How to Avoid a War with the Neighbors

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By Devon Thorsby

A disagreement between neighbors can escalate quickly. One minute you’re mowing your lawn, the next you’re plotting revenge on the homeowner next to you for parking his car on your freshly cut grass.

“You hear about neighbors chasing each other down with spades and all sorts of weird things,” notes Nick Hall, director of the Dispute Resolution Center of Harris County, Texas, which offers mediation for civil disputes, including neighborhood problems.

It doesn’t serve you well to pick a fight with the people who live on the properties surrounding yours, and especially not when you’ve just moved in. But it can be all too easy to start off on the wrong foot with a neighbor, and it can haunt you for years to come. (Another strategy: Check out the neighbors before you buy the house.)

While you don’t have to be the next Lucy and Ethel, you and your neighbors should be able to get along amicably enough to avoid major disagreements when it comes to what you each do with your properties. Follow a few simple guidelines to get on your neighbor’s good side from the start.

Introduce Yourself

You’re not required to bring a casserole, but a knock on the door and friendly handshake will go a long way. It’s harder for your neighbors to make assumptions about you when you approach them with a friendly greeting — and it’s not as easy for them to hate you when they think you’re just so darn sweet.

“Don’t have the first contact with your neighbors be when you need something, or when you have a complaint,” says Stuart Watson, a staff mediator at Resolutions Northwest, a center for dispute resolution in Portland, Oregon. “Build some kind of relationship first, so that when you do want to remodel your garage into a spare rec room … you’re not coming up to somebody you don’t know with demands.”

If you’re moving into a community with a homeowners association or other kind of neighborhood group, Hall says it’s a good idea to attend the first meeting you can and start the relationships early. You can even go as far as offering to organize a community event. “Everyone likes potlucks, so why not do a block party or a street party and invite everyone?” Hall says.

Know the Rules

Everyone wants to think they’re right, but before you do anything to your property, be sure you’re following the neighborhood or municipal rules when it comes to construction, noise and other hot buttons for cranky neighbors.

Reading up on the community’s regulations should happen even before you buy the property, says Brad Aldrich, senior attorney at Aldrich Legal Services in Plymouth, Michigan, who specializes in real estate law, among other areas. Especially if the home you’re buying is part of a homeowners or condo association, be sure any construction or landscaping you do on your property doesn’t put you in the wrong.

“Forget bothering your neighbor — if you wanted to put in a pool, but for whatever reason your local homeowners association didn’t allow pools … you’re not going to be able to put one in,” Aldrich says.

Being familiar with regulations and local ordinances, like setback requirements from the property line for any structures, could help you know if your neighbor is infringing on the rules as well.

“We get a lot of people call in and say, ‘I’ve never owned a home before, and I don’t know if my neighbor is doing something wrong,'” Aldrich says, adding that familiarity with regulations can help you avoid speculation, so any issues are based on fact and written rules or laws.

Let Them Know of Any Changes

Whether you’re planning to redo the landscaping or put an addition on the back of your home, it’s a courtesy to give your neighbors advance warning of any construction on your property.

Renee Bove, a staff mediator with Watson at Resolutions Northwest, says many of the neighbor disputes that come to mediation reach a heightened level simply because one person didn’t communicate well with the other. “Oftentimes, it’s just a simple misunderstanding that somebody had a pretty good intention that kind of backfired and had a negative impact. And they don’t talk about it, so it takes a life of its own,” Bove says.

For example, warning that you plan to put up a tall fence because your dog can jump high will probably go over better than erecting a privacy fence without any notice.

If it Would Bother You, Don’t Do It

The rule of treating others the way you want to be treated still applies as a homeowner. If you keep your neighbors in mind when you make decisions, you’re far less likely to tick them off.

An example: You don’t want excess water runoff on your property, so don’t assume your neighbor will think any differently if you direct your drain pipes at his foundation. Yet, Aldrich says water runoff is a common cause of neighbor disputes.

“If the natural topography of the land is that water runs off into an adjacent property, that’s really not the other property owner’s fault — it’s just the way the land is,” Aldrich says. “But if that property owner were to put in a sump pump and then route the water line to where it dumps directly on the neighbor’s property, well then, that is an act of the one property owner where it does negatively impact the neighbor,” Aldrich says.

In Portland, Bove says a growing topic of dispute involves using a home for Airbnb stays, whether it’s the whole house or individual rooms. The new home rental trend “just brings a lot more traffic and new people into a neighborhood that can be disconcerting for other neighbors,” Bove explains.

