Mowing Your Lawn the RIGHT Way

A chore though it may be, mowing your lawn properly will do more than just improve its appearance.

When it comes to your landscape, one of the most time-consuming summer chores is mowing.At this time of year, under the right circumstances, the grass puts all its energy into growing, leaving you struggling to keep a tidy lawn. But mowing is not just a chore–done right, it’s one of the most effective ways of maintaining healthy turf. Here’s how to mow properly…

Mow more often
It might be more convenient to wait for the lawn to get straggly before mowing, but doing it every 4-5 days during the growing season will keep you from cutting too much off for healthy growth. Aim to take off no more than one-third of a blade’s height at once. This leaves enough leaf tissue so that the plant can continue photosynthesis. If you get behind one week, raise the mowing height to keep from cutting off too much at one time.

Don’t bag the clippings
Assuming you are mowing often enough so that the clippings aren’t excessive, leave them on the lawn to decompose and fertilize the soil. If it looks untidy, redistribute with a rake.

Sharpen those mower blades
Start the season with a sharp blade and replace as necessary. Help maintain sharpness by mowing when the grass is dry to keep wet leaves from clinging to the blades.

Switch directions
It doesn’t actually matter whether you mow in rows or spirals, but switching it up will help reduce soil compaction and turf wear.

Get the right mower for your lawn

- Manual-reel mowers: The best for the environment but requiring a lot of manpower, reel mowers demand keeping the grass quite short, which means cutting more often. They are easier to store for those lacking garage space and are perfect for those with small lawn space.

- Electric mowers: With an electric motor that pushes a rotating blade are second best in turns of minimal effect on the environment because they don’t produce exhaust. They are best for homeowners that have level lawns. Try a cordless one with a side or rear bag to catch the clippings if you chose to bag, otherwise get one that cuts finely enough to let them settle on the yard.

- Gas-powered mowers and lawn tractors: The exchange for power and usability does come with a heavy toll on the environment, so please choose a newer model that produces less exhaust emissions. Also part of the exchange for convenience comes the required maintenance—regular tune-ups, refuels, and oil changes. But for larger yards, they are the most practical solution.

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Lowering Your Energy Bills during the Dog Days of Summer

As temperatures rise, it’s common for utility bills to do the same.

A whole-house makeover isn’t necessary to begin generating energy savings this summer.Even the simplest changes can save you some serious dough in no time.

Clean filters

Want your air conditioner to run as efficiently and inexpensively as possible? Be sure to put “clean filters” at the top of your to-do list.

Dirty filters significantly block airflow and reduce a system’s efficiency. With normal airflow obstructed, air that bypasses the filter may carry dirt directly into the evaporator coil and impair the coil’s heat-absorbing capacity. Clean your filter and you can lower your air conditioner’s energy consumption by up to 15 percent.

For central air conditioners, filters are generally located along the return duct’s length. Room air conditioners have filters mounted in the grills that face into your house.

Some filters are reusable; others must be replaced. Clean or replace your air-conditioning system’s filter or filters monthly during the cooling season. Filters may need more frequent attention if the air conditioner is subjected to dusty conditions or you have pets.


Just as it keeps your house warm in the winter, insulation can help keep your home cool in the summer. Insulation can reduce heating and cooling costs as much as 20 percent, according to Energy Star.

If you’re only going to insulate one place, look upward. Attic temperatures can soar to 140 degrees or higher in the summer. That heat will radiate down into your home. Insulation can stop that flow of heat and keep your main living space cooler in summer.

Shade those windows

Shades and blinds won’t actually reduce air leakage, but they can play a huge role in saving energy.

Awnings, for example, can reduce solar heat gain in the summer by up to 65 percent on south-facing windows and 77 percent on west-facing windows. Awnings require ventilation to keep hot air from becoming trapped around the window. Consider installing adjustable or retractable awnings so that sun is allowed to warm the house in cooler months.

Interior blinds can’t do much to control heat gain, but the fact that their slats can be adjusted helps control both light and ventilation. When completely closed on a sunny day, the U.S. Energy Department estimates highly reflective blinds can reduce heat gain by approximately 45 percent.

