homeowners insurance

A homeowner’s policy is designed to protect you, your family, your dwelling and your personal property from damage, both physical and financial, to some extent. Most policies are essentially the same, containing these components:

Dwelling coverage. Your lender will require that if your property is severely damaged, it’s able to recover the amount of the loan you’ve borrowed. This is what dwelling coverage is for, when it comes down to it. In the case that your house were a total loss, you’d have the option to either rebuild with those insurance funds or give them to the bank and own the lot free and clear (then you could rebuild with cash or sell the lot off).

Oh, but it gets better! Dwelling coverage will also cover major damage to your home, like when a bad wind or hail storm comes through and causes your roof to spring a leak. You will likely have a deductible around $1,000 or higher to deter you from making too many claims, but it is handy to have when big issues crop up.

It’s extremely important to note that while many acts of nature (tornadoes, fires, wind storms, etc.) are covered by your dwelling coverage, most policies specifically exclude floods, earthquakes and sinkholes. Check your policy carefully and ask your agent about additional coverage if you’re in a flood-, quake- or sinkhole-prone area.

Other structure coverage. Other structure coverage does exactly what it says it does: covers other structures. There’s usually a dollar cap, which is a percentage of the value of your home, but it can be applied to major damage to sheds, detached garages, fences, greenhouses and any other permanent structure you have on your property.

Personal property coverage. This is the part of the insurance policy that’s just exactly like renter’s insurance. If your property is damaged during a storm, stolen during a robbery or severely damaged by something out of your control, you can file a claim and possibly have some kind of reimbursement. Replacement cost coverage provides the amount necessary to replace your items, so if this is an option, choose it. Again, though, there is probably not coverage for flooding, earthquakes or sinkholes, so be ready to ask about it.

Personal liability coverage. If the neighbor pops by to bring you a pie and accidentally slips and is injured, you don’t have to worry about how much her hospital bills are going to be. Your insurance will cover it (to a specified amount). The same applies if your tree drops a limb on the neighbor’s roof and they sue you for the costs. Accidents happen, that’s what insurance is for.

Other things that are covered by this part of the policy may include dog bites that occur on your property, if you were honest with the agent and your dog wasn’t on a prohibited dog list (some insurance companies won’t insure homes with “pitbull” type dogs, German shepherd, rottweilers, and others). It’s essentially a general liability policy tied to your home, so if you can imagine an accident stemming from your family, it’ll probably cover it.

Loss of use coverage. Many homeowner policies will also pay for you to live elsewhere while your home is being repaired after major damage. This is the loss of use coverage portion of the policy. It, of course, comes with a cap, so don’t get too cozy at the Ritz. Your dollars — and days — are limited.

Additional Coverage. You can choose from a number of additional coverages, from extra coverage for valuable collectables to coverage for identity fraud, at an additional cost. Most of these extra coverages won’t apply to most buyers, but there’s one that you may want to consider if you’re buying a house with a basement or in an area with a high water table.

That’s the “Water Backup and Sump Pump Discharge or Overflow” coverage. Now, this still won’t cover flooding, but it will cover any water that’s forced back into your house through the sewer system due to excessive ground- or wastewater causing backflow in the sewage system. So, it’s not for flood waters that enter your house the normal way, but if they come in through the sump pump, you’re gold.

If you’re in an area where this is a possibility and the coverage isn’t much extra, definitely get this. The sheer nightmare that is water backup from a basement drain due to oversaturation is unspeakable and the smell unforgettable. You’re going to be happy to leave that one to the pros.

Flood Insurance: What’s That All About?

Flood insurance primarily comes up when you’re looking to buy a house sitting on a piece of land that has even a tiny corner poking into a floodplain. The fact that most homeowners don’t know they can buy flood insurance no matter where they live is a serious disservice to all of them, especially considering how many homes have been flooded in recent years without being located in flood plains. The issue usually comes up when your bank requires a flood insurance certification to process your home loan for a house in a flood plain, otherwise, figuring flood insurance out is in your court — and most people would rather skip the additional $600ish dollars a year.

That’s right. For $50 a month, your $250k home can be insured against flood damage. Or thereabouts, the price varies with your risk. Some homes are less, some are a bit more. This is the coverage that fills in the flood gapthat your homeowner’s leaves totally open. It only pays on flood damage, and there are plenty of exclusions, including anything located in a basement or other room that’s below the level of the ground, but it’s a lot better than the nothing you’ll have otherwise. Ask your agent about optional flood insurance while you’re discussing homeowner’s.

The Seller Provided a Home Warranty, How Does This Figure In?

Getting a home warranty at closing is a good move. Although the companies behind them can sometimes be slow to get the wheels moving, they can protect you from major repair expenses in your early homeownership years. But, they can also be a little confusing because they sort of work like insurance, even though they aren’t technically insurance.

Home warranties help you cover the cost of repairs for common small household issues, like leaky plumbing, air conditioning hiccups and electrical shenanigans. You pay a portion of the cost of the service call, depending on what level of plan was purchased, and the warranty company pays the rest.

In this way, it behaves a bit like health insurance. Everyone pays into one big pot and the money is used where it’s needed. Not everyone will need to use their home warranty, but those people who do need it may require a considerably larger chunk than they contribute. Everybody understands that’s the deal when they sign up, though. They know they may not actually use the coverage, so it’s all on the up-and-up.


Wrap Your Home in a Warm Layer of Insurance Bubble Wrap

A lot of home buyers and homeowners think that insurance is a waste of money. After all, it’s designed so that you never use it. While that may be true, the fact remains that if you do need it, you’re really going to need it and there’s no take-backs. You can’t change your mind and load up on coverage after that giant tree has fallen through your bathroom ceiling.

For the relatively small cost (when compared to your house payment) of the right insurance coverages, it’s nice to be able to sleep at night without having to worry about what you’ll do if water comes in under the front door from the storm that’s brewing. Getting good insurance is a snap, too.

You can ask your Realtor to recommend an agent that they like through the HomeKeepr community — that agent’s contact information will then appear instantly. A short call later, you’ll walk a little taller and feel a little bit better about the next windy day.

Your Flooring Options: A Journey Underfoot


Whether you’ve owned your house for a day, a year or a decade, picking the flooring you’re going to have to live with for a while can be stressful. There are so many materials available and within those, a huge array of colors and designs. It’s the paradox of choice at work, you have so many options you may literally freeze. That’s why we’re going to break it down for you, in hopes that the overwhelm is minimized when your time comes.

Next time you’re in the mood to look at flooring patterns online or in your home improvement stores, here are some things to consider about the most common flooring options available.


The fuzzy stand-by for living areas and bedrooms, wall-to-wall carpet has been a popular flooring choice for a century. The materials may have changed, but the basic configuration is the same. All carpets are just a series of fibers woven onto a flexible grid, topping a uniformly thick padding.

When choosing a carpet, look for one with a face weight of at least 30 ounces. These are just above builder grade and should last six to 12 years. Always choose the best mid-grade carpet you can afford, you can’t go wrong that way. It’s where value and durability meet. Don’t skimp on carpet pad, either. Let the carpet shop match a pad to the carpet you’ve chosen so that you get the most life out of them both.

  • Best places for carpet in your home:
  • – Bedrooms
  • – Living rooms (excluding the traffic zones)
  • – Offices
  • – Formal living rooms
  • – Dens


Today’s tile comes in a huge range of colors, shapes, sizes and materials, but it all shares one thing in common: it’s nearly indestructible when installed properly and should be considered a permanent decision. It’s not that you can’t untile your entryway, but it’s going to be a difficult job, so take this decision carefully and skip the trendy stuff.

