Glenn Anthony

Check Yourself: 7 Home Maintenance Tasks You Should Tackle in May

We've been fantasizing about it for months, and finally warmer weather has arrived. We know: You just want to fire up the grill and start working on your tan—we do, too! But before you can kick back in your hammock (or in your pool on your giant patriotic bald eagle float, if that's your thing), there are a few tasks you’ll need to tackle.

And you can bet they're all outside.

“The old adage ‘April showers bring May flowers’ rings true and makes May prime time for landscaping and lawn care in most of the country," says Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

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But it goes beyond gardening and yard work. Now's the last chance to take care of all that winter wear and tear and transform your home's outdoor space into something worthy of the host with the most.

The good news? We're here to make it as quick and easy on you as possible—with our handy checklist of home maintenance chores, you can knock them out and get back to that pool float ASAP. We’ve provided tips for doing each task faster and easier—or with the help of a pro.

1. Inspect brick and stone patios and walkways

Don't let your brick and stone walkways fall through the cracks.

Don't let your brick and stone walkways fall through the cracks.

Task: Freezing temperatures can wreak havoc on hardscape surfaces made of loose (unmortared) brick, stone, and concrete paving materials. Check to see if frost heave and erosion have caused pavers to shift, rise, or sink. You’ll want to fix any unevenness for safety as well as aesthetic reasons.

Shortcuts: Repair hardscape surfaces using a wheelbarrow filled with playground sand and a sturdy trowel. Pry up displaced pavers, smooth and even out the bed with fresh sand, and replace the paver.

Call in the pros: This is a good job for a handyman. Expect to pay $30 to $60 an hour, depending on your location.

2. Feed your lawn

Task: After a wet spring, your lawn might be looking quite rich and lush. Since Mother Nature did the hard work, you can sit back and relax, right? Not so fast. Grass loves nutrients, so now's the time to add high-nitrogen fertilizer to help suppress weeds and keep your lawn looking great all summer.

Shortcuts: A push-powered broadcast spreader makes quick work of fertilizing your lawn. You’ll find spreaders suitable for an average suburban lawn for $35 to $100. If you have a cooking compost pile, you can substitute home-grown compost for commercial fertilizers.

Call in the pros: A lawn care company will spray on a chemical fertilizer for about $40 an application.

3. Repair wood fences and gates

Task: Cycles of cold and wet weather cause wood to move, twist, and warp. That can make garden gates fall out of alignment, and can cause fence pickets to loosen or fall off. Check for signs of loose fencing, and fix sagging gates.

Shortcuts: A cordless battery-powered nail gun ($250) makes quick work of refastening pickets and fence supports. Use only galvanized nails for outdoor work. Use a power drill fitted with a screw tip or a hex driver to remove or tighten loose screws and bolts in gates.

Call in the pros: This is a good job for a handyman. You’ll pay $30 to $60 an hour, depending on your location.

4. Mulch flower and vegetable beds

You'll be mulch happier in the long run if you care for your gardens now.

You'll be mulch happier in the long run if you care for your gardens now.

Task: Prevent evaporation and help keep weeds in check by insulating planting beds with 2 to 4 inches of mulch.

Shortcuts: Set aside a mulching day, and have a landscaping service deliver bulk mulch and dump it where you can get to it easily (like your driveway). Plan on 1 cubic yard of mulch to cover 100 square feet, with mulch 3 inches deep.

Call in the pros: A landscaping service will put in the mulch, but it'll cost you—to the tune of $250 to $560 for 500 square feet, depending on your location.

5. Wash windows

Task: As your yard takes shape and your gardens come into full bloom, you’ll want to see everything clearly. It's time to wash away winter’s dirt and grime from your windows.

Shortcuts: Have a partner clean the outside while you do the inside of the same window. That way, you can identify which side of the glass contains lingering streaks and smudges, and get rid of them on the spot. Plus, who wants to clean alone?

Call in the pros: In addition to cleaning the glass, a professional window washer will remove and clean screens and remove accumulated dirt from sliding tracks for $2 to $7 per window.

6. Get your grill in gear

It's time to get all up in your grill's grill.

It's time to get all up in your grill's grill.

Task: Nobody wants a rack of ribs with last year's grill gunk on them. Before you fire up the ol' barbecue, make sure your grill is clean and that any gas hoses and connections are secure.

Shortcuts: No matter what kind of grill you have, invest in a grill brush or other coarse cleaning brush, remove the grates and metal plates beneath them, and soak them in hot soapy water for five to 10 minutes. Then scrub hard. To rinse, spray them with the hose.

