Liz Hieter
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6 Kitchen Splurges Worth the Price

April 15, 2016 1:33 am

A kitchen remodel can be expensive, and homeowners are justifiably careful about staying within budget. However, there are certain areas in every kitchen where a splurge may be worth the price in terms of efficiency, looks, and durability.

HGTV suggests six areas where a few lavish touches are worth the extra expense:

1. Commercial-Grade Range Hood - Investing in a commercial-style range hood means never having to deal with cooking odors—and keeping a busy kitchen cooler.

2. High-Quality Hardware – Look for quality cabinet knobs, hinges and pulls in brushed nickel, bronze or stainless steel. They add class to any kitchen and will last longer than those made of plastic or wood. For the ultimate in opulence, spring for hand-blown glass.

3. Soft-Close Doors and Drawers – You can’t slam these quiet drawers or doors, which makes for a more serene kitchen. They are also great for young families because they close slowly, so little hands and fingers won't get caught or pinched in them. 

4. Solid Surface Countertop – Laminate is cheap, but it doesn’t stand up and looks tired long before its time. Splurge on granite or sealed concrete, which will look beautiful and last for many years. (Bonus: It’s a great selling feature!)

5. Stainless Steel Appliances – These are worth the added expense because they are stylish, sophisticated and efficient. The newest models offer greater versatility than more traditional models.

6. Warming Drawer – Look for an oven that comes with a warming drawer, or have one custom-built into your kitchen. They are ideal for entertaining, keeping food at just the right temperature for late guests.

Lastly—and most importantly—invest in a professional. An experienced kitchen designer can help ensure you get the kitchen of your dreams without the guesswork or stress.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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5 Security Tips for Apartment, Condo Residents

April 15, 2016 1:33 am

Apartment and condominium communities have some safety advantages over single-family homes, but they’re susceptible to security breaches like any other residence. Owners and/or renters should keep these safety tips top of mind, recommends Steve Kolobaric, spokesperson for security solution provider Weiser Lock.

1. Be on Alert – Be mindful of others, even when you’re inside the building or unit. Pay special attention when walking in stairwells, meet your neighbors, and know the general layout of the complex.

2. Lock, Lock, Lock – It seems like a common-sense action, but many (with a false sense of security) neglect to lock their doors. The majority of burglars gain entry into a home through an unlocked door. Don’t hide a key outside of your home, either—thieves know where to look!

3. Update Locksets – Did you change your front door lockset when you moved in? Not only could the past owner still have copies of the key, but so could his or her friends or your neighbors. Changing your lockset takes about 20 minutes—a small investment of time for peace of mind.

4. Note Concerns – Notify the property manager about any burned-out lights in the common areas, such as the lobby, parking garage or hallways. If anything seems out of the ordinary, such as open or broken windows or malfunctioning doors or locks, alert the manager immediately.

5. Deny Entry – If the front entrance to your apartment or condo requires a key pass, don’t hold the door for the person behind you. It may feel impolite, but the person may not be a resident or tenant—and if it is a neighbor, they will appreciate your preventative measure.

Source: Weiser Lock

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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3 Ways to Keep Debt at Bay with Your Tax Refund

April 14, 2016 1:33 am

Many financial institutions observe reduced loan balances and lower credit card late fees in the second quarter of each year, coinciding with tax season and suggesting that many use their tax refunds to pay down debt.

“Paying down debt can undoubtedly be one of the best ways to put a tax refund to good use,” says Nick Bryan, executive vice president of OpenSky, a provider of resources and tools that help consumers build credit. “This not only saves on interest payments, but also can improve credit, since the ratio of debt-to-credit impacts credit scores.

“However, if someone has a no- or low-interest rate, paying off credit card or long-term debt may not be urgent,” Bryan says. “It makes sense to do the numbers—you aren't losing money to let zero interest debt stay where it is for a while.”

