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Mary Mastroeni

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Lessons Learned from Major Hurricanes Can Help You Prepare for Future Disasters

September 15, 2011 8:03 pm

Hurricane Irene, with its high wind, torrential rain and flooding, was a wake-up call for the residents of many states up and down the East Coast of the United States, providing important lessons to millions of Americans on how to prepare for future storms, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.).

"Those who take the time to prepare for a disaster are in the best position to survive a catastrophe and recover as quickly as possible," pointed out Jeanne M. Salvatore, senior vice president and consumer spokesperson for the I.I.I.

Hurricane season, which ends on November 30, is far from over so it is still possible for another storm to make landfall in the U.S. In fact, six of the ten most expensive hurricanes in the U.S. occurred in September and one in late October. 

Damage caused by wind is one of the most consistent and major causes of property loss. Hurricanes and tropical storms accounted for 44 percent of all catastrophe losses over the 20-year period from 1991 to 2010. Tornadoes, which frequently accompany hurricanes, ranked second highest, representing 30 percent of catastrophe losses for the period.

Hurricane Irene provided a stark reminder that the entire East Coast is at risk for catastrophic storms. While Florida and the Gulf coast may have more frequent hurricanes, the Northeast also has a history of severe storms. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 (also known as "The Long Island Express") hit New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, causing 600 deaths, 1,700 injuries and over $400 million in damages, according to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS). AIR Worldwide estimates that the storm would have caused $38 billion in insurance damages had it occurred today.

The I.I.I. has tips to help consumers prepare for the next hurricane or tropical storm.

1. Know Your Risk of Flooding
People often underestimate the risk of flooding. But as Hurricane Irene demonstrated, flooding occurs not only on the coast but inland, as well. In fact, 90 percent of all natural disasters in this country involve flooding, according to FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

It is important to determine the risk of flooding in your area so you know whether you need flood coverage. Standard homeowners and renters insurance policies do not cover flooding, but insurance is available from the NFIP and some private insurance companies.

Flood insurance covers direct physical losses by flooding and from flood-related erosion caused by heavy or prolonged rain, coastal storm surge, snow melt, blocked storm drainage systems, levee dam failure or other similar causes.

The NFIP policy covers homes for up to $250,000 on a replacement cost basis and the contents for up to $100,000 on an actual cash value basis. Replacement cost coverage pays to rebuild the structure as it was before the damage. Actual cash value is replacement cost minus depreciation. To be eligible for the replacement cost policy, the homeowner must insure the structure for 80 percent of the cost to rebuild the home or purchase the maximum amount of coverage provided by the NFIP. If you are a renter, you can also purchase flood insurance for the contents of your home.

If you need more coverage than is provided by the NFIP policy, excess flood insurance is available from some private insurers. Private insurance may also be available if your community does not participate in the NFIP. Coverage for the contents of basements is limited, so be careful about what you store in the basement and consider installing a sump pump.

While flooding is not covered under standard home insurance policies, some types of water damage are. This includes burst pipes, wind driven rain and damage resulting from ice dams on your roof. Some homeowner’s insurance policies cover sewer and drain backups, but others do not. However, you can purchase a sewer backup rider to a homeowner’s or renter’s policy in states that offer the coverage for about $50 each year, with the policy limits varying depending upon the insurer.

2. Understand Your Hurricane Deductible
A deductible is the amount of money you pay out-of-pocket before your insurance coverage kicks in. A standard home insurance policy deductible is a flat dollar amount, usually either $500 or $1,000. Hurricane deductibles, however, are tied to a percentage of your home's insured value. Your hurricane deductible is clearly stated on the front page (Declarations page) of your homeowner’s insurance policy.

Hurricane deductibles apply solely to damage from hurricanes, and typically vary from 1 percent to 5 percent of the insured value of a home. For example, if your home is insured for $200,000, and has a 2 percent hurricane deductible, you would be responsible for paying the first $4,000 needed to repair the home.
Hurricane deductibles are incorporated into homeowner’s insurance policies in 18 coastal states and the District of Columbia. Whether a hurricane deductible applies to a claim depends on the specific "trigger," which can vary by state and insurer and is usually linked to wind speeds. Due to these differences, homeowners should check their policy carefully.

