Solar: So What?

As any homeowner knows, heating and cooling bills can top the charts during the height of summer and winter in many parts of the country. Homes that are well insulated can aid in keeping bills in line by helping to keep temperatures at a constant – but there are additional ways to tackle energy bills, and increasingly popular solutions include solar energy.

Depending on your climate and surrounding buildings, trees and topography, solar energy can be a resource that could be harnessed to lower your bill from the local electric company. In fact, many people are able to generate enough electricity and heat from the sun to power their home without the need for power from a utility company at all, and a few even manage to generate excess energy that they can sell back to the power company energy credits or for a profit.

Contrary to popular thought, solar energy is not just for dry desert climates. Northern regions where summer days are long and often sunny have a distinct advantage: solar panels operate more efficiently at cooler temperatures. While the diffuse light of a cloudy day will not generate as much energy, there is still some benefit seen. And climates that have rain will also see benefits to maintenance, as periodic rains can help clean the collection panels.

Passive solar homes use smart design and construction to capture energy from the sun and keep it within the home as heat when it is needed, and generally reject heat when it is not needed. With distinct features of southern windows and heat-gathering materials, passive solar homes don’t use mechanical systems to collect and convert energy into electricity, but rather use their environment to the best advantage and store heat in a thermal mass for distribution in the home over time.

However, most people who are considering solar as part of their energy profile are seeking to outfit a more traditionally designed and built home to take advantage of sunny days to produce electricity for diverse use. There are three popular “active” systems for using solar energy that are of importance to homeowners – the first and most obvious is the type of system that is intended to generate electricity. This system, comprised of Photovoltaic (PV) collection panels, tracking mounts to move the panels to follow the sun, inverters, switches, wiring systems, and meters that work together to create electricity that is usable in your home and by others on the power grid. The second system worthy of note is a solar hot water heating system. These systems enable homeowners to use the power of the sun to heat water used in showering and cleaning. And finally, there are also solar heating systems for heating the water in swimming pools.

To generate electricity, one of the biggest issues is where to mount the collection panels. In areas where land is at a premium, the roof is the obvious answer. Closest to the source of power (the sun) and usually unobstructed by trees, roof mounted panels can be unobtrusive and effective at the same time. However, professional installation is advised, and sometimes extra support is needed for the extra weight added to the roof. Often it is advised to replace the roof prior to installing the solar panels to reduce efforts later as the roof ages. If solar water heating is also being employed, a water tank would often be installed on the roof, close to the solar panels, resulting in even more weight. Again, these are often jobs that would be accomplished by professionals who understand the issues involved. Aesthetic issues may also be raised.

Solar energy systems begin at the very beginning – first steps include having a site assessment followed by a design and planning period. Professional installation is desirable due to the load on the roof and wiring and electrical issues. Savvy homeowners can do their own maintenance and monitoring, though check-ups by the professionals might result in higher efficiency.

There are some potentially off-putting financial considerations. Initial costs can be high, though State and Federal incentives and subsidies can bring them down. Choices during installation can be made that will lower the bill, so good planning up front will be a distinct advantage. Generally, it is wise to stick with simple, tried-and-true technology and a professional company with a good track record that specializes in sales and installation of quality products. Get recommendations and talk to homeowners who have been through the process as they can shed light on your concerns.

On the Federal level — homeowners can get a Residential Income Tax Credit of 30% of the total cost of an installed system. This incentive is available until 2016 and can be “carried over” each year until it’s used up, or until time is up, whichever comes first.

Some states offer no sales tax on solar installations, and even pay customers a base rate on the total energy produced by the system, regardless if it is used by the building or sold back to the grid.

There are arguments against solar: Photovoltaic (PV) panels are created using quite a bit of energy, and they do contain heavy metals (cadmium), so they should be disposed of properly at the end of their life cycle. However, if they are maintained well, that could be 25 or 30 years from now. Systems are also costly to install, even with governments making them less expensive through incentive programs. Be sure to look closely at the installation and warranties offered by those doing the work; warranties offered by companies that are small may be worthless if the business fails. Additionally, stay on top of industry trends and know what you are buying: not all solar panels are made with the same quality, and the new, thinner PV sheeting seems to break down more easily, shortening its useful life, so you might want to consider whether or not to use it.

In areas that are off grid, where solar systems are in use, there are also banks of lead-based batteries that serve as storage for power collected during daylight hours. These batteries are not environmentally friendly, and must be maintained and disposed of properly as well. These expensive panels of batteries may require replacement every 5 years. Solar water heating systems sometimes require the use of antifreeze in the system, which can be an environmental hazard so a good maintenance plan is desirable.

Know how to maintain your system and what to do in an emergency. Keeping panels free of debris, dirt and pollen will ensure maximum production and keep the panels from deterioration. Everyone in the home should know how to disconnect the system from the house in case of fire, and how to disconnect from the grid power as well.

