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Helpful Tips

A Fall Home-Maintenance Checklist

You've heard of spring cleaning, but what about fall? Cooler temperatures and storms often mean unexpected leaks, cold drafts, home repairs-and home repair bills. Fortunately, basic fall home maintenance can prevent many of these repairs. Below are a few tips to prepare your home and prevent maintenance issues.

Seal the Gaps. Use silicone caulk to seal windows and cracks in the siding, and use weather stripping around doors to keep cool air from seeping in.

Is Your Home Ventilated? While sealing gaps keeps the cold air out, your home needs to be properly ventilated to combat high indoor humidity, to expel potentially dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide, and to prevent moisture-related home repairs such as rot, mold, and insect infestation. In the fall, test exhaust fans, clean exhaust fan grills and dryer vents, and use your exhaust fans liberally.

Inspect and Clean the Chimney. This is one area where it pays to hire a professional chimney sweep. The Chimney Safety Institute of America recommends annual inspections to ensure the safety and efficiency of your chimney. This inspection will also address the chimney's role in ventilation.

Clear Rain Gutters. Keeping gutters clear of debris can prevent accumulated leaves and/or ice from forming "dams," which if left untreated can lead to major roof and siding leaks.

Test Your Detectors. The Consumer Products Safety Commission recommends changing the batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors at least once per year, typically when changing your clocks either in the fall or spring. The U.S. Fire Administration recommends testing them monthly and replacing them every ten years.

Examine the Roof. Use binoculars to scan the roof for missing, loose, or damaged shingles. Keep an eye out for signs of wind damage. If you notice any issues, take appropriate measures to secure the compromised area before more severe weather arrives. A minor repair now could save you from major repairs (and water damage) later.

Tune Up Your HVAC System. At a minimum, change your furnace filters. This will go a long way in improving the efficiency of your HVAC system and potentially extending its useful life. Many HVAC service companies offer affordable HVAC tune-ups this time of year in which they'll change the filters, clean the coils, check the thermostat, and inspect the system's components for signs of wear and tear.

Call Your Gas Company. Most gas utility companies offer free services in the fall and winter in which a technician will light your pilot lights and inspect your furnace, water heater, and other gas appliances.

4 Ways to Minimize a Home's Flaws

No house is perfect. Here are some clever interior design tricks to minimize your home's flaws and make it a more beautiful place to live:

1. Dark Rooms
Everyone loves light-filled rooms. If your home's small windows don't let in enough light, paint the walls a light color to help brighten dark corners. Hanging mirrors on walls opposite windows will bounce daylight around a room. Reflective surfaces can also brighten a space, so decorate with gold and silver accessories and invest in furniture with high-gloss finishes. Lastly, make sure that sunlight can reach your windows; trim any overhanging branches outside your home.

2. Lack of Storage
Storage space is no longer a luxury-it's a requirement. If your closets are overflowing, it's time to clear the clutter. Start by donating the items you no longer need to local charities. Invest in organizers for your home's bedroom and front hall closets. A double clothes rail and a few shelves for shoes and sweaters can double or even triple the amount of storage space in a closet. Finally, toss those old wire hangers; wooden hangers make a closet look organized and tidy.

3. Awkward Architecture
Low, sloping ceilings in the bedrooms, narrow hallways, and steep staircases don't help a home's appeal. To help take the focus off a low ceiling, paint the walls and the ceiling the same color, preferably a light one. If you want to make a narrow hallway feel wider, paint the walls and the trim in a pale, cool tone; colors on the cool end of the spectrum visually expand a space. To camouflage a steep staircase, tack a horizontal-striped carpet runner on the treads and risers.

4. Ugly Views
You can't change your home's location, but you can help disguise the train tracks in the backyard or the factory across the street. Outside your home, plant a row of evergreen trees to hide the view (investing in more mature trees will give you immediate cover). Inside your home, hang curtains with bold patterns or colors. The bright curtains keep the eye focused on the home's interior instead of that unfortunate exterior view.

Is Overpaying Your Mortgage a Good Financial Strategy?

Most people pay the minimum amount due each month toward their mortgage, taking either 15 or 30 years to pay off the loan, depending on the original terms. However, if you can afford to pay more—even just a small amount—it can make a big difference in your finances.

Sending the Extra Money
One way to pay more money toward your mortgage is to slightly increase your monthly payment by $20-50. Simply add this amount to your check or online bill payment. This method is ideal because it allows you to be more flexible; for example, if you need that extra money for an unexpected expense, you're not committed to paying it toward your mortgage.

Another method you can use to pay more money toward your mortgage is to set up biweekly payments. In this scenario, you pay half of your mortgage every other week (this method is especially ideal if you are paid biweekly). Paying biweekly results in a full extra payment per year (26 half-payments per year equals 13 full payments).