3. Maintain a Home Inventory
A home inventory is a detailed list of your personal possessions together with their estimated value. This is an important document that will help you:
• Buy the amount of insurance you need
• Get your insurance claim settled faster
• Verify losses for your income tax return
• Keep track of your belongings in order to substantiate losses when applying for financial aid after a catastrophe

There are many ways to organize a home inventory. You can do it room by room, category by category (furniture, electronics, etc.) or start with detailed descriptions of the most expensive items and put less expensive items into broad categories. If you own your home, do not forget to list items like heating systems, washers/dryers and air-conditioning units.

There are also many approaches to creating your inventory. You can simply write everything down in a notebook, or take pictures and write the information on the back of the photos or save it on your computer. If you own a video camera or smart phone, another option is to walk through your house filming and describing the contents.

4. Keep your Insurance Up-to-Date
The time to review your insurance is before you need to file a claim. After Hurricane Irene many homeowners and renters had little knowledge of how much insurance they had or what was covered by their policy. As a general rule, you should have enough insurance to rebuild your home and replace all of its contents. If you make a large purchase or major improvement to your home, always update your policy. And if you are a renter, get renters insurance so your possessions are covered.

You should also find out how much coverage is available for additional living expenses (ALE). These expenses could include the cost of a temporary rental home or hotel room, restaurant, meals and any other expenses incurred in the event your home is uninhabitable while it is being repaired or rebuilt due to an insured disaster. Some policies provide coverage for 20 percent of the amount of insurance you have on your house. Others may specify a time period. Additional coverage is generally available for an additional cost.

If you own a car, consider purchasing the optional comprehensive coverage when buying your auto insurance policy as it will reimburse you for weather-related disasters such as flooding, or a tree falling on your car.

5. Have an Evacuation Plan
For many people, Hurricane Irene was the first major disaster that required them to evacuate their home—a reminder of the importance of having an evacuation plan in place. If you have pets you will need even more advanced planning, as many public shelters do not accept animals. Here are a few key steps to planning an evacuation:

• Identify where you can go in the event of an evacuation. Try to have more than one option: the home of a friend or family member in another town, a hotel or a shelter. Keep the phone numbers and addresses of these locations handy.
• If your evacuation route relies on public transportation and/or bridge, tunnels or ferries, plan to leave early and have a back-up plan in case any of the transportation options is closed for safety reasons.
• Map out your primary route and a backup route in case roads are blocked or impassable. Make sure you have a map of the area available.
• Family members may be separated before or during the evacuation so identify a specific meeting place and ask an out-of-town friend or family member to act as a contact person.
• Plan what you will take such as medicines, first aid kits, bottled water, cash, clothing, flashlight, battery-powered radio, pet food, special items for infants, the elderly or disabled.
• Gather important papers (or copies) such as insurance policies, prescriptions, passports and social security information. Store them in water-tight, fire resistant containers.

6. Learn How to Protect Your Home Against Hurricane Damage
There are a number of steps you can take to make your home more disaster-resistant. Keeping wind and water out of your home is critical to its survival. According to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a house is most vulnerable to high winds when the building's "envelope" is not sealed by forms of protection such as storm shutters or reinforced garage doors. In addition, homeowners should secure loose roof shingles and seal openings, cracks and holes while also strengthening soffits such as beams, arches and staircases.

During a windstorm, loose items outside of the house can be picked up by the winds and become destructive projectiles. Be prepared to remove all outdoor furniture, lawn items, planters and other materials. Trim trees and shrubbery and remove weak branches on plants and trees.

And, if you are renovating or doing construction on your home, keep in mind that unsecured building materials or trash from partially completed homes could become airborne and pose a serious physical threat to individuals and nearby buildings.

7. Consider Specialty Insurance for Special Events or Expensive Vacations
In the wake of Hurricane Irene, there were cancelled weddings, postponed events, missed flights and stranded travelers. While there is no insurance against frustration, specialty insurance is available for the financial losses that may be incurred when expensive special events or travel are impacted. Travel insurance can also provide assistance for travelers impacted by hurricanes and other disasters listed in the policy.

For more information, visit www.iii.org.

