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5 Things That REALLY Will Put a Serious Dent in Your Energy Bills

by The Schnoor Team

Stop sending so much money to your utility company with these simple strategies.

Your Mexican beach vacation was great, but, man, those margaritas sure can put on the pounds. It’s been two months, and you’re still carrying around an extra tenner — despite a new running routine and a lot of #&*&@$ kale. So why isn’t your weight dropping?

It’s like that with energy bills, too. Eighty-nine percent of us believe we’re doing the right things to lower energy costs, and almost half of us think our homes already are energy efficient. Yet, 59% of us say our bills are going up, not down, despite our efforts to economize.

Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group, a marketing agency that specializes in energy efficiency and that did this research, says we’re rationalizing: “I bought these [LEDs] so now I can leave the lights on and not pay more. I ate the salad, so I can have the chocolate cake.” Denial much?

Her research also shows consumers, on average, made fewer than three energy-efficient improvements in 2012 compared with almost five in 2010. It looks like we’re giving in to higher utility bills. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

You just need to know what improvements really will make the biggest difference to lower your bills. There are five, and the good news is that they’re really (seriously) cheap.

Be Mindful About Your Relationship With Energy

Think about it. Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis without knowing how much it costs until a month later, says Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a research and policy-making nonprofit focused on improving buildings’ energy efficiency.

With other services you get a choice of whether to buy based on price. With energy you don’t get that choice — unless you intentionally decide not to buy. You can take control by making yourself aware that you’re spending money on something you don’t need each time you leave home with the AC on high, lights and ceiling fans on, and your computer wide awake.

That mindfulness is important because your relationship with energy is getting more intense. You (and practically every other person on the planet) are plugging in more and more. Used to be that heating and cooling were the biggest energy hogs, but now appliances, electronics, water heating, and lighting together have that dubious honor, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, based on data from U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the research arm of the Department of Energy (DOE).

Being mindful means it’s also time to banish four assumptions that are sabotaging your energy-efficiency efforts:

1. Newer homes (less than 30 years old) are already energy efficient because they were built to code. Don’t bank on it. Building codes change pretty regularly, so even newer homes benefit from improvements, says Lee Ann Head, vice president of research and insights with the Shelton Group.

2. Utilities are out to get us: They’ll jack up prices no matter what we do. It might feel cathartic to blame them (Shelton’s research shows consumers blame utilities above oil companies and the government), but to get any rate changes, utilities must make a formal case to public utility commissions.

3. Energy improvements should pay for themselves. Nice wish, but it doesn’t work that way. When the Shelton Group asked consumers what they would expect to recoup if they invested $4,000 in energy-efficient home improvements, they said about 75% to 80%.

Unless you invest in some kind of renewable energy source like geothermal and solar, you won’t see that kind of savings. (Sorry.) Even if you do all the right things, the most you should expect is a 20% to 30% reduction annually, says Head, which is still significant over the long term.

What does 30% translate into? $618 in savings per year or $52 per month, based on the average household energy spend of $2,060 per year, according to Lawrence Berkeley and EIA.

4. Expensive improvements will have the biggest impact. That’s why homeowners often choose pricey projects like replacing windows, which should probably be fifth or sixth on the list of energy-efficient improvements, Shelton says.

There’s nothing wrong with investing new windows. They feel sturdier; look pretty; can increase the value of your home; feel safer than old, crooked windows; and, yes, offer energy savings you can feel (no more draft).

But new windows are the wrong choice if your only reason for the project was reducing energy costs. You could replace double-pane windows with new efficient ones for about $9,000 to $12,000 and save $27 to $111 a year on your energy bill, according to EnergyStar. (The savings are higher if you replace single-pane windows.)  Or you could spend around $1,000 for new insulation, caulking, and sealing, and save 11% on your energy bill, or $227.

The 5 Things That Really Work to Cut Energy Costs

1. Caulk and seal air leaks. Buy a few cans of Great Stuff and knock yourself out over a weekend to seal around:

  • Plumbing lines
  • Electric wires
  • Recessed lighting
  • Windows
  • Crawlspaces
  • Attics

Savings: Up to $227 a year — even more if you add or upgrade your insulation.

2. Hire a pro to seal ductwork and give your HVAC a tune-up. Leaky ducts are a common energy-waster.

Savings: Up to $412 a year.

3. Program your thermostat. Shelton says 40% of consumers in her survey admit they don’t program their thermostat for energy savings. She thinks it’s even higher.

Savings: Up to $180 a year.

4. Replace all your light bulbs with LEDs. They’re coming down in price, making them even more cost effective.

Savings: $75 a year or more by replacing your five most frequently used bulbs with Energy Star-rated models.

5. Reduce the temperature on your water heater. Set your tank heater to 120 degrees — not the 140 degrees most are set to out of the box. Also wrap an older water heater and the hot water pipes in insulating material to save on heat loss.

Savings: $12 to $30 a year for each 10-degree reduction in temp.

NOTE: Resist the urge to total these five numbers for annual savings. The estimated savings for each product or activity can’t be summed because of “interactive effects,” says DOE. If you first replace your central AC with a more efficient one, saving, say, 15% on energy consumption, and then seal ducts, you wouldn’t save as much total energy on duct sealing as you would have if you had first sealed them. There’s just less energy to save at that point.

Bonus Tip for More Savings

Your utility may have funds available to help pay for energy improvement. Contact them directly, or visit DSIRE, a database of federal, state, local, and utility rebates searchable by state. Energy Star has a discount and rebate finder, too.

Source: "5 Things That REALLY Will Put a Serious Dent in Your Energy Bills"

 

A Toast to New Mexico Wine

by The Schnoor Team

The Spaniards who settled New Mexico knew a thing or two about wine, and the grape-growing culture they brought along with them is one that today’s New Mexicans are fiercely proud of.

