It is finally summer; time for barbecues, summer camp, and family vacations. In recent years we’ve heard of people shortening their vacations, staying closer to home, or going nowhere at all for “staycations”. Another way to save money, while still getting away, is to leverage your own home for a home exchange.
A home exchange—often called “house-swapping”—is a money-smart vacation idea that’s been around for a long time. With virtually everyone feeling the economic squeeze, some exchanges are more popular than ever before.
Why a home exchange? Since accommodations are usually the priciest part of a vacation, a home exchange saves money, allowing travelers to take longer vacations and perhaps splurge a bit on dining, tours, or shopping. Larger families appreciate how homes meet their needs for space, meals, and a good night’s sleep. And, home-swappers often say they enjoy “living like the locals,” especially when traveling internationally.
How it works. The basic idea of a home exchange is that two families agree to live in each other’s home (usually at the same time) at no cost—it’s considered an even trade. Exchangers find one another via home exchange website that provides detailed listings of available homes. Exchanges take place within the United States or internationally, and the length of stay is whatever the parties agree upon. Exchangers typically do not meet in person but get acquainted via phone calls and emails before the exchange happens. Details, including pets, the use of a car, and cleaning are all agreed upon ahead of time, usually in a written contract provided by the website.
What makes a house desirable? You might be surprised! As a general rule, home exchangers are looking for location, location, location. They want to explore attractions in your area, attend an event, or visit family. A beachfront house in California is highly desirable, as is a condo in an exciting city—and even a home in the suburbs will appeal to the right travelers. Because swappers are primarily looking for a convenient jumping-off point for their adventures, your home’s age, floor plan, and furnishings don’t matter too much, as long as it’s clean, comfortable, and accommodating.
Vacation homes are ideal. Whether it’s a rustic cottage on a secluded fishing lake or a condo at a popular ski area, a second home is ideal for exchanges. Logistically, you don’t have to vacate your primary residence, and you have more flexibility as to when the swap can happen. For this reason, many retirees—who often own second homes and enjoy freer schedules—find home exchanges especially appealing.
First steps. If you’re intrigued, start by exploring a few websites; you can view a lot of information for free. Home exchange websites typically charge an annual membership fee of $50 to $100 to list your home. If you decide to join a service, you’ll provide several photos and a detailed description of your home. You’ll also post your desired destination(s) and travel dates, and you’ll be able to peruse the homes that meet your criteria. It’s common to trade information with several homeowners before finding just the right match, and the process may take several months.
Focus on the basics. Once you’ve agreed to an exchange and are preparing your home for guests, think about what makes a hotel room enjoyable. A clean, clutter-free home is universally appealing, and comfortable mattresses and attractive bedding are a must. Your kitchen should be well organized, and internet access is a big plus. Your guests know they’re staying in someone’s home, so don’t worry about scuffed baseboards and well-worn furniture. Likewise, don’t expect five-star accommodations when you step into your host’s home.
Is a home exchange right for you? If the very thought of others living in your home and sleeping in your bed—or you in theirs—makes your palms go clammy, an exchange is probably not for you. But many travelers are hooked!
What are your summer vacation tips?
When you think of your home, it likely conjures up feelings of safety, shelter, and comfort. However, accidental injuries in the home are one of the leading causes of harm to children 14 and younger. By taking certain precautions, many of these accidents can be prevented.
While supervision is the best way to keep your children safe at home, you can’t watch them every second. Childproofing, to whatever degree you are comfortable, will go a long way toward keeping your littlest loved ones safe and healthy at home.
Here are some tips to get you started.
Many accidents happen with or around water.
If you have children at home, it’s advisable to adjust your water heater to no higher than 120 degrees to prevent scalding. Furthermore, you should never leave a small child unattended in a bath tub, even for a few seconds. And be sure to safely secure doors that lead to swimming pools and hot tubs, including pet doors. When cooking or boiling water, turn pot handles in, or better yet use the back burners, to prevent little hands from pulling them off the stove.
Household chemicals can be very harmful to children.
