the Skills?

Sorry, not buying it. How-to tutorials are everywhere. Check out YouTube for video instructions on everything from taking out a toilet to tiling your shower stall. In addition:

  • Most major manufacturers have tutorials on their websites. If you’re looking to install a particular product, check out the horse’s mouth for videos and PDF instructions.
  • Big box home improvement centers run clinics on installing tile, building decks, paint finishes, and more — free. Spend an hour or so at a clinic to learn direct from professionals.
  • Yes, physical books still exist. Buy new, or head down to your local library for free how-to books you can keep for weeks. (Yes, they still have overdue fines!)

What If You Don’t Have the Time?

That’s the trade-off. Your time (and labor) is going to stand in for cash out of your pocket. If you truly don’t have the time, then DIY probably isn’t for you.

The next best move is to BIY your project — buy-it-yourself. With a BIY project, you do the research, shopping, and purchasing of materials and save the contractor’s markup. You need to work closely with your professional to make sure you agree on what stuff you’ll be buying, and what is still the contractor’s responsibility.

The Best Money-Saving Projects With Great ROI

New Steel Front Door

Few replacement projects have as much upside as a new steel entry door. Not only will you recover about 75% of the cost of having an entry door professionally installed, but you’ll spruce up your curb appeal big time. Want proof? Ninety-six percent of homeowners responding to the “Remodeling Impact Report” say they are happy or satisfied with their new front door.

Of course, you’ll save even more if you tackle this project yourself. Know your door parts (jambs, threshold, stops) before digging in. You’ll be putting in a pre-hung door that includes jambs, so the old stuff has to come out. If you can, preserve the old casing (trim) that goes around the door. Otherwise, plan to buy new casing.

If You Hire If You DIY
Cost $2,000 Cost $250
Recoup at sale $1,500 Recoup at sale $1,500
% recoup 75% % recoup 600%

This is a good one to have a friend or spouse lend a hand. It’ll take six to eight hours if it’s your first time. Remember the three-legged mantra of door installation: Plumb, level, square.

New Garage Door

Tired of looking at that big blank billboard every time you pull into your driveway? Change out your old garage door for a spiffy new steel model and the whole neighborhood will thank you. Save some cash by keeping the same motorized opener.

If You Hire If You DIY
Cost $2,300 Cost $850
Recoup at sale $2,000 Recoup at sale $2,000
% recoup 87% % recoup 235%

A steel garage door comes in four panels that are relatively lightweight but awkward — get a friend to lend a hand and you’ll have this project done in a day. Then stand back and admire along with 95% of homeowners in the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” who said they were happy or satisfied with their new garage door.

New Vinyl Windows

If you want to replace four or more windows, or a second-story window, then hire the work out. Being up on a ladder with an object as bulky as a window is no place for a non-professional. Pros bring scaffolding, which takes time to set up but ultimately makes the work faster and safer.

Replacing one, two, or maybe three first-story windows is a good DIY job. Anything more and the pros will get the job done with better efficiency in terms of time and hassle.

If You Hire If You DIY
Cost (per window) $556 Cost (per window) $250
Recoup at sale $444 Recoup at sale $444
% recoup 80% % recoup 178%

If you’ve measured your rough opening correctly and bought the right window, then one window should take you three to four hours. You’ll get faster with subsequent windows.

New Wood Flooring

Few projects are as satisfying, while recovering such a high percentage of your investment, as new wood flooring. According to the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report,” 96% of homeowners were happy or satisfied with their professionally installed hardwood floors. Combine that with a 91% return on your investment, and you’ll likely be a very happy homeowner.

For the DIYer, installing hardwood flooring is a bit labor intensive, but the techniques are fairly easy to master. Once you get the hang of it, installing prefinished hardwood flooring should go smoothly.

If You Hire If You DIY
Cost $5,500 Cost $1,770
Recoup at sale $5,000 Recoup at sale $5,000
% recoup 91% % recoup 282%

Insulation Upgrade

OK, maybe it’s not the sexiest project. After all, it’s tucked out of sight in your attic. But you can feel it with increased comfort, and see the savings on your energy bill. Those are big pluses.