A quality solar power system can provide many years of excellent service, reducing your electric bills, and enable you to be more self-sufficient. In addition to the benefits of lower power bills, homes that are efficient and whose owners have invested in quality systems are often valued at a higher rate. Remember to keep all records associated with the purchase, materials, installation, warranty and maintenance. As buyers become more familiar with the benefits and use of solar power, these systems can set your home apart and make a difference in the sale.

For additional information in understanding the basics of photovoltaic (PV) systems, is a helpful resource.


10 Tips for a Home that’s Safe and Sound

There is little that is more important than feeling secure in your own home. While we can only control a small bit of the world around us, here’s some basic information to keep a home safe.

The goal of securing your home is two-fold: protecting your possessions, but also protecting the people who live there. Security professionals advise “deter, detect and delay” tactics. These 10 tips cover a lot of ground, so keep them in mind and you will be well on the road to greater peace of mind.

Check your doors, windows and all locks: Deadbolts and secure, steel outer doors are important, as are secure windows that lock. A huge majority of burglaries are no-force entries, where culprits gain access to your home through an unlocked window or door, so check them frequently. Keep trees and shrubbery trimmed to prevent access to windows and decks on upper floors. If a door or window is in an out-of-the-way place that is easily accessible, consider securing it with bars or an outer security door. Simply placing a piece of wood in sliding glass doors or windows can prevent entry. Automatic garage door openers ensure that access to your garage is controlled. Studies show that the more difficult it is to enter the home, the greater the chances are that the burglar will move on.

Have adequate lighting: On the outside of your home, lighted entryways and flood lights with motion sensors ensure that everyone, including you and your neighbors can see who is entering your abode. However, care must be taken to replace burned out or disabled bulbs, and to place such that there is minimal annoyance to neighbors. Inside your home, ensure that there is adequate lighting so intruders are easily visible.

Create limited entries with a perimeter and gate: Gates and fences can provide a feeling of stable security or of paranoia, depending on how they are used. Tasteful fencing can create a feeling of “place” that provides a positive look and feel to your home, while also adding a deterrent and a delay to criminals. Limiting vehicular traffic to your property and creating barriers to individual entry make your valuables more difficult to remove, and cameras at these points of entry can more effectively capture any activity.

Be a friendly and observant neighbor: Neighborhoods with a “community watch” where each person is looking out for the next provide a sense of security. Generally people know each other and who lives where. This activity makes it easier to talk about crime and helps homeowners to solve problems. Let neighbors know that you are crime conscious, and encourage them to be so, too. Provide your neighbor with contact information if you are leaving on vacation so that they can be in touch should there be unusual or unexpected activity around your home.

Be discreet: While you do want neighbors to be informed to some degree, advertising more widely that you will be away from your home is less desirable. When seeking to find a house sitter or pet sitter, avoid advertising the dates of your travel. With an increase in social media and local email lists, people who are outside of your immediate circles could gain access to your plans and make use of that information.

Put on a good show: When you are going to be away from home for any period of time, one deterrent might be to make it look like someone is home. Often people who break in are simply looking to steal valuable items and prefer not to encounter people at all. Keep shades as they would normally be open or closed, and use timers to control lights and even music. Increasingly, “smart home” technology can enable homeowners to control the environment from a distance. Consider stopping deliveries or better yet, have someone stop by daily or stay in the home to pick up mail and newspapers, and to check on the house while you are gone.

Get a dog: In addition to companionship, a dog could be an excellent deterrent to a burglar. Barking serves as an alarm, helping to detect an intruder as well, but often seasoned criminals know how to deal with dogs by feeding them treats (sometimes laced with poison) or locking them in a room. Still, this added unknown might keep a less determined stranger away.

Get a security system: There are many types of systems with and without monitoring available. Some produce loud alarms that are designed to alert neighbors, others are silent and contact police. With the advent of inexpensive cameras, homeowners can set up video surveillance as well. While it is good to have a system in place and to post that a system is in use, beware of giving away too much information so that criminals don’t know which system they are dealing with. Typically these systems monitor entries, but many also include motion sensors. Using these systems requires some understanding on the part of the homeowners so that false alarms are not triggered. Also note, these systems require power to run, so during power outages unless there is a backup power source they will not be functional and other preventative steps will be required.

Get a safe: Using a home safe to secure valuables, guns and ammunition is an excellent idea. Consider using it to store important paperwork, like deeds, wills, other legal documents, social security cards, passports, as well as computer backups and photos. While safes are often quite heavy, ensure that they are bolted down so they might not be easily stolen in their entirety. Safes can also provide critical “delay time” – enabling police to arrive before the contents are looted.

Don’t leave your keys around: If a burglar sees a car in a garage or driveway and the keys are present, the temptation might be too much. In fact, you might be providing a vehicle to take more items than the burglar was intending to originally take! Keys to additional homes or properties are invitations, as well. Have a place for keys that is not well known or easily seen.