Drapes or curtains may also reduce heat gain, but their effectiveness varies greatly depending upon their fabric type, color and backing. On hot days, close draperies on windows receiving direct sunlight to prevent heat gain. Studies demonstrate that medium-colored draperies with white-plastic backings can reduce heat gains by 33 percent.

Invest in a smart thermostat

Set your thermostat as high as comfortably possible in the summer. The smaller the difference between the indoor and outdoor temperatures, the lower your overall cooling bill will be.

Programmable thermostats have the potential to save enormous amounts of energy. Unfortunately, most users don’t program their programmable thermostats, leading the government to exclude the devices from its Energy Star program.

Never fear, there’s a cool new thermostat available that can actually do the thinking for you. The Nest features a simple dial that allows you to set the temperature you want; the $250 thermostat will learn your schedule as it goes. In about a week, it’s able to track your habits and programs itself. The Nest can also be controlled remotely, via smartphone or laptop.

Best of all, The Nest is aesthetically pleasing and, to quote the MIT Technology Review, “a little bit sexy.”

Turn off, unplug

The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average household spends $100 a year on plugged-in devices even when they’re not being used directly. Nationwide, idle gadgets and appliances suck up 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity at a cost to consumers of about $11 billion.

According to the EPA, computers account for 2 to 3 percent of overall U.S. household and office energy use. Sleep mode helps, but your best option is to unplug entirely or use a power strip, such as the Smart Strip, which kills power when it senses inactivity.

Another big energy suck? That garage or basement fridge that’s being used to cool a half-empty ketchup bottle and a package of stale cheese. Pre-1993 models gobble twice as much energy as newer models. Need cold drinks for a party? Plug in the fridge the night before, but don’t keep it running unless you really need it.

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Selling Your Home: then and now

homesellingthenandnowOver the last 30 years, the way buyers shop for new homes has changed drastically. From the advent of online listings to the influence of home-improvement television shows, there’s plenty a home seller has to know about catching and keeping a buyer’s interest these days.

Go Where the Buyers Are and Give Them What They Want

Changes in technology have played the largest role in revolutionizing the way buyers find their new homes. Interested homebuyers used to browse newspaper ads and real estate magazines or go to open houses. But once online listing sites began to gain popularity, there was no turning back.

“Open houses were important when I started in real estate,” Dawn Kirkland, an agent in Birmingham, AL, told us. “But they’re no longer useful. Why go out and look when you can stay home in your robe and fuzzy slippers and see everything you want to see?”

Today, buyers of all ages begin their home searches online. The two largest age groups of homebuyers, Generations X and Y, even skip the computer and search using their mobile devices. That’s how many young homebuyers today actually find the homes they ultimately buy.

Overall, 92% of homebuyers searched online for a new home, so if you want buyers to even see your home, you must have an online listing. But, according to real estate agent Bob Wolf, if you want buyers to be interested in your home, you’ve got to outshine the competition. “The information, pictures and virtual tours included in sellers’ listings have got to be stellar,” he said.

A recent National Association of Realtors study of homebuyers backs him up. Homebuyers ranked photos, detailed information and virtual video tours as the top three most useful features of online listings.

Looking Past the Online Listing

Hooking the seller with a fabulous listing is just the beginning, especially with today’s buyer.

“A seller has six seconds to make an impression on a buyer,” Dawn said. The first three seconds are spent at the curb of course, so a neat yard and welcoming entry are as important as they have always been. But the sale really hinges on the next three seconds.

“You have to knock their socks off as they walk in,” Dawn explained. “Because they will either walk through the rest of your home with anticipation, or they’ll walk through with a critical eye,”

“Get a stager to help with furniture arrangement,” Leigh Gillig, a real estate agent in Nashville for 30 years, added. “This was never done years ago. Buyers now expect the home to look like a magazine.”

We’re Not Done Yet

Even making sure your home looks just right often isn’t enough to seal the deal, Dawn cautioned.

