Recent Testimonial

Do You Really Need to Clean Your Air Ducts?

Do you really need to pay good money to have your air ducts cleaned? The short answer is “probably not.” But before you call up dad to chant “I told you so,” it’s important to understand why you probably don’t need to do it — and why we just italicized “probably.”

(Because some people actually should. Sorry! Hope it’s not you!)

Clean Air Claims

In order for your forced-air furnace or HVAC to deliver warm and cool air into your rooms, that air has to go through a system of ducts. So technically, you’re breathing in any dust, cobwebs, pet hair, and dander that line those ducts. Sounds harmful, right?

Not according to the experts. Dan Stradford, National Air Duct Cleaners Association treasurer and CEO for Action Duct Cleaning in Los Angeles, says there are no conclusive studies saying that duct cleaning will improve your home’s indoor air quality.

Asa Foss, LEED residential technical director for the U.S. Green Building Council, concurs. “I’ve never seen any data that suggests duct cleaning has a positive impact on indoor air quality and human health,” he says.

But Foss also says that’s only true when your ducts are airtight. Leaky ducts can pull in dirty air and allergens from basements, crawlspaces, garages, and attics — and blow it all around your house, Foss says.

So unless your ducts are leaky (easily fixed with foil-backed duct tape and insulation), or you have a special need, like a compromised immune system, nasty allergies, or you just did major construction, you probably don’t need to worry about air quality when it comes to the state of your air ducts. Woo!

Special (Super Gross) Circumstances

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Both the EPA and the National Air Duct Cleaners Association recommend professional duct cleaning if you have mold growth, vermin (vermin!), or excessive amounts of dirt and debris in your ducts.

Ahh! How do you know if you have vermin in your ducts? You can actually look yourself. Do a visual inspection by pulling off the register grill and looking around with a flashlight, or stick your arm in and take a photo with your phone. (Finally, an excuse to use that selfie stick you got stuck with at your work’s white elephant gift exchange.)

If you see mold, or a dead mouse, or any run-of-the-mill nasty stuff like droppings (ew, we’re so sorry), go ahead and call in a pro. Get those ducts cleaned.

Another situation that calls for cleaning, says EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre, is right after lead paint remediation. “You wouldn’t want to have that being dispersed into the house when you turned on the heat.”

And finally, if you’re just finicky, you just be you. Be your own special circumstance.

“We have customers [for whom] just the thought of dirty ducts is upsetting to them,” says Stradford. “It’s individual preference.”

Scam Alert!

OK, so you’re gonna clean your ducts. Your dad will be proud. But be wary of scams. Stay away from companies willing to clean your ducts for $49 or another lowball figure, Stradford says. Often they’ll do a quick inspection and some vacuuming, tell you there’s mold growth and charge you thousands for clearing it out. It’s common enough that the National Air Duct Cleaners Association has an anti-fraud task force.

Look out for duct cleaners claiming they will sanitize your system. “We can’t legally use the words ‘sanitize’ or ’disinfect,’” Stradford says. “By definition sanitizing or disinfecting requires extremely high kill rates and there’s no way we can guarantee 100 percent saturation.”

Also, cleaning your ductwork alone is not going to make a difference. A real professional knows that, and should do annual maintenance on your entire system, including the air handler (that’s what they call that big metal box outside that cranks out the noise). {{ start_tip 7 }}Otherwise it’s the same as dusting your ceiling fan after you’ve vacuumed.{{ end_tip }}

So how much will it cost, and how long is it going to take? Typically, duct cleaning takes two to five hours, but it can go on for two days if you have a large house with lots of ducts, Stradford says. On average you should spend $300 to $700.

 

They’ll Think You Cheated and Hired a Pro If You Use These 5 Painting Hacks

DIY home painting tips give you professional results and a whole lot less hassle.

Image: Fabio Galeazzo, design/Marco Antunio, photo

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A DIY painting job doesn’t have to equal crooked lines, besmirched floors, and ceramic sinks speckled with robin’s egg blue.

Use these simple painting tips and tricks from the pros to make the process faster and less messy — and ensure a gorgeous end result.

1. Soak Brushes in Fabric Softener to Keep Bristles Soft

Every DIY painter has been privy to the horrors of a day-old brush with stiff bristles that makes round two nearly impossible. To prevent your brushes from becoming hard and unusable, make sure to rinse thoroughly (no soap), and swish them in a mixture of fabric softener and warm water (half a cup of softener to a gallon of warm water) for 10 seconds or so.

Then lay them flat or hang them on a peg for overnight storage.

“That way, the bristles won’t develop a bend and will retain their usefulness for your next painting adventure,” says Artem Filikov, vice president of marketing and product development for home improvement website HomeYou. Also, there’s no need to rinse before using. The softener actually helps distribute paint more smoothly.

2. Use Plastic Wrap to Prevent Mishaps

When painting around a large, awkward item you want to keep clean, like a toilet or a standalone sink, surround it with plastic wrap to keep drips from destroying its finish.

