Invest a Tax Refund in Your Home: $500 Projects

Invest a Tax Refund in Your Home: $500 Projects

Published: January 5, 2015

The average tax refund fluctuates, but in recent years it’s come in around $2,700. That’s a nice chunk of change to receive from the IRS. Not everyone is so lucky, of course, but even if you only get back $500, there are many great ways to spend your tax refund on your home.

Why invest your tax refund in your home instead of, say, a tropical vacation? Because your home is probably your biggest investment, so it pays to take care of it — literally. Even relatively small investments such as energy audits or low-flow showerheads can yield surprisingly big returns. Consider these five projects under $500.

1. Go with the low flow

If you’re tired of watching money go down the drain, invest in the latest low-flow showerheads. Old showerheads (pre-1992) can pump out 5 gallons of water per minute. Newer showerheads, while more efficient, still use 2.5 gallons per minute. But the latest low-flow showerheads use up to 50% less water than even the newer showerheads, yet technological innovations make it seem as if you’re bathing under the same amount of water.

The latest low-flow showerheads run between $50 and $200 apiece, but the payback can be quick. Swapping out old showerheads can reduce your home’s water-heating costs by about $150 a year. If your showerheads are already updated, but you’re still looking for ways to save on water, install a low-flow toilet. One of these efficient flushers can shave $90 off your annual water bill.

2. When it rains, it pours

Homeowners insurance is critical, but it’s not comprehensive. Most policies offer limited liability protection that could prove inadequate if someone gets hurt on your property and you get sued. Umbrella insurance offers liability protection beyond the limits of your homeowners policy. An extra $1 million in umbrella liability coverage, which extends to your cars, too, typically costs about $300.

If your liability insurance is sufficient, then consider flood insurance instead. Floods can affect homes in all 50 states, yet fewer than 1 in 5 home owners have flood insurance. Typical home owners policies exclude floods. The average flood policy costs $650, according to the National Flood Insurance Program; the average flood claim totals more than $42,000.

3. A model of energy efficiency

A typical homeowner spends an extra $350 a year on heating and cooling due to air leaks. Gaps, even small ones, around doors, windows, and recessed lights waste energy and raise utility bills. You can conduct your own energy audit and try to seal air leaks yourself, but the result will vary wildly depending on your DIY skills.

A better option might be a professional energy audit, which can cost between $400 and $600 for a full diagnostic inspection. Expect the use of sophisticated equipment like thermal or infrared scanners, blower door testers, and smoke puffers that can pinpoint energy leaks. A visual-only inspection by a pro costs less — about $150 — but the findings won’t be as accurate.

4. Lightning only needs to strike once

A power surge, whether caused by a lightning strike or some other fluctuation in your supply of electricity, can wreak havoc on home electronics. Thousands of dollars’ worth of computers, appliances, and entertainment equipment can get fried in the blink of an eye. If you’re lucky, perhaps some of your electronics are plugged in to surge protector power strips. Most probably aren’t.

Although homeowners insurance offers peace of mind that your possessions will get replaced, a smart way to prevent damage in the first place — and avoid the hassle of filing claims and paying deductibles — is investing in a whole-house surge protector. For about $300, an electrician can install the device at your breaker box. It only takes an hour or two. Keep surge protector power strips in place for an added layer of safety.

5. Roll out the rain barrel

Why pay for water when nature supplies it free of charge? The typical homeowner spends about $150 annually on water used outdoors. Meanwhile, an inch of rain dumped on the roof of a 2,000-square-foot house produces 500 gallons of runoff. It makes sense to harvest that rainwater to nourish plants and rinse off patio furniture. Enter the rain barrel.

A rain barrel is much like it sounds: A large container hooked into a downspout that stores rainwater for later outdoor use. A basic commercial rain barrel can cost as little as $50; a more sophisticated system with multiple barrels, pumps, and spigots can run as much as $600. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a rain barrel can save 1,300 gallons of water during peak summer months.





