Make your bathroom more than just “functional”

Small BathroomMany people think of bathrooms as merely functional: it’s where you bathe, wash your hands, and relieve yourself. However, we all know that there’s more to the story. On the Interstate, when you decide to stop at a gas station, the first criteria to consider are the cleanliness of the restrooms. When you eat at a restaurant or have a drink at a bar, you inevitably inspect, scrutinize, and grade the state of their facilities, which tends to reflect the establishment’s overall quality. And the same rule applies to homeowners: guests and prospective homebuyers attach a lot of importance to bathrooms—so you should as well.

 Yes, Size Matters!

The biggest concern when it comes to bathroom remodeling is its size. When you renovate, creating more space should always be a priority. No matter how many fresh fixtures or state-of-the-art features you install, it’ll all be useless if the room feels cramped. This is especially important when it comes to small bathroom design. Lavatories, even if they’re only 1/2 baths, are meant to be luxurious and relaxing. And although it’s great to have a cozy, private retreat, you should also feel comfortable and at ease. So when it comes to undersized restrooms, you need to find ways to utilize the space you’ve been given in order make a tiny area feel like an airy sanctuary.

Let Space Speak for Itself

The simplest way to deal with small bathroom design is to highlight the pre-existing space. This means you have to trick people into seeing more than what is really there. Giving the illusion of space is a very effective way to enlarge a room:

De-clutter: One bathroom design idea is to remove the clutter. Get rid of the busy wallpaper. Take down the picture frames. Remove excess furnishings. Eliminate those ugly towel bars.

Storage: Now that you’ve gotten rid of the clutter, where are you going to put your stuff? To hang towels, install a hook on the back of the door or buy a shower rod with towel bars already attached. If you have to have furniture, make it double-duty. Get a decorative chest that can also act as an additional storage unit. Or, invest in a small magazine rack that can be placed out of the way. It’s best to get things off the floor by hanging tiny shelves or buying a mirrored medicine cabinet to conceal your toiletries.

Lighting: Now that your stuff is out of the way, you need to spotlight the space you’ve created. In small bathroom design, natural illumination is a great way to cast some light in dark corners. One solution is to install a skylight or add a window. If that’s impossible, make use of the light you have. Put in a glass-block window that lets light in from other rooms. Mount some wall sconces that take up little space, yet shed lots of ambient light. Another alternative is to fire up some candles to generate a romantic mood.

Walls: Along with lighting, another key bathroom design idea is color coordination. Letting your walls stay neutral—white or beige—generates an impression of more space. Plus, if you draw the eye upwards, the room will look taller; so add a border around the ceiling to create more vertical depth. Also, installing polished tiles and hanging mirrors lets the area reflect itself, thereby creating the feel of additional square footage.

More Out of Less

In any type of small bathroom design, it’s the plumbing fixtures that eat up the room. Fear not: there are ways to make these cumbersome necessities fade into the background.

Toilet: A hung toilet has no tank attached so it slides right up against the wall.

Sink: Most vanities come with small, useless counter spaces and cabinetry systems. Eliminate the waste by installing a wall-hung sink that frees up floor space. A pedestal sink installed in an out-of-the way corner can deliver the elegance you want with the openness you need.

Tub: Make this particular fixture do the work for two by installing a unit that works as both shower and tub. If you still want luxury, clawfoot tubs actually free up space around the walls and can be turned into a shower or Jacuzzi depending on the model.

Shower: If you have a half bath, a quick bathroom design idea is to simply install a single-stall shower in a corner. To make it invisible to the naked eye, invest in frameless doors or a clear shower curtain for a transparent appearance.

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What we could learn, if that 1970s home could talk

The 1970s were a boom time for home construction. In fact, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the median U.S. home was built in 1974.

Homes built in that decade have many qualities that fell out of fashion but are gaining ground today, especially as we become more environmentally conscious. Here’s a look at 10 things we can learn from ’70s homes.

Size matters

In 1973, the average size for a new single-family home in the United States was 1,660 square feet, the Census Bureau says. In 2011, it was 2,480 square feet. But that elbow room comes at a high price.

