Save Money and Energy this Winter by Plugging Your Drafts

Find-and-Fix-Drafts-in-House-684x340Not all home improvement projects are created equal. While remodeling the kitchen or putting down new carpet may pay off when you sell the house, the immediate benefits to you are usually just cosmetic. If you’re looking for a less flashy project that can actually save you cash immediately, consider first fixing your drafts.

Air leaks can account for as much as 20-30% of your energy bills—and not just in the winter. If you live in a part of the country that requires air-conditioning, than you may also be paying for something you’re not getting.

Step one? Evaluate your situation. If you live in a brand-new house (or if the last owner was particularly savvy), you may already be sealed up fairly well. To find out, you can hire a professional to perform an energy audit or get an infrared thermometer to check typical problem areas—windows, doors, etc.

A good rule of thumb is to check out any place where the wall has been penetrated, even the ones you might not automatically think of. That means plumbing and foundation cracks, among other things. Builders have to cut drywall to install electric boxes for plugs, leaving cracks that heat can escape from. Even some recessed lighting poses a problem. Older can lights are vented to keep from overheating, but with today’s light bulbs, all that venting mean is one more way for your heat to escape into the attic.

Once you’ve found your leaks, it’s time to get caulking. A good quality caulk will run you just $5 or less. Remember, however, to be careful where you caulk and how. It doesn’t often hold up well in areas of high heat, and remember your own safety when working around light sockets. When you get to the windows and doors, keep in mind that weatherstripping may actually be required.

triple-paneOf course, if you’re willing to put a little more money into this project, consider installing new windows. The last few decades have seen drastic improvements in window production, making windows more effective at heat retention, or even solar head reduction, for those who live in warmer climates.

There’s one extra bonus for going the new route. In addition to cutting your energy costs, investing in new windows will also add value to your house later down the line—expect torecoup almost 90% of the costs at sale.

5 Paint Colors that Can Help Sell Your Home

Traditional wisdom says to stick to white paint when you’re trying to sell your home. It’s clean-looking and inoffensive and gives any potential homebuyer a blank slate to work with. However, white walls can also seem glaring and sterile, which isn’t always something you want buyers to think when they view your house. If you’re repainting prior to putting your home on the market, consider taking color psychology into account when you make your choice.

Color psychology is exactly what it sounds like—the study of how color makes people feel. Marketers use it to design websites and logos, and hotels to decorate rooms. By paying attention to the way certain colors make people feel, you can choose colors to match the feeling you want in a room.

The trick? Pick soft and appealing shades, whatever the color. Here are a few you might want to consider:

dark-brown-sofa-decorating-ideasBrown (and all its earth-toned variations). Brown feels stable and natural to most people. For that reason, it’s popular for common living areas and kitchens. Brown doesn’t just have to be, well, brown, though.

The closer to white you go (think beige), the brighter a room will look while still maintaining a cozier feel than plain old white. If warm, casual living areas are your thing, brown is a good way to go.

134474436449271Blue. Blue is one of the most popular colors for both genders, and for good reason. It has a tendency to trigger calming reactions, and many people find lighter shades reminiscent of a clear sky. It’s also said to increase focus and productivity.

For these reasons, blue makes for a smart option in an office or a bedroom, where that calming effect can really shine.

4571b65c01145d66_0682-w660-h591-b0-p0--traditional-dining-roomGray. If you’re searching for a neutral that isn’t beige, gray could be just what you’re looking for.  Like blue (which is very appropriate, considering that cooler grays often look blue), Gray is a calming color that often ends up feeling slightly more elegant than cozy browns or cold whites.

It’s a great choice for a wide variety of rooms in your home, like an office or bathroom, or even more formal dining or living rooms.

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Red (and orange). We’ll lump these two together, since both make people feel energized and warm. And there’s a reason so many restaurants stick to color schemes in this family—they make people want to eat. For that reason, they work well in kitchens.