It can be useful to have a conversation with your neighbors before listing your home for rent, and, ensure you are not infringing on any laws, guidelines or regulations.

Count to 10

Being a good neighbor doesn’t mean you have to let everyone walk all over you (or your land). If you believe your neighbor is encroaching on your property or your ability to live peacefully, you shouldn’t have to suffer.

But keep in mind, people have a tendency to dig in their heels when they feel their property is being threatened, so it’s best to tread lightly when addressing issues.

“If you give someone a ticket, or if you go to court or to trial of some kind, you’re going to make even bigger enemies of the neighbors,” Hall says. “And yet, [you’re] going to have to continue living together in the same neighborhood.”

Bove uses the example of a homeowner parking a few inches in front of a neighbor’s driveway during a personal emergency. Seeing the car blocking part of the driveway, but not knowing why, the neighbor assumes it is an intentional slight.

“They just didn’t take a moment to come from a place of curiosity: ‘Hey, I noticed your car was in my driveway a little bit. What was happening for you?'” Bove says.

In the event you simply can’t resolve a problem on your own, mediation is often an effective way to ensure both parties are heard, and put some rules down without taking it all the way to court.

Watson estimates mediation through Resolutions Northwest resolves about 80 percent of the disputes brought to them, with a solution made that day. But the number of parties that come out of mediation feeling it was a positive experience is even higher, he says. “Even in those more rare times when they don’t come to some kind of agreement, it was helpful for them to be able to have a discussion and to feel their concerns were heard.”

 

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4 Steps to a Clean Kitchen, Fresh Start

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By BobVila.com

Most of us make a daily effort to keep our kitchens and food preparation areas fairly clean and tidy. But if you think your kitchen is really clean, you may have to think again.

There are literally dozens of places in your kitchen that are rarely touched in those regular mop-ups, and these areas can detract from the overall appearance and function of one of your most-used rooms. The solution: a kitchen deep-clean.

Every kitchen could use an intense scrub every couple of months, but don’t let that daunt you. Follow this strategy, and your cleaning day will be as painless as it is productive.

1. Clean out your kitchen cabinets.

The kitchen typically is the focal point of most household activity, and therefore accumulates a number of items that don’t necessarily have any business being there. Grab a box or bag, and fill it up with any items – such as books, electronics, and mail – that belong elsewhere.

Once the obvious miscellany are removed, empty all the cupboards and drawers. As you remove dishes, glassware, cookware, and gadgets, separate out any pieces that are damaged or infrequently used into another pile for repair, donation, or trash.

Give your pantry’s contents a quick once-over, too. Throw away any items past their expiration date, and donate anything you won’t eat to the local food pantry.

Before you move your curated collection back in, wipe down all the cabinet interiors and shelves with soapy water. A diluted vinegar spray is ideal for pantry shelves, since its main ingredient is both non-toxic and anti-bacterial. Dry with a clean cloth or paper towel, then line the shelves with paper for a more visually streamlined appearance.

Finally, fill up your cabinets, making sure the things you use the most – and those closest to expiring – are the easiest to reach.

2. Say goodbye to grime and grease.

Cooking inevitably leads to a sticky buildup of food particles and grease on your cabinets, walls, and countertops, so once you’ve dealt with the interiors, turn your attention to the exteriors.

— Wipe down all surfaces with a kitchen degreaser, then polish the wood and metal with an appropriate polish.

— Unscrew whatever parts can be removed (knobs, pulls, and handles), and place them in a mixture of lemon juice and water. While they soak, you’ll be able to better clean the surface where they attach. Rinse well with water and replace.

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Remedies for splotches and stains vary depending on the countertop material. If yours is a wooden butcherblock counter, for example, remove stains with a solution of one teaspoon of lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide per two ounces of water. For laminate, treat stains with a baking soda and water paste. In any case, stick with soft cloths and sponges to avoid scratching up your surface.

— If you have a tile backsplash, scrub the grout lines with lemon juice and salt to get rid of stains and discoloration; rinse with warm water.

— Wipe down door knobs, light fixtures, light switches and switch plates, and any other surfaces that could possibly collect dust, including spice racks, pot hangers, and clocks.

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3. Give your appliances some extra TLC.

The surfaces of your fridge, oven, and dishwasher tend to get completely covered in fingerprints, smudges, and germs over time. Start by cleaning their exteriors using the cleanser recommended by the manufacturer. Then target each appliance individually.

— Treat the refrigerator as you did the cabinets. Pull everything out, and toss any food and condiments past their expiration dates. Wipe down all of the emptied appliance’s shelves, drawers, and bins using a vinegar and water mixture. Attack any stubborn spills with the additional scrubbing power of a pinch of baking soda. Refill the fridge, and repeat with your freezer. Before you’ve finished, thoroughly dust and vacuum the unit’s fan and coils.

