Each month, we publish a series of articles of interest to homeowners -- money-saving tips, household safety checklists, home improvement advice, real estate insider secrets, etc. Whether you currently are in the market for a new home, or not, we hope that this information is of value to you. Please feel free to pass these articles on to your family and friends.
Home Improvement Tips to Increase the Value of Your Home
Buying a home may be a dream, but the initial purchase is only the introduction to that dream. There's always something about your house that could be a little better, a little closer to perfect. Now, with a little planning, you can bring your home closer to your dream of perfection.
Reasoning Your Redo
Many home improvement projects begin with someone in the household saying, "Wouldn't it be nice ...?" What follows may be a wish for a remodelled kitchen or a room addition with space to accommodate every family member's needs. However, reality usually intrudes upon this daydream: There's only so much money and so much space. The trick is turning your dreams into reality. Start by evaluating your needs. Most homeowners consider home improvements for one of these reasons.
Improving to Move or Improving to Stay
You need to evaluate your plans carefully if you're improving your home to put it on the market. Cutting corners could hurt rather than help your prospects, but you don't want to go overboard either. Potential buyers may not want to pay for the extras you have included, such as a hot tub or pool. It's best to keep changes simple.
Also keep in mind that people viewing your house may not share your tastes and therefore won't necessarily appreciate the time and effort you put into finding just the right shade of green paint for the walls.
Improving to sell is easier if you mentally put yourself on the other side of the proverbial fence: What is important to the home buyer? Here's a list of remodeling projects that buyers are likely to find valuable:
If you're remodeling in order to stay in your home, you still need to avoid over improving it. You'll probably sell someday, and even if your house is the best on the block, you may have a hard time convincing buyers to pay extra for the things you found so important. Keep the value of other homes in the area in mind whenever you consider improvements. Your home's value should be no more than 20% above the average. That means a $10,000 kitchen improvement project might be a better idea than a $10,000 hot tub, especially if no other homes in your area have hot tubs.
Unfortunately, some home improvement projects get started because something is broken. A leaky plumbing fixture may be the first step to a major bath remodeling. After all, if the tub has to be replaced, why not do the whole room?
While that's certainly one reason to remodel, you'll generally want to avoid basing your home improvement projects on immediate need. Proper maintenance will help to minimize problems. Go over every part of your home at least once a year. Check out the roof, plumbing, electrical wiring, etc. As soon as you notice a problem, fix it. Early attention to repairs will help you avoid a larger expense later on. Remember maintenance does not add to the value of your home. Repairs, generally, are not improvements but necessities.
Let's face it, home projects can be expensive. You may be tempted to tackle them yourself as a way to save money. For small projects, that may be a smart move. You don't have to wait for someone else to fit your house into their schedule, and you can take pride in doing the work yourself. Unless you're particularly handy, however, large home improvement projects are better left to the pros. If you're remodeling the kitchen, ask yourself if you can handle the plumbing, electrical and carpentry work. And don't forget that you need to finish it all quickly, because in the meantime you'll be without a kitchen and eating out can be costly. Keep in mind, do-it-yourself jobs generally take more time and you're responsible for obtaining the necessary permits and inspections.
Hiring people who have experience can save you money and time, too. For example, these professionals can help you get a custom look using stock products, and that can be a significant savings. Getting something done right--the first time--will give you value that lasts for years.
Word-of-mouth is a good way to start looking for home improvement specialists. Check with friends, business associates and neighbors for recommendations. Always ask for at least three references - and check them out. Check, too, with your local chapter of the Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce. You can find the number in the community services section of your telephone book. Make sure everyone is in agreement about design, schedule and budget. Get the details down in writing in a signed contract. You'd also be wise to check on professional certifications and licenses, where required, and insist that any contractors you hire are fully insured and bonded. Contact your town or city Building Department for information. In particular, make sure contractors carry workers' compensation insurance so that if any workers are injured on the job, you won't be held liable. Ask for a copy of their insurance certificates. Also make sure that you or the contractor secure any necessary permits before beginning the work. Contact your local Planning and Zoning Commission for information.
Here's a quick overview of some of the pros you may work with in remodeling your home:
Architect: These professionals design homes or additions from the foundation to the roof. If you're planning structural changes--adding or taking out walls, for example--or anticipate a complex design, you'll probably want an architect. You may pay an hourly fee or a flat fee. Be sure to get an estimate of the total cost: It can take 80 hours or more to draw up plans for a major remodeling project.
Contractor: This person oversees the nuts-and-bolts aspects of your home improvement project, such as hiring and supervising workers, getting permits, making sure inspections are done as needed and providing insurance for work crews. You may wish to get proposals from one or more reputable contractors, based on specific details of your project. Be sure each contractor bids on exactly the same plan for comparison purposes. Once you've chosen a contractor, make sure your contract specifies that you will pay in several stages. It's customary to pay one third when the contract is signed so that the contractor can buy supplies. The number and timing of other payments depends on the size of the job, but do not make final payment until all work is successfully completed, inspected and approved.