For an extra tight wrap, choose a wrap with an adhesive backing — your hardware store will even carry special painter’s plastic wrap, if you really want to go all out — which will help it stick to the surface and prevent the odd drop from inching its way in. Once you’ve finished the job, just unwrap for a paint-free finish.

3. Look in Your Pantry to Reduce Paint Odor

Paint’s intense odor can get really old really fast. Overpower it with a little bit of vanilla. Although there are vanilla-scented products specifically designed to use with paint, you can get the same effect with what’s in your kitchen cabinet.

For darker paints, add a couple drops of vanilla extract (artificial is fine) per gallon to reduce the nasty smell and keep your room smelling sweet for weeks to come. Because you don’t want the tint of vanilla to ruin the color of your paint, swap it with lemon extract for light-colored paints.

4. Repurpose Old T-Shirts as Rags to Reduce Waste

Painting’s a messy job, but using roll after roll of paper towels is neither efficient nor environmentally-friendly. And while you could pick up a mega-pack of plain cotton towels to keep paint from splattering, why not use something you can find stuffed at the back of a drawer? Geoff Sharp, the owner of Sharper Impressions Painting Co., recommends cutting up old T-shirts to use as rags, saving money and resources (not to mention a trip to Goodwill).

“If paint runs down your roller or brush, it gets really messy, really quick,” he says. “Always have a rag in your pocket so you and your brush or roller stay clean.”

5. Keep Q-tips Handy for Emergencies

Oh no! A drop of Naples Sunset just splashed on your white window frame. You’ve only got a few minutes to clean up the mess before your mistake is sealed for eternity. That’s where Q-tips come in handy. Just stash some in your pocket for these types of emergencies.

Here’s another use for that pile of cotton swabs tucked in your jeans pocket: Use them to touch up imperfections on newly-painted walls without dirtying an entire paintbrush.

6. Apply Petroleum Jelly to Places You Don’t Want Painted

A little bit of Vaseline can go a long way toward keeping your paint job clean. Using a Q-tip (another reason to keep them handy), go over all the bits and pieces you don’t want painted, like screws or hinges. With the petroleum jelly applied, even an accidental slip won’t leave you heartbroken.

Here’s another tip for a hassle-free paint job: “Run petroleum jelly along the seals of your doors and windows to prevent them from sticking,” Sharp says.

7. Blow Dry Painter’s Tape for Easy Removal

Painter’s tape is supposed to make your paint job easier and stress-free. But when strips of perfect paint peel off along with the adhesive — or you just can’t get the darn tape to come off at all — you might feel like you wasted your effort.

To help stubborn painter’s tape get a move on, turn a hair dryer (low heat only) toward your handiwork. Holding it about three inches from the wall will help soften the adhesive and ensure an even line, making removal a stress-free affair — and ensuring you keep that dreamy, crisp paint line.

 

Love Your Bathroom Forever: 9 Perfect Features

For style, sanctuary, and ROI, you can’t go wrong with these must-haves.

 

All those pretty photos on all those pretty home design websites are fun to click through — and maddening when it comes time to make bathroom remodeling decisions. Too many choices.

We’ve got your back: We distilled all the visual noise down to the essence of what makes a bathroom remodel truly great.

With the “2015 Remodeling Impact Report” from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® pegging the national median cost of a bathroom remodel at $26,000, you’ll want to make sure you get maximum comfort, convenience, enjoyment — and resale juice when the time comes to sell.

Here’s the definitive list of practical (and hedonistic) features.

1. Heated Ceramic Tile Flooring

 

 

Enduring, waterproof, and good-looking, ceramic tile bathroom flooring is the classic, never-out-of-style surface material for any bathroom. Plus, consumers (read: future buyers) love it: In a survey from the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), 83% of respondents said ceramic tile was their No. 1 choice for bathroom flooring.

With prices ranging from a mere $1 per square foot to $20 and more, you’ll find a huge array of choices, styles, and colors that’ll work with any budget.

But ceramic tile can chill your tootsies. Pair your ceramic with thin electric radiant mats that go under the tile without raising the floor level — ideal for retrofit installations.

A typical system uses about the same amount of electricity as three 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. Plus, radiant heat is often more efficient than forced-air heating because it eliminates heat loss through the ducts, says the U.S. Department of Energy. It also distributes heat uniformly across the floor, taking less time to warm a room than other types of heat.

At $5 to $15 per square foot to install, radiant mats are as easy on the budget as they are on the sole.

Nice-to-have ceramic tile accompaniments:

No-slip ceramic tile. With its finely textured surface, it’s great for traction, making it an exceptionally safe bathroom flooring for young kids or folks with limited mobility.

Look for one of two ratings on the packaging.

  1. A COF (coefficient of friction) standard of .60 or greater means the tile is rated as non-slip when wet by the Ceramic Tile Institute.
  2. The DCOF (dynamic coefficient of friction) AcuTest measurement, the new gold standard now coming on the market, requires a value of .42 or above for non-slip tile.