There are several grades of tile, but in general, they’re divided into two camps: wall tile and floor tile. While you can use floor tile on the wall with the right adhesive and a lot of patience, you should never use wall tile on the floor. It’s simply not hard enough and will end up cracking or otherwise failing.

The other major consideration is your floor. Is it a perfectly smooth, flat floor, or does it have some minor bumps and ridges? Even minor settling needs to be kept in mind when you’re choosing a tile size. Small tiles are far more forgiving of uneven floors than huge tiles. When a tile doesn’t make full contact with the mortar bed, it will come loose, then others will follow.

Popping tiles can become a major problem in older homes that are built on crawl spaces or basements, and although there’s a certain amount of compensation offered by cement board, it’s just better to hedge your bets by choosing smaller tiles.

  • Best places for tile in your home:
  • – High traffic areas
  • – Kitchens
  • – Bathrooms
  • – Dining rooms
  • – Mudrooms
  • – Laundry rooms
  • – Sunrooms


Wood floors are timeless and sturdy, and these days, come in both solid wood and engineered formats. Solid wood floors will give you a floor that’s more or less just like those floors of yesteryear, completely seamless and total class all the way. Many people choose prefinished wood floors to make installation easier, but unfinished wood floors are still available and make a vibrant, albeit expensive, statement.

Engineered wood floors, on the other hand, are made from layers of wood and plywood. They look just like finished solid wood floors, but are not as durable overall. Most people won’t be able to tell the difference, however, and engineered wood floors can perform better than solid wood floors in wet places, so you’ll just have to strike a balance between your needs and the materials that are available.

  • Best places for wood flooring in your home:
  • – Living room
  • – Bedroom
  • – Dining room
  • – Staircases
  • – Entryways
  • – Offices
  • – Kitchens (engineered, with proper precautions)


Laminate flooring is a very durable, flexible and affordable hard surface for all sorts of homes and situations. Like engineered wood flooring, it consists of several layers of material, including a clear wear layer, a design layer that can simulate wood, stone and a variety of other patterns, an inner core that provides the majority of the structural stability of the product and a backing layer that helps to protect from warpage.

Unlike a wood floor, laminate floors are installed without glue or nails, which is why some people still refer to them as “floating floors.” They don’t actually float, but walking on one for the first time can be interesting if you’re very sensitive to that sort of thing (many of them are also very slick, just something to keep in mind). Because the material is designed as tongue and groove boards, everything fits tightly as your jigsaw puzzle of a floor is constructed. When it’s done, all that’s required to hold it in place is properly installed trim.

It’s an easy floor. In fact, this is one flooring option you might even want to DIY if you’re the handy type.

  • Best places for laminate flooring in your home:
  • – Living room
  • – Bedrooms
  • – Bathrooms (choose one that’s water resistant)
  • – Kitchen
  • – Foyer
  • – Office
  • – Pretty much anywhere


It wasn’t that long ago that vinyl flooring meant tired patterns on reliable, but boring sheet material that had to be painstakingly glued to the floor. One bubble, one wrong cut, and the whole install might be ruined. Today’s vinyl is anything but fussy, with sturdier and more attractive tiles, planks and glue-free sheet goods. Vinyl is also an affordable solution that can be DIYed fairly easily.

It’s naturally water-resistant, making it a great match for basements and places that get damp. Unlike many other types of non-carpet floorings, however, vinyl can be fairly soft, so if you’re putting it in an area like a dining room, you’ll have to take a lot of care not to gouge it when you’re moving chairs under the table. Overall, vinyl provides a good bang for your buck, and since it’s time-tested, you know exactly what you can expect from it: a long, useful life provided you give it the minimal care it needs.

  • Best places for vinyl flooring in your home:
  • – Kitchen
  • – Laundry room
  • – Basement
  • – Mudroom
  • – Foyer

Time to Get Your Flooring On!

Now that you know what your flooring options are, it’s time to get shopping. Even if you’re not confident in your flooring installation skills, you can still pick out the patterns and materials you want to use in your home. A quick visit to HomeKeepr will set you up with the right flooring installer for a floor you’re gonna love for a long, long time.

Which Home Updates Result in the Best Return?


You’ve lived in your home a little while and you think you sort of understand how it should flow. You’re starting to see the warts and little bits of rough that people tend to gloss over when the neighbors pop by to borrow the lawnmower. It’s not that these things make your home flawed — all homes are flawed, they’re made from flawed materials, after all.

But, which projects make the most sense to do first? Will any of them actually pay for themselves in gained home equity, or are these changes things you’ll have to consider sunk costs in your home and investments strictly in your own enjoyment? And furthermore, are there even changes you can make yourself that will be worth the bother? 

Say Hello to Renovation Magazine’s Cost Vs. Value Report

For the past 31 years, Renovation Magazine has been trying to answer these and other questions by performing a national survey about home renovations and the resell values that tended to accompany them. It comes out early in the new year, giving everyone in the industry something to look forward to after the holiday season. The 2018 report was no less exciting than any other year has been, though there were few surprises.

For example, the top returns in 2016 and 2017 came from midrange fiberglass attic insulation, at 116.9 percent and 107.7 percent, respectively. This year, the number one spot went to another small project: upscale garage door replacements, recouping 98.3 percent of the job cost. In fact, this year’s Top 10 is almost entirely made up of smaller, more simple projects, just like the last two years have been, many of them the same projects, just in different slots.

There’s a helpful chart below:


What does this mean? Well, it means two things, especially if you dig deeper into the data. As a national average, the same projects have been worth making the investment in for the last few years and secondly, there are very few things you can do to your home and get the full cost back out.

Your home is like a piggy bank, but it has some sort of containment issue. You put in a dollar, it only manages to hold on to 90 cents. But, you can think of that loss as the price you pay for getting to use all that cool new stuff while you’re there. Maybe that’ll soften the blow a bit.

Ok, So What Bigger Projects Will Help My Home’s Value?

Again, according to the data provided by Remodeling Magazine’s well-respected survey, bigger projects that should get you some attention (and recoup decently on their own costs) this year include:

#4. Adding on a wooden deck. (82.8 percent)
#5. A minor midrange kitchen remodel. (81.1 percent)
#7. Replacing your windows with vinyl thermopanes. (74.3 percent)
#8. Upgrading your bathroom to a universal design. (70.6 percent)
#9. Just upgrading your bathroom, period. (70.1 percent)

You may notice a trend here. Kitchens and bathrooms are a big deal. They’re always a big deal. In fact, for most houses, it’s the kitchen and the bathroom that really sell the house. You can have the best curb appeal possible, but if your bathroom is difficult to use or your kitchen has no cabinets or non-functional work spaces, you put your money in the wrong places.

Curb appeal does matter, otherwise, that garage door and the stone veneer wouldn’t appear in the chart above so many times. People want to buy a nice looking home, which is what your home values are really based on. An appraisal is nothing more than a complicated calculation that determines what an average buyer would give for your house in its current condition in the current market, after all.

When you’re thinking about putting money into your home to increase the equity you hold or to improve its value for a sale down the line, just ask yourself if the thing you’re about to do is something that a random person off the street could appreciate. For example, do not paint your ceiling blood red. No matter what HDTV says. Do paint an accent wall red if you really need to paint something.

How Do I Get Started on Bigger Projects?

If you’ve never been part of a larger remodeling project, you will most definitely need the guidance of a pro, at minimum. There’s a lot of planning and a whole box of tools (both literal and metaphorical) that it takes to put together an effort like that. After all, you want your project to look like it does in your mind’s eye, don’t you?