Take caution with these colors, though, and use them only as accents where you can. They’re attention-grabbers, and not everyone is going to feel comfortable with them.

exterior-black-white-houseWhite. Surprise, white has its uses too. While shaded of cream and off-white can work well inside, outside is where white really shines.

White exteriors are one of the most popular choices, and one of the safest when it comes to  keeping your house looking bright and spacious, even it’s really neither.

Eco-Friendly Kitchen Ideas

cliffs-cottage-lIf you’re trying to go green with your kitchen remodel, then you know that picking out Energy Star appliances is the easy part. Researching the greenest materials to use? That can take forever.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular options for the biggest decisions you’ll need to make: countertops, cabinets, and flooring.

Countertops

If you’re considering going granite or laminate but feel iffy about the non-renewability of the first and the chemical processing of the latter, consider these options:

  • Recycled glass. You don’t get much greener than this, where glass is mixed with a binder to create something that looks very similar to stone. One manufacturer,Vetrazzo, says 85% of their countertops come from recycled glass.
  • Wood. Yup, wood makes great countertop material. Bamboo and reclaimed wood are popular options for the greenest of the green.
  • Paper. Surprise, recycled paper makes a great countertop, once it’s been saturated with the right resins and pressurized. Learn more from the manufacturersthemselves.

Cabinets

You can’t really get around it: kitchen cabinets are made out of wood. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have options. Here a few:

  • Bamboo. Whereas traditional woods take decades to grow, bamboo does so much faster, and the plant isn’t destroyed when it’s harvested.
  • Reclaimed wood. If you’re going to go the wood route anyway, you can still feel good about yourself by sticking to

Flooring

If tile isn’t for you, you’re not out of green option. For a more in depth look, you can check out the pros and cons here.

  • Bamboo. Yes, bamboo makes another appearance for pretty much the same reasons as we’ve already listed. It’s fast growing, durable, and attractive.
  • Linoleum. Surprisingly, real linoleum is about as natural as it gets—just linseed oil, resin, wood flour, cork dust, and pigment. It’s also biodegradable and durable.
  • Cork. Cork is harvested from the bark of the cork oak, and is thus much more sustainable than normal wood. It is, however, slightly softer than most floors.

How to Decorate an Oddly Shaped Room

All those features the realtor called “distinctive” before you bought the house have a tendency to turn just plain obnoxious when the time comes to decorate. But not everyone has the space and resources to go all HGTV on their floor plan. Learn to love (or tolerate) your not-so-standard spaces with these tips.

Fireplace-and-furniture-placement-1285For a long, narrow room

If you have a bowling alley of a room, you’re not necessarily out of luck. The trick? Just because there isn’t a wall somewhere in the middle doesn’t mean you have to think of this room as one continuous space.

Use furniture to make a division of sorts, or area rugs to block out each end into its own space.  Also keep in mind that light, cool colors tend to recede, while warm, dark colors pop forward. Using them in combination (on the long walls and short walls, respectively) can help balance out the room.

2315705263_31d3aa21ba_zFor a small room

The trick to keeping a small room from looking even smaller is to pay attention to the size and scale of your furniture—anything that takes up a lot of perceived space can dwarf the whole room by comparison.

If your small room is a bedroom, wave goodbye to king-sized beds and giant wardrobes. In a living room, get used to curling up on a loveseat instead of an over-stuffed, full sized couch.  Avoid full-sized coffee tables and table lamps, and even large-printed bedspreads or carpets. Light colors on the wall can help a room feel airy, but keep in mind that too many colors can make a small room seem more cluttered than actually it is.

Dormer-windows-attic-bedroomFor a room with slanted walls/ceilings

If you live in an older house, odds are you have a couple wonky places where your upstairs living space meets the roof.  These slants can make a room feel more cramped, but that doesn’t mean you’re missing out on usable space–don’t be afraid to put it to work. Tuck a bench into a dormer window or a desk under that wall on which you would normally crack your head.