Tip: No-slip tile’s texture can trap dirt, and that requires extra elbow grease to clean.

Epoxy grout. New formulas resist staining and discoloration over time better than traditional ones. They’re also more flexible than regular grout and less prone to cracking, making them ideal for flooring installations.

The key to grouting success is the installer. Make sure your contractor is familiar with epoxy grouts, which require finesse to shape and handle. You’ll pay an extra $50 to $100 to cover a 6-foot-by-12-foot bathroom floor with epoxy, according to the Tile Council of North America.

Programmable radiant heat thermostat. Want to treat yourself extra nice? Greet the day with a sigh of relief when you add a wall-mounted programmable thermostat (about $60 to $200) that’ll start warming up your floors whenever you want. How about a half an hour before your alarm goes off?

2. Curbless Walk-in Shower

 

 

More than 60% of respondents to a recent survey by the American Institute of Architects said walk-in, curbless showers are increasing in popularity. For good reason: They’re stylish, safe for folks of all ages, and oh so easy to clean.

They dovetail nicely with ceramic tile floors, too. You can have one continuous surface that moves seamlessly from shower to the main bath area.

Plus, they’re all about marketability. As the population ages, a contemporary walk-in is a selling point.

Be sure to hire a remodeling contractor with experience. Making a curbless shower takes know-how — the shower floor has to slope to the drain hole, which means the new drain will be located below the surface of the existing floor.

To make that work, you’ll have to remove old flooring and subflooring and alter the framing underneath the floor. It’s a good idea to consult with your local building authorities beforehand so that the work will be up to code and pass inspection.

Related: Dump Your Tub for a Dreamy Shower

3. Quartz Countertop

 

Bathroom vanity with quartz counterImage: Joe Coulson courtesy of Atlanta Kitchen

 

We love natural stone, but in this battleground of soaps, lotions, pastes, and poultices, we prefer the impervious beauty of synthetic, low-VOC quartz.

“Consumer Reports” testing gives the edge to quartz over granite, citing quartz’s ability to resist stains and abrasions. It’ll look good year after year. Plus, the surface is so impervious bacteria can’t lodge in it.

Quartz countertop material is a synthetic composite made up of about 90% quartz particles held together with binders. It’s virtually maintenance-free —  it never needs to be sealed — and comes in dozens of styles and colors. If you’re stuck on the idea of stone, many quartz versions mimic the real thing.

Quartz runs $40 to $100 per square foot, installed (about the same as granite, although some varieties of granite get very pricey).

4. One Big Sink Instead of Two Small Ones

Togetherness is a beautiful thing, but in the master bath, you’re church and your partner’s state. Establish your individuality without losing your bond with a large (38-inch or more) sink ($350 to $1,200). One big sink saves more counter space than two, and still lets you both wash up simultaneously.

Spec an undermount sink to go with your quartz countertop — undermounts have no protruding lip and help make cleanup a snap. The perfect companion to quartz countertops, undermount lavatory sinks are the preferred choice of 87% of respondents to a 2013 survey from the NKBA, and have been for several years.

Tip: Extra-large undermount sinks may need extra support. Check the sink specs and confer with your installer before you buy.

5. Single-Hole, Motion-Activated Faucet

Ah, the savings. “Motion-activated, touchless faucets shut off automatically so you’re not running the water continually, like when you’re brushing your teeth, which saves a significant amount of water,”  says NKBA president John Petrie.

Besides that, we love the fact that sleek, single-hole touchless faucets are right in step with the calm, simple lines of transitional style. Transitional is a universally appealing, trend-defying design that’s cozy, elegant, and ensures a great return on your investment.

Finally, have you ever tried to clean around a two-handle vanity faucet with a narrow (4-inch) spread? Did you require therapy afterward? We heartily endorse the single-hole, lever-type faucet for your bathroom sink — and your sanity.

These tres-cool faucets run $200 to $650 and up. Some have temperature controls so you (or your kids) can’t get scalded.

For extra utility savings, look for faucets with the WaterSense label that use only 1.5 gallons per minute (gpm) compared with the standard 2.2 gpm flow of regular faucets.

6. Humidity-Controlled Exhaust Fan

What’s homebuyers’ No. 1-requested bathroom feature? An exhaust fan, says a report from the National Association of Home Builders. Wow — bath fans beat out linen closets and separate tubs and showers.

A fan or an operable window in a bathroom is required by building code. But who wants to open a window in winter to get rid of excess humidity? Get a fan with a humidity-sensing on/off switch. It’ll turn on when moisture levels are high and automatically shut off when things return to normal. That keeps mold at bay, ensures you’re not sucking out air-conditioned or heated indoor air, and prevents the fan from using power long after it needs to.

Tip: Make sure your contractor vents the fan to the outside, not the attic, or you might develop mold problems aloft.

Other fan options include multiple speeds, nightlights, and manual timers; you’ll pay up to $600 for a fan with all the goodies.