–Clear your stovetop of any burners and move them to a bucket or sink full of warm, sudsy water while you wash the surface where they sit. Don’t forget to wipe down the front, sides, and knobs, too. Soapy water works for a light cleaning, but if you need to scrub off a stain, mix equal parts water, baking soda, and salt into a mild abrasive paste and let it sit on your spill for a few minutes. Apply the paste to any splotches on the stovetop, then wait a few minutes. Use a little elbow grease to rub off the spot, and wipe away the paste. Rinse and towel off the grates before you replace them.

‚Äč–You’ll have already wiped the worst off the outside of your dishwasher, so freshen the inside by running a couple of almost-empty loads while you work in the kitchen. First, fill a dishwasher-safe bowl with 1 cup vinegar, place it in the top rack, and run a full hot-water cycle. Then remove the bowl, sprinkle a cup of baking soda over the bottom of the appliance, and run it on a short hot-water cycle.

–Wipe down the garbage disposal. Run a few pieces of cut citrus fruit through the garbage disposal to kill any stench, followed by a rinse with boiling-hot water. Even if you don’t have a disposal, at minimum wipe down the tub of your sink, faucet, and knobs. Then flush any potential clogs from its drain with a half-cup baking soda and a half-cup vinegar.

And don’t neglect small countertop appliances in your deep-clean:

–Toaster: Remove the crumb trap, brush away any food particles, and wipe down the exterior.

Coffee maker: Run a 50-50 vinegar-and-water mixture through the machine, then do several water-only brews to wash out the lingering acidic flavor.

–Microwave: Nuke a bowl full of water and cut lemons for 10 to 15 minutes so their steam soaks away all the burnt-on food bits. Wipe the interior clean with a damp microfiber cloth.

4. Finish with the floor.

While wiping down every last surface in your kitchen, you’ve likely knocked more than a few crumbs to the ground. That’s why it’s best to end your deep-clean with a good sweep or vacuum.

Grab your dust-busting instrument of choice, and zero in on the collection along baseboards and heating registers. Use a lightly damp mop and an appropriate cleanser for your flooring to wipe up.

Send soiled towels, oven mitts, rugs, and curtains through the wash and replace.

Return your cleaning supplies to their homes.

Then wash your hands of all the hard work in the fresh sink in your bright, shiny kitchen.

 

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How to Design a Restful Bedroom

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Courtesy of Zillow Digs

By Kerrie Kelly

November through January is a busy, busy time. With family dinners, office parties and Christmas shopping, lack of sleep inevitably follows and full-blown burnout becomes a very real possibility. Don’t forget to think about yourself. A restful bedroom can be the key to combating fatigue.

Clear the Clutter

It’s often said that a cluttered room is the sign of a cluttered mind. Having too much “stuff” obstructs from the flow of a serene space, and doesn’t tie in well with any design concept.

Take what you love and move it somewhere safe, and get rid of everything else. Having a clear and collected space will lead to a clear and collected life. Don’t you feel better already?

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

Soothe with a Calm Color Palette

Nothing whispers “rest” quite like a soft and soothing color palette. From cozy cream to serene beige, color is key when creating a restful bedroom. Refrain from bold colors like red, green, or yellow, and instead use those shades to accent your calming paint choice instead.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

Total Texture

Sink into a sound slumber quickly and easily with plush pillows, dreamy duvets, and cozy throw blankets. Layer different textures, prints, and soft colors to create a bed as irresistible as a 3 o’clock nap.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

Go Stress-Free with a Sitting Area

Don’t want to ruffle your restful bed sheets? Create a cozy corner instead with a chair, side table, and a great reading lamp. Grab a cozy blanket, sip a cup of tea, and get lost in a good book while relaxing the day away in your rest-inspiring oasis.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

Finish with Lush Lighting

When you’re about to drift off to dream land, nothing’s worse than switching from light and bright to dull and dark. Opt for lighting that is dimmable or masked by an opaque shade. Layer lighting with pendants, recessed cans, and tableside lamps for the perfect amount of sparkle.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

The holidays don’t have to mean all-nighters and dazed mornings. Create your restful bedroom using the above elements, your favorite sleep-inducing rituals, and personal touches that you find particularly restful. Sit back, relax, and lull yourself to sleep knowing that the New Year is just around the corner.

