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When we were building our new construction home, the driveway almost seemed like an afterthought. With everything else so close to being finished, we walked around with a can of orange spray paint imagining the ideal path from the street to our garage doors.

So, if not in our experience, then generally speaking, the driveway occupies an important place in overall home and property design. When planning your driveway, there are several things to consider:

Budget
Sometimes money plays a big role in decision-making on materials. As you are thinking about budget, be sure to factor in the varying long-term costs associated with different types of driveways. While a paver driveway carries relatively high upfront costs, maintaining one isn’t expensive. Gravel, on the other hand, is perhaps the least expensive to install but requires the sort of regular maintenance that doesn’t come cheap. Before deciding on a material, make sure you understand what the driveway’s total cost will be over its anticipated lifetime.

Curb appeal
As viewed from the street, your driveway can make a big impression on the look of your house. And certain materials complement certain architectural styles more than others. A gravel driveway would make a nice visual accompaniment to a farmhouse cottage, whereas a herringbone-pattern brick driveway would better suit a colonial-style residence. In short, think about what your choice of driveway will add to, or take away from, curb appeal.

Climate
Some driveway materials may not be appropriate for the climate where you live. For instance, asphalt endures freeze-thaw cycles better than concrete. And heavy rainfalls can negatively affect driveway surfaces that are more prone to erosion, such as gravel and pea stone. Snow, humidity, rainfall and temperature changes are all factors that ought to influence your final decision. Do your homework.

Maintenance
Each material has its own maintenance requirements. For instance, asphalt requires resealing every three to five years. If you live in a place where plowing snow is necessary, a gravel drive will require replacement of moved material each spring. Is the maintenance required of a given material such that you can do it yourself, or will you need to contract someone to handle the work? A smart driveway design will take these questions into account.

Durability
What kind of traffic will your driveway be getting? Will there be lots of heavy trucks on it, or just passenger cars? Some materials are durable, others more finicky. And what’s the grade like? Gravel and pea-stone drives with a pitch are prone to erosion. Also, how long will the driveway be expected to last — 20 years? 40 years? And what kind of maintenance is required to maximize lifespan?

Whatever material you decide to use for your driveway, make sure you take time to lay it out right. If you’ll need space for guests to park, make sure to allow for that.

Once the rough grading is done, take a test drive into the garage from the street (and back the other way) to make sure it tracks comfortably for your biggest vehicle. You don’t want to swipe off your side-view mirror!

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.468.5753

Original Article By: Jennifer Noonan of BobVila.com

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Here’s just how seriously you should take the radiation emanating from your granite counters, among other potential home hazards.

Every now and then a news report gets people worked up about hidden dangers lurking in their homes. Should you be afraid that the radiation coming from your granite countertop or the flame retardants in your furniture are trying to kill you?

Granite countertops
A beautiful granite countertop can make any kitchen pop. Yet every once in a while people go into panic mode, freaking out about the fact that granite is a rock that can have some radioactive elements and could potentially give off radon, which can be harmful in high concentrations. But while the very mention of the word radiation is enough to stoke fears, you don’t really need to worry about this one. The EPA says that radon is more likely to come into your house from the soil than from your kitchen counters (and granite isn’t a very porous stone to begin with, meaning it doesn’t give out as much radiation as others).

Furthermore, any buildup of radon in the kitchen or bathroom is unlikely, as those rooms tend to have good ventilation systems. “It is extremely unlikely that granite countertops in homes could increase the radiation dose above the normal, natural background dose that comes from soil and rocks,” the EPA says.
Fear rating: Extremely low
Precautions: Be more worried about legitimate dangers in the kitchen, such as food safety and keeping sharp objects and cleaning solutions away from kids.

Particleboard and formaldehyde

Particleboard-based furniture may be great for furnishing your place on a budget. But pressed wood products such as particleboard tend to contain formaldehyde resins in the adhesives that hold the wood particles together. Formaldehyde is a surprisingly common volatile chemical, but it’s definitely not good for you. Luckily, good ventilation and keeping heat and humidity to a minimum can reduce the amount of formaldehyde released from furniture.

Fear Rating: Low
Precautions: Check what kind of adhesives furniture manufacturers used to make your products. Since the 1980s, when the EPA restricted the maximum allowable formaldehyde emissions from this kind of furniture, many companies have made efforts to substantially reduce the amount of the chemical in their production.

