4 Things to Do in February to Avoid a Yucky Spring

A mud-remediation plan. That’s No. 1 on this short list.

image of cell phone reminder tasks for January to do this now with background of a heart stamped in snow
Image: Maggie Stuart for HouseLogic
  • That dark time when winter just won’t go is like that friend who can’t take a hint to leave.

Give a push with these four easy tasks that’ll help usher in spring.https://www.youtube.com/embed/IKUsLTerzzc?feature=oembed&enablejsapi=1HouseLogic

  • #1 Deep-Clean Your Entryway

Snow. Salt. Boots. Shovels. Your entryway floors, baseboards, rugs, and more have had a rough few months. Give that smallest of rooms some deep cleaning love now, before the salt crust becomes a permanent part of your entryway decor in spring.

#2 Make an Anti-Mud Plan

Rainboots in a mud puddle
Image: Amanda Voelker/Offset
  • Mud may be the least of your frozen worries now, but it’s a-coming.

Be prepared with a remediation plan. With your yard in its frozen-tundra state, you can easily see the troublesome spots.

Research potential ground cover, like gravel, a rain garden, decorative rocks, or the right grass that’ll soak it up. Then you’ll be ready to execute your anti-mud plan the moment it’s warm enough — and do it in time to keep the mud at bay.

#3 Organize Your Cleaning Closets and Laundry Room

A bright white laundry room with washer and dryer
Image: A. Peltier Interiors Inc., designer | Bethany Nauert Photography, photographer

This will not only breathe new life into these often-ignored areas, but perfectly pampered cleaning stations can seriously rev up your spring cleaning motivation.

#4 Hail a Handyperson

Handyman painting the wall in a house
Image: Kathrin Ziegler/Getty
  • Spring and summer are peak handyperson seasons. Skip the surge pricing and the agony of waiting for callbacks by hiring someone now. At least for the indoor chores.

Plus, you may be surprised at what outdoor chores can be done.

You’ll be spring-ready before the first flower buds.

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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Minimalist Organization Ideas to Declutter Your Home

9 minimalist home tips: things you need to start — or stop — doing right now.

Illustration of woman cleaning off her kitchen counters
Image: HouseLogic
  • A clean, clutter-free home is totally doable. Just follow the minimalist home tips in this infographic:
Infographic of minimalists guide for a clutter-free home
Image: HouseLogic
  • Minimalist Organization Ideas

It’s really about what you do — or don’t do.

  1. Reduce duplicate items in your house. How many towels do you really need, after all? Allow two per person.
  2. Minimize your storage space. It seems counterintuitive, but when we expand our space, we fill it up. Stop expanding. 🙂
  3. Ignore trends. Focus on quality items that you’ll keep and use for years.
  4. Toss something every time you buy something.
  5. Borrow or rent things, such as tools, that you don’t need on a regular basis.
  6. If you haven’t made the switch to digital records, do it now.
  7. Simply buy less. Skip the BOGO deals. 
  8. Don’t use countertops for storage. Have a place for everything.
  9. Declutter your finances, too. Get rid of debt. For example, if you make one, just one, extra house payment a year (make sure you indicate it’s for principal only), you can cut a 30-year mortgage in half.

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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What to Know About Your Credit Before Buying a Home

It’s not just whether you pay your bills on time that matters.

Credit ratings for new homeowners
Image: Cavan Images/Tanya St/StudioBarcelona/Getty

This article was contributed by financial expert and blogger Mary Beth Storjohann, CFP, author, speaker, and founder of Workable Wealth. She provides financial coaching for individuals and couples in their 20s to 40s across the country, helping them make smart, educated choices with their money.

Like it or not, your credit score is one of the most important numbers in your life, ranking up there with your Social Security number, date of birth, and wedding anniversary. This three-digit number is your financial report card, except there’s no getting rid of it after college.

Your credit score shows lenders just how trustworthy you are when it comes to managing your finances, and it can either save or cost you thousands of dollars throughout your life. 

If you’re in the dark about just how significantly this number can impact you and the details behind your personal score, here’s an overview of what you need to know before hitting the mortgage application process.

How Your Score is Calculated

Your FICO credit score is comprised of five elements, according to the Fair, Isaac Corp.

  1. 35% of your score is attributed to how you pay your bills. Points are added for paying on time and deducted for late or missing payments. Note: This is a big portion of your score, so if you’re not paying bills on time, it’s best to get that under control pronto.
  2. 30% of your score is based on your credit utilization ratio. Translation: How much money do you owe as a portion of the amount of credit available to you? The lower this ratio, the better.
  3. 15% is based on the length of your credit history. When did you open your first account (and is it still open)?
  4. 10% of your score goes to the type of credit you have. Think revolving credit (such as credit cards) and installment credit (such as car loans and mortgages).
  5. The last 10% is impacted by new credit applications. How often and for what types of credit are you applying?

