Monday, May 20, 2013

18 Ways to Allergy-Proof Your Home

If you or someone else in your house suffers from allergies, you'll want to get the house as allergen free as possible. Whether you are allergic to dust, pets, mold, pollen or all of the above, it can be hard to know where to begin. These 18 ways to combat allergens and create a cleaner, healthier home will get you started.

1. Stick to a regular cleaning schedule. Keeping dust and pet dander at bay is a continual process, and it's especially important to stay on top of cleaning when allergies are a concern. Be sure to wipe surfaces with a damp rag rather than dry dusting, which often just brushes dust back into the air. 

Ideally, members of the household without allergies would take on the dustiest jobs, but if you have bad allergies and must clean, wear a dust mask — or hire a cleaning service if you can.

2. Start a no-shoes policy and beef up doormats. Keep dust, pollen and more from entering your house in the first place by encouraging visitors to slip off their shoes at the door. Provide ample interior and exterior doormats to trap shoe muck and a basketful of slippers for guests. 

3. Upgrade your vacuum cleaner. Get one with a HEPA filter to trap allergens — these filters work wonders. Also be sure to choose a vacuum cleaner with a bag that can be changed easily (that is, without spewing dust everywhere).

4. Swap out heavy drapes. Thick drapes with lots of folds and pleats are masters at trapping dust and other allergens. Instead, choose blinds you can wipe down or machine-washable curtains.

5. Remove carpeting. Traditional wall-to wall carpeting is notoriously difficult to get and keep clean. Whenever possible, go with hard flooring (wood, tile, linoleum, etc) instead. 

6. Steam clean; don't shampoo carpets and area rugs. If you really want carpeting, vacuum it regularly with a vacuum that has a HEPA filter and deep clean with a steam cleaner. Most rented carpet shampooers do not get hot enough to get rid of allergens, so consider making the investment in a real steam cleaner to keep at home.

7. Store all food in airtight containers. Don't tempt bugs and mice — every time you open a package, put the contents inside an airtight container in the cupboard or fridge.

8. Green your cleanupHarsh chemical cleaners may irritate those with allergies. Luckily, it's quite easy to find safe and effective natural cleaners, so you can cut back on the synthetic stuff.

9. Cover mattresses and pillows. Zip on dust mite covers to protect your sleeping area. If you have kids, be sure to get covers for their mattresses and pillows, too.

10. Keep under the bed free of clutter. Clutter attracts dust bunnies and makes it more difficult to reach the entire space to vacuum. Keep this area clean and clear, and be sure to reach under with a host attachment to vacuum regularly.

11. Streamline kids' spaces. Children's rooms accumulate stuff like nowhere else in the house. But if allergies are a problem, having lots of toys — especially soft toys — everywhere will only make things worse. Try rotating out toys to keep things fresh (and neat), and store extras in an out-of-the-way closet. Washing stuffed animals when possible can also help keep dust at a minimum.

12. Wash linens is hot water. Bedding, towels and kitchen linens should be laundered in hot water -- remember that when you are shopping and choose fabrics that can stand up to the heat. 

13. Store only clean, dry items in closets. Putting away clothes or linens that are still slightly damp can create the perfect environment for mildew and mold to grow, while dirty clothes and blankets attract fabric-eating moths. Keep your closets fresh and bug free by washing and thoroughly drying items before storing them for the season.

14. Clean and ventilate the bathroom regularly. Frequent cleaning and plenty of fresh air should keep mildew and mold at bay. But if you do see mold, be sure to use a cleaner that says it kills mold — not all of them do.

15. Replace filters in fans and heating and cooling systems. This is key for keeping the air in your home clean. Each time you change the filter in your bathroom exhaust system or air conditioning or heating system, mark the next change date on the calendar.

16. Keep pets out of bedrooms, at a minimum. No matter how sweet and cuddly your furry friend is, if he's making you wheeze, it's time to set some boundaries. Keeping pets in a protected outdoor area would probably be ideal, but at the bare minimum enforce a no-pet policy in bedrooms. 

17. Detox your home. Harsh chemicals can aggravate allergies, so do your best to avoid bringing them into your home. Swap out chemical cleaners and air fresheners for natural versions, and air out new furnishings and freshly dry cleaned clothes to give toxins a chance to off-gas.

18. Keep the air fresh. Open the windows to let in fresh air, unless you have seasonal allergies, and consider using an room air filter to clean the air. Avoid using fireplaces and definitely do not allow smoking in the house.

By: Laure Gaskill

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Ten Mortgage Misconceptions

Mortgages are tricky and often hard to understand. Because most people only purchase a home every five to seven years, prospective homebuyers understandably don't spend a lot of time in the interim educating themselves about mortgages and the mortgage process.

With the real estate market picking up and mortgage rates prime for refinancing, Zillow has compiled a list of common mortgage misconceptions based off the results of the just released 2013 Mortgage IQ Survey.

Misconception No. 1: Your interest rate reflects the true cost of your mortgage. Your annual percentage rate is actually the figure that represents the true cost of your mortgage. It is inclusive of your interest rate, points, mortgage insurance (when applicable) and other fees, including origination and underwriting fees. It does not include the cost of your homeowners insurance policy. The APR is typically higher than your interest rate because it incorporates the rate and the fees. In fact, when shopping for a mortgage, it is best to compare loans based on APR instead of the interest rate because it gives a better sense of the total cost over the life of the loan.