 

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How to Choose the Best Island for a Fabulous New Kitchen

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Courtesy of Zillow Digs

By Kerrie Kelly

There are few better workhorses than the kitchen island. It’s beautiful, simple, and full of storage possibilities. Offering features from scratch-proof counters for chopping to hooks, rods, and bins for stowing, the kitchen island is an invaluable addition to any home.

Best of all, there’s an island option for every style and budget. Here are a few of the best.

Sink Space

If you’re looking for a creative sink solution, consider installing it in the kitchen island. This setup provides a central spot to wash your hands, drain pasta, scrub dishes or rinse produce.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

Tucked Away

Kitchen islands usually evoke visions of huge, solid, and largely immobile countertops reserved for spacious kitchens. However, tiny islands are slowly gaining momentum and becoming popular for their mobility, slim size, and ease of access.

Take a look at islands on casters, which can be positioned where they’re most needed, then tucked in a corner or underneath a counter when not in use.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

Sit and Stay

Kitchen islands are great for creating an extra sitting area, especially if your kitchen or dining room lacks the space for an actual table.

Choose an extra-long kitchen island with overhang to allow for a few bar stools or tall chairs. Add some festive placemats and a few dining accessories to create a unique tablescape — and clear it all away when you need some extra workspace.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

Careful Cubbies

One of the best ways kitchen islands add to a space is by providing unique storage options. In a room so full of doors and hardware, adding small baskets, hooks, and rods can be a fun way to stow your utensils, linens, or knickknacks. Even better, you can switch out the textures and finishes to match your favorite seasonal decor.

Courtesy of Zillow Digs

While kitchen islands are most often used as giant cutting boards, they’ve come full circle in design and function, and have proven to be a great way to add substance and style to any kitchen design. Take a look at your space, define your personal style, and determine your needs to find your perfect island oasis.

Get kitchen island inspiration.

 

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Thanksgiving Toolbox: Peel the Potatoes With a Drill

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By Zillow Team

The big game’s on, family and friends have gathered, and there’s so much to do. Save yourself some time with this speedy trick for peeling potatoes lightning fast.

1. Gather your supplies: a pile of taters and your power drill (with a thoroughly washed bit).

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2. Get your potato in position and grab your peeler.

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3. Ready, set, peel!

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4. Get those bad boys into boiling water and cross “Peel potatoes” off your to-do list.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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How to Get Rid of Private Mortgage Insurance

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By Christine DiGangi

If you want to buy a house but can’t pay 20 percent of the cost upfront, a lender will want you to have private mortgage insurance. PMI protects the lender from loss if you can’t make payments on a loan with less than a 20 percent down payment.

PMI increases a borrower’s monthly mortgage payment, which is why most borrowers don’t want to shoulder it. Short of saving up a sufficient down payment, however, there are only a few ways to avoid PMI or get rid of it.

1. Take Out a Second Mortgage

One way to avoid PMI is to take out what’s sometimes called a piggyback loan or an 80-10-10. In this scenario, you’d take out a mortgage for 80 percent of the value (so it doesn’t require PMI), make a 10 percent down payment and take out a second loan for the remaining 10 percent. You could borrow that 10 percent in the form of an installment loan or a home equity line of credit.

“It’s not always a good idea,” said Casey Fleming, a mortgage adviser for C2 Financial Corp. and the author of “The Loan Guide.”

“If you use two loans, you will avoid mortgage insurance, but you should go in with a plan to get rid of the second mortgage as soon as you can,” Fleming said. “Second mortgages are expensive.”

Whether an 80-10-10 is a smart option for you depends on a lot of factors, but it’s something to consider.

2. Have Your Lender Pay for It

Lender-paid mortgage insurance is what it sounds like: Your lender pays the insurance company instead of you. The lender will bump up your interest rate to cover the cost, so even though you’re not paying the mortgage insurance directly, you’re still paying for it by way of interest.

“The justification for doing this is [the homeowner] can deduct all of the interest, where mortgage insurance is not readily deductible,” Fleming said.

The important thing to note here is you can get rid of mortgage insurance, but you’re stuck with the interest rate for the life of the loan.

3. Ask Your Lender to Remove It

The Homeowners Protection Act requires lenders to remove PMI from a loan after the loan balance has fallen to 80 percent of the home’s original purchase price, but there’s a way to get rid of it quicker. Keep an eye on your home’s value. When your home appreciates in value, your loan balance becomes a smaller percentage of your home’s total value. Once your remaining loan balance is at or below 80 percent of your home’s current value, you can ask your lender to remove PMI.