Years ago, buyers were more willing to consider purchasing a fixer-upper. “But there’s been a radical change in family dynamics,” she explained. “Today there are more dual-income and single-parent homes than ever before. The children are constantly involved in activities. Buyers today have no time and little inclination to take on a fixer-upper.”

That means buyers have to put in more work to present their home in its best light—ready to move in with no looming repair issues.

“If it needs doing, do it,” Dawn advised. “If you need a new roof, go ahead and get a new roof. Buyers always think home improvements cost more than they actually do, so if they see that your home needs a new roof, it could scare them off.”

Sometimes There’s No Substitute for Personal Advice

Attracting and impressing buyers takes a combination of high-tech marketing skills and old-fashioned hard work. When it comes to pricing your home, however, sellers are better off consulting a professional rather than relying on online pricing estimates.

Part of your agent’s job is to determine the right price for your home so you won’t waste time with a price that’s too high or lose money with one that’s too low. Agents have their own sources of information they use to calculate prices, and those aren’t always available to online pricing websites.

“Sellers may have an unrealistic expectation based on past markets, the media and information overload from the internet,” Bob explained. “That’s why it’s so important that sellers get all the facts about what’s happening in their market from an agent who’s done their homework.”

A good agent won’t stop there. They’ll have a marketing plan that makes use of online and offline methods of getting your listing in front of buyers, and they’ll give you honest suggestions about how to get your home in show-ready condition.

The right agent will also help you negotiate purchase contracts and help you address any issues that crop up between your acceptance of an offer and closing.

If you’re already working with an agent like that, congratulations! You’ve found one in a million. If you need help finding a high-octane, high-energy agent, you can see who Dave recommends in your area today.

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Modernizing Your Kitchen on the Cheap

Kitchen RemodelWe always hear that remodeling a kitchen is one of the most expensive home improvements. And it can be.
The Remodeling 2014 Cost vs. Value Report listed the average cost of a major kitchen remodel at $54,909, and even a minor remodel came in at $18,856.

But kitchen remodeling doesn’t have to be that expensive. “If you take it piece by piece, you can do something good on a budget,” says Aimee Grove, a communications and marketing specialist in the San Francisco area. She and her husband have remodeled two kitchens on a budget. “I have my dream kitchen now,” she says. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

The choice of materials makes a big difference in how much you’ll spend. Custom-made, solid-wood cabinets with a premium finish and decorative molding can easily cost $1,200 or more per linear foot, which is the way cabinets are normally priced. But you can get attractive cabinets at Ikea or even a local shop for a quarter of that cost if you shop around.

And while granite countertops definitely cost more than laminate, if you visit enough stores, you’ll learn that granite itself varies widely in price. “We went to 10 different marble places until we found the slab we wanted at the right price,” Grove says.

She and her husband remodeled the kitchen of their cottage-style home for about $12,000 after getting a quote from a contractor for $32,000. They chose to paint rather than replace their existing cabinets, but added a marble countertop and a subway tile backsplash, plus two new stainless steel appliances.

They found that it really pays to shop for materials and labor. For example, the price of the marble they wanted varied from $80 to $13 per square foot, and the fabrication quotes ranged from $3,200 to $6,000. Quotes to paint their cabinets ranged from $1,500 to $7,000. Tile, both for flooring and backsplashes, can run $1 to $15 per square foot. You may find the cabinet hardware you liked most in the store for half the price online.

Danielle Colding, who runs Danielle Colding Design in Brooklyn, New York, recently redid her kitchen with sleek, ultramodern gray lacquer cabinets from Ikea. “They’re really affordable,” she says. “You can do a normal kitchen for $4,000 to $5,000.”

Colding, who won HGTV’s “Design Star” competition in 2012 and also hosted “Shop This Room” on the network, says local shops can also be an excellent option when remodeling on a budget.

Grove and her husband chose to act as their own contractors, hiring separate painters, marble fabricators and tile installers. They gathered names from a contractor friend and the marble yard, and then asked those companies for bids and references.

Being your own contractor creates more work because you’re screening multiple contractors rather than just one general contractor for the entire project. Plus, you have to be available during the day to supervise, and you have to shop around to find the best price on supplies.