Misconception No. 2: Mortgage rates are only released once per day. Mortgage rates for all types of mortgages can change frequently, sometimes dramatically, throughout the day. Because of the rapid changes in mortgage rates and a lender's ability to control what is offered, it is important to shop around for the best rates. Getting multiple loan quotes is highly recommended.

Misconception No. 3: All lenders are required by law to charge the same fees for appraisals and credit reports. There are no laws that require lenders to charge the same fees for services such as appraisals or credit reports. In fact, in order to make their loan quotes more competitive, some lenders may waive charges for such services. Conversely, some lenders may charge higher fees for these services, so it's important to shop around.

Misconception No. 4: I must get my mortgage through the same lender I was pre-approved with. A pre-approval is a conditional agreement that estimates the size of the home loan a lender would fund for you. It typically involves income verification and a credit check. However, you are under no obligation to proceed with the lender that gave you the pre-approval. Make sure you get at least three loan quotes before proceeding with a mortgage.

Misconception No. 5: You will almost always get the best mortgage interest rates at the bank where you have a checking account. While some banks do give their customers discounts, it's unlikely your bank will offer the best interest rate available simply because you bank there. To get a competitive mortgage rate and terms, get quotes from multiple lenders either in person or online - including your bank - and pick the one that works best for you.

Misconception No. 6: When taking out a mortgage with your spouse, lenders will look at each of your credit reports equally when determining the interest rate you qualify for. When applying jointly for a mortgage, lenders will pull your credit scores from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. They'll then take the middle score of each set and use the lower of the two to help determine your mortgage interest rate. This means that the least creditworthy borrower will have the greatest effect on your monthly payment. It does not matter who the primary or secondary borrowers are.

Misconception No. 7: You cannot get a home loan with less than a 5 percent down payment. It is a common misconception that you need to put down 10 percent, 15 percent or even 20 percent on a home, especially in light of the recent housing crash. But with as little as 3.5 percent down, you can often obtain a mortgage through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). FHA loans have become a popular loan option for those who may not have a large down payment or have blemishes in their credit history. FHA loans are available to everyone, not just first-time home buyers. (Find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of an FHA loan here.)

There are also alternative loan programs through other agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These loans also require little-to-no money down.

Misconception No. 8: If you go through a short sale or foreclosure, you must wait 7 years before getting another home loan. In most cases, to buy a home after a short sale, you'll typically only need to wait 2-4 years depending on your down payment and the loan type you select. The waiting period after a foreclosure is longer: Typically you'll need to wait 3-7 years before getting another home loan. Even if you can afford to get a mortgage right now, you'll need to have a good credit score, which can be difficult to rebuild in just a few years. Unique circumstances can lead to different outcomes, so make sure to check with a lender or two.

Misconception No. 9: If you are underwater on your home loan, you are unable to refinance. It is estimated that millions of homeowners who are underwater and current on their mortgage can refinance using one of two special government programs. The first, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), is available to homeowners who have a loan backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The second program, FHA Streamline Refinance, has recently been modified to help homeowners with loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Both programs help homeowners refinance into lower interest rate loans and may help dramatically lower payments without very much cost to the borrower. Zillow Mortgage Marketplace is the only online mortgage marketplace where you can get loan quotes for HARP and FHA Streamline. As an added bonus, it is the largest mortgage marketplace where you can anonymously get loan quotes, meaning you don't enter any personally identifiable information and therefore cannot get spammed and hounded by lenders who were sold you contact information. See if you may qualify.

Misconception No. 10: You can only refinance your home loan once every 12 months. With conforming loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac (the vast majority of loans today), you can refinance as frequently as you'd like so long as you do not take cash out when you refinance and are just refinancing to lower the interest rate and/or term of your mortgage. The rule of thumb is to wait until the difference between your current interest rate and the available interest rate would save you enough money each month to cover the costs of refinancing in two years. The amount of time that you plan on being in the home should be considered, as well. In general, refinancing will be more financially beneficial the longer you are in the home. Use the refinance calculator to determine how long it will take to break even on the costs of refinancing.

By Alison Paoli

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Remodeling? Avoid These Costly Mistakes

While many Americans are ready to take on remodeling/renovation projects this spring, doing it the wrong way can be costly. Some errors to avoid:

Not knowing exactly what you want

If you don’t know exactly what you want or specify what you want, you’re going to get what the contractor thinks you want. And it could end up costing you dearly! For home remodeling design ideas, inspiration and a whole lot more (including cost estimates), check out Zillow Digs (free on the iPad or the Web). You can search by style, cost or room. And what’s really cool is that you can search by specific elements within a room, such as quartz or granite countertops, for example. Share your boards with your contractor so that you’re clear on your objectives.

Hiring the first contractor who comes along

Sure, he may seem nice, and he may seem competent, but have you checked him out? What do your friends say about him? Have you contacted his references? Seen his work? Are there any complaints lodged against him? (P.S.: The Better Business Bureau just released its top 10 list of inquiries from consumers, and half relate to home improvement.) What do subcontractors and suppliers have to say about their dealings with him? Is he licensed and insured? As excited as you may be about taking on this new project, you need to do a fair amount of due diligence.

Jumping at the lowest bid

Get at least three bids, and throw out the lowest one so as to avoid the inevitable consequence: cheap materials, shoddy installation, etc. Don’t invite trouble in! Rather, hire someone who not only comes in within target, price-wise, but is someone you feel personally comfortable with.

Not insisting on a written contract

Every detail about your project should be included in a contract, from the start date to the approximate completion date, right down to the brand of fixtures to the number of coats of paint. Be as specific as possible! Also important: setting a time limit for fixing defects so that if a dispute arises, it’s not endless.