Flame retardants

A recent study found that 85% of couches tested in California contained flame retardants that have not been evaluated for human safety.

Couches in California are required to have flame-retardant properties, but some scientists worry that the chemicals used to prevent flaming sofas might be linked to hormone disruption, cancer and neurological issues — not to mention that these flame retardants aren’t necessarily present at levels in which they are effective at fire prevention.

No decisive link to health problems has been proved. The problem is that the replacements for pentabromodiphenyl ether, which the EPA banned from new products after 2005, haven’t been fully tested, according to study author Heather Stapleton of Duke University. Stapleton says that she and her colleagues are pursuing long-term health studies. The presence of these chemicals in the air outside the couch is worrying — especially as the same kinds of foam are currently used in baby mattresses and supplies.

Look for a label that mentions Technical Bulletin 117 — if it’s there then your couch probably has flame retardants. If it’s not, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t flame retardants, it just means that you don’t know for certain.
Fear rating: Medium
Precautions: Stapleton says that people worried about the dust should wash their hands frequently, especially before eating, to reduce chances of ingesting any toxic chemicals. Removing dust by cleaning regularly can help, too, but Stapleton cautions that vacuuming and dusting can cause some particles to become airborne.

 

Microwaves

Microwaves have been in our homes long enough to inspire lots of fear mongering, worries and urban legends. Rumors that microwaving plastic will poison your food, or that the radiation will disrupt pacemakers, have been around for years. According to the FDA, most of this is nonsense. No, you shouldn’t use some plastics in the microwave — because they could melt —but you can solve that problem by checking the bottom of the package to see what’s allowed; if the item is microwave-safe, there is sometimes a symbol (a box with wavy lines inside it) that indicates it is safe for microwave use. Pacemakers used to be affected by microwaves, but are now shielded. And you’re not going to get radiation injuries from a microwave; it just isn’t powerful enough to do any damage.

Interestingly, the FDA does warn about erupting hot water. Apparently, heating water in a clean cup for a long time can cause the water to get superheated. It reaches temperatures above the boiling point without the distinctive bubbling of a rolling boil. When anything is added to the water, or it is shaken, then it can erupt, causing burns.
Fear Rating: Medium
Precautions: Check labels, and don’t heat that cup of water for tea for too long.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Mary Beth Griggs of Popular Mechanics

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You can save 75% — or even more — when you buy these gently used items.

If you’re an avid thrift shopper like me, you know that every secondhand store has its own unique personality. Some stores are great for furniture, others for clothing; some seem to have the market cornered on books, and a few just seem to have older and more unique items than all the rest.Regardless of the personality of your favorite store, there are five standard items that you should always be on the lookout for in every thrift store. Here’s my not-so-scientific list of the top five items that offer the highest savings when compared with retail.

 

1. Shoes

If you can get over the mental roadblock of buying used shoes, it’ll do wonders for your budget. With decent-quality leather shoes ranging anywhere from $65 to $85 retail, scoring a gently used pair for $6 means you’re saving at least 90%. Focus on condition and pay special attention to soles and heels; avoid wear patterns that might affect your stride. Give leather some TLC with mink oil or shoe polish.

 

2. Belts

When did a buckled strip of leather with some holes at one end become worth $32? I’m pretty picky and my wardrobe reflects it, but I haven’t paid more than $4 for a belt in years. Sure, sometimes you walk away empty-handed. But if you’re willing to look and wait for just the right item, you can find great deals on all kinds of leather accessories like belts, wallets, and purses too.

 

3. Jeans

When I was a teenager, I saved for three months to buy a new pair of Guess jeans. I still remember the price back then ($40). Even in all their acid-washed glory, that seemed like an outrageous sum. Today, that’s a bargain price for an off-brand. Thrift stores are great places to take advantage of the growth spurts and fickle tastes of kids and pick up good-quality jeans for about $7. Deals on adult denim are easy to find too. It just takes a little patience, a few trips to the dressing room, and maybe a quick alteration.

4. Furniture

After you’ve been thrifting for a few years, strolling through most retail settings is like visiting a foreign land: You can appreciate the beauty, but you don’t understand what’s being said. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in furniture stores. Spending $219 for a nightstand or $389 for an accent chair? What language are they speaking?