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Best Brain Foods for Kids to Increase Memory and Fuel Busy School Days

September 15, 2011 8:03 pm

With the school year back in session, parents should feed their kids the best brain foods to help them sustain their energy and help them succeed at school, while also creating healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

According to Phil Lempert aka the SupermarketGuru and editor of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru.com, eating nutrient-dense meals, and snacks, and staying hydrated at regular intervals and avoiding processed, sugary foods can boost brain development, improve concentration, and provide a child's energy to make it through a school day. It is also important to always send your child to school with a balanced healthy snack, even if all other meals are provided.

"The new school year is a time to start fresh, encourage healthy eating habits and set a great example as a parent," says Lempert. "It is important for growing children to eat a variety of foods from each food group. A well-nourished and fit child is better able to learn and has more energy, stamina, and self-esteem."
According to Lempert, the best brain foods include:

• Whole Grains: Whole grains in general contain phytonutrients, folate and B vitamins that boost memory. Whole grains are great for kids—most notably oats and eating oats in a not too sweet granola is a great way to get kids to eat more whole grains. The addition of some dried fruit and nuts balances out the meal or snack. Pack sandwiches with whole wheat bread. If your kids are not used to it, make as sandwich with half white, half whole wheat bread;
• Lean and Clean Protein: Protein is great to pair with whole grains and can help kids feel full longer, avoiding a sharp drop in blood sugar. Choosing protein sources that are raised humanely and fed a proper diet, or pastured are your best bets. Ask your local butcher about how the meat was raised;
• Berries, Grapes, Apples, Pears and other Seasonal Fruits: Rich in antioxidants like vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and fiber. The fiber in fruit also helps keep kids regular, yes it's not just a grown-up problem;
• Healthy Fats: Healthy fats help "cushion" the brain; in fact 60 percent of a brain is made up of fat. Salmon is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial for the brain and eyes (deficiency can lead to anxiety and depression). Avocados are another great fat, as well as flax and chia seeds (which are full of fiber as well); and
• Filtered Water: Dehydration can lead to fatigue, fogginess, and more, so drinking plenty of water is crucial to keeping concentration and energy levels high. Parents would be surprised how little water kids drink at school. After learning and running around all day most kids could use a couple glasses of water. Buy a reusable water bottle in the color or pattern that your kids like - or let them pick it out. If they choose it, they are more likely to use it!

For more information, visit www.SupermarketGuru.com.

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Word of the Day

September 15, 2011 8:03 pm

Grantor. Person named in a deed who conveys ownership of real estate; the seller.


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Question of the Day

September 15, 2011 8:03 pm

Q: Should I buy a vacation home?

A: The second home market has more ebbs and flows than the primary home market. Sales are iffy in a bad economy except, perhaps, on the high-end. That said, there is a growing trend toward the purchase of vacation homes. They are being bought for investment purposes, enjoyment, as well as retirement. In the latter instance, some people are buying with the idea of turning a vacation home into a permanent retirement haven down the road, a move that puts them ahead of the game now.

Some of the tax benefits mirror those for a primary residence. Mortgage interest and property taxes are deductible, which helps to offset the cost of the home payment. And if you treat your second home as a rental property, you can fully depreciate it as well. But you are only allowed to occupy it for two weeks a year, or 10 percent of the total rented time, whichever is less.

Before taking the leap, ask yourself if you can afford to carry two mortgages, maintain two households, and pay the extra utilities and maintenance costs. Also, learn about financing requirements and options, which can differ slightly from those on a primary residence.

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Living on a Budget - Home Remedies Better, Cheaper

September 14, 2011 5:03 pm

At a time when it seems that prices are soaring everywhere we look, it is no wonder that cost conscious homemakers are now saying, "Ouch!" at the cost of some popular household cleaning products.

But there are proven home remedies that will do many of the same cleaning jobs-and often for pennies on the dollar. Here are some of the top picks:

Keep chrome fixtures clean and shiny by wiping them down with new or used fabric softener sheets. For stubborn water spots, try rubbing alcohol on a paper towel.

To remove tough stains from the inside of a vase, fill the vase with warm water and drop in two Alka Seltzer tablets.

