5 Things to Consider Before Starting a Master Bath Remodel

bathroom remodel

Bathroom Remodels Can Be Good Investments

When it comes to remodeling projects, there’s the rare exception that will return the entire cost of the improvement when you go to sell your home or have it appraised for a home equity loan. Although they don’t typically have above-cost ROIs, Remodeling Magazine’s 2018 Cost vs. Value survey found that midrange bathroom remodels returned 70.1 percent of their cost for home sellers and universal design bathrooms returned 70.6 percent. Neither figure isn’t too shabby, especially when you consider that adding an entire midrange master suite only returned 56.6 percent!

However, even Remodeling Magazine is quick to point out that these gains only apply to well-executed bathrooms, and there’s no shortage of bathroom remodels that have gone horribly wrong. Before you even start to put a dollar figure on your remodel, take some time to hop on Houzz, Zillow or Realtor.com and look up houses like yours. See what their master baths look like, how people updated them, what seems to be working and what is a real mess. The research on this project is going to take time, but it’s necessary for the best results possible.

Some Practical Questions to Ask Yourself

Sometimes the idea of remodeling your own home can sort of supercharge a fantasy where gravity doesn’t pull down the roof if you take out a bunch of structural walls, anything can be made to fit anywhere and cost is absolutely not an issue. This is a good time to develop a list of things you really, really want. But before you so much as look at your credit card or touch your savings account, let that early excitement fade. You need to approach a bathroom remodel with a level head or you may end up spending a fortune to gain very little.

With a clear head, consider these items before starting a master bathroom remodel:

#1. How does the existing setup work for me?

Hey, you may not love that pink tub, but it does seem like it’s kind of perfectly placed. The vanity, however, seems like it was just kind of dropped in place randomly. It’s weird and you kind of really hate it. Make notes on how the current configuration works or doesn’t so you can work on arranging the new parts properly.

#2. What are my goals for this bathroom?

This might seem a bit of an odd question, but if you think about it, you use this bathroom differently than its last owners use it, more likely than not. Maybe you need more plugs or more wall space. Possibly, you’re tired of the wallpaper and how hard the vinyl floor is to keep clean. Figure out the why of your remodel long before you cut the first check.

#3. Should I be using Universal Design principles?

Universal Design is one of those things that you’ve probably never heard of, but you’re still kind of thinking about anyway. Basically, Universal Design revolves around making spaces like bathroomseasier to access by everyone. That means people with disabilities, the elderly, anyone that might normally be excluded. For you, this is going to be about both resell, if that’s in the future, and aging in place. While you’re young and able, convert as much of your home to a Universal Design if you don’t plan to move again — you’ll thank yourself later.

#4. How long will it take?

Any sort of remodeling project can take a very long time to complete, especially if you’re doing most of the work yourself. This isn’t likely to be a weekend project and everything will be gross, wet and awful for a while — possibly months or years, depending on your budget and motivation level. If you’re hiring the job out, the contractor can give you a much better idea of their schedule, but since they’re highly motivated to get a check from you, even a massive remodel that involves knocking out walls shouldn’t take more than a couple of months.

#5. What’s it going to cost?

There are so many ways to remodel a bathroom that it’s as difficult to estimate costs in general as it is the timeframe it takes to spend that money. However, there are a few surveys that can help give us a peek at something like an answer. Remodel Magazine says that a mid-range bathroom remodel will run about $19k and an upscale remodel over $61k.

That being said, there are a lot of factors that can change that price dramatically. Obviously, the size of the bathroom now and the size it’ll be when you’re done are both huge variables. Another is whether or not you’re moving plumbing. Believe it or not, if you can work with plumbing where it sits, you’re going to save a lot of money. Sometimes all you need to do is twist a fixture around a bit to make it work better in the space.

If you’ve never remodeled a bathroom before, it might not be the best idea to start by yourself on your own. At very least, find a friend or family member who has a lot of DIY experience before you dive into a project of this scale on your own.

Closet Storage Systems Basics

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Your new home has an amazingly huge closet, but a startling lack of places to hang stuff. Sure, you could pile all your extra clothing, shoes and accessories in the corner, or move your antique dressers into the empty space, but there’s probably a better solution. Why not try a closet storage system?

Getting Started with Custom Closet Storage Solutions

If you cruise the aisles of your favorite home improvement store, you’ll eventually come to the DIY closet storage systems. Here, you’ll find a wide range of products, from basic wire shelving to wire and metal kits and laminated wood kits. The choices are sometimes overwhelming, to be quite honest.

Do you need a double rod system? Should you get one of those fancy cubby hole pieces for your shoes? Where will your winter boots go in the closet? Abort! Abort!! You have too many questions to do any buying today.

Now that you sort of know what’s available, take a step back and do some real planning. First, the budget. Can you afford a closet system? According to Fixr.com, even the cheapest closet systems run $200 to $500 when you do your own install. If you’ve hung long shelves before, this won’t necessarily be too much of a stretch of your skillset.

Considerations Before You Buy Your Closet System

You know what you like, and really, you probably know what you need, even if you’re doubting yourself right now. Start with a basic sketch of your closet, preferably on graph paper or something similar on your phone. You need to know exact dimensions, after all.

Now, ask yourself these questions:

  • * How much upper rod space do I really need?

  • * Do I need lower rods for jackets, shirts and the like?

  • * How many shoes do I actually own?

  • * Would it be handy to have drawers in my closet?

  • * Is my closet big enough that an island makes sense as a way to create more useable space?

  • * Where will I put my hamper(s)?

  • * Is this a shared space? If so, how will it be divided?

Once you’ve figured all of that out, you can sketch your closet out. This is just for the storage system, for this blog we’re going to ignore any lighting or electrical issues that could be applicable. Remember that if the space you have is 2 foot 3 inches wide, a cabinet that’s 2 foot 5 inches wide won’t fit. You can’t just smash these things and there’s no room to shave a little bit off, they either fit or they don’t — plan carefully.

What’s the Right Height for My Closet Rods?

Remodelers the world over have asked this question again and again. Technically, you can hang those rods anywhere you please. That goes double for an odd-shaped closet like those that often go with upstairs bedrooms or converted attics. However, according to the Family Handyman, this is where you should place rods for best results:

Double hung rods. The bottom should be at waist height, about 42 inches above the floor. The upper should be around 84 inches, so that each level has the same amount of vertical hanging space for shirts, jackets and other shorter items.

Long hang rods. For your dusters, your long dresses, your overalls — anything that’s long enough that it’s going to reach close to the floor when you’re wearing it goes on this rod. Because of the length of the items on it, it should be set about 70 inches off the floor.

Medium hang rods. Items that are roughly knee-length may fit better in your closet on their own rod. Hang them 60 inches off the floor and free up space on your long hang rod.

Pants rods. Do you wear pants? If so, you may need some of these rods in your closet. Set them at 54 inches off the floor.

Also, when installing these systems on your own, remember that closet rods need support at least every three feet, otherwise you risk bowing or collapse. However, adding one every two feet creates a much more secure setup if you have a lot of clothing.