From high-altitude bubbly and festive events, to sophisticated atmospheres and down-home charm, there’s something for wine enthusiasts in every corner of the state. The New Mexico True Wine Trail offers a roadmap to dozens of uniquely New Mexican wineries for visitors to explore. Grab a friend, bring your map and get ready to toast!

Source: "A Toast to New Mexico Wine"

Tax changes for 2019 change the landscape for homeowners.

Tax season is upon us once again, and to make it even more interesting this year, the tax code has changed- along with the rules about tax deductions for homeowners. The biggest change? Many homeowners who used to write off their property taxes and the interest they pay their mortgage will no longer be able to.

Stay calm. This doesn’t automatically mean your taxes are going up. Here’s a roundup of the rules that will affect homeowners — and how big of a change to expect.

Standard Deduction: Big Change

The standard deduction, that amount everyone gets, whether they have actual deductions or not, nearly doubled under the new law. It’s now $24,000 for married, joint-filing couples (up from $13,000). It’s $18,000 for heads of household (up from $9,550). And $12,000 for singles (up from $6,500).

Many more people will now get a better deal taking the standard than they would with their itemizable write-offs.

For perspective, the number of homeowners who will be able to deduct their mortgage interest under the new rules will fall from around 32 million to about 14 million, the federal government says. That’s about a 56% drop.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll pay more taxes,” says Evan Liddiard, a CPA and director of federal tax policy for the National Association of REALTORS® in Washington, D.C. “It just means that they’ll no longer get a tax incentive for buying or owning a home.”

So will you be able to itemize, or will you be in standard deduction land?

If the answer is standard deduction, you’ll be pleased to know that tax forms are easier when you don’t itemize, says Liddiard.

Personal Exemption Repealed

One caveat to the increase in the standard deduction for homeowners and non-homeowners is that the personal exemption was repealed. No longer can you exempt from your income $4,150 for each member of your household. And that might temper the benefit of a higher standard deduction, depending on your particular situation.

For example, a single person might still come out ahead. Her $5,500 increase in the standard deduction is more than the $4,150 lost by the personal exemption repeal. 

But consider a family of four with two kids over 16 in the 22% tax bracket. They no longer have personal exemptions totaling $16,600.  Although the increase in the standard deduction is worth $2,420 (11,000 x 22%), the loss of the exemptions would cost them an extra $3,652  (16,600 x 22%).  So they lose $1,232 (3,652 – 2,420).

But say their two kids are under 16, giving them a child credit worth $2,000. That offsets the loss resulting in a $758 tax cut.

The takeaway: Your household composition will probably affect your tax status.

Mortgage Interest Deduction: Incremental Change

The new law caps the mortgage interest you can write off at loan amounts of no more than $750,000. However, if your loan was in place by Dec. 14, 2017, the loan is grandfathered, and the old $1 million maximum amount still applies. Since most people don’t have a mortgage larger than $750,000, they won’t be affected by the cap.

But if you live in a pricey place (like San Francisco, where the median housing price is well over a million bucks), or you just have a seriously expensive house, the new federal tax laws mean you’re not going to be able to write off interest paid on debt over the $750,000 cap.

State and Local Tax Deduction: Degree of Change Varies by Location

The state and local taxes you pay — like income, sales, and property taxes — are still itemizable write-offs. That’s called the SALT deduction in CPA lingo. But. The tax changes for 2019 (that’s tax year 2018) mean you can’t deduct more than $10,000 for all your state and local taxes combined, whether you’re single or married. (It’s $5,000 per person if you’re married but filing separately.)

The SALT cap is bad news for people in areas with high taxes. The majority of homeowners in around 20 states have been writing off more than $10,000 in SALT each year, so they’ll lose some of this deduction. “This is going to hurt people in high-tax areas like New York and California,” says Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and expert for TurboTax in California. New Yorkers, for example, were taking SALT deductions around $22,000 a household.

Rental Property Deduction: No Change

The news is happier if you’re a landlord. There continue to be no limits on the amount of mortgage debt interest or state and local taxes you can write off on rental property. And you can keep writing off operating expenses like depreciation, insurance, lawn care, and utilities on Schedule E.

Home Equity Loans: Big Change

You can continue to write off the interest on a home equity or second mortgage loan (if you itemize), but only if you used the proceeds to substantially better your home and only if the total, combined with your first mortgage, doesn’t go over the $750,000 cap ($1 million for loans in existence on Dec. 15, 2017). If you used the equity loan to pay medical expenses, take a cruise, or anything other than home improvements, that interest is no longer tax deductible.

Here’s a big FYI: The new rules don’t grandfather in old home equity loans if the proceeds were used for something other than substantial home improvement. If you took one out five years ago to, say, pay your child’s college tuition, you have to stop writing off that interest.

4 Tips for Navigating the New Tax Law

1. Single people may get more tax benefits from buying a house, Liddiard says. “They can often reach [and potentially exceed] the standard deduction more quickly.

2. Student loan debt is deductible, up to $2,500 if you’re repaying, whether you itemize or not.

3. Charitable deductions and some medical expenses remain itemizable. If you’re generous or have had a big year for medical bills, these, added to your mortgage interest, may be enough to bump you over the standard deduction hump and into the write-off zone.

4. If your mortgage is over the $750,000 cap, pay it down faster so you don’t eat the interest. You can add a little to the principal each month, or make a 13th payment each year.

Source: "Tax Deductions for Homeowners: How the New Tax Law Affects Mortgage Interest"

Kitchen Remodeling Decisions You’ll Never Regret

by The Schnoor Team

These 7 ideas will make your kitchen timelessly gorgeous and functional.

We see lots of kitchen trends at HouseLogic, so we know it’s easy to get swept along with what’s in vogue, only to get bummed out by your faddish design choices a few years later.

But chances are you’re only going to remodel your current kitchen once. After all, a complete kitchen renovation has a national median cost of $60,000, according to the “Remodeling Impact Report” from the National Association of REALTORS®. With that much on the line, you want to make all the right moves. If you do, you could recover about 62% of your investment if you sell.