Having an eye for security can be like a game. The winning move is to create a home that provides you with a real feeling of security because you have addressed the issues. It isn’t paranoid to “think like a criminal” and imagine that your home is full of valuables. Take the time to follow these tips, and you can deter, detect, and delay crime in your home.

Romancing the Home: Love is in the Air

When searching for a home, it is easy to “fall in love” with a property. Before you put in that offer though, ask yourself can you BE in love in the house? How a home stacks up in the realm of romance might take top tier in some people’s list of priorities, but even if it doesn’t, issues like privacy, noise, temperature and certain amenities can definitely break up your love affair with a property.

Loving a home and being in love in a home can go together. Look at properties that are well designed and maintained, easy to live in, and that are in areas that foster a sense of sanctuary, enabling people to be at their best. Homeowners that are seeking to amp up the warm feelings of love in their environment can find ways to evaluate homes with their own “way of life” in mind.

Much of the romance of a home is in the ability to control the environment to fit and to create a mood. Some elements are malleable and can be enhanced with modifications of paint and furniture, additional lighting, and personal items. By spending a few dollars, you can add things that are missing or replace items that are broken, dated, or poorly conceived. However, other issues are more challenging and potentially cost prohibitive to correct: the size of rooms, older wiring systems that cannot support a modern load, too few bathrooms or placement of the home on the property.

When assessing a property, here are some features to consider:

Privacy – How much privacy do you require from intruders, viewers, even other occupants of your home? How does the “lay of the land” or other buildings affect the privacy of your property? Having an audience or being the main attraction can take the romance right out of the air. In addition to the view you see or provide, think about noise. Are you constantly listening to your neighbors’ conversations? Will they be hearing yours? Do children or frequent guests to your home affect the romantic atmosphere? Separation of spaces might be a useful filter in the evaluation of a home. And what about bathing, dressing? Ensure that everyone’s sense of privacy can be achieved.

View – Does it inspire, envelop, overlook, or make you a subject? Privacy issues aside, consider the views from different vantage points. What you see can enhance or detract from a romantic atmosphere, so pay attention to views room-to-room and in transitions around the home.

Amenities – Are there features of a home, or luxuries that might be incorporated in a home that aid your romantic sensibilities? Many people like hot tubs, luxury bathrooms, large bedrooms, saunas or the benefits of well stocked wine cellars. If the home is lacking, can you add it? If the amenities are there, are they making up for something lacking? Consider rating and ranking amenities that are present and that could be added later. If there is a perfect place for the most idealistic of dreams, this could be a selling feature of the home – but the item might not be there, yet.

Lighting, both natural and augmented, should provide what you want where you want it. Do you like a dark bedroom in the morning, or would the sunrise be a welcome view? How is the house oriented and how will the changing light affect different rooms? Are light fixtures adequate and up-to-date? Are lights able to be dimmed, allowing control over mood? Is there a fireplace for light and warmth, or a great place for a fire-pit outside?

Ventilation/Heating and Cooling -Temperate breezes through open windows can be quite enjoyable in the right environment. However, kitchen smells and other lingering odors can be a detractor and stifle any sense of ambience. Being able to control airflow and in turn to control temperature and olfactory stimulus can be a key factor in many climates, from hot to cold. Face it: there’s nothing enticing about the smell of stale air, being too hot or too cold.

Sound – Some sounds add to a feeling of tension or discontent. Systems that produce noise like heating or cooling systems, dishwashers, ventilation fans, even refrigerators can be noisy when running. Consider a trial run to understand the noise load if you are sensitive to such things. Outdoor noise may be out of a homeowner’s control, but some newer homes have made advances to keep unwanted noise out. The addition of built-in speakers and audio systems enables additional control over the environment. Creating sanctuaries that attract song birds or water features that mask the sounds of traffic are also creative ways to add romance to the home.

So in this Valentine’s season, ponder the romance of a home, the romance that happens in the home and the ability to make a home romantic.

Pets in the Mix: From Petrifying to Purrfect

A beautiful cat or friendly dog might be just the thing for you and your family. As members of the household, pets have a place in your home and your heart. But what about pets and all that go with them when you are buying or selling a home? In the case of a large investment such as buying or selling a property, addressing the topic of pets during this transaction is worthy of some sniffing out.

True animal lovers often have homes that are especially welcoming to animals and people alike. Homes that are set back from roads or traffic, or are close to dog parks or walking trails might have special appeal. Horse-properties are often fenced, have pasture land or barns, and storage for feed. Whether or not you have pets, if you are selling a property with these facets, you might have a winning angle for the right buyer. While real estate agents can promote these features, they want to do so without having to overcome pet odor and damage issues.

Unfortunately, there are also homes where pets “rule the roost” and the home is less appealing to people. When proper care is not taken, or the number of animals in the home outpaces the owner’s ability to adequately care for them, smells and other issues can become serious problems in the selling process.