It’s important not to keep poisonous materials under the sink, even if you have a cabinet guard in place. Keep dangerous chemicals up high and in a room that isn’t accessible to your little ones. Seemingly innocuous medicines can also be dangerous. Make sure your medicine cabinet is out of sight, mind, and reach.
Use safety latches and gates.
It’s advisable that you use safety latches on drawers, cabinets, toilets, and windows, as well as place covers on all electrical outlets. Gate off stairways and entrances to rooms, such as garages, that contain dangerous or fragile objects.
Secure furniture and other objects.
Heavy furniture, electronics, and lamps must be secured to prevent a child from pulling them over. Bookshelves and entertainment centers often come with devices that attach them to walls so that a climbing child won’t topple the furniture. The end-caps on door stoppers can be a choking hazard, so it’s advisable to remove them. Place plastic bumpers on sharp corners or edges of coffee tables, entertainment centers, and other furniture to prevent cuts and bruises.
Install a carbon monoxide detector.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends that consumers purchase and install carbon monoxide detectors in addition to smoke alarms. Be sure to test both devices regularly and replace batteries as needed. The American Red Cross advises families to learn first aid and CPR, and to devise an emergency evacuation plan for fires and earthquakes.
Emergency contact info.
Last, but not least, in case an emergency does happen, always keep numbers for your child’s doctor, your work and cell, and other emergency contact info in an easily found place, preferably near the phone.
Accidents can and will happen, but by following a few small steps you can have peace of mind knowing that you’ve done everything you can to protect your family from harm in your home.
With the increased emphasis on global warming in recent years, combined with rising energy costs, more and more people are asking what they can do to make their homes more energy efficient. Energy conservation can be as simple as closing your curtains at night, changing a light bulb, turning down your thermostat, or closing the fireplace damper. Many of the most inexpensive solutions quickly pay for themselves in conservation, which you ultimately benefit from when you get your power bill.
One of the biggest ways you can conserve energy is to take advantage of “off-peak” hours. This is a step that everyone can take because it simply involves shifting your power use of major appliances, such as washing machines, dryers, and dishwashers. Puget Sound Energy recommends using these appliances outside of peak hours—peak hours are between 6am-10am and 5pm-9pm. Studies show that by shifting a portion of your energy use, consumers can significantly lower wholesale electricity prices, which saves everyone money in the long run.
Another way you can save energy is by washing your clothes in cold water and only running full loads. When using the dryer, toss in a couple of dry towels with your clothes to help speed up the drying process. It’s also important to clean the lint trap in your dryer after every load and make sure the dryer hose and vent are clear.
There are several steps you can follow to reduce your home’s demand on heating during the winter months. Conventional measures, such as setting back your thermostat, are effective at reducing energy consumption. It is recommended that you keep your thermostat set between 65 and 72 degrees during the winter months. Keep in mind that by simply lowering your thermostat one degree, your furnace will use seven percent less energy overall. It’s also important to clean your furnace filter frequently—doing so will enable your heating system to run more efficiently and cost-effectively.
It’s estimated that lighting accounts for 10 percent of your overall home energy bill, so another way you can conserve is by using energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs, known as CFL light bulbs. CFLs use approximately one-quarter of the energy of equivalent incandescent bulbs, they give off warm, indirect light, and they last ten times longer than average light bulbs. When shopping for CFLs, look for those with the Energy Star label on them—this ensures that you’re purchasing a product that has been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
For more information about energy conservation, please visit www.energystar.org.
Cooking and dining alfresco is arguably the single greatest thing about warm weather in spring and summer, but most backyard barbeques involve a million trips to and from the kitchen. As such, one of the hottest trends in new home construction is outdoor kitchens. Outdoor kitchens typically feature a comfortable eating area with a combination of cabinets, sinks, warming drawers, prep counters, ranges, and refrigerators—all within arm’s reach of the grill. Outdoor kitchens provide a natural gathering spot for friends and family and can add to the value of your home.