Inspecting Your Roof to Get Ahead of Problems

Inspecting Your Roof to Get Ahead of Problems

A roof inspection is one of those preventative maintenance jobs that’s easy to overlook. Don’t. Add a once-a-year reminder on your calendar to go out on a warm day and fix any problems you find.

If you’re squeamish about heights, don’t worry. You can do a thorough inspection from the ground using a pair of binoculars.

Or, you can get up close and personal with your roof using a ladder. However, there’s no need to get up on your roof just yet. The less you walk around up there, the better for your roofing — and the safer for you. Work your way around your house, noting any potential problems.

Here’s what to look for:

  • Cracked caulk or rust spots on flashing.
  • Shingles that are buckling, curling, or blistering.
  • Missing or broken shingles.
  • Cracked and worn rubber boots around vent pipes.
  • Missing or damaged chimney cap. (OK, that’s technically not part of your roof, but since you’re looking anyway.)
  • Masses of moss and lichen, which could signal the roof is decaying underneath. Black algae stains are just cosmetic.

If you find piles of colored grit from asphalt roof tiles in the gutters, that’s a bad sign — those sand-like granules cover the surface of roof shingles and shield them from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. Check the age of your roofing and see if it’s nearing the end of its life cycle.

Easy Fixes for Roofing Problems

Any loose, damaged, or missing shingles should be replaced immediately. Check for popped nails that need to be hammered back in place.

If you’re comfortable working on a roof, then it’s not too difficult to replace shingles and caulk flashing yourself. Cost: $24 for a bundle of shingles, $6 for roofing caulk. Allow a half-day to make a few shingle repairs.

Metal and vinyl flashing around chimneys, skylights, and attic vents that has separated needs to be resealed with caulk. However, flashing and vent boots that are beginning to rust or deteriorate should be replaced.

Cost of Professional Repairs

Contact pro roofing companies and seek at least two bids for repair work. You can use a handyman for minor fixes and possibly shave costs, but the person should be bonded, have proof of liability, and have workman’s compensation insurance.

Some costs for common repairs include:

  • A few broken or missing shingles: $100-$150.
  • Large repairs (10-by-10-foot section of roofing): $100-$350 asphalt; $200-$1,000 wood.
  • Replacing flashing or boots around chimneys, skylights, and vents: $300-$500.
  • Repairing flashing in valleys: $15-$25 per running foot.

Clearing Your Roof of Moss

Moss eradication begins in the fall. Apply a moss killer intended for roofs (granules for lawn-use contain iron which will stain a roof).

In the spring, use a broom to remove remaining dead moss. Spread moss killer along the ridge of the roof and on any remaining green patches. Cost: $20 for moss killer to treat 3,000 sq. ft. of roof. Allow about three hours to sweep the roof, clear the gutters, and apply the granules.

Be Alert to Early Signs of a Roof Leak

A yearly roof checkup is great, but problems can occur at any time. Early signs of trouble include:

  • Dark areas on ceilings.
  • Peeling paint on the underside of roof overhangs.
  • Damp spots alongside fireplaces.
  • Water stains on pipes venting the water heater or furnace.

If you find worrisome signs, especially if the roof is old or there’s been a storm with heavy wind or hail, get a professional assessment. Some roofing companies do this for free; specialized roof inspectors, like those who work through the National Roof Certification and Inspection Association, charge about $175.

Related: How to Prevent Water Damage

Replacing Your Roof

If your asphalt roof is 15 years old or more, it may be due for replacement. The national average cost for a new asphalt shingle roof is $19,528, according to “Remodeling” magazine’s 2015 “Cost vs. Value Report,” of which you’ll recoup $13,975 at resale (71.6%). For high-end materials, such as standing-seam metal, the national average cost jumps to as much as $36,329.

Related: Tips to Make Your Roof Last as Long as Possible




Tips to Make Your Roof Last as Long as Possible

Tips to Make Your Roof Last as Long as Possible

A new roof is an expensive proposition — $18,800 on average for composition shingles, according to Remodeling magazine’s Cost Vs. Value Report, and as much as $36,000 for high-end materials. Once you’ve made that kind of investment, you’ll want to protect it.