Not setting a payment schedule

How you pay a contractor is almost as important as how much. Spell out the payment schedule in the contract, beginning with the amount to be paid upfront (which should be no more than 30 percent).  Periodic payments after the work starts should correspond to completed segments of the project. And the best way to ensure that work gets done when and how you want it? Leave a significant sum (at least 10 percent) to be paid only when the job is completed to your satisfaction.

By: Vera Gibbons

Thursday, April 25, 2013

How to Start a Patio Garden

It's summertime!! It is the perfect time to spruce up those areas in your home that look a little drab. One area that seems to be neglected often is the patio. There isn't much use for it other than some cute chairs! This blog is here to give you a fun option to bring your patio alive and offer you some fresh, fun flowers, plants or herbs to your everyday life!

If you have a patio, no matter how small, you have the space for a beautiful garden. Plants and flowers make a patio more beautiful and inviting, and help to create a comfortable place to relax in your leisure time or to entertain guests. If you like to grow edible plants, a patio is a convenient place to keep favorite crops on hand, such as fresh herbs or tomatoes. Gardening in a small space can be a challenge, but with certain considerations, a patio is the perfect spot for a thriving garden.

1. Decide on the purpose of the garden. Patio gardens may be strictly ornamental, or you may prefer to grow herbs, vegetables or even dwarf fruit trees on your patio. Have your intentions clear in your mind before investing in any materials and supplies.

  • 2. Measure your patio to determine how much space you have available. Make a scale diagram on graph paper, marking lines to indicate square footage available. Consider how much space you will need for other items, such as outdoor furnishings or a grill. Measure those items and fill them in on your graph where you intend to put them. 

    3. Go out to your patio for a few days at different times to evaluate how much light your patio gets. Mark your graph indicating any areas that might get full sun, partial shade, or full shade. This will help you choose the appropriate plants and arrange them where they would grow best.
  • 4. Use your graph to determine how much space is available for containers, and how they will be placed. For example, if you have a corner with approximately four square feet of space, you might choose one large four foot square wooden planter, or several smaller pots.
  • 5. Purchase an assortment of containers for your patio. If you're growing edible crops, determine the size of the containers by what would suit each plant's needs. If cost is a concern you can purchase inexpensive plastic pots. If you are more interested in visual aesthetics, choose decorative containers.
  • 6. Decide on the placement of your pots. For visual appeal, create a balanced design. Stagger the height of planters by placing some on the floor, and some on plant stands or on top of overturned pots. Utilize space above with hanging planters or wall pots. Place higher planters and pots on stands in the back, with lower or smaller planters towards the front.
  • 7. Choose your seeds or starter plants based on the space and light that is available on your patio. Don't fight nature by trying to grow a sun-loving plant like basil hidden in the shadows. Look on seed packets or plant markers for the grower's recommendations so you can select plants that will get the light they need on your patio.
  • 8. Use a light-weight growing medium for your containers. This will give them better drainage and make the containers light enough to move easily if necessary. Don't use garden or top soil for containers. An all-purpose potting soil is a good choice, though mixing potting soil with compost, peat moss or perlite is even better. Look into what types of growing medium your plants will do best in if you plan to mix your own medium.
  • 9. Place gravel, pot shards or packing peanuts into planters before adding medium and plants. This will improve drainage and soil aeration. Mulch plants in containers to help retain moisture, and to discourage certain pests.

    After all this is set up, enjoy watching your garden grow! Whether you plant flowers to brighten the space or an herb garden to spice up your meals, patio gardens cost little to start and they go a long way on visual appeal. Take a dead or empty space in your home and bring it to life!

    By: Mackenzie Wright
  • Saturday, April 13, 2013

    Spring Cleaning in 10 Minutes a Day

    It's that time of year again -- time for spring cleaning! If you're like me, this annual ritual strikes fear and dread in your heart. Does spring cleaning seem like the Mt. Everest of housekeeping tasks? A challenge only a few have undertaken successfully? Don't worry, spring cleaning doesn’t have to be scary, but it is something we should all do. It's not just about cleaning blinds and sweeping baseboards, though doing these things is great. You can also use spring cleaning as a prompt to schedule household maintenance and service checks that will prevent problems down the line. The tips below are going to help you do all of this in just 10 minutes a day. So have a read and get cleaning!

    The first step to successful spring cleaning is to find the time to take care of it and schedule it in. My suggestion is to find a four-week-stretch and block off a convenient time of day or night (before dinner, before bed) to work. If you miss a night, don’t worry, you can always make up the ten minutes the next day. The goal is to get you and your family to commit to cleaning every day for 28 days.
    While I'm sure you have a list of what you'd like to get done to prepare for spring, summer and beyond, I want to leave you with 12 tasks to consider adding to your list. Happy Housework!