Where to Find Your Score and Report

To access your credit report, use a website such as annualcreditreport.com, which will give you one free report a year, or creditkarma.com, which will provide you with free access to your score upon signing up for an account. 

Once you have copies of your report and score, immediately look for fraudulent or erroneous information. If you find anything, immediately contact both the credit reporting agency and the company that is portraying inaccurate information to determine next steps.

How Your Score Can Cost You

Your score can range from about 300 to 850. You’ll find a variety of breakdowns on what’s considered “good” compared to “excellent” versus “poor,” but in general you’ll want to aim for a score of 740 and higher, which is the “very good” range.

The higher your credit score, the more creditworthy you appear to lenders (meaning they can rely on you to pay your debts and pay them on time), which translates into lower interest rates and more money saved when taking out a loan.

Not sure how this can play out financially? Consider this:

Meet Claire: She’s 35, pays her credit card off in full each month, has all her bills on auto-draft, and never misses a payment. She’s had a positive credit history for 10 years and wants to buy a home. Claire was approved for a $200,000, 30-year fixed-rate loan at 3.75%.

Meet Steve: He’s 32, obtained his first credit card at age 18, ran up some debt in college that he’s still working on paying down, and has no system for keeping track of bills. He has consistent late and bounced check fees. Steve wants to buy a home and was approved for a $200,000, 30-year fixed-rate loan at 5.5%.

What’s all the fuss about if they were both approved? Over the life of her loan, Claire will pay $133,443.23 in interest. Over the life of his loan, Steve will pay $208,808.08 in interest. A small interest rate difference of 1.75% translates into $75,364.85 more paid by Steve! $75,000 is a pretty significant sum of money that could be used toward other goals.

Having a solid credit score is one of the most financially savvy tools for you to have on hand when it comes to buying a home. When managed wisely, your credit score will bring you confidence, peace of mind, and more money saved via low interest rates. 

When mismanaged or not cared for at all, your credit score can delay your success in meeting financial goals and result in additional funds and resources spent correcting past mistakes. 

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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When It’s Time to Get an Accountant to Do Your Taxes

Do you need a CPA? Or will a regular accountant do?

graphic of a businessperson on bag of balloons with dollar & division symbols flying across a blue sky
Image: Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty
  • Now that you’re a homeowner, your taxes may have gotten more complicated. And you may be asking yourself, “Do I need an accountant?” And if you do, should you hire a certified public accountant (CPA)? And what’s the difference between a CPA and a noncertified accountant?

Plus, you may be one of many people who worked from home and wonder if you can deduct some of your home office-related expenses. Or you may have moved out of state or tapped into your 401(k) for supplemental income.

Here’s some information to help you.

The Differences Between Tax Experts and Other Options

First you need to know there are different types of tax experts. And not all accountants are CPAs. So, if you’re thinking that a licensed independent CPA and someone at H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt (or your buddy who studied accounting in college) are pretty much the same, don’t count on it. Basically:

  • An accountant is someone who studied accounting and works in the field.
  • CPAs are accountants who passed a rigorous examination and must comply with stringent continuing education requirements from their state board on a regular basis. The designation usually requires a degree. Not every CPA specializes in taxes.
  • An enrolled agent, or EA, is a tax specialist who has been certified by the IRS. Being an EA doesn’t require a degree like a CPA does. But it does verify they know the tax law.
  • A tax preparer at pop-ups like H&R Block or Jackson Hewitt is trained on tax software to help taxpayers file their returns. They aren’t required to be CPAs or EAs, but some are very knowledgeable about the tax rules.
  • Only CPAs and EAs can legally represent you if the IRS challenges your return.

There’s nothing wrong with visiting a pop-up preparer like H&R Block if your return isn’t all that complicated, says Cathy Derus, CPA and founder of Brightwater Accounting in Illinois.

“It’s when you start generating other income — perhaps you launch a business or own rental property — [or experience a big financial change] when it makes sense to ask for a little extra help,” she says.

Several software programs are available to help you prepare your own return and save money, says Tai Stewart, accountant and owner of Saidia Financial Solutions in Houston. “They’re good for people who have simpler returns — they’re in their first few years of work or single with no kids. The programs ask questions to make it easy to understand the directions and input your data.”

But if you’ve bought a home, it gets more complex, Stewart adds. “That opens you up to special credits and deductions and requires more recordkeeping. If you mess something up or miss out on deductions, it can cost more than hiring an accountant would have.”