So we’re here to future-proof you from angst by naming the seven definitive kitchen features that will retain their beauty, marketability, and value — all while giving you lasting enjoyment.

#1: White is the Dominant Color

Bottom line: White is the most marketable color. You’ll always find it atop the National Kitchen and Bath Association’s annual survey of most popular kitchen colors. It simply doesn’t go out of style.

  • Throughout history, it’s been associated with happiness, purity (think Snow White), and new beginnings.
  • It’s a bright color that reflects light and makes even small kitchens feel larger.
  • It’s a neatnik’s dream — dirt has no place to hide.

Even better, it’s uber-tolerant of both your budget and taste: A standard color for any manufacturer, you’ll find white cabinets, tile, counters, faucets, sinks, and appliances at any price point.

And with a white backdrop, you can be as conservative or expressive as you want. After all, it’s about your enjoyment, not just dollars and cents. For example:

  • Add your personal touch with colored glass knobs and pulls.
  • Show off antique Fiesta ware on open shelves or in upper cabinets with glass fronts.
  • Paint walls the color du jour — even off-white!

Heck, with a white palette, you can change your mind about paint color on a whim. Those all-white basics will make any hue you choose look fresh and contemporary.

#2: Hardwood for Flooring

It’s been our foot fetish for years. That’s especially true ever since hardwood flooring was mass-produced during the Industrial Revolution, making beautiful flooring readily available at a reasonable cost.

Today, more than half of home buyers who purchased a home without hardwood floors say they would have paid an extra $2,080 for them, according to the “Home Features Survey” from the National Association of REALTORS®. And among buyers of any age, upwards of 80% say hardwood floors are “somewhat” or “very important.”

“It’s the one feature men and women agree on,” says Debe Robinson, NKBA treasurer and owner of Kitchen Expressions Inc. in Sheffield, Ala., who’s also worked in the flooring industry.

Why? The love of wood is in our genes. Our nesting instincts know that hardwood has warmth, personality, and makes our homes cozy and inviting. That’s why this clever chameleon pairs well with any kitchen style — from casual cottage and sleek contemporary to the most chi-chi Park Avenue traditional.

More reasons why wood flooring is the goof-proof option:

Perfect for open floor plans. It flows beautifully from the kitchen into adjoining rooms.

It’s tough. Hardwoods such as oak, ash, and maple will shrug off your kitchen’s high-traffic punishment for years. Solid hardwood flooring can be refinished 10 to 12 times during it’s typical 100-year lifespan.

It’s eco-friendly. Hardwood is considered a green building material when it’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and comes from sustainably managed forests.

#3: Shaker Style for Cabinets

Thank heaven for the Shakers. While they were busy reducing life to its essentials, they made cabinets with clean, simple lines that will forever be in style.

Shaker cabinets are an enduring legacy of American style and, like wood flooring, have the knack for looking good in any setting. Their simple frame-and-panel design helps reduce the amount of busyness in a kitchen, making it a soothing, friendly place to be.

“In a kitchen with a timeless look, you want the cabinets to be part of the backdrop,” says Alan Zielinski, a former president of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. “You don’t want to be overpowered. You’re looking for plain, simple, clean lines.”

Those plain, simple, clean lines are a perfect fit for transitional style — a beautiful combo of traditional and contemporary styles. In fact, the National Kitchen and Bath Association says that after creeping up on traditional for years, transitional is now the most popular kitchen style.

As our families grow more diverse, transitional style will only get more popular. It lets us personalize and blend cultural influences — Latin, Asian, Mideastern — into our homes; it’s the perfect balance of old and new, just like Shaker-style cabinets.

#4: Carrara Marble for Countertops

Carrara marble is a timeless classic that’s been used in homes for thousands of years. (Michelangelo’s “David” was carved from Carrara.) It’ll look as good in the next millennium as it does now.

Here’s why:

  • Carrara’s lacy graining and subtle white colors look terrific in a white kitchen (or any kitchen, for that matter).
  • It has a whiteness you won’t find in other natural stones.
  • It’s readily available, making it less expensive than other high-end choices, such as quartz.
  • It’ll last for generations.

If you Google it, you’ll find a lot of debate about it (and marble in general) because it stains easily. But if you want something truly timeless, Carrara is the answer. And with today’s sealants, the problem of staining is almost moot if you reseal once or twice a year.

Still not sold? Or don’t have the budget? Laminate countertops are relatively inexpensive and can be upgraded to stone when you do have the budget.

#5: Subway Tile for the Backsplash

Subway tile goes back to the early 1900s, when it was used to line New York’s first subway tunnels. Classic subway tiles are white, 3-inch-by-6-inch rectangles — a look that became popular in American kitchens and baths, and has stuck around ever since. Now it’s an iconic part of the American design vernacular, destined never to go out of style.

In the kitchen, ceramic tile excels as a backsplash, where it guards against moisture, is a snap to clean, lasts forever, and always looks classy.

Sure, a backsplash can be an opportunity for a blast of color and pattern, but neutrals will always be current and blend with any look. Plus, a subway tile backsplash and a marble countertop make a dashing couple that will stand the test of time.

To make it even more enduring, keep it achromatic and camouflage dirt with gray or beige grout.

#6: Ergonomic Design

Adaptability and universal design features mean easy living at any age. A recent survey on kitchens from the American Institute of Architects points to the growing popularity of smart ergonomic design, a sign that kitchen adaptability will stay in vogue.

Smart ergonomics simply mean convenience — for young or old, party people or homebodies — a key factor when remodeling a kitchen that will function well, retain its value, and always feel right.

No matter you or your buyer’s current or future needs, everyone wins with these approaches:

Create different countertop heights. Standard height is 36 inches, but you can raise or lower sections of cabinets by altering the height of the base. Add color-match shim strips to the bases of countertops that don’t include sinks or appliances. You (or a new owner) can easily remove them or add to them to adjust the height.

