How to Get Your House Ready for Back to School

Use storage hacks for a more organized home — and chill family life.

ack to school home organization image of shelves with notebooks and bins and multi colored backpacks
Image: mediaphotos/Getty

It’s a given. When your kids go back to school, your schedule and family life get more hectic. But you can prep for the school year crush by fine-tuning how you organize your home, including storage and space use. Here are some ingenious but simple storage hacks for getting an organized home that will make going back to school easier. 

#1 Organize Your Kids’ Bedroom Closets and Drawers

back to school home organization kids bedroom and drawers young girl looking into messy closet
Image: Digital Vision/Getty

Help your kids get dressed in the morning by organizing their clothes. Arrange the clothes in see-through bins and on hangers so they can find what they want to wear and get dressed in a hurry. That way, your child won’t waste valuable time rummaging around for matching socks or their favorite shirt. 

Pro tip: Label the drawers, bins, and closet organizers with the type of clothing that goes in them. If your child knows which drawer is for socks and which bin is for T-shirts, they can stash their clothes in the right places so an organized closet will stay that way.

#2 Add Places to Store Books

back to school home organization mother and daughter with curly brown hair and a purple tutu picking books from shelf
Image: Inti St Clair/Getty

Make sure your child has a place to store textbooks, library books, and their own books. Install shelves that are low enough for them to reach. If they already have shelves in their rooms, organize them just like you did their closet so they can find the books they need, fast. You don’t want them to miss the bus because they’re looking for their math book.

Pro tip: Put library books in a separate bin on a low shelf so your child remembers to return them on time.

#3 Create a Dedicated Space for Homework

back to school home organization teenager room with a sleek white desk and chair with a tablet and flowers on the wall
Image: Liudmila Chernetska/Getty

Create a homework station where your children can study and work on their book reports. For younger kids who need parental supervision, set up a space in the kitchen or living area so you can make sure they stay on task. For older ones who can manage homework without mom and dad, set up a study space in their rooms. Make sure they have a table or desk, a comfy chair, bins to organize school supplies, good lighting, and no distractions. 

Pro tip: Keep phones and video games away from the study space (easier said than done).

#4 Set Up an Organized Drop Zone in Your Entryway

back to school home organization drop zone two backpacks and jackets hanging on a wall rack by the entry door
Image: DonNichols/Getty

You know the drill. Your kids come home from school and throw everything from backpacks to sneakers on the floor when they step in the door. To keep your entryway from looking like a tornado went through, turn it into an organized drop zone. Create storage space for backpacks, shoes, sports equipment, hats, coats, and other gear. Put up cubbies for shoes, shelves for books, and hooks for jackets, backpacks, and tote bags. You’ll declutter the space and ramp up efficiency.

Pro tip: Put baskets or bins on the floor or on low shelves by the entrance to catch the socks, toys, papers, and other paraphernalia that doesn’t make it onto a hanger or into a cubby.

#5 Create a Back-to-School Communications Command Center

That’s a fancy way of saying you need a space where you can coordinate class and work schedules, homework assignments, school activities, and reading lists. The center can be as simple as a calendar and whiteboard on a kitchen wall. Or you can make it more functional by adding hanging bins for folders, a message board, or a small table or desk where you can put an inbox, a bill holder, and a supply of envelopes and pens.

Pro tip: Get a large whiteboard with a calendar template that lets you customize each month and write down all your school-related appointments in one place. 

#6 Get the Kids’ Bathrooms in Order

back to school organization kids bathroom your girl with backpack standing on a stool while brushing her teeth at the sink
Image: MoMo Productions/Getty

Make it easier for your kids to get out the door in the morning by arranging their bathroom for maximum efficiency. Sort their bathroom essentials by category — toothbrushes, hairbrushes, towels, shampoos, and soaps. Organize them in cabinets, drawers, or bins. You want to make items easy to find so your kids can brush their teeth and hair and wash their face fast.

Pro tip: Help younger children stay organized by labeling storage areas with the type of grooming supplies they hold, like “Hair,” “Teeth,” and “Bath.”

#7 Set Up a Back-to-School Breakfast Station

back to school home organization 7 year old girl sets the table for breakfast
Image: vgajic/Getty

Feeding children as they rush out the door to school is tough. Make it simpler by setting up a spot in the kitchen with easy-to-prepare food so your kids can eat on the run. Put out airtight containers of cereal, bowls, packets of instant oatmeal, and fruit in a basket. Make sure milk, yogurt, and other healthy breakfast foods are in easy reach in the fridge.

Pro tip: Use hotel breakfast bars as your inspo. Kids love picking their own meal from an array of food, so copy that look on the kitchen counter.

#8 Make a Snack Drawer

back to school organization young female student in a uniform making a sandwich for lunch box part of morning routine for school
Image: ake1150sb/Getty

Kids are hungry when they come home from school. Set up an area where they can get their own snacks. Put bins in the fridge that have healthy snacks just for them. Think fruit, yogurt, string cheese, nuts, hummus and celery sticks, and cherry tomatoes. If you make healthy food as accessible and ready to eat as junk food, your kids might choose an apple instead of a bag of chips.

Pro tip: Use clear bins so the kids can see what’s in them and so you know when you’re running low on snacks.

A few back-to-school hiccups are probably inevitable. But with some simple hacks for an organized home, the transition can be a whole lot easier. 

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

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4 Ways to Give Your Kitchen Personality

A creative kitchen can feature your interests and taste — and blend with other rooms.

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Kitchens are showing more personality these days. As they’ve become a hub, they’re not just for cooking and eating. We’ve been using them for all kinds of activities. We want our kitchens to reveal our interests and taste but still blend with the rest of our home. Here are four ways — little and big — to do that by designing a creative kitchen. 

#1 Aim for a Creative Kitchen

Image: MarioGuti/Getty

You love looking at posts on Pinterest or Instagram for inspiration and saving them for mood boards or focused aesthetic. But because of your urge for individuality, you want to incorporate choices in ways nobody else does. As long as you don’t make drastic changes that would take big bucks to reverse if you sold in the next few years, you can get creative. Feel free to fix up your kitchen just the way you love. 