7. High-Efficiency, Dual-Flush Toilet

Saving water is our future; a high-efficiency, dual-flush toilet reduces water usage and appeals to any buyer looking for a cost-effective home.

That’ll be an even more important selling point before too long. Several major U.S. cities — including Atlanta, Cleveland, Salt Lake City, and Washington, D.C. — could be out of water by mid-century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

By law, today’s toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. California has even tighter restrictions: no more than 1.28 gallons per flush. A toilet that meets either standard of water conservancy may be certified by the EPA and carry the WaterSense label.

But we prefer to go one step further with a high-efficiency, dual-flush model toilet featuring a water-sipping, 1-gallon flush for liquid waste, and either a 1.6-gallon or 1.28-gallon flush for solid wastes.

All 25 toilets recently tested by “Consumer Reports” “removed liquid waste superbly,” including the dual-flush models. This is a change, says CR, from previous tests, when many dual-flush models performed well with solid wastes but underperformed with liquid wastes.

Tip: Bidets are standard features in Asia and Europe, but they’ve been slow to catch on in the U.S. (and there aren’t any WaterSense-labeled models). Nevertheless, some manufacturers are creating hybrid toilets and toilet seats ($650) that have bidet features, and we’re going on record as recommending them. They save lots of TP, and they appeal to our melting-pot homebuyer mix of races and cultures, a benefit when it comes time to sell.

Related: More Smart Ways to Save Water and $$

8. Pocket or Sliding Barn Door

 

 

The floor area of a bathroom is precious. Why waste any with a swinging door that eats up some 14 square feet of space? A pocket door or barn door slides out of the way without requiring any clearance, leaving more room for storage and design flexibility.

Google Trends shows that interest in sliding barn doors hovered at a lukewarm rating of about 40 from 2004 through 2011, when interest upticked to 70 before reaching an all-time high of 100 just last year — the highest possible rating on the Google interest scale.

The sliding door phenomenon partners neatly with sustainability: old, salvaged doors of all kinds make showpiece barn doors for your bathroom.

So pocket or barn doors? Either can work well, depending on your budget.

Our editors had a lively debate about recommending pocket doors, which disappear into the wall. Some said the typical recessed door pull for pocket doors is awkward and can pinch fingers.

Modern tech to the rescue: You can find edge-mounted pocket door hardware with a handle that pops out at the touch of a button ($121). Or, add a door stop inside the wall framing to prevent the door from sliding all the way inside the wall. That way, you can safely use a recessed pull or add a traditional handle or knob to open and shut the door.

Tearing out drywall and reframing for a pocket door is $1,000 to $3,500, depending on the complexity of the job.

You can install a barn-style door, which hangs from a track above the doorway and slides in front of a wall., for less. It’s a good DIY project. Barn door kits cost $400 to $900, but if you’re handy, buy the hardware for $100 to $500 and make your own door, or find a used door at a salvage building supply store.

9. Calm Colors

It’s always cool to be up on trends, but we say make your bathroom an exception. It’s your sanctuary — it should be soothing and filled with light.

That doesn’t mean it has to be boring. In fact, it’s a good idea to include a painted wall surface so you can dash color about on a whim and change it just as easily. Non-permanent items, such as artwork and antique mirrors, add beaucoup personality.

But permanent surfaces — ceramic tile and fixtures — need quiet, calm neutrals. White, beige, and gray are favorites. In fact, the NKBA says gray is the trendiest color for baths these days, so you win on two fronts, for now.

“A neutral color palette really is safe, especially in terms of resale value,” says NKBA’s Petrie. “You can always be expressive with colorful towels or curtains, things that are less expensive and easier to change than more permanent features.”

Plus, lighter colors help bounce light around, helping you see what a fantastic bathroom you’ve put together.

 

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

Pricing based on data, not emotion, can mean a swift sale.

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

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

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

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

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

The Pitfalls of Overpricing

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

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

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

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

The Pricing Traps

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

1.  Conflating actual value with sentimental value — how much they assume their home’s worth because they lived there and loved the time they spent there.

2.  Assuming renovations should result in a dollar-for-dollar increase in the selling price — or more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Right Stats for the Right Price

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

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

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

Knowing When the Price is Too High

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

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

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

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

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

 

5 Ways You Didn’t Know You Could Save for a Down Payment

Buying your first home conjures up all kinds of warm and fuzzy emotions: pride, joy, contentment. But before you get to the good stuff, you’ve got to cobble together a down payment, a daunting sum if you follow the textbook advice to squirrel away 20% of a home’s cost.

Here are five creative ways to build your down-payment nest egg faster than you may have ever imagined.

1. Crowdsource Your Dream Home

You may have heard of people using sites like Kickstarter to fund creative projects like short films and concert tours. Well, who says you can’t crowdsource your first home? Forget the traditional registry, the fine china, and the 16-speed blender. Use sites like Feather the Nest and Hatch My House to raise your down payment. Hatch My House says it’s helped Americans raise more than $2 million for down payments.