    12 Spring Cleaning Tasks That Take 10 Minutes Each
    1. Wash and dry the slipcovers from your pillows, sofas and chairs. Put in the washer and dryer one day. Put back on the furniture the next day.
    2. Take 10 minutes and clean the junk drawer in your house. For many people, this drawer is in the kitchen. Toss the junk and use a silverware organizer to manage the chaos going forward.
    3. Clean the blades on the ceiling fans.
    4. Make today toy clean-up day. Put all the game pieces together in Ziploc bags, throw out broken items and donate toys your kids have outgrown.
    5. Clean out your refrigerator. Check expiration dates and toss everything that is old or will not be eaten.
    6. Clean out your medicine cabinet and toss old medications (both prescription and over-the-counter). Go to to find out how to safely dispose of these items.
    7. Clean your most cluttered countertop. For many it's the dining room table or kitchen counters. Recycle what you can and shred sensitive materials.
    8. Change the batteries in your smoke and CO2 alarms. Why wait for the annoying beeping sound?
    9. Clean your blinds. Try using fabric softener sheets (you can show your kids how to do this).
    10. Take three days to clean windows. Start with the dirtiest windows and go from there.
    11. Wash and dust the baseboards in each room. This is another task the whole family can get in on. Just remember, 10 minutes with five people is almost an hour of cleaning time.
    12. Dedicate a day to maintaining and fixing things. Oil a lock, fix a broken toilet paper holder, etc. Just make a punch-list and start checking off items.
    Sometime in the next 30 minutes block off 28 days and determine what time each day you'll use to tackle spring cleaning. After all, getting started is the hardest part.

    By: Get Buttoned Up

    Tuesday, April 2, 2013

    Home Prices Post Best Yearly Increase Since 2006

    U.S. single-family home prices rose in January, starting the year with the biggest annual increase in 6½ years in a fresh sign that the housing market recovery remains on track, a closely watched survey showed on Tuesday. The S&P/Case Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas gained 1 percent month-on-month in January on a seasonally adjusted basis, topping expectations for 0.9 percent. Prices have been gaining since last February. On a non-seasonally adjusted basis, prices rose 0.1 percent.

    Prices in the 20 cities climbed 8.1 percent year-over-year, also beating expectations for 7.9 percent. It was the biggest yearly increase since June 2006, when housing prices were on their way down as the market was starting to collapse. Average home prices were back to their autumn 2003 levels, though that still leaves them down about 30 percent from the 2006 peak.

    All of the 20 cities showed gains on a yearly basis, with New York rising for the first time in over two years. Phoenix continued the strong rebound seen last year, rising 23.2 percent from the year before. Eight cities racked up double-digit gains, including San Francisco, up 17.5 percent, and Las Vegas, up 15.3 percent.

    The dollar slightly pared losses against the euro shortly after the data, while Treasures prices held steady at lower levels. U.S. stock index futures saw little reaction and Wall Street was poised to open higher. The housing market got back on its feet last year as prices rose, inventories tightened and sales improved. Stimulus efforts from the Federal Reserve are also keeping mortgage rates at historically low levels, which has helped spur demand. That momentum carried into 2013 and data last week showed home resales hit a three-year high in February.

    Sunday, March 31, 2013

    Guide to a Well-Organized Pantry

    Spring cleaning is here!! With summertime parties just around the corner, you'll want to clean house to make sure your shindig is the talk of the town! While the space in your home is important, little things like your pantry can be forgotten! What you need is a master plan to get your pantry well-stocked, well-organized and ready for duty.

    5 Universal Rules
    Whether your pantry is a few shelves in the cupboard, a walk-in closet or three deep drawers, you can make it work. Just stick to these rules:
    1. Know what you use. How to know what to keep a stash of? Ask yourself what you eat most. If you love rice, then a 20-lb bag is great (if you’ve got the space). If you’re crackers about crackers, sure, keep a row of them. Avoid the common mistake of filling your pantry with foods you don’t often use, such as a supersize bag of flour or a row of powdered drinks.
    2. Shop small. I know, this is contrary to the dogma of rolling up to Costco in your minivan, but you don’t need a pantry that can feed your family through autumn, bomb-shelter style. The idea is to keep all items in your pantry constantly in use, filling the space you have with whatever healthy foods you might need. “People tend to go to warehouse clubs and buy giant family packs, then those huge boxes sit half-used for a year,” says Scott Dolich, chef at Park Kitchen restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Buy in bulk only the stuff you use often.
    3. Go canned. “A lot of people think canned goods are not as fresh, but canned vegetables are picked at their peak freshness, so they’re a great way to keep your pantry stocked,” says David Mechlowicz, culinary purchasing manager for Food Network. You can also enhance what you’re serving by adding fresh items to canned products. In other words, when you want to make a stew or soup or spruce up pasta, canned tomatoes are better than no tomatoes. Ditto with artichokes, pineapple, and pretty much every fruit and many nonleafy veggies.
    4. Unwrap. “Most people don’t unwrap excess packaging before putting away foods,” says Lorie Marrero, author of The Clutter Diet. “Take paper towels, for instance. Cut off that overwrap that holds the rolls together, and you can fit individual rolls much easier.” Ditto for soda, snack packs and multipacks.
    5. Be cool. Pretty much all pantry items do well in cool, dark environments. “Store foods away from your stove,” says Dolich. The biggest threat? Nearby appliances giving off heat. Dampen your hand and feel around your pantry to make sure the fridge or dishwasher isn’t heating it.