“Do what feels good for you and nobody else,” urges designer Sharon McCormick of Sharon McCormick Design in Hartford, Conn. This may involve a quick, affordable fix. So, you could move a rug from another room to add a spark of color or pattern. Or hang favorite artwork, or display collectibles on floating shelves or in glass-fronted cabinets. 

If you need to focus on investment-grade changes with lasting value, you still have options. Think about hand-scraped floors, wire-brushed and high-gloss lacquered cabinets, or hardware in new elegant shapes and finishes, says Chicago kitchen expert Mick de Giulio of de Giulio Kitchen Design.  

#2 Express Yourself With Kitchen Color

Image: FollowTheFlow/Getty

Kitchen color is the great game changer for a creative kitchen. It’s a quick and easy way to update your kitchen’s look and feel. White, gray, and beige are still popular palettes for kitchens, but livelier hues are showing up, according to a 2021 Houzz survey. If you’re timid about the new shades — lots of blues and greens — consider small doses in a few perimeter cabinets. Or for an island, you could add some backsplash tiles on one wall; one color appliance, like a turquoise range (yep, it’s available!); or a smaller standing mixer or countertop oven. They’re now available in almost any color of the rainbow. 

Paint manufacturer Sherwin-Williams says green kitchens are gaining ground. People want to bring the feeling of plants and trees inside, whether in dark, jewel tones or more muted, soothing hues. Green also pairs well with wood in floors, furniture, or butcher block countertops. 

If you’re not ready to commit to color, consider sophisticated black accents. They’ve become popular for architectural features like window frames, doors, cabinets, faucets, and appliance fronts. “Black is the Sharpie that outlines the kitchen,” says JT Norman, design specialist at Kitchen Magic in Nazareth, Pa.

#3 Blend Your Spaces for Seamlessness

Image: Andrea Rugg/Getty

The kitchen has become more of a room to live in. Even if you already have an open floor plan with adjoining spaces, you may want your furnishings, color palette, and accessories to blend more seamlessly. That way, there’s no jarring change from one room to another. McCormick says this is a shift from years past, when each room was a different color and sometimes a slightly different style. “With this new way, you can bring chairs from one room to another if you need more seating,” she says. “They look right, and it’s also easier on the eye.”

If your kitchen has separate dining and comfy hangout areas, you can still get a cohesive look by coordinating colors and styles. One way to blend spaces is to use the same style of cabinetry. Simple shaker cabinets are still a classic choice. Some homeowners also want panel fronts similar to their cabinets to camouflage kitchen appliances. And even if the color scheme isn’t exactly the same throughout, you might introduce one common denominator of a few similarly colored accessories in each room. 

#4 Go for Convenience With Smart Appliances

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Your tech-savvy side wants to find ways to use the latest developments in kitchen equipment to save time and effort. Why not get a jump on preheating the oven for the chicken you plan to roast after a hard day at work — or reheating the one you bought at the supermarket? Most major manufacturers offer models with Wi-Fi capability. You download an app onto your phone or tablet and program the unit. Voila! The range is warm when you arrive home, so you get to eat sooner. 

Faucets like Delta’s Touch2O Technology let you touch anywhere on the spout or faucet handle with your wrist or forearm to activate water flow if your hands are covered. So, no worries if you’re kneading pizzas for your gang.

You may or may not be ready for a fridge that knows if you’re low on butter or eggs and need to order. “Some buy this technology if they can afford it, even though they may not use it often,” says Chicago designer Susan Brunstrum of Studio Brunstrum.

But here’s something you can easily add and will want — more outlets and USB ports. You’ll be ready to charge everyone’s phone and other tech devices at one convenient charging station.

A creative kitchen can be a more livable space that displays your family’s interests and blends with your other rooms. And best of all, changes don’t have to be big, pricey, or time consuming. They can still make a major difference in ramping up your happiness quotient.

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10 Home Design Features for Pets

With these amenities, your fur babies will make themselves (more) at home.

home design for pets tabby cat with green eyes sitting inside a vintage dollhouse
Image: Cyndi Monaghan/Getty

For most of us, our pets are family. We let them sleep in our beds, ladle nutritional supplements on their organic kibble, and throw birthday parties for them. In fact, we love our animal companions so much that we even choose a home and a home design for pets.

These numbers tell the story. Forty-three percent of pet owners say they’d move to accommodate their pet, according to a 2021 study from the National Association of REALTORS®. What’s more, 68% of pet owners surveyed by® say they’d pass on an otherwise perfect home that didn’t meet their pet’s needs. According to the same survey, nearly 95% of pet-owning respondents say their furry companion plays a role in selecting a home.

Real estate agents are seeing the numbers play out IRL. “Our pets are pampered and adored. That’s really translating into how people are buying real estate and what amenities they are looking for,” says Nicole Prince, an agent with the Figueroa Team in Orlando. “I get clients who bring me a list of features they want in a home or neighborhood that are for their pets — from dog parks nearby to no carpet in the house.”

Here are some pet-friendly features that will make a home more welcoming for animals. Whether you’re shopping for a new home or upgrading your space to suit your fur baby’s needs, they’ll make the place a pet paradise.

#1 Pet Bathing Station

home pet bathing station a golden retriever being sprayed with a showerhead in a stainless tub
Image: ArtistGNDphotography/Getty

Washing a dog in a normal bathtub can be miserable. Even if your pup is groomed regularly, you still need to clean them up after they romp at the dog park or roll in mud in the yard. One solution is to build a grooming station in your home for quick cleanups.

“I’ve shown homes lately that have grooming stations built in,” Prince says. “It’s super cool — a utility sink that doubles as a place for you to wash your dog.” For larger dogs, you can install a commercial grooming tub with a hand sprayer or a walk-in shower that will accommodate your pet. The location is flexible: A grooming station can go in a laundry room, mudroom, or garage.

#2 Chicken Coops

designer chicken coop hidden in a residential backyard
Image: Cavan Images/Getty

Backyard chickens are chic. Driven by the pandemic, ownership of backyard chickens increased from 8% in 2018 to 13% in 2020, according to the American Pet Product Association. Why? Fresh eggs, says Amanda Terbrock of Manna Pro Products, quoted in Pet Business. More chickens means more fancy chicken coops, because we would never put our beloved backyard hens in shabby digs. You can build your own or buy a chicken coop that looks like a luxe she-shed or child’s playhouse. A nice coop can set you back thousands, but hey, it’s for our darling animals. Also, fresh eggs!