“As soon as you believe you’ve got 20 percent equity, that’s the point at which you should think about contacting your lender,” said Joe Parsons, senior loan officer at PFS Financing in the Northern California suburb of Dublin. You will need to pay for an appraisal, and depending on the kind of appraisal your lender requires and where you live, that appraisal could cost several hundred dollars. Parsons recommended using a real estate site such as Zillow to keep track of your home’s value. That can help avoid wasting money on an appraisal when your property may not yet have appreciated enough to get rid of PMI.

Parsons said he has encountered people who have paid PMI for years longer than they needed to, so it’s important borrowers know to pay attention to property values and ask their lenders to remove mortgage insurance when the time is right.

Another thing to know: Most contracts require the borrower to pay PMI for at least two years, regardless of home value, Fleming said.

4. Refinance

Asking your lender to remove PMI isn’t always an option. For example, FHA loans require mortgage insurance for the life of the loan. In that case, the only way to get rid of it would be to refinance. You could also refinance a conventional loan with insurance to a loan without it.

“In some cases where the rates have decreased, then it can make sense to refinance, even if the rate is only dropping a quarter or half a percent,” Parsons said. The lower rate, combined with the savings of eliminating PMI, can save the borrower money. Keep in mind there are costs associated with refinancing, and you reset the clock when you take out a new loan.

Parsons and Fleming mentioned refinancing as a way to get rid of insurance only when mortgage rates have gone down.

“I wouldn’t refinance just to get rid of the [PMI],” Parsons said. “Usually there’s a cheaper way.”

Another way to avoid mortgage insurance for U.S. military veterans is to take out a VA loan , but that’s not an option for every borrower.

There are dozens of factors to consider when deciding how and when to borrow to buy a home. As you figure it out, one of your top priorities should be to build good credit, because it will heavily factor into your mortgage approval and pricing. To see where you stand, you can check your free credit score every 30 days on Credit.com.

 

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How to Avoid Burning Down the House While Cooking the Turkey

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Fire Department Demonstrates The Dangers Of Deep-Frying Turkeys
Getty ImagesIf you decide to deep fry a turkey, move away from the house and use a long-handled tool, as this firefighter shows.

By HomeInsurance.com

The countdown to turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie has begun. Thanksgiving’s arrival means many of us are scouring the closet for pants with stretchy waistbands so we can prepare to feast.

The holiday is all about giving thanks and spending a day with loved ones. But cooking the festive Thanksgiving meal can lead to fires. And fires can lead to injuries, deaths or property loss, so make sure to follow some safety suggestions for this holiday.

Check the Stats

Thanksgiving Day is the peak day for cooking fires in homes, accounting for about three times as many fires as any other day of the year, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).

Each year between 2011 and 2013, Thanksgiving Day produced an average of 2,100 residential building fires, resulting in $28 million in property damage, 50 injuries, and 10 deaths, according to a report by the U.S. Fire Administration.

What causes most Thanksgiving fires? More than 71 percent of fires were attributed to cooking, and the highest percentage of fires (24.6 percent) occurred between noon and 3 p.m., the report said.

Eyes on the Prize

Er, turkey. Leaving food unattended while it was cooking was the leading cause of Thanksgiving cooking fires, according to the NFPA. You’ll want to visit with your guests during this holiday, but it’s far more important to pay attention to what’s in the oven or on the stovetop so that you don’t become a statistic.

Also, assign guests items to bring for the meal. Having a potluck-style Thanksgiving dinner will prevent you from doing all the cooking, so you won’t be trying to cook multiple dishes at once. Giving your undivided attention to one dish at a time will help to keep food from burning and starting fires.

And when you want to chat with your guests while you’re cooking, call them into the kitchen with you. Leaving the room while food is in the oven or on the burners is a risky move that makes your insurance provider sweat.

Don’t Wear Loose Clothing While Cooking

Let’s set the scene: You’re wearing a baggy sweater as you cook vegetables in oil or butter, and you divert your attention to talk to a family member. A fire ignites, and, in a panic, you attempt to move the pan to the sink to run water over it. When you move the pan, your loose sleeve connects with the flames and, in a flash, your entire arm is on fire.

There are several things wrong with this scenario. The first is that you should avoid wearing loose-fitting clothes while cooking, as it puts you at an increased risk to catch fire and be injured.

Secondly, never move a pot that’s on fire, or try to put out a grease or oil fire with water. It’s best to put a lid on top of the pot to smother the fire, leave the pot where it is, and turn the heat off when the fire has been tamed.

Getting distracted while cooking is also a no-no.