Evaluating a home with regard to pets unlocks features and flaws in a home. The ability to open windows or gain access through a back door to a fenced yard or to a pet enclosure is not only useful for pets and people, but can be important in examining temperature, traffic, and utility of a potential home. Odors may indicate issues with airflow, potentially giving clues about heating and/or cooling. When allergens are present in the air, air conditioning can help take them out of circulation, making a home with central air conditioning very desirable.

In short, most homes will be primarily evaluated for people, so do the work beforehand to make your home people-friendly and as pet-neutral as possible. Most importantly, the homeowner should minimize the obvious signs of pets: food bowls and toys, scent, fur, feces, scratch-marks, carpet stains, and/or damage from digging or chewing. While it hardly seems fair, significant value may be lost if the home is perceived to be occupied or potentially damaged by animals – pets or wild ones. Not only is it important to rectify any issues that might be in the home presently, but during the duration of the showing and sale of a property; all pet matters must be kept in check. As a general rule, keep in mind that while people often love pets, they don’t always love yours.

Barking dogs, cats that shed excessively, and animals that could cause harm are deterrents to the welcoming feel most people desire when they come to see a property. Additionally, “pet furniture” can detract from a home, or make it memorable in ways that are not conducive to a sale. Instead, remove that well-worn chair or cat tree that presents an “in-your-face” distraction from more positive aspects of the home itself. Consider “doggy daycare” or boarding your pet elsewhere if there is concern that the presence of a pet could detract from the viewing experience.

Always alert the showing agent of the presence of a pet. Ensure that there are arrangements in place for animals that require special attention, and keep up on pet chores that enhance the home’s appeal. While it might be unrealistic to get every hair, work to minimize attention to it by vacuuming often and removing potentially offensive items like well-worn pet beds and blankets during showings. Have your pet bathed and groomed frequently during this time period to reduce pet odors and ensure that all shots, ID tags, and licenses are up-to-date in the event of an accidental release.

Similarly, if you are seeking a property that is especially free of allergens, or inversely, especially good for a certain pet – real estate agents know what to look for. Be sure to check out laundry rooms, basements and garages as these are common places where pets may spend lots of time, and could provide useful clues regarding the successes and failures of a pet’s presence in a home.

There are key chores that must be accomplished by the homeowner prior to selling it, if a pet has been present:

Check for outside damage to landscape, porches, decks and lawn. Ensure that holes are filled, scratched or chewed wood are fixed, fences are in good repair and painted when appropriate, and that plants don’t show evidence of pets. If a pet scratches to come in, repair any marks on the front and back door or screens. Nothing can fix a bad first impression.

Moving indoors, check for scratches, chewing, and paint damage that come from pets walking, rubbing, or otherwise using the home. Paint, clean or repairs items as needed. Removal of furniture that reveals the presence of animals should be considered. Stained carpets should be professionally cleaned or removed, as pet “accidents” can be absorbed into carpet pad and odors remain. Again, check doors, molding or areas where grime, hair, scratching or chewing appears. Consider this “detailing” your home as you would a car.

Clean air ducts and filters in the home’s HVAC system to ensure that odors are not being circulated throughout the home and that it is working properly, free of pet hair. Pet odors are the biggest offense, and must be removed; this might require the replacing of flooring or sheetrock in some cases. Professionally cleaning concrete floors in garages or basements that have housed pets is a great idea to remove odors. In cases where rodents have damaged insulation in crawl spaces, replacement may be necessary.

When pets are in the mix and a home is for sale, it is essential to consider a pet’s happiness, safety, and effect that they might have on people viewing the home. Creative solutions can be difficult to come by. Few people have the luxury of obtaining a new home prior to selling their residence and removing pets entirely from the home that is for sale. If a pet absolutely cannot be removed from the home, consider crate-training, which might also aid in the relocation process in the future, or limiting a pet to a confined space. No question about it – selling or buying a home with pets in mind adds a dimension to the process. Paying attention to these details can seem overwhelming, but the value of a home depends on it. Purrfectly so.

The Real Value of a Renovation

When evaluating a home that has been renovated one or more times, there are many ways to proceed. Establishing the value placed on a renovation requires some knowledge and looking so that you can understand pricing of a home. In this arena, real estate agents and home inspectors can be incredible assets as they have seen many, many homes and understand the market and condition of a house with a very keen perspective. In some cases, the buyer will be considering a renovation of their own, so understanding what has been done already will be useful in determining the direction and scope of the work at hand.

The price of a home is essentially that which the seller is willing to accept. The value of renovations may or may not affect the offer, but the utility and quality of the renovation could swing a buyer’s preference for the home. One important factor to remember is that the value of the renovation is not only received from the potentially higher sale price, but also in the enjoyment over time of the renovated home. This variable is more difficult to assess, and may be esoteric in nature, but most quality renovations are worth doing as soon as possible so that this additional “enjoyment factor” can increase the true value of the efforts of renovation.