 

Last month I made a quick stop at a local charity’s thrift center and found a club chair and matching ottoman for $80. It was so new it still smelled like the furniture store that had donated it. All it needed was one small repair to the roping detail along the top edge of the ottoman. It took all of 10 minutes to make it look showroom perfect.

 

Check your local thrift store for lamps, nightstands, coffee tables, and bed frames. They can usually be found in perfect or near-perfect condition. Items in rougher shape can become weekend projects and get a second life with a bit of sanding and varnish or paint. Often the sheer quality of older items makes them worthy candidates for a salvage project. Look for quality markers like solid wood construction and dovetail joints.

 

5. Books

Even if you have an e-reader, sometimes it’s nice to hold a book in your hands. And thrift stores are treasure-troves of good used books. Retail prices for paperbacks range from $12.99 to $14; at most thrift shops, they’re 89 cents to $2.99. That’s a minimum savings of about 75%. Thrift stores in college towns and larger cities seem to have the quickest turnover in books and the best selection. Grab some coffee and stroll through their stacks.

 

Successful thrifting is all about being persistent, knowing what you need today and might need tomorrow, and seizing a good a deal when you find it. If you know the right categories to mine, thrift shopping can be a way to save some serious cash by avoiding retail prices on as much as you can whenever you can.

 

Do you focus on certain categories when you thrift shop? What’s the best deal you’ve ever scored secondhand?

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original Article by: Karen Datko

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Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

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You’ve got winter prep down pat. But what happens when you move to a climate with 70-degree February days? Here’s what you should know.

So you’ve finally fled the cold to somewhere where it’s warm year-round, and you’ve packed your garden trowel — lucky you.

Chances are you’ve also packed some northern notions about how to handle your new lawn and garden during your winter stay in the South or Southwest. Beware: Those carpet-bagging misconceptions could prove frustrating — and costly.

“People are generally pretty stupid when it comes to something new — and I was, too,” says Chase Landre, author of “Snowbird Gardening: A Guide for South Florida’s Winter Residents,” of when she started gardening in Florida. “It’s a completely different microcosm” in warm-weather areas.

Landre and other horticultural experts in snowbird hot spots have identified some of the top mistakes that new arrivals make so that you don’t repeat them.

Mistake No. 1: Importing your northern garden
When many snowbirds move to Florida, “They want the same stuff they were growing in Pennsylvania or in New York — which is kind of strange, because Florida offers so many other opportunities,” says Hank Bruce, a columnist, horticultural therapist and co-author of “Yankee’s Guide to Florida Gardening,” among many books. “You will try to grow lilacs, bearded iris, forsythia, lily of the valley and all those delightful spring-flowering bulbs, like daffodils and tulips — even when the neighbor tells you [they] ain’t gonna grow.”

What you should do: “Make friends with Mama Nature,” Bruce says. “You will be far more successful if you cooperate rather than compete with her. She’s gonna win regardless of what you do.”

In other words, plant what will grow in your warm-weather home, not in your cold-weather one.

Bruce suggests buying plants from independent garden centers. The stock at big-box stores may come from hothouse growers, Landre says, so the plants may not be right for the area or ready for a life in the blazing sun.

For Florida snowbirds, Bruce suggests visiting Walt Disney World in Orlando and taking pictures. “Nobody does it better than the Disney horticulture people,” he says. After all, they have to keep the park looking great every day of the year.

Mistake No. 2: Watering poorly
Snowbirds migrate south thinking about swimming pools and assuming that their plants want lots of water, too, says Peter Warren, urban-horticulture extension agent for Pima County in Tucson, Ariz. Driving to work in January, Warren will see puddles on the ground from people watering their gardens.

What you should do: Adjust. “Irrigation is … the No. 1 reason plants don’t do well — either under- or overwatering,” Warren says.

Plants need more water in the hotter, drier months in the desert — especially in May and June, before Arizona’s monsoon rains arrive. “In the winter, it’s the opposite,” he says. With higher humidity and lower temperatures, plants don’t grow much and don’t need much water. Overwatering is costly and can kill plants, he says.

