The 1, 2, 3′s of Outdoor Lighting

Landscape lighting can turn a visitor from feeling wary to welcome. It can change the rest of the yard from “Nightmare on Elm Street” to “Some Enchanted Evening,” all with the flip of a switch.

The first step in this transformation is to educate yourself about the possibilities. Because photos rarely do justice illustrating the amazing possibilities of landscape lighting, keep an eye out for good examples when you’re out for an evening stroll or drive.

The strong lights typically used for entrances and to illuminate large areas, such as driveways and decks, are powered by a 120-volt current. A qualified electrician must wire them directly to your circuit box and the cables, held within a protective conduit, must be buried at least 18 inches below ground. If you have these fixtures, make sure they are UL-listed and approved for outdoor use. The 120-v outdoor lights are also preferred for security applications, especially when combined with motion detection.

When less light is sufficient, low-voltage fixtures (12- to 15-v) are the norm. These include accent lights, path lights, and small floodlights. The fixtures are smaller and less obtrusive, use less energy, and are far less worrisome when in wet locations. They can also be plugged into an outdoor receptacle, making them ideal for do-it-yourself installations. The wiring does not require tools, and the cables do not need to be buried.

Solar-powered outdoor lights, a third option, are of course dependent upon exposure to the sun, and are variable with regard to output and when they turn on. They are best used to light paths where they are exposed to full sun throughout the day. Don’t put them in the shade!

Planning for outdoor lighting

Plot out your ideas on graph paper. Draw the footprint of your house to an 1/8-inch scale and sketch in all major landscape elements, including fences, decks, tree, paths, driveways and garden beds. Include the location of any existing or proposed outdoor receptacles as well.

Make notes about what you’d like to illuminate and then decide which fixtures will do the job best. Try to use a variety of lighting techniques. Avoid overly bright and dark areas, and avoid glare for both visitors and your neighbors. Do not place path lights too closely together to avoid the “runway” look. You’ll also have to decide about fixture style, of which there are many!

Types of outdoor lighting fixtures

Entry lanterns or sconces: 120-v fixtures that mount beside doors. They should be either frosted glass or shielded to prevent glare. Their size should be proportional to the height and width of the entry area (often defined by a portico).

Recessed lights: 120-v fixtures typically installed in eaves over decks and garage doors. They provide large pools of light but are mostly hidden. Small, low-voltage recessed lights can be used to light stairs, railings, posts, and built-in deck furniture.

Floodlights: 120-v or low-voltage fixtures used to light wide expanses and large interesting objects, such as driveways, stonework and trees.

Path lights: Usually low-voltage fixtures that illuminate paths by casting small pools of light on the ground. Sometimes, perforations in the light shield allow the lights themselves to be used as guides.

Spot light: Similar to floodlights but with a narrower beam for highlighting a specific object, such as a shrub or statuary.

In-ground light: 120v or low-voltage fixtures that are buried in the ground and covered with a gasketed lens. The beam can be angled slightly to illuminate a wall, tree or fence.

Hanging or pendant lighting: 120-v fixtures that are frequently used for entry or porch lighting. Low-voltage hanging lights strung in trees, arbors and pergolas have become popular as decorative accents.

Tip: You can simulate the effect of many of these lights with a strong flashlight. For an uplighting effect, hold the flashlight below the object or surface you wish to light. For a downlight effect, hold it above. Hold a reflector, such as a piece of white cardboard over the flashlight, and place it beside a path to simulate a path light. If the effects you want to achieve are sophisticated, consider discussing them with a landscape lighting designer.

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Don’t Overlook These Easy Mortgage Savings

Are you thinking of buying a home or refinancing the one you own, but unsure if you can handle the costs? Well, good news: There may be some relatively easy savings that you’re missing out on.  We tracked down five such savings opportunities. Take a look to see if you can catch a much-needed break.

Tax Deductions for Paying Points

First, let’s define points. This is simply a way for you to “buy” yourself a better interest rate from the lender by giving the lender money up front when you get your mortgage or refinance.

Each point is equal to one percent of the mortgage amount. So, if you borrow $300,000, one point will cost you $3,000.

And what will it get you? Each point you pay will lower your interest rate about an eighth of a percent on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, says Jim Duffy, a senior loan officer with Primary Residential Mortgage, Inc.