But for someone whose remodel doesn’t include knocking down walls, reconfiguring the layout or dealing with city permits, appointing yourself contractor can be a way to cut costs. “If you have the capabilities to be the general contractor yourself, you can definitely save some money,” says Jason Kloesel, owner of VK Construction and Remodeling in Austin, Texas. “If you don’t have the smallest construction knowledge, I would not recommend this at all.”

Whether you hire a general contractor or individual companies, make sure the contract is very specific about what is included when it comes to labor and materials.

Here are 14 tips for remodeling your kitchen on a budget.

Know what look you want before you start interviewing contractors. Drop by local showrooms to see cabinets, counter top options and combinations. This will help you get a sense of costs for different options, too.

Keep your plumbing and gas lines in the same place. A kitchen remodel costs considerately less when you don’t change the layout.

Don’t assume big-box stores have the lowest prices. A local cabinetmaker, in some cases, may offer a better deal than the larger competition.

Shop around. Explore all options for both labor and materials, from granite to hardware to appliances. Price varies a lot.

Consider used. Entire kitchens are routinely sold on Craigslist and at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore as well as architectural salvage stores. Hiring a local cabinetmaker to create a piece or two is much cheaper than creating an entire kitchen. “It’s used, obviously, but it’s usually very high-quality,” says Cathie Pliess, design program coordinator for the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

Look for remnants of granite and marble. Most fabricators have stone left over from previous jobs, and they’ll often sell it for a fraction of the original cost.

Make friends with cabinet shops. Once they’re finished with a display, it is sold at a deep discount. And don’t forget about big-box stores. You can score deals on cabinets by being friendly with them, too.

Shop online. Hardware, plumbing and lighting fixtures are all great items to buy online.

Don’t skimp on planning. The exact layout of the kitchen and choice of cabinets will make a big difference in how well your kitchen functions.

Find out where contractors shop. Many of those stores and fabricators are open to the public. Some offer discounts for bigger purchases, and many sell products that aren’t available in retail stores.

Be flexible on materials. If there is a look you want, see if there is a cheaper way to get it. Subway tile and glass tile, for example, are available at many price points, as are granite, marble and porcelain floor tile.

Do your due diligence. Check references of any contractors you plan to use, and make sure the contracts spell out who is responsible for buying materials, exactly what materials the contractor is supplying (down to brand and model number) and what the cost will be if you make changes during the job. Cheaper is not necessarily better.

Paint when possible. Know that paint is cheaper than stain, and that goes for the labor, too. “People shouldn’t overlook what a difference it makes to paint your cabinets,” Pliess says.

Consider alternative materials and designs. You can take the doors off the top cabinets or repurpose old furniture as kitchen storage or to create an island, Pliess suggests. Beadboard creates an attractive, inexpensive backsplash. And you might be surprised at today’s laminate countertops. “Laminate has come a really long way,” Pliess says. “It doesn’t have that ugly laminate look anymore.”

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June is National Homeownership Month!!

first-time-homebuyers-300x194National Homeownership Month actually started as a week-long celebration of homeownership during the Clinton administration in 1995. In 2002, President George W. Bush proclaimed June as the National Homeownership Month. Here is an excerpt from his proclamation:

“Homeownership is an important part of the American Dream…A home provides shelter and a safe place where families can prosper and children can thrive. For many Americans, their home is an important financial investment, and it can be a source of great personal pride and an important part of community stability.”

“Homeownership encourages personal responsibility and the values necessary for strong families. Where homeownership flourishes, neighborhoods are more stable, residents are more civic-minded, schools are better, and crime rates decline.”

“During National Homeownership Month, I encourage all Americans to learn more about financial management and to explore homeownership opportunities in their communities. By taking this important step, individuals and families help safeguard their financial futures and contribute to the strength of our Nation.”


To read the article as published on the KCM Blog, please click here.

Precautions for When Leaving Your Home Alone

Summer is traditionally the vacation season, and with college students heading back to campus earlier and earlier, family travel is often in the equation around this time. So if you will be leaving your home “alone” for a few days or a couple of weeks, it’s a good idea to take some precautions.

