What You Should Really Know About Browsing for Homes Online

Shopping for houses online illustration

It’s fun! It’s exciting! It’s important to take everything with a grain of salt!

Image: HouseLogic

Oh, let’s just admit it, shall we? Browsing for homes online is a window shopper’s Shangri-La. The elegantly decorated rooms, the sculpted gardens, the colorful front doors that just pop with those “come hither” hues.

Browser beware, though: Those listings may be seductive, but they might not be giving you the complete picture.

That perfect split-level ranch? Might be too close to a loud, traffic-choked street. That handsome colonial with the light-filled photos? Might be hiding some super icky plumbing problems. That attractively priced condo? Miiiight not actually be for sale. Imagine your despair when, after driving across town to see your dream home, you realize it was sold.

So let’s practice some self-care, shall we, and set our expectations appropriately.

  • Step one, fill out our home buyer’s worksheet. The worksheet helps you understand what you’re looking for.
  • Step two, with that worksheet and knowledge in hand, start browsing for homes. As you do, keep in mind exactly what that tool can, and can’t, do. Here’s how.

You Keep Current. Your Property Site Should, Too

First things first: You wouldn’t read last month’s Vanity Fair for the latest cafe society gossip, right? So you shouldn’t browse property sites that show old listings.

Get the latest listings from realtor.com®, which pulls its information every 15 minutes from the Be First Through the DoorAsk your agent to send you automated emails from their MLS with new properties that meet your specs. Multiple Listing Service (MLS), regional databases where real estate agents post listings for sale. That means that realtor.com®’s listings are more accurate than some others, like Zillow and Trulia, which may update less often. You wouldn’t want to get your heart a flutter for a house that’s already off the market.

BTW, there are other property listing sites as well, including Redfin, which is a brokerage and therefore also relies on relationships with brokers and MLSs for listings.

The Best Properties Aren’t Always the Best Looking

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But what they don’t say is a picture can also hide a thousand cracked floorboards, busted boilers, and leaky pipes. So while it’s natural to focus on photos while browsing, make sure to also consider the property description and other key features.

Each realtor.com® listing, for example, has a “property details” section that may specify important information such as the year the home was built, price per square foot, and how many days the property has been on the market.

Ultimately though, ask your real estate agent to help you interpret what you find. The best agents have hyper-local knowledge of the market and may even know details and histories of some properties. If a listing seems too good to be true, your agent will likely know why.

 

Treat Your Agent Like Your Bestie

At the end of the day, property sites are like CliffsNotes for a neighborhood: They show you active listings, sold properties, home prices, and sales histories. All that data will give you a working knowledge, but it won’t be exhaustive.

To assess all of this information — and gather facts about any home you’re eyeing, like how far the local elementary school is from the house or where the closest Soul Cycle is — talk to your real estate agent. An agent who can paint a picture of the neighborhood is an asset.

An agent who can go beyond that and deliver the dish on specific properties is a true friend indeed, more likely to guide you away from homes with hidden problems, and more likely to save you the time of visiting a random listing (when you could otherwise be in the park playing with your canine bestie).

Want to go deeper? Consider these sites and sources:

Just remember: You’re probably not going to find that “perfect home” while browsing listings on your smartphone. Instead, consider the online shopping experience to be an amuse bouche to the home-buying entree — a good way for you to get a taste of the different types of homes that are available and a general idea of what else is out there.

Once you’ve spent that time online, you’ll be ready to share what you’ve learned with an agent.

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth  205-233-5183

What to Do ASAP as a New Homeowner (“Future You” Will Thank You)

 

It’s finally yours. Your very own home. You can paint the walls whatever you like. Heck, even knock out a wall! There’s no landlord to fight you.

But if you’re serious about developing good homeowner habits (so your home makes you richer, not poorer), you’ll use it the minute you close on your home — if not before. Easier to do now than suffer some head-slapping regrets later.

 

Security & Safety

These are the very first things you should do after buying a house(for obvious reasons):

1. Change locks. Spares could be floating around anywhere.

2. Hide an extra key in a lockbox. Thieves look under flower pots.

3. Reset the key codes for garage doors, gates, etc. The former owners might’ve trusted half the neighborhood.

4. Test fire and carbon monoxide detectors. Who knows when the last time was. Definitely install them if there are none.

5. Check the temperature on your water heater, especially if you have young ones, so it won’t accidentally scald. Manufacturers tend to set them high.

6. Make sure motion lights and other security lights have working bulbs.

7. Put a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and each additional floor.

Maintenance Planning

Start your master maintenance plan (and good home-keeping habits) by setting reminders in your calendar to do these basic maintenance tasks:

8. Clean out the dryer hose and vent yearly. Clogged ones burn down houses. And you don’t know the last time the previous homeowner did it.

9. Change your HVAC filters at least once a season. You’ll save on heating and cooling — and your unit will last longer. (While you’re at it, go ahead and stock up on them, too.)

10. Schedule HVAC maintenance for spring and fall.

11. Clean your fridge coils at least once a year. It’ll run better and last longer. (Don’t see any coils? Lucky you! Newer fridges often have coils insulated, so there’s no need for annual cleaning.)

12. Drain your water heater once a year.

13. Clean your gutters at least twice a year.

14. And if all items on your inspection report were not addressed, make a plan to fix them — before they become bigger and more expensive repairs.