In Florida, Landre suggests watering plants and lawns just once a week or once every 10 days in winter. Adjust the irrigation again for summer watering, if you leave in the spring, she says. Leaving the water off then can invite plant stress and insect infestation — and nothing for you to return to the next winter but disaster.

What you should do: “If your soil has no nutrients, you have to learn about amending the soil,” she says. That means giving your plants food. In a sandy place such as Florida, add organic peat moss to the soil before planting to “give the root ball a drink,” Landre says. Add composted cow manure, which enriches the soil. Fertilize the soil periodically, she says.

In the desert, the soil is more alkaline, with less organic material and higher salinity than in the North or East, Warren says.

“If you’re desperate to have hydrangeas or blueberries or something from back East, plant them in a container, where you can control the environment,” he says. “In other words, don’t force them into inhospitable soil. Even amending the soil in the desert isn’t successful in the long run. “It won’t work, and it will eventually kill them.”

Mistake  No. 4: Forgetting that things grow year-round
Snowbirds might reasonably come south in a northern frame of mind, thinking that their lawn and garden won’t grow much in the winter. They buy plants without much attention to how much things grow — and grow. (Bing: Find drought-tolerant plants)

What you should do: Plan for the growth cycle. Plants can grow larger and faster, but that may mean more work for you.

Not interested in more maintenance? Buy slow-growing or low-maintenance dwarf plants, Landre says. In central Florida, that might include evergreens such as Indian hawthorn, low-spreading junipers, giant evergreen liriope and dwarf nandina, according to Polk County’s master-gardener program’s tip sheet for snowbirds.

Mistake No. 5: Just watching the grass grow
Many snowbirds envision a lush, close-clipped green carpet of the kind of grass to which they’re accustomed. Reality is a bit more complicated.

“The grass is shy and retiring down here,” Bruce says. “Beautiful Florida lawns grow on sweat — your sweat.”

What you should do: Get ready for some hard work, or plant grass that’s easier to maintain. For Floridians, Bruce suggests annual rye.

“It grows fast, it’s dark green, it’s tough, it gives you something to mow for the winter months and then it’s going to die out in the spring,” he says.

Good year-round grasses include St. Augustine, a rugged grass that looks like crabgrass, grows well in the sand, handles pests well and can stay green. It must be laid as sod, however. Two other grass options, which can be seeded and need less water, are Argentine and Pensacola Bahia, Bruce says.

Homeowners in the Southwest desert usually choose a hybrid Bermuda grass, says Paul Ellis, a master gardener with the Pima County Master Gardener Program.

“That’s a grass here that in the winter is going to be dormant,” or brown, he says. Its growing season is the summer. Expect to water it a lot, he says.

Most experienced snowbirds, however choose xeriscaping — or low-water, natural landscaping — instead of grass. It’s less expensive and less of a hassle.

Mistake No. 6: Forgetting about the vegetable garden
For Northerners, winter is a time to leave the vegetable garden alone and let it rest and recuperate before planting again in the spring.

What you should do: Take advantage of winter weather that’s warm enough for plants, too cold for insects and just right for working in the garden. In Florida, for instance, fruits, potatoes and collard greens can grow in the winter, Bruce says.

Mistake No. 7: Thinking the sun sits still
You’ve planted local plants. You’ve watered them correctly. You have a timer set so they’re irrigated when you leave town. You’ve thought of everything — or have you?

Have you forgotten to account for the reason you came here in the first place: the sun?

What you should do: Know that the sun moves a lot throughout the year. “The sun moves more to the south in the winter and more to the north in the summer. And people don’t think about that when they are planting,” Landre says. “They don’t plant plants in the right spot, and the [plants] will cook in other times of year.”

Before you plant, ask yourself: Where will the sun and light be later in the summer? What’s shady now may not be in a few months.

“The solution to this is to find plants that like … both sun and shade,” says Landre, citing croton, arboricola and pygmy date palms, among others.

Mistake  No. 8: Ignoring microclimates
People come to the desert to warm their bones, and they naturally think that heat-loving plants will thrive everywhere. But microclimates, especially in the desert, can create extreme cold spots that must be considered. Without much cloud cover, winter nights can be chilly, with huge temperature fluctuations over 24 hours. (Bing: Find lawn-care services)

What you should do: “Consider the topography of your house and garden before you plant,” Warren says. For example, perhaps don’t stick that citrus tree down at the base of a hill. Cold travels downhill easily and pools in the low places. So if you’ve got a low point on your property, such as a dry riverbed, that place can be much colder there than elsewhere.