When It’s a Good Idea to Hire a Tax Pro

When you buy your first house. Many of the expenses related to buying a home and having a mortgage are deductible. But only if you have enough deductions to itemize.

When you move to a new state. There’s a good chance you’ll have to file two state returns for the year you move. And each state is a little different in terms of state tax owed — zero in some states, a flat amount in others, and graded by income bracket in most.

When you become a landlord. “When you own investment property, you become a small business owner,” says Stewart. That means new records to keep and a new tax form, Schedule E, to complete.

When you buy a vacation property. Especially if you rent it. And especially if it’s in a different state.

Tax Tip

Avoid the onerous record keeping for the regular home office deduction with the simplified method — $5 per sq. ft. up to 300 sq. ft., capped at $1,500. Trade-off: Much less paperwork, but possibly a smaller deduction, too.

When you work from home and are self-employed. Potential money-saving deductions can vary widely depending on the type of business and how much space the office takes in your home.

“If you have a  home office, you can deduct for the square footage you use for work as well as a portion of your utilities, mortgage interest, and property taxes,” says Stewart.

So, How Much Do Accountants Cost?

With H&R Block, regardless of whether you choose virtual, in-person, or drop-off services, the base cost is $85, and state fees are added on.

The average cost of hiring a CPA to prepare and submit a Form 1040 and state return with no itemized deductions in 2021 was $220, while the average fee for an itemized Form 1040 and a state tax return was $323, according to Investopedia. Costs increase along with the complexity of the return.

Pricing is variable, so it’s best to check directly with the options you’re considering for the most up-to-date information.

You can definitely DIY in all these tax scenarios and save the fees, but with CPAs and EAs, the extra cost may be worth it. Especially if you run your own business. Or you own more than one home.

“An accountant can help you analyze your spending choices and even act as a consultant,” says Stewart. Best of all, they’ll be by your side if the IRS ever comes after you. That alone could be priceless if the time comes.

Oh, and one last tip: If you decide you want to hire a CPA or an EA, it’s best not to wait until the last minute. You may not find one who can file the return before the deadline. However, extensions may be available.

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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What to Expect During a Home Inspection

From finding an inspector to dealing with surprises — this is your guide to getting a house checked out.

Home inspection illustration
Image: HouseLogic
  • The first thing you need to know about a home inspection: You’ll feel all the feels.

There’s the excitement — the inspection could be the longest time you’re in the house, after the showing.

Right behind that comes … anxiety. What if the inspector finds something wrong? So wrong you can’t buy the house?

Then there’s impatience. Seriously, is this whole home buying process over yet?

Not yet. But you’re close. So take a deep breath. Because here’s the most important thing to know about home inspection: It’s just too good for you, as a buyer, to skip. Here’s why.

A Home Inspector Is Your Protector

An inspector helps you make sure a house isn’t hiding anything before you commit for the long haul. (Think about it this way: You wouldn’t even get coffee with a stranger without checking out their history.)

A home inspector identifies any reasonably discoverable problems with the house (a leaky roof, faulty plumbing, etc.). Hiring an inspector is you doing your due diligence. To find a good one (more on how to do that soon), it helps to understand what’s involved in the typical home inspection. 

Reviews of Seller’s Property Disclosures

Before an inspection, the home inspector will review the seller’s property disclosure statement. (Each state has its own requirements for what sellers must disclose on these forms; some have stronger requirements than others.) The statement lists any flaws the seller is aware of that could negatively affect the home’s value. 

The disclosure comes in the form of an outline, covering such issues as:

  • Mold 
  • Pest infestation
  • Roof leaks
  • Foundation damage
  • Other problems, depending on what your state mandates.

During the inspection, an inspector has three tasks:

  1. Identify problems with the house that they can see
  2. Suggest fixes
  3. Prepare a written report, usually with photos, noting observed defects

This report is critical to you and your agent. It’s what you’ll use to request repairs from the seller. (We’ll get into how you’ll do that in a minute, too.)

What Home Inspector Won’t Check

Generally, inspectors examine houses for only problems that can be seen with the naked eye. They won’t tear down walls or use X-ray vision to find hidden faults.

Inspectors also won’t put themselves in danger. If a roof is too high or steep, for example, they won’t climb up to check for missing or damaged shingles. Instead, they’ll use binoculars to examine it.

They can’t predict the future, either. While an inspector can give you a rough idea of how many more years that roof will hold up, they can’t tell you exactly when it will need to be replaced.

Finally, home inspectors are often generalists. A basic inspection doesn’t routinely include a thorough evaluation of:

  • Swimming pools
  • Wells
  • Septic systems
  • Structural engineering work
  • The ground beneath a home
  • Fireplaces and chimneys

When it comes to wood-burning fireplaces, for instance, most inspectors will open and close dampers to make sure they’re working, check chimneys for obstructions like bird nests, and note if they believe there’s reason to pursue a more thorough safety inspection.