Save Money and the Environment One LED Bulb at a Time

led bulbs

Way back in 2012, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 was being phased in. One of the most useful — and controversial — results was that old fashioned light bulbs had to be reinvented. All light bulbs manufactured after the phase out dates, which varied from state to state, had to use 25 percent less energy than their ancestors.

With that one change in the way light bulbs would be made rose three major options for homeowners: the curly compact fluorescent bulb, halogen incandescents and the light emitting diode. Although there are some specific uses for halogen incandescents, the most commonly used bulbs in residential settings are CFLs and LEDs. Of the two, the LED is currently the most cost-effective option, even when adjusting for the difference in price.

What is an Light Emitting Diode?

The part that actually creates the light in an LED bulb is a tiny cell the size of a fleck of pepper. Using a mix of blue, red and green LEDs, a bulb manufacturer is able to create white, directional light that costs almost nothing to power.

Unlike incandescent bulbs that waste electricity by converting up to 90 percent of the energy they use into heat and CLFs that release about 80 percent of their energy as heat, LEDs release so little heat that they’re often cool to the touch even after hours of use.

An Energy Star rated LED bulb uses significantly less electricity (up to 75 percent!) and lasts up to 25 times longer than traditional lighting. This is no small thing, especially when you consider that every home, every business, every street light, may eventually sport these bulbs.

Doing the Math: Cost Savings With LEDs

The United States Department of Energy already did the math, a lucky break for bulb-shoppers everywhere. When new bulbs are compared to a traditional 60 watt bulb, the 12 watt LED outshines them all.

According to the Department of Energy, those LEDs use 75 to 80 percent less electricity than the 60 watt bulb and only costs about $1.00 to use for two hours each day for a year. Oh, and the bulb life is approximately 25,000 hours, compared to 1,000 hours for the old reliable.

This means that if you have, say, 50 bulbs in your house and they’re all running for five hours a day (a more realistic number than two hours), your cost to light up with an LED is about $125 each year, for 13.7 years, provided energy costs remain stable.

The same lighting use with the old fashioned incandescent would cost you $600 each year, plus you’d be replacing bulbs every 6.57 months. Sure, maybe they cost a buck or two each, but the constant replacement and increased electricity costs certainly can make a big impact on your pocketbook.

Choosing the Right Bulbs

Along with better lighting standards came a way to compare bulbs across platforms. After all, who really knows which CFL is equivalent to that LED or halogen incandescent option? The Lighting Facts Label solved that problem. Instead of measuring bulbs by the power they consume, it measures them by the light they produce.

Now, a 1600 lumen CFL, LED and halogen incandescent are easy to price compare. This label also includes information on how much energy the bulb uses annually, its lifespan and what color the light is that it produces, measured by the correlated color temperature on the Kelvin scale. It’s an easy way to know that you’re getting exactly what it is that you want in a bulb.

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Radon

radon

You found the perfect home. It’s gorgeous, energy efficient, in a great neighborhood and well within your budget. You wonder to yourself, “why is this perfect home still on the market?” Then you read the disclosures. Your perfect pad has a serious radon problem.

Radon and You: 7 Things to Know

Radon is a reasonably common problem in homes, so if you come across a house that you absolutely adore, you’re not even remotely out of luck. Instead, you may reap the benefits of someone else’s lack of information about the gas. Here are seven things to know if you’re considering a home with a radon problem:

  1. Radon is a radioactive gas. You can’t smell it, see it or taste it, but it’s the second leading cause of lung cancer anyway. Of course, it doesn’t go straight to cancer right away, but exposure over time will increase the likelihood of lung cancer in the home’s occupants if it’s left alone.

  2. Testing for radon is simple. You can choose to perform a short-term, long-term or continuous test for radon levels in a building. The short-term tests are active charcoal-based and only take about a week to complete. These are the kind that are typically used by radon inspectors.

  3. Radon is everywhere. Radon occurs naturally in the environment as a result of the breakdown of radioactive elements, such as uranium. Because of that, it’s literally everywhere, but typically in very small amounts. It doesn’t become a problem until you’re exposed to high concentrations of the gas.

  4. Smokers are at higher risk of radon-related lung cancer. A 4pCi/L, the level at which radon mitigation is typically recommended, non-smokers have about the same risk of cancer as they do of dying in a car crash, that’s about 7 in 1,000 people. Smokers, on the other hand, are at a risk five times that of dying in a wreck and 62 out of 1,000 may develop lung cancer.

  5. You can mitigate radon in any home. With enough money and effort, any home can become a low radon zone. One in 15 homes has an unacceptably high radon level, which is why it’s so important to test yours. Note to home buyers: this is one of those things you can ask the seller to do prior to your occupancy.

  6. DIY is possible for radon control. Only attempt it if you’re intimately familiar with your home’s construction methods, radon gas and sampling procedures. A bad DIY radon job isn’t like a bad paint job — incorrect processes can result in higher radon levels than before.

  7. It’s possible that your house itself is causing your radon levels to be high. Certain building materials that happen to be almost everywhere in your home, like drywall and concrete, tend to radiate radon in very low levels. Once in a while, though, the radon coming out of the walls is more than just a little bit. In this case, you definitely need an expert to guide the mitigation.

Just because radon is everywhere doesn’t mean you have to live with it. Radon mitigation systems are very good at removing large amounts of radon from any home. Most work by literally sucking the radon right out of the crawlspace or from underneath a poured concrete slab like what you’d find in a basement.

Slabs must be sealed and barriers installed in crawl spaces to ensure that the radon has no place to go but up and out the vacuum system. Once released into the air above your home, it’s no longer a threat and you can breathe deeply once again.

If you need a radon vacuum, make sure yours comes with a continuous monitoring system as well. It might cost a little bit extra, but you’ll know exactly if or when radon levels are unacceptable. Since levels vary throughout the year, this is a good investment in your future.

5 Tips for Buying Power Washers

power washer

As summer slowly gives way to fall, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to clean up all the mess that’s accumulated around your house. You know the kind: algae growing on your siding, dirt and dust that’s discoloring your sidewalk and whatever that black stuff is on your deck.

It’s all gotta go and the best tool for the job is a power washer. 

Power Washers Can Be Dangerous

With any luck, this will the one and only time you’ll have to confront the idea that a pressure washer can be extremely dangerous. This isn’t just a high powered garden hose we’re talking about. Consumer units can send water out at 3,000 PSI or greater. When that’s matched with a narrow nozzle setting, you have a disaster waiting to happen.

Even pros have been known to make mistakes with high powered pressure washers, with results ranging from damage to the surface they were cleaning to more serious incidents like slicing through boots and flaying digits.

Don’t be a statistic. Always exercise caution with pressure washers.

Time to Go Shopping for Pressure Washers!

Find the pressure washer that’s best for the work you plan to throw at it. As a rule of thumb, the more water (measured in gallons per minute) coming out at a higher pressure rating (PSI) will do a job faster. However, there’s a balance to be struck here because there is such a thing as too much with these machines.

