It may still feel like summer well into October, but there’s no time like the present to do fall household chores. Here are a few of the key home maintenance activities you should complete before the snow flies.

  • Garden
    You may be tired of working in the garden, but fall is a great time to plant trees and shrubs as well as fall bulbs like tulips and daffodils. Continue to water regularly until you shut off your water.
  • Rake
    Preventing thick layers of leaves to collect on your grass stops mold and damage, so you’ll want to rake your lawn. However, a covering of leaves on garden plants provides good protection for winter, so don’t bag up all of your leaves.
  • Clean gutters
    Whether you do it yourself or hire a gutter cleaning company, clearing out debris from your gutters prevents water damage. It’s also a good time to inspect your roof for loose shingles or other damage.
  • Shut off outside spigots
    Prevent your pipes from freezing by shutting off the valve to the outside spigots. Drain hoses and store in garage or indoors.
  • Clean garage
    Make room for your vehicles in your garage so you’re not scraping ice and snow this winter.
  • Check furnace/boiler
    You don’t want to have an outage in your furnace during Minnesota’s winters. Have your furnace or boiler serviced regularly. If you have hot water heat, check and bleed radiators.
  • Caulk windows and doors
    Check for air leaks around doors and windows. You can lower your heating bills by caulking gaps.
  • Clean dryer vents
    Clogged dryer vents can pose a safety hazard. Be sure to clean regularly—spring and fall are both good times. Always use rigid aluminum venting, not flexible.
  • Check smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
    Fall is as good a time as any to make sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are functioning. Test and replace batteries twice a year.

Based on Home Maintenance Checklist NYT.com

A well-stocked tool box is something no homeowner should be without. You’ll use it when you put together flat-packed furniture, tighten loose screws, hang pictures, or install shelving. You can buy off-the-shelf tool kits, but these are the six must-haves:

1) Hammer
Be sure to hold the hammer at its base and not in the middle for the most control. And be careful of your fingers!

2) Tape Measure
Whether you get a 10-foot or 25-foot, a tape measure will prevent you from buying a sofa that’s too big for your living room.

Tape measure

3) Screwdriver
This type will do, but even better than a set of screwdrivers (flat and Phillips), is one with exchangeable bits (like this one). You might also want to invest in an electric/cordless drill/screwdriver.

4) Wrenches
As a homeowner, you will put together countless chairs, devices, toys, and tools. A set of these hex (also called Allen) wrenches will help you get the job done. You’ll also need an adjustable wrench for bolts.

5) Needle-nose Pliers
Remove nails, tighten loose-fitting brackets, and rescue dropped jewelry from the tub drain.

6) Utility Knife
Use a sharp utility knife for opening boxes or breaking down cardboard for recycling. A basic one like this will do or you can invest in one with multiple blades.

One of the great things about owning your home is the ability to plant a vegetable garden. Even though we’re into the warm days of June, you can still plant for a late summer or fall harvest.

  1. Choose a sunny spot in your yard
    Many vegetables require four to six hours of sun per day.
  2. Prepare the Soil
    Using a spade and a lot of careful bending at the knees, till the soil 6-12” deep. Add organic material such as compost or peat moss (available at garden centers and hardware stores) to the soil. You can also rent a tiller if you’re putting in a large garden.
  3. Choose the plants
    The University of Minnesota Extension Service lists ideal times for planting vegetables.
  4. Water regularly
  5. Add mulch
    New plants like mulch (wood chips, straw, leaves). It keeps the soil cool and prevents drying out.

Spring is a great time to enjoy your home inside and out. With all the chores you could be doing, we compiled a list of what not to do.

Person on a ladderDon’t climb on the roof to inspect the condition of the shingles or chimney (safety first!). Some good binoculars or a secure ladder can help you see if you need to call in a professional to make repairs. Look for shingles that are damaged, curling or cupping at the edges, or missing granules.

Don’t use a high-pressure hose to clean your windows. This can damage the glass, weather-stripping, or caulking around the windows. It could also spray water into your house.