Interior Designers: These specialists offer advice on furnishings, wall coverings, colors, styles and more. They can help save you time (by narrowing down selections) and money (from the professional discounts they might receive). When meeting with an interior designer, be sure to talk about your personal style and preferences. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $150 per hour, or you may negotiate a flat fee of perhaps 25% of the total project cost.
Depending on the scope of your home improvement plans, finding funding may be a project itself. If the project is small, you may be able to save for it from your regular household budget. For larger projects, you'll probably need to borrow money. If you participate in a 401(k) or 403(b) plan at work, you may be able to get a short-term loan from your account. To find out if this option is available to you and to learn about any tax implications, talk to your benefits administrator. Another possibility is borrowing against the cash value of your life insurance policy. If you're interested in finding out more about this type of loan, talk to your life insurance agent.
To take out other types of home improvement loans, head to your local bank, savings and loan, or credit union. Compare interest rates, repayment options and penalties from lending institutions before deciding on one of the following options:
Second mortgage: This is a loan against the equity in your home. It is, in essence, an additional mortgage. Typically, financial institutions will let you borrow up to 80 percent of the appraised value of your home, minus the balance on your original mortgage. For example, if your home is appraised at $100,000 and your current mortgage balance is $70,000, you may be able to borrow $10,000 by way of a second mortgage. You may also incur all the fees normally associated with a mortgage - closing costs, title insurance and processing fees. Talk to your tax advisor about whether the interest on a second mortgage may be tax-deductible.
Refinancing: This involves paying off your old loan and taking out a new mortgage on your home. To refinance, generally you'll need to have equity in your home, a solid credit rating and a steady income. You'll incur all the closing costs that go along with getting a new mortgage, so unless you're doing extensive remodeling and can get a mortgage interest rate at least two points less than you're currently paying, this type of loan may not be for you.
Home Equity Line of Credit: Like a second mortgage, a home equity loan lets you tap up to about 80 percent of the appraised value of your home, minus your current mortgage balance. Since it's set up as a line of credit, you won't be charged interest until you make a withdrawal, but you will have to pay closing costs. You can make withdrawals gradually as you start paying contractors and suppliers. The interest rate charged is usually variable and may be based on the outstanding balance. Make sure you understand the terms of the loan. If, for example, your loan stipulates that you need to pay interest only for the life of the loan, you'll have to pay back the full amount borrowed at the end of the loan period or you could lose your home. The interest on home equity loans may be deductible; talk to your tax advisor.
Unsecured Loan: Although the interest rates charged are often higher and you generally will not be able to get a tax deduction for the interest paid, the costs of obtaining an unsecured loan are usually lower. The relative ease of obtaining this type of loan makes it popular for small projects costing $10,000 or less. The lender will evaluate your application based on credit history and income.
Be House Smart: You'll be happiest with the outcome of a home improvement project if you plan carefully and do your homework. Armed with the information in this pamphlet and a realistic idea of your needs and budget, you'll find your home getting closer to your dream of perfection.
Ten Things You Need to Know Before You Hire an Agent
Not all real estate agents are the same. If you decide to seek the help of an agent when selling or buying your home, you need some good information before you make any moves.
An agent can cost or save you thousands of dollars
Picking an agent is one of those critical issues that can cost or save you thousands of dollars. There are very specific questions you should be asking to ensure that you get the best representation for your needs. Some agents may prefer that you dont ask these questions, because the knowledge youll gain from their honest answers will give you a very good idea about what outcome you can expect from using this agent. And lets face it - in real estate, as in life - not all things are created equal.
Hiring a real estate agent is just like any hiring process - with you on the bosss side of the desk. Its critical that you make the right decision about who will handle what is probably the single largest financial investment you will ever make.
1. What makes you different? Why should I list my home with you?
Its a much tougher real estate market than it was a decade ago. What unique marketing plans and programs does this agent have in place to make sure that your home stands out favorably versus other competing homes? What things does this agent offer you that others dont to help you sell your home in the least amount of time with the least amount of hassle and for the most amount of money?
2. What is your companys track record and reputation in the market place?
It may seem like everywhere you look, real estate agents are boasting about being #1 for this or that, or quoting you the number of homes theyve sold. If youre like many homeowners, youve probably become immune to much of this information. After all, you ask, "Why should I care about how many homes one agent sold over another. The only thing I care about is whether they can sell my home quickly for the most amount of money."
Well, because you want your home sold fast and for top dollar, you should be asking the agents you interview how many homes they have sold. Im sure you will agree that success in real estate is selling homes. If one agent is selling a lot of homes where another is selling only a handful, ask yourself why this might be? What things are these two agents doing differently?