Some people choose to play up features like these by painting the dormer or slant a slightly different color than the rest of the room, but you may just want it to disappear, especially if the room is already small. Carrying a light, neutral wall color onto the ceiling (or a ceiling color onto the walls) can help a lot. Without a second color to break up the wall, your eye travels upward much easier, making the room feel taller.

97For one big room. (And that’s it)

Studio apartments, right? If you’re in a big city, they can be some of the most affordable living spaces around, but also the most intimidating to decorate. Like with a long narrow room, you’re going to need to stop thinking about your studio as a single room and start breaking it up into smaller living spaces.

This might seem counter-intuitive, as many studios are also tight on room, but having a few clearly defined living areas can actually make your apartment flow better. So instead of pushing all your furniture against the walls, position your couch perpendicular to one and section off the living room, or use a bookcase to separate your eating area from your bedroom.

One good takeaway from all this? Play to your “unique” room’s positives and try to avoid thinking that by treating it like a more standard space, it will become one.

Popular Green Flooring Alternatives

Let’s face it—going green is becoming less of a fad and more of a lifestyle choice.

Nowhere is going green more popular than in your home. Opting for energy- and water-saving appliances is always a good place to start—and not just because they’re greener than the alternatives. Given enough time, they often pay for themselves in reduced utilities.

In recent years, though, there has also been a push to start considering how the materials you use impact the environment. Nowhere is this more of an issue than in flooring. Traditional hardwood is the gold standard these days, but because trees take decades and decades to grow, many worry about sustainability.

If you’re looking at doing renovations, or even at building your dream house from the ground up, take a look at these four options.

Bamboo_FlooringBamboo. Bamboo neatly side-steps the issue of sustainability, since the plant isn’t killed during harvest and takes just three to seven years to grow back. Bamboo is also durable, easy to clean, and comes in many colors and stains.

There are a few potential snags you should be aware of, though. Because the bamboo industry is still widely unregulated, quality can widely. Some manufacturers even used formaldehyde in their binding agent. Remember to ask the right questions before you buy.

Tile-Cork-Flooring-Private-Residence-Jackson-NH_055_1_lCork. Like bamboo, cork is much more sustainable than hardwood. It comes from the bark of the cork oak tree, which is harvested without harming the tree. It makes for a soft, warm, easy to clean flooring option, and thanks to cork’s natural properties, it’s also a great insulator.

However, that softness does come at a price. Heavy furniture can dent it, and it does tend to scratch easily.

linoleum-recyclingLinoleum. Did this one surprise you? Today, many people used the word “linoleum” to refer to vinyl or other synthetic floors, but real linoleum (which was developed in the 1860’s and considered a luxury material) is made of linseed oil, resin, wood flour, cork dust, and mineral pigments—all natural materials. It’s durable and biodegradable, and because the pigment runs all the way through, deep scratches and stains can be buffed out and refinished.

reclaimed-wood-floor-1024x767Reclaimed wood. This may seem like cheating, but you can still get the floor you want while bypassing the lumber industry. Reclaimed is a fancy way to “recycled,” or an even fancier way to say “used.” Generally, the wood comes from old barns, warehouses, and other structures, and can sometimes be even more durable than new hardwood, thanks to its age.

The one downside is availability. Reclaimed wood flooring can be difficult to find, and when you do find it, odds are good it’ll be even more expensive than new hardwood.

How to Spot a Bad Contractor

bad-contractorRenovations are hectic enough—the last thing you need is to get stuck with a less-than-upright contractor. Here are 5 red flags you should watch out for:

He bids low

Before you make a deal, you should really be getting estimates and bids from at least three separate contractors. Not only does this give you options, but it gives you an idea of what the real cost of your renovation is.

So while you may be looking for a deal, avoid going with the lowest bid, especially if it’s significantly lower than the others.  Fact is, no contractor is going to take a pay cut for their work, which means they’re saving money by using cheap labor or materials.