Don’t rake your grass too soon. This can pull the turf out by the roots. Wait until your lawn has dried enough that it doesn’t show footprints.

Don’t let weeds or shrubs crowd your house. Prune shrubs so they don’t touch your house or foundation and clear away any vegetation around your air conditioning unit to avoid blocking the air flow.

Don’t let downspouts get filled with debris. Clear away rotted leaves and make sure the spout is pointed away from the foundation.

Don’t depend on your dryer’s lint trap to catch all the debris. Built-up lint can be a fire hazard, so be sure to clean the dryer’s ducts and exterior vent.

Don’t plant grass seed. Early fall is the best time to plant seed, but if you have a bare yard, be sure to buy the correct type of seed and fertilizer. And if you didn’t have any weeds last year, don’t bother spraying in the spring.

Have you been thinking about carpeting the living room or repaving the driveway? Making improvements to your home can increase its value and make your daily life more comfortable. But be wary of home improvement offers that seem “too good to be true.” Here are some tips for avoiding unethical or even illegal schemes.

1| Research the company
If you are approached with an offer of a great deal (such as by a door-to-door salesperson), take your time to research the firm.

2| Don’t fall prey to high-pressure sales tactics
Door-to-door scammers can really paint a dire picture of your home’s needs or insist on deals that “expire.” Take the time to shop around, compare, and research your options.

3| Confirm the company’s legitimacy
Under state law, door-to-door salespeople must present identification. Watch out for scammers that arrive in unmarked trucks or do not provide a physical address for their company.

4| Read offers and estimates carefully
Once you’ve received an estimate for a job, read it over carefully. Get more than one estimate for a project so you can compare the costs.
Under Minnesota’s Right to Cancel law, consumers have three days to cancel a contract made by a door-to-door solicitation.

5| Put your own safety first
Don’t invite door-to-door salespeople into your home. Scammers can be very aggressive and may refuse to leave until you’ve signed a contract. If you feel unsafe, it is not rude to say “no” and close the door. Listen to your instincts.
Report any suspected neighborhood scams to law enforcement.

Information based on: Minnesota Attorney General | Door-to-door Home Improvement Scams

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Don’t let water damage and plumbing bills get added to your list of winter woes!

Pipe Insulation example1) Insulate
Exposed pipes are susceptible to freezing. Wrap and insulate your pipes to protect them from cold temperatures. There are many options to choose from (including the one pictured) that can be found at any hardware or home supply store.

2) Adjust Thermostat
Even if you’ll be gone for an extended period (hopefully to Florida!), keep your thermostat set to at least 55 degrees. Even though water doesn’t freeze until it reaches 32 degrees, keeping your home any colder than 55 degrees puts you at risk of having frozen pipes.

3) Use Them
Pipes with moving water are less susceptible to freezing, so most of the time daily use prevents freezing. But if you have a bathroom or basement sink that rarely gets turned on, monitor it for water pressure and drainage. Also, although it may sound wasteful, letting a faucet drip can provide enough movement to prevent freezing. (A trickle the width of a pencil lead is sufficient and would result in water use that would cost about $2 a day.)

4) Open Cabinet Doors
Pipes confined under kitchen or bathroom cabinets don’t have access to the heat in the rest of the house and reach colder temperatures. Leaving the doors open to will allow heat to reach the pipes.

5) Locate the Water Shut-off Valve
Make sure you and others in your household know where the water main master shut-off valve is. If there is an incident (hopefully not!), shutting off the valve can help prevent extensive water damage.

Based on information from the City of Savage and U of MN Extension

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Scary BasementExposed pipes, spider webs, damp storage, cold concrete. Sound familiar? If this describes your unfinished basement, here are some tips to making the space more pleasant.

1) Organization and Storage
If your basement is like most people’s, the first step is organizing all the stuff down there.

  • Install or build shelves, making certain that things are off the floor. Metal shelving is best to prevent any moisture damage.
  • Because basements can be damp and there is always a risk of flooding, use tightly-closing plastic bins, not cardboard boxes that are susceptible to water damage.
  • Be sure to store paints, solvents, and other combustibles away from the furnace or water heater.
  • Toss anything broken or damaged. For unused items like old toys, furniture, or other household goods, consider donating.