Bryan notes there are ways to turn refund money into a safeguard against possible future debt, rather than pay down existing debt. It may make sense to put a refund toward a "life happens" savings account for emergencies, such as car repairs or medical bills. Making necessary home repairs and upgrades is also a wise use of refund dollars—homeownership is an investment, and protecting that investment will pay off when the house sells for top dollar.

Tax refunds may also be used to help build (or rebuild) credit, Bryan adds. Using a portion of the refund as a security deposit to get a secured credit card can have a positive impact on credit history.

Taxpayers have until April 18 this year to file their 2015 returns, as well as pay any tax due.

Source: OpenSky

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Sellers: Remember These Tips for a Safe Showing

April 14, 2016 1:33 am

Selling your home can be exciting, but unfortunately, it can also heighten the risk of crime when showing the home.

A recent blog from realtor.com® outlined the following points to remember—all of which will be practiced by your real estate agent.

• Schedule an appointment for showings.
• Keep records of every guest's identity.
• Watch for unexpected guests.
• Do not show your house without your real estate agent, or if you are otherwise alone.

Most importantly, the blog advised: trust your instincts. Instinct is generally the best self-protection tool. If a visitor makes you feel uncomfortable, be alert. Warning signs include:

• He or she spends too much time in one room, checking windows, doors or even security devices;

• A couple separates during the showing (Professional burglars usually have one person talking to the agent or seller as a distraction, while the other wanders around, planning an act);

• He or she asks questions in an effort to make you reveal habits or schedules, such as what time everybody goes to work and/or school, what you do on the weekend, etc.

After the showing, be sure to lock your doors and windows—a recent article noted one case in which a rogue visitor unlocked a window at an open house and returned later to burglarize the property. 

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Energy Efficiency on Your Wish List? Buy New

April 14, 2016 1:33 am

Newly constructed homes marry contemporary innovation with the practical preferences of homebuyers—and those inclinations are greener than ever, reports the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).

“Today’s new homes include features that will help homeowners reduce energy consumption and enhance the conveniences of modern living,” says Ed Brady, chairman of the NAHB and a builder and developer from Bloomington, Ill. “Our builders are telling us that energy efficiency continues to be a top demand from consumers.”

In fact, a recently conducted NAHB survey revealed four out of the top 10 most coveted features are energy-efficient:

• ENERGY STAR® Appliances
• ENERGY STAR® Windows
• Low-E Windows
• Programmable Thermostats

Some homebuyers even desire an ENERGY STAR® rating for the entire house—though most are willing to pay more for a home simply in exchange for lower utility costs. According to the survey, the average additional cost to buyers is $10,372, and the average savings are $1,000 a year.

Non-green features are resonating with buyers, as well. Survey results show builders anticipate demand for granite countertops, a kitchen island, a great room, a walk-in closet and a laundry room, and will be including these features in their builds this year.

Source: NAHB

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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5 Ultra-Processed Foods Worth Tossing

April 13, 2016 2:21 am

A recently released study published in the medical journal BMJ Open reports a whopping 60 percent of calories in the diets of most Americans comes from “ultra-processed” foods. Ultra-processed foods contain additives like hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors and emulsifiers that account for 90 percent of the added fat and sugar we consume, increasing health risks.

Put simply, if the ingredients of any food include a lot of long words you can barely pronounce, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. Among the worst offenders:

Candy Bars – Most brands you know and love contain high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. There are better options out there, such as 70 percent dark chocolate—a good source of magnesium and antioxidants.

Chips – If you must have them, your best bet is a basic kettle chip with three simple ingredients: potatoes, olive or sunflower oil and salt. Other good-for-you options include organic blue corn chips and popcorn, which are low in calories, high in fiber and packed with antioxidants. 

Diet Soda – Besides the fact that diet soda has zero nutritional value, it contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, which have been linked to headaches and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. If you can’t get used to plain water, try sparkling.