Emergency Preparedness

You really don’t want to be figuring any of this out in a real emergency. Do it now. You’ll sleep better and be less likely to ruin your home.

15. Locate the main water shut-off valve. Because busted pipes happen to almost every homeowner at least once. And water damage is value-busting and pricey to fix.

16. Find the circuit box, and label all circuit breakers.

17. Find the gas shut-off valve, too, if you have gas.

18. Test the sump pump if you have one. Especially before the rainy season starts.

19. List emergency contacts. You already know 911. These are the other numbers you often need in an emergency. You should have them posted where they’re easy to see.

  • Your utility companies
  • Your insurance agent
  • Plumber
  • Electrician

20. Assemble an emergency supply kit. Some key items are:

  • Flashlights and batteries
  • Non-perishable food and water
  • Blankets and warm clothing
  • A radio, TV, or cell phone with backup batteries

Home & Mortgage Documents

In case there’s a dispute with your mortgage lender or a neighbor over property lines, or if you’re a bit forgetful about due dates.

21. Store copies (the originals should be in a fireproof safe or safety deposit box) of important home documents so they’re readily available. Go paper, cloud, or better, yet, both.

  • Lender contact information
  • Property survey
  • Inspection report
  • Final closing documents
  • Insurance documents

22. Set mortgage and other bills to auto-pay so you’re never late.

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth  205-233-5183

The Secret to Programming Your Thermostat the Right Way for Each Season

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Before you get started, you’ll need to pick a programmable thermostat you’ll actually use.

According to a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, nearly 90% of Americans say they’ve rarely (or never) programmed their thermostat because they’re not sure how to do it.

But it’s really not that hard, and it’s definitely worth doing because it can save at least 10% a year on heating and cooling costs.

The U.S. Department of Energy says you can achieve that 10% by turning your thermostat back 7 to 10 degrees F from it’s normal setting for 8 hours a day.

The first step is to pick the thermostat that best suits your scheduling needs so you can “set it and forget it,” an approach the Energy Department advocates to get the most savings.

Pick the Right Thermostat

There are four types of programmable thermostats, each with a distinctive scheduling style:

7-day programming. Best for individuals or families with erratic schedules, since this is the most flexible option. It lets you program a different heating/cooling schedule for each day of the week.

5-1-1 programming. One heating/cooling schedule for the week, plus you can schedule a different heating/cooling plan for Saturday and Sunday.

5-2 programming. Same as 5-1-1 programming, except Saturday and Sunday will have the same heating/cooling plan.

1-week programming. You can only set one heating/cooling plan that will be repeated daily for the entire week.

You’ll need a program for both the cooler months and the warmer months.

TIP: Before buying a programmable thermostat, identify the type of equipment used to heat and cool your home so you can check for compatibility. For example, do you have central heating and cooling, or just a furnace or baseboard heating? Otherwise, you may not reap the rewards of energy savings and may risk harming your heating and cooling equipment.

 

Change the Factory Settings

Most programmable thermostats have a pre-programmed setting that’s supposed to be for the typical American family. But what family is typical these days? You need to adjust the thermostat’s settings so it’s in sync with the life you and your family lead instead of some mythical family.

Programming options are based on:

  • Wake Time
  • Sleep Time
  • Leave Time
  • Return Time

The Department of Energy suggests the following settings as an energy-saving rule of thumb:

Winter months:

  • For the hours you’re home and awake, program the temp to 68°F.
  • Lower at least 10 degrees for the hours you’re asleep or out of the house.

Summer months:

  • For the hours you’re home, program air conditioning to 78°F.
  • For the days you don’t need cooling, manually shut off the AC. Keep in mind, it will kick back on if the house gets too warm.
  • Program it to be warmer than usual when you’re out of the house.

Here are a few programming timing tips that can help you create the best set-it-and-forget-it heating and cooling schedule for your home:

  • Shut down heat or air conditioning 20 to 30 minutes before you leave home each day.
  • Turn on heat or air conditioning 20 to 30 minutes before you come home each day.
  • Reduce the heating or cooling 60 minutes before you go to sleep each night.
  • Increase heating or cooling about 30 minutes before you wake up each morning.
  • Spend time tweaking your program for a few days to make sure it feels right.

TIP: With a Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat, you can control your home’s temperature while on the go. That way, you’re not wasting energy if you’re running late or forgot to create a new program before going on vacation.

FYI: A furnace does NOT have to work harder to warm a house after the temperature has been set low during the day.

Use a Wifi Thermostat to Make It Super Easy

Want something that’s simpler? Newer more high-tech models have simplified the process:

The Nest Learning Thermostat: It creates a custom heating and cooling schedule for your home based on motion detection technology. Plus since it is Wi-Fi, it can be controlled remotely. Price: Usually a bit more than $200.

 

Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat: This device makes it easy to create a custom heating and cooling plan. Unlike conventional programmable thermostats, it has a large color interface that displays a simple menu that walks you through all the programming steps. It also “learns” your home and will send you personal notifications if the temperature is not right, or if there’s a power outage. Price: Usually under $200.

 

FYI: Thermostats made prior to 2001 may contain mercury. To see if your programmable thermostat contains mercury, check with the manufacturer. If you decide to dispose of a thermostat that contains mercury, check out how to do so safely in your area at Thermostat Recycling Corp. (Not sure why mercury is so bad? Here’s the skinny: It’s toxic and it never breaks down. When it enters the waste stream, it permanently damages the ecosystem.