    What Goes Where?
    You want to create a pantry filled with easy-to-see foods in active rotation. Professional organizer Chris McKenry, a board member of the Los Angeles–based National Association of Professional Organizers, tells you how to transform your pantry.
    Step 1: Clean it out. Purge. Which in this case means eat. Go through your pantry and pull out absolutely everything. Split your items into two piles: stuff you use and want to keep, and foods you haven’t touched in at least three months (if you haven’t used it by now, you’re probably not going to use it). For the stuff you generally don’t use, decide whether to toss it, donate it to a food pantry or serve it imminently. If it’s shake powder from that diet you did three years ago, toss it. If it’s cereal you just haven’t gotten around to eating, serve it soon. “Free up space so that you have room for what you really need,” says McKenry. And regift those gift baskets that take up half a shelf.
    Step 2: Consider relocating. Not you, your stuff. Your pantry probably has more than a few non-food items. Perhaps the DustBuster and mop are in there. Waffle iron? Serving platters? Ask yourself, Is there a better place for these things? Here’s a secret: Doors are the great underutilized spaces in pantries. If your cleaning supplies must stay, at least get them on door hooks. I like the Reisenthel Big Eye Wardrobe Shelf. You’ve probably seen it in someone’s coat room, but its four hooks are perfect for hanging brooms and mops, while the shelf works for paper towels, all-purpose cleaners and the like ($35; Or try The Grook Holder, a strip of rubber pressure clamps that hold cleaning products, gardening tools and more ($19.99;
    Step 3: Create zones. Group your pantry items by type—grains, drinks, pet food, baking items, canned goods, soups, snack foods, etc. And group similar items within each zone (all the canned pineapple in one cluster, canned peaches in another). The items in each zone (rice, couscous and pasta, or canned fruits and vegetables) tend to be interchangeable, so this way you’re working toward your goal: healthy meals. Each zone gets its own dedicated shelf or drawer. If your shelving doesn’t naturally separate the zones from each other, create separations. Shelf dividers, like the ones used for sweaters, work great ($7 for 2; Large items or jugs that you rarely use go in bottom corners.
    Step 4: Label. If it makes sense for you, label the edges of your shelves with what goes there. You and the potentially confused people you live with are pretty likely to put cereal on the shelf labeled cereal.
    Step 5: Make it visible. You want to be able to see everything and grab it with one hand. “Builders often design pantries with fixed shelves that are 1 to 2 feet apart,” says Barry Izsak, of the home organizing company Arranging It All in Austin, Texas. “If you use those shelves for cans or boxes of rice and soup mixes and so forth, there’s tons of wasted space, and tons that you can’t see.” For items that are hard to see or blocked by other items, consider these organizing helpers:

    Bleachers: These cheap, functional little bleachers turn one shelf into three or four. Ideal for fixed shelves that are far apart. (Stainless Steel 3-Tier Expanding Shelf expands from 14" to 27 ¼" wide; $22 at The Container Store.)
    Turntable: Nothing gets lost in the back if you can spin to find it. The OXO Softworks 11" and 16" turntables can hold a couple dozen cans each, and are also great for corraling bottles and jars ($11.99 and $16.99;
    ShelfGenie: Want a truly customized kitchen? Consider ShelfGenie, the company that personal organizers have a crush on. A representative will come to your home, measure and install slide-out drawers and shelves throughout your cabinets and pantry, transforming deep cabinets into shallow, easy-to-access hubs ($500 and up;
    Bins: Place them on deep shelves and pull them out drawer-style. Ideal for snack packs. The basic cloth bins from Target are great because they come in three different sizes ($39.99 for set of 3;

    Pantry or Not?
    Bread: You may think it will last much longer in the refrigerator, but that will actually make it go stale faster, according to the Wheat Foods Council. The best way to store bread is to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and keep it at room temperature.
    Peanut butter: Some people like to leave peanut butter on the counter, a remnant of the fact that pantries a half-century ago were chilled. Yours should go in the fridge, along with all opened condiments (except oils).
    Garlic, onions, potatoes: These should be kept in a basket or baskets—one for each kind of item—in the pantry, where it’s relatively cool and shielded from heat and light. Stored properly, they can last for up to 4 weeks.

    By Arianne Cohen

    Saturday, March 23, 2013

    5 Quick Garage Organizing Tips

    From seasonal decorations and old baby clothes to sports equipment and college textbooks, it’s no wonder garages tend to be the catch-all for clutter. But with a garage full of anything-but-the-kitchen-sink, where is a homeowner to start?

    Stop tripping over things on your way to the car and give your garage some much-needed TLC with these quick and easy organization tips.

    1. DECIDE WHAT TO STORE :Start by devoting one weekend day, preferably on a day the weather cooperates, to "the big sort." Make four piles: store, sell, donate and toss. For the items you're throwing out, consider having a -- you guessed it -- garage sale. This is a great way to earn some extra money to buy items for organizing your garage.
    2. DESIGNATE ZONES: Try grouping frequently-used items together, placing seasonal items and keepsakes in different zones altogether. You may want to designate a section of your garage for sporting equipment and outdoor items, another area for gardening tools or craft supplies and a different area for automotive supplies.
    3. USE YOUR WALL SPACE: Shelves, cabinets, racks and hooks keep items off the floor and reduce clutter. The walls of your garage are a great place to configure a storage solution that works for your purposes. It doesn't have to be pricey -- most of the items you would need can be found at your local home improvement store.
    4. UP AND AWAY:  The ceiling is easily overlooked as an area for garage organization. Shelves can also be built in the rafters and used for storing items that are used infrequently, such as seasonal decorations and travel luggage. The great thing about this type of storage is that clutter is placed up and away, hiding many of the less-glamorous items from view.
    5. BOX IT UP: Get out the Sharpie and use plastic storage bins or cardboard boxes with clearly-marked labels displaying their contents for a clean, clutter-free look. Instead of letting unused luggage go empty, use it to store those old clothes from when the kids were babies that you just can't part with. Have an old dresser? Put it to good use and consider letting the kids design the newest garage storage system, which, when outfitted with cabinet grip liners, is perfect for those smaller items.
    "Considering how often it's used, it makes sense to give your garage some organizing attention," says Lisa Engel, vice president of channel marketing and communications, ClosetMaid.