Swap a standard range for a wall oven and a cooktop. Ranges have fixed heights. There’s no getting around the fact you have to bend to access the oven. But a wall oven conveniently installs about waist-high.

Add pull-out shelves to base cabinets. Lower cabinets with doors mean having to twist like a pretzel to see what’s inside. Pull-out shelves put everything at your fingertips.

Keep wide clearances. Kitchens attract people, and with open floor plans, you’re apt to have folks hunting for snacks, helping you cook, or just hanging out while you prep meals. Keep traffic flowing with a minimum of 42 inches between counters and islands.

#7: Smart Storage

Today’s families store about 47% of their kitchen stuff outside the kitchen — in laundry rooms, basements, even sheds — according to data released at the 2013 Kitchen and Bath Industry Show.

We blame it on the fact that kitchens have evolved from a tucked-away place at the back of the house into a multiple-chef, multi-tasking space that’s the hub of family life. Plus, our love of open kitchens and stocking up at warehouse stores means less wall space and more stuff, kitchen design expert Robinson says.

The solution: smart storage. Cabinet manufacturers have you covered with nearly unlimited storage options — shelves and compartments that unfold, turn, extend, and slide.

But it’s not just about having storage, it’s about designing it smartly. Follow these guidelines to make your storage timeless:

Create a primary storage zone. This is an area 30 to 60 inches high and within two feet on either side of your body. Store your most-used items here — your favorite work knives, measuring cups, salt and pepper for cooking, your trusty pots and pans. With one easy motion, you can grab what you use all the time.

Plan for the unknown. A truly timeless kitchen anticipates and adapts to future needs, such as:

  • A space that can easily convert to an office, wine storage, or a closet.
  • Lower cabinet spaces that can accommodate a wine cooler, under-counter refrigerator, a second dishwasher, or new must-have kitchen appliances on the horizon. (Remember when microwaves didn’t exist?)
  • An open space that fits a freestanding desk or favorite antique that can personalize the kitchen — no matter who owns the home.

Source: "Kitchen Remodeling Decisions You’ll Never Regret"


 

The Best Time of Year to Buy Things for Your Home

by The Schnoor Team

When to look for sales on mattresses, appliances, tools, furnishings, and materials.

Buying stuff can be stressful. Cheap out, and you could regret it. Overspend, and you’ll cut into your budget. Knowing the best time of year to buy appliances and other household items can lessen the anxiety.

Here’s a list of the best time of year for sales.

Furniture: January and July

You could save 30% to 60% buying furniture in January and July, as stores try to clear out inventory and make way for new pieces, which manufacturers introduce in February and August.

Floor samples especially often sell for a song, so don’t hesitate to ask.

Storage Essentials: January and August

In August, retailers slash prices and offer free shipping on shelving, organizing systems, baskets, and storage bins, baiting parents who are packing kids off to college or getting organized for a new school year. (No offspring? No problem. Proof of parenthood is not required to qualify for deals.)

It happens again in January, when stores roll out more sales — and selection — to help you find a home for all those holiday gifts and meet your organizing goals for the New Year.

Linens and Towels: January

Department store “white sales” — launched in 1878 — are still a favorite marketing tactic and make January the best time to binge on high-quality bedding and towels. If the exact color or style you’re seeking is out of stock, ask in-store for a rain check, so you can get exactly what you want at the price that can’t be beat.

Major Appliances: January, September, October, and the Holidays

The prices on this year’s appliances bottom out when they suddenly become last year’s models. With the exception of refrigerators (more on that below), you can pick up last year’s models for way less in September, October, and January, when stores are making room for new inventory.

For good deals on this year’s models, wait for Black Friday and the holidays. The season rivals inventory clear-out bargains as the best time of year for sales on appliances. And if you’ve got more than one appliance on the fritz, holidays are often the time to find incentives for buying multiple items.

Mattresses: February and May

Even the most obscure holiday seems to inspire mattress sale commercials. Annoying, yes, but also a reminder that you should never pay full price for a mattress. The best time of year for sales is February (courtesy of Presidents Day) and May (Memorial Day).

Many department stores offer coupons for additional savings on the sale price, while specialty chains — which have the biggest markups — can drop prices 50% or more. But don’t waste your time price shopping: Manufacturers have exclusive deals with retailers for each model, so the only way to find a lower price is to snuggle up to a different mattress.

Refrigerators: May

Unlike other big-ticket appliances, new fridges are released in May. Combine the need for retail turnover with Memorial Day sales, and you get epic savings nearly all month long, making it the best time of year to buy a new refrigerator.

Snow Blowers: March and April

The best time to pick up a low-cost snow blower is exactly when you DON’T need it: in March and April. That time of year, no store wants them taking precious floor space away from spring merch like patio furniture and grills.

Vacuums: April and May

New vacs debut in June, so last year’s models go on sale in April and May — just in time for spring cleaning.

Roofing: May

For the lowest price on materials, buy in May.

But if you’re paying a pro to install a new roof, contractor rates begin their climb April 1 and stay high through fall. So if weather allows for wintertime installation, you could save big.

Gas Grills: July and August

Come July 5, there’s still smoke in the air from Fourth of July fireworks, but stores are already moving on to Halloween, with Christmas not far behind. So, they’ll cook up juicy savings on grills and other summer staples in July and August. Sales peak by Labor Day, so you could pick up a new grill and still have time to host one final summer hurrah.

Lawn Mowers: August, September, and May

August and September are the perfect time to retire an ailing mower. You’ll find the lowest prices of the year (but also the slimmest selection) as stores replace mowers with snow blowers. Retailers also kick off the season with sales every April. You generally won’t save quite as much, but you’ll have more choices.

Perennials: September

Unlike non-perishable goods, there’s not much retailers can do with last season’s perennials, so September brings savings of 30% to 50% and two-for-one offers on plants like hostas, daylilies, and peonies. And note that independent gardening stores can typically offer deeper discounts than big chains.