 

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth  205-233-5183

 

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How to Keep Your House Cool Without AC

cute dog

Dog sitting in front of fan keeping cool

How to Keep Your House Cool Without AC

Want summer comfort but hate the AC? Follow these tips on how to keep your house cool without frosty air conditioning.

Image: Melanie DeFazio/Stocksy

You don’t have to switch on the air conditioner to get a big chill this summer.

These tips will help you keep your house cool without AC, which will save energy (and avoid AC wars with your family.

Block That Sun!

When sunlight enters your house, it turns into heat. You’ll keep your house cooler if you reduce solar heat gain by keeping sunlight out.

Close the drapes: Line them with light-colored fabric that reflects the sun, and close them during the hottest part of the day. Let them pillow onto the floor to block air movement.

Add awnings: Install them on south- and west-facing windows to reduce solar heat gain by up to 77%, says the U.S. Department of Energy. Make your own by tacking up sheets outside your windows and draping the ends over a railing or lawn chair.

Install shutters: Interior and exterior shutters not only reduce heat gain and loss, but they also add security and protect against bad weather. Interior shutters with adjustable slats let you control how much sun you let in.

Apply high-reflectivity window film: Install energy-saving window films on east- and west-facing windows, which will keep you cool in summer, but let in warming sun in the winter. Mirror-like films are more effective than colored transparent ones.

Open Those Windows

Be sure to open windows when the outside temperature is lower than the inside. Cool air helps lower the temps of everything — walls, floors, furniture — that will absorb heat as temps rise, helping inside air say cooler longer.

To create cross-ventilation, open windows on opposite sides of the house. Good ventilation helps reduce VOCs and prevents mold.

Fire Up Fans

Portable fans: At night, place fans in open windows to move cool air. In the day, put fans where you feel their cooling breezes (moving air evaporates perspiration and lowers your body temperature). To get extra cool, place glasses or bowls of ice water in front of fans, which will chill the moving air.

Ceiling fans: For maximum cooling effect, make sure ceiling fans spin in the direction that pushes air down, rather than sucks it up. Be sure to turn off fans when you’re not in the room, because fan motors give off heat, too.

Whole house fans: A whole-house fan ($1,000 to $1,600, including install) exhausts hot inside air out through roof vents. Make sure your windows are open when you run a whole-house fan.

Power Down Appliances

You’ll save money and reduce heat output by turning off appliances you’re not using, particularly your computer and television. Powering down multiple appliances is easier if you connect them to the same power strip.

Don’t use heat- and steam-generating appliances — ranges, ovens, washers, dryers — during the hottest part of the day. In fact, take advantage of the heat by drying clothes outside on a line.

Plant Trees and Vines

These green house-coolers shade your home’s exterior and keep sunlight out of windows. Plant them by west-facing walls, where the sun is strongest.

Deciduous trees, which leaf out in spring and drop leaves in fall, are best because they provide shade in summer, then let in sun when temperatures drop in autumn. Select trees that are native to your area, which have a better chance of surviving. When planting, determine the height, canopy width, and root spread of the mature tree and plant accordingly.

Climbing vines, such as ivy and Virginia creeper, also are good outside insulators. To prevent vine rootlets or tendrils from compromising your siding, grow them on trellises or wires about 6 inches away from the house.

Speaking of shade, here are smart, inexpensive ideas for shading your patio.

Want more tips for staying cool this summer? Substitute CFL and LED bulbs for hotter incandescent lights.

 

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth  205-233-5183

The Everything Guide to Selling Your First Home

Steps to Selling Your Home

First-Time Home Seller's Guide illustration

How to figure out exactly what you want, and how to work with the experts who’ll help you get it.

Image: HouseLogic

Selling, a famous salesman once said, is essentially a transfer of feelings.

You love and cherish your home. You want the next owner to fall in love with it, too — through photos, through words, and through the experience of walking through your front door. But, perhaps most, you want to get the price you want.

This isn’t a small task. Selling a home requires work. It requires time. The journey isn’t always easy. There will be frustrations. But when you seal the deal and move on to your next chapter  — wow, what a blissful, boss feeling.

Below, we preview and link to each step in your journey.  We’ll discuss how to know what you want (and what your partner wants, if you’re selling together). How to understand the market, and ways to make a plan. And most importantly? How to create relationships with experts and trust them to help you get the job done.

Now, let’s talk about selling your house.

 

Know, Exactly, What You Want

First things first: You need to know what you want (and what your partner wants) in order to sell your home with minimum frustration. Why are you moving? What do you expect from the process? When, exactly, should you put that For Sale sign in the yard? We can help you get your thoughts in order with this home selling worksheet.

Do Your Research

Unless you bought your home last week, the housing market changed since you became a homeowner. Mortgage rates fluctuate, inventory shifts over time — these are just a few of the factors that affect the state of the market, and every market is unique. Educate yourself on what to expect. Start with our study guide on the market. 

 

Interview and Select an Agent

This is the most important relationship you’ll form on your home selling journey. Pick the right agent and you’ll likely get a better sales price for your house. Here’s how to find and select the expert who’s right for you.

Price Your Home

How much is your home worth? That’s the … $300,000 question. Whatever the number, you need to know it. This is how your agent will help you pinpoint the price.