It's important to note where the extra money goes when you overpay your mortgage. Each mortgage plan applies this money in different ways, which produces different results. If you apply the extra money to your principal balance, this helps you pay off the mortgage faster. However, some companies apply the extra money toward your next payment only, which means that you'll pay off the same amount of money over time. You should be able to tell the company where you want to apply your money, but don't assume that they're doing what you want.

Effects of Overpaying
When you pay extra toward the principal of your mortgage, you are decreasing the total amount of interest that you pay over the lifetime of the loan. Traditionally, when you make your payments during the first few years of the mortgage, the bulk of your payment goes toward interest rather than principal. Paying extra each month can save you thousands of dollars on your total cost over the full term of the loan.

Prepayment Penalties
One potential negative effect of overpaying your mortgage is having to pay a prepayment penalty. Certain mortgages have this type of clause to protect the bank from losing money. If you pay your loan off too quickly, you may have to pay extra money to the bank. It's usually still less than what you would have paid if you followed the loan terms. Check with your mortgage company about its policy on prepayment penalties.

Tips to Hire a Contractor You Can Trust for Home Repairs

Hiring a contractor can be a process fraught with anxiety. Take a few precautionary steps to ensure that you're getting a trustworthy contractor who does high-quality work.

1. Ask for Referrals
Reputable contractors do not knock on doors to solicit work. The best source of recommendations is talking to people who have had similar jobs done. This can be as simple as asking friends and neighbors if they can recommend someone.

2. Do a Background Check
Search the names of the contractor and the company online, and do searches adding words like scam and problems. Check sites like the local Better Business Bureau and Rip Off Report for complaints. Most states also have a website allowing you to check if a business is properly registered or if a person has a required license.

3. Get Estimates
Take the time to get several bids on the project. Watch out for red flags such as arriving late, appearing disorganized or dirty, and making a bid without looking closely at what the job involves. Take a pass on any contractor who cannot provide references, or who claims to have references but cannot provide contact information.

Be careful of bids that are a lot lower than the other bids; this is often a contractor who either plans to use substandard materials or who lacks the experience to fully understand what the job involves. Extreme low-ball contractors are also likely to attempt to add on expenses mid-project either because they planned a bait and switch or aren't making as much as they thought they would because they underestimated the costs.

4. Get a Contract
For all but the most simple jobs, the contractor should be willing to draw up a contract. The contract should state the scope of the job, the type of materials to be used and the payment schedule: including upfront deposit, interim payments for stages of work completed, and final payments. Be wary if the contractor pressures you to sign immediately; they should be willing to wait 24 hours for you to review the contract in detail, particularly for complex jobs.

5. Don't Pay Everything Up Front
Once the contract is signed, the main leverage that the customer has is the outstanding balance due to the contractor. A deposit before work begins is usual, but should not be more than 10 to 20 percent of the total fee. More may be required for custom orders as the contractor may have to pay for specially ordered materials, but commonly used materials and tools that can be used for other jobs are normally carried on the contractor's own account.

6. Check Their Work Before Final Payment
Make sure that the job is finished to complete satisfaction before handing over the final payment. Once the contractor has all the money in hand, there is less incentive for him to return and fix things.

What Americans Want In a Home: The Housing Satisfaction Gap

In a recent survey conducted by the Demand Institute, 10,000 households were asked if their current homes met their lists of must-haves. The survey found that many homeowners are going without some important features. Home buyers and renovators should take heed; these are the features that should be on every must-have list.

Energy Efficient ?
Spending on home electricity has climbed 56 percent since 2000, leading 71 percent of households to think energy efficiency is important. Yet only 35 percent are satisfied with their own home's energy efficiency. Homeowners are making simple improvements to save on energy, like changing bulbs to LEDs and sealing leaks around windows and doors.

Move-In Ready?
Since 2010, Americans have been spending more on home renovations-smart investments, since 67 percent of those surveyed felt a fully renovated home was important. Only 41 percent were satisfied with the repairs done on their own home; when asked which jobs they will be likely to tackle over the next five years, painting and replacing worn flooring topped the to-do list.

Upgraded Kitchens
Of all the rooms in a home, the kitchen comes out on top, with 62 percent of households declaring it an important space in their homes. Yet only 38 percent of households are happy with their current kitchens. Top-of-the-line appliances seem to be on many must-have lists, with 49 percent of homeowners thinking about purchasing a smart appliance.