Cooler weather also makes this a great time of year to plant. How’s that for a win-win? If you prefer planting in the spring, many nurseries offer 10% to 20% off when you pre-order in February or March.

Power Tools: June and December

Power tools are a favorite go-to gift for Father’s Day and the holidays, so June and December are the best time to buy tools like cordless drills.

Paint: January, May, July, November, and December

Prices for interior and exterior paint bottom out when the mercury (and demand) falls — in November, December, and January, but also when it rises back up, in May and July.

HVAC equipment: March, April, October, and November

Like snow blowers, the best time to buy furnaces and whole-house air conditioning systems is when you don’t need them. Prices are lowest during months with moderate temperatures — generally March and April, then October and November.

Many installers also run promotions during these slow seasons to help load their books. They also may be more willing to negotiate a lower price or throw in a free upgrade like a fancy thermostat.

Flooring: December and January

From mid-December and into January, homeowners tend to take a break from major remodeling projects because of the holidays. Flooring retailers and installers are looking for business, so that gorgeous wide-plank flooring or luscious carpet can be yours for an even more scrumptious price. Happy Holidays to you.

Source: "The Best Time of Year to Buy Things for Your Home"

Hey, Buyers: These Home Appraisal Tips Are for You

by The Schnoor Team

What to expect, when to negotiate, and how to deal when things don’t go your way.

Most people have deeply personal reasons for wanting to buy a home. Maybe it’s the bathroom that feels like a dreamy, modern spa. Or that two-tiered deck just made for parties.

Your lender doesn’t care about the freestanding tub. Or the built-in outdoor fire pit. Their only concern is that the house you buy is worth as much as the value of your mortgage.

To them, a house isn’t a home. It’s collateral. (Harsh, but true.) If someday, for some reason, you can’t make your mortgage payments, the lender can foreclose on the home and sell it to recoup all or some of its costs. (Even harsher, but also true.)

For that reason, a home must be valued at, or above, the agreed-upon purchase price, and this has to happen before you can close on a house. That’s where a home appraiser comes in.

A Home Appraiser Is Neutral (Like Switzerland)

After you sign a home purchase agreement (the contract between you and the seller about the terms of the pending sale), and before your lender approves your loan, the home you’re buying must pass an appraisal — an assessment of the property’s value by an unbiased third party: the appraiser.

An appraiser is a state-licensed or -certified professional. Their job is to assess an opinion of value —how much a house is worth. The appraiser is on no one’s side. They don’t represent you or the seller; instead, this person is a contractor chosen by your lender through an appraisal management company (AMC), a separate, neutral entity that maintains a roster of appraisers.

Appraisers survey a house in person, using five main criteria to determine the value of a home:

  • Location
  • Age
  • Condition
  • Additions or renovations
  • Recent sales of comparable homes

Be Prepared to Pay for the Appraisal — or to Negotiate

Generally speaking, the home buyer is responsible for paying for the appraisal — and the fee is typically wrapped into your closing costs. However, who pays for appraisal is negotiable. It never hurts to see if the seller is willing to cover it.

How much money are we talking about? The average professional home appraisal will run between $287 and $373, according to estimates by the home-professionals resource HomeAdvisor.com. Costs can vary depending on the square footage and quirks of the house, with higher appraisal prices for larger or more unique homes.

Appraisals Take a While, So Be Patient

Typically, a purchase agreement has a “home appraisal contingency” requiring that the appraisal be completed within 14 days of the sales contract being signed. Because it takes appraisers some time to visit your house and write a report — up to a week, or longer in a busy housing market — your lender will order the appraisal immediately after you sign the purchase agreement.

So, You Have a Valuation. Here’s What It Means — and What to Do Next

When the appraisal is finished, the appraiser issues a written report with his or her opinion of the value of the home. To produce the report, they use their analysis of the property and data from comparable homes, as well as review the purchase offer. The report will outline their methodology and also include photographs that they’ve taken of the property, inside and out.

You and your lender will both receive a copy of the report. Three things could happen next:

  • If the appraiser’s valuation matches the price you and the seller agreed to for the home: Your lender will proceed to underwrite your loan. Great news: This is the final step in your loan-getting process!
  • If the appraiser’s valuation is higher than what you’re paying for the home: Congratulations! You’ve gained immediate equity. How, you ask? Let’s say, for example, you’re paying $200,000 for the house. If the appraiser says it’s worth $250,000 — jackpot. That’s an instant $50,000 in equity. (Keep in mind, this is very rare.)
  • If the appraisal is lower than what you’ve agreed to pay for the home: Your lender won’t give you a loan for more than the appraised value. If you and the seller agreed on $200,000, for example, but the appraisal is $190,000, that creates a $10,000 shortfall. So what happens next?

Don’t despair — not yet. If you’re faced with a low appraisal, there are several ways the deal can still go through.

If an Appraisal Is Low, You Can Still Make It Work

Before we talk strategy, some reasons why appraisals come in lower than expected:

  • The seller overvalued the price of the home.
  • The appraiser isn’t familiar with the neighborhood.
  • The appraiser overlooked pending sales data.
  • The appraiser had trouble finding comparable homes, or missed comparable homes, so they compared your home with properties outside the neighborhood.
  • Home prices in the area are changing so fast that the listing agent’s price no longer reflects the market.
  • The appraiser rushed the job.

If the appraisal comes in low, your agent will offer recommendations about how to proceed. In general, your best strategy is to persuade the seller to lower the sales price, or to split the difference between the home’s appraised value and the price with you. This is when you can rely on your agent — and their negotiating skills — to go to bat for you.

You can also appeal the appraisal assessment. You’ll work with your agent to research comparable homes that support the sales price you agreed upon with the seller and present this information to your lender, who will forward it to the appraiser for a re-evaluation of the home’s value. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the appraiser to decide whether to revise their valuation of the property.