However, renovations can be expensive, time consuming, and inconvenient to the homeowner while they are being achieved. Many people who are not prepared for this suffer undue stress in their lives and relationships, and this cost is impossible to calculate. While the renovation may improve the value and enjoyment of the home, a deeper understanding of the market and a certain degree of luck combine to ensure that the sale price of the home will cover or exceed the cost of the renovation.

The fundamental hope is that the money put into a renovation results in an increase in the sale price. Often renovations are needed to simply bring a home up to the value and standards of other homes in the vicinity. Completing major renovations to put a home on the market may be attractive if the buyer is seeking to “flip the home” – that is buying an under-valued property, repairing it, and selling it at a profit. However, homeowners that are simply improving their own living space frequently run the risk of going over budget and over-valuing the work.

The key to evaluating a renovation is understanding that balancing act behind the end result – what was achieved, how was it achieved, by whom was the work done, and with what materials. The budget, time and inconvenience, and the enjoyment of the renovation – along with understanding the market and the scope of the renovation all become part of the equation in determining its worth.

How far did the renovation go? When all the fixtures and tile in that aging bathroom were replaced, did the owners replace the electrical wiring and water pipes, too? What are the pipes made out of? Copper or PVC, and what was the rationale? Ask the right questions and verify the answers during inspection to ensure that the project was completed as you expect it to be. If the wiring and pipes were in excellent condition and did not require replacement it is just fine to leave things alone. The key is to ensure that what was needed was actually accomplished. Doing too much or too little can cause a project to fail in the ultimate goal: to actually improve the home.

The Best of the Best

Workmanship – a job well done, whether by yourself or a hired professional, shows. Whether the job is cosmetic or a deeper fix, the work should be of high quality.

Design – well thought out and beautiful, with attention to use, style, scale, and materials; a great design can add the most value to the renovation.

Utility – the more something is used and enjoyed, the more the renovation is worth. Improved access, storage, or other everyday needs is among the most valuable work you can have done. When doorways, stairs or other access points get renovated – check for scale and materials that are user-friendly. Ensure that people can pass each other and that furniture can move where it is needed. Renovations that are difficult to use are a failure.

Lighting – lighting fixtures can be expensive and are very subjective. Consult with a lighting designer and use bright lights that are recessed and well-placed. Avoid the expensive, over-the-top dining room chandelier unless the intention is to use it for years.

Electrical/Plumbing – while not a “sexy” renovation, knowing that the two greatest conveniences of modern living are up-to-date and functioning well is a huge benefit to a homeowner. Document all repairs and renovations and keep the information on hand to show the quality of the work, since it is hidden behind walls and more difficult to assess.

Roof/Foundation/Windows – like electrical and plumbing, renovations that include improvements to a roof, windows or a foundation can add a measure of security as well as immediate and tangible value to a home. Preventing water damage and maintaining the structural integrity of the home is of the highest concern. Ensuring that quality work is done with an eye towards the style of the home is paramount in getting the highest return on this investment.

Kitchen/Bathroom/Basement/Garage – creating MORE timeless and classic space that is used frequently gets the most return in resale value. Storage is king in any of these spaces, but it should be useful and accessible.

Worse than Bad

Conversely, poorly designed renovations, including poor stylistic or configuration choices, shoddy workmanship or materials can deter a buyer or render your own renovation a failure. Avoid the trap of using the wrong materials: fixtures that are too big, or obviously bought because they were on sale/seconds, using the wrong windows, or inadequate materials for the project that won’t hold up in the locale or manner of use.

Fad renovations often lack long-term usability; that disco playroom or man-cave may look cool, but updating it again in a few years may be impractical. Everyone loves a steam room, sauna, billiard room or workout room, but maintenance and upkeep might make it less attractive. Furthermore, repurposing a bedroom or garage for a renovation of this sort removes spaces that future owners may find vital, so this further jeopardizes return on the investment.

Some renovations don’t go far enough. Redoing the kitchen or a bathroom without updating the wiring is an example of this. Putting in a bedroom, but failing to make it big enough or to follow the building code, is another example. Seek to find renovations that provide a lot of utility for the dollar, while accomplishing all that is actually required. If you really can’t afford to renovate, perhaps waiting is a better idea.

We all know when something is, “Just a little ‘off’.” One of the worst things is a great idea, done well and with fine materials, that just misses the mark; perhaps there is a corner that always gets in the way or that constantly causes someone to get hurt, or maybe it is a cabinet that opens in the wrong direction. Measurements that are off and made right with a work-around, all of these “little things” end up making a good thing into a frustration.

Don’t bash a lot of bedrooms. Converting a little-used bedroom to an office is one thing, but build-ins can diminish the ability to use the room as a bedroom again, potentially limiting the use of the room in the future. Consider carefully before repurposing a bedroom in a manner that limits the future utility of the space. The number of bedrooms in a home greatly influences the home’s value. At the same time, putting an extra bedroom in a basement is often a mediocre idea. Code requires two points of egress – a door and usually a window with very specific requirements, which may be expensive. Additionally, basement bedrooms are often unattractive spaces that require special attention to ensure they are not cold and dark.