“Bigger homes are more expensive to heat and cool and to maintain,” says Pam Kueber, who runs a blog called “Retro Renovation.” “Pretty much every single cost related to owning a home is scalable based on how big it is.”

Environmental concerns may be making smaller homes fashionable again. A 2011 National Association of Home Builders survey found that 74% of builders, designers and architects think the average single-family house will be smaller in 2015.

Energy conservation

The 1973 energy crisis wasn’t just an issue for drivers. It got the attention of homeowners, too. Policymakers also took notice, and the Energy Tax Act of 1978 promised credits of up to $2,200 for homeowners who invested in solar- and wind-energy equipment.

In recent years, these “green” improvements have come back into vogue for numerous reasons, with governments again offering energy credits for homes. Experts say today’s residences use as much energy as those built in the 1970s, despite advances in insulation and the use of energy-efficient appliances. Possible reasons: Houses are bigger, and people have more electrical gadgets today than before.

Simple roofs

Ranch-style homes became dominant in America in the 1950s through the 1970s. They had roofs that were low and simple, often with wide eaves to help shade the windows. The Cape Cod-style houses that were popular on the East Coast after World War II also sported simple roofs .

The larger and more complex houses that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s often had more complicated roofs, with multiple gables and dormers. These roofs are arguably more visually interesting, but their complexity also means more potential for leaks or costly repairs.

Green walls

Homes with ivy-covered walls once were common, but vines fell out of favor, because people thought the creeping greenery was damaging their brickwork.

But scientists at Oxford University, itself home to numerous ivy-covered buildings, found in 2010 that the plants actually protect walls from extreme temperatures, moisture and pollution.

In 2011, the Montreal Urban Ecology Center issued a guide promoting the use of climbing plants on walls in that Canadian city. The nonprofit group says ivy-covered walls provide insulation and help keep homes cooler during summer, through evapotranspiration and shade. They are also good for the environment, the group says, because they capture carbon dioxide and provide a habitat for birds.


Central air conditioning was not ubiquitous in homes built in the 1970s and earlier, which meant that people needed other ways to keep their houses cool in summer. Awnings were a great option, shading windows during the summer, when the sun was higher in the sky, and letting in more light and heat during the winter, when the sun was lower.

“Awnings get very little respect today, but they are an old-school and extremely efficient way to keep your house 10 to 20 degrees cooler,” Kueber says. “It’s an environmentally sensitive way to cut your air-conditioning bills.”

The chance to cut energy costs and reduce homes’ carbon footprint is making awnings and other passive-energy design features cool again.

The case for no staircase

Single-story homes were popular well into the 1970s, before split-level residences gained favor with homebuyers. Since then, multistory houses have become the norm.

But not everyone likes climbing stairs, and older people, in particular, may appreciate homes that are all on one level. These residences may now appeal to aging baby boomers who are looking for places to live during retirement.

Cork floors

Shag carpeting is just one of the unfortunate flooring choices from the 1970s that can induce shudders in contemporary homebuyers. But at least one retro floor covering deserves a second look.

Cork was commonly used to cover bathroom floors in the ’60s and ’70s, and the material is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Cork is naturally mold-resistant and sound dampening, and it is eco-friendly, as well. Unlike wood, which requires that forests be cut down and converted to lumber, cork can be harvested by trimming the bark from living trees. It is the rare building material that is both retro and sustainable.

Old-growth wood

Older homes were made from wood from older trees. The practice of using lumber from old-growth forests — those with trees that had been growing for 200 years or more — was arguably bad for the environment but good for builders and homeowners.

Lumber from ancient trees is less likely to shrink over time, which makes it more durable and dimensionally accurate than boards cut from the fast-growing, farmed trees .

The good news is that alternatives to old-growth timber now exist, and they are used for the same reasons older wood was used in the ’70s.

Engineered lumber uses lamination and other technologies to make the best of wood from younger trees. Also gaining popularity is reclaimed wood from remodeled or demolished buildings, abandoned barns, railroad trestles and even long-submerged logs recovered from lakes or rivers.