But in addition to saving you on the interest rate, that point will save you come tax time. “Points are prepaid interest and may be deductible as home mortgage interest. If you itemize your deductions, you can deduct the interest paid that year for your mortgage,” says Doug Lebda, founder and CEO of LendingTree, an online source for competitive loan offers.

There are some restrictions, such as the home must be your primary residence, and others, which are outlined in the IRS’s Publication 936, a document that outlines the rules for deducting home mortgage interest, says Lebda. But if you’re the average homebuyer, you’ll likely meet the restrictions.

Occupational-Specific Mortgages

Do you put out fires? Or teach elementary school? Well, you might be entitled to some sweet savings when it comes time to buy a home.

For instance, there are both public and private organizations that offer benefits such as lower fees, better interest rates, less-stringent credit requirements, and more for those serving as firefighters, teachers, police officers, government workers, health care workers, and other professions, says Timothy Manni, the managing editor of, an online mortgage resource.

One example is Ohio’s Housing Finance Agency’s Heroes Product, which, among other benefits, offers fire fighters, paramedics, police officers, health care workers, and teachers, interest rates up to a quarter percent lower for first-time buyers.

Another example is Mortgages for Heroes, a private organization that has partnered with local unions to offer similar benefits, including help with less-than-perfect credit, to workers in the same fields as well as municipal employees and veterans.

With such opportunities available, you should make sure you research whether you qualify for special benefits because of your past or present career, says Manni. It could not only help qualify you for a mortgage, but also get you a pretty good deal.

Refinancing to a Lower Interest Rate

If you think the days of refinancing are over because interest rates have inched up, you’re wrong. In fact, rising interest rates could be the very reason you might want to look into refinancing if you already own a home, says Duffy.

Why? Well, most analysts believe that interest rates will rise for the foreseeable future, says Duffy. That means that your ability to lower your interest rate will only lessen or disappear over time if you have a rate higher than today’s average rate, which is 4.10 percent for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage as of August 21, 2014 according to Freddie Mac.

Now for the tricky part. How much do you need to lower your rate by to save money? After all, refinancing does come with a cost, usually around 2 to 3 percent of the refinanced amount, says Duffy. He says that if you can lower your interest rate by 1 percent or more, you should definitely look into refinancing.

However, he is quick to add that every situation is different. For instance, if you plan to sell your home within a few years, you may not have time to recoup the cost of refinancing through a lower monthly payment.

Improving Your Credit

If you’re considering applying for a mortgage or refinancing the one you have, your credit rating is a very important factor. It can determine not only whether or not you get a mortgage, but how low your interest rate will be. So the higher credit rating you have, the lower your rate will be, if all other factors are the same.

Here’s a chart from FICO, a commonly used credit rating agency, that illustrates how your credit score could affect the cost of a $300,000 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.

FICO Score                APR                Monthly Payment
760-850                        3.774%              $1,393
700-759                        3.996%              $1,432
680-699                       4.173%               $1,462
660-679                       4.387%               $1,500
640-659                       4.816%               $1,577
620-639                       5.362%              $1,677

The chart illustrates the point that credit plays a huge role in what kind of rate you receive as a borrower. But, Lebda explains, “There are some things consumers can do before shopping around to improve credit scores, like paying down credit card debt or consolidating and making payments on time for several months.”

More specifically, if you want to bump up your credit score by as much as 10 points almost overnight, pay down your credit cards to a third of their credit limits, says Ken Lin, CEO of, a site where consumers can access their free credit reports.

Here is a simple example of what he means. Say you have two credit cards, each with $5,000 limits and your outstanding balance on each is $2,000. Your total available credit would be $10,000 and your total outstanding balance would be $4,000, or 40 percent of your available credit.

If you paid down your total debt on those cards by $700, bringing your outstanding balance to $3,300, or approximately 33 percent of your available credit, it could raise your credit score. And according to the FICO chart above, that could save you a lot of money over the life of your mortgage.

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What can influence your home’s resale value?

Home-for-sale-sign-300x219While home sellers hope to get top dollar for their property – and some have an inflated idea of what to expect – establishing a home’s value can be a complex, multifaceted process. Do home renovations really pay off? And which is more valuable: a three-bedroom or a four-bedroom with the same square footage? We talked to real estate insiders to find out.