And even if your roof is years old, maintaining it in good shape will prolong its life and keep you from having to replace it prematurely. Here’s what you need to do to get the most from your roof.

Clean the Gutters

Ruined paint on siding and a wet basement are typical problems caused by clogged gutters, but it might surprise you to learn that the overflow can also go upward. When leaves pile too deeply in gutters, water can wick into roof sheathing and rot it, or even rot roof rafters.

Fixing that kind of damage could run into the thousands of dollars, but you can avoid it by cleaning your gutters each fall and spring. Do it yourself in a few hours if you’re comfortable working on a ladder, or hire a pro for $50-$250, depending on house size.

Related: Fast Fixes for Common Gutter Problems

Remove Leaves

If you have a simple peaked roof surrounded by low landscaping, your roof probably stays clear of leaves on its own. But if the roof is more complicated or if towering trees are nearby, piles of leaves probably collect in roof valleys or near chimneys. If you don’t remove them, they will trap moisture and gradually decompose, allowing moisture to accumulate in your roof — or worse, create fertile ground for weeds to grow.

If you have a low-slope roof and a one-story house, you may be able to pull the leaves down with a soft car-washing brush on a telescoping pole. Or you can use a specialty tool like a roof leaf rake, which costs about $20. A leaf blower gets the job done too, especially on dry leaves, but you or a pro needs to go up on the roof to use it.

If leaves are too wet or too deep, you might need to wash them off with a garden hose. Don’t use a pressure washer, which can force water up under the shingles.

Get Rid of Moss

In much of the country, composition roofs often become covered with black algae. Although unsightly, this filmy growth doesn’t hurt the roof. A little chlorine bleach or detergent mixed with water will kill it, but it’s safer for both you and the roof to just leave it alone.

If you live in the Northwest, you’re likely to find moss growing on your roof, particularly on wood or composition shingles. Moss, which looks more three-dimensional than algae, needs to go because it traps water. If you tackle it early enough, you can just sweep it off.

If there’s a lot of buildup, you may need to kill the moss first. The Washington Toxics Coalition recommends using products based on potassium salts of fatty acids rather than more toxic formulas with zinc sulfate. Even so, apply the soap only where moss is growing, and try to keep the wash water from getting into storm drains.

Once the roof is clean and free of moss, consider investing in zinc strips to keep it from coming back. For about $300, a roofer will install strips near the top of the roof. When it rains, the runoff from the strips inhibits the growth of moss. It’s effective and more environmentally friendly than treating the entire roof with pesticide, as long as you don’t live near a stream or a lake where the runoff can harm aquatic life.

Trim Overhanging Branches

A little prevention in the form of tree-trimming goes a long way toward keeping leaves and moss off your roof and keeping your roof damage-free. Abrasion from limbs and leaves that touch your roof can eventually damage shingles, especially in high winds.

Overhanging branches also give squirrels and other rodents access to your roof. They can gnaw on your roof and siding. Branches need to be 10 feet away from your roof to keep these pests at bay. If that’s not possible, wrap the tree trunk with a sheet-metal bank to prevent them from climbing the tree.

Trimming branches that hang over the roof is a job for a pro, though, or you might cause more damage than you prevent.

Related: The Best Trees for Your Yard

Prevent Ice Dams

If you’re plagued by ice buildup on the roof, removing some or all of the snow between storms might forestall leaks into your house. Don’t try to pry off ice that’s already formed, since that could damage the roof. Use a roof rake to dislodge snow within three or four feet of the gutters. Get a telescoping pole and work from the ground, if possible. If you must be on a ladder, work at an angle so the falling snow doesn’t push you over.

Inadequate insulation and air leaks into your attic greatly increase the risk of ice dams, so once the storms pass, address those problems, too.

Related: Tips on Preventing Ice Dams

Look and Listen

After every big wind or hail storm, or if you’ve heard scurrying on the roof at night, give your roof a quick check to make sure everything’s still intact.

