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Mortgages 101: It’s not as scary as you think

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: March 23, 2017

Financing a home can seem intimidating to the first-time homebuyer. If you’ve never applied for a mortgage before, don’t be afraid of the process. When you break it down and understand what is involved, you will be prepared to sail through the process!

Check your credit report.

First and foremost, review your credit report. Your credit score is a major factor in qualifying you for a mortgage and the amount you can borrow. A score of 720, for example, is excellent, and you can take your pick of lenders to secure the mortgage and terms you want (e.g., interest rate, no points). But even a lower score can be acceptable, depending on the lender and the mortgage program.

In addition to your credit score, review the entries on your credit report. It’s not unusual to find mistakes, which can be corrected with a letter to the credit reporting company (Equifax, Transunion, and Experian are the top three) or the business that reported the debt.

Late payments can also cause a problem when you’re seeking a mortgage. Try contacting those businesses to see what can be done to remove those “black marks”.

Collect your financial information.

You’ll need to prove your income, which requires two recent paycheck stubs and the last two years of income tax returns. You’ll also be asked for the past two months’ bank statements, so the lender can see how much is in your account as well as how you manage your funds. When you’re preparing to apply for a mortgage, spend a few months in advance ensuring you have reasonable cash flow without overdrafts.

If you receive any other income (e.g., alimony, commissions, investments), have the paperwork that documents it.

Research your loan options.

Mortgages come in all shapes and sizes—adjustable or fixed rate, 15 or 30 years. There are programs to assist first-time homebuyers. Veterans may qualify for a VA mortgage, a low-interest mortgage that requires no down payment. An FHA mortgage is a government-insured loan that requires a smaller down payment and accepts people with a less-than-stellar credit score.

Pre-qualify before you start your new home search.

Armed with the financial documents, you can contact lenders to be pre-approved for a mortgage. Your pre-approval letter will be submitted with your purchase and sale offer, showing the seller that you can actually purchase the home.

Builders usually have a preferred lender. There are many advantages to working with this lender if you are buying a new home or building one. In order to earn the “preferred” status from the homebuilder, the lender has proven himself as a resourceful professional who is committed to helping the buyer.

Don’t fear the mortgage process. It’s the pathway to homeownership!

Clutter versus Keepers: How to get (and stay) organized

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: February 8, 2017

When you move into a new home, you usually start by getting organized. When you were packing up your belongings, you probably purged a lot of items, just to lighten your load.

Before long, you see signs that the clutter bug is back. Mail, magazines, and an assortment of papers are scattered on tables, counters, and other surfaces. Your once-tidy closets are in disarray. The kitchen cabinets are so crammed, it’s hard to find the one thing you need, when you need it.

It’s time to channel that new home mindset, the one where you put everything in a logical place and don’t cling to the unnecessary.

Here are some tips to get and stay organized by separated the clutter from the keepers.

Do you need it? Are you keeping things “just in case”? A half-empty bottle of lotion, cleaner, or other item that has been sitting on a shelf somewhere for ages is taking up space. If “just in case” hasn’t used up the remainder by now, throw it out.

Also, remember that “want” and “need” are two distinctly different categories. You need to have a first aid kit on hand. You want to have an overstuffed supply of extras. Distinguish between want and need so that you avoid keeping things where the clutter quotient outweighs its value.

Does it function properly? Do you have something you’ve been holding on to, until you can get around to repairing it? This could be a pair of pants, a small appliance, a piece of furniture, or maybe chipped pottery. If you haven’t fixed it by now, you’ve been living quite nicely without it. Diagnosis: Clutter.

How sentimental is it? Quite likely, a large percentage of possessions you’re clinging to have sentimental value. Ask yourself how much sentiment you need. Your child’s first tooth is a keeper. All the ones that followed are not. Your college diploma is a keeper. Your participation certificate from the intramural soccer club is not. You don’t have to be ruthless (well, maybe a little). Just be realistic. Something with true sentimental value is worth having close at hand—displayed on a shelf, hanging on the wall, or among your valuables. If it’s not worth looking at on a regular basis, the sentimental value has depreciated considerably.

Once you’ve gone through the task of purging, organize what remains by storing it in a logical location, in proper containers (not cardboard), and with clear labels, so it’s easy to find when needed.

Before you toss out some of your things, determine if it can be donated to local charities, churches, schools, libraries, senior centers, or other groups.

As a rule of thumb, schedule a purge annually. Make it a part of your spring cleaning routine so you keep the clutter bug out of your home.