Alternately, you can ask your lender for a second appraisal, though there are caveats:

  • You’ll have to pay for it out of pocket (or persuade the seller to foot the bill).
  • You’re more likely able to challenge an appraisal for a conventional loan than a government loan. And you’d need solid facts to back it up in either case.
  • There’s no guarantee that it will be higher and meet the sales price.

The last option: You can come up with the cash yourself to cover the difference between the home’s price and the appraised value.

If you don’t want to take that route (and who could blame you?), a purchase agreement’s home appraisal contingency gives you the ability to walk away from the deal scot-free, and with your earnest money deposit in hand.

But today, let’s assume it all works out. With the appraisal behind you, you’ll be one step closer to closing on that house.

Source: "Hey, Buyers: These Home Appraisal Tips Are for You"

Holiday Lights & Luminaria Bike Tour

by The Schnoor Team

Presented By: Routes Bicycle Rentals & Tours, Inc

Recurrence: Recurring every December 24th

Location: Routes Bicycle Rentals & Tours, Inc

Address: 2113 Charlevoix St NW, Historic Old Town, Albuquerque, NM 87104

Phone: (505) 933-5667

Time: 5:30pm; 6:45pm: 8:00pm

Price: $20-25 Per Person

EXPERIENCE THE MAGIC OF THE HOLIDAYS ON OUR TWINKLE-LIGHT BICYCLE TOUR OF ALBUQUERQUE!

Join us as we take you through the heart of Albuquerque, down luminaria-lined avenues in Old Town and past some of the most impressive light displays in the Southwest. Our unique and intimate bike tours are the perfect way to experience the holiday sights, sounds, scents, and magic of New Mexico without the traditional headaches of heavy traffic and slow moving lines.

Now in our 8th Annual holiday season, Routes Bicycle Tours ‘Lights & Luminara’ Bike Tour has become a festive tradition for friends and families all over New Mexico!

Historic Old Town Albuquerque and the nearby Country Club neighborhood close their streets to automobile traffic on Christmas Eve, and together host one of the most extensive luminaria displays in the state. Old Town is also home to the City’s impressive holiday tree and the famous decorations and ceremonies of the San Felipe de Neri church.

Your breathtaking Christmas Eve bike tour begins with a stunning ride through Old Town and around the San Felipe de Neri church to view the city’s largest concentration of Luminarias.

We then proceed into the Country Club neighborhood, where every street is twinkling with holiday cheer and impressive light displays. This fantastic neighborhood also hosts an annual hot air balloon “glow” at sunset for your enjoyment. With this year’s VIP tickets,  guests can fill up on even more holiday cheer throughout the evening, in the tasty form of spiced cider, hot cocoa, New Mexico Piñon Coffee (unlimited refills with your special, keepsake Routes mug), and locally-made biscochitos (a traditional NM cookie).

The entire tour is approximately one hour in length and will be experienced from the comfortable seat of our signature cruiser bicycles, which have been festively transformed into impressive light displays of their own!

Multiple routes, times, and bicycle options are available for your enjoyment. You may choose to rent a bike from us or bring your own bike at a discount (BYOBike). All rentals come with a helmet, bicycle lights, our festively decorated “twinkle light” bicycles, and -as always- Routes’ coveted goodie bags for each rider!

This year, compliment your heart-warming bike tour with a body-warming beverage and keepsake mug!

General tickets include a cup of locally made cider or New Mexico’s favorite pinon coffee. Want to enjoy your hot beverage throughout the events? Purchase a VIP Mug Club ticket and receive unlimited refills throughout the evening in our collectible Routes Bicycles mug – choices for VIP mug club tickets include Cider, NM Pinon Coffee, or local artisan Hot Cocoa from the Chocolate Cartel!

Source: "Holiday Lights & Luminaria Bike Tour"

The Secret to Programming Your Thermostat the Right Way for Each Season

by The Schnoor Team

Before you get started, you’ll need to pick a programmable thermostat you’ll actually use. Here’s how.

According to a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, nearly 90% of Americans say they’ve rarely (or never) programmed their thermostat because they’re not sure how to do it.

But it’s really not that hard, and it’s definitely worth doing because it can save at least 10% a year on heating and cooling costs.

The U.S. Department of Energy says you can achieve that 10% by turning your thermostat back 7 to 10 degrees F from it’s normal setting for 8 hours a day.

The first step is to pick the thermostat that best suits your scheduling needs so you can “set it and forget it,” an approach the Energy Department advocates to get the most savings.

Pick the Right Thermostat

There are four types of programmable thermostats, each with a distinctive scheduling style:

7-day programming. Best for individuals or families with erratic schedules, since this is the most flexible option. It lets you program a different heating/cooling schedule for each day of the week.

5-1-1 programming. One heating/cooling schedule for the week, plus you can schedule a different heating/cooling plan for Saturday and Sunday.

5-2 programming. Same as 5-1-1 programming, except Saturday and Sunday will have the same heating/cooling plan.

1-week programming. You can only set one heating/cooling plan that will be repeated daily for the entire week.

You’ll need a program for both the cooler months and the warmer months.

TIP: Before buying a programmable thermostat, identify the type of equipment used to heat and cool your home so you can check for compatibility. For example, do you have central heating and cooling, or just a furnace or baseboard heating? Otherwise, you may not reap the rewards of energy savings and may risk harming your heating and cooling equipment.

Change the Factory Settings

Most programmable thermostats have a pre-programmed setting that’s supposed to be for the typical American family. But what family is typical these days? You need to adjust the thermostat’s settings so it’s in sync with the life you and your family lead instead of some mythical family.

Programming options are based on:

  • Wake Time
  • Sleep Time
  • Leave Time
  • Return Time

The Department of Energy suggests the following settings as an energy-saving rule of thumb:

Winter months:

  • For the hours you’re home and awake, program the temp to 68°F.
  • Lower at least 10 degrees for the hours you’re asleep or out of the house.