    A well-organized garage not only looks good, but makes your life easier by allowing you to find what you need quickly.

    Written by: Suzi Milovanovic

    Monday, March 18, 2013

    Six Reasons Housing Inventory Keeps Declining

    Home sales in December dropped by 1% from November, the National Association of Realtors reported on Tuesday, but still stood nearly 13% above the levels of one year ago. That means home sales have risen from the year-ago month for 18 straight months.
    For 2012 as a whole, sales were up 9% to 4.65 million units, the highest annual total since 2007.
    Prices, meanwhile, are picking up because the number of homes for sale continues to drop despite the sales volume gains. The number of homes for sale fell to 1.82 million at the end of 2012, an 8.5% drop from November and a 21.6% decline from one year earlier, the Realtors’ group said on Tuesday.
    Here’s a breakdown of why inventory has continued to drop this year:
    Many homeowners are underwater: More than 10 million homeowners owe more on their mortgage than their homes are worth, according to CoreLogic Inc. CLGX -2.18% That pencils out to around 22% of homeowners with a mortgage, or 15% of all homeowners (since not every homeowner has a mortgage). Underwater owners aren’t likely to sell unless they need to move due to changing life (marriage, divorce) or financial circumstances, and they’ll take a hit on their credit for pursuing a short sale, where the bank allows the home to sell for less than the amount owed.Data from CoreLogic show that inventory has been the most constrained in housing markets where there’s the largest concentration of underwater borrowers.
    Others don’t have enough equity to “trade up”: Another 10 million homeowners have less than 20% equity in their current residence, meaning they can’t easily “trade up” to their next house. Traditionally, homeowners have relied on home equity to make the down payment on their next home, and to pay their real-estate agent to sell their current home and buy their next one. These “under-equitied” homeowners—meaning they don’t have enough equity to make a move to a more expensive home—have added to the drag on inventory.
    Everyone wants to buy at the bottom, but few want to sell: Even those people who do have plenty of home equity are likely reluctant to sell if they think prices will be higher tomorrow. Would you sell your largest asset today if you thought it might be worth 5% more next year? This helps explain why markets such as Denver and Dallas, which didn’t have huge housing bubbles and thus had smaller shares of underwater borrowers, have also seen double-digit inventory declines.
    More purchases from investors of all stripes: From the big institutional investors that have been grabbing all the headlines, to the mom-and-pop landlords that have traditionally played a much larger role renting out homes, investors have increasingly bought homes that can be rented out rather than flipped and resold for quick profits. This is further keeping inventory off the market in two ways: homes that are bought at courthouse foreclosure auctions never show up on multiple-listing services when they’re initially sold. They’re also held out of the for-sale pool because they’re being rented out.
    Banks have been slower at foreclosing: Banks and other companies that process delinquent mortgages have had trouble proving that they’ve followed state law in taking title to homes ever since the “robo-signing” scandal surfaced in late 2010, and they’ve also had to meet a host of new state and federal rules governing loan modifications and foreclosures from settlements spawned by the robo-scandal. Banks have also become better about approving short sales and loan modifications, which has curbed the flow of foreclosed properties onto the market.
    Builders have been putting up fewer homes: Housing starts were severely depressed from 2009 through 2011 and have only recently rebounded off of those low levels. Consequently, there’s been much less new home inventory being added to the market at a time when demand (boosted by increases in household formation) is picking up. If more homes are held off the market—for any of the five reasons above—you can bet that builders will move in to fill the void.
    Many of these factors that have been dragging down inventory aren’t signs of “normal” or “healthy” housing markets—but then, we probably haven’t had a normal market for around a decade now. If anything, declining inventory shows that normal supply-and-demand dynamics are returning, which is an important step towards putting a floor under home prices and giving markets time to get back to health.

    Written By: Nick Timiraos

    Sunday, March 10, 2013

    3 Tips for Insuring Your First Home

    Buying your first home can be both an exciting and a scary experience. Many homeowners are appreciative of any bit of information that would help make the process less stressful and as painless as possible. Home insurance is usually a major contributor to the anxieties new homeowners’ experience. They are often confused about how much insurance they need. This post will give easy tips for choosing the best insurance for new home buyers.
    Your House Should Be Fully Covered
    The coverage on the insurance policy should reflect an amount that can adequately take care of the cost of rebuilding and refurbishing your entire house in the event that you lose it completely. Insurance companies may use a cost estimator to ascertain the cost replacement estimate, but you can have a home builder assess your home and furnish you with an estimate of the rebuilding cost. This should include the unique and/or expensive details of your home (if there are any). You do not want to end up being underinsured. Once you have the estimate for rebuilding, you will need to figure out which coverage to take. The choices are:
    • Guaranteed Replacement Cost Coverage – The insurer bears the cost for the rebuilding your home in spite of that cost. Very few insurers are offering these policies now.
    • Extended Replacement Coverage – This coverage involves the capping of the payout you would receive to approximately 125% of the insured value of your home.
    • Inflation Guarantee (or Guard) – This is a feature that ensures the insured value of your home stays on par with that of the marketplace.
    Strive to get a reliable appraisal and extended replacement coverage along with an inflation guarantee. These will place you in a good position.
    Liability Insurance
    Home owners are sometimes caught off guard by third party claims for an injury someone incurred at their house or damages they caused to their neighbor’s property. These things happen, so protect yourself by ensuring your home insurance includes a liability insurance policy. Liability insurance gives the homeowner protection against any third party claims of damages and personal injury that occur on their property or are caused by them. Someone may fall and hurt themselves while on your property, or in the case of neighbors living in close proximity, your child could be playing and accidentally cause damage to their property. Liability insurance takes the burden of paying for medical bills or damages from your pocket, as the insurance company will take care of it.
    Get Additional Coverage for Your Valuables
    The standard insurance policy covers you home and possessions against eventualities such as natural disasters, fires, theft and accidents, but only does so indirectly for certain assets. Homeowners are sometimes caught off guard when they suffer from a disaster and realize they will not receive full compensation for certain valuables inside the house. The standard HO-3 policy takes care of the structural aspect of the house along with its contents, but there is limits the compensation for expensive possessions such as artwork and fine jewelry. You can obtain full coverage for them by paying a little extra on your policy each year.
    Home insurance keeps your home safe even while you are away on vacation. This gives homeowners a sense of protection. Make an inventory of your property, as this will save you the time and expense if the need to file a claim arises.
    Written By: Adam Vaught