How elaborate your outdoor kitchen should be depends on how often you plan to use it. Some people enjoying dining outdoors every evening, while others reserve it for special occasions and social gatherings. Regardless of the frequency of use, you need to use materials that do well in all kinds of weather. Stone sinks, stainless steel cabinets, and slate countertops will withstand the Seattle rain, as well as the months that pass between barbeque seasons. Many outdoor kitchens also feature pergolas or other roof structures to shield guests from sun and rain. Something else to consider is adding an outdoor gas heater or fireplace, which will extend the amount of time you can use your outdoor kitchen into the fall and winter months.
In addition to the convenience of having all your grilling accoutrements within a handy distance, a well-built outdoor kitchen also adds to the value of your home. And you don’t have to have a new home to reap the benefits. With the right space and backyard layout, owners of existing homes can easily add-on an outdoor kitchen area. When adding an outdoor kitchen to an existing home, power, gas, and water lines often have to be extended from the home, so be sure to hire a qualified contractor to do the work for you. By extending your living space outside, you have essentially increased the square footage of your home. In many cases the increase in your home’s value will equal or even sometimes exceed the cost of the project itself.
The benefits of an outdoor kitchen area and living space are many. And with the convenience of having your drinks, condiments, meat, and cooking space all in one easy-to-reach place, you can spend the precious summer moments right where you should—outside with friends and family.
What features would you include in an outdoor kitchen?
Memorial Day traditionally represents the kick-off of summer. Kids are getting out of school, families are making summer vacation plans, and backyard barbeques are on everyone’s minds. This is also a great time of the year to get your house in order and ready for the summer season. The following is a handful of ideas and tips to help you with this process.
Gardening– It’s not too late to start your garden! This weekend I will be planting an herb garden; I planted summer vegetables a few weeks ago. If you’re thinking of doing the same, just make sure you use starts because many summer harvest vegetables won’t start from seed this late in the season.
Outdoor living– My home has an outdoor space with great potential, including a partially covered patio perfect for entertaining. This weekend I plan to upgrade the space with small touches to make it summer party ready. This includes finding outdoor lighting options, updating the seating and cleaning up the barbeque.
BBQ- Make sure your grill is ready to go this season by making sure everything is clean and in working order before you fire it up. In the northwest that includes making sure the fuel lines are spider-web-free. Also, make sure you have propane or charcoal on hand for impromptu dinners.
Clean Windows- Now is a great time to clean your windows, inside and out. Sun shows more dirt and smudges.
Lawn care- Prepare your lawn for the months ahead. Depending on where you live this means different things. Check your sprinkler system to make sure it wasn’t damaged over the winter; upgrade your lawn care to ensure fuller greens, check for and remove moss to prevent dead patches and start your weeding regimen.
Pool prep- If you have an outdoor pool get this ready for a summer season of fun in the sun, (unless you are lucky enough to enjoy your pool year-round). Same goes for hot-tubs. Make sure your equipment has been serviced, chemicals are available and your pool is clean and ready to use. OR, head to the local hardware store and buy your kiddie pool now before they run out, as I learned one particularly hot July!
De-winterize- I once was doused head to toe when we were turning the water back on to our exterior pipes because the pipe had split in the winter- so make sure all your pipes survived the cold, check your winterized projects and prepare your house for summer. This is also a good time to look around the exterior, checking roof, gutters and siding.
Summerize- Check or replace AC filters, window screens, and household fans to make sure these are all functioning and will help provide maximum circulation in your house. Consider installing an attic fan or vent to help pull heat out of your home all winter long. Pack away excess cold weather items such as heavy blankets, jackets and other items so they aren’t in your way. Same goes for any sundry items you only use during fall and winter.
Lighten the Space- Though I likely won’t spend much time inside once the mercury rises, I want to keep the house as light and cool as possible. I have found that replacing the curtains with a lighter shade lets the light in, but also keeps the rooms from overheating from sun exposure. Summer always makes me want to lighten up with the accessories- lighter colors, more whites, bright accents and less clutter.
Rearrange – Freshen up spaces by rearranging some of your wall art. If you don’t have enough wall pieces to rearrange regularly it may be time to add to your collection. You can find inexpensive original art online at stores such as Etsy or in person at local galleries. You can always play with other items like framed images from books, vintage posters or record albums. Here are some terrific ideas for using what you have to add interest to a room.