Here are our five top tips for choosing your own pressure washer:

1. Try before you buy. When it comes to tools, especially bigger items like power washers, it’s important to try one out before you buy it. Whether you rent one or you borrow one from a friend, note the GPM and the PSI of the machine so you have a baseline to start with. Then try it out. Do you like the results you’re getting? Does it seem like overkill? These questions can help you decide what, if any, machine will be best for your needs.
2. Err on the side of caution. Normally with tools you want to buy for the widest functionality possible, but when it comes to a pressure washer, you’re best to spend a little more time working the grime away with a lower powered unit. Not only will this save money, it could save you or a family member from major injury one day. Instead of jumping into the super industrial model, maybe consider the higher end homeowner model and see if it’ll do the job.
3. Go mobile! You can buy pressure washers that are portable, but you have to drag all over the place, or you can choose one with wheels that will follow where you pull it. If you’re going to be moving around with the unit a lot, opt for wheels. You’ll save time, energy and trouble — and it’ll help you get jobs done faster since you’re not having to constantly step it along as you spray.
4. Consider both the power and the flow. When you’re comparison shopping for your unit, take a look at both the PSI and the GPM. Together, these numbers tell you how the unit will perform overall. For most jobs around the house, units that produce about 2,000 PSI at 2 GPM will do the job. However, if you plan to clean a lot of siding or a big deck, a unit that generates about 2,800 PSI at 2 to 3 GPM may be more appropriate.
5. Choosing between electric and gas. Most of the lower end units that are meant for easy jobs around the house are powered by electricity. Despite their light weight and easy start up, you’ll probably end up lugging an extra cord around as you go. That being said, the heavier duty models will almost all be gas-powered, which means you’ll have to maintain them just like a lawnmower, even if you only use them once a year.

Garage Door Care

garage door care

You pull into and out of your garage hundreds of time a year, ever expecting your door to reliably open and close at your whim. Going up and down so much can be pretty taxing, which is why after being neglected for months or years, garage doors rightfully start to complain loudly.

If your door sounds more like a train’s “clack-clack” as it runs down the track, you’ve definitely let things go way too far. Fortunately, garage doors tend to be pretty foolproof and tolerate neglect more than other important parts in your home. But you’re not going to be neglectful, you’re going to do regular inspections and maintenance so it’ll last even longer, right?

Parts of a Garage Door

This may come as some surprise, but a garage door is more than a door. It’s a system of moving parts that we conveniently label as a “door.” Modern garage door systems include important pieces like:

* Opener. You know this one, it’s that big box in the center of the garage ceiling. The opener is designed with a shuttle that moved the door up and down with the help of a chain, screw or belt-driven motor. You can even get Smart Garage door openers now.
* Springs and cables. Your door might feel light if you manually lift it while it’s hung, but this is because of a highly tensioned giant spring (or two) mounted above your door and the cables that are attached. Always treat these with the respect required, they can be very dangerous to work on directly (call a pro!).
* Sensors. If you look closely near the bottom of each garage door track, you’ll see sensors that resemble tiny cameras. As a team they maintain an almost invisible laser beam that causes the door to reverse if something suddenly breaks it during door decent.

Of course, there are other bits and pieces we could talk about, but this is about taking care of your door, not examining its anatomy. We’ll do that another time. Just understand that these three systems are vital to the door’s function and without all of them in working order, the door becomes very unsafe and unreliable

Taking Care of Your Home’s Biggest Front Door

If you can’t remember the last time you did anything with your garage door, now is the time to get on this. The weather’s perfect and you could stand to get outside anyway. There are a few tasks that you should absolutely not attempt without help or considerable experience, like replacing a broken spring, but for the most part, garage door maintenance is a snap.

Run down this checklist and your door will be ready to roll again!

* Tighten all screws and bolts. That rattling sound isn’t just for ambience, your garage door vibrates as it moves up and down, slowly backing screws and bolts out. Start at the bottom and work your way up, tightening all fasteners and replacing any that seem to be missing or broken. Don’t forget to check the hinges between door panels!

* Pull the manual garage door release. With the garage door closed, pull that handle hanging down from your opener. With the opener’s shuttle unlocked, check your door’s balance by opening the door about half way. If it stays where you put it, you’re gold. If not, call a pro to help — rebalancing a door can be difficult and dangerous. Don’t forget to push the door open all the way to re-engage the opener’s shuttle.

* Check the safety reversal system. Grab a scrap 2×4, cement block or something of similar size and shape and place it directly in the path of the garage door. Make sure that the object isn’t breaking the beam, since this is testing a different part of your system. Now, shut the door using the garage door opener.

If the door stops as soon as contact is made, your safety reversal system is set properly. If not, you’ll need to find your manual and look up which knob or button is used to decrease the force required to stop the door. This is one of those things you’ll test way more often than you’ll have to adjust.

* Break the beam. Check that the indicator lights on your infrared sensors are showing that the eyes are adjusted properly. Once they’re looking deeply into each other’s eye, close the garage door. Before it reaches the ground, pass a broom between the sensors. The door should stop, otherwise your sensors may need to be cleaned or replaced.

* Grease some squeaky wheels. You’ve tightened hardware, tested the door’s safety features and you’re ready to go nap in your hammock. But wait! There’s one more thing. It’s time to lube the beast. You won’t actually be lubricating a lot of the system, you’ll be cleaning it, but it’ll run more smoothly and that’s the point.

Start with the track itself, cleaning it with carburetor or brake cleaner and a cloth. Next, using a silicone based garage door lubricant, spray between the pin and wheel on each roller, wiping off any excess (lubricant doesn’t belong on the track). If your rollers are nylon, take extra special care because they slip easily.

You can also use the same lubricant to coat the outside of your torsion spring (the one above the door itself). Again watch for drips.

Easy Ways to Keep Cool This Summer

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How Air Conditioners Work

To really get to the heart of the matter, it’s important that you understand how an air conditioner works. This way, you can strategically plan ways to help it work better, rather than doing things that are counter to its function.

Room air is cooled by an air conditioning unit (or heat pump) in three basic steps:

1. The fan located inside your indoor air handler or furnace kicks on, sucking room air in through your cold air returns. The air passes through your filter, so make sure it’s clean!
2. The warm room air then moves over a set of coils that contain a refrigerant, which cools the indoor air and causes it to release water. The water drops into a pan and is removed via the condensation line. At the same time, the liquid refrigerant inside the coils absorbs the heat, changing into a warm vapor, which is then pushed outside to the condenser coil in your outdoor unit, where it releases the heat from your home.
3. Since the fan is still running on your air handler, cold air comes out the vents and more warm air is sucked across the evaporator coil (also known as the a-coil because of the inverted v shape). Meanwhile, the fan in the outdoor unit is cooling the refrigerant down until it turns back into a liquid and moves back into your home toward the evaporator coil where this whole cycle started.

Help Your Air Conditioner Out

Though your A/C unit is absolutely doing the best it can, it could probably do a lot better if you’d lend it a hand. As a homeowner, this benefits you in two ways: first, your house is cheaper to cool and secondly, not pushing your condenser unit as hard as it possibly can go can help prolong its life. Some of the things that can make a big impact should really be performed by a pro, but there are lots of little ways you can contribute to the health and happiness of your entire household. Try these out:

Start with the outside unit. Your condenser unit should always be free of weeds and debris, no matter what time of year it is, but it’s doubly important in the summer. The more garbage that’s plugging up the fins on the coil, the less air movement — and more effort required — for cooling the refrigerant down.