Hiring Help: From “How To” to “Hurrah!”

Whether you are in over your head or juggling too many tasks, hiring help can be a great idea. Projects can benefit from specialized expertise, more work can be accomplished at one time, and as a homeowner you can step back from the tasks at hand to get a wider perspective. The time and energy you save may more than offset the expense.

However, trouble ensues when the wrong help is hired. Establishing what you want to accomplish is essential, so size things up thoroughly. When looking at a specific project or problem, you might benefit from having a few people look at it and offer ideas of how they might approach a solution. Sometimes the first ideas are not the best, and as you look at issues, new priorities emerge. Are you looking for an interim fix that will carry you through until you can “do it right”? What is the scale of the project and is the cost/benefit in line with your budget and goals? Asking the right questions will help you gain insight into the true nature of what you are doing.

For example, let’s say that you have three projects at hand:

  1. You need cosmetic fixes to your guest bathroom.
  2. The deck that is central to your summer enjoyment is rotting and requiring a lot of time and attention so that it can be used safely.
  3. Your septic system is failing.

How do you begin to find help for these projects? You might begin by understanding the level of help that you need. Do you want to supervise or do only a portion of the work? Do you need a handyman or general laborer? What are the benefits of getting someone more skilled with the type of help you require? What is the scope of the project? Will there be permitting/inspections involved with the project? Who is going to manage the project?

A failing septic system becomes a health risk, and often requires sign-off by a licensed professional. Deck projects can fall into a grey area, but when incorrectly built could pose a major safety issue. When in doubt, inquire with your local building authority so that you are certain that you are following the correct course of action, and getting the permits and inspections that are required by law.

Get referrals: Rather than trust your job to luck, find out if friends or family have used a person or service that they would recommend. Many online resources exist to help see the consumer ratings for businesses, but this information could be less than reliable, so check it thoroughly. Look for workers or service providers that are licensed, bonded and insured as protection for both parties should an accident occur on site, or problems with the project later incur liability. Licensure ensures a level of knowledge in an area, and insurance and bonding ensures that there are financial resources available should you need to bring a lawsuit against the service provider that requires a monetary settlement or costly repairs. Yes, you might be paying more for a professional with these credentials, but in the long run, it is worth it when working on any project where money or safety is at stake.


Check those references! Yes, actually talk to people who have previously received services. Find out the details: Was the project finished in a timely manner, within budget, with quality work and materials? How was the communication? Were there surprises, and how were they handled? Was the area cleaned up to satisfaction? In the event that there was a problem after the work was complete, how was that handled? Check with the state department of licensing to see if there have been violations or lawsuits against an individual or company, and the Better Business Bureau can help determine if there have been complaints filed against the business. Look at samples of their work — and talk to those whose projects have been shown. If you find someone great, let them know you might have more work — and find out who they might recommend if they were not available!

Face Value: Meet with the handyman or service provider and get a feel for how things might go if you hired them. If it seems difficult to discuss the project or work prior to beginning, imagine how things might go if the work gets challenging. Even if others recommend this person or service, you are the one who will be dealing with them now, so size them up for yourself.

The Devil is in the Details: Get written estimates and contracts. Understand how payment is expected. Some short jobs are accomplished with no payment up front, other jobs require that materials are paid for as delivered, and some providers require some payment prior to the beginning of work. Arrangements that allow for payment once the job is completed, ensure that the customer has some feeling of control over the job being completed to their satisfaction. Be certain that estimates and guarantees are in writing so that there is clear communication about expectations.

Level 1: Your Local Handyman

Finding a handyman is like searching for gold. When you find a good one, it is tempting to keep it a secret — after all, this is a resource you can depend upon for fixes all over the home. From fixing cupboard doors to replacing the grout in the bathroom (project #1), a great handyman who is available, can communicate well, is capable of a wide variety of jobs, who can trouble-shoot and think “outside the box” is worth quite a lot. The great thing about hiring a handyman is that they are paid by the hour (plus materials), and you can save up a list of smaller jobs that you would like to accomplish.

Often, local handymen who are in business for themselves are not licensed, bonded or insured — so they charge less, but there is a level of risk in using them that you will have to judge for yourself. Some companies provide handyman services, where the business ensures that there is proper insurance and bonding, but they are usually higher in cost to the consumer.

Level 2: A Dedicated Service Provider

If you are working on project #2, the deck, and you want it done quickly, you might opt to call in a decking company. Specialization allows for a greater understanding of options, sometimes better, more specific tools that make for efficiency in work, and often allows for a tighter schedule. After all, when a company focuses on a specific project, they know how long things take, they often have materials on hand, and they know where unexpected problems might occur. While the cards sometimes seem stacked in the company’s favor, the customer benefits from the expertise and experience of this specialized provider. Projects are usually bid by the job, taking the average hours into account and the specific materials needed to accomplish the job. Bids and estimates should be discussed in advance so both parties are aware of their binding nature. Understand how overruns or changes to the terms of the contract will be handled.