Look for:

    • Curling, loose, or missing shingles
  • Damaged flashing around vents, chimneys, skylights, and other openings

If anything seems amiss, ask a roofer to inspect ASAP. Most problems are fairly easy to fix, but if you put them off and water gets in, the damage and costs escalate.

TIP: You don’t have to climb a ladder to inspect your roof. You can use binoculars.

Related: How Much Value Does Good Maintenance Add to Your Home’s Value




By: Jeanne Huber© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®


How to Buy a Wall Oven

How to Buy a Wall Oven

First Things First: Gas or Electric?

Typically, the type of power you use in your home determines whether you go with a gas or electric wall oven. If you can go either way, budget and cooking preferences will drive your final decision. Here’s more to chew on:

  • Electric wall ovens heat foods more evenly than gas and are considered easier to clean, according to Consumer Reports.
  • There’s a much larger selection of electric units than gas to choose from.
  • Budget and standard ovens that run on gas generally cost $100 or more than their electric counterparts.

Types of Wall Ovens and Costs

Here’s a breakdown of models and standard features. All are usually available in a black, white, or stainless steel finish.

1.  Conventional electric

Budget wall ovens are the least expensive available, with a price range of $700 to $1,000.  Either dials or electronic touch pads control oven settings and cooking temperatures. Stainless models usually cost $100 more than black or white units.

Standard wall ovens come with self-cleaning features which add $200 to $300 to their price tag ($1,000 to $1,300). Most have electronic touch pads for oven settings and cooking temperatures.

Double ovens come with self-cleaning features and electronic touch pads for oven settings and cooking temperatures. They cost $1,500 to $2,100.

Single ovens with microwave have one built-in oven and one built-in microwave. They come with a steep price tag ($2,100 to $2,500). Most have self-cleaning features and are equipped with electronic touch pads for oven and microwave settings.

2.  Electric convection

Standard convection wall ovens use fans to distribute heat, which speeds up baking and roasting times. Most models come with self-cleaning features. On average, they cost $300 more than standard electric wall ovens without the convection feature. All have electronic or digital controls for oven settings and cooking temperatures. Cost: $1,400 to $2,100.

Double convection wall ovens come with self-cleaning features. The most expensive units ($2,150 to $3,700) are Wi-Fi enabled so you can control temperature and cooking times via a smartphone or mobile device.  All have electronic or digital controls for oven settings and cooking temperatures.

Single convection oven and microwave combinations come with one oven and one microwave. They typically have a steep price tag: $2,500 or more. Most combo ovens have self-cleaning features and electronic or digital controls for oven and microwave settings.

3.  Gas ovens

Budget gas wall ovens are the least-expensive, with prices ranging from $800 to $1,100.  They come with either dials or electronic touch pad controls for oven settings and cooking temperatures. Stainless units start at $1,000.

Standard gas wall ovens come with self-cleaning features and a lower broiler, which add $400 to $500 to their price tag. Most have electronic touch pad controls for oven settings and cooking temperatures. Cost: $1,300 to $1,500.

Convection gas wall ovens do exist. But consumer models are almost as rare as dodo birds since you won’t find them at most big box stores. Fans of these ovens appreciate the moist heat gas generates (a byproduct of gas combustion is water vapor). Luxury appliance retailers typically sell pro-styled gas convection wall ovens.  Units start at $3,500.

Size Does Matter

Wall units offer plenty of flexibility when it comes to kitchen placement. They can be installed at any convenient height, putting an end to the bending and stooping that comes with a conventional kitchen range.

Wall ovens are available in widths of 24, 27, and 30 inches. Keep in mind some styles may skew an inch or two bigger or smaller; check oven specs before you buy.

You’ll also need to make sure your oven’s interior space is big enough for your cooking needs:

  • 2 to 3 cubic feet will accommodate households with one or two people.
  • 3 to 4 cubic feet will accommodate households with three or four people.
  • 4 cubic feet and up and more will accommodate households of four or more.

Features, Functions, and Extras That Have the Biggest Payback

We think the features that pack the most value will boost convenience and ease of use. Here’s a list of tasty picks:

Control lockout prevents little hands from playing with the oven by disabling the control panel.