Air it out- Open all the windows, shake out the rugs and update home fragrances to fit summer moods (citrus, freesia, clean linen, coconut, melon, fruits and tropical, etc.). You can create your own diffuser with essential oils to distribute fragrance. This may be more symbolic than practical but it always makes me feel ready for summer.
Paint- If you have a room you really want to refresh, a three-day weekend is a good time to take on a project of scale, so you have plenty of time to prep, paint, dry, and clean up. Painting is one of the least expensive ways to really transform how a room feels. Need help picking colors and paint type? Here is some good advice.
Garage or Basement- Tackle a big space that makes a big difference. Our garages and basements often become year-long dumping grounds for seasonal decorations and clothing, items that don’t fit in cabinets, memorabilia and maintenance tools. Go through your items and sort by keep, throw out and donate/sell and then group your keeps by function. Make sure your tools are accessible for easy gardening and entertaining by making sure your tools are accounted for, ready to go, and easy to reach. Here is a useful video on garage organization.
Yard/Garage Sale- If you have overflow at your house, plan a yard/garage sale to get rid of items you no longer need or want. Just make sure to pack everything up and donate it at the end of the sale otherwise you are just letting the clutter back in!
Plan a party- Once your space is all cleaned up and redecorated you will want to show it off! Plan a summer BBQ, dinner party, pool party, picnic or any other gathering.
What are your planning for Memorial Day weekend?
Now that spring has sprung, let’s clear the cobwebs and get your home ready! Here is our quick guide to spring home maintenance:
Inspection top to bottom: Now that the weather is temperate you will want to check on how your home weathered the winter. Check the roof for leaks, the gutters for damage, and the siding for cracks. You will also want to inspect your basement or foundation for any shifts. Make repairs now to prevent further damage.
Clean out the gutters: April showers bring May flowers… so clear out the gutters to keep rain from pooling on your roof or near your foundation.
Pest control: Spring is mating season for eight-legged critters, so sweep out cobwebs, clear debris, and check the nooks and crannies. If you live in an area prone to dangerous species like brown recluse or black widows, you may want to contact your local pest control, but otherwise, household spiders do help eliminate other bugs.
HVAC system: If you have an air conditioner now is the time to check to make sure it is ready before summer gets here and everyone else is clamoring for maintenance. Now is a good time to check your home air filters and replace or upgrade to keep allergens at bay.
Clear the clutter: Do a sweep around the house and get rid of junk that you don’t use! Take a little time each week to tackle a room. Closets, playrooms, and basements can be especially daunting, but getting rid of old stuff and refreshing your space will go a long way!
Deep clean: On a nice day open the windows, dust, wipe, scrub, and clean. You will get a nice workout and your home will look and feel so fresh after a winter of being cooped up.
Update your décor: Add a splash of color to your home with small embellishments. Add a colorful vase, a lighter throw for your sofa, pretty pastel pillows, or spring-time candles, to upgrade your living space.
Take it outdoors: Let your throw rugs, curtains, and other tapestries air our outside. Shake off the dust, spot clean what you can and let everything bask in the sun for an afternoon.
Don’t forget the back yard: It may not be time to start up the grill, yet, but you can get started on your outdoor entertaining checklist. Check your lawn, and if you have some spare spots start filling in with seed. Check your outdoor plants, prune, plant bulbs, start to replenish the soil for your garden, and mow, so you are ready to start when the season allows.
Speaking of the grill – if you have a gas grill you will want to pull this out and perform a maintenance check. Clean everything up and check to make sure all the gas lines are clear, as these can get clogged after sitting idle all winter. Make sure the grill is clear of spiders too, as they can build webs in the tubes, causing damage to your grill. You can start to bring out your garden furniture too, or clean it up if you left it covered outside all winter. Because before you know it, it’ll be barbeque season!
Ipod and water bottle in hand, Dave strolls down a flower lined path toward his first destination of the morning, his gym. At the door to the gym, he is greeted by his wife, Janet. Janet takes a sip of her latte, gives Dave a kiss and tells him she’s off to the studio. While Dave is turning on some music and contemplating how many miles he’ll put on the treadmill today, Janet walks up a staircase to her studio.