He has subcontractor issues

If your contractor is constantly making apologies for bad subcontractors, don’t assume he’s blameless. Part of a contractor’s job is knowing the best people to hire and managing them once they are hired, which means that he’s the one you should hold accountable for shoddy work or poor behavior.

He asks for too much money upfront

It’s pretty standard for contractors to ask for some percentage of the agreed-upon payment upfront, but asking for more than a third should set off alarm bells. They do typically need some cash to get the project started, but the more money a shady contractor asks for (and that you give them), the less incentive they have to finish the project.

Generally, a 15% down payment is acceptable for both parties. However you’re paying for the work, also try to make sure that you don’t finish paying before the job is completed, or else risk the contractor prioritizing still-paying jobs over yours.

He doesn’t want a contract

Contracts keep both you and your contractor safe, and if yours is trying to avoid signing one, you may want to reevaluate your choices. Not only will a contract help keep a time frame and payment schedule in place,  but a detailed enough one will also help keep you from getting shorted on supplies, whether in quantity or quality.

He acts unprofessionally

If your contractor starts late and leaves early or drinks on the job or never returns your calls, address these issues as soon as possible.  Sometimes, it’s easy to explain away these problems by blaming other jobs or paperwork, but if they keep happening, it might be time to consider moving on to a new contractor. Basically, if you have a bad feeling about your contractor, you’d do well to listen to it.

4 Stylish Garden Structures

As Spring transitions into Summer, our focus naturally shifts more toward outdoor spaces. And while many of us long for that plush garden filled with all our favorite flowers and exotic plants, the time and effort to maintain such a paradise can prove elusive. Fortunately, your backyard doesn’t have to rely solely on living organisms for aesthetic appeal. Here are 4 stylish structures that don’t need to be watered, pruned, or picked (aside from the vines).

1. Pergola

garden-pergola-designrulz-026A pergola consists of four poles and a slatted roof, all made of wood. Usually, they’re large enough to accommodate a seating area for a group of people and have climbing plants growing across the roof that add further protection from the elements. When constructed over a patio, they offer a soft transition from inside to outside; further out in the yard they provide a new vantage point with some shade, from which you can sit, observe, and relax.

2. Arbor

ashbury_garden_arborAn arbor is similar to a pergola, albeit much smaller. Instead of open sides, they have interwoven lattice pieces (usually with vines growing on them) and often have an arched top.

Considering they are relatively inexpensive and easy to install, arbors a great way to add definition to a garden or walkway.

3. Trellis

trellis-xIf you cut off the sides of an arbor, you’d basically wind up with a trellis. It’s an architectural element made up of grids or lattice, usually two dimensional and placed on an outside wall, allowing plants to climb up. It’s a simple way to beautify that blank wall on the side of your garage.

4. Garden Obelisk

garden obeliskA simple standing structure, the garden obelisk acts as a centerpiece while adding a vertical dimension to a garden. Climbing plants are encouraged to make the ascent upward.

While these structures won’t be able to completely replace your flowering friends, they’ll ensure that, despite your skills as a gardener, your yard will always have some stylish elements.

Homebuilder confidence rises ‘slow but steady’

After a significant jump in June and then a stall in July, confidence among the nation’s single-family homebuilders moved higher again in August, albeit at a slower pace.

Read MoreHouse flipping: It’s riskier but more lucrative

A monthly sentiment index from the National Association of Home Builders rose 1 point to 61, the highest level since November 2005. Any reading above 50 is considered positive. The index stood at 55 one year ago.

A contractor installs a door header inside a house under construction for Ironwood Homes in Peoria, Illinois.

A contractor installs a door header inside a house under construction for Ironwood Homes in Peoria, Illinois.

Of the index’s three components, buyer traffic increased 2 points to 45—the only component still in negative territory. Current sales conditions rose 1 point to 66, while sales expectations in the next six months held steady at 70.

Regionally, based on a three-month moving average, homebuilder confidence in the West and Midwest each rose 3 points to 63 and 58, respectively. The South gained 2 points to 63 and the Northeast held steady at 46. The Northeast has the smallest share of home construction nationally.