10 ways to improve your indoor air quality

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: January 26, 2017

You spend a lot more time inside your home during the cold weather. Did you know you could be breathing in more pollutants inside your home than outside?

Dust mites, pet dander, second-hand smoke, and mold are the obvious culprits, but the problem goes deeper. Household cleaners, air fresheners, carpets, furniture, and even the paint on your walls could be releasing harmful toxins. Other allergens and irritants are being tracked into your home. With the improvements in insulation being installed in today’s homes, you’re living (and breathing) in an airtight environment that is comfortable but could be harmful.

Protect your household by making healthier choices. Here are 10 ways to improve your indoor air quality.

  1. Use a good vacuum with a HEPA filter. Don’t skimp on your choice of vacuum. A lesser quality vacuum will suction up the dust, mites, allergens, and pollutants, but then sends them back into the air via the exhaust. Choose a vacuum that features a HEPA filter, rotating brushes, and strong suction. Be sure to clean the filter regularly, for best results.
  2. Mop after vacuuming. It’s not enough to vacuum. Go over the laminate, wood, and tile floors with a wet mop (no cleaners) after you’ve finished vacuuming, to ensure you’ve removed as much unwanted debris as possible.
  3. Protect your entryways. Prevent dirt, pet dander, chemicals, pesticides, and other traveling pollutants from walking into your house. Place a durable mat at each doorway. Ask people to remove their shoes when entering your home.
  4. Manage the humidity. Moisture is a breeding ground for mold and mites. Keep your humidity to no more than 50% by using a dehumidifier in the months when your home is closed tight, and empty the drip pans as needed.

You can also reduce the humidity by using an exhaust fan in the bathroom and kitchen (particularly when the dishwasher is running). Be careful not to overwater your house plants. Repair leaky pipes and faucets, and vent your clothes dryer to the outside of your home.

  1. Use natural cleaners. Many store-bought cleaners contain harmful chemicals that you’re spraying into the air and wiping onto your home’s surfaces. You don’t need those chemistry experiments to keep your home clean. Some of the best cleaning products are in your pantry: lemon slices, baking soda, white vinegar, tea tree oil, olive oil, salt, and castile soap.
  2. Avoid artificial fragrances. Plug-in air fresheners have been proven to emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are considered toxic. Laundry detergents, air fresheners, dryer sheets, and other consumer products that boast a “fresh scent” are the result of harsh chemicals, such as phthalates. Avoid any products with artificial fragrances. For indoor air that is healthy and smells fresh, use an air diffuser with essential oils.
  3. Read labels. Some of the woods and wood products used in furniture are treated with chemicals, like formaldehyde, and assembled with toxic glues. Look for furniture, electronics, building products (e.g., cabinetry, countertops, lighting, flooring), mattresses, wallcoverings, and windows treatments that carry the GREENGUARD Certification,
  4. Look for low- or no-VOCs. If you’ve ever walked into a room with fresh paint, you know the odor. You might have even experienced a headache from the VOCs in the paint. Choose only low-VOC or Zero VOC paint.
  5. Add plants. Some house plants remove toxins from the air and emit healthy oxygen in return. These detoxifying plants include the areca palm, bamboo palm, gerbera daisy, spider plant, variegated wax plant, and Boston fern. They remove chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene, and toluene from your air, AND they’re safe for pets (cats and dogs).
  6. Open the windows. There’s nothing like airing out your home. Yes, it’s cold outside, but let in some fresh air occasionally—and let the bad air get out.

Post-holiday home touch-ups

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: January 5, 2017

The party’s over. Friends and family members have gone home. You’re taking down the holiday decorations, with far less enthusiasm than when you festooned your home with the sparkle, glitter, ribbons, bows, and scents that put you in the holiday spirit.

Now you’re seeing the fresh scars on the wood furniture, stains on the rugs and upholstery, nicks on the walls, and who put thumbtacks in the mantle?

Don’t assume the “bah, humbug” mode. These nagging little issues are simply an opportunity to start the new year fresh with some post-holiday home touch-ups.