2. Ask the Seller to Help (Really!)

When sellers want to a get a deal done quickly, they might be willing to assist buyers with the closing costs. Fewer closing costs = more money you can apply toward your deposit.

“They’re called seller concessions,” says Ray Rodriguez, regional mortgage sales manager for the New York metro area at TD Bank. Talk with your real estate agent. She might help you negotiate for something like 2% of the overall sales price in concessions to help with the closing costs.

There are limits on concessions depending on the type of mortgage you get. For FHA mortgages, the cap is 6% of the sale price. For Fannie Mae-guaranteed loans, the caps vary between 3% and 9%, depending on the ratio between how much you put down and the amount you finance. Individual banks have varying caps on concessions.

No matter where they net out, concessions must be part of the purchase contract.

Related: New Law Protects You from Surprise Closing Costs

3. Look into Government Options

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, offers a number of homeownership programs, including assistance with down payment and closing costs. These are typically available for people who meet particular income or location requirements. HUD has a list of links by state that direct you to the appropriate page for information about your state.

HUD offers help based on profession as well. If you’re a law enforcement officer, firefighter, teacher, or EMT, you may be eligible under its Good Neighbor Next Door Sales Program for a 50% discount on a house’s HUD-appraised value in “revitalization areas.” Those areas are designated by Congress for  homeownership opportunities. And if you qualify for an FHA-insured mortgage under this program, the down payment is only $100; you can even finance the closing costs.

For veterans, the VA will guarantee part of a home loan through commercial lenders. Often, there’s no down payment or private mortgage insurance required, and the program helps borrowers secure a competitive interest rate.

Some cities also offer homeownership help. “The city of Hartford has the HouseHartford Program that gives down payment assistance and closing cost assistance,” says Matthew Carbray, a certified financial planner with Ridgeline Financial Partners and Carbray Staunton Financial Planners in Avon, Conn. The program partners with lenders, real estate attorneys, and homebuyer counseling agencies and has helped 1,200 low-income families.

4. Check with Your Employer

Employer Assisted Housing (EAH) programs help connect low- to moderate-income workers with down payment assistance through their employer. In Pennsylvania, if you work for a participating EAH employer, you can apply for a loan of up to $8,000 for down payment and closing cost assistance. The loan is interest-free and borrowers have 10 years to pay it back. Washington University in St. Louis offers forgivable loans to qualified employees who want to purchase housing in specific city neighborhoods. University employees receive the lesser of 5% of the purchase price or $6,000 toward down payment or closing costs.

Ask the human resources or benefits personnel at your employer if the company is part of an EAH program.

5. Take Advantage of Special Lender Programs

Finally, many lenders offer programs to help people buy a home with a small down payment. “I would say that the biggest misconception [of homebuying] is that you need 20% for the down payment of a house,” says Rodriguez. “There are a lot of programs out there that need a total of 3% or 3.5% down.”

FHA mortgages, for example, can require as little as 3.5%. But bear in mind that there are both upfront and monthly mortgage insurance payments. “The mortgage insurance could add another $300 to your monthly mortgage payment,” Rodriguez says.

Some lender programs go even further. TD Bank, for example, offers a 3% down payment with no mortgage insurance program, and other banks may have similar offerings. “Check with your regional bank,” Rodriguez says. “Maybe they have their own first-time buyer program.”

Not so daunting after all, is it? There’s actually a lot of help available to many first-time buyers who want to achieve their homeownership dreams. All you need to do is a little research — and start peeking at those home listings!

 

Buying a Fixer-Upper: Is It Worth It? How to Tell

In 2012, Alessandra Pollina and her husband, Ondre, were looking for a property that would need no more than some cosmetic changes and upgrades. But because the price was right, they ended up with the ultimate fixer-upper: a two unit, single-family-style home that was already gutted to the studs.

They were excited about its potential, not to mention the one-half acre of land the house is sitting on. “That’s unusual for Boston,” Pollina says. “It’s the biggest backyard ever.”

Four years and many renovations later, Pollina estimates her home in the Dorchester neighborhood is worth (drum roll, please) an epic 56% more than it was when she bought it. Wow, talk about a return on investment.

The moral? A fixer-upper isn’t necessarily something to eschew. If the right things are wrong with a house, you could not only turn it into your dream home, but also earn serious equity (wealth building!) in the process.

Oh, and don’t assume you need to be a DIY master to make it worthwhile, either. Time and patience may be all you need.

Here’s how to tell if that fixer-upper is a keeper — or if you should keep walking.

First, Evaluate the Price

If it’s a fixer-upper, it should come at a fixer-upper price. Duh, but that’s a reminder NOT to fall in love too quickly with a home that the listing says “just needs a little TLC.” Do your homework first, and if the price is right, then fall in love.

Find out what similar homes in the neighborhood sell for and how tricked out they are (with amenities and materials). A REALTOR® can help you figure that out. And that will tell you how much money you can invest in the home before you over-improve for the neighborhood, a mistake you want to avoid if you plan to sell in the future.