Prep Your Home for Sale

Today, home buyers have unfettered access to property listings online, so you have to make a great first impression — on the internet and IRL. That means you’ll have to declutter all the stuff you’ve accumulated over the years, make any necessary repairs, and get your home in swoon-worthy condition. Here’s how to stage your home.

Market Your Home

Home buyers look at countless listings online. The best-marketed homes have beautiful photos and compelling property descriptions, so they can get likes — which can amount to buyer interest — on social media. Some agents are even using videos, virtual tours, texts, and audio messages. It’s time to consider how to promote your property.

Showcase Your Home

One of the best ways to get buyers in the door is to have an open house. This is your chance to show off your home’s best assets, and help buyers envision themselves living there. Know how your agent will organize, advertise, and host the event to ensure it’s a success.

Receive Offers

Yes, you might get offers plural, depending on your market. Assuming you’ve collaborated with your agent, you’ve likely positioned yourself to receive attractive bids. Your agent will review each offer with you to determine which is best for you. (Read: The offer price isn’t the only factor to consider: Here’s why.)

Negotiate With the Buyer

To get the best deal for you, you’ll likely have to do some negotiating. Your agent will help you craft a strategic counteroffer to the buyer’s offer, factoring in not only money, but contingencies, etc. Let’s talk about how to ask for what you want.

Negotiate Home Inspection Repairs

Ah, the home inspection. It’s as much a source of anxiety for buyers as it is for sellers. Nonetheless, most purchase agreements are contingent on a home inspection (plus an appraisal, which will be managed by the buyer’s lender). This gives the buyer the ability to inspect the home from top to bottom and request repairs — some even could be required per building codes. The upshot: You have some room to negotiate, including about certain repairs. Once again, your agent will be there to help you effectively communicate with the buyer.

Close the Sale

Settlement, or closing, is the last step in the home selling process. This is where you sign the final paperwork, make this whole thing official, and collect your check. Before that can happen though, you’ll have to prepare your home for the buyer’s final walk-through and troubleshoot any last-minute issues. We’ve got you covered with this closing checklist.

 

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth  205-233-5183

 

5 Things That REALLY Will Put a Serious Dent in Your Energy Bills

 

Finger flipping off a light switch illustration

Stop sending so much money to your utility company with these simple strategies.

Image: Diego Schtutman/Shutterstock

Your Mexican beach vacation was great, but, man, those margaritas sure can put on the pounds. It’s been two months, and you’re still carrying around an extra tenner — despite a new running routine and a lot of #&*&@$ kale. So why isn’t your weight dropping?

It’s like that with energy bills, too.  Eighty-nine percent of us believe we’re doing the right things to lower energy costs, and almost half of us think our homes already are energy efficient. Yet, 59% of us say our bills are going up, not down, despite our efforts to economize.

Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group, a marketing agency that specializes in energy efficiency and that did this research, says we’re rationalizing: “I bought these [LEDs] so now I can leave the lights on and not pay more. I ate the salad, so I can have the chocolate cake.” Denial much?

Her research also shows consumers, on average, made fewer than three energy-efficient improvements in 2012 compared with almost five in 2010. It looks like we’re giving in to higher utility bills. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

You just need to know what improvements really will make the biggest difference to lower your bills. There are five, and the good news is that they’re really (seriously) cheap. You can go straight to them here, but there’s also another thing you can do that doesn’t cost a dime — and will drop your costs:

Be Mindful About Your Relationship With Energy

Think about it. Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis without knowing how much it costs until a month later, says Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a research and policy-making nonprofit focused on improving buildings’ energy efficiency.

With other services you get a choice of whether to buy based on price. With energy you don’t get that choice — unless you intentionally decide not to buy. You can take control by making yourself aware that you’re spending money on something you don’t need each time you leave home with the AC on high, lights and ceiling fans on, and your computer wide awake. 

That mindfulness is important because your relationship with energy is getting more intense. You (and practically every other person on the planet) are plugging in more and more. Used to be that heating and cooling were the biggest energy hogs, but now appliances, electronics, water heating, and lighting together have that dubious honor, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, based on data from U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the research arm of the Department of Energy (DOE).

Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis without knowing how much it costs until a month later.
— Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation

Being mindful means it’s also time to banish four assumptions that are sabotaging your energy-efficiency efforts:

1. Newer homes (less than 30 years old) are already energy efficient because they were built to code. Don’t bank on it. Building codes change pretty regularly, so even newer homes benefit from improvements, says Lee Ann Head, vice president of research and insights with the Shelton Group.

2. Utilities are out to get us: They’ll jack up prices no matter what we do. It might feel cathartic to blame them (Shelton’s research shows consumers blame utilities above oil companies and the government), but to get any rate changes, utilities must make a formal case to public utility commissions.

3. Energy improvements should pay for themselves. Nice wish, but it doesn’t work that way. When the Shelton Group asked consumers what they would expect to recoup if they invested $4,000 in energy-efficient home improvements, they said about 75% to 80%.

Unless you invest in some kind of renewable energy source like geothermal and solar, you won’t see that kind of savings. (Sorry.) Even if you do all the right things, the most you should expect is a 20% to 30% reduction annually, says Head, which is still significant over the long term.