You can also help your unit by giving it a bath at least once a month. Just take a regular garden hose with a trigger sprayer and go all the way around the unit, spraying between the fins, until the water runs clear. Lots of dirt and sand could be hiding up in there, reducing your unit’s efficiency. A fin comb can also help straighten bent fins.

While you’re at it, make sure that unit has plenty of shade. Plant a tree, erect a sunshade, build a little roof over it (but allow at least two feet all around and on top for adequate air flow). The heat from the sun is yet another enemy of the refrigerant in the coil. Keep it as cool as you can with what you have to work with.

Take advantage of those ceiling fans. As the days get warmer, make it a point to set your ceiling fans to rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, pushing air down. You do double duty with this one. The proper rotation creates a chilling effect that allows the average homeowner to keep their thermostat as much as four degrees Fahrenheit higher than they would without the fans blowing. It also helps keep the cold air more evenly distributed, assuming you have ceiling fans in all or most of your rooms.

Cover the windows. Seriously. It doesn’t matter how good your windows are when the worst of the summer’s heat is beating down on them, there’s going to be a noticeable warming coming from that direction. This is when having heavy curtains, thick blinds or other heavy-duty window coverings comes in handy. During the part of the day when the sun hits your windows the hardest, cover them up to reduce heat radiating into your cool spaces. Another option for places where it stays hot a lot of the year is to add awnings over windows that are chronic sources of radiant heat.

Do hot stuff at night. Meaning your cooking, your drying, your extra hot baths — whatever produces heat that’s not really tied to any specific point in the day should be moved to the night shift. If you absolutely need to do these things during the day, keep the cooking limited to the small appliances, dry your laundry outside in the smouldering heat and maybe try a warmish shower. Remember, the more heat you add to the house, the more heat your air conditioner has to move out of your house. Don’t make it an unwinnable battle.

What About the Bigger Stuff?

There are other improvements to your home that can help keep the heat out — they should be performed by a professional installer. Most of this takes place in the attic or on the roof, including installing radiant barriers to reflect the sun’s heat, attic fans that can push the super hot air out and suck in relatively cooler outside air and verifying that you have adequate attic ventilation and insulation.

There are plenty of pros in your HomeKeepr community who can help you get on the road to a totally chill summer this year. Your Realtor has already recommended them and they’re ready to get to work!

Native Planting: Low Maintenance Landscaping

native plants chicago

What’s the Difference Between Native Plants and Weeds?

Native plants are plants that have evolved in a particular location and ecosystem over hundreds or thousands of years. For a plant to be considered native by the USDA, it must have been growing in the ecosystem before European settlers came to the Americas. Weeds are a threat to agriculture and/or natural ecosystems. 

How to Care for Native Plants

If you want an ornamental garden without all the fuss, native plants are for you. Caring for them is simple once they’re established (usually after the first year for perennials and shrubs), but not much more difficult when they’re just starting out. Your particular area may have native plants that need different conditions, so be sure to ask nursery personnel before committing. Below you’ll find recommended care for native plants in general:

Light. The amount of light your plants will need is dependent on where they come from. Woodland edge plants like violets prefer part sun to part shade, where desert favorites like barrel cactus prefer full sun.
Soil. Your plants are native to your area. In a perfect world, this means that they like the soil that you happen to have around. If you’ve got a low spot where water tends to gather in an area that’s otherwise pretty dry, you need to check the plant’s ability to tolerate the moisture in that small area before planting. If it’s not water-tolerant, you can amend the soil with organic material like peat to increase the rate at which it drains.
Water. For the first year or so, you will need to water your baby plants. Summer is generally when these little guys dry out and die, so take a walk through the landscape in the morning and give them all a good dousing. You can also set up drip irrigation to continue your low maintenance theme.
Mulch. Every plant that you don’t want to turn in a weedy mess needs mulch. Dress your natives with two to four inches of organic mulch, but do not install a geotextile. Garden fabric will prevent the plants from spreading.
Feeding. If your natives are truly well-suited to your yard, you won’t need to feed them much at all. In fact, feeding them could kill them. Always soil test before feeding natives — with these plants, a little dab of nutrition will do it.
Other Care. Yearly, add more mulch. You can also deadhead flowers that have dried up to make the plants look nicer. Otherwise, if the plants you choose are good matches for your conditions, you can expect high disease and insect tolerance and low input on your part.

Other Advantages to Native Plants

Besides being super easy to care for, native plants offer a slew of other benefits. Most importantly, they fill a unique spot in the local ecosystem. That means birds, butterflies and wildlife may take shelter under your bigger natives or use them as a food source. Since your landscape will accept the water that nature provides, you’ll also not need to water as much, or at all. That’s a huge savings in both cash and resources.

Oh, and your native plant garden may help to keep other native plant populations going, especially if your neighbors also get on the native plant bandwagon. Your plants could literally be seeding the next generation down the street with the help of some bee or passing moth. It’s the circle of life.

But most importantly, when you’re looking out over your coffee cup in the morning, you’ll be greeted by a living painting that changes with the seasons and you didn’t have to do much to make happen. That’s really the ultimate reason to plant natives!

Creating Easy Care Landscaping

easy landscaping

Is your landscaping full of weeds? Are you finding yourself driving by neighbors’ homes, envying their perfect, weed-free plantings? If so, you may be in need of some easy landscaping. You can have a low-care landscape, even if the upfront labor means giving up a few weekends.

What’s Wrong in the Landscaping?

It’s not hard to guess what’s gone wrong with your beds if weeds are popping up where they should never be or your mulch looks like it’s turning to dust. There’s something keeping that mulch from mixing with the soil and that something is probably a geotextile or plastic mulch.

Geotextiles are woven fabrics that allow water to pass through into the soil, but prevent evaporation. They can be good deterrents for weed seeds that are in the soil, but once an organic mulch like wood chips or pine needles is placed on top, they prevent the breaking-down mulch from mixing with the dirt below. Instead, that mulch powder creates a medium for new weed seeds to take root, eventually poking holes through the fabric below with their roots.

This is not awesome, as you might have guessed.

The best solution for this situation is to take out the old landscape fabric or plastic (if it’s plastic, you have a huge job ahead of you, as it tends to tear aggressively after only a few years in use) and rethink the whole situation. This is a demolition job that takes a lot of elbow grease, but no particular expertise. Just try to get most of the powdered mulch onto the bed below so it can finish breaking down.

The Pros and Cons of Geotextiles

As previously mentioned, geotextiles allow the soil below to absorb and retain water, but they don’t let nutrients from above mix in. They’re frequently used on landscape installations and overhyped as “maintenance free” barriers. What a typical homeowner hears is “I’ll never have to do anything with this again.” What the typical installer means is “you’re gonna get some good years of ignoring this, but wait too long and you’ll pay in backbreaking labor.”

Geotextiles are not a permanent solution, for a lot of reasons. We now know that they discourage insects and earthworms, since there’s not direct access to the surface of the soil. Since those creatures are needed to help aerate the various layers under your plants, soil compaction can become an issue. Then there’s the matter of that broken down mulch up above: it has nowhere to go. It can only clog the geotextile at worst and hang around to grow weeds at the best.

