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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Is Your Home Turning Heads?

Curb appeal with flairCurb appeal is your first and best chance to generate interest in your home and perhaps a quick sale. Whether you are selling your home or not, see tips below for creating curb appeal.

Add Flair
You don’t have to spend a lot to enhance your home’s exterior. Simple updates – like a planter of flowers – can have a big impact.

Stay Grounded
When updating the front yard, it’s important to make sure all the elements tie together: the walkway and driveway and plants and trees around the house.

orange front doorFocus on Front Door
It welcomes visitors, sets the mood of the home and the tone for what’s inside. Your front door deserves some love.

Get Inspired
Manicured trees and shrubs, warm lighting fixtures and fresh paint trim are some features that add outstanding curb appeal.


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Create a Successful Container Garden

Container-Garden-c31b6d-e1400519170675When she’s not sharing her knowledge of container gardening as a guide on or photographing New England gardens for a forthcoming book from Timber Press, you’re likely to find Kerry Michaels tending to the nearly 100 potted plants that surround her home in coastal Maine. “No matter how hectic life can be,” she muses, “I get such enormous pleasure from these pots!” Here, Michaels offers six tips to boost your own container gardening know-how.

1. Water properly

“It still surprises me how much water a good-sized container needs to get to the roots of a plant,” says Michaels. Don’t just wet the top of the soil, she advises. Rather, continue until you see water dripping out from the holes at the bottom of the pot.

2. Supplement nutrients

“There are no nutrients in most potting soils, and even those that have some will need to be supplemented throughout the growing season,” Michaels says. If your potting soil doesn’t have any (check the bag), then augment with slow-release fertilizer every couple of weeks. Be sure to follow the directions closely, whether you choose to use diluted liquid fertilizer or granular fertilizer.

3. Pay attention to pot size

Pots that are too small can be a problem for container gardeners, Michaels reports. “Small pots mean less soil, and less soil means that there isn’t much margin for error when watering, because the pots dry out so fast,” she says.

4. Add some holes

If your pot is skimpy on drainage, don’t be afraid to make a few extra holes in the bottom. You can either use a drill with a special bit for ceramic pots (because these pots can crack, always wear safety goggles and make sure the pot and bit do not overheat), a regular bit for plastic pots, or an awl or nail and hammer for metal pots. “Sometimes my pots look like Swiss cheese, because I put so many holes in them,” Michaels says. “The more drainage, the better.”

5. Skip the gravel

“It’s a myth that stones or shells at the bottom of a container help keep your plants from getting waterlogged,” Michaels reveals. To keep soil from escaping the bottom of your pot, place window screening, a coffee filter or a paper towel over the holes of your container before adding soil.

6. Elevate pots

“When containers are set flat on nonporous surfaces, drainage can be affected,” says Michaels. “And on a deck, the constant moisture can damage the wood. Air circulation below pots is beneficial to both the plants and your deck.” She suggests using commercially made pot feet, like Potrisers or Pot Pads. Depending on the weight of your containers, you might also consider teacups, shot glasses or small terra-cotta pots to elevate them.

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Wonderful Walkway Designs

Walkway10From gravel to brick, bluestone to concrete, these gorgeous garden paths will take you where you want to go with your landscaping.

Stepping Stones
Large stones laid over grass form a casual, comfortable walkway leading through this yard to the garage. Even for beginning DIYers, making a stepping-stone walkway like this is an easy weekend project.

Brick allows for many design options. This path is laid in a running bond pattern with a contrasting border, but basket-weave, herringbone, and stacked bond patterns are also excellent choices for a brick walkway.

Pallet Wood
Recycled pallet wood makes a rustic complement to this short garden walk between drive and yard. The spaces between boards allow vining plants to creep underfoot.

Bark Mulch
Bark mulch is an affordable and DIY-friendly walkway material. This path, edged in round river stone, winds casually through a tulip-lined garden for a natural and unaffected look.

Bluestone walkways have a classic and tidy appearance. Many pattern and color choices exist (in fact, some bluestone isn’t even blue). In this yard, the stone’s natural character gives earnest charm to the entryway.

The thyme growing between these stepping stones adds a heady fragrance to strolls along this lush, low-maintenance garden path.