Don’t worry, the home pros of the HomeKeepr community are there to help. They have the skills and experience to explain the remodeling process to you and even take the wheel if you feel like it’s a bigger task than you can handle. They come recommended, so you know you can trust them with your home and your vision.

Which Home Assistant Should I Buy?

google home

Home assistants: they’ll turn on your television, open the shades, adjust the thermostat and turn on the lights. Once in a while they may think you’re asking for “pickled gallows” when you’re trying to have them add “pico de gallo” to your shopping list, but all and all, they’re pretty helpful.

Personal assistants are so helpful that, according to Pew Research, 46 percent of Americans today take advantage of digital voice assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. And why not? They can make life a whole lot easier, one little voice command at a time.

But which one is properly suited to your smart home configuration?

Breaking It Down: Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri

The best minds of tech and business have put Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri head-to-head and each came back with the same results. There is no clear winner in the digital assistant world. There are some things that Alexa does phenomenally that Siri can’t and vice versa. Often, the best digital assistant is the one that works with devices you already have and fits into your budget.

So, instead of wasting your time with yet another face-off, let’s just talk about what each brings to the table so you can decide for yourself what you really want your digital assistant to do. 

Alexa: Great for Shopping, Smart Home, Helping Out

Since she’s linked to Amazon’s massive shopping database, she’s great at helping you find deals on items you may be interested in, reordering supplies you buy on the regular and keeping track of your shopping lists. A few clicks in the Alexa app gives her access to your Google calendar, allowing her to add or recite the day’s events.

As an added bonus, the standard Amazon Echo is a solid speaker for music or audio books. There’s even a second generation model available with a device hub already integrated to make connecting smart home devices easier. The price point on these two devices ranges from $99.99 to $149.99.

Google Home: Full of Answers, Gets Your Pizza Right

Google Home will work with some of the most popular smart home devices, with more being added all the time. Like its parent, Google, this device is all about finding answers to everything and anything. If that’s the kind of assistant you need, then this is the one you want. Reviewers have proclaimed, hands down, that Google Assistant has the best voice recognition overall, which leads to a lot less frustration in general.

Ordering food is a breeze with Google Home, provided it supports the food app you’re trying to use. Plan on watching a movie with that pizza your Home just ordered? Have it fire up the Chromecast while you get the blankets and wine glasses out! 

The Google Home unquestionably wins the aesthetics award when compared to clunky Alexa. With it's sleek design and changeable base colors and wraps available, it can blend seamlessly into your home, or stand out as an attractive accent! Priced around $129.99, and Google Mini clocks in at about $50 (but they're pretty easy to find sale for less).

Siri: The New Kid on the Block

Siri’s just now moving into the Apple HomePod, so what she’ll be capable of is anyone’s guess. She was finally freed from the confines of the smartphone on February 9, 2018. Now, you need only hand over $349 to Apple and you can have your very own speaker version. Like Google Assistant, Siri can do some smart home stuff, but she’s limited to Apple Homekit compatible devices. Because she grew up inside a telephone, though, she’s still pretty great at connecting you to friends and family, making her an awesome tool for hands-free calling from anywhere in your home.

Apple HomePod does a few things that no other voice assistant enabled speaker can do. First, it requires almost no setup, since it auto-detects where it is in the room by sending out audio blasts and listening for them to bounce back. That’s a pretty slick trick and ideal for anyone who struggles with technology.

Secondly, the folks at Apple have given a lot of thought to security and decided their best response was to untangle your searches from your account. Instead of associating your data with your name, Apple HomePod associates your data with random numbers, then deletes the associated data every six months. That way if the government were to request your data for some reason (like they think you’re the Scranton Strangler), Apple can honestly say they don’t know what data is yours and refuse to comply. This has roots in an old dispute with the federal government over the creation of a backdoor into the iPhone for surveillance purposes.

Make Your Home Smarter, Any Way You Can

Really, it doesn’t matter which digital home assistant you choose in the end. They’re all going to make your life a lot easier in the end. 

One final word of advise: don't choose one over the other because of brand recognition. I have an iPhone I couldn't live without, am way too dependent on Amazon, and refuse to use and Android phone, but in my household we've adopted to Google Home after giving Alexa a shot. Have your friends with these devices show you how they use them, and ask what their frustrations are. 

Snow Day Lavender Hot Chocolate

lavender hot chocolate

The snow has been falling here in Chicago for 14 hours with no signs of stopping. If you're in search of a hot beverage to warm you up after shoveling, elevate your average hot cocoa with this lavender hot chocolate! It can be made vegan with nutmilk if you choose. Enjoy - and stay warm!

Since lavender is quite fragrant, adjust amount according to your preference. For a creamier hot chocolate, a 1 to 1 ratio of dark to milk chocolate can be used. Makes 2 servings.

hot chocolate:

  • 2 cups soy milk
  • 3 ounces dark chocolate (70% cacao)
  • 1/4 teaspoon lavender buds

whipped cream:

  • 1/2 cup cold heavy whipping cream or soy cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or seeds from 1/4 of a whole vanilla bean pod
  • 1/2 tablespoon granulated white sugar or stevia

For whipped cream, place cold cream, vanilla, and sugar into a cold mixing bowl. Beat the mixture with a whisk or mixer until stiff peaks form. keep refrigerated until ready for use.

For hot chocolate, heat soy milk and lavender over medium heat, whisking occasionally until the milk begins to simmer. Remove from heat and let lavender steep for 5 minutes. Strain lavender and return milk to saucepan. Over medium heat, add chocolate and mix until chocolate is melted and incorporated. Whisk milk mixture for 10-20 seconds until frothy. Pour into mugs or bowls and serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

Via Buzznet

Your Need to Know Guide to the Debt to Income Ratio

debt to income ratio

You’ve decided it’s time to stop renting and become a homeowner. Let's talk about your debt to income ratio and why it matters to your future mortgage.

What is My Debt to Income Ratio?

If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t be shy, it’s one of the most common questions that first time homebuyers have when applying for a mortgage. At a very basic level, your debt to income ratio is simply what it sounds like: all your long term, semi-permanent debt compared to your current income.

Usually your mortgage lender will do this as a monthly comparison to make it easy, but the ratio’s the same whether you compare month to month or year to year. If you have $1,200 a month in debt and $5,000 a month in income, that’s the same as if you had $14,400 in yearly debt and $60,000 in yearly income. Both come out to 24 percent, which is a pretty good debt to income ratio.

But, of course, it can’t be that easy, can it.

What’s Included in a Debt to Income Ratio?

Things that are included in your debt to income ratio are secured loans like a car loan, which are sort of guaranteed by the property that you’ve borrowed the money to purchase; unsecured loans like credit cards and lines of credit; student loans and any debt you’ve co-signed.

Let me repeat that last thing. Any debt you’ve cosigned is part of this figure. So, if you agreed to cosign a loan for your sister 20 years ago and she’s still paying on it, that’s still going to count against you, even though you’ve totally forgotten about it. 

Things that aren’t included are items like your car insurance, your utility bills, your cable bills, subscriptions and so forth. Basically, if you can cancel the payment at will (whether or not there are serious consequences like having no lights or being able to watch Game of Thrones), it’s probably not going to be included on your credit report unless you fail to pay as agreed. While you’re at it, it might be a good idea to go ahead and get yourself a credit report from a reputable site like, just so you can see what is actually reporting.

Adding It All Up

Figuring your debt to income ratio is pretty easy. The hardest part is figuring out what counts and what doesn’t. Just add up your monthly expenses and divide by your monthly gross income, before any taxes, insurance, 401k withdrawal and the like come out. There you go. That’s your debt to income ratio. Now we can do some stuff with it!