Upgrading an under-insulated attic space can save you up to 50% per year in energy costs. With a pro cost of $2,100, it’ll take at least a couple of years to pay off your investment with savings. Do it yourself, however, and you’ll only spend about $700 for enough 10-inch-thick fiberglass batt insulation to cover a 20-foot-by-40-foot attic space. You’ll pocket the savings much sooner.

It’s also an awkward project, it can be messy, and you’ll need to bundle up behind protective clothing. However, insulating your attic is a low-skill project that most DIYers can pull off. Just be sure not to stick your foot through the drywall under the attic floor joists!

If You Hire If You DIY
Cost $2,100 Cost $700
Recoup at sale $2,000 Recoup at sale $2,000
% recoup 95% % recoup 286%

 

 

Cashew Cheese Ball

cashewcheese_headerCheese balls are a crowd favorite–especially in the fall and winter months. But they’re not always the healthiest option on the table. Take a crack at making your own updated version–replacing cheese with cashews. It’s a perfectly easy, lactose-free alternative for the upcoming holidays.

Ingredients: 

  • 2 cups raw cashews, soaked in water for at least
  • 2 hours or overnight
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
  • 1 teaspoon miso paste
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon dried basil or dill
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Handful of finely chopped raw almonds or pine nuts, or handful of chopped fresh herbs, such as chives, for topping

Instructions:

  1. Rinse and drain the cashews. Place in a food processor, and process on high speed until crumbs form. Add the yeast, miso paste, garlic, lemon juice, basil, and onion powder, and mix on high speed to make a smooth paste. Season with the salt, black pepper, and cayenne.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a cheesecloth. Wrap the cheesecloth around the mixture, forming it into a ball, and twist the top, squeezing out as much moisture as possible.
  3. Tuck the ends of the cheesecloth underneath the ball, and place it in a colander.
  4. Suspend the colander in a larger bowl, and transfer the bowl to the refrigerator for 2 hours, until the liquid no longer drips and the ball holds its shape.
  5. Sprinkle the nuts on a plate. Unwrap the cheese ball, and roll in the chopped nuts until fully encrusted. Serve with crackers.

7 Steps to a Stress-Free Home Closing

walk-thruThis cheat sheet helps you do your homework, so you know what you’re signing when you close the sale of your home.

You’ve already cleared several hurdles by finding the right home, negotiating the best price, and getting approved for a mortgage. The last obstacle on your homebuying track is the closing, which can be both tedious and tense. By knowing what to expect and doing some legwork, you can smoothly put your closing behind you. These seven steps will guide you.

1.  Set a Closing Date

Ask your title company to set a closing date and time that meshes with the end of your lease or the sale of your existing home. Don’t want to skip work? Ask for an evening or weekend closing. Tight on cash? Schedule your closing for the end of the month. That’s when you’ll pay the least amount of interest at the closing table.

2.  Gather Your Funds

Buyers usually have to bring money to the closing. Ask the title company what forms of payment it accepts. Chances are you can’t use a personal check.

If you have to move money into your bank account to pay your closing costs, do so a week ahead to avoid last-minute problems. If the title company requires the funds in the form of a cashier’s check, stop by the bank a few days before closing to pick it up.

3.  Purchase Title Insurance

If you’re getting a mortgage, you have to buy a title insurance policy. Think it protects you against problems with the title of your home? Nope, it protects the lender in case the sellers really didn’t own the home or someone else had a claim on it.

To cover yourself, you can buy an owner’s title policy from the same insurance company that sells you the lender’s title policy. Or, shop online at Closing.com, EasyTitleQuote.com, or FreeTitleQuote.com. An owner’s title policy insures you against losses from fraudulent claims against your ownership and errors in earlier sales. In some areas, sellers traditionally pay for the buyer’s title policy.

Whether or not you get the owner’s policy, if you buy a title policy from the same company that issued the prior owner’s title insurance, you can ask for a reissue discount or “bring-down” rate. There’s a discount because the title company only has to check the records filed since that prior owner bought the home, not since the dawn of time.