Cover the area where the grates usually go with foil, and use a stiff grill brush to clean grime from the hood and inside walls. Use a cleaner specifically designed for your grill's surface (e.g., stainless steel, porcelain, or cast iron), and reassemble all parts.

Call in the pros: There are professional grill cleaners who will take your barbecue from slimy to spotless, but it will cost you the equivalent of a few porterhouse steaks. This Denver cleaning service offers quotes from $185 to $279.

7. Make sure your AC is cool

Task: Now's your last chance to double-check your air-conditioning unit and make sure it's in good working order before the mercury starts to rise.

Shortcuts: Hook up a garden hose and spray the outside of the condenser to remove any dust that's settled on the unit and connections. (Yes, dust can affect your AC's effectiveness.) Don’t use a brush, and be careful if pressure washing—you could damage or bend the fins. Make sure to change the filter, too.

Call in the pros: Having a pro service your AC system costs $100 to $250 and includes cleaning the condenser and lubricating the fan motor.

The Best Smoke Detectors for Your Home and the Worst

The Best Smoke Detector for a Home, and the Worst: Which Do You Have?

First the good news: After decades of public education by firefighters and other community groups, Americans have finally gotten the memo that smoke detectors are a good thing. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 96% of homes in the U.S. have at least one smoke detector to alert residents to a fire on the premises. Now the bad news: There are actually two types of smoke detectors, and the most popular one is actually the less effective. So which one’s the best smoke detector for your home? Here are the facts on these two main types of smoke detectors—ionization and photoelectric—and how you can use them to keep your home safe.

Ionization smoke detector

Ionization alarms use a small bit of radioactive material to detect the incinerated particles that make up smoke. They’re also the most common—the National Fire Protection Association found that 90% of all the smoke detectors in the U.S. are this type.

The problem? Ionization smoke detectors are sluggish at detecting slow-burning or smoldering fires, such as those caused by the most common types of fire starters—namely cigarettes, frayed electrical wires, and fireplace embers. By the time an ionization alarm activates, smoke and carbon monoxide levels have likely built up sufficiently to disorient you and make you unable to escape your home.

Joseph Fleming, a deputy fire chief at the Boston Fire Department, says as many as 30,000 people in the U.S. have died in fires since 1990 because their homes were equipped only with ionization detectors.

So why, then, do ionization alarms get placed in homes? For one, they’re cheaper—typically half the price of a photoelectric smoke detector—and the battery on an ionization alarm tends to last longer.

Just beware: Since ionization alarms have such a high false-alarm rate—they can be triggered by cooking or even showering—many people disconnect or “shush” their ionization alarms. If you do, be sure to turn them back on!

Photoelectric smoke detector

A photoelectric smoke detector uses a beam of light to detect smoke particles. And although these detectors are twice as expensive as ionization alarms (it’s no wonder they’re less popular), data from the National Institute of Standards and Technology has found that photoelectric alarms can detect smoke 20 to 50 minutes faster—that’s a significant head start!

Photoelectric alarms are considered the best way to protect your family from fire. In fact, in 2008 the International Association of Fire Fighters recommended that photoelectric alarms be the only type of device installed; several states, including Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine, require photoelectric alarms in new residential construction.

As for the home you’re currently in, experts recommend you invest in photoelectric smoke alarms in bedrooms and hallways, and leave the ionization smoke alarms in the kitchen, if at all. And ideally you’ll want your alarms to be hard-wired so they don’t rely on battery power (61% of homes have smoke detectors that work only on battery power). Hard-wiring also allows for the devices to be interconnected so that if one detector goes off, they all do (just 25% of homes have interconnected smoke alarms, even though new homes have been required to have them since 1976).

And don’t forget about carbon monoxide detectors

In addition to smoke detectors, all homes should have separate detectors for carbon monoxide—an odorless gas emitted by furnaces, stoves, grills, and other appliances that burn fuel. Carbon monoxide is the leading cause of accidental poisoning, causing about 400 deaths a year.

Attention First-Time Buyers: Here's the Key Stuff You Don't Know About Mortgages

When it comes to mortgages, there’s a big gap between what people thinkthey need in order to get one and the reality of what buyers are successfully doing—especially young people.

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You Don't Know I know, I know, I’ve written on down payments before (like last month, when I highlighted that putting 20% down isn’t the norm).About Mortgages!

But you know what? When it comes to what might be the biggest purchase of your life—one that can be incredibly intimidating for first-time buyers—it’s nice to know real facts. And in the mortgage market, reality is very often different from perception. Or, for that matter, myth.