Enlist the help of friends and neighbors

The sure way to avoid vacation-related worry is to arrange for a house sitter, particularly if you’re planning to be away for an extended period of time. If that’s not an option, have a trusted friend, neighbor or family member visit periodically to check the house, water the plants and bring in the mail. If it’s a good neighbor, ask if he or she will park a car in your driveway, if yours will be otherwise empty. And don’t forget to hire a neighborhood kid to mow the lawn and trim the hedges, as an unkempt lawn is a sure sign of an unoccupied home.

Remember, water can be the enemy

If a pipe leaks or bursts while you’re gone, the resulting damage could be devastating. Shutting off the main valve is the best protection, but if you can’t do that, at least consider shutting off the valves to the most common sources for water damage — dishwashers, ice makers and washing machines to name a few.

Check the weather report, too. If a storm is on the way, ensure your gutters are free of blockage and reinforce any areas that could allow water in. If your basement is prone to flooding, test that your sump pump is working as it should.

Be security smart

There are plenty of simple ways to keep your home safe and sound while away, including:

  • Notify the post office to stop mail delivery to your address for the duration of your trip.
  • Place electronic timers in various rooms and set them to activate/deactivate lights on a staggered schedule.
  • If you have a pool, padlock the surrounding gate or install a retractable cover.
  • Consider motion detector lights for the front and back of your property.
  • If you have an alarm system, make sure it’s turned on and that you’ve told the alarm company the dates you’ll be away.

Before you’re set leave, put together a checklist of all the security measures you plan to make. This list will help you stay on task in the hectic days and hours before you leave. After all, the last thing anyone wants is to go on vacation with the lingering thought, “Did I remember to lock the back door?” Plan ahead and you’ll find it’s easy to stay on the safe side without stressing.

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The Myths and Truths about your Mortgage

Mortgages are tricky and often hard to understand. Because most people only purchase a home every five to seven years, prospective home buyers understandably don’t spend a lot of time in the interim educatingthemselves about mortgages and the mortgage process.

With the real estate market picking up and mortgage rates prime for refinancing, Zillow has compiled a list of common mortgage misconceptions based off the results of the just released 2013 Mortgage IQ Survey.

Myth No. 1:

Your interest rate reflects the true cost of your mortgage

Your annual percentage rate (APR) is actually the figure that represents the true cost of your mortgage. It is inclusive of your interest rate, points, mortgage insurance (when applicable) and other fees, including origination and underwriting fees. It does not include the cost of your homeowners insurance policy. The APR is typically higher than your interest rate because it incorporates the rate and the fees. In fact, when shopping for a mortgage, it is best to compare loans based on APR instead of the interest rate because it gives a better sense of the total cost over the life of the loan.

Myth No. 2:

Mortgage rates are only released once per day

Mortgage rates for all types of mortgages can change frequently, sometimes dramatically, throughout the day. Because of the rapid changes in mortgage rates and a lender’s ability to control what is offered, it is important to shop around for the best rates. Getting multiple loan quotes is highly recommended.

Myth No. 3:

All lenders are required by law to charge the same fees for appraisals and credit reports

There are no laws that require lenders to charge the same fees for services such as appraisals or credit reports. In fact, in order to make their loan quotes more competitive, some lenders may waive charges for such services. Conversely, some lenders may charge higher fees for these services, so it’s important to shop around.

Myth No. 4:

I must get my mortgage through the same lender I was pre-approved with

A pre-approval is a conditional agreement that estimates the size of the home loan a lender would fund for you. It typically involves income verification and a credit check. However, you are under no obligation to proceed with the lender that gave you the pre-approval. Make sure you get at least three loan quotes before proceeding with a mortgage.

Myth No. 5:

You will almost always get the best mortgage interest rates at the bank where you have a checking account

While some banks do give their customers discounts, it’s unlikely your bank will offer the best interest rate available simply because you bank there. To get a competitive mortgage rate and terms, get quotes from multiple lenders either in person or online — including your bank — and pick the one that works best for you.

