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Inspect windows and doors regularly to stop air leaks and water seeps that create high energy and repair bills. We’ll show you how.
Big picture inspection
A home air pressure test sucks air into the house to reveal air leaks that increase your energy bills. To inspect windows and other openings:
- Seal the house by locking all doors, windows, skylights, and shutting all vents.
- Close all dampers and vents.
- Turn on all kitchen and bath exhaust fans.
- Pass a burning incense stick along all openings–windows, doors, fireplaces, outlets–to pinpoint air rushing in from the outside.
Windows and the outside world
Air and water can seep into closed widows from gaps and rot in frames, deteriorating caulking, cracked glass, and closures that don’t fully close.
To stop air leaks, pinpoint window problems.
- Give a little shake. If they rattle, frames are not secure, so heat and air conditioning can leak out and rain can seep in. Some caulk and a few nails into surrounding framing will fix this.
- Look deep. If you can see the outside from around–not through–the window, you’ve got gaps. Stop air leaks by caulking and weather stripping around frames.
- Inspect window panes for cracks.
- Check locks. Make sure double-hung windows slide smoothly up and down. If not, run a knife around the frame and sash to loosen any dried paint. Tighten cranks on casement windows and check that top locks fully grab latches.
- Check doors for cracks that weaken their ability to stop air leaks and water seeps.
- Inspect weather stripping for peels and gaps.
- Make sure hinges are tight and doors fit securely in their thresholds.
Brown stains on walls under a skylight are telltale signs that water is invading and air is escaping. Cut a small hole in the stained drywall to check for wetness, which would indicate rot, or gaps in the skylight.
To investigate skylight leaks, carefully climb on the roof and look for the following:
- Open seams between flashing or shingles.
- Shingle debris that allows water to collect on roofs.
- Failed and/or cracked cement patches put down the last time the skylight leaked.
“It’s the little things that tend to trip up people,” says Frank Lesh, former president of the American Society of Home Inspectors and owner of Home Sweet Home Inspection Co. in Chicago. “Some cracked caulk around the windows, or maybe a furnace filter that hasn’t been changed in awhile. It may not seem like much, but behind that caulk, water could get into your sheathing, causing mold and rot. Before you know it, you’re looking at a $5,000 repair that could have been prevented by a $4 tube of caulk and a half hour of your time.”
Maintenance affects property value
Outright damage to your house is just one of the consequences of neglected maintenance. Without regular upkeep, overall property values are affected.
“If a house is in worn condition and shows a lack of preventative maintenance, the property could easily lose 10% of its appraised value,” says Mack Strickland, a professional appraiser and real estate agent in Chester, Va. “That could translate into a $15,000 or $20,000 adjustment.”
In addition, a house with chipped, fading paint, sagging gutters, and worn carpeting faces an uphill battle when it comes time to sell. Not only is it at a disadvantage in comparison with other similar homes that might be for sale in the neighborhood, but a shaggy appearance is bound to turn off prospective buyers and depress the selling price.
“It’s simple marketing principles,” says Strickland. “First impressions mean a lot to price support.”
Prolonging economic age
To a professional appraiser, diligent maintenance doesn’t translate into higher property valuations the way that improvements, upgrades, and appreciation all increase a home’s worth. But good maintenance does affect an appraiser’s estimate of a property’s economic age—the number of years that a house is expected to survive.
Economic age is a key factor in helping appraisers determine depreciation—the rate at which a house is losing value. A well-maintained house with a long, healthy economic age depreciates at a much slower rate than a poorly maintained house, helping to preserve value.
Estimating the value of maintenance
Although professional appraisers don’t assign a positive value to home maintenance, there are indications that maintenance is not just about preventing little problems from becoming larger. A study by researchers at the University of Connecticut and Syracuse University suggests that maintenance actually increases the value of a house by about 1% each year, meaning that getting off the couch and heading outside with a caulking gun is more than simply a chore—it actually makes money.
“It’s like going to the gym,” says Dr. John P. Harding, Professor of Finance & Real Estate at UConn’s School of Business and an author of the study. “You have to put in the effort to see the results. In that respect, people and houses are somewhat similar—the older (they are), the more work is needed.”