What does 30% translate into? $618 in savings per year or $52 per month, based on the average household energy spend of $2,060 per year, according to Lawrence Berkeley and EIA.

4. Expensive improvements will have the biggest impact. That’s why homeowners often choose pricey projects like replacing windows, which should probably be fifth or sixth on the list of energy-efficient improvements, Shelton says.

There’s nothing wrong with investing in new windows. They feel sturdier; look pretty; can increase the value of your home; feel safer than old, crooked windows; and, yes, offer energy savings you can feel (no more draft).

But new windows are the wrong choice if your only reason for the project was reducing energy costs. You could replace double-pane windows with new efficient ones for about $9,000 to $12,000 and save $27 to $111 a year on your energy bill, according to EnergyStar. (The savings are higher if you replace single-pane windows.)  Or you could spend around $1,000 for new insulation, caulking, and sealing, and save 11% on your energy bill, or $227.

The 5 Things That Really Work to Cut Energy Costs

1. Caulk and seal air leaks. Buy a few cans of Great Stuff and knock yourself out over a weekend to seal around:

  • Plumbing lines
  • Electric wires
  • Recessed lighting
  • Windows
  • Crawlspaces
  • Attics

Savings: Up to $227 a year — even more if you add or upgrade your insulation.

2. Hire a pro to seal ductwork and give your HVAC a tune-up. Leaky ducts are a common energy-waster.

Savings: Up to $412 a year.

3. Program your thermostat. Shelton says 40% of consumers in her survey admit they don’t program their thermostat for energy savings. She thinks it’s even higher.

Savings: Up to $180 a year.

4. Replace all your light bulbs with LEDs. They’re coming down in price, making them even more cost effective.

Savings: $75 a year or more by replacing your five most frequently used bulbs with Energy Star-rated models.

5. Reduce the temperature on your water heater. Set your tank heater to 120 degrees — not the 140 degrees most are set to out of the box. Also wrap an older water heater and the hot water pipes in insulating material to save on heat loss.

Savings: $12 to $30 a year for each 10-degree reduction in temp.

NOTE: Resist the urge to total these five numbers for annual savings. The estimated savings for each product or activity can’t be summed because of “interactive effects,” says DOE. If you first replace your central AC with a more efficient one, saving, say, 15% on energy consumption, and then seal ducts, you wouldn’t save as much total energy on duct sealing as you would have if you had first sealed them. There’s just less energy to save at that point.

Bonus Tip for More Savings

Your utility may have funds available to help pay for energy improvement. Contact them directly, or visit DSIRE, a database of federal, state, local, and utility rebates searchable by state. Energy Star has a discount and rebate finder, too.

 

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Backyard Makeovers That’ll Make You Want to Stay Awhile

Man relaxing on a hammock in an urban back yard

7 “Oh Yeahhh” Projects That Make Your Backyard Staycation-Worthy

But not all are equal when it comes to investing in your home.

Image: Chris Clinton/Getty

Mow the grass, weed the garden, seal the deck, rake debris. You may spend plenty of time in your backyard, but if it’s all boot camp and no getaway, you may not be feeling the love for your home you once did.

Time for a second honeymoon with these ideas that’ll turn your labor-loving yard into a leisure-loving one. Some will even enhance your home’s value. Others, at least, won’t ding it. (You definitely don’t want to do that.)

Let the backyard staycations begin with these ideas:

#1 Al-Fresco Dining

Ample, built-in seating and wood-fired pizza on-demand. And while wood-fired ovens are famous for pizza, this isn’t a one-note investment: You can serve up any meat, veggie, or bread — making this a full-on outdoor oven. Low-maintenance hardscaping means you can focus on your party, instead of mowing grass.

Or go for the full farm-to-table concept:

Pluck some veggies from some chic, metal raised beds (easy to maintain), prep them in an outdoor cooking island with a built-in grill (and green roof, which keeps it cooler underneath), and treat yourself to the freshest cuisine around for your backyard staycation.

Even better, since the entire ground area is pea gravel, you can spend less time mowing and more time dining.

But does it add value? Outdoor living and cooking spaces (rooms, really) almost always do. As do low-maintenance hardscaping features — like the patio. Raised steel garden beds, not so much, though.

#2 An Outdoor Room Just for Leisure

Spend Saturday afternoon napping in your outdoor space — not laboring over it. Easy-care plants look lush with minimal intervention, including ground cover and stone to replace grass.

Install horizontal privacy fencing, and you’re ready for one legendary siesta (adorable dog recommended, but not required).

But does it add value? See above about outdoor rooms (and the lovely plants definitely boost it, too). Win-win.

#3 A Yard for Playing

You don’t have to give up playing in the backyard just because you’re an adult. Make your yard a grown-up rec center with a fire pit and bocce ball court (or cornhole, ladder ball, even giant Jenga).

Wood-paneled privacy fencing elevates the adults-only aesthetic, and low-maintenance gravel keeps the focus on fun instead of maintenance.

But does it add value? Seriously doubt it (except for the fence). But it’s your yard. Remember, joy is an ROI of a different sort. Plus, the court is easy enough to erase with some basic landscaping (always a good value add).

#4 A DIY Pool and Pit

A stock tank pool and a fire pit with seating in a backyardImage: John and Caley Duffty of Home Wood Designs

An affordable, stock-tank soaking pool paired with a DIY fire pit and seating is everything good about a The Truth About Built-In PoolsFunny how something most of us love can actually make a house harder to sell. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. pool (laps, shmaps, right?), without all the cost and maintenance.