Space and Privacy
Whether it's space around a home to afford a little privacy from neighbors or space inside a home for more storage, homeowners want more room. Privacy was important for 63 percent of the surveyed households, but only 42 percent were satisfied with the distance between their house and the neighbors. And while 55 percent felt storage space was important, only 35 percent felt they had enough room in their closets. Over the next few years, large single-family homes in suburban communities are expected to grow in popularity to meet the demand for more privacy and space.

Over the next five years, the number of households helmed by someone over 65 is expected to grow exponentially. These aging buyers place a greater emphasis on single-story, low-maintenance homes with accessible features. But many households feel their homes won't be compatible with their aging bodies; 76 percent think aging-in-place is important, but only 53 percent are satisfied with their home's ability to meet their future accessibility needs.

Good Investment
Despite the recent housing crisis, 65 percent of households still think a home is a good long-term investment. However, only 47 percent are happy with their current home, a group largely made up of renters; 53 percent of renters hope to purchase a home one day.

Spring Cleaning: An Organization Attack Plan for Your Home

Assessing your things, organizing your space and an overall clean will make your home seem new again and help set the tone for an organized lifestyle. Here are four steps that will help you get your house cleaned and organized.

1. Don't Set Yourself Up for Failure
Sometimes the best spring cleaners can be overzealous and think they can attack the house in one day and be done with it. Biting off more than you can chew can lead to frustration, burnout and scrapping the project altogether. Dedicate a few hours each evening, or a few hours over the weekend for cleaning. By working through your home bit by bit, you will be more successful at an overall clean over the course of a few weeks.

2. Clean One Area at a Time
Don't try to clear out everything in a whirlwind. Start in one area, say the dresser, work through it, and then move on. If you get started pulling out items from everywhere and cleaning with no plan, you can actually make more of a mess than when you started! An overall assessment to make sure items are where they should be to get started is okay, but otherwise try to focus on one area at a time.

3. Ask for Help
If you have a friend or family member that is an organization guru or just owes you a favor, ask them to help you as sometimes it is good to have a fresh pair of eyes to review your things. There might be items that you are holding on to that someone can honestly tell you need to go. If you are lacking motivation, having a set time that you have a helper can keep you on task and make you follow through with cleaning.

4. Have a Staging Area for Unwanted Items
A major point of cleaning and organizing is to get rid of things you no longer need. Rather than just hiding these items in the back of your closet, make sure that you have a functional system in place to store these items while cleaning. Set up boxes and bags in a designated spot, so as you move through the home, you can toss in items that you will be getting rid of. This way you'll be ready to toss out or donate things at the end of your project rather than hold on to items you don't really need.

6 Design Tips to Make Space in a Small Kitchen

With all of the different kitchen gadgets out there, it can be really easy to fill up even the largest of kitchens. A smaller kitchen requires that every bit of space be well organized so items don't end up stacked on the counters—especially when counter space is limited. With a little creativity and patience a small kitchen can accommodate all your stuff with room to spare. Here are some ideas to create more space in any kitchen.

Cabinets that Reach the Ceiling
There is a lot of wasted space above traditional kitchen cabinets. Having cabinets go all the way to the ceiling adds another level of storage. If changing the cabinets isn't an option, use the top of the cabinets to store rarely used items, like large bowls or small appliances. Just make sure to dust and clean up there so dirt doesn't pile up.

A Hanging Pot Rack
Going upward is often a great way to create more space. Pots and pans can be awkward when put in a drawer or on a shelf. Every time you need to use a pot, it's always the one on the bottom. Not only does a hanging pot rack eliminate this problem, it leaves shelf space open for something else.

Add Extra Shelves
You can buy shelves at most stores with kitchen departments. More shelves makes it easy to stack the small plates above the large plates. Or use them to stack small food items on top of each other. Extra shelves are great for using the height in your cabinets, which might otherwise be wasted space.

A Hutch
The cabinets in a small kitchen will fill up fast, so supplementing with a hutch or buffet can be a lifesaver. What goes into the hutch will depend on where you have space to put it. If it is in the kitchen, it can be great for food or dishes that are used regularly. But if it ends up in the dining room, storing your lesser used items such as canned goods or fancy dishes would be a better option.

A Lazy Susan
Corner cabinets can become a waste of space. A Lazy Susan makes a great use of space because everything is accessible. It may seem like more stuff can be piled into a normal shelf, but it gets way too frustrating to dig things out all the time. A Lazy Susan makes the corner shelf more usable because everything is easy to find.

Over the Sink Cutting Board
Having a cutting board that sits over your sink can give you a little more counter space. This comes in handy when you have run out of counter space and need to chop something up quickly. The edges of the cutting board are made so that it fits perfectly in the sink and is pretty solid. It's nice to have the option of putting out the cutting board to create a bit of space that wasn't there before.