Harding notes that the 1% gain in valuation usually is offset by the ongoing cost of maintenance. “Simply put,” he says, “maintenance costs money, so it’s probably best to say that the net effect of regular maintenance is to slow the rate of depreciation.”
How much does maintenance cost?
How much money is required for annual maintenance varies. Some years, routine tasks, such as cleaning gutters and changing furnace filters, are all that’s needed, and your total expenditures may be a few hundred dollars. Other years may include major replacements, such as a new roof, at a cost of $10,000 or more.
Over time, annual maintenance costs average more than $3,300, according to data from the U.S. Census. Various lending institutions, such as Directors Credit Union and LendingTree.com, agree, placing maintenance costs at 1% to 3% of initial house price. That means owners of a $200,000 house should plan to budget $2,000 to $6,000 per year for ongoing upkeep and replacements.
Proactive maintenance strategies
Knowing these average costs can help homeowners be prepared, says Melanie McLane, a professional appraiser and real estate agent in Williamsport, Pa. “It’s called reserve for replacements,” says McLane. “Commercial real estate investors use it to make sure they have enough cash on hand for replacing systems and materials.”
McLane suggests a similar strategy for homeowners, setting aside a cash reserve that’s used strictly for home repair and maintenance. That way, routine upkeep is a snap and any significant replacements won’t blindside the family budget. McLane’s other strategies include:
Play offense, not defense. Proactive maintenance is key to preventing small problems from becoming big issues. Take the initiative with regular inspections. Create and faithfully follow a maintenance schedule. If you’re unsure of what needs to be done, a $200 to $300 visit from a professional inspector can be invaluable in pointing out quick fixes and potential problems.
Plan a room-per-year redo. “Pick a different room every year and go through it, fixing and improving as you go,” says McLane. “That helps keep maintenance fun and interesting.”
Keep track. “Having a notebook of all your maintenance and upgrades, along with receipts, is a powerful tool when it comes to sell your home,” advises McLane. “It gets rid of any doubts for the buyer, and it says you are a meticulous, caring homeowner.” A maintenance record also proves repairs and replacements for systems, such as wiring and plumbing, which might not be readily apparent.
First, understand the threats
Blizzards. Storms with heavy winds and large amounts of snow accumulation can cause roof or other structural damage and leave you isolated.
Ice storms and ice dams. Ice storms coat structures, trees, power lines, cars, roads—and virtually everything else—with ice. As the ice melts, large chunks can fall and cause injury to anyone below. When ice melts during the day and then re-freezes at night, ice dams, which block water from flowing in the gutter, may form. This condition can force water back under the roof line and cause leaks.
Sleet or freezing rain. Combinations of snow and freezing rain may cause slippery conditions and coat roads, sidewalks, and driveways with ice when temperatures drop.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that home owners have shovels on hand, as well as melting agents, such as rock salt. Some of the new, more environmentally friendly deicers include calcium magnesium acetate and sand to improve traction. Be sure to stock up early in the season, as these agents tend to be in short supply during periods before a well-publicized storm.
FEMA also advises you have enough fuel to maintain heat in your home, as well as a backup heating source: firewood if the home has a working fireplace, or a generator to power heaters in case of power failure. However, use caution as these can represent fire hazards when not used correctly. Be sure to follow directions explicitly and keep a fire extinguisher. Some generators and fireplaces also require proper ventilation, according to the Institute for Business and Home Safety, so follow directions carefully and keep them away from curtains or other flammable items.
Stock up on extra blankets, warm clothing, and enough food and water to sustain your family in case of a few days of isolation. And a transistor radio with fresh batteries can help keep you updated on news and information in case of a power outage.
Protect your home
Before winter, there are some precautions you can take to protect your home from the ravages of cold weather storms:
Winterize your home. Check shutters, siding, and other exterior materials to ensure they’re secure, says retired contractor and home improvement expert and writer John Wilder of Jacksonville, Fla. High winds, ice, and moisture from winter storms can easily strip off such outside elements if they’re loose.