Packaged Cakes – Those plastic-wrapped cakes that seem to last forever in your pantry are packed with sugar and way too many preservatives, which is why they last so long. Bake your own cupcakes from any recipe, substituting pureed fruit, like bananas, for half the sugar.

White Bread – You may already know you should avoid white bread in favor of fiber-rich whole grain breads, but even some grain varieties can contain additives, so check the labels and choose one with no artificial additives or preservatives. Pro tip: check the frozen section at your grocery store—breads that are frozen generally contain no preservatives.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Lawn Care 101: Ready the Mower

April 13, 2016 2:21 am

Spring is here! Eager to get out there and mow the lawn? Hold off until you’ve serviced your mower, say the experts at Briggs & Stratton—operating it prematurely can affect its performance over the course of the season.

Your lawn mower tune-up should consist of the following steps.

Change the oil. Changing the oil prevents engine damage and keeps your mower running efficiently. Engine oil needs to be changed annually for two reasons: oil is vulnerable to dirt and debris, which can cause wear on the internal components of the engine; and regular use of the engine causes the oil to break down. After removing old oil, add fresh oil as specified in the operator's manual, and recycle the old oil accordingly.

Replace the air filter. The mower’s air filter collects dust and debris through regular use, and it must be replaced every three months, or after 25 hours of use. To determine which air filter your mower needs, reference the operator's manual.

Replace the spark plug. An old spark plug can be problematic when starting your mower. It’s important to change the spark plug at the start of every mowing season, or after 100 hours of use.

Fill with gasoline, fuel treatment and stabilizer. Gasoline can go stale after as little as 30 days. Stale fuel contributes to gummed-up internal components, which cause hard-starting. What’s more, ethanol-blended fuels (like E10) attract moisture, which leads to rust and corrosion over time. This can affect the carburetor, fuel line and overall performance of the engine. To prevent these issues, remember to treat your fuel when you fill your gas can.

Source: Briggs & Stratton Corporation®

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Summer's Coming: 5 HVAC Maintenance Tips

April 13, 2016 2:21 am

Maintaining your HVAC system throughout the year can spare you the inconvenience of a breakdown, especially during periods of extreme weather.

“Homeowners need to have their heating and cooling equipment properly maintained to keep it running smoothly,” explains Stephen Yurek, president and CEO of the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI). “Doing so will help central air conditioning and heat pump units last at least 12 to 15 years.

“Spring is a great time to think about getting service before hot weather arrives and the rush for maintenance is in full swing,” Yurek adds.

To keep your HVAC running efficiently through the summer and beyond, the AHRI recommends the following tips.

1. Clean your outdoor condensing unit occasionally by spraying it with a water hose. Do not use a pressure washer.

2. Ensure air vents inside your home are not obstructed by furniture. If air cannot circulate freely through the vents, the air conditioner will consume more energy.

3. Hire a technician for professional maintenance. The service should include inspection of the belt, electric terminal, evaporator coil, ducts, oil motor, refrigerant and thermostat.

4. Remove any grass, leaves, weeds or other debris that may have collected on the outdoor condensing unit. Debris on the unit's fins will block airflow and reduce its efficiency; one of the most common offenders is grass clippings thrown by the lawn mower.

5. Replace the air filter if it’s dirty, or according to the manufacturer's recommendation, to keep dust from collecting on the evaporator coil fins. In most cases, the filter and coil are located in the basement of the home (sometimes in the furnace) within the air handler. Be sure to turn off the power to the air handler before swapping out the filter.

“Following these steps to ensure your units are running as efficiently as possible can help offset HVAC costs through the summer months,” says Yurek. “Heating and cooling account for about 48 percent of the energy used in homes, making it the single biggest energy-consumer for homeowners.”

Source: AHRI

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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8 Tips for Eleventh-Hour Tax Filers

April 12, 2016 2:15 am

Scrambling to file your taxes before this year’s deadline? Don’t let the time-crunch result in incorrect information on your return, says Greg Rosica, contributing author to the “EY Tax Guide 2016.”