There are three major programs that most home buyers utilize across most of the United States. These are the FHA, VA and Conventional mortgages. Each has its own requirements and debt to income ratio ceilings. Some are more complicated than others.

FHA and Front End and Back End Ratios

For FHA, there are two kinds of debt to income ratios to keep in mind. One is called the front-end ratio, the other is, unoriginally, named the back-end ratio. The front-end ratio is only your potential future housing debt; the back-end ratio includes all your debts. With that in mind, the chart below shows how you’d look to an FHA lender as of the writing of this blog.

The first number in the column labeled “Maximum Qualifying Ratios (%)” is the front-end ratio, the second is the back-end ratio. Compensating factors can be thought of as other things you bring to the table to make you into a really awesome borrower. Since you have little to no experience at this mortgage thing, your FHA lender is understandably afraid of your eventually missing a payment in the 30 years you’re going to have a relationship, so they want evidence to show that you’re a stand-up person.

compensating factors

FHA loan debt-to-income guidelines. Source: HUD Handbook 4000.1

Fannie Mae and DTI

Conventional loans are a bit easier. Fannie Mae is the principal agency that guarantees what’s known as a “conventional” or “conforming” loan. Fannie has siblings like Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, but they’re at the movies right now and we’re not going to involve them in the conversation. For our purposes, conventional loans are all about Fannie Mae.

In general, conventional loans tend to be more difficult to land, in part because they have more rigid income to debt requirements. For borrowers with credit scores of 680 or better and less than a 25 percent down payment, Fannie won’t allow more than a 36 percent debt to income ratio (but she only uses the one number, so at least it’s not more complicated than that). If your credit score is above 700 and your down payment is less than 25 of the home’s price, she’ll allow a 45 percent debt to income ratio.

When it comes to Fannie, bringing more money to the table will absolutely catch her eye. That magic number is 25 percent of the sales price of your home. So, if you’re floating in cash, but have a higher debt to income ratio or a little bit lower credit score, you could win brownie points this way.

Veterans Get More Leeway

If you’re a military vet and you’ve not used your VA mortgage benefits, you may be wondering about cashing in that particular chip. When it comes to the debt to income question, it’s a harder one to answer. Generally speaking, the VA wants to see a debt to income ratio below 41 percent, but like with other qualifiers under VA, the rules aren’t really all that hard and fast.

VA loans tend to be a lot more flexible in general, and debt to income ratios are no exception. Although all the loans mentioned in this blog can be manually underwritten, the guidelines only allow for so much deviation outside the rules. VAs give a lot more wiggle room, so if you’re at a 45 percent debt to income ratio, for example, it might not be out of the question if everything else is in line.

Time to Go Apply What You’ve Learned

Figuring out your debt to income ratio is just one of the very first steps you should take on your path to getting a mortgage. Once you can see how much each of your debts affects your ability to get a home loan, you can either refinance those debts into loans with better terms or work extra hard to pay them down before approaching a mortgage lender.

Light It Up! Home Lighting 101

home lighting tips

Light has a powerful influence over the way your home feels to you and how others perceive your space. It can affect how you use different areas, too. If you’re looking for a quick and relatively inexpensive way to give your home an attitude overhaul, consider a change in lighting. There are tons of fixture options available to help you create the exact look you’re going for without having to make any major changes. 

So, how will you light up your life?

The First Order of Business: Choose a Theme

Before you buy anything lighting-related, have a plan. You can play it safe and select standard fixtures, all in polished nickel, or you can be bold and choose fixtures that may fall out of fashion, like shiny brass Sputnik chandeliers. As long as you’re consistent, it’ll be ok in the end.Decide what color your fixtures will be, and, really, what the overall feel you're aiming to create.

The Light Layering Two-Step

In most modern homes, you walk into a room and you’re greeted by one weak light coming from the center of the ceiling. This infirm little bulb is trying very hard to pull the weight of several light fixtures and lamps that should be in the room. One sluggish fixture needs a team to back it up! One light bulb simply isn’t enough; that’s why most interior design experts recommend light layering.

There are three main components to light layering. Your space may not need them all, so feel free to toss out what doesn’t work:

Ambient lighting. This sort of lighting is what that tiny light in the center of the room is trying to be. Ideally, ambient lighting provides a comfortable level of brightness for the entire room. At minimum, you’ll want a multi-bulb central fixture, be that a chandelier or ceiling fan, but some people also incorporate recessed lighting or track lights as well.

Task lighting. You’ll see a lot of task lighting in well-lit kitchens and other work spaces. That under cabinet lighting you were admiring at the home improvement store is a good example of task lighting. It can be any sort of light that’s placed in such a way to make performing a task easier. Just make sure that when you place said task lighting, it doesn’t increase the shadow or create glare.

Accent lighting. Does your house have some really cool stuff in it? Well, this is where you can use lighting to really point it out. You can use accent lighting to highlight artwork, draw the eye to interesting architectural features or simply influence where visitors look around the room. To be most effective, accent lighting should shine three times brighter on the focal point than the general room light.

Small Changes, But High Praise

Simply making small lighting changes can completely change the way your home looks, from top to bottom. Your paint may even be a slightly different shade when it’s all said and done! So many homeowners don’t take advantage of this one simple investment that can give their home such a big boost.

Preventing Ice Dams Before They Start

ice dam

Icicles hanging from power lines, trees and other people’s homes can be absolutely gorgeous, but when those delicate frozen water daggers are hanging from yours, it may make your stomach do a barrel roll. Why? Well, it’s just one of many signs that your home is at risk for ice dams.

What’s an Ice Dam, Anyway?

An ice dam occurs when there’s a disparity in the temperature of your roof that causes snow and ice to melt off of the main portion of the deck, then refreeze at the eaves. This results in a sort of hump that slows or prevents further run-off of that same type of melt — it’s a dam literally created out of ice. It may cover the edge of your roof or spill over into your gutters, but either way it’s not good news. You might also notice icicles forming, this is a sign you absolutely need to get in gear and figure out what’s going on upstairs.

Ice dams are no good for several reasons, including the potential to damage your gutter and roofing materials or divert water into your attic or inside the exterior wall. They’re spendy problems that can have you standing on the ground in the snow shouting and shaking a fist at the sky. It’s much better to prevent them now than to have to deal with them later.

The Mechanics of an Ice Dam

Ice dams are the result of attics that are improperly sealed or insulated. There, I said it. It’s probably not your fault, your house may be really old or maybe you have an addition that wasn’t quite ventilated properly. Let me explain how they work, then we’ll get to how to make them stop.

When it snows, it’s actually good if that snow accumulates on your roof. That means that your living space, the part that you’re heating, is tightly sealed and there’s not heat leaking into the attic. A warm roof is never consistently warm, it’s only warm from the peak (remember, heat rises) to some point below, but never to the eaves (the most narrow bit of the roofline). The eaves are just as cold as it is outside, no matter how much heat you pump into the attic — that’s where the problem lies.

So the ultimate end goal is to keep the attic as cool as you can in the winter, as well as the summer.

Getting Started with a Permanent Fix

We’ll hit on temp fixes for ice dams later, but first I want to go over how to actually fix this problem for good. It will be better for your house, your roof and your wallet if you cure the ill rather than bandaging it year after year. Below, you’ll find a checklist of things you can do to cool that attic off!

Seal all cracks, gaps or holes between the living space and attic. These can be hard to see if you have a lot of insulation, but if you’re having ice dam problems, the chances are good that you don’t. Go around the attic slowly looking for any points of light coming from your living space. Fill these with caulk or expanding foam, depending on the size of the hole and the location.