Be sure that gutters are clear of debris and that walkways are even and don’t represent tripping hazards that can be exacerbated with snow or ice. Caulk drafty windows and apply weather stripping to doors—both inexpensive strategies that can keep heat in your home. Air sealing can help you save about $350 in energy costs or one-third of your average annual heating and cooling costs. The average annual home energy bill is about $2,200, according to Energy Star, of which about $1,000 represents heating and cooling. An assortment of air sealing materials and tools, including silicone foam, caulk, aluminum flashing for flues, and additional insulation, will run roughly $100-$350.
Watch your roof. Consider roof heating cables to prevent ice dams on roofs and in gutters, Wilder recommends. They emit a low level of electric-powered heat and prevent ice from blocking gutters and downspouts. These cables can also help melt snow as it falls and help prevent it from accumulating on your roof, where its weight may cause damage.
The cable costs approximately $50-$100 for a 65 to 100 ft. package and can be purchased online or at home improvement retailers. Well-ventilated attics, which release warm air and melt ice, can reduce the risk of ice dams as well, according to the Institute.
Winterize pipes. Be sure your pipes, especially those exposed or in unheated areas like crawl spaces, are wrapped in insulation to prevent freezing and bursting. Also, learn where your water shut-off valves are so you can turn off the water supply in case of a leak. Six feet of insulation can cost anywhere from $7 to $17; it’s available at most home improvement stores.
Trim tree branches. Branches that overhang roofs or areas where you park your car—or which are simply overgrown—represent a risk to structures, vehicles, and people. Keep trees trimmed and remove those that are weak or sickly to prevent them from falling on or near your home. Tree trimming and removal pricing varies greatly, and you may have additional restrictions if you live in an historic community or if the trees are close to power lines.
Check with your municipality about any regulations and contact your local Chamber of Commerce, municipal offices, or contractor rating sites like MerchantCircle.com or AngiesList.com to get the names of reputable pros. Tree trimming and removal can be dangerous, so don’t attempt it on your own unless you’re experienced.
By keeping your home in good repair and stocking up on the supplies you’ll need before the rush for rock salt and shovels begins, you’ll be as ready as possible to tough out the storm.
Attempts to exercise power can backfire. As a negotiator, you must balance these three risks against the potential benefits of developing and exercising power:
1. At the same time you’re trying to exploit the bargaining power you think you have, your counterpart might view herself as the more powerful party.
What happens when each side believes the other is on the verge of surrender? Merger attempts fail, labor strikes drag on, and lawsuits go to trial.
2. Resentment can cause the less powerful party to react emotionally to your coercive demands, refusing to make concessions even when it would be in his best interest (and yours) to do so.
3. When a negotiator who yields to greater strength feels she has been ill-treated, a seemingly successful exercise of power can damage relationships and reputations.
The employer who convinces a candidate with a poor alternative to accept a relatively low salary might find that short-term savings come with the baggage of a disaffected worker and future recruiting difficulties.
Your home is probably your biggest investment. To manage it, create a financial plan that takes into account repairs, upgrades, mortgages, insurance, and taxes.
Use our home financial plan budget worksheet, and start by writing a list of expenses, such as:
- Home insurance, including liability
- Repairs and maintenance, such as new furnace, roof, painting
- Voluntary upgrades, such as a swimming pool, a premium range, a new powder room
What will you learn from this home financial plan weekend exercise?
- How much you have to spend
- How much you need to allot in the short- and long-term for necessary maintenance and voluntary improvements
With this newfound grip on your home’s expenses, you can create a home financial plan that’ll help you there for years with maximum enjoyment and minimum anxiety.
The mortgage: Pay it—and then some
Yup, you already shell out a lot for your mortgage, but can you pay more? Even a little extra each month can add up to an earlier payoff. Let’s say you have $200,000 in outstanding principal and a 20-year fixed-rate mortgage at 5%. Your monthly payment is $1,319.91. But if you can manage to pay another $100 a month, you’ll save $14,887 in interest.
Run the numbers yourself for your home financial plan.
Advantages of an early payoff, says Alan D. Kahn, a financial planner in Syosset, N.Y.:
- Less debt means more money to spend later.
- It feels darn good to own your house outright as soon as possible.
- Minimal tax loss. Toward the tail end of the life of a loan most of your payment goes to the principal, not the interest, so you’re getting only a small tax break anyway.