1. Location. The classic real estate refrain says, “location, location, location.” Location includes factors such as the price of recent nearby transactions, the quality of local schools and whether the area has a strong sense of community. “Buyers increasingly value community in the community where they’re buying,” says Amy Anderson, an agent with Davidson Realty, Inc. in St. Augustine, Florida. “They come to me not looking for a house for four years, but focusing much more on the community, the activities and the school district.”

As Americans scale back their dependence on automobiles, some homebuyers seek out communities that don’t require cars to get around. One resource is, which rates neighborhoods throughout the U.S. based on access to public transit and proximity to grocery stores, parks and more.” I think walkability has become more important in many markets, especially amongst millennials,” says Ken Wilson, president of the Appraisal Institute, a professional association for real estate appraisers, and founder of Wilson Realty Advisors in Dallas. “You’re also finding empty nesters that are looking into properties that have walkability.”

But as chief economist Stan Humphries points out, location encompasses many other considerations. “Does it have a view? Is it a waterfront home?” he asks. “What’s it next to? Is it near retail establishments? Or a highway?”

2. Size and layout. While homebuyers used to swoon over ample square footage, many have fallen out of love with the McMansion. “I think people realize when they buy a 3,300-square-foot house, they’re not getting what they thought they were,” Anderson says. “There’s more upkeep and a lot more involved with taking care of these huge houses.”

Layout is a key factor because an open-concept design can look much more spacious than a boxy space of the same size. The number of bedrooms also influences a home’s value, so think twice before putting up a wall and subdividing one room into two. “Adding a bedroom will take away value,” Humphries says. “Fewer but larger bedrooms tend to boost value.”

3. Age and condition. Historic homes (assuming they’re livable and well-maintained) and new homes are typically more valuable than homes built somewhere in the middle. “Generally, as a home gets older, it becomes less valuable,” Humphries says. “Then there’s a U-shape where, at some point, homes become so old that they have historical significance. A home that’s built in 1910 is probably more valuable than one built in 1970.”

Age aside, condition matters too. “Someone will pay $15,000 more for a well-kept house that’s move-in ready than they will for a house that needs $5,000 worth of work,” Anderson says.

4. Upgrades. Renovations play into a home’s value, but if your home is considered “over improved” compared with other properties in the neighborhood, it can actually hurt the property’s value. “You want it to be common for the neighborhood or subdivision,” Wilson says. “It wouldn’t hurt to visit neighbors’ homes or visit a home via an open house to see what people are marketing [before undertaking big improvements].” You could also hire an appraiser to prepare a feasibility analysis that will help you determine the impact of renovations on your home’s value.

Unless you live in an area where granite countertops and built-in wine fridges are the norm, Humphries says you might be better off saving the money and choosing more basic finishes. “It’s harder to recoup [your investment] if you guild the lily, if you will, on granite this and chrome that in your kitchen,” he says. “You’re spending a lot of money on something that might have a lot of personal taste attached to it.”

However, you should keep records of repairs and upgrades to show potential buyers that the home has been well-maintained.

5. Negative events. If your property has issues like mold or experienced a fire or was the site of a violent crime, it could be a harder sell – and command a lower price. “Nowadays, people are very concerned if there was a fire, prior mold damage or even if there were some sort of death or crime at the property,” Wilson says. Federal law requires the disclosure of all known lead-based paints, but state laws vary in whether the seller must disclose issues related to natural disasters or crimes committed on the property.

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Before You List, Must-do Showing Tips

Staging pro Sharon Brown with Homescapes by Design in Roseville, Minn., offers her clients a checklist before they list their home for sale. The point of the checklist is to make sure the home is show-ready before the for-sale sign goes up and the first potential buyer walks through the door, and even before photos are snapped for the MLS.

The following are the changes Brown most recommends to her clients in getting a home ready to list:

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Baby Boomers Seek Smaller, Affordable Homes

Baby boomers who plan to move for retirement are looking for smaller, affordable homes that are easily accessible to medical care and near their family, finds a new poll of more than 1,000 adults born between 1946 and 1964 conducted by Associated

Baby boomers who make more than $100,000 a year are the most likely to say they plan to buy a new home during retirement. For boomers who plan to purchase a new home, the most Read more

25 Best Places to Retire

November 14, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Homeowners

Each of these towns offers amenities galore for the post-work crowd — plus a cost of living that’s pretty darn sweet.