Add a little wood-fired heater, and it’s a hot tub, too (just make sure it’s one designed for hot tubs — for obvious reasons).

But does it add value? Only to you. And since it’s easy enough to remove, it’s not hurting it either. If you love it, then you’re getting a whole different kind of ROI — where dollars don’t apply.

#5 A Me-Only Retreat

A Malibu spa day may not fit into your schedule (or budget) this year, but stealing away to this hideaway for 30 minutes at a time can be easily penciled in. Now where’s the “Do not disturb” sign?

Colorful backyard shedImage: Megan M. Greene, photo/Amber Lee Garrison

But does it add value? Not really, especially since the shed isn’t plumbed and lacks power. But backyard sheds-as-rooms never seem to disappoint buyers.

#6 An Epic Slide

A modern treehouse with a purple slideImage: Ryan Garvin

Jack up a playhouse with a slide that makes their friends go “Whoa.” And while they’re spending a few hours running up the stairs (or climbing up a cargo net) and racing down the slide, you get some much-deserved “me” time: not a lousy ROI.

But does it add value? The slide, no. The playhouse? Again, no plumbing, no electricity, probably no gain — but the landscaping is a sure-fire win.

#7 Lighting for After Dark

A backyard with pool and covered patio at nightImage: Donny Mak

Do resorts shut down at dusk? They do not. To make your backyard an all-hours destination, incorporate outdoor lighting into your vision. Forget tiki torches; opt for permanent overhead, task, and mood lighting — just like you would indoors. Efficient solar and LED lights are great for outdoors. With the right glow, you can squeeze even more hours of delight out of your backyard staycation.

But does it add value? Oh, yeah. A no-brainer. Outdoor lighting is great for curb appeal (and safety).

 

 

 

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth 205-233-5183

© Copyright 2018 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®

9 Money-Saving Tips That Grandma Never Told You About

Secrets for Maintaining Your Home With Less Time, Money

Three old ladies in front of a white building

9 Money-Saving Tips That Grandma Never Told You About

Like stuffing your fridge (really!)

Image: John M. Eschenbaum, grandson to Ida

Your grandma and her ma before her knew how to pinch pennies. Bet they knew where every dime of their household income went. Do you? Don’t kick yourself if you don’t. It’s tough in this day and age of automatic billing and apps that tap your debit card.

But we all could still learn a thing or two from grandma. Here are a few money-saving and money-making habits that your grandparents cultivated — some with a few modern twists that your grandparents wish they’d had back in their day.

#1 Rent Your Rooms — and More

Your four-bedroom Cape Cod was ready for your future rugrats the day you moved in. But you? Not quite so ready. Your grandparents knew that extra space was a goldmine, and would rent it out. You’ve got it even better today with Airbnb or HomeAway (just make sure to check city regulations first).

Or commit to sharing space long-term: Finding a roommate makes you an honest-to-god landlord (and could score you a new bestie!), complete with tax deductions and blessed additional income.

There are other ways to leverage extra space that are easier today than in your grandparents’ day because it’s so easy to use the internet to advertise. If you’re lucky enough to live near a concert venue or ballpark, let attendees park in your driveway or parking space for some extra cash.

Have a rooftop patio perfect for parties? Check out Splacer, a new online marketplace for event planners, which can turn your home into a money-making event venue.

#2 Revisit Your Insurance

The coverage you needed when purchasing the home might not be the coverage you need forever. Perhaps you sold your grandmother’s antique diamond ring, added a security system, or finally ditched the trampoline. Any of those things could actually make your rate go down. Give your agent a call to make sure you’re not over-covered.

You might even find savings on things you didn’t realize come built into your insurance.

“A lot of times, you find you have double insurance,” says Deb Tomaro, a REALTOR® in Bloomington, Ind. When a breach compromised her personal information, she set out to buy identity protection — only to find it was included in her homeowner’s policy.

“I would have paid for double coverage,” she says. “I didn’t know that until I asked.”

#3 Research the Problem Before You Pay Someone

Your grandparents would have raged about paying someone for something they could do (or learn to do) themselves. Google DIY options before calling a pro — you might find your irritating issue super easy to fix on your own (and way, way cheaper).

Hiring a plumber to fix your leaky fill valve might cost $45 per hour (or much more). Handy homeowners might spend $25 or less on materials, saving you enough cash for a decent bottle of wine. And don’t bring out the handyman to fix cracking caulk — a $4 tube from the hardware store will do the job nicely.

 

#4 Stock Up That Fridge

File this under strange-but-true: A full fridge regulates temperature better than an empty one. Open space in your refrigerator fills with warm air whenever you peek inside, making your poor appliance work overtime. Your grandparents’ fridges were smaller and easier to fill, so it wasn’t an issue for them. But today’s larger fridge/freezers can waste significant energy.

So go ahead, stock up on veggies, meat, and milk — just don’t let your grocery costs run amuck in the process. If you can’t fill it with usable food, place pitchers of water in your fridge to take up the space. And set your fridge between 36 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit for max efficiency.