Of course, if you’re still saving for retirement, put the 100 bucks elsewhere:
- A retirement plan
- An account for the inevitable home repairs
- An account for discretionary improvements, which can raise your home’s value
Insurance: Protect your property
Your vegetable garden is pointless without a fence to keep out rabbits; likewise, your home financial plan will come to nothing without an insurance “fence”:
Homeowner’s insurance. Basic coverage for your home and everything in it. The average cost is $636 per year but this varies widely by state.
Liability coverage. Protects you from a lawsuit if someone gets hurt on your property, for example. Your best bet: An umbrella policy. For about $300 a year you can by a typical $1 million policy.
Various disaster insurance policies. Optional policies cover flood, earthquake, and hurricane damage. As part of your home financial plan, you have to research to see what disaster coverage, if any, you need in your area, and what your standard policy already covers. For $540 a year you can buy flood insurance, for example.
Don’t under- or overbuy insurance
For your basic policy, get homeowners insurance with full replacement coverage in case your house burns to the ground.
That sounds simple, but heads up on calculation. Remember that you own a house as well as the land on which it sits. So even though you bought your home for $300,000, it may cost only $100,000 to rebuild it. Your policy limits should reflect this. This difference will vary widely by region.
Another heads up: Don’t make the common and potentially disastrous mistake of thinking that because your home has fallen in value you need less insurance. If you bought a $1.2 million townhouse in Florida during the boom, it’s true it now may only sell for $600,000. But the replacement cost of the townhouse hasn’t changed much, so you can’t improve your home financial plan by cutting insurance costs that way.
Other ways to cut your insurance budget:
- If you make structural improvements, such as adding storm shutters, your insurer may give you a break.
- If you belong to certain groups, such as AARP or veterans’ organizations, your premiums may be lower.
Repairs and renovations: By choice or necessity
You own a home, so you’ll be spending money on everything from a new faucet to—surprise!—a new roof. Freddie Mac and other authorities say as part of your home financial plan, you should be prepared to spend 1% to 3% of the market value of the home annually on maintenance. To be extra-prudent, open a savings account and make regular payments until your account reaches 1% to 3% of your home’s current value.
To help you budget:
Start with the inspection report you received when you bought the house. Did the inspector indicate that you would need a new roof in five years? A new furnace in 10?
Keep a log of your major appliances’ age so you can estimate when they’ll need replacing. Some estimated life spans:
- Roof: 20-25 years
- Heating systems: 15-20 years
- Range/ovens: 11-15 years
- Water heaters: 8- 13 years
Then get estimates on what replacements will cost and start saving.
Consider ongoing non-emergency maintenance, too. Do you live in New England? Price a snow blower and get bids from plow services.
Resist the siren call of the home equity loan to take care of everything. That just defeats your efforts to pay off the mortgage early.
Separate out what you want from what you need. A $50,000 kitchen remodel is nice, but you’ll recoup only 76% of the project cost your home’s resale, according to Remodeling magazine.
If you can afford to redo, go for it. Just don’t confuse your necessary repairs (new oil furnace—about $4,000) with your discretionary upgrades (Viking range—$6,000 and up).
Taxes: (Almost) no way around them
Even if your lender handles your property taxes from an escrow account, you need to budget for them in your home financial plan. They creep up almost every year, it seems. Take responsibility for tracking the changes in your area: Look over past tax bills to get a sense of how quickly they’ve risen in the past.
Or if your lender handles escrow and you haven’t saved your bills, ask for an accounting. The median annual property tax payment is $2,198, but that hides the enormous range in medians from state to state:
- New Jersey: $6,320
- New York: $3,622
- California: $2,829
- Alabama: $383
- Louisiana: $188
You can generally deduct property taxes on your federal return. A tax pro can tell you how much of a tax break you’ll get, to help you fine tune your home financial plan.
You may be able to reduce your tax burden by getting a reassessment. Do your homework first: Are comparable houses taxed less than yours? Ask the local assessor what formula is used to set tax rates. You can challenge the assessed value and get yourself a rollback.
If you’re in a special group, you might get some help from state or local programs. Check around to see what’s available in your area. New York State, for example, has its Star Program for giving senior citizens some relief from school-related property taxes.