“It's easy to make mistakes when you are rushing,” Rosica says. “If you waited until the last minute, you're not alone. Take a deep breath and start thinking back on personal life changes that occurred over last year, such as a new job, marital or family status, or large purchase. Think about any major decisions you made that can have tax implications. Most importantly, look at last year's return and make sure you have similar documents to support any of the deductions or income you include this year.”

Rosica advises eleventh-hour tax filers follow this checklist:

1. Check your math, or input the numbers if you use software to file. Be sure that your Form W-2 and all Form 1099s, as well as your Social Security number, are correct.

2. Confirm that you signed and dated your return and entered your occupation. If you are filing a joint return, be sure that your spouse also signs as required.

3. Check that you’ve claimed all of your eligible dependents, such as elderly parents who may not live with you.

4. Attach all copies B of your W-2 forms to your return in order to avoid correspondence with the IRS. If you received a Form 1099-R showing federal income tax withheld, attach copy B of that form, as well.

5. Retain for your records any health coverage tax forms you received (1095-A, 1095-B or 1095-C) from the IRS to prove you have health insurance and aren't required to pay any tax penalties.

6. If both spouses work, look into whether a married filing separate return is more beneficial than a joint return. If you are single and have a dependent who lives with you, consider the possibility that you might qualify for the lower tax rates available to a head of household or surviving spouse.

7. If you worked two or more jobs, see if you can claim a credit for any overpaid Social Security taxes withheld from your wages.

8. Keep copies of all documents you have sent to the IRS.

Taxpayers also have the benefit of additional time to file this year, adds Rosica.

“If you like to wait until the very end, you're in luck this year,” Rosica says. “Due to April 15 coinciding with a Washington, D.C., holiday this year, the deadline for Form 1040 filing is extended to April 18.”

Taxpayers in a bind have other options, as well.

“You can also request an automatic six-month extension if you feel you need more time to prepare your return,” Rosica says. “The extension gives you until October 18, but you can file any time before then. However, you still have to pay the IRS your estimated tax bill by April 18.”

Source: EY

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Prepping Your Garden in Spring for Summer Bounty – Pt. 2

April 12, 2016 2:15 am

In our last segment, we discussed the preparation needed to start your own vegetable garden. Returning to a recent blog by Brian Bath of Modern Farmer (modernfarmer.com), let’s dig into more of those steps.

Barth says once the soil in your vegetable garden is dry enough to not squish when you step on it, it’s time to start laying the groundwork for spring planting:

Clean Out: Remove any leftover veggies that didn’t survive the winter and toss them into a compost pile. Pull out any drip irrigation tubes to make way for tilling and planting. If you planted cover crops in the fall, mow them to the ground and then let the stems dry out for a couple weeks before tilling in the debris. If you mulched your beds in fall, rake off the mulch and add it to the compost pile.

Top Up the Fertility: Spread a fresh layer of compost on your beds—Barth suggests one to two inches—and till it in. Add supplementary nutrients like lime (for acidic soils), sulfur (for basic soils), bone meal (for phosphorus), greensand (for potassium), and kelp meal (for micronutrients). Till in the compost and amendments, but only once the soil is dry enough to crumble when you grab a handful. Rake the beds into smooth, ready-to-plant mounds.

Barth also recommends getting a soil test to fine-tune your fertility management strategy. Have the test annually to ensure what you are trying to grow has the best chance of reaping you a bounty.

Many state, county and local agencies, as well as universities, supply low-cost or free soil testing, along with advice on how to alter soil qualities for the veggies you want to grow, or which types of plantings may not do so well in your garden.

Homeowners and gardeners can learn a lot about soils in their own region by consulting the annual soil surveys available through the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service: www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/site/soils/home/.

In our final segment, we'll take a look at a few of the foods you can grow with very limited yard space.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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