Level 3: Hire a Contractor/Project Manager


Some projects are just plain BIG. Say that deck project where you thought you were just going to replace a few boards reveals that the entire supporting system is rotten and a tear-down is needed. While you are at it, you decide to expand the deck, requiring some grading, and then you discover a crack in the foundation of your home that you couldn’t see because of the deck. You just might decide to hire a contractor who can do it all and stand by the work.

Contractors who understand building from the ground up, and who are familiar with the permitting process can save you a lot of headaches. Of course they charge the most, but they understand workflow and can schedule laborers to work concurrently. They are likely to be licensed, insured, and bonded. Additionally, project #3, the failing septic system, might require someone who is able to understand and follow highly specific plans, submit reports and answer questions of inspectors. A general contractor might be just right for the job.

Again, understanding the job, the process of work, materials acquisition, billing and payment cycles and other details will require a high level of communication and written documentation. Before settling on your contractor, get fully clear on the work to be done and be prepared for the help that you are hiring to be in your life for the duration of the job.

Hiring help does get easier. The more projects you do and the more providers that you contact, the more your skills and network grow. Hiring help is actually a talent, and the more you do it, the better you get at finding the right providers. Having a checklist, gathering information and keeping organized as you gain information and understanding of your options ensures that the help you get is the help you really need. Your job of hiring the best help possible begins the process, and taking the time to hire great help will leave you celebrating a fantastic finished project.

Fall Fixes NOT to Nix

While spring may be the time for cleaning, fall is surely the time for fixing. Simple improvements can save money in utility bills as well as prevent costly repairs in the future. Like a well-played game of football, the homeowner needs a good playbook to get ahead in the game. The trick is, by the time it is October many areas might be into the first quarter — well on the way to frigid temperatures – so prioritize and use this valuable time to the best advantage.

Play it Safe

A good bet is “Safety First.” Start simple: look at entrances and exits in and around the home and consider how they may be affected by the change in seasons. Look at safety issues around moisture, temperature and light. Are there areas that are particularly dark that need more lighting? Would motion-sensitive or timed lighting options be beneficial? Are there areas where debris collects and creates a safety hazard? Identify issues and resolve them now to minimize risk of injury later.

During fall and winter months pathways, entrances and exits can become compromised. Sometimes the paths or stairways might become slick with ice, snow, water, leaves or even moss or algae growth. Be sure to clear and clean these areas, making repairs to cracked or uneven walkways, securing loose boards, ensuring safe passage. Additionally, having a place for shoes and gear when people enter a home so entrances and exits remain clear can prevent unnecessary trips and falls. In cooler climates, this is a good time to create space in hall closets for bulkier coats and to put out the umbrella stand. Perhaps providing a basket for gloves and a tray for wet shoes and boots, along with an absorbent entry mat to ensure that surrounding floors don’t become wet and slick.

Fall is an ideal time to clean gutters ensuring that water will not build up and overflow and either puddle or freeze. Additionally, while the ladder is out, look at the eaves and assess the roof. Look for signs that wildlife might have tried to gain access, and consider putting up hooks for holiday lights – after all, the ladder is out, and holiday lights will provide more light around the home in the dark months. Change any burnt out or flickering bulbs in outdoor areas, putting in energy saving bulbs so that lights may be left on longer without regard to cost.

In areas prone to snowfall, ensure that supplies are stocked and functional. Snow shovels should not be buried behind all of the items accessed since last winter. A snow blower should be checked to see that it is in working order. Consider stores of sand and/or salt or kitty litter to help melt ice or gain traction. Any generators should be in good working order with fresh fuel that is properly stored.

Conserving Energy

Fixing anything to do with climate control is like getting first pick of the best players – it’s money in the bank. Many homeowners attend to issues around heating as a means of saving money on energy bills – and rightfully so. In many areas, heat is typically one of the largest winter expenses. The trick is to minimize drafts and to utilize the heat as effectively as possible. Begin by checking attic insulation levels and fill gaps with insulation appropriate for your climate.

Next, windows and doors with cracked or broken glass or that are poorly sealed should be fixed. Additionally, if the seals at the bottom of exterior doors are not tight, consider replacing thresholds and/or door bottoms. Weather stripping is inexpensive and easy to install along the top and sides of doors. Interior doors may benefit from “draft dodgers” that stop air from cooler rooms from coming under the door, especially consider doors to basements and garages.

Get that furnace or heat pump serviced, clean or change any filters, and ensure that all thermostats are in working order. Consider installing a programmable thermostat to optimize your energy consumption. Additionally, heating hot water and keeping it warm is a big energy draw. Ensure that the hot water heater is working well and that it is insulated if it is located in a cold location.