Paint awareness

Beauty can have a dark side. For homes, that became clear in 1978, when the federal government banned paint containing more than trace amounts of lead from residential use. Lead has been linked to health issues that include behavioral problems and learning disabilities in children. Paint chips and dust can contain dangerous levels of lead, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

This concern has picked up again in recent years with a focus on paints, varnishes and cleaning products that release volatile organic compounds that include benzene, formaldehyde and other potential toxins. Many paint companies have started offer low-VOC and no-VOC paints for use in today’s homes.

Outdoor focus

Many of today’s “outdoor living” features were born in 1970s “patio homes.” These abodes allowed residents to concentrate on living instead of maintenance.

The patio home was built as a marriage of an apartment and ranch house: The one-story home often featured a large patio to allow residents to enjoy the outdoors in a private setting, while a housing association often took care of the exterior and landscaping.

The trend for a prominent outdoor living space continues. The National Association of Home Builders cites outdoor-living spaces as one of the top five trends in new homes, with features such as fireplaces and outdoor kitchens.

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Flag Etiquette For Flying “Old Glory” at Your Home

According to federal code, here’s how to honor those broad stripes and bright stars as you fly them at home today and everyday!

The patriot’s guide to flying the U.S. flag at home

•Fly the flag outside only from sunrise to sunset, unless it is illuminated for night time display.

•Especially fly the flag on New Year’s Day, January 1; Inauguration Day, January 20; Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12; Washington’s Birthday, third Monday in February; Easter Sunday; Mother’s Day, second Sunday in May; Armed Forces Day, third Saturday in May; Memorial Day (half-staff until noon), the last Monday in May; Flag Day, June 14; Independence Day, July 4; Labor Day, first Monday in September; Constitution Day, September 17; Columbus Day, second Monday in October; Navy Day, October 27; Veterans Day, November 11; Thanksgiving Day, fourth Thursday in November; Christmas Day, December 25; state birthdays (dates of admission); state holidays; and other days as announced by the U.S. President.

•Do not fly the flag outside during inclement weather unless you use an all-weather flag.

•Do not fly another flag above the U.S. flag, or if the other flag is on the same level, do not fly another flag to the right of the U.S. flag.

•Fly the flag with the “union” (the blue field of white stars) at the peak of the staff (unless the flag is at half staff) when flying the flag from a staff projecting horizontally or at an angle from the window sill, balcony, or front of a building.

•When you suspend a flag over a sidewalk from a rope extending from a house to a pole at the edge of the sidewalk, hoist the flag, union first, from the building.

•When you display the flag over the middle of the street, suspend it vertically with the union to the north in an east and west street, to the east in a north and south street.

•When you display a flag horizontally or vertically against a wall or in a window, place the union uppermost and to the flag’s own right, or to the observer’s left.

•Display the flag with the union down only as a distress signal.

•Fly the flag at half-staff (positioning the flag one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff) at times specified, often according to presidential instructions.

•When flying the flag at half-staff, it should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day.

•Never allow the flag to touch anything beneath it, including the ground, the floor, water or other items.

•Never carry the flag flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.

•Never use a flag as wearing apparel, bedding, drapery, ceiling covering or decorative element. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.

•Never use the flag for advertising purposes. Don’t embroider it on articles, print or impress it on disposable items.

•Don’t use a part of the flag as a costume or athletic uniform. A flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police, and members of patriotic organizations. A lapel flag pin should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.

•Protect the flag from display, use or storage that will cause it to be easily torn, soiled or damaged.

•Never place things on the flag or attach marks, insignias, letters, words, figures, designs, pictures, or drawings

•Don’t use the flag as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.

•Aged flags no longer fit for flying—like those wind whipped ones on personal vehicles—should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferable by safely burning it.

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How to best showcase your home’s first impression.

Whether you’re prepping your home for sale, or just want it to look good, don’t forget about the exterior — especially the front yard and door!

Here are some great tips from home stagers and curb appeal experts on how to best showcase your home’s first impression.

Walk to the curb

The first order of business: Walk to the curb or street and look at your home from the road.

This will probably be the buyers’ or the buyer agent’s first, real-live impression of your house. Take the time to review the way your front yard looks. Does the front door look fresh and inviting? Is the landing or porch neat and tidy? These are the details that can make a huge difference for that ever-important first impression.