If you’re concerned about the safety of a fireplace, you can hire a certified chimney inspector for about $300 to $600 per chimney; find one through the Chimney Safety Institute of America.

Check Home Inspector Qualifications

Now you’re ready to connect with someone who’s a pro at doing all of the above. Here’s where — once again — your real estate agent has your back. They can recommend reputable home inspectors to you.

In addition to getting recommendations (friends and relatives are handy for those, too), you can look for professional inspectors at their trade association websites. The American Society of Home Inspectors Find a Home Inspector tool lets you search by address, metro area, or neighborhood. You can also search for inspectors by state at InterNACHI.

Ask Interview Questions

You’ll want to interview at least three inspectors before deciding whom to hire. During each chat, ask questions such as:

  • Are you licensed or certified? Inspector certifications vary, based on where you live. Not every state requires home inspectors to be licensed, and licenses can indicate different degrees of expertise. ASHI lists each state’s requirements here
  • How long have you been in the business? Look for someone with at least five years of experience — it indicates more homes inspected.
  • How much do you charge? Home inspection cost an average $365, although pricing varies based on location and the size of your house, as well as market conditions, demand, and supply.
  • What do you check, exactly? Know what you’re getting for your money.
  • What don’t you check, specifically? Some home inspectors are more thorough than others.
  • How soon after the inspection will I receive my report? Home inspection contingencies require you to complete the inspection within a certain period of time after the offer is accepted — normally five to seven days — so you’re on a set timetable. A good home inspector will provide you with the report within 24 hours after the inspection.
  • May I see a sample report? This will help you gauge how detailed the inspector is and how they explain problems.

How to Really Read Online Reviews

Take extreme reviews (“she was the best inspector ever”) with a grain of salt; compare a provider’s reviews on several sites; don’t let a few bad reviews cloud the positives; see if a contractor has addressed negative reviews.

Sometimes you can find online reviews of inspectors on sites like Angie’s List and Yelp, too, if past clients’ feedback helps you make your decision.

Show Up for the Inspection (With Your Agent)

It’s inspection day, and the honor of your — and your agent’s — presence is not required, but highly recommended. Even though you’ll receive a report summarizing the findings later on, being there gives you a chance to ask questions and to learn the inner workings of the home.

Water: A Home’s #1 Enemy

Besides drainage, ask the inspector about any signs of water damage. Water can destroy the integrity of the home’s structure. So a leaky gutter isn’t just annoying; it’s compromising your foundation.

Block out two to three hours for the inspection. The inspector will survey the property from top to bottom. This includes checking water pressure, leaks in the attic, plumbing, etc.; and whether door and window frames are straight (crooked could indicate structural issues); electrical wiring is up to code; smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are working; and appliances work properly. Outside, they will look at things like siding, fencing, and drainage.

The inspector might also be able to check for termites, asbestos, lead paint, or radon. Because these tests involve more legwork and can require special certification, they come at an additional charge.

Review the Home Inspection Report

Once you receive the inspector’s report, review it with your agent.

Legally, sellers are required to make certain repairs. These can vary depending on location. Most sales contracts require the seller to fix: 

  • Structural defects
  • Building code violations
  • Safety issues

Get Ready to Negotiate

Most home repairs, however, are negotiable. Prepare to pick your battles: Minor issues, like a cracked switchplate or loose kitchen faucet are easy and cheap to fix on your own. You don’t want to start nickel and diming the seller. 

If the house has major issues, your agent can submit a formal request for repairs that includes a copy of the inspection report. Repair requests should be as specific as possible. For instance, instead of saying “repair broken windows,” a request should say “replace broken window glass in master bathroom.”

  • If the seller agrees to make all of your repair requests: They must provide you with invoices from a licensed contractor stating the repairs were made. Then it’s full steam ahead toward the sale.
  • If the seller responds to your repair requests with a counteroffer: They will state which repairs (or credits at closing) they are willing to make. The ball is in your court to either agree, counter the seller’s counteroffer, or void the transaction.

At the end of the day, remember to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling about all this. Be realistic about how much repair work you’d be taking on. At this point in the sale, there’s a lot of pressure from all parties to move into the close. But if you don’t feel comfortable, speak up.

The most important things to remember during the home inspection? Trust your inspector and your gut, and lean on your agent — they likely have a lot of experience to support your decision-making.

That’s something to feel good about.