Wendell De Guzman, a Chicago real estate investor who renovates at least two houses a month, recommends treating the remodel like a business, not a hobby. Determine your budget based on the market value of homes in your neighborhood, because you’re not going to sell for more.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you can put into the house,” Guzman says. “You’re limited by the market value of what nearby houses are selling for.”

Next, Start Evaluating What Improvements Are Needed

The best fixer-uppers offer lots of opportunities for “instant equity,” which means if you sold the home tomorrow you’d pretty much get that money back, unlike other projects which you may never get your money back on. (A swimming pool won’t help you when it comes time to sell. You’ll spend any gain on insurance and upkeep. On the other hand, you can’t put a dollar value on an afternoon with family and friends.Read More InDo Swimming Pools Add Value to Homes? Swimming pool,anyone?)

Some can be as simple as painting or landscaping, which you can accomplish with sweat equity, De Guzman says. In fact, the Pollinas started their rehab with high-value, low-effort landscaping, since it’s the first thing people see. They raked, brought the grass back to life, planted fruit trees and a veggie garden, and enjoyed the reaction: “People are so surprised and impressed,” Alessandra says.

Other tasks — the Pollinas focused on the kitchen next — may require the work of professionals and cash to pay them. It’s those projects you want to carefully evaluate against the home’s price.

Which Hire-a-Pro Projects Add Instant Equity?

Fact: While most home improvements add some equity, some are consistently at the top of the heap. Another thing those equity champions have in common: They usually require the help of a pro, but the cost can be instantly worth it.

Based on data gleaned from the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®’ “Remodeling Impact Report” (RIR), if these four projects are on your fixer-upper’s list of must-haves, then you may have found your dream equity-builder:

1. New roof: A new roof may not be the remodeling project of your dreams — until you realize it could actually pay you. You’ll spend about $7,600 to install it (based on a national average determined by contractors responding to the RIR survey), but when you sell, it could recoup 105% of that or $8,000, according to REALTORS® surveyed.

2. Hardwood floors: It costs about $2,500 on average nationally to refinish hardwood floors. If you bought a house that already had refinished hardwood floors, you could pay about $2,500 more for the home. But if you’re looking at a fixer-upper (at the right price) that needs the floors redone, that’s like getting the floors for free! New hardwood floors are also a good choice at a cost of about $5,500 to install, and could recoup $5,000 of that at resale.

3. Insulation: A fixer-upper offers a great opportunity to replace or add insulation. New insulation costs about $2,100 on average nationally, and can recoup $2,000 at resale — as if saving 10% to 50% on your energy bill wasn’t compelling enough.

4. New siding: Droopy, old siding can be great news on a fixer-upper. Vinyl siding costs about $12,000 to install on average nationally, and recoups about $10,000 when you sell. Getting a fixer-upper for a price that more than covers the cost of siding installation is, well, priceless.

While those four are pretty safe bets — homeowners who responded to the RIR survey gave them high happiness and satisfaction marks, too — almost any project can be worth it with a fixer-upper if the price is right. For example, a complete kitchen renovation can cost $60,000 and recover only about $40,000 when you sell. But if the fixer-upper is discounted enough, think how amazing it would be to cook in a kitchen you designed yourself.

Evaluate Your Ability to Deal with Disruption

Whether you’re a DIY Jedi or content to let the pros handle the remodel, if your patience is shorter than your potential home’s to-do list, a fixer-upper may not be a good choice.

Renovating a bathroom alone can take two to three weeks. Add hardwood flooring, a new kitchen, and siding, and you’re looking at a whole summer’s worth of rehab.

When considering a fixer-upper, evaluate the limits of your emotional energy as well. Inevitable project pitfalls and delays can be wearing. Only if you have the time, patience, and emotional endurance for a fixer-upper will it be a good fit for you. And only you can determine that.

But if you can budget your time and money — and employ the right fixer-upper strategies — you might find yourself with a double reward: A home that’s worth far more than you paid, and the joy of knowing you helped get it there.

 

Kitchen Remodeling Decisions You’ll Never Regret

We see lots of kitchen trends at HouseLogic, so we know it’s easy to get swept along with what’s in vogue, only to get bummed out by your faddish design choices a few years later. Thank you — and damn you — Pinterest.

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

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

 

#1: White is the Dominant Color

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

 

White kitchen cabinetsImage: Patricia Alix

White’s mojo:

 

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

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

Related:

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

  • Add your personal touch with colored glass knobs and pulls.

 

Glass knobs spice up a classic kitchen designImage: Allessia of Little Lessy

 

  • Show off antique Fiesta ware on open shelves or in upper cabinets with glass fronts.
  • Paint walls the color du jour — even off-white!