For a fog-free mirror after you shower, wipe it down a couple of times a week with a few drops of aftershave on a paper towel.

Fill in unsightly nail holes with plain white toothpaste; smooth with a damp sponge.

Make an effective all-purpose cleaner for countertops and appliances by filling a spray bottle with one third pine cleaner, one third ammonia and one third water.

Prolong the life of fresh flowers by filling the vase with a quart of warm water, two tablespoons vinegar and three tablespoons sugar. 

Sharpen scissors by cutting 10 times through three layers of foil or by cutting a piece of fine sandpaper into small pieces.

Try polishing the silver with toothpaste; just rub on and wipe off. 

Remove small scratches on polished wood furniture by rubbing them with a shelled walnut.

Smelly shoes? Put a few tea leaves into nylon stockings and stuff one stocking into each shoe. Leave it there for a couple of days until the smell vanishes.

To keep lint and dust off glass tabletops longer, clean them with a solution of one tablespoon of fabric softener and a quart of warm water. (Also works well for computer screens and TV screens.)

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Simple Fall Fix-Ups

September 14, 2011 5:03 pm

Fall is the best time to get your house in order because come winter, small problems can turn into big-dollar nightmares. The October 2011 issue of ShopSmart magazine, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, highlights key household maintenance tasks for the fall that can save readers more than $20,000 in repairs.

"People need to take home repairs seriously, especially with winter just a few months away," said Lisa Lee Freeman, editor-in-chief of ShopSmart. "Now is the time to check and service any small problems before snow, ice, and freezing temperatures accentuate them."

Get some leaf relief
Fallen leaves can kill grass when they're matted down by snow. Leaf piles can also attract rodents. But using leaf bags means work and waste if they go into a landfill.
• What to do: Don't overlook your mower's mulching mode! Grinding up leaves feeds your lawn and saves money. You may need to make a few passes to slice the leaves small enough to decay.
• What you save: Along with saving the cost of leaf bags (Americans spend millions of dollars a year on them), you sidestep the stooping and bending of raking and bagging.
• Smart Pick: Time for a new mower? The $350 Toro Recycler 20332 self-propelled gas mower aced our mulching tests.

Check the roof
Leaks can eventually damage the wood sheathing and rafters below the shingles, leading to thousands of dollars in repairs.
• What to do: Use binoculars to spot cracked, curled, or missing shingles safely from the ground. Consider having a roofing pro check flashing around chimneys, skylights and roof valleys for leaks, and the rubber boots near vents for cracks that can let moisture seep in.
What you save: At roughly $3 per square foot installed, new sheathing would total $6,900 for a 2,300 square foot house if you had to replace all of it. Figure on an additional $7,000 to $10,000 to install new shingles, plus added costs if the roof rafters need replacing.
• Smart Pick: Certain Teed Landmark asphalt shingles were top performers in our tests and deliver the layered look of cedar shakes. And at just $65 per 100 square feet, they'd save you about $7,000 on a typical home over the priciest shingle we tested.

Find air leaks
Air leaks lurking inside your home can send up to 10 percent of your home's heat out the window during the winter.
• What to do: A professional energy audit (about $300 to $800) is best; some utilities help pay for it. On a windy day you can do your own check. Close windows and doors, and shut off the furnace. Turn on bathroom and other fans that blow air outside. Then pass a lit incense stick over door and window frames and other leak sites; smoke that's blown into or out of the room signals a leak.
• What you save: Plugging leaks can slice your heating bill by 10 percent, or about $66 per year, based on the $660 average annual cost of heat per household nationwide. Those yearly savings could help pay for a new range, refrigerator, or dishwasher after 10 years. And that's if you're using natural gas. Got oil or electricity? Annual savings could exceed $200.

Close your hoses
Pipes can burst when water inside expands as it freezes, creating an expensive mess in your home.
• What to do: Shut off inside valves that control water flow to hose spigots. Then briefly open the spigots to drain any leftover water in pipes and hoses. Also drain water from supply lines for water sprinklers and pools, and shut off inside valves that control them. And help prevent freezing by insulating pipes in unheated areas.
What you save: Thousands of dollars in plumbing repairs and water damage, especially if pipes burst and cause a flood while you're away.