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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You Only Think It’s True: 10 Myths Costing You Time and Money

Save your cash for more important things, like, you know, your mortgage.

home maintenance myths that cost money man holding a money bag between a miniature yellow house split in half
Image: PM Images/Getty
  • You can’t swing a tool belt without hitting a website or TV network offering tips on taking care of your digs. Save money by watering your lawn at night! No, water it in the morning! No, dig it up and replace it with a drought-hardy meadow!

Throw in the info you pick up from well-meaning friends, and there’s a sea of home care truisms out there, some of which can sink your budget.

Myth 1: Stone Countertops Are Indestructible

A cracked gray and pink marble stone countertop
Image: Marble Lite Inc.
  • Fact: Even rock can be damaged.

Marble, quartz, travertine, soapstone, and limestone can all be stained. Regular household cleaners can dull their surfaces over time. And marble is maddeningly fragile — it’s the prima donna of stone.

Marble is easy to scratch. It’s easy to stain. Here’s the worst part: Mildly acidic substances like soda, coffee, lemon juice, even hard water will eat into marble, creating a cloudy, dull spot in a process known as etching.

“Spill a glass of wine on a marble counter and go to bed without cleaning it. The next morning you’ll have a problem,” says Louwrens Mulder, owner of Superior Stone in Knoxville, Tenn.

And while stone counters won’t crack under a hot pot, such direct heat can discolor quartz or marble, says Mulder. So be nice to your counters, no matter what they’re made of. And note that the best rock for your buck is granite. “It doesn’t stain or scratch. It’s tough because it’s volcanic rock,” Mulder says. Which means it can stand up to all the merlot and barbecue sauce you can spill on it.

Myth 2: Your Smoke Detector’s Test Button Is Foolproof

home maintenance myths that cost money a lit burning match held up to an outdated smoke detector
Image: Maggie Stuart for HouseLogic
  • Fact: The test button doesn’t tell you what you really need to know.

Yes, check your smoke detector twice a year. But all that test button will tell you is whether the alarm sound is working, not if the sensor that detects smoke is working. Pretty key difference there.

The best way to check your device is with real smoke. Light a long, wooden kitchen match; blow it out; and hold it near the unit. If the smoke sets off the alarm, it’s working. Replace the batteries if the smoke doesn’t set off the alarm. If the smoke detector still doesn’t work after that, you need a new one. And replace those batteries once a year anyway, because dead batteries are the No. 1 reason smoke detectors fail.

Myth 3: Gutter Guards Are Maintenance-Free

Fact: You gotta clean gutter guards, too.

Gutter guards keep out leaves, but small debris like seeds, pine straw, and flower buds will still get through.

Gutter guards can lessen your work, though — sometimes a lot. Instead of shoveling out wheelbarrow loads of leaves and other crap twice a year, you might just need to clean them every two years. But if there are lots of trees in your yard, once a year might be necessary.

Related: Money-Saving Tips to Repair Those Dastardly Gutters

Myth 4: A Lemon Is a Great Way to Clean a Disposal

Lemons ready to be added to a disposal
Image: Anne Arntson for HouseLogic
  • Fact: While wanting to use natural cleaners is admirable, most of them will damage your disposal and pipes over time.

The lemon’s acidic juice will corrode the metal parts of your disposal. The mixture of salt and ice contains metal-eating acid, too. The coffee grounds are abrasive enough to clean the gunk off the blades and make it smell like a cup of Americano, but they’ll accumulate in pipes and clog them.

The best natural cleaner for your disposal is good old baking soda. It’s mildly abrasive, so it will clean the blades. But it’s a base, not an acid, and won’t damage the metal. Best of all, a box with enough baking soda big enough to clean your disposal twice costs about a buck.

Myth 5: Mowing Your Lawn Super Short Means You’ll Mow Less Often

Fact: You might not have to mow as often, but your lawn will look like awful.

Cut that grass under an inch high, and you’ll never have to mow again because your grass will die. Mowing a lawn down to the root — a screwup known as scalping — is like cutting all the leaves off a plant.

Grass blades make and store your lawn’s energy. Removing more than a third of the length of the blade will leave your grass too weak to withstand weeds and pests. It also exposes the roots to the sun, causing the lawn to dry out quickly. Leave one to three inches of grass above the roots to keep your lawn lush.

Myth 6: CFLs Cost Too Much and Are Dangerous

Fact: CFLs (compact fluorescent lights) have come down in price since they first hit the market and don’t contain enough mercury to cause any harm.

You can buy a package now for less than $3. And replacing one incandescent bulb with a CFL will save nearly $40 a year for the life of the bulb in replacement costs alone, says Save on Energy. The major benefits of an Energy Star-rated CFL include using about 75% less energy than a standard incandescent and lasting up to 10 times longer.