#3 Pet-Proof Flooring

durable tile flooring covered in dirt with two dogs
Image: dageldog/Getty

Accidents happen, even with the best-behaved pets. That’s why floors with a hard, impermeable surface make your life easier. Think tile, hardwood, terrazzo, cement, or laminate, Prince says. Stay away from wall-to-wall carpet. “Carpets soak up pet stains, so they’re a bad idea,” Prince explains. Adding wood floors to your home increases monetary value, too. The National Association of REALTORS® “2022 Remodeling Impact Report” says new wood floors bring a 118% return when it’s time to sell the house.

#4 Build-in Pet Beds

home design for pets indoor cat bed built in on the wall and living room furniture
Image: © copyright 2011 Sharleen Chao/Getty

Pet beds tossed about your house are unattractive and consume valuable floor space. The alternative is building pet beds into cabinets, shelves, and other pieces of furniture. You can build a pet bed into the bottom shelves of a bookcase or into a kitchen or mudroom cabinet. Or tuck it under the stairs. If hiring a cabinetmaker or carpenter to build a seamless pet bed isn’t in your budget, you can also buy pet beds that look like furniture. You’ll be happier with the way your pet bed looks, and your pet will have a permanent space.

#5 Built-in Pet Gates

built in dog gate matching interior design in a home
Image: Maggie Stuart for HouseLogic

You don’t want your pets to go into certain places in your home, and most of us keep them out with baby gates. Plastic baby gates are flimsy and unattractive. A better option is a built-in gate. You can hire a cabinetmaker to build a custom pet gate for a door that’s mounted to a door jamb on hinges. Or you could make a pocket door-style pet gate that slides into the walls. Can’t afford custom work? Consider premade upscale pet gates that you can mount to a door jamb or staircase.

#6 Outdoor Ramp

custom design outdoor wood deck ramp for pets with a bulldog climbing up
Image: marcoventuriniautieri/Getty

Just like humans, dogs and cats can get too old to easily navigate stairs. If stairs are separating your pet from the outdoors, build a ramp from the door to the yard to make your house accessible as they age. You can hire a carpenter to construct the outdoor ramp for dogs. Be sure you design it at an angle they can navigate. Small or short-legged dogs — like basset hounds and corgis — may need a ramp to navigate stairs even when they’re young.

#7 Enclosed Cat Patio

home pet patio tabby cat looking out from a balcony catio
Image: Simona Weber/Getty

Also called a catio (cat + patio,) these outdoor enclosures provide a safe place for your cat to play outside. The structure, with a roof and four walls, keeps your cat safe and unable to harm wildlife. Catios can range from window-box sized ones to lanai-sized ones large enough to enclose a patio with human seating.

#8 Built-in Pet Doors

home design built in pet door blue tabby cat passing through glass door flap
Image: Nils Jacobi/Getty

Those pet doors with the rubber flaps and plastic frames that you hack into a door can be flimsy and straight-up ugly. Fortunately, sturdier and more aesthetically pleasing alternatives are available. You can get exterior doors with built-in pet doors. Or, consider glass inserts with built-in pet doors that replace sidelights on an exterior door. If you want to spend more, you can get heavy duty pet door inserts that fit into your home’s exterior wall. Integrating a pet door into your home’s design is better for you and your pup because it’s more permanent, secure, and lovely.

#9 Built-in Pet Feeding Station

home design built in pet feeding station with food and water bowl under a stairway
Image: ArchiViz/Getty

Food and water bowls are messy, so upgrade your setup with a built-in pet feeding station. You can build a dedicated space for pet bowls into the cabinets in your kitchen or laundry room. That means no more tripping over bowls. A built-in station organizes the space, turning pet bowls from clutter to part of the furniture. Consider installing a faucet near the feeding station so you can easily refill or rinse bowls.

#10 Fenced-in Yard

fenced yard for pets with two shetland sheepdogs playing with a stick
Image: Deb Perry/Getty

A meadow-like grassy yard enclosed by a secure fence is the holy grail for pet owners. An outdoor area for their beloved animals to play safely is why pet owners leave lofts in the city for single-family homes in the suburbs. “A fenced-in yard is near the top of my clients’ list when they’re looking for dog-friendly features,” Prince says. “There’s no substitute for a safe place for your animals to spend time outdoors.”

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

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4 Ways to Avoid DIY Mistakes — From a DIYer Who’s Made Them All

DIY gone wrong is your worst nightmare. Sleep better with these tips to master DIY know-how.

DIYing a tile backsplash in a home kitchen
Image: Urban Charm at Home

New backsplash? You’ve done it. Upgrading a faucet? No problem. You’re a DIY master. But what about that electrical issue? Or fixing a leaky roof? Even though you (and your BFF, YouTube) have pulled off many DIY projects, you know there are projects you’ve no business trying on your own. But what about those projects that fall somewhere in between “I got this” and “I’m calling the pros”? How can you know if a project is really DIYable for you?

For Lucas Hall, finding that answer has been trial and error. As a “DIY landlord” for more than two years and founder of Landlordology, an online resource for landlords, he’s gutted three homes and renovated countless others.

“I’m just handy enough to be dangerous,” Hall says.

He’s suffered more than his fair share of DIY disasters. With each, he’s learned a valuable lesson about his own limits, as well as how he can do better next time.

Think 10 Steps Ahead

When Hall updated a tiny kitchen in one of his rentals, he installed a brand-new, expensive fridge — and then built a peninsula countertop extension.

“We thought it was the greatest idea,” he says. But adding the peninsula narrowed the space in front of the refrigerator, making it impossible to remove without lifting it entirely up and over the extension. (Ever tried to lift a fridge?)

Refrigerator in a renovated kitchen
Image: Lucas Hall, Founder of Landlordology

“I’m just praying the fridge doesn’t die on me, because I’m going to have to hire four or five burly guys to get it out,” Hall says. “Or just Sawzall the thing in half.”