Keep Fire Hazards Away From the Stove

Just like ill-fitting clothing is a hazard that can easily ignite, so are things like potholders, wooden utensils, towels, and flowers. Keep these items away from burners and the oven to reduce the chances of having a kitchen fire.

It’s also important to keep pets out of the kitchen. Say you just turned off the burner, but your pup comes sniffing around, puts his paws up on the counter, and accidentally slides a towel on top of the still-hot burner without you noticing, causing it to be engulfed in flames. Avoid this type of scenario by keeping the dog in a gated room and keeping other hazards at bay.

Know the Biggest Risks

Frying is the greatest risk for home fires. So if you’re deep-frying the turkey this year, take extra precautions.

  • Keep the fryer away from the house and on even ground. The fryer should be set up more than 10 feet away from the home, and on level ground to keep the oil even.
  • Completely thaw and dry the turkey first. Only fry a turkey after it has been fully thawed and dried off to reduce the possibility of splattering grease, which can ignite fires.
  • Keep children and pets away, and have a fire extinguisher nearby. The last thing you want on Thanksgiving Day is for a child or pet to knock over the fryer and get injured.

If You Have a Thanksgiving Day Fire

The majority of non-fatal Thanksgiving Day fire injuries occurred when people tried to fight the fires themselves. If your home catches fire when you’re preparing Thanksgiving dinner and you don’t have a fire extinguisher on hand, just get everyone out of the house.

Keep yourself, your family, and your guests safe. You can call 911 when everyone has evacuated.

The good news is that property damage and liability coverage for incidents involving fires are typically eligible for coverage under standard home insurance policies. That’s something to be thankful for.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow or AOL Real Estate.

 

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Love it or Hate it: What to Do After Every Open House

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red and white open house sign...
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By Paula Pant

Even if you didn’t fall in love, every open house is an opportunity to learn still more about what you’re really looking for in a home.

You can learn a lot from a visit to an open house, from whether a home is really as amazing as it looks in photos to whether the street noise is tolerable. But one thing that isn’t always so clear after visiting an open house is what to do next.

Whether you’ve fallen in love or never want to set foot in a certain neighborhood again, how do you best put that information to use? Here are the key steps buyers should take after an open house.

You’ve Fallen in Love? Do This

You’ve fallen in love with that Florida home for sale in Boca Raton, and you’re ready to make an offer: Huzzah! Here are your immediate next steps.

1. Determine your best offer. Talk with your real estate agent to figure out your initial bid. Kimberly Ehardt, a Texas real estate agent, says your agent can help you find comparable home sales in the area, look up facts such as how long the property has been on the market, and help you factor in any repairs the property may need. “Don’t make a move without an agent,” she says.

2. Be prepared to hurry up and wait. Accepting an offer is a big decision for the seller too, and as soon as your agent hears something, you’ll be the first to know. The waiting is the hardest part, so try to find ways to distract yourself.

3. Don’t jump the gun. When in doubt, listen to your gut. If you’re worried you may be offering more than you’ll be comfortable with, scale down. It’s better to lose the property and find another that fits your budget than to win the bidding war and be house-poor.

4. Don’t forget the inspection. Getting your bid accepted is only the first step. If the home inspection reveals any major problems the sellers aren’t willing to address, you could still find yourself needing to walk away.

If You’re on the Fence

When you’re feeling lukewarm about a home, sometimes a little thoughtfulness can help sway you in one direction. Here are some tips to help you determine whether a home is right for you.

5. Sleep on it. Don’t let a false sense of urgency push you into making a decision you’re not 100 percent sure about. If the thought of sleeping on it and potentially losing the home to a more aggressive buyer leaves you brokenhearted, that could be your answer right there. If not, give it a good night’s rest and see how you feel in the morning.

6. Know your must-haves. Writing out a list of qualities you consider non-negotiable and deal breakers should definitely be on your home-buying checklist. Compare this property with this list. What matches up? What doesn’t?

7. Schedule a personal tour. Open houses can be misleading. The sellers’ agent (or the seller himself) is extolling the home’s best features, there’s mood lighting and fresh-baked cookies, and you hear other buyers ooh and ah. If you’re really not sure about a house, make an appointment with your agent to take a second look. “Bring a friend or family member who can offer a fresh perspective,” Ehardt says.

8. Consider your lifestyle. If you’re a light sleeper and the home is on a busy, noisy street, it probably won’t work for you in the long term. If you have a big, active family and there’s a tiny backyard, no amount of great rooms inside will keep everyone happy. Imagine yourself living in the home and ask yourself if the fit is right.

