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Yard Work: Time-Saving Tips from HGTV Experts

May 10, 2016 12:34 am

Ah, yard work. We take pride in our manicured landscapes, but begrudge the work it takes to get them.

“Landscaping is our business and our passion, but we still want to take care of our yard work in a way that makes life easier, so we can spend time doing the other things we enjoy,” explains Chris Lambton, star of HGTV’s “Going Yard.”

Lambton and his wife, Peyton, who also hosts the show, recommend starting your lawn care routine early in the day. This ensures you’ll be working in cooler temperatures, and leaves time later in the day for other activities.

Worried about waking the neighbors? Don’t be, say the Lambtons. The cordless outdoor power tools of today are virtually noise-less compared to gas-powered equipment.

Yard work doesn’t have to be strenuous, either, the Lambtons add. Battery-powered mowers are fume-free, easy to maneuver and lightweight. As with gas-powered mowers, the blade should be adjusted to the correct height for your lawn.

“The height of your mower blade is determined by a combination of factors, including temperature, season and type of grass,” Chris says.

A good rule of thumb: never cut your grass more than one-third of the total height. Any more will leave your lawn susceptible to burnout and weeds.

What about edging? The Lambtons endorse it. They advise edging along driveways, garden areas, patios and sidewalks, either with a trimmer or hardscaping.

If using a string trimmer, walk in the same direction as the machine spins. If it spins counter-clockwise, walk left to right.

“Edging is an important landscape design element that transitions one space to another," says Chris. “When done with a cordless string trimmer, it's a small yard maintenance step that adds huge curb appeal.”

Yard work should also include maintenance of social gathering spaces, adds Peyton. Sprucing up an entertainment area is as simple as tending to the bushes and shrubs surrounding the space.

“Shrubs can grow into your patio, invading your dining and social areas,” Peyton says. “A mid-powered, cordless hedge trimmer is the perfect tool for quick clean-up of the perimeter of a designated party area.”

Clean up any debris once all of the yard work is done, the Lambtons say. This allows for a “clean sweep” that takes less time than cleanup after each chore.

“Remember to look beyond the trimmings that are visible on the ground,” Peyton says. “Use an axial blower behind and on top of the shrubs and hedges you've just trimmed to clear the area of the mess.”

The Lambtons’ litany of lawn care to-dos are put into practice both at home and on the show. Time-saver? Check.

Source: Greenworks™

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Whole-House Remodels on the Rise

May 10, 2016 12:34 am

Whole-house remodels are making a comeback.

According to the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), whole-house remodels, including additions, are regaining market share, signaling a return to household financial straits seen prior to the housing collapse. NAHB remodelers report bathrooms and kitchens remain at the top of the list of most common remodeling projects.

“While bathroom and kitchen remodels remain the most common renovations, basements, whole-house remodels and both large- and small-scale additions are returning to levels not seen since prior to the downturn,” says 2016 NAHB Remodelers Chair Tim Shigley, a remodeler from Wichita, Kan.

The NAHB finds whole-house remodels have risen by 10 percent, room additions have gone up by 12 percent, and large-scale projects, like finished basements, have increased 8 percent.

Given the scale of these types of renovations, Shigley strongly urges homeowners to seek out the services of a professional.

“Clients want to add more space, but remodeling a significant portion of the home is no easy feat,” Shigley says. “That’s why it is important to work with a professional remodeler who has the integrity and expertise to take on these large remodeling jobs.”

Source: NAHB

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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It's National Moving Month: Get Going—Carefully!

May 10, 2016 12:34 am

May is National Moving Month!

If you’re planning a move in the near future, your first step should be researching prospective moving companies, says our insider at the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

Connecticut BBB spokesman Howard Schwartz says moving to a new home, apartment or condo is exciting, but stressful, especially when it comes to putting possessions and irreplaceable keepsakes in the hands of strangers. Unfortunately, when they go missing or are damaged beyond repair, the BBB and other consumer agencies—and occasionally police departments—hear about it.

Schwartz says an estimated 37 million Americans pull up stakes every year to move to another neighborhood, town, state or country. The BBB receives thousands of complaints a year about movers, moving brokers and moving supplies dealers.