DIY lesson: Measure once, measure twice, measure again, and think through every possible scenario before changing a room’s layout.

Don’t Go With the Cheapest Option

Speaking of kitchen appliances: Hall was looking for an island range hood, which can be extra-expensive because it needs to be attractive from all angles. Dismayed by the prices he found elsewhere online, he went to Amazon, where he found an $800 hood on sale for about $250.

“Of course, it was from a brand we hadn’t really heard of,” Hall says.

Less than a year after installation, the hood was on the fritz. Removing the appliance was a challenge. The electrical wiring needed to be redone, and the wall needed to be drywalled, requiring a professional contractor.

“It probably cost me three-fold to fix my mistake,” says Hall. “For any appliance that’s more complicated than plugging it in and rolling it into place, upgrade and buy something that’s not going to break on you within a year.”

DIY lesson: For any DIY project, the cheapest option, from materials to appliances, should raise a red flag.

For Specialty Work, Seek Specialty Advice

Hall is no electrician, but since he’d done some minor electrical work before, he figured the job of adding a dimmer switch would be no big deal.

“We hung a chandelier in the dining room and figured you might want to dim this giant chandelier for a relaxing candlelit dinner,” says Hall. Because the space had switches at both entrances, he added a dimmer to both — the more the merrier, right?


“After four hours spent blowing circuits and lightbulbs and struggling to get this chandelier to dim correctly, we called the manufacturer,” Hall says. Spoiler alert: You just can’t have two dimmer switches for one circuit.

A dimmer works by modulating the amount of electricity flowing through the circuit; adding another one causes chaos. A little research would’ve indicated the second dimmer switch was a no-no.

“It just flips out,” says Hall. “It doesn’t know how much dimming should be happening. The lights were flickering like a poltergeist.”

DIY lesson: No one blames you for not being a specialist, but any time you’re taking on a specialty project make sure to do your research first or consult a pro.

DIY When Help is Available (aka, NOT on a Holiday)

Holidays might be a great time to tackle minor DIY projects, but if you’re working on anything that could require a professional if things go south, consider waiting for a normal business day.

“I was trying to get a property ready to rent,” says Hall. “Time is money. It was the Fourth of July, and I was adding a new cabinet [in the bathroom].”

It sounds easy enough, but the unit was in a condo building with a centralized water system; there wasn’t a water shut-off valve for just that bathroom. Not wanting to shut down the water for the entire building on July Fourth, he decided to risk it.

And oh, what a risk it turned out to be. When trying to loosen a pipe, the whole thing broke off. It was rusted out. Water sprayed out so hard, it hit him in the chest. After rushing to the basement, he flipped every knob he found until the water shut-off.

“Luckily my property was on the first floor and the basement was a laundry room, because water was leaking through the floor, destroying drywall,” Hall says.

Being a holiday, the rest of the day was no less of a disaster. The condo association’s emergency line sent him a plumber who was angry to be missing his holiday events and drinking as he tried to fix the problem. Sloppy work resulted in a fire — in a building with no water.

“He runs to my fridge and starts grabbing anything liquid — milk, a bottle of Sprite, cans of beer,” Hall recalls. “He’s dumping water into the middle of the wall, punching holes in it, trying to find the fire.”

DIY lesson: Always do tricky DIY projects when you know a pro — a pro you trust — can help out in a hurry.

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

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How to Build a Retaining Wall

Need help with soil problems like erosion? Consider a retaining wall — and see what’s involved.

Image: davelogan/Getty

If your backyard or garden is having a problem with erosion or unstable soil, your solution could be a retaining wall. It can play a key role in yard and garden function, design, and safety.

Learn some tips and tricks for installing a retaining wall and deciding whether to DIY or hire a pro.

Tips Before You Build Your Retaining Wall

Before you get started on your retaining wall, consider these tips: 

  • Carefully select your materials: You can construct retaining walls from several different materials, such as wood, stone, or concrete. Select the one that works best with your garden design. Also, check if you’ll need an adhesive for your material. Some wall bricks are interlocking; others need masonry cement. 
  • Add drainage to your wall: Fill the back of your retaining wall with gravel or sand. This will prevent wet soil from building up when it rains. You may need to add a drainage pipe if rainfall is heavy and frequent enough. 
  • Wait for dry soil: You don’t want to build your wall on wet soil because the soil can expand and give you inappropriate dimensions. 

Once you’ve carefully planned your wall, you’re ready to get the materials. 

Buy the Right Materials and Tools

The list of materials for your wall is (relatively) short, but should include: 

  • Concrete, stone, or wood blocks: One of these block material types will be the primary one you use to build your wall. Make sure you measure the blocks and buy enough of them. 
  • Adhesive: In case the block material you’ve chosen requires an adhesive, have one ready before you lay your tiles. 
  • A shovel: You’ll need to dig the trench for the first course of your wall. 
  • A tape measure: This will help you properly mark the length and width of your wall. 
  • Gravel: Gravel will lay at the base of your retaining wall. It can also be added as a drainable material to the back of the wall. 
  • A circular saw with a masonry blade: Have a saw on hand to cut blocks as needed. 
  • Capstone blocks: Buy some of these to add the final touch to your wall. 
  • A drainpipe: To prevent the soil from expanding and damaging your wall, a drainpipe will route water and avoid wall collapse during rainy seasons. 

You may need more tools or different materials depending on the details of your project. If you’re lost, don’t be afraid to hire a contractor or ask an expert. 

Image: HouseLogic

Estimating Cost for Building a Retaining Wall

Several factors will affect the cost of building a retaining wall, including: 

  • Materials: You might pay up to $75 per foot of your wall if you’re using a material like stacked stone. Materials matter. 
  • The dimensions of the wall: The size of your wall will of course factor into how much building and drainage material you’ll need. 
  • The type of retaining wall: There are a few ways to build a retaining wall, such as with anchoring, cantilevering, or rammed earth. The cost of each type varies. 
  • Drainage materials: If you’re using a drainpipe, drainage material can cost up to $75 per linear foot.  