For more information, visit www.ShopSmartmag.org.

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Simple Solutions for Making Your Office More Eco-Friendly

September 14, 2011 5:03 pm

American homeowners know how to "Think Green." Whether choosing Energy Star appliances or selecting more energy efficient lighting, millions of people are incorporating energy efficiency into their personal habits and purchasing decisions. Now a leading energy company is encouraging its customers to take those same "green" principles and apply them to their business life as well.

MXenergy, a Constellation Company and one of the leaders in the sustainability movement, strives to educate and inform customers about energy efficiency as part of the company's continuing commitment to energy conservation.

"All across America we see people working to improve their home energy efficiency," says Marjorie Kass, MXenergy managing director of marketing. "Yet, we are not necessarily seeing those same strides on the corporate front. There are so many relatively simple changes which can have such a dramatic impact on office energy usage."

"Green Office" Tips
Power Down:
Check to make sure you are maximizing your computer's energy efficiency settings. Turn off the computer at night or when not in use for long periods of time. Encourage your office to convert to more energy efficient lighting and to turn off lights when not in use.
Quit Pushing Paper: When at all possible, "go digital." Eliminate as much printed paper as possible. When it is necessary to print a hard copy, print double-sided and make sure your office is recycling ink and toner cartridges as well as purchasing recycled paper and remanufactured ink and toner.
Take A Break: The company break room can be an excellent starting point for a green campaign. If not already in place, ask for recycling containers to be made available. Switch to Fair Trade organic coffee and recyclable or reusable utensils and cups. Encourage the use of non-toxic cleaning supplies. Rather than heading out to lunch or ordering in, bring lunch from home in reusable containers. This not only reduces energy consumption but packaging waste as well.
Cut the Travel: Telecommuting, carpooling and video-conferencing are all excellent ways to reduce individual and corporate carbon footprints. According to Treehugger.com, over $8 billion in gas could be saved annually if every car in the U.S. simply added one additional passenger to its commute.

"Creating a more eco-friendly work environment doesn't have to be costly or time-intensive," says Kass.
 
"Something as simple as adding a desk plant to improve air quality or choosing to host a meeting via video-conferencing rather than paying for plane travel can make a difference. It isn't about the size of the change, it is simply about making the decision to start the process that is so important."

For more information visit www.mxenergy.com

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Question of the Day

September 14, 2011 5:03 pm

Q: How can Fannie Mae help homebuyers?

A: The Fannie Mae Community Home Buyers Program lets first-time buyers with little cash obtain 95 percent financing. Borrowers may put down as little as 3 percent of their own money, with a 2 percent gift from family, a government program, or nonprofit agency, and obtain private mortgage insurance to protect the lender against default.

The Fannie Mae program is administered through participating lenders, and income limits vary by state. But the income restriction is waived when borrowers participate in the Fannie Neighbors program. Fannie Neighbors also has lower income requirements for borrowers who want to buy in designated central cities.

Fannie Mae's new Start-Up Mortgage will assist buyers of all income levels with a 5 percent down payment. Applicants do not need a lot of income to qualify and can have less cash for closing than with traditional mortgages. Borrowers receive a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage with a first-year monthly payment that is lower than the standard fixed-rate loan.

Homebuyers who borrow under either program must attend a seminar on homeownership and the home buying process.

For a list of participating lenders, call Fannie Mae, the nation’s largest supplier of home mortgage funds at (800) 732-6643.

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Keep Your Home Exterior in Top Shape

September 13, 2011 5:03 pm

Here’s a twist: Forget what the inside of your home looks like for just a bit and focus on your home's exterior.

"The exterior of your home makes a lasting and daily impression on your friends and family, along with your neighbors," says Mark Clement, professional contractor and host of MyFixItUpLife home improvement radio show. "On the exterior of the home there are three big, critical areas I recommend people evaluate every year—the roof, the windows and the entry door. Those are key areas because, along with being visual focal points of the home, they help protect a house from severe weather."