Stamped Concrete
Concrete has so much more to offer now than it did in the past. These days, it can be colored and textured to look like many other types of stone or paving materials. This stamped concrete design has an undeniable warmth lacking in traditional ?oated concrete.

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Beautify that Ugly Fireplace

ugly fireplaceFireplaces are hotter than ever. The National Association of Home Builders reports that, in 2010, nearly half of new single-family homes completed had a fireplace. And the National Association of Realtors say 40 percent of home buyers value fireplaces enough that they’d be willing to spend more to get a home that has one. To be clear: attractive fireplaces are hot. Outdated, poorly designed fireplaces are not. If your fireplace is more “Ugly Stepsister” than “Cinderella,” consider prettying it up using one of these four do-it-yourself fixes:

1. Paint it

A fresh coat of paint is one of the quickest and cheapest ways to beautify your fireplace. Prep is simple: Begin by using a wire brush to get all the grime off the hearth surface. Apply a stain-blocking primer to the clean fireplace before you paint to help cover soot stains. Most fireplace hearths are made from tile, stone or bricks held together by mortar or grout. It’s likely you’ll need to apply at least two coats of paint to cover these surfaces, especially brick, which tends to be porous. If you plan to paint inside the firebox, you’ll need to invest in a special heat-resistant paint. Choose a color that will blend with the room’s palette and furniture or, if the fireplace shape and design aren’t bad, choose a contrast color that will make your fireplace pop.

2. Go faux

Covering an existing fireplace with natural stone can be both expensive and difficult, requiring masonry skills, structural engineering and specialized tools. So, instead of heavy river rocks, consider faux stone. Yes, it’s hard to forget that hideous plastic-looking brick and stone from your grandparents’ home, but today’s products are oh, so much better. They actually have the same look, feel and durability of real stone – without the high costs or installation challenges. Plus, they typically weigh about 75 percent less than natural stone. Some stone veneers will require demolition of the existing fireplace surround before you prep for installation with a layer or two of building paper, covered by galvanized wire lath. Others, like AirStone, can be applied directly to substrate including brick, ceramic tile, stone, stucco or concrete block. Before investing in any manufactured stone product, make sure it and the adhesive required to install it are safe for use around wood stoves and fireplaces. Check local and state building codes to ensure your project meets requirements.

3. Make over the mantel

Even the most gorgeous fireplace won’t look complete without an appealing, well-proportioned mantel. You can build your own or, if you’d prefer, there are many paint-grade, fully assembled mantels on the market. Readybuilt Products, for example, offers more than 50 mantel styles, from Colonial to contemporary, priced at $350 to $2,500.

Be aware that the National Fire Protection Association’s safety code requires at least six inches between the sides and top of the firebox and any wood that projects up to one and a half inches from the face of the fireplace. Any wood that projects out further than that – a mantel shelf, for example – must be at least 12 inches from the opening. Contact your local building department for specific code requirements in your city and state.

4. Don’t overlook the over-mantel

Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with a fireplace – it’s just not special. With basic do-it-yourself skills, you can give your fireplace visual interest and height by adding an over-mantel, that ornamental structure that extends from your mantel upward. You can build an overmantel using MDF (medium-density fiberboard), and trims ranging from cladding to corbels, depending upon the look you’re after. For the look of an overmantel with even less work, consider installing two or three strips of wallpaper from your mantel to the ceiling; finish the project with a couple strips of wood trim along the sides and crown molding at the top. Traditionally, overmantels were dressed with decorative mirrors.

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Keeping Your Wood Deck in Peak Condition

A wood deck is certainly a thing of beauty, but only if it is well-maintained from year to year. If your deck is showing signs of weather and wear, some simple maintenance and a fresh coat of stain or sealer could make it look new again.And the job is one that can easily be accomplished by a do-it-yourselfer in a weekend or two.

Before you begin, remove everything from the deck. You’ll want to sweep the entire surface to remove any leaves, twigs, needles or branches, plus debris lodged between boards. Wash the deck thoroughly with a deck detergent (available at most home centers and hardware stores) and follow manufacturer instructions on best use. Make sure the cleaner you use is specified for your type of deck. A stiff bristle broom will come in handy to remove mildew stains, stubborn dirt and grime.

Once the deck is clean and dry, examine the condition of the wood. Are there any boards that are splintered, loose or raised? If so, they will need to be repaired. Does the wood appear to be highly worn? A light sanding will help revive the wood and raise the grain for better stain absorption.