Myth No. 6:

When taking out a mortgage with your spouse, lenders will look at each of your credit reports equally when determining the interest rate you qualify for

When applying jointly for a mortgage, lenders will pull your credit scores from each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. They’ll then take the middle score of each set and use the lower of the two to help determine your mortgage interest rate. This means that the least creditworthy borrower will have the greatest effect on your monthly payment. It does not matter who the primary or secondary borrowers are.

Myth No. 7:

You cannot get a home loan with less than a 5 percent down payment

It is a common misconception that you need to put down 10 percent, 15 percent or even 20 percent on a home, especially in light of the recent housing crash. But with as little as 3.5 percent down, you can often obtain a mortgage through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). FHA loans have become a popular loan option for those who may not have a large down payment or have blemishes in their credit history. FHA loans are available to everyone, not just first-time home buyers. (Find out more about the advantages and disadvantages of an FHA loan here.)

There are also alternative loan programs through other agencies, including the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). These loans also require little-to-no money down.

Myth No. 8:

If you go through a short sale or foreclosure, you must wait 7 years before getting another home loan

In most cases, to buy a home after a short sale, you’ll typically only need to wait 2-4 years depending on your down payment and the loan type you select. The waiting period after a foreclosure is longer: Typically you’ll need to wait 3-7 years before getting another home loan. Even if you can afford to get a mortgage right now, you’ll need to have a good credit score, which can be difficult to rebuild in just a few years. Unique circumstances can lead to different outcomes, so make sure to check with a lender or two.

Myth No. 9:

If you are underwater on your home loan, you are unable to refinance

It is estimated that millions of homeowners who are underwater and current on their mortgage can refinance using one of two special government programs. The first, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), is available to homeowners who have a loan backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. The second program, FHA Streamline Refinance, has recently been modified to help homeowners with loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Both programs help homeowners refinance into lower interest rate loans and may help dramatically lower payments without very much cost to the borrower. Zillow Mortgage Marketplace is the only online mortgage marketplace where you can get loan quotes for HARP and FHA Streamline. As an added bonus, it is the largest mortgage marketplace where you can anonymously get loan quotes, meaning you don’t enter any personally identifiable information and therefore cannot get spammed and hounded by lenders who were sold you contact information. See if you may qualify.

Myth No. 10:

You can only refinance your home loan once every 12 months

With conforming loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac (the vast majority of loans today), you can refinance as frequently as you’d like so long as you do not take cash out when you refinance and are just refinancing to lower the interest rate and/or term of your mortgage. The rule of thumb is to wait until the difference between your current interest rate and the available interest rate would save you enough money each month to cover the costs of refinancing in 2 years. The amount of time that you plan on being in the home should be considered, as well. In general, refinancing will be more financially beneficial the longer you are in the home. Use the refinance calculator to determine how long it will take to break even on the costs of refinancing.

If any of the misconceptions had your name written all over it, visit the Zillow Mortgage Marketplace Help Center, where you can brush up on everything mortgage before you refinance or purchase your next home. You can also take the Mortgage IQ Quiz for yourself, or send it to a friend who is in the market; they’ll thank you.

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Making Your Private Property More Private

As the seasons change and the temperatures go up, dinner on the deck or a cocktail on the patio can offer welcomed rest and relaxation — unless you’re sipping that drink under the watchful eyes of others or the sounds of busy traffic or noisy neighbors.

Short of building a stone wall and moat, there are steps you can take to make your outdoor space more relaxing. Of course, before starting any sort of construction or planting project, you’ll want to check with your local municipality and homeowners association. Many cities — and even neighborhoods — have restrictions on height, setback from the street, appearance or materials that can be used in establishing privacy screens.

Walls and fences

Building a wall or fence is, perhaps, the most obvious way to add privacy to your yard.

Wood fences are the fastest and cheapest to erect; in fact, you can buy prefabricated sections of wood fencing from home improvement stores and build a fence yourself in a few days. Open lattice can be used to break up the mass of a wood fence.

If you like the look of wood but don’t want to worry about rot or upkeep, vinyl may be a good option. Vinyl fencing resists discoloring and is available in a wide range of styles and colors.