#5 Get FREE Stuff From Your Utility Company

Now this is a new one on your grandparents. Energy efficiency wasn’t quite the thing that is today. So, believe it or not, unlike a couple of decades ago, your utility company is working to save you money. Their methods might even be a little Oprah-inspired:

  • You get a free LED bulb!
  • You get a free energy audit!
  • You get an HVAC coil cleaning!

That’s right. Some utilities give away free stuff, like usage assessments, efficient bulbs, water-saving shower heads, faucet aerators, and more. And they may offer rebates for upgraded appliances. Bet your grandparents would have snapped those up if they had the chance.

“There are tons of ways to save,” says Steven Hughes, founder of Know Money, a financial literacy advocacy organization. “Some [utilities] are even sending out solar-powered panels to different houses, depending on the neighborhood, for no cost.”

#6 Watch Your PMI

What’s PMI? Private mortgage insurance. If you put less than 20% down on your home, you’re probably paying for PMI, which protects your lender if you default on the loan. But once your loan-to-value ratio hits that blessed 20% mark, call your lender to cancel it.

Lenders aren’t required to remove it until you’re at 22% — meaning an eagle eye can save you a good bit of cash. You’ll save between $600 and $1,200 for each year’s worth of premiums you can avoid (for a typical homeowner).

You might reach the goal post earlier than you think.

“PMI usually ends seven or eight years down the road, but if you’ve made big changes to the home, you might reach that 20% value much quicker,” Tomaro says. Most lenders will require an appraisal to determine if you’ve passed the magic number.

 

#7 Resist the Urge to File an Insurance Claim

Your homeowner’s insurance company doesn’t need to know about every bump, scrape, and petty theft. Think about how much you’re willing to pay out-of-pocket before an incident occurs. Frequent claims can increase your insurance score. That’s right, your insurance company gives you a score, which can affect your premium, so carefully assess your budget and deductible before filing.

You’ll save between $600 and $1,200 for each year’s worth of private mortgage insurance you can avoid.

“Have a conversation with all the decision-makers,” Tomaro says. You might decide you’ll skip any claim that would cost less than $1,000 to fix. In that situation, increasing your deductible might make sense — and it will save you on your monthly premiums.

#8 Negotiate for the Best Price (You Can Do It!)

Accepting the first price you see can cost you — even when it comes to things like insurance premiums and handyman quotes. And you can put those haggling anxieties to rest: You don’t need to be a hard-nosed negotiator to save money on your monthly payments.

Often, asking politely for another rate is enough. Some home insurance companies offer discounts or extended coverage for teachers, long-term customers, and other groups. And when it comes to your cable bill, mentioning you need to check out a competitor before committing might net you another year’s worth of free HBO.

#9 Reap the Power of Rags

Although paper towels did exist back in your grandparents day, they didn’t spend money on them when an old rag would do. Disposable to them meant throwing money away. Follow their lead, and skip the one-use roll for washable rags, available in cheap multipacks. Or use the rags you already have: old T-shirts, cut-up beach towels — even socks work.

Even if you calculate the energy cost to run a load of laundry just for rags, you’ll still come out ahead by replacing your paper towels, unless you’re tossing your rags in the wash after every tiny wipe.

 

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth 205-233-5183

© Copyright 2018 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®

The 7 Most Financially Savvy Home Upgrades You Can Make

Built-in floor to ceiling bookshelves

The 7 Most Financially Savvy Home Upgrades You Can Make

Enjoy your home more today — and sell it for the best price tomorrow.

Image: Susan Yeley Interiors/Gina Rogers Photography

When it comes to home improvement, some dollars stretch more than others. And if you’re on a limited budget, it becomes even more important to spend those dollars wisely.

Here are seven affordable  home improvement projects that’ll help you enjoy your home more today and provide excellent financial return in the future.

#1 Add the Finishing Touch of Molding

Wood moldings come in hundreds of options — from simple to ornate — that you can stain, paint, or leave natural.

You can also find moldings in flexible materials, such as foam, that make installation a whole lot easier. Some moldings even include lighting that casts a soft, ambient glow.

Buyers consistently rank both crown molding and chair railing in their list of most desirable decorative features they seek in a home (#3 and #7 respectively), according to the annual National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) survey, “What Home Buyers Really Want.”

And at $1.50 per foot if you DIY it, or $8 per foot if you hire, it’s a no-brainer in terms of personalizing your home while adding value. (Although we don’t recommend DIY unless you’ve got above-par mitering skills.)

A few tips about molding:

Use crown molding to make a room seem bigger and taller. But be careful about proportions. If your ceiling height is 9 feet or less, go with simpler styles to avoid overwhelming the room.

Place a chair railing at one-third the distance of the ceiling height. Chair railing placed incorrectly can make a room seem out of proportion.

Don’t forget entryways, doors, and windows: Bump up the trim around these areas to give rooms a completed and expensive feel.

Open the Door

Add a pop of color for bright curb appeal and ROI. More like this.

#2 Install Quality Ceiling Fans

Once ceiling fans were frowned upon — they were just a cheap solution to rising energy costs — ugly, wobbly, noisy eyesores endured because they were cheaper than air conditioning.

Not today!

If your ceiling fans are old and outdated, new ones (coupled with a fresh paint job and crown molding) could give your rooms a refreshing update while saving money.

Some tips about ceiling fans:

  • Hang 7 to 8 feet above the floor.
  • If you’ve got a low ceiling, buy a hugger ceiling fan that’s flush-mounted.
  • Go for the biggest Energy Star-rated fan that will fit the space.
  • Choose quality. You’ll get better cooling results, less noise, and good looks at a digestible price point of $200 to $600.