Summer months:

  • For the hours you’re home, program air conditioning to 78°F.
  • For the days you don’t need cooling, manually shut off the AC. Keep in mind, it will kick back on if the house gets too warm.
  • Program it to be warmer than usual when you’re out of the house.

Here are a few programming timing tips that can help you create the best set-it-and-forget-it heating and cooling schedule for your home:

  • Shut down heat or air conditioning 20 to 30 minutes before you leave home each day.
  • Turn on heat or air conditioning 20 to 30 minutes before you come home each day.
  • Reduce the heating or cooling 60 minutes before you go to sleep each night.
  • Increase heating or cooling about 30 minutes before you wake up each morning.
  • Spend time tweaking your program for a few days to make sure it feels right.

TIP: With a Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat, you can control your home’s temperature while on the go. That way, you’re not wasting energy if you’re running late or forgot to create a new program before going on vacation.

FYI: A furnace does NOT have to work harder to warm a house after the temperature has been set low during the day.

Use a Wifi Thermostat to Make It Super Easy

Want something that’s simpler? Newer more high-tech models have simplified the process:

The Nest Learning Thermostat: It creates a custom heating and cooling schedule for your home based on motion detection technology. Plus since it is Wi-Fi, it can be controlled remotely. Price: Usually a bit more than $200.

Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat: This device makes it easy to create a custom heating and cooling plan. Unlike conventional programmable thermostats, it has a large color interface that displays a simple menu that walks you through all the programming steps. It also “learns” your home and will send you personal notifications if the temperature is not right, or if there’s a power outage. Price: Usually under $200.

FYI: Thermostats made prior to 2001 may contain mercury. To see if your programmable thermostat contains mercury, check with the manufacturer. If you decide to dispose of a thermostat that contains mercury, check out how to do so safely in your area at Thermostat Recycling Corp. (Not sure why mercury is so bad? Here’s the skinny: It’s toxic and it never breaks down. When it enters the waste stream, it permanently damages the ecosystem.)

Source: "The Secret to Programming Your Thermostat the Right Way for Each Season"

Little-Known Ways You Can Buy A House With No Down Payment

by The Schnoor Team

The city where you plan to buy a home may offer loans with no money down.

Can you buy a house with no down payment?

Yes, you can.

“Paying 20% down is, quite frankly, a myth,” says Karen Hoskins, vice president at NeighborWorks and bearer-of-great-news. “Most buyers pay only 5% to 10% down — some even pay zero.”

The key to finding a no-money-down home loan is finding the right assistance program. And there’s no shortage of them if you qualify.

Of the roughly 2,500 home-buying programs tracked by Down Payment Resource, a nationwide database of home ownership programs that helps match buyers and properties, 69% offer down payment assistance.

Even better: The average amount of assistance from those programs nationwide tops $11,000 — though amounts would vary greatly between disparate cost-of-living markets like Southern California and Iowa, according to Down Payment Resource. Some 87% of properties are eligible for some kind of assistance.

Here’s where to find the financial help you need to buy a home:

National Government Programs

Because they’re at the national level, they’re often the ones people turn to first:

  • FHA. Helps first-time buyers — especially those with lower credit scores — buy with down payments as low as 3.5% (low-down).
  • USDA Rural Development Loans. For low-to-middle income families buying homes in towns with populations of 10,000 or fewer people or that are “rural in character.” That means some areas with bigger populations have been grandfathered into the program (zero down).
  • VA Home Loans. Helps service members, veterans, and eligible surviving spouses (zero down).
  • Government-sponsored enterprises. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which set the rules for mortgages nationwide, both offer programs allowing eligible buyers to put down as little as 3% of the purchase price. That’s even lower than FHA (low-down).

But those aren’t the only options. Too often, buyers neglect to look for help locally, which may offer even better assistance.

State and Local Home-Buying Programs

Responsible homeowners are vital to a community’s stability and economic health, so municipalities and states have a vested interest in helping you buy a home — even if you don’t have the down payment.

Qualifications vary based on the agency or the community requirements, but assistance programs generally:

  • Have income limits
  • Have purchase price limits
  • Require participants to take home buyer counseling

Other requirements — like whether you’re a first-time buyer, how good your credit is, where you have to buy, whether you have to rehab the home, or if you need to be part of a group, such as active military, veterans, or teachers — depend on the program.

Assistance comes in these forms (Note: Specific programs named as examples below may change or close over time.):

Forgivable loans and grants. These are literal gifts for some or all of the down payment and closing costs, which means there’s no recorded lien or mortgage on that money. Eligibility and terms will vary and funds are limited. Example: The National Home Buyers Fund, Inc. offers down payment and closing cost assistance up to 5% of the mortgage loan amount as a gift or zero-interest second mortgage that’s forgiven after three years.

Second mortgages. As the name suggests, these loans are in addition to your primary home mortgage. They take a variety of forms, and the differences can be confusing. The most important thing isn’t the terminology, though; it’s knowing they exist, because they can offer substantial down payment assistance (DPA) and favorable terms.

  • Soft mortgages. These DPA loans are deferred for some period of time based on a particular program’s requirements. Occasionally, they’re forgivable. Example: The Home Purchase Assistance Program in Washington, D.C., defers payments for five years for moderate-income borrowers.
  • Silent seconds. DPA repayment is deferred until you sell or refinance. The city of Napa, Calif., for instance, offers eligible first-time buyers up to $58,000 or 30% of the purchase price, whichever is less, at 1% interest. The loan can be deferred for the 30-year term if you stay in the home.
  • Hard seconds. You start paying off the DPA loan as soon as you close. Programs offer a variety of loan amounts and interest rates (some below-market) depending on your eligibility.

First mortgages at below market interest rates. Local and state agencies subsidize a mortgage to make it more affordable for the buyer by reducing the interest rate, or offering 100% financing (which means no down payment), and sometimes waiving mortgage insurance, too.