Marquette, Mich.
1 of 25

Marquette, Mich., offers a walkable downtown.

Population: 21,400

% over 50: 30%

Median home price: $145,000

Top state income tax: 4.35%*

Cost of living index: 95

As lovely as it sounds to sip margaritas on the beach, doing it year round can get old. This picturesque town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offers outdoor fun for all seasons. With an average of 141 inches of snow a year, there’s plenty of the white stuff for cross-country skiing and other winter sports. In summer, you can grab a kayak and start paddling on Lake Superior.

And when outdoor activities grow tiresome, you can count your savings. A new three-bedroom townhouse with panoramic lake views recently sold for about $375,000. That’s more than twice the price of the typical home here — but 30% less than a similar property might have cost near Seattle.

There’s also plenty of low-cost and free activities. Retirees can take advantage of a wealth of offerings at Northern Michigan University in town. People 62 or older can attend classes free, and the affiliated Northern Center for Lifelong Learning offers low-cost diversions, from bird watching to dinner clubs.

If all that excitement causes heart palpitations, you’re in the right place: Thomson Reuters ranks Marquette General Health System among the nation’s top 50 cardiovascular hospitals.

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Mortgage rates hit record low: 30-year fixed nears 4%

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Mortgage rates hit yet another record low this week amid ongoing economic concerns both at home and in Europe.

The average rate for a 30-year, fixed-rate loan fell to 4.09% this week, its lowest level in 60 years, according to mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Last week, the 30-year fixed averaged 4.12%. The average rate for a 15-year fixed mortgage — a popular option among those who wish to refinance — sunk to 3.30%, down from 3.33% last week, Freddie reported.

“Continued investor concerns over the state of the European debt markets kept U.S. Treasury bond yields low and allowed mortgage rates to ease once more this week,” said Frank Nothaft, vice president and chief economist, Freddie Mac in a statement.

The low rates have done little to boost the beleaguered housing market, however. While mortgage applications increased 6.3% last week, only 23% of applicants intended to use the loan to buy a home, according to a weekly mortgage survey from the Mortgage Bankers Association. The remainder of applicants were homeowners seeking to refinance existing, higher-rate mortgages.

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More Home Owners Become ‘Accidental Landlords’

November 9, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Homeowners, Rental

More home owners who are unable to sell their home or afford to drop the price any more are opting to rent out their homes until the market improves. But some “accidental landlords” are now having regrets.

The number of formerly owned-occupied homes turned into rentals has soared in recent years, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. In 2009, nearly 25 percent of single-family detached rentals had been owner-occupied two years earlier.

But while home owners are turning their homes into rentals to generate cash flow, many say it’s not enough. They say the cash flow being generated from the property is hardly enough to cover expenses, and in some cases, they’re even losing money. Accidental landlords also say the role is time-consuming and can be stressful, as they have to worry about everything from finding tenants to handling any repairs.

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Wainscoting Designs, Layouts, and Materials

Wainscoting Styles

Raised panel

Raised panels, the most traditional wainscoting style, go back to colonial days. The decorative raise is created by beveling the edges of the panel. Common height is between 30 and 40 inches, but the design can be adapted for higher-ceilinged spaces by adding a center rail to create two rows of panels. The rails, stiles, and panels fit together the same way as in traditional flat-panel assemblies. The bottom rail can double as the baseboard, as it does here, or the baseboard can be built up from several pieces of molding.

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Top 10 Home Cleaning Supplies

A clean home shows better, sells better, and feels better. How do you know which product works best, though? There are hundreds of products on the market, all claiming to be the winning solution.

Having a clean house is not only healthy, it can help you sell when the times comes. Buyers have a tendency to zero in on grime instead of seeing your home for what it really is — a great house with lots of potential. Don’t let a dirty house hold you back from making the sale!

Realty Times’ cleaning maven has swept together her list of favorite supplies that scrub, dissolve, and sparkle. No more guesswork! Here’s the top 10 cleaning supplies you need in your home.

The Top 10

1. Green Works All Purpose Cleaner:

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