If you’re prepared to completely remove all your mulch when it starts to break down, or want to use inorganic mulches like stones, then a geotextile may be a fine solution. A careful installation of professional grade fabric, reserved for plants that have a central stem or that are already mature, is ideal. Keep in mind that spreading plants can’t function properly under any sort of weed fabric, as it stifles their growth, too.

Another Option: Mulch and Lots of It

For homeowners who are less interested in interacting with the landscape and more interested in just looking at it, organic mulch without a weed barrier is the best solution. You’ll need to replace broken down mulch yearly, but a few pre-emergent herbicide sprays throughout the season should be all you really need to keep the beds healthy.

Organic mulches like bark, shredded wood, pine needles and cotton seed hull break down, eventually feeding the plants below. They also allow you to plant whatever you want, since anything from single trunked trees to spreading rhizomes like Iris can move through and above the soil with equal ease when necessary.

If you’re installing a mulch-only cover, remember to use a four to six inch metal retainer so the mulch won’t slide away during heavy rains or winds. There are several on the market that you essentially just pound into the soil around your beds, they’re a snap to install.

With that skirting installed, you’ll want to fill your bed with two to four inches of fresh mulch, depending on local weather conditions and the size of your plantings. Just make sure that the mulch doesn’t touch any trunks or stems. Create a little donut-shaped moat around each plant for best results.

It may be less expensive to buy mulch by the truckload if you have a lot of beds, make sure to check with your local municipality about free or low-cost mulch created from limb and yard waste from your area. This isn’t the most attractive mulch sometimes, but it can help lower the costs of a whole yard makeover. Just top with about an inch of nicer mulch for a gorgeous, inexpensive mulch job.

Home Gardening: The Dirty Work

soil testing

Gardening is an exercise in improvisation, forcing you to work with soil that’s probably less than ideal to grow plants that may have very specific nutritional requirements. How do you know when your garden’s ready to grow plants?

Soil Testing 101

There are two ways to do a soil test, you can either buy a soil testing kit from a local home improvement store or you can connect with the local university extension office. A rapid test (the home test) can give you a lot of information to start with, but if it detects serious problems, you’ll need to resample and have the extension run it. The cost is typically minimal and the information they’ll provide can guide your amendment decisions.

It’s your call — doing a rapid test is a great way to get an idea about what’s up in the garden, but an extension test will give you deep level details. Their tests are designed for agriculture, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work for your future blueberry patch.

Either way you choose, you’ll have to take some samples. Using a proper soil core sampling probe (or you can wing it with a pointy hand trowel), dig into the soil about eight inches, then bring up your first sample. You only need a bit, but it’s a good idea to keep each sample roughly the same size. When you’re done, you should mix all the soil together to create a combined sample (several plugs from across the whole area you’re trying to plant).

If you’re using a home test, you’ll get the basic information you really need to start. Your home soil test kit should contain these four tests, minimum:

pH. Some plants like acidic soil, others like alkaline. Obviously, you can’t plant the two types in the same garden, since it’s impossible to create both conditions at once. Many gardeners choose plants based on the pH of the soil, rather than trying to alter the soil to fit their plants of choice. The first option is way easier in the long term.

Nitrogen (N). Nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients for most plants. It’s a major component of chlorophyll, the green substance that allows plants to make their own food. In general, more nitrogen is better than less, but there’s a limit on that. Too much of a good thing will cause your plants to grow rapidly, putting out a lot of leaves at the expense of flowers and fruit. Many overly-nitrogened plants will get “leggy,” that is to say that they’re taller, thinner and more frail than they should be.

There’s one exception to the “more is better” philosophy of nitrogen. If you’re planting legumes, either ornamental or edible, low nitrogen levels aren’t a problem. They have structures on their roots that harbor nitrogen-producing bacteria, so they’ve basically brought their own nitrogen to the party. If you turn annual or edible legumes back into the garden before they die naturally, you can also improve the nitrogen levels of the soil over time.

Phosphorus (P). Phosphorus helps plants mature, as well as being vital to flower and fruit production. Without sufficient phosphorus, your plants will be stunted, they may have a purple cast and they’re definitely going to be a serious let down. It’s difficult to get too much phosphorus in your soil, though. In fact, top dressing your plants with a little extra phosphorus can really get them going in the spring.

Potassium (K). Did you know that plants breathe? Well, they release oxygen regularly through openings on their leaves called stoma. If your plants don’t get enough potassium, they can’t open those stoma efficiently and their entire respiratory system starts to kind of fall apart. Potassium is used in many other metabolic and growth-related functions, as well. If you don’t have enough, your plants are doomed.

Amending the Garden

There are lots of different things that might be going wrong in your garden, which you’ll know all about because of your soil test results. Since the combinations are nearly endless, we’ll discuss amendment in a sort of general sense. Otherwise, you’ll be reading all night instead of taking care of your garden!

If you’re using a general purpose fertilizer to correct your N-P-K (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) issues, you’ll want to apply your fertilizer of choice to the bed you’re working long before planting. Typically, the bag will say how much to mix into the soil per square foot or per foot of growth if you’re fertilizing a tree or big shrub. All you need to do is scatter the granules across the soil and cover them with an inch or so of soil. Watering the whole thing will help prevent any sort of blow-away and allows the fertilizer to start moving deeper into the soil.

As for what to buy, if N, P and K are kind of the same on your soil test, go with a balanced fertilizer. A 10-10-10 or 20-20-20 will provide equal parts of each of the NPK components. If you have a lot of nitrogen, for example, and simply want to improve your potassium levels, then just buy a fertilizer that breaks down into potassium. It’s really that easy.

pH problems are harder. Much harder. You can get lots of different products to adjust that pH, some are organic, in that they’re made from plant materials, others are strictly chemical. The main advantage of the chemical treatment is that it can change the pH of the soil very quickly. Organic amendments, on the other hand, have to break down before they can start being effective. Those are really best applied in the fall so that they have all winter to turn into juicy plant nutrients. The fall is also a great time to apply compost to keep your soil light and airy.

No matter which products you choose, it’s important to give it a little time (at least a week) and sample again before making any other changes to the soil. Correcting soil problems is a slow process, but when you’ve mastered the garden, you’ll be able to plant exactly what you want there and find tremendous success.

DYI Backsplash

DIY Backsplash

Choosing Backsplash Materials

Anything you can glue to the wall can be used as a backsplash. How effective it will be, on the other hand, is a point you really need to consider. Sure, that wine cork backsplash you saw on Pinterest is cool, but how well will you be able to clean it the first time you splatter spaghetti sauce on it? Remember that backsplashes are exposed to tough conditions, including:

High heat.
* Steam.
* Water.
* Food splatter.

Even though you may love the idea of making your kitchen backsplash out of old newspapers, ask yourself how you’re going to address these issues. If, for example, you somehow transfer the images from a newspaper onto a piece of tempered glass, you might be on to something. On the other hand, just taping newspaper to the wall is going to result in a very short-lived mess.

What the backsplash is made of is almost the most important question there is to answer. Many homeowners choose tile because it’s easy to install, universal and, hey, it’s what’s in the bathroom so you know it’s great with moisture. Before you rush out the door to buy supplies, consider the pros and cons of the materials you’ve been imagining as you cook dinner every night.