2) Floors and Walls

The ubiquitous cinder block walls and concrete floors are the telltale sign of an unfinished basement.

  • Both walls and floors can be painted, but be sure to get paint specifically made for concrete flooring or cinder block and follow all m28anufacturer’s instructions.
  • Adding inexpensive area rugs (keeping in mind the risk of water damage) or hanging tapestries, fabric, or curtains can soften the look.

3) Ceilings and Lighting
Unfinished basements can be dark even in the middle of the day and feel creepy because of the exposed ceilings.

  • The advantage of the open ceiling is the ease of access to pipes and electrical, but you can paint the rafters and ceiling.
  • If you have bare bulbs, get some clip-on shades to hang upside down. Add some floor lamps to improve the lighting.

4) Stairs
Don’t forget the route down to the basement.

  • Make sure there is good lighting to increase safety.
  • Consider adding non-slip treads to the steps.
  • If you don’t have one, install a handrail that is securely anchored to the wall.

5) Ambiance and Air Quality
You don’t have to dread a trip to the basement.

  • Clean regularly to keep away the cobwebs and dust bunnies. Dust (using a broom with a rag on the end to reach into the rafters), vacuum, and mop.
  • Managing mildew and mold will improve the smell of the basement. Using a dehumidifier, especially in the summer, can help.
  • If you have more severe moisture issues, first address the cause of the water. Check out information about wet basements from the U of MN Extension Service.

As PRG celebrates our 40th anniversary, we got to thinking about the household chores we used to do…and the ones we still have.

then-Now

If you have children, September means new schedules, lunches to pack, homework to do. But it can also be the perfect opportunity to get kids (back) into the habit of helping around the house. From preschoolers to teenagers, every child can pitch in with age-appropriate chores. Just don’t expect perfection and don’t use chores as punishments.

Preschoolers

Feed the pets
Help clear the table
Learn to dust
Make the bed
Put toys away

5-8 years

Help unload dishwasher
Pick up around the house
Set the table
Sort dirty laundry
Sort the recylcingHousehold chores
Sweep the floor
Take out the garbage
Water plants

9-11 years

Load dishwasher
Rake leaves
Replace the toilet paper roll
Vacuum
Wash windows and mirrors
Weed garden

Teenagers

Clean bathroom
Clean the refrigerator
Laundry
Mow the lawn
Shovel snow
Simple household repairs (changing light bulbs, painting, patching)

Based in part on information from Psychology Today

Sticky summer heat means that air conditioning units get a workout. Be smart about your energy use to save money (and maybe save the planet, too!).

1 | Close doors and windows
Everyone knows you should close your windows when you switch on the A/C, but did you ever think to cool a single room? Save energy by air conditioning just the room you’re using. For example, at night you may want to cool only the bedroom.

2 | Put on some shades
Covering windows with blinds or curtains during the day keeps the heat of the sun from warming your house.

3 | Have a BBQ
Don't cook inside!On hot summer days, keep the heat outside by cooking on the grill. If you want to cook inside, stick to the stovetop or microwave (not the oven).

4 | Take advantage of nighttime breezes
On cooler summer nights, turn off the A/C and get free air conditioning by placing fans in windows to circulate air. Tight-fitting box-style fans are more efficient, but any fan can help circulate air.

5 | Install a programmable thermostat
Although a programmable thermostat has an up-front cost, being able to program temperatures for times when you’re away saves money in both summer and winter. In the summer, set the temperature for 78 degrees when you’re gone.

6 | Tune it up
Make sure your central air conditioning unit is working as efficiently as possible by scheduling a tune-up. And get out the vacuum to keep the vents clean, too.

7 | Cash in on a rebate
If you don’t already have one, this week’s heat may have you considering the purchase of a whole-house central air conditioning unit. Check out whether you qualify for a rebate on a high-efficiency model. For example, Xcel Energy offers rebates on some models.