And if you sense something’s off, clip home improvement ideas from books, magazines or professionals who can really help you maximize the appeal of your home and get it ready for the market!

One professional, Michelle Molinari, has the perfect way to consistently spruce up exteriors of listings. She adds flowering white flowers to yards in Louisiana because they “always look great on photos,” she said.

Molinari also recommends a layer of mulch to finish out garden spaces and — a fun little tip — she suggests coordinating the mulch color with the roof color. The match will make the entire front appear more complimentary to the eye.

In lieu of green grass in the U.S. Southwest, xeriscaping is used because of the way this water-conserving method makes use of natural landscape items like rocks and desert-friendly plants.

The money shot: Your front door

One big item: Don’t forget the front door!

A brightly painted front door and decorative house numbers lend to this home’s curb appeal.

Some home stagers recommend using the same exterior color for the front door, but I prefer to a color to complement exterior house colors. For instance, a Tudor-style house with cream walls and grey trim would be great with a hydrangea blue on the door. A gray wall Colonial with white trim would look stunning with a black door. Most of the paint manufacturers have suggested exterior combinations (walls, trim and doors) to help sellers determine which color works well with the exterior paint colors and style of their house. (See: How to Choose Exterior Paint Colors).

In addition to the front door, potted plants and tables and chairs are great additions for a front porch. For the smaller landing, Karen Eubank of Eubank Staging in Dallas, Texas suggests a pot of rosemary by the front door. What a great way to have potential buyers enter your home after taking a nice whiff of rosemary at the door, signaling their welcome.

Numbers add a punch

Last, but not least, don’t neglect the house numbers or lighting. House numbers are best seen with dark numbers on a light background and are very important when selling! Ensure there is enough light to read them comfortably from the road. And if the front of the house is hard to see from the road, place another set of numbers closer to the road so buyers don’t miss the house!

Hopefully all of these tips will help your home make a great first impression!

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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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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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Clean Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Organized

470_2806556Your house may look clean, but these common organizing mistakes can make it hard to maintain order. Professional organizers share their top pet peeves and how to solve them.

The Mistake: Confusing “Clean” and “Organized”
“Having piles neatly lined up on the counter doesn’t mean you’re organized,” says professional organizer Linda Rothschild. If you find your flat surfaces filling with clutter, it’s time to designate a spot for everything coming into your home. Once you get the hang of it, the piles will disappear.

The Mistake: Keeping Counters Too Clear
Once you’ve cleared off what doesn’t belong on the kitchen counter, don’t forget to leave room for things you use every day. If you make daily smoothies, make a spot for the blender. It’s easier to keep the surfaces clean and organized if you have what you need at hand and everything has a designated spot.

The Mistake: A Full Refrigerator
“A big, messy focal point is a refrigerator tacked with magnets and reminders and notes and letters and photos and wedding invitations and art projects and shopping lists,” says professional organizer Jeni Aron. “Instead, keep one clipboard on your kitchen wall with all of the reminders and lists you need. When the clipboard is full, that’s your maximum number of papers you can keep.”

The Mistake: Disorganized Kitchen Shelving
Glass-front cabinets or open shelving can look messy if dishes are piled at random. “The solution? Add fabric or contact paper inside the glass cabinets. A better solution: Setting up a way to keep dishes organized,” says professional organizer Alejandra Costello.

The Mistake: Stuffing Kitchen Cabinets
Getting organized means making good decisions about what to keep and what to let go of, starting on the inside of the cabinets,” says professional organizer Linda Rothschild. Take everything out and take stock. If you’re not using it, let it go.

The Mistake: A Non-Functional Entryway
An entryway offers a home’s first impression, but it’s often covered with coats, backbacks, shoes and more. The solution? “Rearrange the coat closet in the entryway where kids can hang things,” offers professional organizer Alejandra Costello. “Or put a basket by the door to toss shoes inside. If the shoes can just make it inside, it can make a huge difference.”