You may be surprised to know that many agents sell fewer than 10 homes a year. This volume makes it difficult for them to do full impact marketing on your home, because they cant raise the money it takes to afford the advertising and special programs to give your home a high profile. Also, at this low level, they probably cant afford to hire an assistant, which means that theyre running around trying to do all the components of the job themselves, which means service may suffer.
3. What are your marketing plans for my home?
How much money does this agent spend in advertising the homes s/he lists versus the other agents you are interviewing? In what media (newspaper, magazine, TV etc.) does this agent advertise? What does s/he know about the effectiveness of one medium over the other?
4. What has your company sold in my area?
Agents should bring you a complete listing of both their own, and other comparable sales in your area.
5. Does your Broker control your advertising or do you?
If your agent is not in control of their own advertising, then your home will be competing for advertising space not only with this agents other listings, but also with the listings of every other agent in the brokerage.
6. On average, when your listings sell, how close is the selling price to the asking price?
This information is available from the Real Estate Board. Is this agents performance higher or lower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how high a price you will get for the sale of your home.
7. On average, how long does it take for your listings to sell?
This information is also available from the Real Estate Board. Does this agent tend to sell faster or slower than the board average? Their performance on this measurement will help you predict how long your home will be on the market before it sells.
8. How many Buyers are you currently working with?
Obviously, the more buyers your agent is working with, the better your chances are of selling your home quickly. It will also impact price because an agent with many buyers can set up an auction-like atmosphere where many buyers bid on your home at the same time. Ask them to describe the system they have for attracting buyers.
9. Do you have a reference list of clients I could contact?
Ask to see this list, and then proceed to spot check some of the names.
10. What happens if Im not happy with the job you are doing to get my home sold?
Can I cancel my listing contract? Be wary of agents that lock you into a lengthy listing contract which they can get out of (by ceasing to effectively market your home) but you cant. There are usually penalties and broker protection periods which safeguard the agents interests, but not yours. How confident is your agent in the service s/he will provide you? Will s/he allow you to cancel your contract without penalty if youre not satisfied with the service provided?
Evaluate each agents responses to these 10 questions carefully and objectively. Who will do the best job for you? These questions will help you decide.
Protecting Your Home from Fire and Carbon Monoxide
Safety & You
Everyone wants to live in a safe and worry free environment with their families, spouse, and children. However, most people are closer to a disaster waiting to happen than they think. Safety may not be an issue that comes to mind as you go about your daily routine. You may feel safe. Yet, lurking in your home are dangers that can take lives and destroy property.
Thousands of people die from fire every year. Most residential fire deaths occur because of inhalation of toxic gas, rather than contact with the flames. The tragedy is that many of these deaths could be prevented by taking a few precautions.
General Fire Prevention Tips
Have an Emergency Escape Plan! Practice it frequently!
Through education and media campaigns, most people now realize the importance of smoke alarms, and most homes in North America have them.
To guard against small fires or to keep a small fire from developing into a big one, every home should be equipped with a fire extinguisher. Because almost all fires are small at first, they might be contained if a fire extinguisher is handy and used properly. You should take care, however, to select the right kind of fire extinguisher, because there are different ones for different kinds of fires. Install fire extinguishers on every level of the home and include the kitchen, basement and garage.
Selecting a Fire Extinguisher
Extinguishers are classified according to the class of fire for which they are suitable. The four classes of fires are A, B, C, D:
A typical home or office fire extinguisher should have an ABC rating.
One of the greatest threats to your safety is the quality of air within your home. Carbon monoxide (CO) is a subtle yet dangerous threat because the gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless.
Each year, hundreds of people die from carbon monoxide poisoning. Thousands of other people suffer the effects of the gas without realizing it. Because CO symptoms mimic the flu and other common illnesses, CO poisoning can be easily missed during a routine medical examination.
CO is produced when any fuel does not burn completely because of insufficient oxygen. Mild exposure to CO gives most people a slight headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue ("flu-like" symptoms) followed by a throbbing headache, drowsiness, confusion, and fast heart rate. If the entire family becomes ill after a few hours in the home, and feels better when they leave the home, carbon monoxide poisoning should be suspected.
Possible sources of CO include:
Certain clues can indicate a carbon monoxide problem. Check to see if you have any of the following:
CO can be produced and spill into your home without any of the preceding clues present. Heating appliances that appear to be operating correctly can still be sources of CO. Burning charcoal or wood produces CO that can spill into the home. Gasoline engines, when first started, produce large amounts of CO. Autos in attached garages are often sources of CO.
How To Protect Yourself
To avoid CO exposure in the home, it is important to:
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that every residence with fuel burning appliances be equipped with at least one CO alarm. For added protection, place one on every level of the home. Read and follow manufacturers' instructions.
If your alarm indicates high levels of carbon monoxide in your home:
Fires are traumatizing and frightening, as is a carbon monoxide incident. It is essential to fully recognize the hazards of fire and carbon monoxide poisoning and to take preventative action. A regular home inspection, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, fire extinguishers and an emergency exit plan will help you and your family live more safely.