Tools and materials:
Rubber gloves
Roller with extension pole
Rags and drop cloth


1. Choose a weekend that does not have rain in the forecast, and if possible, avoid applying the stain in direct sunlight. (Always test the stain on a small area and let it dry to make certain the color is the one you want.)

2. Using a bristle brush, start by heavily coating the open-end grain of the boards. Then brush two to three boards from one end to the other in long, smooth strokes. To avoid lap marks, make sure that the leading edge remains wet and that wet stain is brushed into wet stain.

3. Apply one coat of stain and wait for it to dry. Remember more stain is not necessarily better. If you over-apply, stain may peel or crack when exposed to moisture, or it may not dry properly. Let the stain dry for at least three days before returning patio furniture to the surface and putting the deck into service.

Seasonal maintenance will continue to keep your wood deck in peak condition. As a general rule of thumb, if your deck repels water, the existing stain or sealer is still performing.


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This Weekend, Install a Pendant Light

pendant lightThe flourescent light came down over the weekend. It was a happy day, although like many “easy fixes” I decide to take on, there was a surprising amount of repair that neededto be done before the light could actually go up. Cue the dramatic music.

The process of installing the new pendant light I had picked out was going to be quite easy after a little of ceiling repair work was finished…

For one thing, the obvious absence of an electrical box meant that I needed to install one to contain the wiring; it’s only right for electrical safety to contain sparks and properly anchor the wires. Fortunately for me, all other wiring has passed previous inspections, and aside from carving out a little round hole for the existing construction box to pop into, new holes needed to be made and no new wires needed to be run, so I called it an easy day.

What you also probably noticed in the ceiling were an abundance of holes (those were left by the florescent fixture’s toggle bolts). Patching those is what has been consuming me all week. If you’ve played with drywall compound before, you’ll appreciate the patience required in watching skim-coated compound dry (not once, but three times in this case, repeatedly sanding and coating the ceiling to perfection).

The paint obviously needed to be touched up too; when I painted the kitchen a few years ago, I had edged around the light and avoided taking it down to do the job well (the whole fixture was actually hidden at that time, only exposed when I removed the kitchen cabinets), but once the compound had been dried and smoothed, I finished off the soffit with a nice coat of flat white ceiling paint.

Ceiling repairs checked off the list, the actual light installation was quite a breeze.

I had stopped into IKEA to pick up my new pendant, an 365+ LUNTA (glass pleated model, not to be confused with the smooth metal model that I accidentally bought first – long story), and was ready to begin the install. I happen to love these pendants (glass, pleated, so pretty, and so affordable at $30 for the whole kit – plus, it’s the smaller version of the pendants I have hung in the adjacent dining room, so the whole first floor of the house would feel a little more cohesive with the new addition in the kitchen).

Step 1: Power OFF. Breaker OFF. If you’re really nervous, turn the main power switch OFF too.

Step 2: Before wiring the light, consider the length of the pendant. My IKEA purchase came with a wire 6-feet long, which I decided to shorten to 10-inches so that the pendant would hang about this far down. With some pendants, you’ll have to actually cut the cord to length and re-strip the wires before you install, but with mine, the excess cord will tuck into a ceiling encasement.

Step 3: Follow your own fixture’s instruction manual. IKEA’s graphic tutorial guided me through matching up the wires that would sit within the ceiling box, and also instructed me how to affix the supporting pieces of the pendant directly to the box. I always use marretts to secure the hardwired connection, and then wrap the connection with black electrical tape to further reinforce.

Step 4: At this point, jump off the countertop or the sink or wherever you’re balancing on your kneepads, and turn the power back ON to that room. Turn on the light switch. Make sure that it works before you finish the install (it’s always a little easier to find out before you complete the install, in my experience). If it works, go turn the power back OFF at the breaker box just to be safe while you finish the install. If it doesn’t, double check your connections and/or consult with an electrician.

Step 5: The IKEA fixture has a nice built-in hook system that distributes the weight of the light over the wire so it’s not pulling straight from the wire in the box. It’s also designed to be capped right off by an encasement that screws right into place, so the hard work has already been done.