The total of all these materials will cost $25 to $75 per square foot for your DIY retaining wall. Hiring a contractor to build the wall can add $50 to $75 per hour depending on the scale of the project.

Measure and Mark the Location for the Retaining Wall Blocks

When you’re measuring the size and location of your wall, use a tape measure and mark the proper length and width. Next, place garden stakes at the four corners of your wall and tie them together with mason’s string. Remember to mark any place where the wall might bend or curve. 

Taking these measurements properly and precisely is essential to buying the correct amount of materials and digging the proper foundation. 

Retaining Wall Repair and Installation: DIY vs. Contractors

Your decision about whether to build your retaining wall yourself or hire a contractor should consider factors such as: 

  • Experience: Have you attempted any DIY exterior home projects before? Retaining wall installation isn’t the easiest project for beginners. Some situations may even require professional engineering to ensure the wall keeps its shape. Generally, if you’re planning a retaining wall taller than four feet, it’s time to call in a pro. 
  • Permits: Due to drainage concerns, building some retaining walls requires a permit. If you need one, a contractor can help you more easily manage the paperwork. Contractors can also assume some liability for the final project. 
  • Scale: The bigger and more complicated your retaining wall, the more time and effort you’ll save by outsourcing the labor to a contractor. 

If you’re having trouble finding a contractor, your local REALTOR® can provide you with a list of references for well-qualified installers. 

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

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5 Secrets Your Contractor Doesn’t Want You to Know

How to protect your bottom line.

Man demolishing kitchen wall
Image: Sara B. @ The Fat Hydrangea

You’ve asked friends to recommend great contractors, picked your favorite, checked references — and maybe even conducted an online background check on their business. So you know you’ve found a top-notch pro for your home improvement project.

But remember that their bottom line is getting you to sign a contract, and they’re not going to mention anything that might get in the way. Before you make a commitment, here’s what you need to know to protect your own bottom line.

1. They’re Not the Only Game in Town

Even if you believe you found the best contractor in the area, don’t hire them unless you’re sure they’re right for your project.

You should solicit at least three bids from three contractors before awarding a home improvement project. This way you can make an educated hiring decision by comparing costs, methods, and materials.

What you should do: Make sure you have a basis for comparison when asking for bids. Provide each contractor with the same project details. This may include materials you wish to use and floor plans. Although cost should be one of your deciding factors, other points to consider include scheduling and communication style.

TIP: Once you picked the best contractor for the job, keep your project on track with an ironclad contract.

2. They’re Going to Farm Out the Work

General contractors often don’t do the physical work themselves. They might have been carpenters or plumbers, but now that they run their own businesses, they’ve retired their tool belts.

Instead, their role is to sign clients, manage budgets, and schedule a cast of subcontractors. When they’re trying to win your business, contractors can be pretty vague about how involved they’re going to be — and who will be running the job day-to-day.

What you should do: Inquire who will be in charge of the job site. Ask to meet the job foreman, preferably while they’re at work on a current job site, says Stockbridge, Mass., contractor Jay Rhind. “You want to make sure you feel comfortable with them.”

TIP: Don’t underestimate the power of being nice. It can help keep your contractor and crew on track while improving the quality of their work.

3. A Big Deposit is Unnecessary — and Possibly Illegal

When you sign a contract, you’re usually expected to pay a deposit. But that’s not for covering the contractor’s initial materials or set-up costs.

If their business is financially sound and they’re in good standing with their suppliers, they shouldn’t need to pay for anything up front. In fact, many states limit a contractor’s advance. California maxes out deposits at 10% of the job cost, or $1,000 — whichever is smaller. To find out the law in your area, check with your local or state consumer agency.

What you should do: A small deposit is reasonable to kick off a project. But your payment plan should be based on a defined amount of work being completed. This way, if the work isn’t proceeding according to schedule, the payments will be delayed.

TIP: When possible, charge it. The Federal Trade Commission suggests when paying for home improvement work, use a credit card. Doing so may protect homeowners if a project goes south. After making a good faith effort to work out any problems with your contractor, consumers have the right to withhold payment up to the amount of credit outstanding for the purchase. This includes any finance or related charges.

4. They’re Marking Up Not Only Labor, But Materials, Too

Contractors don’t want to talk about it, but they’re going to mark up everything they pay out to make your job happen. That’s fair; it’s how they pays their own overhead and salary. Keep it in mind that the 50% or more markup may apply not just to materials but labor costs, too.

What you should do: If you can handle buying items such as plumbing fixtures, cabinetscountertops, and flooring, ask your contractor to take them out of their bid price. Be sure to agree on specific numbers and amounts of what you’ll be buying, and that you’ll have the items to the job site when they’re needed. You could save 10% to 20% or more on the overall cost of the project.

TIP: Salvage materials are one way to save on building costs. Just make sure you use upcycled stuff wisely so you don’t harm your home’s value.

5. They’re Not the Design Whiz They Claim to Be

Sure, there are contractors who have strong design abilities. Chances are, however, they’re spending a lot more time running their businesses than honing their design chops.

What you should do: Depending on the complexity of your project, you may need a number of skilled pros to get the job done. So don’t count on a contractor to design your space and add clever details, unless they clearly demonstrate their abilities and have a portfolio of their own work.

Ask their references specifically about the contractor’s design skills. Keep in mind, in some instances you might be better off hiring an architect for overall planning, and a kitchen and bath designer for the details.

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

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Drought-Tolerant Plants & Creative Tips for a Less-Thirsty Yard

No-water and low-water ideas for a drought-friendly yard.

Image: constantgardener/Getty

Drought happens everywhere, not just in arid climates. So, how do you get to have a beautiful, lush, low-maintenance yard that doesn’t need watering when the temps approach triple digits with no rain in sight? 

Take a cue from homeowners in those arid climates. They know how to survive heat waves. And they’re experts on drought-resistant plants. You’d be surprised how well some of those low-water plants work in less dry conditions. Here’s how to have a yard you need to water less.

Plant Hardy, Drought-Tolerant Plants

Cacti and succulents — the camels of the plant world — are synonymous with Southwest gardening but turn out to be pretty hardy elsewhere as well. They can add color, flowers, and texture to lawns, while being super drought-friendly.

People waste water; plants do not.