Stone and brick can be used to create attractive, long-lasting barriers — or, if you overdo it, they can take on a prisonlike air. If you’re drawn to stone or brick, you might consider creating a shorter retaining wall that can be paired with screens or greenery.

In many parts of the country, cinder blocks are the material of choice for property walls. Concrete tends to look stark. Consider using paint or decorative ironwork to add interest, or soften the look with vines or other plantings.


A wall of lush evergreens can separate your home from the neighboring properties.

Even novice gardeners and landscapers can plant evergreens to create a living, year-round privacy screen. Planting trees or shrubs in a zig-zag — rather than straight — line will allow the plants better access to sun and will create a fuller visual effect.

Boxwood, yew, arborvitae, juniper, laurel and holly are among the nation’s most popular hedge plants. You’ll want to talk to knowledgeable landscape experts to learn which plants do best in your soil and weather conditions. Also be honest about how much pruning you’re willing to do: Some plants require considerably more upkeep than others.

Screens and roofs

A vine-covered pergola-style roof can add privacy as well as visual interest.

A lattice or louvered wood panel, ornamental iron or well-placed stained glass partitions can help create cozy spaces within a yard. Most homeowners prefer to anchor screens into the ground so they don’t fall victim to the occasional wind gusts. Semi-transparent structures won’t offer complete privacy, but can blur sightlines and add visual interest to a landscape.

Fabric panels or drapes are an easy, inexpensive way to make a porch or patio area more intimate. Similarly, adding an awning or pergola-style roof covered with vines can help create a space that’s secluded from nosy neighbors.


Water features, such as a gurgling fountain, can help mask the sounds of unwanted noise from neighbors and traffic.

Water features range from off-the-shelf tabletop versions that cost less than $100 to expansive, custom waterfalls that can run upward of $20,000. Be aware that if your water feature rushes over too many tiers or if the waterfall is too high, you may be creating a noise that’s louder and more distracting than the one you’re trying to cover up.

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Who is Responsible When a Neighbor’s Tree Falls on Your Property, ?

Who is responsible when your neighbor's tree falls on your property? - The philosophers wanted to know what happens when a tree falls in a forest. Modern-day homeowners are more worried aboutthe legal and financial consequences of a tree falling on their house or car.

There’s hardly a topic related to insurance that causes more confusion than the question of who is responsible for damage caused by trees.

Many people are surprised to find out that when a neighbor’s tree falls on their house or car, it is their own insurance — not their neighbor’s insurance — that pays for the damage.

“It’s most often your problem, not your neighbor’s,” said Janet Scott-Buckley, an insurance agent at Harrington Insurance Agency, in North Andover, Mass. “You have to file a claim with your homeowners insurance company, and the usual deductible applies.

“Unfortunately, tree falls can cause friction between neighbors because of the lack of understanding of who is responsible for paying for the damages.”

Likewise, you’re generally not responsible for any damage that your falling tree causes to your neighbor’s property. However, some exceptions apply, Ms. Scott-Buckley explained.

“Let’s say your neighbor’s tree is rotted and in danger of falling,” she said. “You asked your neighbor to remove it, and the neighbor refused. One day it topples and hits your house. Then you’d have a good case that your neighbor is responsible for the damages.”

Ms. Scott-Buckley said you would need a copy of your letter to your neighbor. Having photos and a tree specialist’s opinion would bolster your case even more. Your neighbor’s home insurance company might agree to pay for all the damage to your property plus cleanup costs. In that scenario, there would be no out-of-pocket deductible on your part.

Terry McConnell, vice president of personal lines underwriting at Erie-based Erie Insurance Co., said weather conditions in this region make tree damage a common hazard.

“As we are heading into the winter months, when we’re hit with heavy snow and ice storms, it’s important to make sure your trees are properly trimmed and maintained,” Mr. McConnell said. “A storm, high winds or ice could come through your neighborhood and knock branches onto your home, causing serious damage.”

Coverage for tree falls is provided under most homeowners policies when it occurs because of a storm, wind or lightning.