4.  Line Up Homeowners Insurance

Get quotes and compare policies to be sure coverage will start by your closing date. An annual policy should run $500 tohome-with-magnifier $1,000, depending on your home’s size, age, and amenities. To get a lower premium, opt for a high deductible or buy your homeowners insurance from the same company that insures your car.

If you live in an area where natural disasters occur, like earthquakes, floods, or hurricanes, you’ll need separate insurance to protect your home from those hazards.

5. Review Your Good Faith Estimate and HUD-1 Settlement Sheet

Your lender already gave you a Good Faith Estimate (GFE) that showed your estimated closing fees. Some of the fees on your GFE can’t change and others can rise by 10%. Before you go to the closing, compare the numbers on your GFE with the numbers on your HUD-1 settlement statement. Question your loan officer about any fees that increased.

6.  Do a Walk-Through

Schedule an appointment to walk through the home one last time just before your closing.

  • Make sure repairs you requested have been made.home-checklist
  • Look for major changes since you last viewed the property.
  • See if the sellers left everything they promised to leave.
  • Check to see that the sellers took all their personal belongings.
  • Test electronics and appliances to ensure they’re still working.
  • Turn on the HVAC and hot water. Are they functioning right?
  • Walk the yard to be sure no plants or shrubs have been removed.

7.  Resolve Issues Identified in Your Walk-Through

If your walk-through uncovers problems:

1.  Delay the closing until the seller corrects them (if your state allows it). But that’s often not feasible because your lease is probably over and you’ve already scheduled movers.

2.  Negotiate a discount to your sales price to cover the cost of the work needed. If the air conditioning is on the fritz and a contractor says the repair will cost $500, ask that the sales price be reduced by that amount. If you make that request at closing, however, be ready for a delay while the title company redoes the paperwork.

3.  Have the title company hold a portion of the seller’s proceeds in escrow until the dispute is resolved. Once that happens, the funds will be released to you or the seller, depending on the outcome.

Kitchen Color Schemes: Avoiding Kitschy Colors

best-kitchen-paint-colors-green-standard_3x2_a6c8bedcb6d3aa70bb80bf18c807a832_540x360_q85The never-regret kitchen starts with the right hues.

The kitchen is the heart of the household, a place where you prepare meals and make memories. So it only makes sense that your kitchen’s color scheme reflects your unique tastes and personality, right?

The answer to that is yes — and no.

Although there may be a special hue that gets your heart thumping, there are many reasons why it makes sense to opt for a neutral palette in your kitchen. Many design professionals agree that using shades like white, beige, or gray as the foundation for your kitchen not only open up a spectrum of colorful possibilities, but enhance the value of your home.

The Never-Regret Factor

“Timeless colors are perfect, whether for resale or for your dream home,” says Jackie Jordan, Dallas-based director of color marketing for Sherwin-Williams. “Your kitchen won’t suffer from this-looks-like-it-was-done-in-the-90s comments if you opt for a neutral palette.”

“It’s a space where potential buyers envision themselves spending a lot of time,” agrees Sue Pelley, spokesperson for Decorating Den Interiors in Easton, Md. Thus, although you may believe your purple cabinets are divine, others may think they’re dreadful. And that, she says, can be a real barrier to a sale.

The Versatility of Neutralsbest-kitchen-paint-colors-grey-yellow-chairs-standard_18f238692c7abc36c62a2510a5719b17_860x573_q85

But does going soft and natural mean you have to stifle your inner Van Gogh? Not a chance.

“A neutral kitchen is the perfect canvas to personalize as your tastes change,” says Jordan. “It gives you the opportunity to accessorize with fun rugs, dinnerware — even just a fresh vase of flowers to liven things up.”

“I love being able to change moods with colors, often inspired by the changing seasons,” says Wendy F. Johnson, a certified kitchen and bath designer based in Manchester Village, Vt. “Neutrals can provide the base for a huge range of related or contrasting colors to be used with them, from bright and saturated to peaceful, muted hues.”