Barry Troutman, owner of Turf and Ornamental Technology

“You don’t want them to have wet feet, though,” says Barry Troutman, owner of Turf and Ornamental Technology in Deland, Fla. “They need to be well drained, in open sun with air movement around them.”

He suggests using cholla cacti, which are hardy enough to grow even in Canada and succulents such as hens and chicks and Parry’s agave.

Seek Native Plants

In the West and Southwest, despite the lack of natural water, yards are still full of color and texture. “There’s a lot of beauty and movement,” says Neil Bales, president and CEO at LandPatterns in Dallas.

Each region has its own native or “adapted plants,” as Troutman prefers to call them. 

“People waste water; plants do not,” he points out. “Plants are adapted to protect the water they have.”

Native plants thrive because they are used to the natural state of the region. “You can see these things growing in the wild on their own,” Bales says. “So, if you introduce them into your own landscape, they will be more durable.” 

A note on newly planted plants: This is when you don’t want to skimp on watering. New plants need more water to help establish strong roots. Those roots will help them acclimate to less and less water as they mature, Troutman says.

Add Some Hardscaping

Image: chuckcollier/Getty

OK, running barefoot on the lawn is nice, but what about the romantic evening around the fire pit, eating with family and friends in the outdoor kitchen, or soaking up rays on a patio lounge chair?

“In a lot of areas in Texas, lawn sizes are getting reduced and patios are increasing,” Bales says.

More hardscapes — stone walls, gravel paths, paved patios — mean less area that needs to be watered.

And (bonus!), according to the “Remodeling Impact Report: Outdoor Features” from the National Association of REALTORS®, which produces HouseLogic, new patios, outdoor fireplace, and fire pits are among the top-10 projects for appealing to home buyers and adding value for resale.

On average, expect to pay between $1,500 to $20,000 (or a national average of $3,000) for an outdoor fireplace, according Bob Vila’s website.

But make sure hardscape areas drain into the right places, says Troutman. “Be careful you don’t create saturated areas where plants can’t grow.”

You may have to call in a professional to make sure hardscape and the adjacent landscape have proper drainage, either by the way the land is sloped or by installing drains in the ground, Bales says.

Many horticulturists recommend limiting and taking special care with hardscape. Water that runs off of hardscape carries oils and toxins into the water supply, so permeable materials are a good choice. They advise using lighter material colors that will reduce heat absorption and radiation. In addition, they caution about possible harm to tree roots, which are usually in the top foot of soil. When a homeowners adds a walkway or other hardscape feature and heavy equipment is used, the process can compact soil and cut roots, making the tree vulnerable to storm damage.

Try the Newest Generation of Fake Grass

Image: CBCK-Christine/Getty

“It’s come a long way in how it looks,” says Bales, who has real grass in his front yard and turf in his backyard. “Many brands look and feel like natural grass.”

Bales recommends researching turf products that “hold up well, look good over time, and have a good feel on your bare feet.” Then find a contractor who knows how to install synthetic turf properly.

“What’s underneath it matters,” he says. There needs to be a deep sub-base that’ll last like a concrete patio but allow natural water through.

Troutman cautions that synthetic turf and pavers, if in direct sunlight, can get “really hot and reflect the heat onto your home. It can raise the cost of your air conditioning bill.” He suggests mitigating the heat by creating shaded areas with trees or a pergola.

Replace Plants With (Surprise!) a Water Feature

Image: Elmar Langle/Getty

While that may seem counterintuitive, it makes sense when you think about it. Especially when you consider the newest generation of water features: the pondless water feature.

It’s essentially a waterfall with “a below-ground reservoir covered by rock or stone. The water circulates . . . so it isn’t evaporating, ” says Bales.

If you want to stay completely away from water, Bales also suggests getting a water feature look without the water by designing “a dry creek bed with stones that can provide an aesthetic look and be functional in spots where there might otherwise be plants, and the need to irrigate.”

Between the drought-tolerant plants and the hardscaping, you may hardly ever water again.

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

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35 Money-Saving Household Habits

Adopt a few of these home tips to find a bit more cash each month.

Clean lights to help homeowner save money with ceiling rose
Image: Anderson The Fish

Your house gives you so much: security, pride, shelter. With all that on the line, it’s easy to assume the costs of keeping it up just are what they are. But wait. There are plenty of expenses that are simply a waste.

Here’s how to save money each month without putting a dime of home value at risk.

#1 Clean Your Lightbulbs

What? Who does that? Well, smart people (those who know shrewd, easy ways to save money). A dirty bulb emits 30% less light than a clean one. Dust off both the bulb and fixture, and you might be able to cut back on the number or brightness of lights in each room without noticing any difference.

#2 Keep Your Fridge Full

Solid items snuggled together retain the cold better than air and help keep one another cold — requiring less energy overall. Leaving town for awhile and fridge is empty? Fill voids in the fridge or freezer with water bottles.

#3 Switch Your Bulbs to LEDs

The average light-emitting diode, LED, light bulb used five hours a day can save $10 to $20 in energy costs vs. an incandescent bulb. If you replace just five of your most-used incandescent bulbs, your savings will add up.

And LEDs last 15 to 20 times longer than incandescents, so you won’t have to replace them nearly as often.

#4 Use Power Strips

Here’s how to save money — a lot of it — on bills. Appliances like coffee makers, TVs, and computers continue to suck power even when they’re off, which can add 10% to your monthly utility bill and increase the average household’s annual electric bill by $100 to $200. And did you know the AC adapter for your laptop keeps drawing power even if the laptop isn’t plugged in? Stop this slow money burn by connecting them to an easy-to-switch-off power strip.

#5 Use a Toaster Oven When Possible

Toaster ovens use 50% to 70% less energy than a full-size oven.

#6 Set Your Water Heater to 120 Degrees

Hot water heaters often come with a factory setting that’s higher than you need. You’ll cool your water heating costs by 3% to 5% every time you lower the temperature setting by 10 degrees.

#7 Insulate Your Water Heater

For about $30, an insulating jacket or blanket can shave 7% to 16% off your water heating costs for the year. Just make sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions to avoid creating a fire hazard.