1. Safety first. Emergency rooms are filled with home owners who lose fights with their holiday lights and fall off ladders or suffer electric shocks. To avoid the holiday black and blues, never hang lights solo; instead, work with a partner who holds the ladder. Also, avoid climbing on roofs after rain or snow.
2. Unpack carefully. Lights break and glass cuts. So unpack your lights gingerly, looking for and replacing broken bulbs along the way.
3. Extension cords are your friends. Splurge on heavy-duty extension cords that are UL-listed for outdoor use. To avoid overloading, only link five strings of lights together before plugging into an extension cord.
4. LEDs cost less to light. LED Christmas lights use roughly 70% to 90% less energy and last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. You can safely connect many more LED light strings than incandescents. Downside: Some think they don’t burn as brightly as incandescent bulbs.
5. Solar lights cost nothing to run. Solar Christmas lights are roughly four times more expensive to buy than LEDs, but they cost zero to run. They’re a bright-burning, green alternative. Downside: If there’s no sun during the day, there’s no light at night. The jury’s also still out on how long they last; they’re too new on the market for results.
6. Dismantle lights sooner than later. Sun, wind, rain, and snow all take their toll on Christmas lights. To extend the life of lights, take them down immediately after the holidays. The longer you leave the up, the sooner you’ll have to replace them.
7. Plan next year’s display on Dec. 26. Shop the after-Christmas sales to get the best prices on lights and blowups that you can proudly display next year. Stock up on your favorite lights so you’ll have spares when you need them (and after they’re discontinued).
8. Permanent attachments save time. If you know you’ll always hang lights from eaves, install permanent light clips ($13 for 75 clips) that will save you hanging time each year. You’ll get a couple/three years out of the clips before sun eats the plastic.
9. Find those blueprints. Instead of guessing how many light strings you’ll need, or measuring with a tape, dig up your house blueprints or house location drawings (probably with your closing papers) and use those measurements as a guide.
10. Store them in a ball. It sounds counterintuitive, but the best way to store lights is to ball them up. Wrap five times in one direction, then turn the ball 90 degrees and repeat. Store your light balls in cardboard boxes, rather than in plastic bags: Cardboard absorbs residual moisture and extends the life of your lights.
For some home owners, regular home maintenance is a chore and bore. But for Dr. Michael Warren, cleaning gutters and demolishing walls are family bonding experiences and stress reducers.
“Fixing up your home is a perfect way to take your mind off your problems or stress,” the doctor says in his column for a Texas newspaper.
We HouseLogic editors agree. And since October is Energy Awareness Month, we think buttoning up your home for winter is a great way to chillax, spend some quality time with family, and help your kids to become more energy aware. Here’s how.
Hunt for air leaks
Air leaks around windows and doors suck out heat in winter and drive up energy bills – a good lesson to learn young. Light an incense stick and let the kids wave it along window and doorframes, electrical outlets, recessed lights and attic access doors and hatches. When the smoke wavers, air is leaking from the house.
Caulk and weather strip
Kids will love plugging air leaks by spreading goopy caulk along door and window frames. They can also help you fix leaky windows by applying peel-and-stick weather stripping along doors, windows and attic hatches.
Clean HVAC filters
Teach your kids how to remove, clean and replace reusable HVAC filters, an easy but essential maintenance task. They can vacuum dust from filters, or spray clean them in a utility sink. Make sure filters are dry and in good shape before reinstalling.
If you’re replacing paper filters, teach kids how to shop for new ones. Show them how different filters address different tasks. For instance, HEPA filters are particularly good at filtering allergens from the air.
Vacuum grills and vents
Stage a hunt for heating grills and vents, and then let the kids vacuum off dust and dirt that makes your HVAC system work harder than it should.
Review monthly bills
Show your kids the energy bills, and compare how many weeks of allowance it would take to pay, say, the gas bill. Compare different months, so kids can see how price fluctuates with energy use.
Have a contest to see how much money your family can save by reducing consumption. Put savings into a vacation or movie night fund.
What home projects have you done with your kids or family?
Make friends and influence your property values by creating neighborhood holiday traditions that build community spirit.