And CFLs are a safe option. Using CFLs (and other fluorescent bulbs) instead of incandescent bulbs lowers your exposure to mercury indirectly, because they use less electricity than incandescent bulbs. That means the coal-fired power plants that spew mercury into the air each year won’t have to run as long to keep our houses lit. Fewer toxins, lower power bills. What’s not to love?

Myth 7: A Trendy Kitchen Redo Will Increase My Home’s Value

home maintenance myths that cost money HDR shot of an outdated kitchen with wood paneling and avocado-green counters old appliances and light fixtures
Image: Martin Deja/Getty
  • Fact: Décor trends come and go as fast as viral videos.

Remember those Tuscan-style kitchens with mustard gold walls, ornate cabinets, and medieval-looking light fixtures that were the must-have of the late ’90s and early aughts?

Today, they’re as dated as flip phones. Instead of remodeling in the latest look, which costs an average $45,000, according the the National Association of REALTORS® “Remodeling Impact Report,” try repainting in on-trend colors, which costs $600 to $1,320, according to FixR. If you do opt for a full remodel, choose elements like Shaker cabinets, wood floors, and subway tile, a timeless style you’ll love 10 years from now.

Myth 8: A Contractor Recommendation from a Friend Is Good Enough

Fact: Good contractors have more than just your buddy to vouch for them.

Your neighbor’s rec is a good start, but talk to a couple of sources before you hire anyone. Check the contractor’s reviews on Angie’s List or other online rating sites.

Ask a local building inspector which contractors meet code on the properties they inspect. Ask the contractor for the names of past clients you can talk to, how many other projects they have going, how long they’ve worked with their subcontractors, and if they routinely do projects the size of yours.

Look at this as a job interview where the contractor is an applicant and you’re the hiring manager. Make them show you they’re the one for the work.

Related: 5 Secrets Your Contractor Doesn’t Want You to Know

Myth 9: Turning Off Your AC When You Leave Saves Energy

Fact: Turning off the air conditioner when you leave could actually cost you money.

That’s because when you turn it back on, all your savings will be lost as the unit works overtime to cool your hot house. A better way to save on utilities is to turn the thermostat up or down (depending on the season) 5 to 10 degrees when you leave, says home improvement expert Danny Lipford of TodaysHomeowner.com.

And the best option? “Install a programmable thermostat,” he says. Even better, buy one you can control remotely with your smartphone and adjust the temperature before you get home. Because thermostats you have to touch are so 1998.

Myth 10: Permits? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Permits

Fact: You do.

Let’s say your neighbor’s brother-in-law, Cecil, is an electrician. Cecil can rewire your kitchen in a weekend because he won’t inconvenience you with a permit. Should you hire Cecil? No. Building codes protect you. From Cecil. Getting a permit means an inspector will check his work to make sure he didn’t screw up.

Plus, if your house burns down in an electrical fire and your insurance company finds out the work was done without a permit, it won’t cover your loss. Check with your local planning or building department to find out if your project needs a permit. If it does, get one.

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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Tips to Create a Simple Garage Workshop

You can build a garage workshop, complete with lighting, for less than $500.

  • Garages often harbor a not-so-secret second life: heroic home workshop. They’re well-suited to the task, with a tolerance for the noise and dust of do-it-yourself projects.

You can assemble a basic workbench, cabinets, shelving, and add simple overhead lighting for less than $500. 

But if a garage workshop isn’t comfortable and convenient to use, you’ll avoid projects rather than enjoy them. 

Here are the essentials:

Get (or Build) a Solid Workbench

Your primary work surface should be a rock-solid bench with a hard and heavy top. Buy or build the best you can manage. (Then vow to keep the top clear — tools and materials have a way of eating up workbench space). 

Premade workbenches run $100 to $500 and come in many lengths; they’re usually 24 inches deep. A 38-inch height is typical, but you might be more comfortable with a work surface as low as 36 or as high as 42 inches. Some benches include vises, drawers, and shelves.

Build one yourself using readily available plans. A simple, sturdy workbench takes less than a day to build and materials cost less than $100. The Family Handyman magazine offers detailed instructions for several, including an inexpensive, simple bench. A more complex bench with a miter saw stand and drawers costs $300-$500 to build and takes a weekend. Popular Reads

Install Bright Light

Garage work surfaces need bright ambient light and strong task lighting.

  • High-intensity lights (halogen, LEDs, and others) are great for over-bench task lighting. An LED task light with a flexible goose-neck ($75-$150) puts light where you need it.
  • If your garage has a finished ceiling, recessed fixtures (can lights) are inexpensive ($10-$20) and are good for task and ambient lighting.
  • Ceiling-mounted fluorescent light fixtures are the classic, low-cost solution for workshop lighting. A two- or four-bulb, 48-inch fluorescent fixture costs less than $50.