What I like best about this encasement is that you can actually leave yourself a little wiggle room in pendant length and hide extra cord inside the encasement easily, so if next week I decide it needs to be lowered 3 inches, it’s an easy update. Like I mentioned in Step 2, if your pendant doesn’t have a substantial encasement, you’ll have to trim your cord to length.

Step 6: Install the shade. Don’t accidentally drop and shatter it in the sink (just something I always imagine happening). Turn the power back ON (you can leave it on this time).

YOU’RE DONE!!! What’s next? Rejoice. If your pendant is over the kitchen sink, maybe follow that urge to hand wash your dishes more often. And consider adding a dimmer switch to make your new pendant act a little moody – it’s always a nice touch.

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Consider These Upgrades When Re-roofing Your Home

re-roofingRe-roofing your home is not the most glamorous of home improvements. You’ll note that HGTV shows rarely even mention the roof. Unlike decks, kitchens, and baths, the roof is not really something you’d invite your friends over to admire. But re-roofing does present some appealing opportunities for the homeowner who wants to reduce maintenance and unnecessary expenses for years to come. Here are five roof upgrades to consider when you are about to re-roof your home.

1. Install an airtight chimney cap
Unlike masonry and metal chimney caps that are designed to keep rain and (if screened) birds and other critters out of your chimney, airtight caps are about saving energy.

When your fireplace is not in use, warm air from inside your home is literally gushing out the chimney when the weather is cold. The damper in your firebox does little to stop it because it is not airtight.

Ask your roofer about installing an airtight chimney cap while the roof is being worked on. These units are spring-activated. To open the chimney cap, you just tug on a steel cable that’s attached to a bracket inside your fireplace. Pull it shut after your fire is completely out. An airtight cap has the added benefit of keeping animals from nesting inside your chimney.

2. Install eave flashing
If you’ve ever experienced damage from an ice dam, you might want to invest a little extra when re-roofing to install eave flashing. These peel-and-stick bituminous membranes are applied prior to shingling to a depth that is 2 feet inside the exterior wall plane (three feet on low-pitched roofs). The membranes self-seal around roofing fasteners, forming a watertight seal over the eaves, which are the portion of the roof most susceptible to ice dams. Bituminous eave flashing may also be specified for other vulnerable roof areas, such as over valleys and around skylights and dormers.

3. Improve roof ventilation
Attics become like furnaces in summer if they are not well ventilated. That heat buildup radiates to the rooms directly below the attic, making them uncomfortable. To keep the attic—and your home—cooler, be sure your roofing contractor installs ridge vents across the top of your roof. Barely noticeable from the street, ridge vents allow air movement beneath the ridge cap shingles. For ventilation to be effective, soffit vents located under the eaves draw cooler air into the attic as hot air is being expelled. Gable vents, which are located near the roof peak of exterior walls, may also be needed to ensure adequate airflow. A cooler attic means your home will be more comfortable during the summer without your having to spend a fortune on air conditioning.

4. Choose an energy-efficient shingle
The recommendation for a cooler roof used to be to select light-colored or white shingles. This option, however, wasn’t always aesthetically appealing to homeowners. Today’s new reflective shingles come in assorted colors, from popular slate to wood tones. The granules not only reflect the sun’s radiation but also quickly reemit much of the heat that is absorbed. Depending on your climate and your home’s construction, a cool roof can save between 7 and 15 percent of your cooling costs.


5. Install low-maintenance gutters
While you’re having your home reroofed, it’s also a good time to scrap your old gutters and install new ones—especially if your existing gutters are misaligned or unsightly. Gutter systems with built-in curved hoods, such as those from Englert LeafGuard, are designed to be maintenance-free. The patented design works on the scientific principle of water adhesion, allowing rainwater to travel down and around its curved hood and into the gutter while deflecting leaves. This prevents clogs and unsightly staining on gutters and siding due to gutter overflow. It also means you can forget about the messy and hazardous chore of climbing a ladder to clean your gutters. The one-piece, seamless LeafGuard Brand gutters are generously sized for the heaviest of downpours, and homeowners like the clean architectural way they define the roof eaves. They even come in a variety of colors, allowing you to choose a tone that will complement your trim, roofing, and siding. Use LeafGuard’s design tool to get a preview of how the gutters will look with your new roof.

With all these improvements, maybe a new roof is worth celebrating.