Texture also adds enormous impact to a neutral kitchen. A combination of materials from rough to smooth and matte to high gloss creates visual contrast and reflects light differently throughout the day, says Johnson. “For example, you can mix barn wood walls and satin painted drywall, white oak cabinetry with glass insets, lustrous concrete countertops with a stone tile backsplash. These might all be in the same tones, but there is nothing boring here.”

Using Color to Complement Your Kitchen’s Sizebest-kitchen-paint-colors-galley-kitchen-standard_935cb75ba5de35cc9c150b870626a7f2_860x593_q85

Your kitchen’s square footage is another important factor to consider when choosing a color palette. If the space is small, opt for paler hues for cabinets, walls, and countertops. Shades of white, bone, or cream reflect light and help a tiny kitchen feel brighter and more spacious.

Neutrals are also a great choice for kitchens that open up to other rooms, notes Pelley. “If your kitchen is part of a great room design, remember that any new paint will need to work with the color schemes in those rooms, too.”

Non-Permanent Ways to Add Pops of Colorbest-kitchen-paint-colors-roman-shade-standard_3d062189c7d99b84036f06e484598ad7_860x546_q85

Rather than committing to a single color scheme, a neutral kitchen lets you sample the rainbow. One option is to choose coordinating window treatments and chair cushions to liven up the space, says Johnson. An eye-catching poster, multihued area rug, or a collection of pottery displayed on a shelf all add personality to your kitchen and are easy to change when you’re ready for something new.

Paint is another low-cost way to incorporate a pop or two of color into a neutral room. You can grab a brush and paint your kitchen chairs or counter stools, or add a bright hue to the interior of a glass cabinet. Ready for something bigger? Consider rolling a bold shade on a single wall to create lively contrast in an otherwise single-color space.

Top Neutral Color Schemes

Neutrals may be timeless, but there are some combinations that look especially fresh. “I love warm grays and whites — always have,” says Johnson. “There are so many natural materials available in these tones that mix together beautifully, and all colors look gorgeous against this type of palette.”

Sherwin-Williams’ Jordan also favors white and light grays in a kitchen. “It’s a sleek and modern combination that works perfectly with the ever-popular stainless steel appliances and subway tile.”

When it comes to a big-ticket item like a kitchen, it makes sense to choose a palette that will endure for the long term, says Johnson. “Those of us who thrive in colorful surroundings will groan at this, but even we need some soft, peaceful environments sometimes.”

How to Protect Your Home From Severe Cold

protect-your-home-cold-weather-dogs-standard_1x1_f514c32a58dbaab0389916da506e4b44_620x620_q85Besides your wubby, do you have what it takes to defend against winter’s chill?

Snow and cold sure are a whole lot more tolerable when you’re anticipating a snow day (no need to go the office!) instead of suiting up to catch the bus. The freezing temps seem to seep right into the marrow of your bones. That happens to your home, too. And like you, if you don’t protect it from the elements, the results would be, well, let’s just say, not good.

Here’s how to keep your home safe and your bones warm.

How to Prepare for Blizzards

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says to be sure you have these things:

  • Snow shovels – more than one because they can break, and four hands are better than two if you have them
  • Deicers, preferably the pet-safe type
  • Extra fuel such as firewood, a full propane tank, or a generator.
  • Clean blankets, pillows, warm clothing, etc. because you might not be able to do laundry for awhile
  • Food and water that doesn’t require refrigeration
  • Transistor radio with new batteries — and backup batteries

When it comes to deicers, some of the more environmentally-safe types include calcium magnesium acetate and sand to improve traction. Be sure to stock up early in the season, as they become scarce before a well-publicized storm.

How to Winterize Your Home

  • Check roof tiles, shutters, siding, and other exterior materials to ensure they’re secure
  • Seal air leaks around the home to keep it warmer (and save energy costs)
  • Insulate all exposed plumbing pipes to prevent burst pipes
  • Trim tree branches away from your roof to prevent roof damage

High winds, ice, and moisture from winter storms can easily strip off roof tiles and gutters, exposing your home to serious damage, says home improvement expert and writer John Wilder of Jacksonville, Fla. Make sure no roof tiles are loose or missing. Do the same with your gutters and siding.