9. Consider the add-ons. The cost of a home is often more than just the final closing price — you’ll also want to tally any additional costs you’ll incur, such as fixtures and appliances you want to upgrade, items that need repair, and your maintenance costs. (Read: That vaulted ceiling in the main living area can drive up your energy bills.) After considering all these extras, does buying the home still feel like a good deal?

10. Come back at different times of day. That quiet neighborhood you loved on a Sunday afternoon could become mayhem during rush hour or on a Friday night. Make sure you like the property at all times of day.

11. Trust your instincts. Indecision is rarely a 50/50 split. There’s often a gut reaction or a little voice in the back of your head pulling you in one direction or the other. Listen to these instincts for a clue into what you’re really thinking.

When You Hate the Open House, Learn From It

If you absolutely could not wait to get out of that open house, don’t give up just yet. It’s OK. There are lots of things you can apply to your house hunt even if you feel as if every house you’ve seen so far isn’t even in the ballpark. Here’s the key to following up after an open house you didn’t love.

12. Identify the issues. Knowing what you didn’t like about a property, and why, can help you hone your search so you have success in the future. Whatever your turnoffs with this home — location, layout, style — remember these qualities as you consider visiting new listings.

13. Expand your horizons. Maybe you thought you wanted a ranch-style home, but you’re beginning to realize a Tudor or split-level might be a better fit for you. Maybe you’re running out of solid options in your target neighborhood, so it’s time to broaden your search into similar areas you hadn’t yet considered.

14. Don’t settle. It can be frustrating to visit home after home that just isn’t doing it for you. But don’t let frustration tempt you to settle for something that isn’t right for you. While no home will be “perfect,” there’s a difference between making a few small compromises and making a big mistake you’ll have to live with for many years to come.

 

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How to Help Your Adult Kids Buy Their First Home

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By Susan Johnston Taylor

As families gather for the holidays, some adult children or their parents will broach the topic of real estate and how to make that first home purchase.

For parents who have the funds and desire to help adult children buy a home, gifting a down payment is one of the most common ways to help. But it’s not the only option.

Here’s a look at several ways parents can assist their children in becoming homeowners.

Gifting a Down Payment

For an owner-occupied property (not an investment property), mortgage lenders typically allow borrowers to use money gifted from a family member as a portion of the down payment. However, if it’s a recent gift, the borrowers must be able to prove the origin of those funds and provide a letter affirming that the money is a gift and does not need to be repaid.

Bob Collins, a mortgage broker with Signal Hill Mortgage in California, says parents gifting a down payment often treat it as “here’s your inheritance in advance,” so they can see the benefit of that money during their lifetime.

This approach puts the gift-giver under some scrutiny with the lender, but not nearly as much as other options. “All we have to do is verify that they have the funds to give, and we get a gift letter,” says Greg Cook, a mortgage consultant in Southern California. “Then they send the money to the settlement agent, and as long as it matches up with the gift letter, we’re good to go.”

If the gift exceeds the Internal Revenue Service’s annual gift tax exclusion of $14,000 per recipient per year, then it may require extra tax paperwork. However, a married couple could each give $14,000 to a child and a child’s spouse, for a maximum of $56,000 in four separate gift checks.

Offering a Family Loan

Given the current low interest rates on savings vehicles such as certificates of deposit, or CDs, relatives with cash to spare might choose to loan money to a family member to buy a home in lieu of the buyer getting a traditional mortgage. “It’s a win on both sides,” says Dan Yu, managing principal of EisnerAmper Wealth Advisors in New York. “If Mom and Dad went to the bank and said, ‘What will you pay me for a five-year CD?’ If the son or daughter went to the bank to try to borrow on a 30-year mortgage, they might have to pay 4 percent. Both sides of the family win, and mom and dad are earning a higher interest rate [than they’d get from a CD].”

However, as Yu points out, “it’s not just Mom and Dad, but rich aunts and uncles do this as well.” Assuming the lending relative has the liquidity to make the loan and is prepared to do so, the homebuyer would be able to make an offer not contingent on financing and potentially offer the seller a quicker closing, which could be an asset in competitive markets where all-cash offers are the norm.

One thing to remember with family loans is that it still needs to be at arm’s length, meaning it follows the IRS’s proscribed interest rates based on the term of the loan.

If earning interest isn’t the goal, the relative giving the loan could choose to forgive up to $14,000 in interest per year under gift tax exclusions ($28,000 if they’re lending to a couple). Otherwise, lenders have to report interest payments as taxable income, just as they’d report interest from CDs or money market accounts. Borrowers can deduct mortgage interest (assuming they itemize their tax deductions) just as they would with a traditional mortgage.