    Wednesday, February 27, 2013

    5 Small Home Improvement Projects with Big Returns

    The very mention of ‘home renovation’ can cause anxiety in homeowners, particularly those who have already gone through the process. Extensive remodeling projects can be expensive, disruptive, and time-consuming, but that does not necessarily apply to every project. There are a number of upgrades that can dramatically improve the look and feel of your home without breaking the bank or creating total chaos in your life. If you are trying to sell your home, you will find that inexpensive improvements can yield big returns. Here are five enhancements that fall relatively low on the hassle scale:
    1. Hardwood Flooring Installation
    Installing hardwood flooring should, in most cases, be left to a contractor, as it requires special equipment and expertise. On the other hand, glue-down hardwood floors are less costly, especially if your home is on a concrete slab. The installation of nailed hardwood floors over concrete requires that a layer of plywood or other suitable wood medium be applied first so that the new product can be attached with nails. However, glue-down flooring eliminates this step because an adhesive is used for the attachment process. It is generally a faster installation as well. For instance, a 400 square foot room floored with 3-inch flooring can usually be completed in 1 to 2 days.
    If you already have hardwood floors that are worn, you might want to consider refinishing. Again, this is a job for the well-skilled craftsman, but it will dramatically improve the look of the room and require much less time than a complete replacement. In fact, approximately 86% of homebuyers in 2011 chose a home with hardwood floors, so this renovation is a worthy investment if you plan to sell your home somewhere down the road.
    2. Kitchen and Bath Hardware
    One of the simplest upgrades that can be performed is the installation of new hardware such as towel racks, cabinet handles, toilet paper dispensers, and other wall-mounted hardware. Several aesthetically pleasing designs are available for a range of prices. If you are handy, this is a true do-it-yourself project.
    3. Cabinet Upgrades
    Replacing cabinets is an extensive process, particularly in a kitchen. Unfortunately, this process will make that area practically unusable during the renovation. If your cabinets are not dated or damaged, you may opt to refinish the doors and drawer panels instead. In addition, you may want to replace old hardware like pull handles and knobs. This is a much cheaper option and will reduce the disruption since the cabinets themselves do not require demolition.
    4. Exterior Door Replacements
    The front entry is one of the first things a visitor sees when approaching your home. If the front door is old, warped or damaged, replacement should be considered, not only for cosmetic reasons but for energy efficiency benefits as well. Standard size doors can be purchased at virtually any home improvement center. They may also have an installation option as well, and that can make this a truly painless upgrade.
    5. Wall Painting
    A fresh coat of paint can do wonders for any room. Walls and ceilings get stained and dulled over the years, and a fresh application of paint not only brightens but protects these areas. Painting is a true do-it-yourself project; it does require patience and attention to detail but the outlay for materials and paint is minimal for the benefits gained.

    Written By: Erin Devine

    Wednesday, February 13, 2013

    5 Things New Home Buyers Look for First

    The real estate market is so huge these days that people that want to sell a house need to make sure that everything is in a perfect state. And not only that – they should also try to make the most important features stand out in order to make the potential buyers even more interested in their particular house.
    Nobody buys a house without looking around for awhile, so it is necessary to get the property into the ideal state. Of course, there are some things that new home buyers look for first – and those are the things that you should focus on in your preparations the most. In this article, we are going to look at some of the top ones.
    Patio might not be the most important feature for many buyers, but it is a feature that has a huge influence on the buyer’s first impressions and we all know how important that factor might turn out to be. Someone who will have to walk through a patio that is in a state of disrepair is surely not going to regard the entire property very highly. On the other hand, a well-designed patio with seasonal decorations that is kept in a good state might have the opposite effect on the potential buyer, so make sure that your patio is indeed going to start the inspection on a high note.
    When it comes to exterior features, roof is one of those things that stand out the most and any deficiencies in that department are going to be noticed by everyone who will want to take an in-depth look at the property. This is especially true in locations that experience their fair share of bad weather and where it is a really good idea to have a roof of the best possible quality. You might not be willing to invest into a complete renovation, but you should undoubtedly fix the most obvious problems in order to make your house more attractive.
    With the exterior out of the way, the layout is what is going to hit the buyers straight away. Changing the layout is an incredibly tough task and, unfortunately, you will have to pitch your layout a little bit if it isn’t designed according to the current trends and tendencies. One of the things that modern families like to have is shared space between the living room and the kitchen. You are obviously not going to change the entire layout just because you have the two rooms separate from each other, but you should know how to convince the buyer that this is no issue at all if the topic comes up during the inspection.
    Indoor Decor
    One thing that can be changed more easily is the indoor decor – and you should definitely try to make it as neutral as possible. Neutral and conservative colors are going to appeal to a much wider audience than eccentric colors like dark red. You might love to live in rooms with that kind of aesthetic features, but chances are that the buyers would prefer to come into a place that has a neutral decor and color palette. Thankfully, it is not that hard or expensive to change this particular feature and you should therefore surely consider changing it even before you put your house on the market.
    Finally, everyone who is satisfied enough with what he or she sees will certainly want to take a look at the house’s infrastructure. We are talking about the most basic things – water, electricity, and heating. Every single house has an infrastructure, but customers tend to be very picky these days. First and foremost, everything needs to be in a perfect state – nobody will want to buy a house in which the heating system will have to be changed in the near future.
    With that out of the way, home buyers also tend to look for how efficient all those systems are, especially when it comes to environmental friendliness. Solar panels seem to be what the craze is mostly about these days – and innovative solutions like that can certainly make your house stand out from the rest of the market. So don’t forget to mention them during the inspection!