Exhaust everything to the outside. Does your bathroom fan exhaust into the attic? How about your dryer vent? Make sure all your exhaust ducts are venting to the outside of the house, not just to the attic. Those bursts of warm air are not your attic’s friends.

Check your HVAC ducts. If your HVAC system lives in your attic, it could be the main source of heat leakage. Check all the ductwork, starting at the unit and moving outward. Tape or screw together any ducts that are loose or have fallen apart. While you’re at it, make sure the vents are securely attached at the duct endpoints.

Add insulation. Check your insulation level. You probably need more, but go ahead and get a ruler to determine exactly what’s going on. If your insulation isn’t even coming up past the ceiling joists, you definitely need another blanket to help keep that warm air where it belongs. Don’t forget to insulate sealed can lights, attic hatches and cover your whole-house fan as well.

Ventilate the roof. You can’t prevent all heat from accumulating in your attic. Even with your best effort, the sun’s going to contribute something. That’s why adding soffit and roof vents is a good bet. Both types of vents should be sized so that there’s at least one square foot of opening for every 300 feet of attic floor. You want the intake and output to be roughly the same to create optimal flow. The soffit vent will pull cool air in from outside and the roof vent will push out hot air from the peak of your attic.

Flash your chimney. This isn’t Mardi Gras and you’re not getting any beads, but flashing your chimney is another way to seal away heat. Never use spray foam or similar products to seal gaps around chimneys unless you really want to experience a house fire. Instead, choose fire-safe L-shaped chimney flashing.

Short Term Fixes

I understand that you’re not ready to get into the attic and do all it takes to get it ready for winter. You’re busy, life is happening. You’re not the only one. There’s really only one great short-term fix for ice dams: heated cables.

You install these with clips along your roof’s edge (much like with Christmas lights) in a zigzag pattern so the entire eave has coverage. They plug in from the ground, so you can unplug them on nice days and save money on electricity. Heated cables are not a long term solution, however, and they’re costly in the long run. Go ahead and make plans to get your attic into ship-shape come springtime.

Safety First When Dealing with Ice Dams

There are a lot of things you shouldn’t do when dealing with ice dams. Don’t bang on your roof, don’t scrape your roof, don’t stab your roof, don’t do anything to your roof that involves violence or corrosive substances. These favorite DIY ice dam fixes end up damaging roofing, so you not only have an ice dam, you now have a roof to fix. You’re just compounding your issue. Be nice to your roof. Also be nice to yourself — all that banging around on a slippery ladder in the cold could easily result in a fall.

Instead of getting the right of way in traffic via ambulance, why not call a HomeKeepr home pro to come out and properly seal, insulate and ventilate your attic space? That way you can spend all winter thinking about sugar plums and snowmen instead of ice daggers and dams. HomeKeepr experts are just a click away and have the tools and skills to make ice dams one less thing to worry about this winter.

Keep It Secret, Keep It Safe: WiFi Security for Beginners

wifi security

Every morning, you ask your digital assistant for the news and weather while you’re getting ready for work. From there, you check the traffic with your smartphone, strap on your smartwatch, set some mood music for your pet for the day, have your digital assistant set your home’s thermostat to “away” mode and head out to the garage. You open your smart garage door before you realize you forgot to turn on your security system — but that’s not a problem, you have an app for that.

All of this technology seems perfectly normal these days. Absolutely everyone has a WiFi network at home to feed all of these neat tools that we collectively call the Internet of Things (IoT). Unfortunately, not everyone has a very secure WiFi network, which opens up IoT devices, computers and the network itself to attacks by nefarious types who would use them for tasks you probably didn’t have in mind.

Before you catch Alexa trying to order a DIY rocket kit from Acme without your authorization, let’s go through some basics of WiFi security to keep your home network and IoT devices protected.

Types of WiFI Security

There are basically four types of security you’ll find in a wireless router, some are much better at protecting you and your devices than others. As with anything to do with technology, the more modern protocols are going to be better at protecting you than older ones, so if your router is more than a couple of years old it might be time to consider an upgrade. Check this list to see if it has an appropriately secure protocol available first, though:

WEP. Wired Equivalent Privacy is a protocol reaching back to 1999. It was essentially the first wireless security type, so if this is the only option you’ve got available on your router, get yourself to Best Buy. This router cannot deal with modern challenges, bottom line. You might as well not have any internet security.

WPA. WiFi Protected Access was created in 2003 as a response to the many problems with WEP. A new security standard known as Temporal Key Integrity Protocol was developed that was much stronger than the encryption used with WEP, but it still used a similar implementation, so was problematic.

WPA2. WPA2 is an upgrade to WPA that was introduced in 2004. This upgraded version of WPA switched to a security protocol based on the US Government’s preferred choice of encryption known as the Advanced Encryption Standard. WPA2 is still the gold standard for home WiFi security, though older computers may not be able to utilize it. If your system or router is rated for 802.11g or less, you should consider an upgrade.

WPS. WiFi Protected Setup was supposed to make adding a device to a WPA2 network easier by granting people in physical proximity to the router the ability to just push a button and enter an 8-digit PIN to connect. Unfortunately, a well-known hack has been developed and distributed widely in the recent past, turning WPS into a very vulnerable convenience.

As of the writing of this article, most experts recommend that your router be secured using WPA2 with WPS disabled. This combination will give you the most bang for your security buck, keeping as many problems at bay as is possible with WiFi security protocols alone.

More Ways to Secure Your Network

Using the right security protocol is just the first step to protecting your WiFi network. There are lots of practical ways to keep yourself safe, too. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Change the name of your router. Your router came with a unique name called the Service Set Identifier (SSID). It might be random numbers and letters, or it might be something more readable like “Bob’s Network.” Your job is to name it something that doesn’t give away your location, but is also memorable so you know which network is yours. For example, if you’re a DC comic fan, you might name yours “SpiderLan.”

2. Also, change that router password. Never leave the default password on your router, especially if that password is blank! All anyone would need to do to access the settings is park close to your house and point their phone at it, then you’re in big trouble. Again, choose a password that’s secure, but memorable. Use numbers, letters and special characters. Short sentences can be good if you’ve got a poor memory, “N33d_M0ar_B33s!” is a surprisingly secure choice.

3. Remember to check for updates to your router’s software. Occasionally, your router’s manufacturer will push updates to the software that controls your hardware. Update this device as often as possible, it’ll give you the best security available.

4. Setup a secondary network. A lot of modern routers allow for a secondary network with a different SSID and password than the main network. This is a great way to give guests access to your network without compromising your data, as well as the ideal solution to IoT devices that may be less secure. When Alexa is on her own network, hackers can’t ask her how much money is in your bank account or where the nearest ATM for your bank is located.

5. Remember, no one is giving away free money. Last, but not least, remember that Nigerian princes and foreign lotteries just begging to give you cash are, sadly, just dreams we all wish were true. Get to know what scammy emails look like, never click on email attachments that seem a little weird and always ask yourself “Do I know this person and would they send me a thing like this?” You can lock your network down as hard as you want, but if you let a hacker in your front door, all your effort will be for nothing.

Secure Your WiFi Network to Protect Your Smart Home

There’s no feeling like knowing you’re doing all you can to keep your home safe. After all, you’d never post a giant sign saying “thieves, there’s money in here!” and then leave your front door unlocked. Your smart home is no different when it comes to digital criminals. There’s lots of valuable data to be had that could result in identity theft, or even old-fashioned theft, so the stakes are quite high.