Co-signing the Mortgage

In cases where an adult child’s income is too low to qualify for a mortgage on the home they want, having a parent co-sign the mortgage might help. If they can afford to take on the obligation, some parents may prefer this option if the alternative is their child buying in an area they consider unsafe or undesirable.

However, co-signing is a bit of misnomer in this case. “They’re really a co-borrower, and they’re in the deal as much as the kids are,” Cook says. “They’re under the lender’s microscope to the same extent: income, credit, current debt load, all the things that we look at for the kids.” If the child’s income is sufficient to qualify for the remaining balance on their own in the future, the loan might be refinanced in just his or her name to relieve the parents of liability.

One potential downside for parents is that the mortgage will show up on their credit as an outstanding loan obligation, which could complicate refinancing or buying another home in the future. “They’ve created an obligation for themselves that could limit anything they might want to do moving forward,” Collins says. Also, if the child misses mortgage payments, that will also impact the parents’ credit.

With all these options, you should consult a financial advisor first to make sure you can comfortably afford to help without jeopardizing your financial security. You may also want to consult your tax preparer about potential tax implications, and, depending on the circumstances, ask a lawyer how to structure the legal paperwork in case your child divorces or defaults on the loan. Nobody plans on things going awry with real estate transactions, but it can happen, so it’s best to be prepared.

 

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Why Staying in Your Home Might Be the Best Retirement Choice

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By Tom Sightings

The typical retirement dream involves riding off into the Sun Belt, golf clubs and beach umbrella in hand. However, the reality is that the majority of retirees never leave home. Most people opt to age in place, or if they do move, they find a smaller house near their old neighborhood.

Only about 7 percent of older Americans move every year, according to a long-term study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. And even though more people have been relocating recently with the improving economy, an AARP survey found that most people approaching retirement hope to remain in their current residence as long as they can.

Here’s why retirees resist the siren call of the beach and tropical breezes:

Home is where the heart is. Many people feel attached to their home towns. Whether they grew up there or moved there to raise a family, they still enjoy going to the park where they took their kids as toddlers. They feel comfortable knowing about the best hardware store and the best pizza place. Many old-line suburbs have developed programs and amenities for their older population. Another benefit: Urban centers in the Northeast provide better public transportation than the retirement meccas of the Sun Belt. There’s no subway in San Diego and no ‘T’ in Tampa.

Home is where your friends are. You go to the library and see familiar faces. Maybe you belong to a book club, or regularly meet friends for lunch, tennis or golf. All the research says that a strong social network is crucial for successful aging. Friends not only supply emotional support, but sometimes offer practical benefits like loaning you a book or DVD, helping with a project at home or giving you a ride. Why should you uproot yourself, move a thousand miles away and then be faced with the sometimes difficult challenge of finding a new group of like-minded friends?

People retire in the last place they land. Some people never settle down to live in one place for 20 or 30 years to raise their kids in a single community. Many baby boomers have moved around for work, or just because they’re restless, and then finally put down roots when they’re in their 40s or 50s. For example, my sister-in-law grew up in New Jersey, then moved to Michigan, Texas and finally in her late 40s settled down in Pennsylvania. She’s adamant that she’s not moving again.

You don’t necessarily save much money. It costs a lot to move. You give up about 10 percent of the selling price of your house in real estate commissions, legal fees and taxes. Then there’s the cost of buying, moving and resupplying your new house. If you’re moving a long distance, there are additional expenses involved in traveling and researching your new location. You might need to rent for a while or store some furniture. It’s not worth it if you only save a couple thousand dollars a year in your cost of living. (Renting long-term is another option some consider.)

It doesn’t have to cost a lot to age-proof your home. Of course you can spend a lot of money if you want to remodel your entire house. But many of the safety issues involved in age-proofing a home involve modest expenses. Improve the lighting in stairways and outdoor areas. Change out doorknobs for lever handles that are easier to manipulate. Install bathroom grab bars and raised toilet seats. Get rid of scatter rugs, and put down colorful traction strips on the front edge of your stairs to help prevent falls. None of these changes costs much money. Depending on the layout of your home, it may even be possible to turn a study or den on the first floor into a master suite, converting the upstairs rooms into guest quarters.

Visit a virtual village. Virtual retirement villages can help seniors access resources to make it easier to age in place. A virtual village is a local non-profit organization that posts information online, providing referrals to member-recommended service companies and volunteers available to help out with dog walking, yard work and other homeowner needs. Some villages host social activities such as concerts, restaurant gatherings and group trips. Check out Village to Village Network at vtvnetwork.org to find more information on what villages do and how they work.

 

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