Mortgage credit certificates (MCCs). Issued by some state or local governments, MCCs allow taxpayers to claim a tax credit (Form 8396) for some portion of the mortgage interest paid during a given tax year. A credit, unlike a deduction, is a dollar-for-dollar savings on your tax liability.

You don’t have to itemize to use this credit, according to Greg Zagorski, senior legislative and policy associate at the National Council of State Housing Agencies. It’s capped at $2,000 per year, and you can claim it throughout the life of the loan.

A cool tax benefit of MCCs is that if your tax liability one year is lower than the credit, you can roll over the amount you can’t claim to the next year. If you make more the next year (and therefore have more tax liability), you can claim what you couldn’t before.

How to Find a Program You Qualify For

  • Housing counselors, who are free (!) and can discuss what mortgage options are best for you, are available through housing finance agencies and organizations like NeighborWorks. Find HUD-approved housing counselors by state here. Or contact your state’s housing finance agency.
  • Check your eligibility for a host of DPA programs at Down Payment Resource.
  • Find a good mortgage broker, who should have information about down payment programs in your area and can help you determine your eligibility.
  • Talk to your real estate agent.

A final note: When you put down less than 20%, you pay private mortgage insurance (PMI) each month to protect the lender’s interest. On the other hand, not having to save up for a 20% down payment can get you into a home a lot faster. And you can cancel PMI (except for FHA loans) once you reach 20% equity.

Source: "Little-Known Ways You Can Buy A House With No Down Payment"

10 Simple Comforts Every Houseguest Will Adore You For

by The Schnoor Team

Never underestimate the power of an extra iPhone charger.

You're expecting houseguests. Fun! You want them to feel welcome, comfortable, and — dare we say it? — maybe even a tad envious of your hosting prowess.

No need to moonlight at hospitality school. We asked Airbnb hosts with tons of great reviews on their cozy bungalows and light-filled island condos for some quick, easy (and cheap!) ideas to turn your guest quarters into a vacation haven. Be careful, though – your guests may not want to leave!

#1 Stock Up on Extra Chargers and Cords

A dead phone equals getaway misery. Airbnb host Valarie D’Elia sets out a bowl with power strips and cords, outlet converters, and even an iHome speaker. Nothing sets the stage for feeling at home IRL like feeling at home digitally.

And that includes posting your Wi-Fi name and password in the guest room so they don’t have to bug you.

#2 Offer Sample-Size Toiletries in Your Bathroom

Put your stockpile of Sephora samples and hotel toiletries to good use. Tiny shampoos and lotions arranged in a basket or vintage apothecary jar are as welcoming as they are practical. Guests will be relieved if they forgot their own, but even if they didn’t, they’ll love the luxury of washing their hair on the house.

#3 Raise Your Cleanliness Standards

When you miss a dust bunny at home, it’s just your own skin flakes and dried up sneezes in your own corner. To guests, it’s disgusting at best and insulting at worst.

So clean it all. Airbnb even tells hosts to scrub the entire bathroom, not once but twice, including the toilet, sink, bath, and floors after every guest.

“We make sure you can smell the cleaner,” says Cheryl Trotta, who rents out her vintage bayside cottage in Warwick, R.I.

#4 Give It Your Personal Touch

People choose Airbnbs over sterile hotel rooms because, in part, they want an authentic, personal experience.

So give it to them!

Trotta intentionally markets her rental as a family cottage and scatters pictures and family treasures throughout the cottage. Frame a couple of your childhood photos and hang them up alongside some mementos from your own travels.

How else would your guests discover that you were drum major of your high school marching band?

#5 Put a Radio in the Bathroom

Your guests may like to sing along in the shower, but the real reason for putting some tunes in the bath is to provide them with plenty of, well, privacy. Add an essential oil diffuser — or poo-pourri drops — and you’re in business.


#6 Set Up a DIY Cafe

If your guests are early birds — or will just want some occasional alone time — put a coffeemaker in their room along with a well-stocked basket of coffee and tea. Maybe even blow their minds with a mini fridge full of snacks.

To pull this off right, ask how they take their coffee in advance, and stock up appropriately.

#7 Designate Drawer and Closet Space Just for Guests

If your guest room closet could be featured on Storage Wars, it’s time to rethink your stuff strategy.

Consider some serious Marie Kondo-izing — maybe donate your to-be-regifted pile and sell those designer jeans you’ll never fit into again — to make room in the closet and dresser for guest to have plenty of space (and the key word is plenty).

Label a few guest drawers and crack the closet so they can see there’s space to hang their clothes.

#8 Fancy Yourself a Travel Agent

Give guests a local’s-eye view by filling a basket with menus from nearby restaurants, brochures from local businesses that cater to tourists, and a current issue of your community newspaper. It’s a great way for guests to feel like a local and customize their time in your town.

#9 Hang a Robe – or Two – in the Closet

Bonding with their host over morning coffee is one of the best parts of staying with friends. But they can miss it completely when they realize they only packed a ratty grandma nightgown or — even worse — NSFW lingerie.

Help your guests feel right at home by hanging a couple of cozy (and freshly laundered), one-size-fits-all robes in the guest-room closet.

Not only can they wear their pajamas to breakfast without feeling self-conscious, but they’re also super-comfy and great to wrap up in after a shower.

#10 Expect the Unexpected with Extra Personal Supplies

And let your guests know where they are so they won’t feel guilty for bothering you (or worse, go without!). Here’s a list of things that rock-star Airbnb hosts always keep in stock:

  • Disposable razors
  • Toothbrushes and toothpaste
  • First-aid kit
  • Towels, pillows, and extra blankets
  • Umbrella
  • Flashlight
  • Replacement light bulbs

Being the perfect host is perfectly achievable. With a little forethought, you’ll start racking up your own stellar reviews from your friends and family. Get ready to be the house everyone vies to visit.

Source: "10 Simple Comforts Every Houseguest Will Adore You For"

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