When shopping for workshop lighting, think lumens rather than watts. A lumen is a measure of lighting brightness, and is a handy way to compare today’s new energy-efficient light bulbs. Lighting fixtures and bulbs have labels that indicate lumens per device. A general rule of thumb is to use 130 to 150 lumens per square foot of work space. 

For example, a 40-watt fluorescent bulb puts out about 2,200 lumens. A 60-watt incandescent bulb puts out about 800 lumens.

Be Sure to Have Adequate Electrical Power

Along with your new lights, be sure your garage workshop has adequate electrical service — outlets and capacity — to accommodate your arsenal of power tools. Place outlets nearby; don’t depend on extension cords stretched across your garage — they can be a tripping hazard. If you don’t have 30-amp circuits on your garage service, talk with an electrical contractor about making this simple upgrade. 

Ballpark $75-$100 an hour for an electrical contractor, plus a probable service-call fee of $50 to $100. Rates will vary across regions of the country.

Good electricians work quickly, so installing shop lights might take only an hour or two if access to electrical service is readily available. Increasing circuit capacity generally requires running new, heavier-gauge wire from your circuit-breaker box to the shop site. 

Create Smart Storage

Don’t make yourself rummage through old coffee cans full of rattling bolts and bits: Visit home improvement centers for garage storage ideas and products.

Modular, wall-mounted garage storage systems let you configure shelves, bins, and hooks the way you need. Cost is about $10 per sq. ft. of wall space.

Plastic bins and hefty tubs protect tools, sandpaper, and tool manuals from insects, rodents, and dust. A 10-gallon plastic tub with lid is $5-$8.

Old kitchen cabinets, available where salvaged building materials are sold, are a great way to add storage — and a homemade workbench. Salvaged cabinets are about 50-75% cheaper than new. Top a run of cabinets with ¾-inch plywood for a durable work surface.

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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How to Unfreeze Pipes & Prevent Damage

These tips will help you thaw your frozen water pipes and avoid extensive damage.

frozen copper pipe bursting
Image: BanksPhotos/Getty

But if the unthinkable does happen, you’ll have to act fast to minimize the damage and cost of repairs.

Related: How to Keep Your Pipes From Exploding This Winter

Why Freezing Pipes Burst

Not all freezing pipes burst, explains Paul Abrams, spokesman for Roto-Rooter. But when one does, it’s because water expands when it freezes, adding considerable pressure on unyielding plumbing pipes. That pressure can cause a tiny leak at a joint or crack on a length of pipe, unleashing the full flow of water inside your home.

Water damage from bursting pipes is one of the most common homeowners insurance claims, with an average claim cost of about $10,900.

How to Identify Freezing Pipes

A water line coated in frost (or bulging like a well-fed python) is a good sign that it’s frozen, but not all plumbing pipes are visible.

“If your faucets won’t flow and your toilets won’t refill following a flush, that’s a good sign your pipes are frozen,” says Abrams.

How to Thaw a Frozen Pipe

Before doing anything, shut off the water supply to that section of plumbing (or the entire house if that’s the only option) because the real trouble begins after the thaw. That’s because the frozen water may be acting as a plug, preventing water from spilling out of the cracks in your pipes. When that plug is thawed, water gushes out. It’s a good idea to be ready with a mop, bucket, and towels in case there’s a plumbing leak.

“It’s not the frozen pipes that really get plumbers’ phones ringing,” adds Abrams. “It’s the thawing pipes that leak and spew water after a hard freeze.”

Use a space heater, heat lamp, or hair dryer to thaw the frozen length of pipe. Wrapping freezing pipes with thermostatically controlled heat tape (from $25 to $61, depending on length) is also an effective way to quickly thaw a trouble spot.

Don’t thaw pipes using a propane torch, which presents a fire risk.

What to Do If a Pipe Bursts

If you walk in to discover Old Faithful in your basement, the first thing you should do is shut off the main water supply to minimize flooding. Next, call your plumber.

Immediately dry out by removing as much water as possible using mops, sponges, towels, and a wet/dry vacuum. To minimize mold, mildew, and other moisture-related problems, run a dehumidifier in the space until it’s very dry.

For big messes, call your insurance agent. The good news is that most homeowners insurance covers burst pipes and the resulting water damage.

A Few Words About That Main Water Shut-Off Valve

“Everybody should know where it is,” says Abrams. “The sooner you can shut off the water, the less it will cost you down the road.”