In turn, you’ll help foster higher property values, strong schools, and lower crime rates in your neighborhood, according to studies by Dennis Rosenbaum, director of the Center for Research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Start strengthening your neighborhood with these seven holiday events:
1. Sing songs
Home owners in the Clinton Hill neighborhood near Brooklyn, N.Y., have been caroling together since 1967. They only missed the event once for a pretty good excuse: It was below freezing.
Their advice for a successful neighborhood holiday event? Identify neighborhood streets heavy with holiday decorations. Festive residents will likely be most receptive to carolers. Ask volunteers to print song lyric sheets, post fliers announcing the event in advance, and bring a thermos or two of hot cocoa.
Residents have come to look forward to the neighborhood holiday song fest. “Sometimes we’re invited in, and some people even plan their parties so we’re the entertainment,” says resident Marge Othrow.
2. Holiday parties with a purpose
New Orleans’ historic Strachan House is the site of the Coliseum Square Association’s annual Christmas party, where the highlight is an award ceremony honoring emergency first responders who’ve made a difference in the city’s Lower Garden District neighborhood.
The CSA spends about $1,000 for the food and the several-hundred-dollar cash awards for the first responders, says CSA President Matt Ryan. The holiday event not only thanks first responders, but builds neighborhood spirit, he says.
3. Swap holiday food
With a holiday cookie or dessert exchange, no single neighbor bears the burden of providing food for the entire neighborhood. Audra Krell of Scottsdale, Ariz., uses Evite and Facebook to manage her annual holiday dessert exchange where friends each bring one tray of any kind of dessert.
Managing the neighborhood event takes Krell less than 10 hours, but the good feelings the event generates last all year long.
4. Organize a search party
Families compete in a neighborhood-wide holiday scavenger hunt in Maineville, Ohio. Tracie Watkins, who runs this fun event, comes up with a list of holiday items, like tinsel and candy canes, and gives everybody a half hour to collect them.
The family that comes back first with everything, or has found the most items when the game ends, gets a $50 gift card. She’s had as many as 15 to 20 neighborhood families join in the fun.
5. Share holiday giving
In Logan, Utah, Jenny Johnson and 50 to 60 of her neighbors forgo giving holiday gifts and goodies to each other, instead purchasing gifts, food, and personal hygiene items for three to four needy families through the Sub for Santa program. The average family’s financial contribution runs about $30, and the families get together at a neighborhood party to wrap the gifts they’ve purchased.
6. Feed your friendly neighbors
Hold a progressive holiday dinner party at neighbors’ houses. On the Sunday before Christmas, Margee Herring of Wilmington, N.C., and her neighbors eat their way through three host homes. Each home owner foots the food bill for about 100 guests, but you can share the cost by asking neighbors to sign up for a potluck dish.
Create a twist: Announce a different theme each year, or ask home owners to prepare the holiday cuisine of a different country.
7. Light up the holiday
Many neighborhoods come together to line their streets with candles on Christmas Eve. And this effort doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive. Save milk and water jugs throughout the year, and put 12-hour votive candles inside the jugs.
Setup and removal take 30 to 45 minutes. An alternative to luminaries is a neighborhood holiday lighting contest in which neighbors vote on the home with the best holiday display.
Where should you put your money now that the election is over?
Randall Forsyth reported for Barron’s that Byron Wien admits the S&P did better than expected in 2012, but does not anticipate a strong a year in 2013.
Zillow reported in the Home Price Expectation Survey that prices will tick up a bit which echoes what the Urban Land Institute Study found. To varying degrees, Bulls and Bears agree that the real estate market will continue to improve. As an investment, real estate has a proven track record, especially when compared with Wall Street. The real estate market has demonstrated in a big way a better return on investment, and it has traditionally been a long-term investment. It was after the real estate market became a vehicle for short-term investment and very risky behaviors found their way into an otherwise conservative residential real estate market and those overlapping markets that a troubling tidal wave emerged.
We’ll have less uncertainty in the financial markets once we know who will be in office, but the real estate market has a proven track record.
If the mortgage you are getting is $200,000, double that number in the left-hand column. If you’re buying a $350,000
house, take that last number and multiply it by 3 1/2. The most compelling piece to look at is the top number $609.23 and the bottom number $443.48. A BIG savings.
Look at your financial position and the big picture. It’s a great time to buy!