Tips for negotiating after a home inspection

home inspection chicago

In a real estate sale, there can be a number of loose ends to tie up between signing the contract and closing the transaction. In fact, another set of negotiations often arise during the attorney review period – especially after the home inspection.

When it comes to the inspection, the buyer is responsible for hiring and paying a licensed inspector, who will thoroughly examine the property to identify any major structural or mechanical issues as well as minor repairs.

This is an important part of the home-buying process – so important that some sellers will take the precautionary step of having an inspection done before they list their home so they are aware of anything that will need to be fixed.

Should there be any issues that come up during the inspection, here are a few things buyers should take into consideration.

Be mindful of market conditions

Your ability to negotiate depends on the market and of course your particular transaction. For example, if you’re in a seller’s market, there’s less room to negotiate especially if there were multiple offers for the property.

On the other hand, if the home has been lingering on the market and your offer is the only one on the table, the seller is more likely to be flexible.

Avoid “nickel and diming”

If you’re in a competitive marketplace, it’s important to pick your battles. Focus on any major issues (common ones include structural defects, code violations or safety concerns) rather than cosmetic changes like paint touchups.

Keep in mind that the seller doesn’t have to fix anything, so it’s best to prioritize your wants and needs in order to keep the deal together.

Ask for a credit

Instead of asking the seller to make repairs, you can request a credit that you will receive at the closing. This is often the preferred choice for both parties, as the seller simply fronts the cost for the project and doesn’t have to be involved otherwise. Meanwhile, it gives the buyer full control over the repair.

Work with a broker

Negotiations are another part of the home-buying process in which a broker’s experience is invaluable. Your broker will help you successfully navigate the inspection process and ultimately get to the closing table.

Waterproofing Your Basement

waterproofing basement

You bought your house because of the beautiful yard, the unbelievable hearth in the den, the generous bedrooms and, of course....the unfinished basement, just waiting for your ideas. A home theater? A playroom for the kids, perhaps! 

But the first melt of winter had other ideas. Was that a little bit of water you saw on the floor? 

How Does Water Get Into a Basement?

There are actually three common ways that water tends to enter a basement, all of which merit investigation. Those causes are:

  • Leaky basement windows
  • Appliances or plumbing that’s leaking
  • Poor drainage around the house

Each of these causes is curable, depending on how much work you’re willing to put into the effort. There isn’t room in this blog to give an exhaustive tutorial, but we’ll give you enough info to get started so you’ll know enough to gather the materials and assistance you need.

Curing Wet Basement Syndrome

Water Source: Poor Drainage

At the end of the day, a lot of your basement woes will be cured if you check the drainage situation around your house. First, the grade. Does the ground around your house create a sort of bank that diverts water back toward your foundation? Is it just totally flat? Ideally, you want a grade that slopes away from the foundation at a rate of six inches of drop for every 10 feet of run. That’s about a five percent slope. If you don’t have a five percent slope, you can create one with fill dirt, a rake and several weekends’ worth of labor, or a tractor if you have one available.

The second part of regrading is correcting the problems that caused the ponding effect around the foundation to begin with. Maybe you don’t have gutters and you really need them. Perhaps you have gutters, but they’re not really doing their jobs because they’ve not been maintained and they’re full of leaves and other debris. Clean them out and extend the downspouts as far away from your house as possible. You can purchase flexible plastic diverter extensions that make it easier to move water from your roof to exactly where you want it for a song at any hardware store.

Some professional contractors may suggest a French drain when this situation occurs. The truth is that often, French drains are overkill or simply can’t be expected to function properly due to the soil type in your area. They can clog easily, again, depending on the soil type, and then you have a very costly pipe full of mud buried next to your basement. Do all you can to improve the drainage around your home first, long before you consider the headache, expense and gamble that is a French drain.

Water Source: Leaky Windows

This sort of goes with the poor drainage, but if your windows are down in a well, it doesn’t really matter how good your drainage is, they probably need additional attention. If you can pinpoint the leaky window, great! But it’s pretty likely that if one is leaking, they’re all at risk. Check all the windows to assess their general condition. Basement windows are so often neglected, it’s not even funny. If they’re all in generally good shape, grab some caulk designed for either bathroom use or basement use and a putty knife and get to work.

Go ahead and remove the old caulk completely. Clean the windows well so the new caulk will stick. Apply that caulk as liberally as you can without making a huge mess. Go all the way around the window, don’t skimp. Once you’ve done that, go outside and repeat the process. For windows inside wells, head out to the hardware store and grab some basement window well covers that fit your well. They should slightly overhang the well, so that water is diverted away from the well.

Water Source: Leaky Appliances or Plumbing

If you corrected your drainage and you fixed your basement windows and there’s still suspicious water on your basement floor, it’s probably coming from inside the house. Some common causes of mystery leaks can include:

  • Backed up HVAC condensation lines
  • Leaking overhead plumbing
  • Faulty water heaters

Once you locate the culprit, you can finally correct the problem, or call in a pro to do it for you, depending on the nature of the issue. For example, if your leak is actually a drain line that’s improperly installed and is backing up during showers, this might necessitate a plumber. If it’s just a backed up condensation line, you can probably handle cleaning that out yourself.

After the Puddles Dry Out

Once you finally find the source of your basement’s leak and fix it, you can feel free to dream big again. But, remember that your basement is still a basement and you should always go with materials that can withstand water, just in case you spring another leak down the road. Tile and stained cement are both popular flooring choices and completely waterproof. You may need to get a little more creative if you have interior walls that you want to cover, but even tiling a few inches up the base of the wall can help protect any bathroom-safe wallboard from potential moisture issues.

Then again, maybe creating your dream basement is a project you’re not really ready to DIY just yet. In that case, go ahead and log in to HomeKeepr and ask your Realtor to recommend a general contractor. Your new contractor will be able to get you started in the right direction, including helping you select the best materials for your basement entertainment zone. While your GC is working in your basement, why not check out our maintenance list for late winter and early spring? It’s free and after you read it, you’ll know exactly what needs to be addressed around the house before the weather starts to warm up.

A warm note to start 2018 off on

Happy 2018, everyone! 

Real estate is not about sales. It's about people and families. We take our responsibility of helping the families we work with seriously, and always hope it shows. Agent Steve Davis on our team received this testimonial this morning, and it really captures what we strive for with every client we work with. What a wonderful, warm tone to set this new year off on! 

Steve is truly an amazing, do whatever it takes partner in helping you accomplish your property and real estate needs. He helped my family establish a new home in Chicago 1 year ago, and he will help your family as well.

My family (wife, and newborn baby) were relocated to Chicago for a new job assignment, and previously had no experience with the city. We were on a short timeline and needed to find a place to live quickly. Both my wife and I knew what we wanted, but had many questions on how to get it done. This is where Steve over-delivered on all of our expectations, and was a true partner in helping us accomplish our goals.

Steve is incredibly knowledgeable about the city of Chicago, and the surrounding area. He helped us understand where my wife and I could find parks, restaurants, activities for our child, and much more. He showed us many properties that fit our requirements and helped us understand buying a home in Chicago. Every question we asked, Steve had a perspective or knew an expert he was willing to connect us to.

Having a realtor that truly knows the area was very important to me, and Steve really knows Chicago.

Steve helped us navigate the complexities of moving to a new city and find a place that we loved effortlessly, but that was just the beginning.
Once my wife and I found a place we loved, Steve’s help took on a new form. He helped us build a negotiation strategy to maximize our offer potential while ensuring we did not overpay for the property.

Had that been everything Steve did for us, I would have been extremely happy with his service, and very thankful he helped us find and purchase a home we still very much love a year later.