Not only should homeowners know where the valve is located, they should have it inspected the next time a plumber is on site. If your home has an older gate-style valve, it might be worth the money ($240 to $500) to have it replaced with a more reliable ball valve.

Gate valves are prone to sticking when you need them the most, so it’s a good idea to exercise them once a year by rotating them back and forth.

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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12 Simple Home Repair Jobs to Lift You Out of Winter’s Funk

Like that annoying squeaky floor board. Easy as tossing a ball to fix!

Dog frolicking in the snow
Image: Jimmy Karlsson/Getty
  • Accomplishments — even little ones — go a long way toward a sunny outlook. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy, quick home repair chores you can do when you’re mired in the thick of winter.

For max efficiency, make a to-do list ahead of time and shop for all the tools and supplies in one trip. On your work days, put the basics in a caddy and carry it from room to room, checking off completed tasks as you speed through them.

#1 Sagging Towel Rack or Wobbly TP Holder

Unscrew the fixture and look for the culprit. It’s probably a wimpy, push-in type plastic drywall anchor. Pull that out (or just poke it through the wall) and replace it with something more substantial. Toggle bolts are strongest, and threaded types such as E-Z Ancor are easy to install.

#2 Silence Squeaky Door Hinges

Eliminate squeaks by squirting a puff of powdered graphite ($2 to $3 for a 3-gram tube) alongside the pin where the hinge turns. If the door sticks, plane off a bit of the wood, then touch up the paint so the surgery isn’t noticeable.

#3 Stop Creaky Floor Boards

They’ll shush if you fasten them down better. Anti-squeak repair kits, such as Squeeeeek No More ($21-$25), feature specially designed screws that are easy to conceal. A low-cost alternative: Dust a little talcum powder into the seam where floorboards meet — the talcum acts as a lubricant to quiet boards that rub against each other.

#4 Remove Rust on Shutoff Valves

Check under sinks and behind toilets for the shutoff valves on your water supply lines. These little-used valves may slowly rust in place over time, and might not work when you need them most.

Keep them operating by putting a little machine oil or WD-40 on the handle shafts. Twist the handles back and forth to work the oil into the threads. If they won’t budge, give the oil a couple of hours to penetrate, and try again.

#5 Repair Blistered Paint on Shower Ceilings

This area gets a lot of heat and moisture that stresses paint finishes. Scrape off old paint and recoat, using a high-quality exterior-grade paint. Also, be sure everyone uses the bathroom vent when showering to remove excess moisture.

#6 Fix Loose Handles and Hinges

You can probably fix these with a few quick turns of a screwdriver. But if a screw just spins in place, try making the hole fit the screw better by stuffing in a toothpick coated with glue or switching to a larger screw.

#7 Replace Batteries on Carbon Monoxide and Smoke Detectors

If you don’t like waking up to the annoying chirp of smoke detector batteries as they wear down, do what many fire departments recommend and simply replace all of them at the same time once a year.

#8 Test GFCI Outlets

You’re supposed to test ground-fault circuit interrupters them once a month, but who does? Now’s a great time. You’ll find them around potentially wet areas — building codes specify GFCI outlets in bathrooms, kitchens, and for outdoor receptacles. Make sure the device trips and resets correctly. If you find a faulty outlet, replace it or get an electrician to do it for $133 to $297.

Another good project is to replace your GFCIs with the latest generation of protected outlets that test themselves, such as Leviton’s SmartlockPro Self-Test GFCI ($25). You won’t have to manually test ever again!

#9 Clean Exhaust Filter for the Stove

By washing it to remove grease, you’ll increase the efficiency of your exhaust vent; plus, if a kitchen stovetop fire breaks out, this will help keep the flames from spreading.

#10 Clean Out Clothes Dryer Vent

Pull the dryer out from the wall, disconnect the vent pipe, and vacuum lint out of the pipe and the place where it connects to the machine. Also, wipe lint off your exterior dryer vent so the flap opens and closes easily. (You’ll need to go outside for that, but it’s quick.) Remember that vents clogged with old dryer lint are a leading cause of house fires.

#11 Drain Hoses

Inspect your clothes washer, dishwasher, and icemaker. If you see any cracks or drips, replace the hose so you don’t come home to a flood one day.

#12 Check Electrical Cords

Replace any cords that are brittle or cracked, or have damaged plugs. If you’re using extension cords, see if you can eliminate them — for example, by replacing that too-short lamp cord with one that’s longer. If you don’t feel up to rewiring the lamp yourself, drop it off at a repair shop as you head out to shop for your repair materials. It might not be ready by the end of the day. But, hey, one half-done repair that you can’t check off is no big deal, right?

“Visit HouseLogic.com for more articles like this.  Reprinted from HouseLogic.com with permission of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®.”

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