    Written: Paul Hayden

    Tuesday, February 5, 2013

    Staging Your Property to Appeal to All Five Senses

    Before you conduct your first open house, consider how you can stage your property so that it is more appealing to potential buyers. Most open houses appeal to only one sense – our eyes. This is extraordinary given how much our day-to-day emotions are influenced by what we smell and the fact that there is a high chance our mood can change when we are exposed to a positive sound. The importance of our senses has been completely overlooked when it comes to selling a home… until now.
    Sniffing an opportunity…
    Have you ever walked past a Subway sandwich shop where you can smell the aroma of warm bread? If you look carefully at the awning you will spot vents that are specially designed to disperse baking aromas. This has proved to be a profitable exercise for the Subway Franchise.
    Studies show that smell is heavily connected to our memory and our mood. When the opportunity presents itself, I like to place a tangerine or a pinch of vanilla extract on a sheet of tinfoil and turn the oven to 275 degrees. I have observed that this subtle smell will put a smile on a visitor’s face and allow a buyer who has seen 15 similar apartments in one day to distinguish your apartment as the “vanilla smelling apartment”. The smell must be subtle and anything too strong could backfire.
    Taste goes hand in hand with smell.
    Who’s in a good mood when they’re hungry? In addition to creating a subtle aroma, pairing simple foods together could go a long way with changing your buyer’s mood. When I place a pinch of vanilla extract in the oven I generally like to offer foods that match this smell such as cookies, chocolate, and coffee that I have brewed. When I place a tangerine in the oven, chopped fruit with tooth picks and wine generally matches the aroma better.
    Depending on the type of clientele your listing attracts you can choose between one or the other. From my experience when dealing with apartments that have multiple bedrooms where a family is going to live, I generally like to serve coffee and cookies, as I sometimes expect kids to show up. The use of coffee will also make them feel more alert and thus more prone to listening to what you have to say and the act of making the coffee and pouring it into their cup will make them feel more at home. When dealing with a one bedroom apartment that will generally attract a first-time single buyer and clients looking for pied-a-tiers, I find fruit and wine make them feel more relaxed and more prone to opening up to the agent.
    Sound is connected to mood as smell is connected to memory.
    Sound creates feelings and emotions. Think about the last love movie you saw, it isn’t nearly as emotional if you watched it with the sound off. If you have ever been to a townhouse open house in NYC at times you’ll see them hire an opera singer, cellist and violinist. I am not saying you should go that far, however, I do think that a subtle natural melody can help soften the mood and make a buyer feel more relaxed.
    Temperature is key and doors are for discovery…
    The skin is the largest organ of the body. It instantly alerts us to cold, heat, pain or pressure. When you hold an open house make sure the temperature of the house is right. In the fall and spring I would advise keeping the thermostat at 72 degrees. In the winter I would advise 80 degrees and in the summer at around 60. Remember if the house is too hot it’s going to come off as ‘stuffy’ and if the house is too cold it’s going to come off as unwelcoming.
    Also, before a buyer walks into the house, close all doors to closets, bathrooms, and bedrooms. The more doors a buyer opens the larger the apartment feels.
    Sight is the most seductive sense of all.
    It often overrules the other senses, and has the power to persuade us against all logic. What you should understand about vision is that it’s all about light and that’s why they say, to truly see what an artist saw when painting a given picture; you should look at it under the same light. Here’s my advice:
    • The house should be shown when it receives the best natural light.
    • Turn on ALL lights in the house.
    • Allow your prospective buyer to see themselves in the space. It is important that you remove personal items such as photographs, collectables, awards, family heirlooms or controversial art.
    • Clear out any clutter and knickknacks from corners, counters and tables. Remove outdated furniture and extra pieces to open up a room and make it more inviting.
    • Buyers love to snoop and will open closet and cabinet doors. Clean and organized closets look roomier. Consider advising the seller to donate unused clothing and items to their favorite charity.
    • If the property needs work – dated wallpaper, ratty carpet – consider having it replaced. A fresh coat of neutral paint is a relatively inexpensive way to make a home look clean and fresh.
    • Making minor repairs can also make a big difference. Replace cracked floor or counter tiles, patch holes in walls, replace burned-out light bulbs, fix leaky faucets, doors that don’t close properly and broken fixtures.
    • Clean like the sale of your home depended on it … because it does. Pay particular attention to the kitchen and bathroom sinks and counters. Clean windows to make a room brighter and so your buyers are no distracted.

    Written by: Ariel Dagan