  • Steam-clean your carpets, rugs, and upholstery. You’ve got a lot of indoor living to do in the months ahead. The fresh smell and revived look will perk up your spirits.
  • If you don’t want to patch and repaint the nail holes and nicks in your walls, apply wall decals. You can find anything from an inspiring quote to a panoramic image.
  • A minor furniture scratch can often be rubbed out with a 50-50 mixture of lemon juice and vegetable oil. Click here for other furniture repair tips.
  • Don’t wait for spring cleaning. While you’re moving your furniture back from its holiday location, dust and vacuum those spots that are usually hidden.
  • You probably spent a lot of time in your kitchen over the holidays. Did you experience frustration with clutter or disorganization? Now is a great time to reorganize this vital space. Clean out your cabinets and determine a more convenient way to store those small appliances that you suddenly discovered have more value than you realized (e.g., the immersion blender you never took out of the box). Discard old herbs and spices, replace them, and create a better system for keeping stock so you don’t run out of ginger just when you’re ready to make gingerbread cookies with the kids.
  • Before you stash all your holiday decorations back where they live for 11 months of the year, do a quick inventory. Are there any you don’t want to keep? If so, purge now and lighten your load.

It’s a new year. Start with a clean slate, a clean house, and a fresh perspective!

Prevent a Christmas tree fire.

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: December 22, 2016

Every year, about 210 home fires start with a Christmas tree, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. One-third of these fires results from an electrical problem, says the U.S. Fire Administration. That twinkling symbol of holiday joy could end up causing you tremendous loss, unless you follow steps to prevent a Christmas tree fire.

  • Choose a fresh tree that isn’t on the verge of drying out. Rub your hand along a branch. If the tree is fresh, the needles will stay where they are. If not, you’ll end up with a handful, indicating that tree is not going to last through the holidays.
  • Set up the tree at least three feet from any heat source that could spark a fire, such as a radiator, fireplace, vent, wall sconce, lamp, or candles.
  • Cut off about two inches from the bottom of the tree’s stump so that it will better absorb the water it needs to remain fresh.
  • Fill the tree stand with water every day. During the first few days, the tree will soak up a lot of water.
  • Use only UL-certified strings of lights (and extension cords, if needed). Make sure the cords are not frayed, cracked, or damaged. Check for loose connections or broken light sockets.
  • Avoid overloading your extension cord. Limit your use to three strings of lights per extension cord.
  • Don’t leave on the tree’s lights when you’re away from home or going to bed. Either turn them off or unplug them altogether.
  • After the holidays, remove all electrical lights before taking the tree outside. Don’t store a dry tree in your garage or basement. Place it outside, away from the house until you can recycle or otherwise safely dispose of it.

If you choose an artificial Christmas tree, choose one that is specifically identified as “flame retardant”. Check the lights to be sure they are UL-listed and the cords aren’t twisted.

Everyone in your home will enjoy the holidays even more when you put safety first.

Take it easy with these Thanksgiving dinner cooking tips and time-savers.

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: November 24, 2016

thanksgivingcooking

It’s coming. That time of year when the family descends on one another for a day-long feeding frenzy. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year, don’t panic. Take it easy with these Thanksgiving cooking tips and time-savers.

  1. Estimate 1 to 1 ½ pounds of turkey per person, to make sure you have enough. Too much never seems to be a problem (sandwiches, pot pie, a la king, soup, and good old casseroles).
  2. Remember that thawing a frozen turkey can take DAYS—about 24 hours for every 4 to 5 pounds. Do the math, and plan ahead so you’re not scrambling the morning of Thanksgiving—or serving up a turkey-sicle.
  3. In addition to the 12-minute-per-pound cooking time, allow 20 to 30 minutes at the end to let it rest before carving. This extra time lets the juices spread out and provides a moister bird.
  4. While the turkey is waiting to be carved, siphon up the juices and make the gravy. You can make it ahead, if you want, using broth or stock. Then, add the juices and thickener when you take the turkey out of the oven.
  5. Speaking of making gravy, don’t add cornstarch or flour directly into your simmering pot of would-be gravy. This leads to lumps. Instead, dilute the thickening agent in a liquid measuring cup with broth, water, or turkey drippings, to the consistency of a paste. Stir it well and add the thickener to your gravy for a lump-free result.
  6. For the tastiest mashed potatoes, start with the right tater. Yukon Golds give the creamiest texture. Red Bliss potatoes are nice (leave some of the skin on for added color). Russets are good and readily available. White potatoes lack the flavor of these preferred potatoes.
  7. Don’t mash potatoes with a hand-mixer or other electric tool. You’ll end up with a paste-like substance. For fluffy mashed potatoes, use a ricer or hand masher.
  8. Warm the milk a bit before mashing it into your potatoes (20 seconds on high in the microwave). Cold milk will only reduce the temperature of your potatoes.
  9. Pre-made pie crust is great! Why struggle with getting the perfect combination of flour and moisture for your pastry? The name-brand, refrigerated crust adds a flaky, tasty foundation to your pie (the store brand isn’t as good, in my humble opinion). Before rolling it out, let the crust come to room temperature (or thereabouts) on your kitchen counter.
  10. If you’re a pumpkin purist, you probably take the time to roast and puree the mighty gourd. But a very good substitute is pure pumpkin in a can—not to be confused with pumpkin filling.
  11. Be careful about trying a new recipe on the Thanksgiving dinner crowd. Do a trial run ahead of time to make sure you like the result. People don’t often remember their favorite dishes, but they somehow never forget the terrible ones!