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Reduce Your Grocery Bill – Plant a Garden!

vegetablesGardening can be a therapeutic and relaxing activity, but it can also put a little extra money in your pocket if you grow the right things (and grow them well). A seedling might cost you just a dollar or two but yield vegetables and fruit throughout the season that would otherwise cost you many dollars a pound. Like anything else, gardening can be done on a budget, or you can get carried away and spend far too much.

Here are just a few ways you can save on your garden this year.

Start small. If this is the first year you’re trying to grow a garden, it’s OK to start small. If you don’t have a lot of room, or time, to build a raised bed, begin with a few pots and try container gardening. You can grow produce almost as well in pots as you can in a raised bed, and it requires a lot less time to get started. With a smaller garden, it will also be easier to plan and you can always expand it next year.

Skip fancy planters. If you’re going to work with a container garden, don’t buy the expensive planters at the hardware store. IKEA and your local dollar store can be great places to look for chic containers on a budget. Any container that offers drainage will work (or you can drill your own holes). Drainage is crucial, or you might get too much moisture and cause the roots to drown and the soil to mold.

If you want a cheap option, buy a painter’s bucket and drill holes at the bottom for a five-gallon planter for just a few dollars. You’ll even get a handle as a bonus, so you can easily move the container.

Pots will be expensive, even if you skip fancy planters, but it’s an upfront fixed cost that you won’t have to pay each year. Buy a sturdy bucket or container, and use it for years.

Only plant what you’ll eat. This sounds silly, but when you visit the store, you might be tempted to plant all these incredible vegetables you’ve always wanted to try. Avoid that temptation! You’ll be spending good money and time on your garden, and you’ll want to maximize your enjoyment. So don’t plant something unless you know you’ll eat it. You can always experiment later, once you have a handle on things.

When deciding what seeds to buy, choose vegetables that are more expensive. Tomatoes and peppers are good choices because they’re some of the most expensive vegetables to purchase (and they’re not difficult to grow yourself).

Start from seeds. Take a stroll through the outdoor department of your local home improvement store or the greenhouse of your local market, and you’ll see a lot of plants — all of which have been growing for weeks. These are good options if you’re late into a growing season, but you can save a lot of money by starting with seeds.

To begin, take some potting soil, and put it into a cardboard egg carton. It’s important you use fresh potting soil because it’ll be full of nutrients your seeds need to grow. For bonus points, try a seed-starting mix of compost, perlite, vermiculite and coir — there are plenty of recipes online.

Next, put the seeds in the dirt, and place the carton somewhere it will get sun. Use a spray bottle to keep the dirt moist, and within a week or so you should see sprouts. Keep watering until they get their second set of leaves. Then they’ll be ready for transplant to individual containers or your garden.

Make your own compost. Compost can provide valuable nutrients for your plants, but it can be expensive if you buy it. Why not take advantage of your yard and food waste by composting it yourself? Many municipalities offer free or reduced cost compost bins that you can use to produce food for your garden.

Water the garden in the morning or in the evening. It’s best to water your garden, and even your lawn, during cooler temperatures. Water your garden in the morning or in the evening — not when the sun is at its peak and more of the water evaporates.

After a few weeks, you’ll start to see the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor. Good luck on your garden this year!

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Home Improvement projects that Give You the Most Bang for Your Buck

kitchenMaking minor improvements to homes rather than full-on remodeling is the most cost-effective way for sellers to boost the value of their properties, according to Zillow.

Real estate agents and interior designers who responded to a survey from Zillow’s home improvement marketplace, Zillow Digs, said that low-cost projects like landscaping and painting walls in neutral colors offer sellers more bang for their buck than full-blown renovations, whose addition to a home’s value might not outweigh their cost.

According to the survey, the five home improvement projects delivering the most bank for the buck are:

•Curb appeal (fresh potted flowers, a fresh coat of paint on the front door).

•Staging (“neutral colors and minimal furniture are best”).

•Small home improvements (updated lighting fixtures, cabinet or door handles, and minor kitchen and bathroom updates).

•Decluttering (“Old appliances and furniture can be overlooked if a space is clean, simple and well-edited.”)

•Granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.

Most high-end finishes “don’t equal high-end returns,” says Zillow Agent Advisory Board member Bic DeCaro of Westgate Realty Group in Falls Church, Va. Interior design trends come and go. But most buyers are still requesting granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, DeCaro said.

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