In their complaints, consumers describe a variety of problems with unscrupulous movers:

• Missing or damaged belongings;
• Broken or scratched furniture or electronics;
• Damage to the new apartment or condo caused by the movers;
• A final bill well in excess of the estimate;
• Rude customer service;
• Difficulty obtaining compensation for damage, and;
• Having furniture “held hostage” on a truck unless the consumers pay additional fees.

Schwartz says movers provide free insurance coverage, but with limitations. With “Released Value” insurance, however, the mover assumes liability for no more than 60 cents per pound per article, regardless of the item’s value.

The second type of insurance, he says, is “Full Value Protection,” which offers substantially better coverage.  Your mover would be liable for the replacement value of lost or damaged goods in your entire shipment.

While state regulations vary, Schwartz says all interstate movers must, at minimum, be licensed by the federal government and assigned a verifiable motor carrier number. Visit ProtectYourMove.gov, the U.S. Department of Transportation site, for tips, warnings, checklists and other resources.

If the moving company does fail to live up to its promises or threatens to hold your belongings hostage, Schwartz recommends filing a complaint with the BBB and contacting local law enforcement.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Retiring Homeowners FAQ: What the Heck Is a HECM?

May 7, 2016 12:34 am

The number of retiring homeowners is projected to expand exponentially in the coming years. Maximizing your real estate investment can help underwrite retirement expenses. For your consideration: the Home Equity Conversion Mortgage (HECM).

HECM is the Federal Housing Administration's (FHA) reverse mortgage program, which enables homeowners to withdraw some equity in their home in a fixed monthly amount, a line of credit, or a combination of both. 

To be eligible for a FHA HECM, you must:

• Be a homeowner 62 or older;
• You must live in the home;
• Own your home outright, or;
• Owe a low mortgage balance that can be paid off with proceeds from the HECM, and;
• Have financial resources to pay ongoing property charges like taxes and insurance.

You are also required to receive consumer information free or at very low cost from a HECM counselor prior to obtaining the loan.

A longevity annuity can also be a useful tool. Retirees aged 65 could draw $3,000 a month to age 100 with assets of $600,000, at which point their assets would be fully depleted. Retirees could use $200,000 of their nest egg to purchase a longevity annuity that begins payments of $3,000 after 10 years. These same retirees could draw on a reverse mortgage credit line to bolster their retirement income, as long as they had sufficient equity in their home.

Retirees with equity in their home who depend on pensions (rather than a nest egg of financial assets) can supplement their pension income using a HECM reverse mortgage in either of two ways. One way is to exercise the “tenure” option under the HECM program, and receive a fixed annuity payment for as long as the retiree remains in the house. The second way is to exercise the credit line option, using some or all of it to purchase an immediate annuity from a life insurance company.

You can find a HECM counselor online at HUD.gov, or by phoning 800-569-4287.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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8 Ways to Boost Your Home's Value

May 7, 2016 12:34 am

Improving the look and functionality of your home goes a long way toward boosting its value. But what types of renovation are today’s buyers looking for?

Consumer Reports reveals the most sought-after amenities:

Allowance for Aging in Place – As people are living longer and the number of senior citizens continues to increase, buyers see the long-term value of walk-in showers, comfort-height toilets and master bedrooms on the main floor.

Color and Light Matter – Fresh paint, natural color schemes and window treatments that let in the light will improve the look, as well as the value, of your home.

Energy Efficiency – Buyers are interested in energy costs and efficiency. ENERGY STAR appliances, high-efficiency windows and LED lighting help to lower the cost and increase your home’s ‘green’ appeal.

The Great Outdoors – Up your home’s curb appeal by keeping lawns and shrubbery neatly trimmed. Also high on buyers’ wish lists are a water-smart yard, a deck or patio and a built-in grill.

Kitchens Top the List – Buyers want a clean, updated and well-organized kitchen. A new coat of paint or modernized lighting can be inexpensive starts. Increasing the value exponentially are quartz counters, attractive cabinetry and stainless steel appliances.

Smart Technology – Some high-tech features may lose value as technology continues to evolve, but security systems, whole house generators and programmable thermostats controlled by smartphones will add value for their efficiency and convenience.

Updated Systems and Surfaces – Central air conditioning and updated mechanical systems, including water heaters and gas heat, can increase a home’s value by 3 to 5 percent. A newer roof and hardwood flooring are also much in demand.