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

#2: Hardwood for Flooring

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: The Best Choices for Kitchen Flooring

#3: Shaker Style for Cabinets

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Related: How to Choose Kitchen Cabinets for the Best Value

#4: Carrara Marble for Countertops

 

 

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

Here’s why:

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

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

Related: How to Get the Look of Marble Without the Cost

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

#5: Subway Tile for the Backsplash

 

 

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

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

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

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

#6: Ergonomic Design

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

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

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

  • Create different countertop heights. Standard height is 36 inches, but you can raise or lower sections of cabinets by altering the height of the base. Add color-match shim strips to the bases of countertops that don’t include sinks or appliances. You (or a new owner) can easily remove them or add to them to adjust the height.
  • Swap a standard range for a wall oven and a cooktop. Ranges have fixed heights. There’s no getting around the fact you have to bend to access the oven. But a wall oven conveniently installs about waist-high.
  • Add pull-out shelves to base cabinets. Lower cabinets with doors mean having to twist like a pretzel to see what’s inside. Pull-out shelves put everything at your fingertips.

 

Kitchen drawer cutout around sinkImage: Autumn Clemons of MyDesignDump.blogspot.com

 

  • Keep wide clearances. Kitchens attract people, and with open floor plans, you’re apt to have folks hunting for snacks, helping you cook, or just hanging out while you prep meals. Keep traffic flowing with a minimum of 42 inches between counters and islands.

Related: 5 Kitchen Layout Ideas to Avoid

#7: Smart Storage

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

We see lots of kitchen trends at HouseLogic, so we know it’s easy to get swept along with what’s in vogue, only to get bummed out by your faddish design choices a few years later. Thank you — and damn you — Pinterest.

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

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

 

#1: White is the Dominant Color

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

 

White kitchen cabinetsImage: Patricia Alix

White’s mojo:

 

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

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

Related:

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

  • Add your personal touch with colored glass knobs and pulls.

 

Glass knobs spice up a classic kitchen designImage: Allessia of Little Lessy

 

  • Show off antique Fiesta ware on open shelves or in upper cabinets with glass fronts.
  • Paint walls the color du jour — even off-white!

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

#2: Hardwood for Flooring

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related: The Best Choices for Kitchen Flooring

#3: Shaker Style for Cabinets

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Related: How to Choose Kitchen Cabinets for the Best Value

#4: Carrara Marble for Countertops

 

 

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

Here’s why:

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

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

Related: How to Get the Look of Marble Without the Cost

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

#5: Subway Tile for the Backsplash

 

 

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

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

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

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

#6: Ergonomic Design

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

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

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

  • Create different countertop heights. Standard height is 36 inches, but you can raise or lower sections of cabinets by altering the height of the base. Add color-match shim strips to the bases of countertops that don’t include sinks or appliances. You (or a new owner) can easily remove them or add to them to adjust the height.
  • Swap a standard range for a wall oven and a cooktop. Ranges have fixed heights. There’s no getting around the fact you have to bend to access the oven. But a wall oven conveniently installs about waist-high.
  • Add pull-out shelves to base cabinets. Lower cabinets with doors mean having to twist like a pretzel to see what’s inside. Pull-out shelves put everything at your fingertips.

 

Kitchen drawer cutout around sinkImage: Autumn Clemons of MyDesignDump.blogspot.com

 

  • Keep wide clearances. Kitchens attract people, and with open floor plans, you’re apt to have folks hunting for snacks, helping you cook, or just hanging out while you prep meals. Keep traffic flowing with a minimum of 42 inches between counters and islands.

Related: 5 Kitchen Layout Ideas to Avoid

#7: Smart Storage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Declutter Your Home: Why Being Organized Saves You Money

See what a bundle you can save if you declutter your home.

If you’ve ever accrued a late fee after losing a bill, thrown away spoiled peaches you forgot to eat, or bought yet another pair of sunglasses because you couldn’t find yours, then you know being disorganized can cost you money.

At best, clutter in the home causes mistakes, late fees, overdue payments, and missed deadlines. At worst, a house in chaos can eat away at your finances, mar your credit, and reduce your productivity. That’s a whopping price to pay for being disorganized.

According to an Ikea “Life at Home” survey, 43% of Americans admit to being disorganized, and the average American wastes 55 minutes per day looking for stuff they’ve lost or misplaced.

“Do you think organizing is just for appearances?” asks Lisa Gessert, president of Organizing.buzz, a professional organizing service in Staten Island, N.Y. “Organizing your home is financially beneficial.” Gessert stresses to clients the need to sort, purge, assign things a home, and containerize. “This process saves people tons of money.”

Related: The Link Between Clutter and Depression

Here’s why being organized saves you money, and how to get your home into shape:

Disorganization in the Home Office Costs You:

  • Lost papers = time spent looking for them, money wasted on duplicates
  • Misplaced bills = late fees, bad credit causes higher interest rates
  • Missed tax deadlines = penalties

 

Home office with paperwork on shelvesImage: Cate St. Hill

 

If any of these sound familiar, you’ll need a home office system for dealing with important papers, bills, and personal correspondence. The Ikea survey found 23% of people pay bills late because they lost them. Wall-mounted bill organizers can help you stay organized. Look for ones with two or more compartments to categorize by due date.