The Mistake: Choosing Closet Form Over Daily Function
We all dream of a chic walk-in closet, but think about what you really use before devoting tons of space to baubles and high heels. “Things you wear on a regular basis need to be accessible,” says professional organizer Linda Rothschild. “If you go running everyday, those shoes should be in the front,” she says. Wear boots to work? Keep those out and stow away heels. Being realistic about your real-life closet needs makes it easier to keep the space neat.

The Mistake: Out-of-Order Containers
Throwing your stuff in a box or drawer doesn’t make it organized. “Every drawer, cabinet and shelf is a container, but consider taking it a step further by using additional containers within those storage areas to organize your things even more. Use bins, baskets, cups, tin cans, stackable bins and dividers to help keep your items better contained and visually appealing,” says professional organizer Vanessa Hayes.

The Mistake: Shopping First, Organizing Second
“The biggest mistake I see is that people think buying a bunch of organizing products will solve their clutter nightmares, but it usually just adds to the frustration,” says professional organizer Vanessa Hayes. “Instead, you need to edit your stuff first, then decide on products to help you organize what’s left.” That way, you’ll buy only what you need.

The Mistake: Skipping Labels
“Bins are fine, but they need to be space-efficient, properly labeled and specific,” says professional organizer Nancy Heller. “Leave a little extra space, but don’t throw a mismatched glove in there because there’s room. A label helps you halt and say, ‘oh, this doesn’t go here.’”

The Mistake: Too Many Toys
“For families with kids, many fall victim to every room becoming a toy room and the entire home becoming toy-centric,” says professional organizer Vanessa Hayes. “You’d be amazed at how much cleaner your home will look if you limit the toys you have, and keep them in only 1-2 places in your home.”

The Mistake: Not Corralling Cords
“This bothers me like crazy,” says professional organizer Alejandra Costello. “Wires on the wall or floor are a complete eyesore. Make your own backing with black foam board, or whatever you have. Or, actually detangle the wires and use a cord organizer to line them around the furniture.” Boom: A neat entertainment center, desk or nightstand.

The Mistake: Scattered Collections
When styling bookshelves, small pieces look more dramatic (and less cluttered) when grouped with like items. “Collections of vases showcase what you love, versus having one on the coffee table and two on the end table. It doesn’t look cohesive,” says professional organizer Nancy Heller.

The Mistake: Packed Bookshelves
Displaying only books you love leaves breathing room and space for decorative accessories. “I always go for balance. I’m fond of telling people when your bookshelf is 80 percent full, it’s really full,” says professional organizer Nancy Heller.

The Mistake: Letting Laundry Linger
When the laundry room is downstairs, piles of un-folded clothes can accumulate. “It’s all about just doing it right away,” says professional organizer Alejandra Costello. “Don’t do laundry unless you have enough time to finish it. When you’re ready to fold it, take it out of the dryer and put it away right then.”

The Mistake: Packed-Full Rooms
“Too many chairs, couches, tables and decorative items can quickly make a room look cluttered and feel closed-in,” says professional organizer Vanessa Hayes. “Selecting just a few pieces can open up a space and make it feel more relaxing and peaceful.”

The Mistake: Getting Used to Clutter
“Clutter actually becomes invisible,” says professional organizer Linda Rothschild. “When things are in piles, they become like wallpaper. Things get dumped and they get ignored.” Devote a few minutes a day to ditching the piles one by one – you’ll be amazed how much different your space will feel.

The Mistake: Too Much Stuff
“People love staying in hotels because it’s such an escape. You can have that in your home, you just have to have less stuff,” says professional organizer Kendra Stanley.

The Mistake: Stuffing Small Spaces
“Be realistic about the space you have and how you use it,” says professional organizer Nancy Heller. “If you are in a small home, you really have to be realistic about how much you can really have there without it being cluttered and overwhelming.” Opt for hidden storage under the bed or stairs, but know when to minimize your stuff, too.

The Mistake: Waiting Until Tomorrow
Staying organized is easy if you do something every day. “It’s continuous maintenance. For every hour we spend organizing we save 3-4 hours,” says professional organizer Nancy Heller. “Spend 5 minutes tidying up your junk drawer…just 20 minutes here, 10 minutes there will make all the difference.”

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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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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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