#8 Wash Clothes in Cold Water

Image: Anna Rodé Designs

Just switching from hot to warm water will cut every load’s energy use in half, and you’ll reap even more savings taking the temp down to cold. And don’t worry: Your clothes will get just as clean from cold water, thanks to the efficiency of today’s detergents (except in the case of sickness, when you’ll want hot water and bleach).

#9 Use the Right Dryer Cycle

If you’re using a high heat setting for each load, you could be using more energy than you need. Almost all fabrics can be dried with a lower heat setting, such as the permanent press setting. It uses less energy and has the bonus of extending the life of your fabrics. Save the higher heat for items such as sheets and towels.

#10 Use Homemade Cleaners

Many commercial products rely on baking soda or vinegar for their cleaning power, so why not make your own? Odds are, you likely have a lot of the ingredients sitting in your cabinets or pantry right now.

#11 Cut Back on Laundry Detergent

Never mind the barely visible measurement lines in the cap: You typically need only a tablespoon of detergent. And, clothes actually get cleaner when you use less, because there’s no soap residue left behind.

#12 Ditch Disposable Sweeper and Mop Head

Stop throwing money away every time you clean! Refill your Swiffer Sweeper with microfiber cloths. Just cut to size and use them dry for dusting or with a little water and floor cleaner for mopping. Or switch to a microfiber mop with a washable head.

#13 Stop Buying Dryer Sheets

Another easy swap? Give up your dryer-sheet habit (about $7 for 240 loads) in favor of wool dryer balls (about $6.50 for four, which can last for up to 1,000 loads each). Of course, depending on your laundry preferences, you can always just go without either.

#14 Cut Scouring Pads in Half

Most clean-ups don’t require a full one.

#15 Don’t Rinse Dishes

Dishwasher full of dishes
Image: Cavan Images/Offset

Two minutes of rinsing with the faucet on full-power will consume 5 gallons of water — the same amount efficient dishwashers use during an entire cycle. Shocking, right? And it’s an unnecessary step, since most newer models are equipped to remove even stubborn food debris. Just be sure to clean the dishwasher trap regularly to keep your dishwasher running efficiently.

#16 Keep a Pitcher of Water in the Fridge

You won’t have to waste time and money running the faucet, waiting for it to get cold enough for a refreshing sip.

#17 Set a Timer for the Shower

The average American takes an eight-minute shower and uses about 17 gallons of water. It’s easy to linger, so set a timer for five minutes. Or try this more entertaining idea: Time your shower to a song or podcast segment.

#18 Install Low-Flow Fixtures

By installing a just one low-flow showerhead, the average US household can save about 2,900 gallons of water every year and decrease home water consumption by 40% or more.

#19 Replace Your Old Water-Hogging Toilet

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that by replacing old, inefficient toilets with WaterSense-labeled models, the average family can reduce water used for toilets by 20% to 60% — nearly 13,000 gallons of water savings per year. (WaterSense-labeled toilets are independently certified to meet criteria for both performance and efficiency, according to the EPA.) They could also save more than $140 per year in water costs.

#20 Close Closet Doors

Each closet and pantry may hold a paltry amount of square footage, but you’re still heating and cooling it. Add up all the storage space, and you’ve got the equivalent of a small room. Shut the doors to keep the conditioned air out.

#21 Program the Thermostat

You can save as much as 10% a year on heating and cooling by simply turning your thermostat back 7 degrees to 10 degrees Fahrenheit from its normal setting for eight hours a day. You can easily save energy in the winter by setting the thermostat to around 68 degrees while you’re awake and setting it lower while you’re asleep.

#22 Don’t Crank the Thermostat Up or Down Too Far

A common misconception is that a furnace works harder than normal to warm a space back to a comfortable temperature after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings, says In fact, as soon as your house drops below its normal temperature, it will lose energy to the surrounding environment more slowly Avoid setting your thermostat at a colder setting than normal when you turn on your air conditioner. It won’t cool your home any faster and could result in excessive cooling and unnecessary expense.

#23 Use Fans Year-Round

Image: Iaobzjls/Getty

Ceiling fans can reduce your summer cooling costs and even reduce winter heating bills — but only if used correctly. Flip the switch on the base to make the blades rotate counterclockwise for a cooling effect or clockwise to help distribute heat in the winter. And in the warmer months, an attic or whole-house fan can suck hot air out and help distribute cooler air so you can give the AC a little break.

#24 Caulk or Weatherstrip Around Doors and Windows

Caulk may not have the charisma of something like solar panels, but using it to seal air leaks around doors and windows will deliver immediate savings rather than a 14-year payback. You’ll spend $3 to $30 and save 10% to 20% on energy bills.

For gaps between moving parts that can’t be caulked, add weatherstripping.

#25 Add Insulation

By sealing air leaks and installing the right insulation in places like attics, crawl spaces, and basements, homeowners can save an average of 15% on heating and cooling — 11% on total energy costs, according to the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program. For the typical homeowner, this translates to about $200 pocketed year after year.

#26 Plant Shade Trees

Shade tree behind home with bench
Image: Liz Foreman for HouseLogic

Block the summer sun to lower cooling costs. Planting one shade tree on the west side and one on the east side of your home can shield your home from the sun during the summer months (but avoid south-side trees, which block winter sun). Carefully positioned trees can save up to 25% of the energy a typical household uses, according to Plus, healthy, mature trees add an average 10% to a property’s value, says the Arbor Day Foundation.

#27 Use Curtains as Insulation

Another way to practice energy-saving passive heating and cooling? Open curtains on sunny windows in the winter and close them up in the summer.

#28 Cool with a Cross Breeze

On a breezy day, open a window on the side of your house that’s receiving the breeze, then open another on the opposite side of the house. Make sure the window on the receiving side is open a little less than the exhaust side to accelerate the breeze. You can also use a fan if there’s no breeze outside.

#29 Check Your Mortgage PMI

You’ll generally pay between $40 and $80 per month for every $100,000 borrowed, according to Freddie Mac. Keep in mind this amount can vary based on your credit score and your loan-to-value ratio — the amount you borrowed on your mortgage compared to the home’s value.