But there is more: Steve taught me that the most important quality in a realtor is how they handle the unexpected, and this is where Steve’s service is truly exemplary.

If you are a client of Steve’s, his service doesn’t stop once the deal is done, the papers are signed, and the check is cashed. He will be there to help you if you need anything, for example: After my family and I finished the closing process and received the keys to our house, we were faced with a potentially catastrophic situation for anyone with a newborn baby in an unfamiliar city — the heat in our new home went out on one of the coldest winter days in Chicago.

Not knowing who to turn to, we called Steve. We learned that the previous owners decided to “shut off” the gas vs. transfer the gas to the new owners. Steve helped us navigate very complex gas company policy regarding turning our gas back on, and shortened what was initially a 1 week wait, to a few hours. This was no small task, and Steve’s support was critical to getting our heat back on. Steve was there for us during the unexpected, and he will be there for you too.

Steve sincerity helped make Chicago feel like home to my family, and we have been very thankful for his service and friendship this last year. If you need a realtor, look no further as I know Steve will give you the same support he gave me and my family.

Thank you, Steve!
— Andy F.

Chicago mixologists share their best holiday cocktail recipes

Billy Sunday Rosy Cheeks Recipe

Holiday party season in full swing, so we tapped three of the city’s top behind-the-bar talents to divulge their go-to seasonal cocktail recipes.

The result: Two super-festive punches and an indulgent, whimsical martini—all begging to be served at your next gathering.  

Billy Sunday Rosy Cheeks Drink

Stephanie Andrews, bar director at the nationally acclaimed Logan Square cocktail bar Billy Sunday, shared a recipe she says captures the holiday spirit and tastes “balanced yet boozy.”

The best thing about serving punch? It’s prepared ahead of time, allowing you to spend your evening mixing and mingling instead of shaking and stirring.

Rosy Cheeks

20 ounces cranberry syrup (recipe below)
1 1/2 cup gin
3/4 cup Cocchi Americano
1/3 cup Gran Classico Bitter
3/4 cup lemon juice
1 bottle sparkling wine
Orange slices, star anise, and cranberries for garnish

Cranberry Syrup

4 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise pods
4 cups frozen or fresh cranberries
1 orange, peeled and juiced
1 vanilla bean, split
2 cups dry white wine
2 cups water
2 cups sugar

Make cranberry syrup: toast cinnamon sticks and start anise pods in a large pan over medium heat. Add cranberries, orange, split vanilla bean, and white wine. Bring to a simmer, then add water and bring to a boil. Boil until cranberries burst, then reduce heat and steep for 30 minutes. Pour mixture through a fine strainer. Stir in sugar.

Pour syrup and remaining ingredients into a punch bowl containing a large ice block. Top with sparkling wine. Garnish with orange slices, star anise, and cranberries.

Serves 8-10.

Lost Lake Cardinal Punch

If you’ve ever been to his Avondale tiki temple Lost Lake, you know Paul McGee is the master of rum-based concoctions.

“Making this punch has become my tradition during the holiday season,” McGee says. “It’s a crowd-pleaser but is also complex with the flavors of ripe red fruit, vanilla, and baking spices.”

Cardinal Punch

3 cups Smith and Cross Overproof Jamaican Rum
2 cups Syrah
1 cup Cocchi Di Torino Sweet Vermouth
2 cups fresh lime juice
2 cups simple syrup (1 part sugar to 1 part water)
2 cups brut sparkling wine
½ ounce St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
Peel of 1 orange
Orange wheels studded with cloves for garnish

Combine all ingredients aside from the sparkling wine and refrigerate overnight. Remove orange peel and pour mixture into a punch bowl. Add sparkling wine and garnish with studded orange wheels.

Serves 8-10.

Worms in Dirt Drink

They say the holidays bring out the child in all of us, and bar manager Tim Hollingsworth of The Robey Chicago’s rooftop lounge Up & Upcrafted a dessert-like drink that harkens back to your candy-crazed youth.

“We worked with the team at Dylan’s Candy Bar to transform a nostalgic treat into adults-only form,” he says.

Worms in Dirt

1½ ounces milk
1 ounce Irish cream (see recipe below)
1 ounce Hangar 1 vodka
½ ounce Cynar liqueur
½ ounce St. George NOLA coffee liqueur
1 teaspoon crème de cacao
1 teaspoon crème de menthe
Simple syrup, crushed Oreo cookies, and gummy worms for garnish

Irish cream (makes about 1 quart)

1¼ cups Tullamore Dew
1 tablespoon ground espresso
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Rim a coupe glass with simple syrup and dip into crushed Oreos. Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Add ice and shake again. Pour into prepared glass and garnish with gummy worms.

Yields one cocktail.

Getting Your Garden and Landscape Ready for Winter

winterize your garden

There’s nothing quite as solemn as watching the garden and landscape start to wind down for a long winter’s rest. It’s part of the never-ending cycle of nature — and landscaping chores — that you’ll find yourself participating in as a homeowner. Shed a small tear for the beauty of the cycle, then head out to the garage because you’ve got a lot of work to do to get your garden and landscape ready for winter.

Ready? Here we go!

Begin at the Beginning

Every landscape and garden is different, but it can be generally agreed upon that your landscape consists of some kind of turf (grass), some shrubs or small trees, maybe a large tree, annuals, perennials, bulbs, a garden spot and potted plants. Give or take. All of these guys are competing with you for attention as fall turns to winter — they’re screaming your name, in fact. But you can’t tend them all at the same time, which is why you need to make a plan of attack before you ever start.

Things that absolutely have to be done before it frosts for the first time include:

  1. Bringing tender potted plants indoors.
  2. Covering tender outdoor plants.
  3. Mulching everything you’d like to see next year.
  4. Saying good-bye to the rest.

You can wait until there’s a freeze warning in effect to handle chores like:

  1. Digging bulbs.
  2. Turning over the vegetable garden.
  3. Trimming away dead material from trees and shrubs.
  4. Mowing the grass one last time.

Although we’d never advocate that you wait until the last minute to do any of these chores, we also know you’re probably pretty busy, so it makes more sense to let you know what the deadlines really are. With this information in hand, you can start planning your attack.

Mulching 101

One of the most important things you’ll do when you’re putting your landscape to bed is applying mulch to it. “How hard can this be?” I can hear you through the computer screen. It’s not hard, but it is specific, which means it deserves an explanation so you’ll do it right. So here we go.

There are lots of different kinds of mulch out there, anything from bark to pine needles and shredded bits of wood and even those rubbery bits that used to be tires. Basically anything that can hold on to moisture and isn’t a rock will work. Largely, it’s an aesthetic choice, but do keep in mind that as your mulch breaks down, it will contribute to the soil composition. So if you need to increase the acidity, choose more acidic materials, and so forth.

It’s not so much what you apply, but how you apply it. When you lay down winter mulch, it should be in a thick layer, two to four inches deep. Get a tape measure because this can literally mean life or death for your plants. Don’t let the mulch touch the plant, not anywhere. Instead, make your mulch into a sort of tube cake around the base of your plant, where the plant is in the hole. Piling mulch up against the trunk can encourage disease and that’s not a thing you want. Space it one to two inches off the plant, just enough that no mulch touches any part of the plant.

See, it wasn’t hard. Just specific. If you have bulbs that you’re leaving in place for the winter (plenty will survive this way), make sure to mow down any dead plant matter, then mulch them just as deeply, but instead cover the whole plant. This will ensure it survives the winter, protected from the cold.