“Having your papers organized will save time, help you pay bills on time, and allow you to be more productive,” says Alison Kero, owner of ACK Organizing, based in New York City.

Mount shelving and create a file system for important papers, such as insurance policies and tax receipts. Look for under-utilized space, such as converting a standard closet into built-in storage with shelves and cabinets for your papers, files, and office equipment. If you need to use stackable bins, don’t stack them around equipment that needs air ventilation, such as scanners and Wi-Fi receivers, since they could overheat and malfunction — costing you money.

Disorganization in Your Closets Costs You:

  • Missing clothes = money spent on duplicates
  • Hidden items = wasted time since you can’t see what you own
  • Accessory mess = wasted money on items you don’t wear, can’t find

 

Clothes organized in a closetImage: Libby Walker for HouseLogic

 

“Organizing often reduces duplication of possessions,” says Lauren Williams, owner of Casual Uncluttering LLC, in Woodinville, Wash. “No more buying an item for a second, third, fourth time because someone can’t find it.”

If closets are crammed, paring down is a must. First, take everything out. Rid yourself of multiples, anything you no longer wear, and assess your shoe collection. Create piles: purge, throw out, or donate.

For what’s left, you’ll need a better closet system. You can choose a ready-made system that simply needs installation, or create your own. PVC pipe can be used to create additional hanging rods, and you may also want to add shelving to store folded clothes, hats, and bulky items. Look for wire mesh shelving, solid wood shelves, or an all-in-one closet shelving system depending on space. Large and small hooks can be wall-mounted to hold belts, accessories, and scarves.

Related: Savvy Closet Organization Tips and Tricks

Disorganization in the Kitchen Costs You:

  • Expired food = wasted money
  • Overflowing pantry = can’t see what ingredients you have and duplicate them
  • Crammed cabinets = overspending on multiple dishes and gadgets

Since the kitchen is often the hub of the home, it has a tendency to clutter. No wonder the Ikea survey found 50% of the world’s kitchens have junk drawers. Categorize yours by adding small plastic or wooden drawer organizers for things like thumbtacks, rubber bands, scissors, and tape.

To avoid buying your third jar of oregano or second potato ricer, buy or build an organizational system for your pantry. Built-in lazy Susans work great. Use pull-out mini shelving to corral items like dressings, hot sauces, and vinegars. Tackle cabinets and counters by mounting behind-the-cabinet-door racks to hold items like pot lids or cutting boards.

Add pull-out drawers in your bottom cupboards to make everything easily accessible and easy to see. You’ll thank yourself when you get older, too.

Related: Smarter Ways to Use Your Kitchen Cabinets and Drawers

Disorganization in Your Living Areas Costs You:

  • Lost keys, missing wallet = late for work, lost productivity
  • Not being able to fully enjoy your home = you spend money elsewhere for fun
  • Blocked ventilation = utility costs rise

 

 

Your living space is where you want to get the most enjoyment out of your home. If you can’t relax and enjoy yourself there, you’ll constantly be seeking out other places to find solace and fun — and that can add up to a lot of money spent on entertainment and recreational venues.

And, meanwhile, you could be paying more than you should for the living space you’re not enjoying.

“I run into people whose homes are unorganized to the point of papers, boxes and ‘stuff’ blocking air vents that supply heat and air conditioning to their homes,” says Gessert. This costs a fortune in utility bills. Likewise, a jumble of electrical wires around TVs and home entertainment systems can be sucking energy from always being plugged in. Connect them all to smart power strips that can turn everything off with one switch.

Once you’re living with organization, you’ll start to see the benefits everywhere. No more dealing with late fees on bills, having to buy replacement earrings or bread knives when items go missing, and — perhaps best of all — no more having to leave your home in order to find relaxation and entertainment. After all, saving on bills can be a big boost to your monthly budget, but there’s no greater value than getting more enjoyment out of your home.

 

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

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

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

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

Be Willing to Compromise for Your Priorities

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

Huh?

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

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

Dig Into the Details

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

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

 

Grigory Pekarsky opening his refrigeratorImage: Jacob Hand for HouseLogic

 

Focus on Lifestyle

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

 

Grigory Pekarsky in his bedroom with his dogImage: Jacob Hand for HouseLogic

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

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

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

Agent Amy Smythe Harris of Urban Provision REALTORS®, in Woodland, Texas, bought a home with a sizable downstairs suite her parents could use now (and she could use years from now). She says her millennial clients aren’t forward-thinking about their lifestyles. Some are childless and say they don’t care about schools, pools, and tennis courts. Then they become parents a few years later and have to move. “Once they have kids, the first question [they] ask is about school districts, and the second is about where the parks and pools are,” she says.

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

Filter Your Choices Through the Lens of Resale

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

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

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

Likewise, If you buy a home priced higher than average for the area, it’ll be difficult to resell at a higher price.Read More InWhat to Do a Year Before Buying Your First Homedon’t buy a home that’s not in line with the neighborhood’s average price . When you go to resell, you’ll find yourself in an uphill battle to maintain your higher price.

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

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

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