According to Dave Phillips, a spokesman at State Farm Insurance Co., in Concordville, Delaware County, if a tree falls in your yard and does not strike anything, there is no coverage.

The tree must strike an insured structure or property, such as the house, garage, fence or carport. In some instances, removal may be provided if a fallen tree blocks access to a home or driveway. But a deductible would apply.

What about the cost of replacing damaged trees, shrubs and other plants?

There’s usually no coverage for wind damage, but fire, lightning, vandalism and theft usually are covered, Ms. Scott-Buckley said, adding that coverage for damaged trees, shrubs and other plants typically is limited to 5 percent of the amount of the insured value of your house up to $500 per tree or plant.

When it comes to auto damage from tree falls, Ms. Scott-Buckley said, insurance rules get a bit more tricky.

Damage to your car from falling trees or tree limbs is covered under the “comprehensive” part of your auto insurance policy — if you’ve purchased that coverage. Comprehensive auto coverage also protects you for damages from fire and theft.

But if you drive into a tree or limb, the damage to your car will be covered by your own collision insurance.

If someone runs off the road and severely damages your trees or shrubs, the vehicle owner’s auto insurance should pay for the damages. But if you do the same to your own property, your own auto policy probably won’t cover damages to your trees and shrubs.

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Why You Should Keep Your Home Phone Line

using a home telephoneAbout two out of five American households have disconnected their home phones and rely solely on cell service to stay in touch with the world. If you’re thinking of joining the mobile-only movement, though, you might want to reconsider: Here are five reasons to stick with a home phone, whether it’s a landline (traditional copper-wire connection) or VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) service from your cable company.


1. A home phone sounds better than a cell phone

In our tests, voice quality for talking and listening on a cordless home phone was generally better than that of the best cell phones—important if you suffer from hearing loss, your household is noisy, or you spend a lot of time on the phone, especially in a home office.

2. A home phone offers enhanced security

Cell phones use a GPS-based method to report your location in a 911 emergency. That’s fine when you’re on the road, but if you live in a high-rise building, it won’t indicate which floor you’re on. A home phone is connected to your address, including the apartment number, so the 911 operator knows exactly where to send help even if you can’t talk.

Also, a phone with a corded base can work during a power outage, as long as it’s connected to a conventional landline or VoIP service with battery backup.

Another advantage: Home-­security systems generally require a home phone connection to monitor fire- and burglar-alarm sensors. If you don’t have one, certain alarm companies will install a special device that communicates with their office via a cellular connection, but that will cost extra.

3. You might not save much when you drop home-phone service

Dropping a phone line from a triple-play telecom bundle might save you as little as $5 or so a month. That’s because the discount for an Internet and TV double play is usually less than for a triple play with phone service. In a recent survey, about 40 percent of Consumer Reports readers who thought about switching telecom services kept the phone as part of a bundle because of the skimpy savings.

4. A home phone can improve your cell reception

Some new cordless phones can stand in for your cell phone. By placing a cell phone near the cordless phone’s base, you can access your wireless service using Bluetooth technology and use a cordless handset to make or take cell calls. In addition to the convenience of using one handset for all of your calls, you might get better cell-phone reception at home. For example, if you don’t get cell service in your basement, you might be able to make or take cell calls from there using a cordless handset.

5. New cordless phones are better than old models

If you’re less than impressed with your old cordless phone, maybe it’s just time for an upgrade. New models have lots of convenience features, like big, soft-touch buttons, easy-to-read displays, and backlighting that’s great in a dim room. Talking caller ID announces the caller’s name or number, so you don’t have to find a phone to see who’s calling. A voice mail indicator lights up when there’s a message on phone company voice mail. A built-in answering machine is handy for screening calls.

DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications) technology provides loud, crystal clear sound with nary a crackle, with little if any interference from devices such as ­microwave ovens, which use other frequencies. DECT phones also tend to have relatively long talk times, so you won’t run out of juice in the middle of ordering takeout. Some models support up to 12 handsets from one base, and handsets can be used as close-range walkie-talkies in large houses.

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