Workable Floor Plans – Regardless of the size of your home, strategically increasing the living space is sure to boost its value. A more open floor plan, a finished basement or a dedicated playroom or office space appeals to the needs of young families.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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The 4 Things Grads Should Know About Student Loans

May 7, 2016 12:34 am

If the results of a recent National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®) poll are any indication, many college graduates are faced with stress over student loan debt repayment.

“The best way to feel more confident about keeping your student debt under control is to have a specific plan,” says Bruce McClary of the NFCC. “Part of the planning process involves learning about the debt and the options for making it work within a budget.”

To gain control over your financial future and stay on track repaying educational loans, the NFCC recommends the following tips.

1. Track Grace Periods – Different loans have different grace periods. A grace period is how long you can wait after leaving school before you have to make your first payment. It is six months for federal Stafford loans, but nine months for federal Perkins loans. For federal PLUS loans, it depends on when they were issued. The grace periods for private student loans vary, so consult your paperwork or contact your lender to find out. Don’t miss your first payment!

2. Understand Your Loans – Use whatever time you have during your grace period to get to know the types of loans you have, keeping track of the lender, balance and repayment status for each one. Every detail is important, because it can play a role in determining how each loan is repaid and what options might be available if you are ever at risk of falling behind. Start by visiting www.nslds.ed.gov to identify the details about the loan amounts, lender(s), and repayment status for all federal loans. If some loans aren’t listed, they’re probably private (non-federal) loans. For those, try to find a recent billing statement and/or the original paperwork. The school may be able to help if those records aren’t handy.

3. Plan for Repayment – When your federal loans are due, your payments will automatically be based on a standard 10-year repayment plan. If the standard payment is going to be hard for you to cover, there are other options, and you might be able to change plans down the line if you want or need to. Extending your repayment period beyond 10 years can lower your monthly payments, but you’ll end up paying more interest – often a lot more – over the life of the loan.

Some important options for student loan borrowers are income-driven repayment plans such as Income-Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn, which cap your monthly payments at a reasonable percentage of your income each year, and forgive any debt remaining after no more than 25 years (depending on the plan) of affordable payments. Forgiveness may be available after just 10 years of these payments for borrowers in the public and nonprofit sectors. To find out more about Income-Based Repayment and related programs and how they might work for you, visit www.IBRinfo.org.

4. Stay Out of Trouble – Ignoring your student loans has serious consequences that can last a lifetime. Not paying can lead to delinquency and default. For federal loans, default kicks in after nine months of non-payment. When you default, your total loan balance becomes due, your credit score is ruined, the total amount you owe increases dramatically, and the government can garnish your wages and seize your tax refunds if you default on a federal loan. For private loans, default can happen much more quickly and can put anyone who co-signed for your loan at risk as well. Talk to your lender right away if you’re in danger of default.

Source: NFCC

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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4 Ways to Create Better Spending Habits

May 6, 2016 12:34 am

If money is scarce by the end of every pay period, you may need to become a more efficient spender—and that means forming spending habits that come as naturally as paying your monthly bills.

U.S. News & World Report suggests test-driving a few of these ideas for living within your means:

Train Yourself to Change – Make small savings goals a part of your overall plan. One way to save money when eating out is to drink water instead of soda, wine or other pricey beverages. If you do it repeatedly, the small gesture will become a money-saving habit—and who doesn’t know that drinking more water offers significant health benefits?

Put Yourself on a Cash-Only Diet – If you tend to fall prey to the lure of credit cards, tuck them away and limit yourself to using cash instead. Withdraw the amount of cash you can afford to spend within a given time period. Chances are, you will find yourself spending more judiciously in order to make the cash last longer.

Limit Your Shopping Time – The more time you spend shopping or browsing, the more money you are apt to spend. Make short trips to the store or the mall. Buy what you need from a pre-written list and get on your way in a hurry. Spend the extra time reading or pursuing a hobby, and you reap double benefits.

Reward Yourself for Good Behavior – Habits can be formed much of the time by rewarding good behavior. If you stick with your spending plan (read: budget) for an entire month, successfully resisting all splurges and temptations, reward yourself with a little something nice that doesn’t break the bank, like a new pair of shoes or one of those special coffee drinks you cut out of your daily spend.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Your New Furnace Efficiency Checklist Starts with Ducts

May 6, 2016 12:34 am

So you've gone to the expense of finally replacing that old Buck Rogers-looking furnace with a high-tech, high-efficiency model that also coincidentally resembles a futuristic machine—albeit much smaller.