Last week, the National Association of Realtors® issued its 2017 Aspiring Home Buyers Profile report. The report cites data from surveys taken in the third quarter of 2016 about down payments.

The report summarized that 39% of nonowners believe they need more than 20% for a down payment on a home, 26% believe they need to put down 15% to 20%, and 22% believe a down payment of 10% to 14% would work.

 

So on average, those nonowners thought a down payment would need to be about 16%. The reality? The average down payment on purchase mortgages in 2016 was 11%.

In fact, when we drill into the purchase mortgages taken out by people under 35, who represent the majority of first-time buyers, we see the average down payment was even lower, at just under 8%. In other words, aspiring first-time buyers think it takes twice as much to buy a home than it really does.

Perception, meet reality

But averages can be misleading, right? Especially when there is a wide distribution, like we observe with down payments. When we dig into what actually happened in 2016 we find that most young people buy homes with … less than 5% down. That’s less than one-third of what the average nonowner had assumed! 

As with many things in life, the most correct answer to the question of how much you need to put down is “it depends.” There are a slew of important factors like who you are, your financial circumstances, the home’s location, and the price of the home.

It is possible to buy a home with a mortgage with no money down. VA and USDA loans are the most popular loans that offer the ability to put no money down. In 2016, 16% of buyers under 35 put no money down.

The largest share (36%) of loans for buyers under 35 in 2016 was for people putting down something less than 5%. The options there include loans offered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but also 3% down payment programs backed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (aka conforming loans). And, of course, this includes the traditional 3.5% FHA mortgage that is primarily targeted to first-time buyers.

More than half of young people who successfully bought a home with a mortgage in 2016 put at most 5% down. The average dollar amount for these buyers was $3,500. That’s right, if you have #FOMO from your friends buying homes, the majority of them are putting down just a few thousand dollars.

How are they doing it? The aforementioned mortgage products (conforming, FHA, VA, and USDA) represent almost 99% of the mortgages to people under 35 in 2016. There is nothing exotic about this.

And it doesn’t require perfect credit, just fair credit. The average FICO was 713, and the floor we observed in FICOs (below which very few mortgages were made) was 639.

Put that all together and you can see that for the millennial dreaming of buying a home this year, you need a FICO score of at least 639 and enough money that you could put down at most 5%. If you live in a typical American town, what you need could be as little as $3,500.

That sounds a lot more attainable than most people think. The truth is out there! Take advantage of it.

How to Refinance a Mortgageā€”and Why a Refi Might Be Right for You

 

Even after you’ve landed a loan and bought your dream home, that’s not where your knowledge of mortgages should end. For one, you’ll want to know the ins and outs of how to refinance a mortgage—info which can come in handy for a variety of reasons.

Yet beware—make a wrong move when you refinance, and you could easily get in over your head. That’s why in this final installment of our Stress-Free Guide to Getting a Mortgage, we highlight the right (and wrong) ways to tap into your home equity.

What is home equity?

Your home equity is the current market value of your home, minus the amount you owe on your mortgage. While paying down your mortgage will increase your home equity, the value of your home can rise (or fall) and increase (or decrease) your home equity, too. (Here’s how you can can get an estimate of how much your home is worth.)

What is a refi?

When you refinance your mortgage, you’re essentially applying for a new loan. Once again, you’ll be subject to complete documentation and verification of your income, assets, debt-to-income ratio, credit score, and job history. Your house will need to appraise for enough value to support the new loan. You will also need to either pay closing costs, which run anywhere from 2% to 7% of the home’s sales price, or opt for a no-cost refinance, where your lender covers the closing costs but you get a slightly higher interest rate on your new loan.

Whether you use the same lender is entirely up to you, says Jordan Dobbs, a loan officer at Washington First Mortgage in Rockville, MD. Even if you were happy with your original lender, it could be beneficial to shop around and compare your loan options.

4 reasons to refinance

There are several things that could prompt you to refinance:

  1. To get a lower interest rate. Many people want to refinance when interest rates are lower so that they can lower their monthly mortgage payments and, consequently, pay less in interest over the life of the loan. If that’s the case, you’d want to look at your potential closing costs and calculate your break-even point to determine whether it makes sense to refinance, since you’re also resetting the clock in terms of the life of your mortgage. You can use realtor.com®’s refinance calculator to crunch the numbers of your own mortgage and see how much you’d save. (One rule of thumb says that if your interest rate is more than 1% above current rates, refinancing is a smart move.)
  2. To get a different type of mortgage. Some borrowers want to refinance an adjustable-rate mortgage into a fixed-rate loan, while others want to reduce their loan term from a 30-year loan to a 10-, 15-, or 20-year loan in order to pay it off faster and save money over the long haul.
  3. To stop paying mortgage insurance. If you didn’t have enough cash to make a 20% down payment when you purchased your home, you were likely forced to get mortgage insurance—a monthly premium that typically costs between 0.3% and 1.15% of your home loan. Refinancing to a loan without mortgage insurance can save you hundreds of dollars each month, but you’ll need to have at least 20% equity in your home to qualify, says Dobbs.
  4. To tap into the home’s equity. People also refinance because they want to take cash out of their property, which is often done to make home improvements, pay for college, consolidate debt, or make a down payment on a second home. If you decide to go that route, you can choose between a home equity loan and a home equity line of credit (or HELOC).

What’s the difference between a home equity loan and a HELOC?

Although these two loan products sound similar, they’re significantly different. With a home equity loan, you decide how much you want to borrow and then make monthly payments, similar to a regular mortgage. Thus, with a home equity loan you avoid the temptation to overspend, because you’ll be borrowing a set amount. Also, because the interest rate is usually fixed, you have peace of mind knowing that the payments will remain the same.

A home equity line of credit, or HELOC, meanwhile, functions more like a credit card, because it allows you to borrow up to a certain amount (typically 75% to 85% of the home’s appraised value, minus what you still owe on your home) on an as-needed basis over the term of the loan (usually 5 to 20 years). In fact, your lender will actually issue you a plastic card that you can use to access the money easily. A HELOC works well if you want to borrow money but don’t know exactly how much you’ll need (a common conundrum when making home improvements).

The main drawback to HELOCs? Unlike with home equity loans, interest rates on HELOCs are variable, which means they fluctuate depending on market conditions. And while many lenders offer a low “introduction” rate, it lasts only for a matter of months; after that, the interest rates will adjust—and continue to readjust—which could create problems if you don’t prepare for the potentially higher payments. So be sure to weigh these pros and cons before you start chipping away at the equity you’ve gained.

 

 

NEW YEARS RESOLUTION - Buy a Home Early in 2017.

Let’s finish out the year with a holiday basket packed with good news: We’re ending 2016 in better economic shape than in recent years. Unemployment is down to 4.6%, its lowest level since August 2007; consumer confidence is higher than it has been since July 2007; and home values nationally and in more than half of the major markets in the country have recovered.

We’re employed, confident, and have recovered equity in our homes. The stock market is up and flirting with all-time highs.

That sounds like the perfect backdrop to buy a home in 2017, whether it’s a first-time purchase, a move up, a downsize, or a relocation. Right?

Maybe. But before you take the plunge, you’re going to have to come to grips with two factors that are now decidedly worse for buying than they were at the end of last year: Mortgage rates are higher, and the inventory of homes for sale is lower.

Check the latest mortgage rates on 

Mortgage rates are a bit more than a quarter of a point higher now than they were at the end of 2015. That translates into payments that are 3% higher. Still, that increase can be managed by most.

The key challenge for potential buyers is that rates are now likely to move up more—as much as three-quarters of a point in 2017. That would be increasing payments by an additional 9%.

Tight inventory levels have been a problem for more than four years. As sales have grown, supply has fallen. We’ve seen the age of inventory—how long homes sit on the market—drop dramatically as home buyers burn through the available stock.

We’ve had an abnormally strong autumn for home sales because frustrated buyers are keeping at it even after the end of peak buying season. We also saw more new buyers emerge later in the peak season. Then as mortgage rates started to move up in October and then accelerated their rise in November and December, a new sense of urgency was added to the mix.

As a result of this unusually strong demand in the slower time of the year, we will end this year with at least 10% fewer homes for sale than we had last year. And we thought last year was bad!

Get started on your home hunt now

If your New Year’s resolutions include buying a home, I would suggest getting an early start. January and February typically are the slowest months of the year for sales, as harsh weather in most of the country dissuades most potential buyers.

Buyers in January and February face far less competition from other buyers, yet inventory is only marginally lower than in the spring.

Since mortgage rates are likely to move up as the year progresses, the beginning of the year represents the best time to lock in rates before they get even higher.

Early-year buyers can use the holidays to get ready. Organize your financial information to make getting pre-approved for a mortgage easier. Use realtor.com® to find an expert local Realtor® to help you. And while you are there, sign up for alerts on new homes and price changes on neighborhoods that interest you.

Jonathan Smoke is the chief economist of realtor.com, where he analyzes real estate data and trends to develop market insights for the consumer.

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