The kiln in the corner warms the studio from the chill of the rainy night before. Janet hangs her coat and inspects yesterday’s creations on the drying rack. In her mind, she’s sizing up what glaze and design she’ll use for each piece. Dave will head to his office on the other side of the building after his workout.
Depending upon where you live, you might have your own vision of this scene. Perhaps it’s a downtown building that has ground level shops, like a gym, and small spaces upstairs for rent, like a studio. Maybe an office park in the suburbs. Perhaps even a co-op village. For Dave and Janet, though, the gym and studio are in a part of their backyard that used to be home to a jungle gym, sandbox and 4-square court. When they became empty nesters, they decided to consolidate their life, cut commuting expenses, and take advantage of some unused space at home. They created a two story, backyard cottage that had a gym, bath and shower, and kitchenette on the ground floor, as well as side-by-side offices on the upper level. Dave, rather than a kiln and pottery supplies, has a desk and display of catalogues that he will use in presentations when clients visit him.
Backyard cottages have been gaining in popularity and attention lately. With the changes in the housing market making it impractical to sell some homes, possibly gas prices making long commutes impractical, or maybe the desire to simplify a life that’s been too removed from home, its’ easy to see why someone might choose to build one. Many people build them to be guest quarters, mother-in-law apartments, a rental unit for additional monthly revenue, or temporary lodging for boomerang offspring who are trying to land that first job out of college. Some of these are as simply built as a miniature starter home, and yet others are elegantly equipped as a five-star hotel.
To maximize the value of these buildings, they should be planned by an architect so that they will work for your intended use. In the example, Janet’s kiln would be heavy and very hot, so several building precautions would be warranted. One short cut to avoid would be to do anything less than fully permitted and inspected, as failure there can cost far more than the property tax levy to take care of later. It’s advised that unless you have lots of experience, have the riskier tasks done by subcontractors.
These buildings will add value to the homeowner’s property over time, as if they are built properly, they’ll appreciate in conjunction with the value of the home. The reasons for having one are many and personal, but if you were to drive down many city streets, you will find one hiding under the trees in a corner of the backyard.
Can you see a point of your life, and a place on your property, in which a backyard cottage would make sense?
By Eric Johnson, Director of Education
Johnson has several years experience as a real estate agent and real estate instructor, as well as experience in construction project management, digital media/publishing and insurance. He has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from University of Colorado.
Over the last few years, we have seen an increase in homeowners choosing to become landlords rather than placing their homes on the market. In deciding whether or not becoming a Landlord is right for you, there are a number of factors to consider, but primarily they fall into the following three categories: Financial Analysis, Risk and Goals.
The financial analysis is probably the easiest of the three to assess. You will need to assess if you can afford to rent your house. If you consider the likely rental rate, vacancy rate, maintenance, advertising and management costs, you can arrive at a budget. It is important both to be reasonably correct in your assumptions and to have enough reserves to cover cash-flow needs if you’re wrong. The vacancy rate will be determined by the price at which you market the property. Price too high and you’re either vacant or accepting applicants that, for some reason, couldn’t compete for more competitively priced homes. Price too low and you don’t achieve the revenue you should. If you want to try for the higher end of an expected range, understand that the cost may be a vacant month. It is difficult to make up for a vacant month.
Consider the other costs renting out your property could accrue. If you have a landscaped or large yard, you will likely need to hire a yard crew to manage the grounds. Other costs could increase when you rent your home, such as homeowner’s insurance and taxes on your property. Also, depending on tenant turn-over, you may need to paint and deal with maintenance issues more regularly. Renting your home is a decision you need to make with all the financial information in front of you. You can find more information about the hidden costs of renting here.
If your analysis points to some negative cash-flow, that doesn’t necessarily mean that renting is the wrong option. That answer needs to be weighed against the pros and cons of alternatives (i.e., selling at the price that would actually sell), and some economic guesswork about what the future holds in terms of appreciation, inflation, etc. to arrive at an expectation of how long the cash drain would exist.