To be sure your new furnace is humming along as efficiently as possible, we turned to Don Ames of Home Energy Pros, a social network and community dedicated to home energy professionals. 

Ames says to maximize efficiency, check these four system items that affect how a new furnace will perform:

• Check for heating duct leakage and seal if needed
• Clean the air conditioner heat exchanger
• Make adjustments to the filter and the filter cabinet
• Add passages for return air that will balance the room pressure

Before installing a new furnace (and allowing efficiently heated air to escape unused), Ames says the duct system is the first and foremost thing that should be checked for air leakage, and sealed as needed.

If your utility, gas or electric provider has a duct sealing program, sign up—they may test your heating ducts for free. Otherwise, Ames says just seal them yourself using generous amounts of duct mastic.

First things first: do you have metal or insulated, flexible vinyl ducts? If you have insulated, flexible vinyl ducts, Ames says go ahead and check connections at the metal plenum or the metal register boots. If necessary, seal all joints in the metal plenum and seal the boots to the floor.

If you have metal ducts, whether round or rectangular, Ames says seal all joints and connections in both the supply and return air ducts with mastic using a gloved hand and applying it nickel-thick.

Ames reminds homeowners who want to squeeze every penny of savings from a high-efficiency heating system that sealing heating ducts is one of the most cost-effective and successful retrofits you can do to your home.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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How Much Should New Homeowners Set Aside for Repairs?

May 6, 2016 12:34 am

Owning a home comes with its fair share of expenses, including mortgage and insurance payments and maintenance costs, but how much can a new homeowner reasonably expect to spend on unexpected repairs?

"My recommendation for homeowners is to take a few simple precautions before moving into their home," says Marianne Cusato, HomeAdvisor.com. "Complete a sewer inspection, check that the insurance policy covers water damage, and set money aside for home emergency projects. Homeowners should plan on spending 1 percent of their home's purchase price on repairs and emergencies each year."

According to HomeAdvisor.com data, more than half of homeowners encountered unexpected home projects within the first year of owning a home. More than half also spent more time on projects than originally anticipated, and less than half spent more money than anticipated.

The most frequently cited emergency projects include blocked toilets and pipes, a clogged drain, a broken heating or cooling system and water leaks. These unexpected repairs can cost homeowners anywhere from $199 to $2,068.

In the first year of homeownership, most new homeowners tend to focus on improvements that increase curb appeal, such as installing landscaping, a sprinkler system, wood fence or deck. According to HomeAdvisor.com, the average cost of these outdoor projects is $12,850.

Source: HomeAdvisor.com

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Report: Retirees Happy "Just Getting By"

May 5, 2016 12:34 am

Despite economic progress, many retirees are still feeling the aftershocks of the recession—but that hasn’t dampened their spirits.

“Many American retirees are still recovering from the Great Recession while managing their households with modest retirement incomes,” explains Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies® (TCRS), which recently released a “State of Retirement” compendium. “The good news is that most retirees are enjoying life, but the concerning news is that many may be ill-equipped to deal with a financial shock, such as the possible need for long-term care.

“As a society, we frequently speak of the need for workers to save and prepare for retirement,” Collinson continues. “Unfortunately, the conversation often ends once people stop working and retire, which is when it becomes even more critical for them to have a financial plan that can last their lifetimes.”

Over one-third of retirees included in the TCRS compendium have only “somewhat” recovered from the recession—a finding reflected in the “just getting by” mentality prevalent in the report. Other financial priorities cited in the compendium include paying off a mortgage, saving for retirement and paying off credit card debt.

Retirees today are living on a modest income: a median of $32,000, according to the TCRS compendium. Social Security is the top source of retirement income, followed by savings and investments, company-funded pension plans, and 401(k)s, 403(b)s and IRAs. Most retirees began collecting Social Security benefits at 62 years old.

Still, current retirees expect a long retirement, filled with meaningful activities outside of employment. These include spending time with family and friends, pursuing hobbies, traveling, volunteering and caring for grandchildren.

Overall, the vast majority of retirees included in the compendium are “generally happy,” “enjoying life,” and “have a strong sense of purpose.”

Source: Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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