Clement offers these tips for keeping your home exterior in top shape:

1. Check your roof yearly (from a ladder or from a neighbor's home with binoculars) to determine its condition. Look for problem areas, such as missing or broken shingles, along with roofing tiles that may be "flapping" in the wind.
2. Check the sides of your roof. The southern exposure weathers significantly faster than the other sides of the roof, so make sure to carefully examine this one.
3. If you're in the market for a new roof, investigate polymer slate and shake roofing tiles in a wide variety of colors. Some tiles have a 50-year limited warranty and are ideal for all types of weather conditions, including hurricanes and hail.
4. If you can see light around your main entry door from the inside, the door is hard to close or lock, or the door itself is warped, it's time to consider a new door.
5. Switch to a high-performance fiberglass door (which has four times more insulation than wood doors).
6. If you have condensation between glass panes, the windows are hard to operate, or if there are drafts coming in, then it's time to consider replacement windows.
7. Investigate your vinyl window options and stick with a national manufacturer that can stand behind a long-term warranty. For his renovation project, Clement selected Simonton vinyl windows. The award-winning company impressed him with its 65-year history and return-on-investment with their low-maintenance ENERGY STAR® qualified windows.
8. Use stylish window and door trim to accent key home features. Lightweight and easy to install, weather-resistant synthetic mouldings, shutters and entryway surrounds from Fypon are a definite do-it-yourself project for any homeowner.
9. Wrap it up. Clement recommends using Column Wrap Kits to cover ugly steel or wooden porch posts to upgrade the look of the home.

For more home improvement tips, visit www.myfixituplife.com.

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Soggy Spring and Scorching Summer Add to Fall Home Maintenance Needs

September 13, 2011 5:03 pm

Thirty-three of the 48 continental states experienced above-average rainfall last spring (not to mention more rainfall in the past few weeks for much of the South and North.) An extremely warm summer followed "hot on the heels" of all that rain. The result? Many outdoor spring cleaning projects did not get marked off the homeowner's to-do list. Fall offers one more chance to get outdoor spaces and gear clean and protected before winter's arrival puts the deep freeze on outdoor projects.

• Start at the top. For a small space, clogged gutters can cause big damage, because water doesn't drain properly. Instead, it can damage everything from the foundation, wood and landscaping to the roof—and it can even find its way indoors to cause damage there. Check out tools that allow you to bypass the ladder and clean the gutters from the ground.
• Wet paint. Jeff Wilson, host of multiple programs on the DIY network and HGTV, says, "I worked for a painter who said a paint job would last twice as long if you cleaned the siding every two years. Removing dirt and killing the mold, mildew, and algae on a surface helps to eliminate some of the paint's enemies." Take the opportunity to check for bare patches of wood where the paint has blistered and peeled. Since exterior coatings like paint and stains shouldn't be applied when temperatures are over 90 degrees, fall is a good time for touchups.
• Don't Pay The Price For Snow and Ice. Wood decks and fences, as well as concrete walkways and patios, can all be damaged over the winter by water absorption and repeated freeze/thaw cycles (or wet/dry cycles), which cause cracking. (De-icing salts can also damage concrete surfaces.) Clean them, then apply a waterproofing coating to stop water absorption over the winter. (These types of products do recommend minimum temperature guidelines for application, so check the label on the product you are using.)
• Bring It On Inside: It's also a good idea to clean any outdoor furniture, cushions or hammocks that you're going to store and bring in fragile garden decor or pots. (If you want to enjoy your deck or patio over the winter, there are many great outdoor heaters that look stylish while keeping you warm.) Put your lawnmower to sleep for the winter by sharpening the blade, changing the oil, and adding a bit of fuel stabilizer to the fuel tank. Do the same for trimmers, tillers, etc. All other gardening tools should be cleaned, sharpened if necessary, and lightly oiled before putting them away, too (after you plant your bulbs!).

• Next, drain hoses. Any water left in them may freeze, expand, and burst the hose, so this is a critical step. While many newer homes will have frost-free spigots outside, older homes won't, so shut them off from the inside if possible or cover them with an insulated cover if it regularly falls below freezing (about $2 each).
• Clean-Up on Good Deals: Reward yourself and get ready to greet spring, 2012 in style. Late summer is the time retailers offer great clearance discounts on all types of outdoor furniture, cushions and accessories. Check online as well as traditional "brick and mortar" stores. 

For more information, visit http://www.thompsonswaterseal.com.

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