Happy Thanksgiving! May the day be filled with blessings.

Chimney fire prevention in 3 easy steps

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: October 27, 2016

fireprevention

The growing chill in the air ignites the urge to cozy up in front of a crackling fire. Before you light that log in your fireplace, be sure you’re not sparking a chimney fire.

Approximately 23,000 chimney fires occur every year, causing near a billion dollars in damage, and potentially the loss of lives.

Chimney fires are usually caused by creosote build-up. That’s the highly combustible residue that remains in your chimney when burning wood. The wood emits smoke, vapor, gas, hydrocarbons, tar fog, and wood particles. When the internal temperature of your flue gets high enough, the creosote ignites. The fire can explode and erupt in flames, or quietly smolder undetected.

A chimney fire can also result from a faulty chimney liner. If your chimney liner doesn’t provide adequate protection from the searing heat, sparks can escape into your home and ignite a fire.

You can prevent a chimney fire with three easy steps:

  1. Have your chimney professionally inspected and cleaned. At the beginning of the heating season, hire a certified chimney inspector to examine your chimney—specifically, the chimney liner and ventilation. The chimney inspector will check for creosote build-up, cracks, and leaks, and make sure the vent is in good working order. A good chimney sweep thoroughly cleans the chimney, flue, and vents.
  2. Use the right wood. Not all woods burn the same. Seasoned hardwood—like ash, oak, maple, hickory, and beech—is best. It has been fully dried out, and the ends should appear cracked, showing the wood is dry. When wood is still green, it creates more smoke as the moisture is dried. This additional condensation can lead to creosote build-up.

Never burn any treated wood materials—e.g., plywood, pressed wood, pressure-treated lumber, engineered wood, like laminate. These materials have been chemically treated and could emit dangerous gases when you burn them.

  1. Take precautions outside.
    • Stack your firewood at least 30 feet from your home, to avoid any risk if the wood catches a spark.
    • During your fall clean-up, clear away fallen leaves, pine needles, and debris from the roof and flue. Anything near the chimney is at risk of catching sparks and starting a fire.
    • Place a spark arrestor screen over the chimney opening. The mesh keeps sparks from escaping to the roof and igniting a fire.

For some tips on finding a certified chimney sweep, visit the Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA).

Checklist to winterize your home

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: October 6, 2016

winterizehome

Summer is over. The weather is going to get colder—much colder—before we see those pleasant temperatures again. Once you’ve stored your patio furniture and raked the fallen leaves, you will need to winterize your home, to protect it from all the hazards that a long, hard winter can bring.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a checklist to winterize your home.

Check your heating system.

Crank up the thermostat to 80 degrees, and listen for the furnace to turn on. Then, you should feel warm air. If that works, turn the temperature back down to the normal setting.

This is only a test. You should hire a professional to do a full inspection and cleaning of your heating system.

Put your air conditioner to bed.

You need to do more than turn off the A/C when the weather gets too cold to use it. Hose off the entire central air conditioner’s condensing unit to remove leaves and other debris. Be sure you use a heavy spray. Then, cover the condenser to prevent leaves, twigs, and other items from invading the unit. With freezing temperatures, those seemingly innocent things could lead to interior damage.

Inspect the chimney.

Creosote builds up in the chimney, leading to dangerous chimney fires. Hire a professional chimney sweep to ensure that the chimney and flue are ready for those crackling winter fires. While you’re at it, have a complete chimney inspection to find leaks that let in the cold air and ignite your heating costs.

Insulate yourself.

A burst pipe can be a disaster. Wrap insulation around any exposed piping to blanket them from the cold. If you have exterior faucets, turn off the water supply that feeds them.

Wrap an insulating blanket around your hot water tank to prevent heat from escaping.