#3 Plant Some Trees

Apple tree outside of a house next to a patioImage: M. Williams

Say what? Adding trees doesn’t instantly pop into your head when you think of adding value to your home. But trees are moneymakers that get better with age.

A mature tree could be worth between $1,000 to $10,000, says the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers. A 16-inch silver maple could be worth $2,562, according to a formula worked out by the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.

In urban areas, money really does grow on trees. A recent study of home sales by the Pacific Northwest Research Station of Portland showed that street trees growing in front of or near a house boosted its sale price by an average of $8,870 and shaved two days off its time on the market.

There’s more. Trees also:

  • Save $100 to $250 annually in energy costs
  • Lower stress
  • Prevent erosion from downpours and roof runoff
  • Protect your home from wind, rain, and sun

 

#4 Install a Patio

Back yard patio in the duskImage: Suzanne Davis at bebehblog

A patio practically pays for itself, costing about $6,400 with a 102% return when you sell.

But don’t go crazy and trick out your patio with high-end amenities, like an outdoor kitchen — especially if you’d be the only one on the block with one. When it’s time to sell, you won’t get back much — if any — of your investment on outdoor kitchens and other high-end amenities. Instead, keep it simple and functional.

Some wise advice when planning a patio:

  • Check property for slope, sun, and shade patterns.
  • Remember ‘dig alerts’ that utilities provide free of charge.
  • Don’t skimp on patio lighting. It can make all the difference in functionality and beautification.

 

#5 Do Almost Any Energy-Efficient Upgrade

The value of energy-efficient houses just keeps going up and up. A UCLA study examined the sales prices of 1.6 million California homes from 2007 to 2012 and found that homes with Energy Star, LEED, or GreenPoint certification had, on average, a 9% higher price.

That finding is echoed in NAHB’s report that surveyed homebuyers across the nation: Nine out of 10 potential buyers would select an efficient home with lower utility bills over a less efficient home priced 2% to 3% less.

One energy-saving home improvement project that not only saves energy but gives you tons of enjoyment, too, is converting a wood-burning fireplace into a gas one. If you like to crunch energy numbers, gas fireplaces have energy-efficient ratings as high as 77%, compared with wood-burning fireplaces that convert only 15% of wood’s energy into useful heat.

In fact, 39% of homebuyers say a gas fireplace is an essential or desirable feature of the next home they purchase. So when it comes time to sell your home, more than one-third of potential buyers will be looking for a gas fireplace.

In the meantime, it’ll be paying for itself in reduced heating costs.

Some tips for converting to gas:

  • direct-vent gas insert most closely replicates the wood-burning experience at a cost of about $3,000 to $4,000, installed.
  • If you don’t have an existing fireplace, you can install a direct-vent (vents directly outside so you don’t need a chimney) gas fireplace for about $5,000 (installed and finished).

 

#6 Add Some Creative Storage

We don’t have to sell you on the value of storage and built-in organization. Since when have you heard someone complain about too much storage? Never, we bet.

Adding storage is a no-brainer, but it does take a little brainpower to find your home’s hidden storage.

Here are a few ways to think outside of the toy box:

  • Open drywall to create storage cubbies between your wall’s studs.
  • Install platform storage that hangs from your garage ceiling.
  • Even stairs can give you more storage. One clever mom repurposed an old chest of drawers and created storage within a basement staircase.

 

#7 Light Up the Outdoors

Exterior lighting makes your home shine in the evening, accents features you like most about your house, and helps keep burglars away. A hard-wired lighting fixture can cost $150 to $250 to install. On the plus side, you could get a 50% return on your investment, says Judith Patriski, a Cleveland appraiser and REALTOR®. Installing motion-detecting lights can even lower some homeowners’ insurance premiums. (Check with your agent.)

And with technological advances in solar lighting, it’s easier and more cost-effective than ever to boost your home’s nighttime curb appeal.

Plus, 90% of buyers say outdoor lighting is on their list of desired home features.

Tips:

  • Place accent lights under your favorite trees to show off your landscaping’s top earners.
  • If your lights are hard-wired, put them on a timer so you don’t waste energy running them during the day.
  • Choose a warm white light. It’ll make your home look and feel welcoming.
Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth

205-233-5183

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Chris Lee and Rusty’s team would like to welcome our newest team member

anjanette real estate photo

 

We would like to welcome Anjanette Ikner to Chris Lee and Rusty’s team at RealtySouth in Tuscaloosa.  Anjanette grew up in McCalla Alabama and graduated from Brookwood High school in 2003. Niece of a top producing Real Estate agent in Birmingham, she aspired to follow in her aunt’s footsteps and began her career as a Realtor in 2018. Proudly, Anjanette is the wife, daughter and granddaughter of American Veterans. As a Realtor, she has made it her life’s mission to serve her community with honesty and dignity. Anjanette is also the mother of two beautiful daughters Haley and Makayla. She spends her spare time with friends and enjoying the great outdoors with her daughters and husband Terry.

Contact Anjanette at Aikner@realtysouth.com or 205-861-8792 

 

 

Looking to buy or sell a home?

Chris Lee and Rusty’s Team at RealtySouth 205-233-5183

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