Risk is a bit harder to assess. Broadly though, it’s crucial to understand that if you decide to lease out a home, you are going into business, and every business venture has risks. The more you know, the better you can mitigate those risks. One of the most obvious ways of mitigating the risk is to hire a management company. By hiring professionals, you decrease your risk and time spent managing the property (and tenants) yourself. However, this increases the cost. So, as you reduce your risk of litigation, you increase your risk of negative cash-flow, and vice versa… it’s a balancing act, and the risk cannot be eliminated; just managed and minimized.
In considering Goals, what do you hope to achieve by renting your property? Are you planning on moving back into your home after a period of time? Will your property investment be a part of your long-term financial planning? Are you relocating or just hoping to wait to sell? These are all great reasons to consider renting your home.
Keep in mind that renting your family home can be emotional. Many homeowners LOVE the unique feel of their homes. It is where their children were raised, and they care more about preserving that feel than maximizing revenue. That’s OK, but it needs to be acknowledged and considered when establishing a correct price and preparing a cash flow analysis. Some owners are so attached to their homes that it may be better for them to “tear off the band-aid quickly” and sell. The alternative of slowly watching over the years as the property becomes an investment instead of a home to them may prove to be more painful than any financial benefit can offset.
In the process of considering your financial situation, the risks associated with becoming a landlord, and the goals you hope to achieve with the rental of your property, – ask yourself these questions. Before reaching a conclusion, it’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the landlord-tenant-lawspecific to your state (and in some cases, separate relevant ordinances in the city and/or county that your property lies within) and to do some market research (i.e. tour other available similar rentals to see if your financial assumptions are in line with the reality of the competition across the street). If you are overwhelmed by this process, or will be living out of the region, seek counsel with a property management professional. Gaining experience the hard way can be costly.
J. Michael Wilson is the dedicated broker at Windermere Property Management Seattle, and has 17 years of experience managing properties in the Seattle region.
Recently, news about how to purchase a real-estate owned (REO/bank owned) home, foreclosure property or short sale is everywhere. Bank owned homes are sold directly from the lender after the foreclosure process is complete, and while you may save quite a bit of money by choosing to go for this type of home, it is not without trials and tribulations. The process of purchasing a home directly from a lender can be long and arduous, but could very well be worth it in the end.
If you have your sights on a particular home or are looking to find a deal on your first, working directly with the lender may be your only option. Purchasing a bank owned home is not for the faint of heart, here are some tips for negotiating the REO process:
1. Be prepared: The condition of bank owned properties is usually poor and hard to show. Past owners may have left angry and left the home in bad condition with foul smells, missing appliances, wires taken from breakers, gas fireplaces gone, even bathrooms without toilets and sinks.
2. Understand the costs: Maintenance or repairs may be necessary, since these homes have been vacant for an unknown period of time–sometimes months or years. Keep in mind, when they were occupied the owners could have been under a financial hardship, preventing them from doing regular seasonal care or repairs when needed. Remember as well that the bank is trying to sell the house immediately, so you will receive a financial break in the price rather than a willingness to negotiate on the maintenance and repair issues.
3. Accept the unknown: In traditional real estate transactions, homeowners fill out Form 17 regarding important information about the history of the house. A bank owned home is either exempt or marked with “I don’t know” throughout the document. Not having the accuracy of this 5 page disclosure form could leave you with a lot of unanswered questions on the history of the home.
4. Know what is non-negotiable: The pricing on the house may not get much lower. Some of these properties can be “a dream come true” if you get them at an amazing price, or they could be your worst nightmare. Do your due diligence researching any property, and conduct all necessary inspections to safeguard yourself. Some major repairs may be negotiable, but will likely not reduce the home price.
5. Make a clean offer: The higher the price you can offer, the better. Include your earnest money, keep contingencies to a minimum, and suggest a reasonable closing date. The simpler your offer is, the higher chance you have of the bank accepting your offer or countering in a reasonable time period.
6. Be patient: Consult with a professional who handles bank owned home purchases to help you negotiate the pathway to homeownership. The process of purchasing a bank owned, foreclosed or short-sale home is typically longer than a typical real estate sale.
What do you want to know about purchasing bank owned, foreclosure and short-sale properties?