Once your loan-to-value ratio falls below 80% of the home’s original appraised value, you can request that PMI be canceled. If the value of your home appreciates before then, you might be able to cancel sooner.

#30 Check Your Home Insurance for Savings

Your homeowners insurance should change as your life changes. Installing home security devices — including smoke detectors, burglar and fire alarm systems or dead-bolt locks — could reduce your premiums, says the Insurance Information Institute.

Bundling your home and auto coverage could also save money on both policies. To be sure you’re getting the best price, check that any combined price from one insurer is lower than buying the coverage separately from different companies, according to the III.

Surveys have found you could be paying more than what another insurer would charge for the same coverage. So you could save by going with a new company or by using their quote to bargain with your current provider.

#31 Borrow Tools Instead of Buying

How often are you going to use that $600 demolition hammer once you remove your bathroom tile? Not so much? Rent it from a home-improvement store for a fraction of the cost. Be sure to do the math for each tool and project, though; sometimes the rental price is high enough to justify buying it.

Or join a tool lending library or cooperative to borrow tools for free or much less than retail stores.

#32 Cut Back on Paper Towels

Two rolls of paper towels a week add up to about $182 every year! Instead, try machine-washable cotton shop towels. They clean up messes just as fast and cost less than $2 for five. Save paper towels for messes that need to go straight into the trash, like oil and grease.

#33 Stop Buying Plants for Curb Appeal Every Year

Front yard garden bed filled with perennial flowers
Image: Marna McGlinn of Marna McGlinn Ceramics

A pop of color in your landscaping perks up your curb appeal. But instead of wasting household funds on short-lived annuals, invest in perennials that will keep giving for years to come.

#34 Water Grass in the Morning to Save on Your Water Bill

Turning the sprinkler on at midday is kinda like watering the air — especially when the mercury soars. Lose less to evaporation by watering during cooler hours (but avoid overnight watering, when too-slow evaporation can invite fungus growth).

#35 Make Your Yard Drought-Tolerant

Swapping out 100 square feet of lawn with low water plants can save a homeowner 1,000 gallons of water the first year. After three years, savings can increase because plants have established root systems and need even less water.

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

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4 Must-Haves for the Easiest-to-Clean Bathroom, Ever

A toilet that’s missing those annoying, nasty grooves? Sign us up.

A stark, white tile bathroom with a tub and window
Image: Rowena Naylor/Stocksy United

No matter if you keep your home sealed tight, leave the windows open, have a steady stream of visitors stopping by, or prefer to be alone, dirt (and, worse, microbes!) will worm their way into your pad.

And bathrooms are the worst for collecting the yuckiest of grime and germs. Check out these upgrades that’ll give you a fighting chance against germs, dirt, and bacteria while doing a whole-lot-less cleaning. Game. On.

#1 Materials That Use Little or No Grout

Who says a bathroom has to have tile? Dirt and grime love to cling to the gritty grout between tiles. To banish it from your bathroom for good, try glass or waterproofed real-stone veneer. They come in large sheets — hardly any grout needed. Maybe some at the joints, but that’s better than the entire wall and floor.

If you want to go completely groutless, there’s an ancient Moroccan technique called tadelakt that uses lime-based plaster, which is waterproof, resists mold and mildew, and, best of all, is sealed with a soap solution to keep grime away. It’s worked for centuries, so it should work in your bath, too. It’s pricey, though, because it requires trained artisans to apply.

Orange tadelakt in a bathroom shower
Image: House+Earth, LLC; Austin, TX

An affordable alternative, suggests Stephanie Horowitz, managing director of ZeroEnergy Design in Boston, is to opt for large tiles with narrower grout lines. “It’s a fresh, modern look that requires minimal upkeep,” she says.

#2 No-Touch Faucets

Touchless faucet in a bathroom
Image: Small Bathroom Design Ideas by A Mom’s Take blog

Sensor-operated faucets aren’t just for crowded airport and mall restrooms. They’re growing in popularity in homes, too. If germs are your No. 1 enemy, a sensor faucet is a good choice because without touch, it’s tough for germs to find a foothold.

Some models also light up when you approach the sink — a cool, futuristic bonus for when you’re stumbling around in the middle of the night.

But because sensor faucets require a battery or electrical connection, users have complained that they break down more. Funny thing, though. Many say they would buy it again because they love the touchless feature.

Just don’t expect them to save you water. The last official study by the Alliance for Water Efficiency (in 2009) found they actually used more water.

#3 No-Groove Toilets

One-piece toilet in a home's bathroom
Image: DXV

If you’ve ever transformed into a contortionist while reaching to clean every last yucky crevice in your toilet, the one-piece model was made for you. Because traditional two-piece toilets have a separate bowl and tank, they have lots of tiny crevices that are hard to really get clean.

You may spend a bit more for a one-piece model, which is molded from a single piece of porcelain, but the amount of scrubbing time you save may make it worthwhile. Plus, you don’t have to get up close and personal with the nasty parts.

Today’s pressure-assisted toilets not only reduce cleaning time, but virtually eliminate backups, thanks to a forceful jet of water that scrubs the entire bowl and removes everything in its path. On this one, you’ll actually save water. Because of their eco-smart designs, these high-efficiency toilets can save a family of four up to 16,500 gallons of water annually.

#4 A (Good!) Exhaust Fan

Bathroom exhaust fan in a shower
Image: Broan

This is probably the least-sexy upgrade, but did you know it’s the No. 1 feature buyers want in a bathroom? That’s probably because it’s so effective at fighting bad micro-organisms.

Not only does a good exhaust fan fight mold, mildew, and other nasty micro-organisms, it protects your walls, paint, and trim. If left unchecked, excess moisture can cause your wallboard, paint, and trim to deteriorate. So spending a few hundred dollars on a fan and pro install could save you thousands down the road.

That’s a low-cost, no-brainer upgrade. Even if you already have an exhaust fan, take a look at the newer ones. Today’s models are much more efficient than the old buzz saw you might currently own. They’re quieter, more powerful, and use less energy.

If you forget to turn it on before you step into the shower, some models even come with a humidity-sensing feature that automatically turns the fan on when humidity is detected, then shuts off when the air is clear.

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

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