“Use mostly low-maintenance, slow growing, non-fussy shrubs and trees,” Landre says. “For lots of color, plant annuals, have year-round irrigation and become a patron of a good local plant nursery.”

 

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original article by: Christopher Solomon of MSN Real Estate

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Here are the alternative routes to approval.

For many homebuyers, establishing credit came naturally once they began working, applied for a credit card, took out a car loan or paid back student loans. But what about potential homebuyers who don’t have a credit score, either because they are averse to credit cards or have yet to build up a substantive credit history? Can they still apply for a mortgage?

The answer is yes, but “it’s exceedingly difficult to obtain a mortgage without a credit score,” says Tim Ross, president and CEO of Ross Mortgage Corp. in Royal Oak, Mich. “Lenders use automated underwriting systems that base a loan decision on certain criteria, including a credit score. But there are some nontraditional sources that can be used for credit verification.”

Mortgage lenders typically require a credit score of at least 620 or 640 to even consider an applicant for a loan.

Whether you prefer not to use credit cards, are new to this country or are simply a younger borrower who hasn’t built up enough credit history, there are some alternative sources that mortgage lenders can use to determine your credit risk.

While most lenders require three or more sources of credit, Clint Madison, a senior mortgage banker with Envoy Mortgage in Walnut Creek, Calif., says, “I’ve worked with borrowers who have a slim credit file and been able to get them approved for a loan. The first thing we look for would be 12 to 24 months of canceled checks or verification from a landlord of on-time rent payments.”

Alternative sources of credit
Here are several other items that can be used for nontraditional credit verification, Ross says:

  • Utility bills for gas, electricity or water, as long as they are paid separately from your monthly rent.
  • Phone and cable bills.
  • Car insurance, renters insurance, life insurance or medical insurance payments, if they are not paid by payroll deduction.
  • Child care or school tuition payments.

The more evidence you can provide that indicates a history of on-time payments, the greater your chances of qualifying.

“You need at least 12 months and sometimes as many as 24 months of payments to prove your creditworthiness,” Ross says. “A bigger down payment offsets your credit risk, and so does your job stability, your cash reserves and a high income in relation to your debts.”

Credit history matters
The reason for your lack of credit history will also affect your ability to qualify for a loan.

“If you’re living with your parents and have yet to establish any credit, it’s pretty much impossible to get a loan unless your parents are willing to co-sign for you,” Madison says. “The parents will need a credit score at a minimum of 660, and you’ll need to have at least two months, or maybe as much as six months, of principal, interest, taxes and insurance payments in cash reserves in the bank.”

Borrowers who are new to the United States may have a credit report from another country. Ross says those credit reports can be used to create a record of bill payments for a loan application.

You may not know your true credit score
Even consumers who have a credit history long enough to produce a score still need alternative sources of credit when applying for a loan. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently released a study that showed there are often discrepancies between the credit score given to a consumer and one reported to a lender.

“This study highlights the complexities consumers face in the credit-scoring market,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a news release. “When consumers buy a credit score, they should be aware that a lender may be using a very different score in making a credit decision.”

The problem, Madison says, is that borrowers are set up for false expectations.

“They may either be expecting to qualify for a better rate than they do, or they may lose out on opportunities for which they don’t believe they will qualify, when in reality they can,” he says. This is why having alternative sources of credit, which can help prove your ability to repay a loan, is important.

Establishing credit
Ross says it takes just six months of credit-card usage to generate a credit score, but lenders would also need other sources of credit in addition to your six-month-old score.

“Using alternative credit doesn’t change someone’s credit score, so if your score is low, all you can do is let time pass while you do the right thing over and over again,” Madison says.

It’s especially important that prospective buyers with thin credit consult with a mortgage lender, Ross says. A lender can provide them with a plan to follow to improve their chances of qualifying for a mortgage.

 

Compliments of: Martha Small | Austin Portfolio Real Estate | 512.587.0308

Original article by: Michele Lerner of HSH.com

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