Woodstoves and chimneys should be clean and ready for use – employ a chimney sweep to check and clean them. Creosote build-up or debris from animals can start a fire in the chimney or stovepipe, which could ignite the roof.

Drying clothes in a dryer also consumes a high level of energy. In cool and damp climates dryer vents tend to collect lint and may become clogged, making these machines much less efficient. Cleaning dryers thoroughly with a lint brush can also prevent fires from starting.

Rain, Snow and Going with the Flow

Regardless of temperature, water is one of the most damaging influences in a home. It can impact foundations, floors and walls, and introduce mold into the structure. Many areas experience increased precipitation in the fall and winter months which can open the door to unnecessary problems if preventative steps have not been taken.

Visually inspect the roof for signs of damaged shingles and repair them prior to a leak. Check and clean skylights, inspecting the flashing and clearing leaves and debris. When cleaning gutters, remember that it is also important to see that water is directed efficiently away from the foundation, so be sure to install drainpipe extensions or other solutions that move water away from the foundation. And, not all water may be coming from the roof. Survey the area around the foundation for signs of standing water or run-off that brings water close to the house, driveway or walkways. In some cases changing the flow of water that comes onto a property might include installing a curtain drain or other water management plan.

Protecting water pipes within the home is of key importance. If pipes freeze they may crack and leak, causing extensive damage throughout the home. Ensure that hose bibs are covered and that pipes in cooler areas of the home are protected with insulation or heat tape. In climates that are prone to winter storms or hurricanes, consider storm windows or shutters. If the home is in a low-lying area and has a basement, consider keeping a sump pump on hand in the event of a flooded basement.

Take a good look at the paved areas. Repairing small cracks and holes in driveways and walkways in the fall will ensure that freezing water will not penetrate the asphalt or concrete and cause further damage.

Engage the Grounds Crew

Fall is a great time to tackle the vines that might be climbing a home, ruining the mortar between bricks or damaging the wood siding. Climbing vines hold moisture against walls which can rot wood clapboards, and the moisture can cause swelling of the wood and further damage when vines get between boards. Cut these vines back or remove them at the root.

This is also a great time to trim those hedges or trees that might be potentially threaten the home or power lines if they fell. Trees that hang over roofs should be removed so that they don’t provide a bridge for small animals to get onto the roof, as well as to protect from damage should branches break and fall.

Pest Control: Defense or Offense?

During cooler months, it is common for wildlife to want to move in to a home for warmth and shelter. Teams of mice and rats, squirrels and other animals can do damage to insulation and wiring, create unclean living situations, contaminate food, and keep people up at night with scratching and scampering. Carefully inspect possible sources of entry in the fall months and seal up any places where pests might gain access to the home.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has vast information about preventing and resolving rodent infestations. They recommend looking for any evidence of uninvited guests and possible access from inside the home in the following locations:

  • Inside, under, and behind kitchen cabinets, refrigerators and stoves
  • Inside closets near the floor corners
  • Around the fireplace
  • Around doors
  • Around the pipes under sinks and washing machines
  • Around the pipes going to hot water heaters and furnaces
  • Around floor vents and dryer vents
  • Inside the attic
  • In the basement or crawl space
  • In the basement and laundry room floor drains
  • Between the floor and wall juncture

The CDC also recommends checking the following areas outside the home:

  • In the roof among the rafters, gables, and eaves
  • Around windows
  • Around doors
  • Around the foundation
  • Attic vents and crawl space vents
  • Under doors
  • Around holes for electrical, plumbing, cable, and gas lines

Defend the home by filling holes with steel wool, held in place with caulk. Squirrels and raccoons require larger holes and do even more damage, so cover larger holes with lath screen, metal, cement or hardware cloth to stop entry into the building.

Assess the perimeters of buildings, inside and out, sweeping and raking debris away from walls. Remove woodpiles and leaves from around buildings. These areas are prime habitat for rodents and other pests, including termites and carpenter ants. In areas where problems persist, take the offense. Trapping or baiting with poison may be advised. Larger infestations may require the attention of trained professionals for control and cleanup.

Surefire Storage

Finally, when checking to ensure that the home is equipped with emergency supplies for seasonal storms, assess both the items stored and the storage area itself. Move seasonal items to where they will better serve in an emergency.

Storage areas often are taken for granted, sometimes becoming damp or wet, or experiencing wide ranging temperatures. Consider making changes that might benefit the area including heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and moisture control. Replace containers that are damaged or non-functional, and ensure that stored items are not in the way of heaters (a fire hazard) or entrances and exits. When storing items in a place that might be blocked as the result of stormy weather, be certain to have a plan for getting in should the need arise.

The End Zone

Making fall fixes part of an annual cycle ensures that a home is in healthy working order and ready to play the rest of the year; it is easy to see how simple preventative measures can pay off in the end. And like fall football – the best defense against trouble in the future is a good offense right now.