And clean your gutters. If you don’t, you risk an ice dam.

What’s an ice dam? Ice dams occur when ice melts off the roof during the day and then re-freezes as it drips into a clogged gutter. This can force water back under the roofline and cause serious leaks, often thousands of dollars (!) in damage.

While you’re insulating your pipes, remind yourself where all water shut-off valves are so you can turn off the water supply in case of any leaks.

Overgrown tree branches are a risk to your home, vehicles, and loved ones. But trimming and removal can be dangerous, too, so don’t attempt it on your own. Best to hire a pro.

Now you’re ready for a snow day!

5 Tricks to Keep Your Pipes from Exploding this Winter

how-prevent-pipes-freezing-faucet-standard_1x1_42ec33aed660182221a798783f9ef81d_620x620_q85How to prevent your pipes from freezing, even if you think they’ve already started to freeze.

New homeowners may have heard that winterization is important, but in the hubbub of your first year living in a home you own (finally!), it can be easy to overlook the need to prepare for the cold weather ahead. After all, it’s just not something renters deal with; prepping pipes for winter is often the landlord’s job.

Ideally, you should winterize your pipes in the fall, before winter seriously sets in. But if you’ve forgotten and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of a deep freeze, there’s still time to prevent disaster.

Here are some easy techniques to save your pipes from bursting:

1. Turn On Your Faucets

If the temperatures have dropped into freezing and intend to stay there, turning on your faucets — both indoors and out — can keep water moving through your system and slow down the freezing process. There’s no need to waste gallons of water: Aim for about five drips per minute.

2. Open Cabinet Doors

During cold weather, open any cabinet doors covering plumbing in the kitchen and bathroom. This allows the home’s warm air to better circulate, which can help prevent the exposed piping from freezing. While this won’t help much with pipes hidden in walls, ceilings, or under the home, it can keep water moving and limit the dangerous effects of freezing weather.

3. Wrap Your Pipes

If your pipes are already on their merry way towards freezing, wrapping them with warm towels might do the trick. You can cover them with the towels first and then pour boiling water on top, or use already-wet towels — if your hands can stand the heat (use gloves for this). This should help loosen the ice inside and get your system running again.

4. Pull Out Your Hairdryer

A hairdryer (or heat gun) can be a godsend when your pipes are freezing. If hot rags aren’t doing the trick, try blowing hot air directly on the pipes. Important note: You don’t want to use a blow torch or anything that produces direct flames, which can damage your pipes and turn a frozen pipe into an even worse disaster. You’re trying to melt the ice — not your pipes.

5. Frozen Pipes? Shut Off The Water

Have your pipes already frozen? Turn off the water immediately. (Hopefully you know where the master shut-off is, but if not, now’s the time to find it!)

Make sure to close off any external water sources, like garden hose hookups. This will prevent more water from filling the system, adding more ice to the pile, and eventually bursting your pipes — the worst-case scenario. This also will help when the water thaws; the last thing you want after finally fixing your frozen pipes is for water to flood the system — and thus, your home.

Hello Dolly Cookie Bars Recipe

cookiebarsThis cookie bar is a classic, crowd-pleasing favorite, and is perfect for any potluck and gathering. These Hello Dolly cookie bars are not only delicious but also easy to make.

Ingredients:

  • 2½ cups finely crushed crumbs from your favorite cookies
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 6 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips
  • 3 ounces unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

Step 1:

Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Step 2:

In a medium bowl, combine the cookie crumbs, salt, and melted butter. Scatter the mixture onto a parchment-lined 8-inch square baking pan. Press the cookie mixture flat into the pan.

Step 3:

In another medium bowl, combine the chocolate, coconut, and pecans, and scatter the mixture over the crust.

Step 4:

Drizzle the condensed milk across the top. Bake the bars for 25 to 30 minutes or until they turn a light caramel color.

Step 5:

Let the bars cool, and then cut them into squares to serve.

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.