Prepping the Space

Changing out the backsplash in the kitchen isn’t the hardest job out there, but it can be an incredibly gross one, especially if the old backsplash was tile. You’ll want to move all the appliances out of the way (don’t just dodge around them, people get hurt this way), don’t forget to take the range hood down for access behind it. At the store, you’ll want to pick up some heavy drop cloths, either thick plastic or the reusable canvas ones. Also nab a respirator for each person who will be helping. You really don’t want to breath in the dust you’re about to generate.

Turn the power to the kitchen off, and with a heavy metal putty knife or small claw hammer, lift the first tile off the wall. Just shimmy under it and give it a twist of the wrist. Also have a bucket or something nearby to toss the tile into. Repeat this until all the tiles are gone. You’ll also need to have a plan for leveling the wall afterward — it should look nearly new, in a perfect world.

Depending on what was used to attach the tiles, you may be able to just knock the ridges down with your putty knife and sand the rest out or you might be able to go over the top of old, existing mastic with new mastic and tiles. Ask your home improvement store for specific help on this because the combinations and solutions are nearly limitless.

If you’re dealing with a formica backsplash (the same material as many countertops and a common backsplash choice for homes built and remodeled in the 1970s and 80s), you’ll need a heat gun to melt the glue, but you can essentially just peel it off as the glue is heated. The same applies to any other glued-on materials, short of wallpaper. Don’t heat that with a heat gun unless you like kitchen fires.

Is it Prepped Yet?

You’ll know your kitchen wall is ready for action when there’s no sign of anything behind the new material, including bumps, discoloration and the like. For glass tiles, for example, this might mean you’ll need to go over the drywall with a thin coat of white mastic for consistency, false tin tiles might look better after you’ve completely stripped any evidence of old backsplashes down to the drywall.

If you neglect this very important step your backsplash will look awful. It might even fall off. So prep like crazy. If you spend half the time on your project doing prep work, you still might be better off prepping a little more. Ultimately, the quality of the project is primarily determined by the quality of your preparation.

Tips for Doing a Great Install

The worst feeling in the world is reaching the end of a project only to realize that it looks nothing like you had imagined. Pinterest (and pre-Pinterest) fails are common in home improvement projects, but you can avoid the worst of them with a little pre-planning. Consider these tips before you go back in with your new material.

Ensure your backsplash actually fits. Laugh all you want, but sometimes people are drawn to particular materials or tiles and can’t be swayed otherwise. Measure your space and then measure it again. Not all materials are easy to cut down, keep that in mind as you make the final decisions.

Consider grout color choices as a part of the process. If you’re going with tile, grout is not an afterthought. Grout colors can completely change the way a tile backsplash looks in the space. If you use black grout with a white subway tile, it’s going to pop like mad, but that might not work in a kitchen that’s otherwise pretty calm. The reverse is also a problem, a white grout with those white tiles is going to make a kitchen with a lot of energy feel sterile and lifeless.

Plan your cuts ahead of time. This applies to any material you can cut. When you’re making cuts, you’re changing the pattern just so much and sometimes that little bit matters a lot. For example, if you’re using a piece of heavy acrylic that has fish silk screened onto it, you don’t want to lob a head off or cut a fish in half. Consider where you’re going to place each piece of material, where it’ll be cut and how it’ll all fit together at the end and your backsplash will steal the show.

Number your pieces. Use an oil pencil (or a Sharpie works if you’re using tiles) and label each piece on the back, in order of application. It can get very confusing when you’re in the middle of an install, there are a lot of things to keep on the brain. Labeling everything and drawing out even a crude diagram to show yourself where they go will make your job so much easier.

Remember, it’s not a race. No matter what type of backsplash you’re installing, slow and steady is the way to go. Going too fast ultimately means sloppy work. You don’t have the experience of a pro, you can’t expect to have the speed. Just put one tile, panel, or chunk of glass in front of the other as you move across the kitchen.

You Could Dream Big and Have a Pro Bring it to Life

One of the most important skills any homeowner can develop is realizing when they’re in too deep or when it just makes sense to hire a pro over DIYing a project. Often, you’ll end up saving a lot of time and frustration by using someone who has already been there and done that hundreds or thousands of times.

What To Do When Storm Damage Strikes

storm damage

What to do Immediately After a Storm

If you’ve never handled a storm damage claim (or other homeowner claim), you know it can be incredibly intimidating. There are things you can do to help yourself and other things that will seriously hinder you. But, armed with the right information, your claim and clean up will be a (relative) breeze.

Your first instinct after a storm is probably to start cleaning up and making repairs. It’s a natural next step, there’s no doubt about it. But, if you start to clear the problem away, it’s going to be very difficult for your insurance adjuster to figure out what actually happened. Here are some dos and don’ts for the hours to days after a storm:

DO take lots of photos of the damage as soon as possible. Anything can happen between the time when you realize you have damage and when the adjuster shows up. So document, document, document. Get lots of photos from lots of angles so they can put together a complete picture of the situation. Every detail helps.

DON'T remove anything that isn’t going to contribute more damage to the house. If there’s a tree on your roof and it’s poking through the attic, you’re going to have to clear some of that away. If there’s a tree on your roof, but it’s small and just sort of lying there, it’s probably not hurting anything. The same goes for any sort of debris that might be hanging around. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to.

DO stabilize serious problems like leaking roofs. The tree that’s punched into the attic is a big deal. You’re going to have to act on this to prevent further damage. Either call one of your HomeKeepr home pros or grab the chainsaw and clear it carefully from the roof. Then cover the hole with a tarp or take other temporary measures. The key here is temporary. You should not attempt to fix this permanently now. Again, the insurance adjuster needs to look at it first.

DON'T hire any roofers or other repair companies that are canvassing your neighborhood. If your whole neighborhood was hit by high winds or other severe weather, expect to be almost immediately mobbed by canvassing roofers and handymen. You need to know what your insurance is prepared to cover before you hire anyone. You generally have the option to choose your own repair people, within a reasonable price range, so do collect all the cards they bring by.

Once the Insurance Adjuster Arrives

They’ll take a look at the damage, possibly bring in a home pro to do a more detailed evaluation. Make sure that you show them everything you have while they’re at your doorstep, from the photos you took right after the storm to the measures you had to take to stabilize the damage. The more complete the details, the easier it is for them to figure out how much it’s going to cost to fix your house.

Get their phone number and an email address just in case you have anything else to send them. Staying in touch at this point is going to be vital, since there could be things you’ll need to do to keep the process moving along. This might include meeting home repair experts at your home to provide quotes, sending those quotes over to the adjuster and so forth.

A Few Things That Can Go Wrong

Dealing with storm damage is stressful. Depending on where you live, however, it can become a much bigger problem than just a basic hassle. Your insurance may not cover your damage because you weren’t carrying the right type of coverage. 

If you’ve not had a storm yet, you’re going to want to check your policies to see if the following items are included or if you have a separate policy or rider to cover them:

Sewage backups. Yes, it’s true that your basic homeowner’s policy probably won’t cover a sewage backup, even if it’s caused by surging storm drain water. Not only is this about the worst thing to clean up ever, it can be costly if you have a finished basement or other area that would need to be completely gutted in order to repair.