Bright Ideas for Bulbs and Plant Divisions

For some reason, people are often incredibly intimidated by the idea of digging up bulbs and dividing plants in the fall. This is a no big deal situation, much like the mulching. You just need to learn how to do it right.

When you dig up bulbs, the one thing to keep in mind is that they should be kept in conditions that allow them to be just moist, never wet, and certainly not bone dry. Most experienced gardeners will keep uprooted bulbs in pots of damp sand in a dark corner of the garage. This way they’re still cool and won’t get confused about the season, but they’re protected from frost. Water when the sand feels dry. And whatever you do, don’t leave them in standing water!

As for dividing plants, it’s actually kind of a similar thing. The trick is to keep them moist. If you’re going to move the newly divided plants to another area in your landscape, prep that first. Have it totally ready and watered and everything. Then you can just run them over and they won’t have a chance to dry out. When you divide them, there’s no hard and fast rule about how to do it. You just break the plants in half or quarters or whatever suits you, then quickly replant the pieces. It’s really that easy.

Not everything can be divided like this, but the plants that can are really obnoxiously good at surviving despite what you may do to them. Examples include iris, peony, hosta, shasta daisy — basically any perennial with a clumping root ball, rhizomes or bulbs.

Turning Over a New Leaf in the Garden

Now we’ve come to the vegetable garden, or maybe yours is an herb garden, or some combination. It’s a place you need to take special care because you’re likely to eat something out of it and we want to make sure it’s all it can be. Fall or early winter is the very best time to get your garden spot ready for spring.

It sounds like overkill, but when you’re working with organic matter, you have to consider that it takes some time for all of that stuff to break down. Compost, on average, needs about three months to become helpful. If you wait until April to incorporate your organic stuff, it’s not going to really be available to your plants until half way through the growing season. That’s just not an efficient use of your energy.

Instead, let’s do it now and have everything ready to go in April instead!

First of all, you’re going to need a soil test. Do that before you do anything else. This will help inform what you incorporate. If your garden’s short on nitrogen, for example, you can take care of that at the same time you work your compost in. Compost alone likely won’t contain enough nitrogen to cure a deficiency, but it will improve the quality of the soil itself, making it less likely to compact, help it hold on to just the right amount of moisture and drain away the excess. It’s pretty amazing stuff for something that’s essentially garbage.

When you’re working with compost, remember that you don’t want to work in more than what would be equivalent to 25 percent of the depth of your garden spot. So, if you generally till down to 10 inches, don’t put in more than 2.5 inches of compost this year. Easy peasy.

If your soil test shows you’ve got other issues, you should consult with your local university extension office for advice. There are a lot of local variables involved that would make this blog a novel if I went into it all. They can recommend an organic or traditional treatment to work in along with the compost. Kill two birds with one stone that way. Wait the full three months to recheck your soil, then adjust again if necessary.

You may have heard of something called a green manure that some gardeners use in their plots. These are generally legumes like clovers or soybeans that are used to help improve the soil and help hold it in place. If you want to try one, it’s very important that you choose a legume because they can actually increase nitrogen levels in the soil instead of depleting them. Just till the plants under before they bloom and you’re golden.

Saying Goodnight Doesn’t Mean Saying Goodbye

You’ve mulched your daylilies, you’ve pulled up your dahlias, your daisies are divided and you’ve prepped your garden spot for next year. It seems like you’re ready to take a well-deserved winter’s break. Next spring, your plants will be back, bigger and stronger than ever before thanks to your dedication and care.

If you’re not sure that you’re up to the task this year, or you just need an extra hand with some of the garden chores, take a look at the gardeners and landscape experts available through HomeKeepr. Our recommended experts have years of experience working with all kinds of plants in your area and can show you exactly how to properly put every member of your landscape to bed for the winter.

The 20% Downpayment MYTH

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The Aspiring Home Buyers Profile from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) found that the American public is still somewhat confused about what is required to qualify for a home mortgage loan in today’s housing market. The results of the survey show that non-homeowners cite the main reason for not currently owning a home, as not being able to afford one.

So let's clear the air and bust this myth once and for all! 

1. Down Payment

NAR’s survey revealed that consumers overestimate the down payment funds needed to qualify for a home loan. According to the report, 39% of non-homeowners say they believe they need more than 20% for a down payment on a home purchase. In actuality, there are many loans written with a down payment of 3% or less.

Many renters may actually be able to enter the housing market sooner than they ever imagined with new programs that have emerged allowing less cash out of pocket.

2. FICO® Scores

An Ipson survey revealed that 62% of respondents believe they need excellent credit to buy a home, with 43% thinking a “good credit score” is over 780. In actuality, the average FICO® scores of approved conventional and FHA mortgages are much lower.

The average conventional loan closed in August had a credit score of 752, while FHA mortgages closed with a score of 683. The average across all loans closed in August was 724. The chart below shows the distribution of FICO® Scores for all loans approved in August.

Bottom Line

If you are a prospective buyer who is ready to act now, but are not sure if you are able to, sit down with a professional who can help you understand your true options!

Do I Need to Get Pre-Approved?

do i need to get pre-approved

The most important step in preparing to buy a home is getting pre-approved.

Don't skip this crucial step for three reasons:  

1. Know how much home you can afford. Knowing your budget will give you the confidence of knowing your dream home is within your reach. 

2. Your real estate agent will take you seriously. If you don't know how much home you can afford, or if you even qualify for a mortgage, how can an agent serve you? They can't! Most real estate agents have lenders they've vetted and trust through experience, so ask your agent who they recommend. (Our personal choice is Tammy Hajjar Miller and her rock star team at The Federal Savings Bank!)

3. You'll be ready when you find THE ONE. Without a pre-approval, your offer on a home has very little merit. In a competitive market that moves swiftly, the home you fall in love with could very well end up in someone else's (more prepared) hands, because they were ready. Getting pre-approved can take a few days, and you'd be left out of the running waiting to get your affairs together.

It's not all doom and gloom! Many potential home buyers overestimate the down payment and credit scores needed to qualify for a mortgage. If you are ready and willing to buy, you may be pleasantly surprised at your ability to do so!

Don't Let Fear Stop You From Applying for a Mortgage

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A considerable number of potential buyers shy away from jumping into the real estate market due to their uncertainty about the buying process. A specific cause for concern tends to be mortgage qualification.

For many, the mortgage process can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be!

In order to qualify in today’s market, you’ll need to have saved for a down payment (73%of all buyers made a down payment of less than 20%, with many buyers putting down 3% or less), a stable income and good credit history.

Throughout the entire home buying process, you will interact with many different professionals, all of whom perform necessary roles. These professionals are also valuable resources for you.

Once you’re ready to apply, here are 5 easy steps that Freddie Mac suggests you follow:

  1. Find out your current credit history & score – even if you don’t have perfect credit, you may already qualify for a loan. The average FICO® Score of all closed loans in September was 724, according to Ellie Mae.
  2. Start gathering all your documentation – income verification (such as W-2 forms or tax returns), credit history, and assets (such as bank statements to verify your savings).
  3. Contact a professional – your real estate agent will be able to recommend a loan officer that can help you develop a spending plan, as well as determine how much home you can afford.
  4. Consult with your lender – he or she will review your income, expenses, and financial goals to determine the type and amount of mortgage you qualify for.
  5. Talk to your lender about pre-approval – a pre-approval letter provides an estimate of what you might be able to borrow (provided your financial status doesn’t change), and demonstrates to home sellers that you are serious about buying!

Bottom Line

Do your research, reach out to professionals, stick to your budget, and be sure that you are ready to take on the financial responsibilities of becoming a homeowner.