Double ovens are a win-win for hardworking kitchens. They let you simultaneously bake and roast multiple items at different temperatures.

Electronic controls are featured on most wall ovens (except a few budget models and lower-priced double ovens). Unlike old school oven dials, electronic controls allow you to set precise cooking temperatures.

A self-cleaning cycle makes cleaning your oven less of a chore.

Removable oven doors allow quick and easy cleaning and wiping.

Sabbath mode settings allow observant Jews to preprogram oven settings during the Sabbath so they can heat foods. If you’re not in the know, the Sabbath is a day of rest and using modern appliances during this time is forbidden.

Features You Shouldn’t Pay More For

Warming drawers keep prepared foods warm prior to mealtime, but they’re sold as separate units and come with a chilly price tag: $1,000 and up.

Delayed-start and other Wi-Fi features allow you to control your oven when you’re not home. However, the National Fire Protection Association says you should never operate your oven when you’re not home to check on it.



By: Deirdre Sullivan:© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®


Cleaning Your Kitchen Appliances the Easy Way

Cleaning Your Kitchen Appliances the Easy Way

Your Refrigerator

The space behind your refrigerator is arguably the dirtiest couple of square feet in your house. It’s a meeting place for dust, gunk, and a host of other stuff that’s fallen behind the big guy.

To clean, pull out the refrigerator and mop up whatever you find. Then, vacuum refrigerator coils behind or beneath your fridge, which will put less stress on the fridge’s motor and prolong its life.

Replace loose door gaskets — check your owner’s manual for replacement part numbers and find new gaskets at home improvement centers or by searching online. You’ll get the added benefit of saving energy with a tighter seal. Monthly, wipe gaskets down with warm, soapy water; rinse and dry.

A little soapy water or a 50-50 solution of water and white vinegar will clean and shine the inside and outside of your fridge. Wipe down shelves and crispers weekly, or whenever you spot a spill. Remove fingerprints on stainless steel exteriors with a damp cloth.

Your Stovetop and Oven

Most ovens have self-cleaning options. We heartily recommend letting the oven do the work for you. But there are a few spots the self-clean option doesn’t reach, such as the gunk around door hinges and frames, and the crumb-catching space between double ovens. You can wipe them up with vinegar or soapy water.

Baked on crud comes off with a little baking soda on a sponge, or a spritz of commercial oven cleaner. (Make sure you open a window before your spray, so you don’t choke on fumes.) Make a habit of wiping spills quickly after using the oven, and you may never have to scrub it again.

To clean your stovetop:

  • Fill your sink with hot, soapy water; soak burners, knobs, and hood vents (if they fit) for a couple of hours; then scrub. Repeat if necessary.
  • Replace stained metal drip plates if they’re beyond the help of steel wool.
  • Vacuum crumbs that have fallen in cracks between the stovetop and counter. Use the sofa attachment on your vacuum to get into those cracks.

Your Dishwasher

You’d think you wouldn’t need to clean your dishwasher because it cleans itself every time you use it. But you should check the drain in the bottom of the machine for debris, and wipe the gaskets around the door to ensure a tight seal.

Once each week, deodorize it by placing a bowl of white vinegar on the top rack and running it, empty, for a full cycle.

Your Microwave

The best way to remove baked-on food is to fill a microwave-safe container with water, microwave it until the water boils, and let it sit for a few minutes while steam loosens any gunk. Wipe clean.

Your Toaster

Unplug your toaster, pull out and wash its crumb catcher, and shake the machine over the sink to get rid of food. Dry thoroughly before plugging back in.

Your Coffee Machine

To remove mineral deposits that can clog your machine, pour a solution of two parts water and one part white vinegar into the water chamber, insert a coffee filter, and run the solution through the machine. Then run clear water through twice to remove the vinegary taste.

One old-timey way to remove stains from your glass coffee pot — or any vase, pitcher, etc., with stains — is to cover the bottom with table salt, add ice cubes, and, when they start to melt, swish around for a couple of minutes. Then rinse.




By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon:© Copyright 2015 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®