Flooding. Most flood insurance policies are issued through FEMA via the National Flood Insurance Program. The cost is relatively minimal, but because so many people assume they’re covered against floods under their homeowner’s, they don’t bother to look into this at all. The odds are good that your basic homeowner’s policy is not going to cover any water that seeps in from outside, though. You should call your agent to verify this information, but certainly don’t blindly trust you’re good to go.

Wind damage. In states where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plains (or where hurricanes are common), you may not have enough wind coverage with just a basic insurance policy. Often, there are serious restrictions on how much your policy will pay (usually as a percentage of the policy, not the actual cost of damage) and on what kind of damage it’ll pay it. Make sure you’ve got wind damage coverage that will pay out enough if you ever had to use it.

Vehicle damage. If a tree falls on your car during a windstorm and no one is around to see it, is it covered by your homeowner’s insurance? No. Not usually, anyway. That would be a job for your car insurance, so make sure it’s ample if you’re in a storm-heavy area. The only cases where you could pretty much count on the car being covered by your homeowner’s is if the car were inside the garage and then the garage fell on it. Even then there may be some limits.

How to Deal with Home Remodel Surprises

remodel surprises

Surprise! Your Remodel Just Got Weird

When you chose your home, you knew it needed work. But now that you’re about to dig in and tackle those projects, now is really the best time to prepare for as much as you can. The older your house, the more surprises you’ll likely find — time has a way of doing that to homes.

It wasn’t until 1997 that the International Code Council published the first edition of the International Building Code, which has been updated and reissued every three years since. Before that, many homes were built professionally, but when it came time to remodel anything there were zero standards to hold anyone to. Basically, you can kind of think of your home as a time capsule of the most terrifying variety.

Or, you know, it might be totally straightforward. There’s literally no way to know until you get started. So, are you ready?

A Few Surprises to Watch For

No matter how well you think you know your house, you should make sure you’ve got a respirator that can filter both lead paint and asbestos, as well as gloves and work clothing that will protect you from anything before you even think about getting started. These things aren’t a small investment, but if you want to do the work yourself, you need to protect yourself just like a pro would. There are so many things that can jump out and bite you during a remodel, this list contains a few of the most common:

Hidden metal, pipes and wiring. If you’re taking out walls or even taking out tiles with the hopes of replacing them with something more modern, you may discover that your wall interiors are a whole other world. Behind your kitchen’s wet wall, there’s a maze of pipes that snake around to nowhere. Your bathroom has random metal plates just stuck in the wall under some tiles. And, this wire… it goes nowhere. It should go without saying that you should always use tools that have non-conductive handles when you’re working in walls and behind objects that you can’t see through.

Surprise mold and pests. Surprise! You have mold and termites! Wait, that’s a bad thing… hopefully you had a home inspection and a termite inspection that would have found this problem ahead of time, but if you’ve owned your house a few years, pests and mold certainly could have popped up over time. Termites will likely require professional treatment (check the HomeKeepr community for a great pest control pro!), mold is a mixed bag. Some molds are very dangerous for people to breathe, but others are just kind of always in the environment.

At this point, you need to put all the tools away and have a mold test done. While you’re waiting for the results, figure out where the source of moisture that’s keeping this part of your house moist enough to let the various flora and fauna thrive is coming from and repair that problem right away. You may have to adjust your construction budget, but there’s no vessel sink that’s worth ignoring a termite-eaten sill plate.

Dry rot. Dry rot comes from similar conditions as mold and pests, but there’s not a pest or mold around. It’s just that your house is sort of rotting. This is not awesome, but it’s an easier fix than some things. Depending on the extent and location, you may want to bring in a structural engineer to assess the amount of repair that’s going to be needed to get your house back into shape.

A really good handyman or general contractor can take it from there. Structural repairs are not really a DIY situation, but if the dry rot is on outside trim pieces or somewhere your engineer doesn’t think is going to influence the way your house functions, go ahead and fix the source of the damage, replace the damaged boards, seal them and get back on track.

Poorly done prior work. This is what you’re hoping to avoid with your current remodel, so take photos as a sad remember that someday, someone else will Instagram your poorly done remodel if you don’t take this seriously. Whatever you uncover, you’ll need to correct it before you move forward. Don’t put good repairs over bad ones, you might as well not bother to remodel your home at all.

Really gross stuff. Homes that have had less than perfect owners or tenants often have less than perfect secrets. Sometimes they verge on the horrific when it comes to the gross out factor. Anything from lively, active pest infestations to evidence of old pest infestations that were completely out of control could be hiding under those layers of wallpaper. It’s alarming what an insect can hide under and still manage to completely disguise itself. (If you find something of this level, you’ll know — call a pest control pro immediately, you do not want to DIY this!)

Really illegal stuff. Sometimes a fixer upper or a repo has had a pretty sketchy history. Illegal activities, especially related to drugs, are not uncommon reasons for someone to lose their home. Most blogs on the topic of surprises in remodels won’t touch on this, but this is a very important consideration if you don’t know anything about the house. The very last thing you want is a needle with an unknown substance and origin falling on you from a drop ceiling you’re taking out piece by piece.

If you find drugs or paraphernalia during your remodel, call your local police department (not 911) for help with proper disposal. Make sure you have all the paperwork with you that proves you just bought the house and make it clear that you want to surrender these things you’ve found during your remodel that are absolutely and in no way related to you. Yet another reason to wear gloves and protective clothing.

Historical stuff. So as not to send you out on your remodeling adventure on a bad note, let’s talk about something fun you might find. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find some neat old stuff. You probably won’t see it in an easy to access place, but if you have some built-in cabinets that you’re trying to refinish, for example, make sure you look under and beneath all the drawers. Subfloors might yield coins of unusual age, basements and attics can have all sorts of treasures in them.

These things might not make the Antiques Roadshow, but they’re fun mementos to keep around and they’ll help you tell the story of your home.

The Biggest Surprise of All May Be Your Project’s Timeline

Even if you don’t encounter mold or roaches or magazines from the 1950s during your remodel, you could come across the biggest surprise of them all: just how much time it really takes to do a proper remodel and still work a full time job. 

Congrats! Your fixer-upper is well on its way to be a fixed-upper now that you have a remodeling plan in place and a way to pay for it. You’re almost certainly imagining how lovely a soak in that new bathroom will be after a long day at work or how many family members you’ll be able to pack into your newly opened-up kitchen and dining area. The one thing you’re not thinking about right now is what could possibly go wrong.

That’s ok. We’re here to toss a little storm cloud over your remodeling plans, or at least bring you down to Earth a bit so you’re not blindsided by things you might have never thought to prepare for when redoing your home.

Surprise! Your Remodel Just Got Weird

When you chose your home, you knew it needed work. That wasn’t really a shocker, even as the list from the home inspector seemed to go on and on forever. But now that you’re about to dig in and tackle those projects, now is really the best time to prepare for as much as you can. The older your house, the more surprises you’ll likely find — time has a way of doing that to homes.