Apply foam sealing gaskets around exterior outlets and switch plates.

Plug the leaks.

Windows and doors are notorious for housing leaks. Check your windows and doors—including the trim and the bottom of the doors—for drafts. Apply (or replace) weatherstripping. Recaulk areas where edges come together, at the corners of the house or where the roof meets the siding.

Proof the roof.

It’s no fun getting on the roof to make repairs in the dead of winter. Be proactive by checking your roof now, before the weather gets cold. Replace cracked, missing, or damaged roof shingles. Make sure the flashing is intact. And, if you didn’t already include the task in your autumn checklist, clean the gutters. All those leaves, sticks, and other unwanted stuff will add weight to your gutters when they freeze, and block the safe flow of water when the snow melts.

Shut down the sprinklers.

Water might still be inside your sprinkler lines. If it freezes, those lines could burst. After turning off the water supply, use an air compressor to blow air through the lines and push the resting water out.

Spend a little time winterizing your home now so you can enjoy a season without unnecessary home repairs.

How long does it take to close on a home?

Categories: Home Owner Tips | Posted: September 22, 2016

closingonahome

After touring through one home after another in search of the “just right” Goldilocks moment, you found it.

Then, your offer was accepted!

Now what? How long before you have the keys in your hand and a mortgage to go with it?

There are no hard and fast timelines, but there are some actions that need to happen along the route from accepted offer to homeownership.

How long does it take to close on a new home? Let’s take a look.

Mortgage Pre-approval

Let me start out by asking if you were pre-approved. I hope so. The worst feeling is to fall in love with a home, only to find out you can’t get the mortgage to buy it. Before you even browse listings, talk to a mortgage specialist and get pre-approved. Having the pre-approval letter when you shop will show that you’re a serious buyer with the purchasing power.

Home Inspection

Your purchase and sale contract iis probably contingent on having a home inspection completed. Your Realtor can help you find someone to handle the job. Once the inspection is done, you should receive a detailed report within 24 to 48 hours. That inspection report will identify any problems that need to be addressed by the seller, prior to proceeding with the closing. Depending on the repairs, the seller might either have them done or simply reduce the price of the home to credit you for the cost.

If the inspection brings up a major problem, you have the right to walk away from the deal.

Appraisal

The lender will require a property appraisal, and will assign an appraiser to handle this task, at your expense. The intent is to protect you from paying too much for a home. If the appraisal comes back lower than the purchase price, the lender is not going to approve financing. You will need to re-negotiate with the seller, based on the appraisal. Allow up to two weeks for the appraisal to be completed.

Underwriting

Even though you’ve been pre-approved for a mortgage, you still need the lender to process the paperwork, which is known as underwriting the mortgage. In general, underwriting takes about one to two weeks.

During this step, you might receive any number of inquiries, such as recent bank statements, and letters of explanation for anything out of the ordinary the pops up on your credit report, like debt that went to collection. If you’ve been married or divorced, you might need to provide that documentation in order to verify a name change on your credit report.

Be advised: The lender will pull an up-to-date credit report on you when the mortgage underwriting begins, so if you’ve opened up a new credit card since your original pre-approval, you might not be eligible for the full mortgage amount. Do not tamper with your credit in any way once you’ve been pre-approved!

Homeowner’s Insurance

You will need to submit proof that you have secure homeowner’s insurance prior to closing. Do this as soon possible to avoid unnecessary delays. A simple call to your insurance agent can usually take care of it.

From start to finish, the timing for closing on your new home could require from four to seven weeks. An FHA or VA loan will tend toward the longer end of this range, because the government-insured loans require a bit more work on the lender’s part.

In the end, you will walk away with the pride and joy of being a homeowner!

 

Home Staging 101

Categories: Home Design Trends, Home Owner Tips, Interior Design | Posted: September 6, 2016

When you begin the process of selling your home, there is one part that cannot be overlooked and that is home staging. Did you know that over 95% of “Buyers Agents” say that home staging has some effect on the buyer’s opinion of the home?

Open Houses are the make-or-break moment for selling your house on time.With good staging, buyers will recognize how your home could be their new home. But, bad staging could keep your house languishing on the market for some time.

Staging your home doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money or time, but by focusing on a few key rooms and understanding a few factors that potential buyers look for can take your house from a dud to a stud. Home staging highlights your home’s strengths and down plays (to some extent) its weaknesses.

Here are a few home staging 101 tips and tricks that will help make your open house successful.

Home Staging 101 Infographic