If remodeling your kitchen isn't an option, using some of these design tips can make your small kitchen seem larger.

3 Reasons to Keep Your Home Listed During the Holidays

As the holidays approach, home sellers are often tempted to take their homes off the market until spring-or even wait until spring to list. After all, buyers are too busy now to search for houses, right? In a word, no. As a rule, you should list your home when you want to sell it, not when you think it will sell, because no one can predict with any certainty when the right buyer might show up at your door. In fact, canceling or postponing your listing may actually prove counterproductive. Here are three reasons why:

1. Motivated Buyers
Buyers who take time from their holiday preparations-and their holiday time off work-to house-hunt tend to be serious buyers who are ready to move. Although some buyers prefer to move in warmer weather, those who are relocating or who are purchasing upon expiration of their leases don't have a choice. Furthermore, buyers who have no children, and buyers already living in your school district, may not have a seasonal preference.

2. Less Competition
Winter inventories tend to decline, so the homes that are listed during the holiday months have less competition. And, as buyers hold off for lower prices and sellers hold off for higher ones, pent-up demand creates an urgency that can benefit holiday sellers.

3. Your Home is Already Staged
Despite temporary disarray when you're in the process of decorating for the holidays, your home looks more inviting than ever after the work is finished. The warm, festive atmosphere encourages prospective buyers to linger, as they imagine celebrating their own holidays there. If you're worried that showing requests might catch you off-guard, have a five-minute family clean-up each morning to prepare your home for the day. You also may alter your showing instructions to accommodate changes in your routine. Beyond that, leave the details to your agent as you enjoy the season and look forward to a successful sale.

Five Surprising Things that Don't Impact Your Credit Score

When becoming informed about what affects your credit score, it's just as important to know the things that don't have an impact on your credit score-either positive or negative-as it is to understand the factors that can help or hurt your credit. Here is a look at five things that surprisingly won't affect your credit rating.

1. Certain Monthly Payments
Paying your rent and utilities on time, won't help or hurt your credit. However, if you fall so far behind on payments that you are sent to a collections agency it will have a negative affect on your credit rating.

2. Bank Overdraft Fees
Accidentally charging too much on your debit card can be a pain when you consider the hefty fees that you incur, but it won't hurt your credit. Just like all your other bills, overdraft fees are only reported to the credit bureaus if they remain outstanding long enough to get sent to collections.

3. Income and Employment Status
As long as you are consistently able to repay your creditors, the bureaus that calculate your credit score don't care whether you make a lot of money-or if you're employed at all. Your income has no impact on your credit score, though prospective lenders will always verify your employment status on their own before considering you for a loan.

4. Age, Race, Sex, or Religion
Everyone knows that credit bureaus aren't allowed to discriminate based on factors like race, sex, or religion when factoring your scores. On the other hand, many consumers are surprised that age doesn't play a part because young people often have more difficulty obtaining credit cards and loans than older individuals. In fact, it's actually the length of your credit history that makes it easier for more experienced borrowers to secure credit; younger consumers usually don't have much credit history to bolster their scores.

5. Checking Your Own Credit
Many consumers have heard that too many inquiries into your credit can hurt your score. While it's true that too many inquiries into your credit from other people or companies can ding your credit, this does not apply if you are checking your own credit score. Most financial analysts will agree that you should check your credit rating regularly. By staying on top of your credit reports, you can catch any errors before they hurt your rating.

Spread The Word: Mortgage Rates Below 4%


Fixed-rate mortgages fell back near yearly lows again this week, lowering borrowing costs for home buyers and refinancers. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 3.99 percent this week, Freddie Mac reports in its weekly mortgage market survey.

"If you are planning to buy a home in the next year, it's better to do it sooner rather than later," Frank Nothaft, Freddie Mac's chief economist, said in the video commentary embedded here.

Freddie Mac reported the following national averages with mortgage rates for the week ending Nov. 20:

  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 3.99 percent, with an average 0.5 point, dropping from last week's 4.01 percent average. The 30-year fixed-rate mortgage dipped to 3.97 percent in mid-October, its lowest average so far this year.
  • 15-year fixed-rate mortgages averaged 3.17 percent, with an average 0.5 point, decreasing from last week's 3.2 percent average. A year ago, 15-year rates averaged 3.27 percent.
  • 5-year hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages averaged 3.01 percent, with an average 0.5 point, falling slightly from last week's 3.02 percent average. A year ago, 5-year ARMs averaged 2.95 percent.
  • 1-year ARMs averaged 2.44 percent, with an average 0.4 point, inching up slightly from last week's 2.43 percent average. Last year at this time, 1-year ARMs averaged 2.61 percent.

Source: Freddie Mac