Houses constructed more than about 30 years ago were largely built to whatever code seemed fancy in the moment. It wasn’t until 1997 that the International Code Council published the first edition of the International Building Code, which has been updated and reissued every three years since. Before that, many homes were built professionally, but when it came time to remodel anything there were zero standards to hold anyone to. Basically you can kind of think of your home as a time capsule of the most terrifying variety.

Or, you know, it might be totally straightforward. There’s literally no way to know until you get started. So, are you ready?

A Few Surprises to Watch For

No matter how well you think you know your house, you should make sure you’ve got a respirator that can filter both lead paint and asbestos, as well as gloves and work clothing that will protect you from anything before you even think about getting started. These things aren’t a small investment, but if you want to do the work yourself, you need to protect yourself just like a pro would. There are so many things that can jump out and bite you during a remodel, this list contains a few of the most common:

Hidden metal, pipes and wiring. If you’re taking out walls or even taking out tiles with the hopes of replacing them with something more modern, you may discover that your wall interiors are a whole other world. Behind your kitchen’s wet wall, there’s a maze of pipes that snake around to nowhere. Your bathroom has random metal plates just stuck in the wall under some tiles. And, this wire… it goes nowhere. It should go without saying that you should always use tools that have non-conductive handles when you’re working in walls and behind objects that you can’t see through.

Surprise mold and pests. Surprise! You have mold and termites! Wait, that’s a bad thing… hopefully you had a home inspection and a termite inspection that would have found this problem ahead of time, but if you’ve owned your house a few years, pests and mold certainly could have popped up over time. Termites will likely require professional treatment (check the HomeKeepr community for a great pest control pro!), mold is a mixed bag. Some molds are very dangerous for people to breathe, but others are just kind of always in the environment.

At this point, you need to put all the tools away and have a mold test done. While you’re waiting for the results, figure out where the source of moisture that’s keeping this part of your house moist enough to let the various flora and fauna thrive is coming from and repair that problem right away. You may have to adjust your construction budget, but there’s no vessel sink that’s worth ignoring a termite-eaten sill plate.

Dry. Rot. Dry rot comes from similar conditions as mold and pests, but there’s not a pest or mold around. It’s just that your house is sort of rotting. This is not awesome, but it’s an easier fix than some things. Depending on the extent and location, you may want to bring in a structural engineer to assess the amount of repair that’s going to be needed to get your house back into shape.

A really good handyman or general contractor can take it from there. Structural repairs are not really a DIY situation, but if the dry rot is on outside trim pieces or somewhere your engineer doesn’t think is going to influence the way your house functions, go ahead and fix the source of the damage, replace the damaged boards, seal them and get back on track.

Poorly done prior work. This is what you’re hoping to avoid with your current remodel, so take photos as a sad remember that someday, someone else will Instagram your poorly done remodel if you don’t take this seriously. Whatever you uncover, you’ll need to correct it before you move forward. Don’t put good repairs over bad ones, you might as well not bother to remodel your home at all.

Really gross stuff. Homes that have had less than perfect owners or tenants often have less than perfect secrets. Sometimes they verge on the horrific when it comes to the gross out factor. Anything from lively, active pest infestations to evidence of old pest infestations that were completely out of control could be hiding under those layers of wallpaper. It’s alarming what an insect can hide under and still manage to completely disguise itself. (If you find something of this level, you’ll know — call a pest control pro immediately, you do not want to DIY this!)

Really illegal stuff. Sometimes a fixer upper or a repo has had a pretty sketchy history. Illegal activities, especially related to drugs, are not uncommon reasons for someone to lose their home. Most blogs on the topic of surprises in remodels won’t touch on this, but this is a very important consideration if you don’t know anything about the house. The very last thing you want is a needle with an unknown substance and origin falling on you from a drop ceiling you’re taking out piece by piece.

If you find drugs or paraphernalia during your remodel, call your local police department (not 911) for help with proper disposal. Make sure you have all the paperwork with you that proves you just bought the house and make it clear that you want to surrender these things you’ve found during your remodel that are absolutely and in no way related to you. Once it’s all gone, it’s all gone and you can move on like nothing happened. Yet another reason to wear gloves and protective clothing.

Really historical stuff. So as not to send you out on your remodeling adventure on a bad note, let’s talk about something fun you might find. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find some neat historical stuff. You probably won’t see it in an easy to access place, but if you have some built-in cabinets that you’re trying to refinish, for example, make sure you look under and beneath all the drawers. Subfloors might yield coins of unusual age, basements and attics can have all sorts of treasures in them.

These things might not make the Antiques Roadshow, but they’re fun mementos to keep around and they’ll help you tell the story of your home, assuming they’re fit for mixed company.

The Biggest Surprise of All May Be Your Project’s Timeline

Even if you don’t encounter mold or roaches or magazines from the 1950s during your remodel, you could come across the biggest surprise of them all: just how much time it really takes to do a proper remodel and still work a full time job. If you’re finding that you just can’t make yourself pick up a hammer or a paintbrush after a 9 to 5 at the office, you’re not the first and you’re not alone. We're able to help you identify a professional who can finish your project in no time. And, you know they’re going to be awesome because we vet all of our vendors personally.  We do not recommend anyone without having used them first hand. We'd love to help pair you with the right professional! 

Home Buying Checklist

home buying checklist

Your Home Buying Scorecard

This exercise is meant to help focus your home search, but you should also realize that it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to get everything you want out of one house without an incredible budget or very low standards. To the scorecard!

When shopping for a home, it’s useful to start your search online for houses in your price range to see what sort of features they usually have. For example, if a $250k house in your area tends to have a fireplace and a two car garage, you know you can reasonably expect that. You’ll probably quickly realize that your expectation of acreage or a private movie theater is a little out of reach.

Grab your tablet or a piece of paper, and draw four columns. Label them like this: Definitely Need, Want, Can Live Without and Definitely Don’t Want. If you have a spouse or other person you’re buying with, make sure they make their own scorecard — no sharing answers, yet!

Now fill those columns in!

This isn’t an exercise that you should finish in a few minutes. You should spend a good week or two really working on it. Think deeply and about the long term. A few questions you may want to ask yourself include:

  • Do I intend to age in place? 
  • Am I planning to start a family? 
  • Is there a style of house I’m attracted to? 
  • If I had a fireplace, how often would I use it? 
  • Do I plan to have pets? 
  • How close can I tolerate my neighbors?
  • Do I need a garage, or am I okay with street parking?
  • Consider the seasons when you are mulling over your commute. A mile walk in the summer may not seem like a big deal, but what about when there's a foot of snow?
  • What do I like about where I live now, that I'd like at my new home?
  • What do I dislike about my current home that I'd like to change at my next?
  • Do I have a budget for repairs, renovation, etc?

As you start to take inventory of your actual wants and needs, you’ll also be eliminating huge swaths of houses in single blows. This makes your home search a lot easier. 

When your scorecard feels pretty complete, make sure to compare notes with your spouse. You may have some compromising to do, especially if you’re dead set on a house with a pool and they want a small yard. With all of the details decided, you can finally call us and we'll get shopping for your dream home!

INSURANCE FOR YOUR HOME: HOMEOWNER’S POLICIES 101

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

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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.

Carpet

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

Tile

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

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

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

Vinyl

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?

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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:

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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?

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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.