Single-family housing starts fell in July from June but are still up nearly 15 percent from a year ago, according to the U.S. Census. They are still well below historical norms, however, even as demand for housing rises.

Mortgage applications to purchase a new home also fell in July, amid rising interest rates. Rates have started to pull back again slightly, but prices for newly built homes are still at a significant premium to existing homes.

Architects’ billings in August signal construction slump

A leading indicator of commercial construction activity took a steep drop in August, possibly due to increased volatility in financial markets.

The American Institute of Architects reported its Architecture Billings Index (ABI) dropped from 54.7 to 49.1. Anything below 50 indicates a decrease in design services.

Archictect

“Over the past several years, a period of sustained growth in billings has been followed by a temporary step backwards,” said AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker. “The fact that project inquiries and new design contracts continue to grow at a healthy pace suggests that this should not be a cause for concern throughout the design and construction industry.”

The ABI reflects the time between architecture billings and construction spending for commercial real estate, which is approximately nine to twelve months. Another index of new projects inquiries also fell in August, although it was still positive.

“I do think that volatility is the issue, just like we’re seeing in a lot of the markets across the country. We’re not seeing a normal incline in terms of activity. It shoots ahead and then it catches its breath,” said Baker.

He also points to hurdles facing builders, which include high material costs and labor shortages.

The construction industry has been plagued by a labor shortage. Eighty-six percent of construction firms surveyed in July and August by Associated General Contractors of America said they were having difficulty filling hourly craft or salaried professional positions.

“Few firms across the country have been immune from growing labor shortages in the construction industry,” said Stephen Sandherr, CEO for the Associated General Contractors, in a release. “The sad fact is too few students are being exposed to construction careers or provided with the basic skills needed to prepare for such a career path.”

Thousands of immigrant construction workers also left the U.S. during the recession and have yet to return.

Comic Kathleen Madigan’s Seriously Cool Style

GTL-Madigan-TR

Funny lady Kathleen Madigan seriously knows good style—just check out her West Hollywood home. Interesting accessories and design touches give it character, and those are quite easy to adapt for your own home. Read on for style tips.

(Psst: You can get a chance to win your own home makeover by me, valued at up to $45,000! Enter our “Get This Look” sweepstakes.)

Quirky coffee table

gtl_kathleen madigan-01

Vintage contrast: Madigan’s modern living room has a few fun surprises that make it feel cozy, and her design secret is to use vintage-inspired pieces to offset her contemporary furniture. Her coffee table is a great example; its curved metal base provides a more traditional contrast to the clean lines of her other pieces. This “Audrey” table gives the same eclectic feel, for under $500.

Oversize lighting

oversize lighting

Oversize lighting: Large, dramatic lighting has become a staple for designers in recent years, particularly over kitchen islands and bathtubs. While Madigan’s is a beautiful statement piece, this look doesn’t have to come with a statement price. Here’s a similar style for around $10 from Ikea.

Kitchen ventilation

Kitchen ventilation

Glass hood: Glass has become increasingly popular in modern kitchens, from countertops to cabinets, and even hoods. Madigan’s contemporary kitchen features a hood that doesn’t have to break the glass ceiling of your budget. Here’s a cool design for less than $300 on Overstock.com.

Grasscloth on wall

Grasscloth on walls

Textured walls: Madigan’s grasscloth focal wall gives a beautiful background color and texture, adding warmth to her contemporary space. While wallpaper can be expensive to purchase and to install, a fun designer tip is to use textured paint instead. Using a base coat and a faux glaze, it’s easy to create a strie wall that looks like grasscloth, but for less than $100. Here are some great products and ideas from Valspar to get you started.

Retro tile

Tile

Retro tile: Everything old is new again, especially in tile! Madigan’s bathroom features a white penny tile that was very popular in the mid-20th century, and it has seen a resurgence in recent years. But this retro style can still have a retro price—here’s a similar tile from American Fast Floors for less than $4 per square foot.