Information based on: Energy.gov and MN Energy Challenge

June is Healthy Homes Month which is a great reminder to double-check that our houses are safe and healthy. Installing smoke alarms and radon detectors, keeping the air free of dust and allergens, and securing poisonous substances are all ways to keep us healthy indoors.

Here are three things to keep in mind for the outside of your home.

1 | Water
Even in the land of 10,000 lakes, it’s important to be responsible about water use to save both a precious resource and money.

  • Water in early morning. Avoid watering in the evening; plants could stay wet all night, encouraging rot.
  • Plant drought-resistant turf and plants. Changing what kinds of plants are growing in your yard can mean you’ll need to water less.
  • Water just what needs watering (not the sidewalk or driveway) or use a soaker hose. This can save up to 60% more water than a traditional sprinkler.


Weed or flower?2 | Mulch

Mulching simply means covering the soil with some kind of material that benefits the garden.

  • Mulching helps to control weeds without the use of chemicals. It also improves moisture retention (meaning you save on water).
  • Mulch helps both your plants and trees. It helps control temperatures so they don’t get too hot or too cold
  • You can purchase different types of mulch at garden or hardware stores, but mulch doesn’t have to be expensive. Use grass clippings from your lawn, raked leaves in the fall, or even a thick layer of old newspaper.

3 | Improve the soil
The quality and type of soil in our yards affects what grows—and what doesn’t.

  • Find out what kind of soil you have by getting it tested at the University of Minnesota Extension. For a small fee, the service will tell you what kind of soil you have and how to improve it.
  • Compost helps to enhance soil naturally. Compost can be one way to improve the growing conditions without spending a lot of money on fertilizers (although, depending on your soil, you may still want to add fertilizer).
  • Compost improves the ability of the soil to release nutrients. It can also increase activity of earthworms—a sign that your garden is happy.
  • Compost might include yard waste like grass clippings or kitchen scraps such as coffee grounds, egg shells, and fruit/vegetable waste. Avoid meat products, feces, and waste that may have weed seeds.

Information based on: HUD-Making Homes Healthier for Families
and U of M Extension

Not a home owner yet? Contact one of our home ownership advisors to discuss the process.

Save Hundreds of Dollars in Future Energy Costs

By taking a few simple steps now — at little or no cost to you — you can reduce your energy use and your heating bills this winter and save hundreds of dollars over the long term. Have the Home Energy Squad visit your home to assess your energy-saving opportunities and install energy-efficient materials of your choice, such as a programmable thermostat, weather stripping, CFL bulbs, high-efficiency shower head, faucet aerators, water heater insulation, refrigerator thermometer. Learn more and schedule an appointment here.

Some of the things they may suggest are:

  • Install a programmable thermostat so you can pre-set different temperatures for different times of the day.
    Energy.gov recommends setting your thermostat to 68°F while you’re awake and adjusting it lower while you’re asleep or away from home. By turning your thermostat back 10° to 15° for 8 hours, you can save 5% to 15% a year on your heating bill — a savings of as much as 1% for each degree if the setback period is eight hours long.
  • Adjust the temperature setting on your water heater so it’s not too high or too low.
    If it is too high you are wasting energy and money by heating water you may likely never use. If the temperature is set too low you will likely run out of hot water during peak shower/bathing periods and it could promote the growth of dangerous bacteria. According to Energy.gov, 120ºF is an adequate setting for most households.
  • Use less hot water. 
    Install a low-flow showerhead and faucet aerators in your kitchen and bathroom.
  • Replace your furnace filter monthly during the heating season. 
    Dirty/clogged furnace filters cause the furnace to not operate at its maximum efficiency and thus waste energy. This simple action can reduce your heating costs by up to 5% or about $35 a year.
  • Add weather stripping to doors and windows to prevent valuable heat from escaping.
  • Adjust drapes/window coverings to capture the most heat.
    Close drapes/window coverings at night as an added layer of insulation. Open south facing window coverings by day to let the sunshine in.

During this holiday season, enjoy a cozy fire in your home – but do so safely 

This is the time of year when many of us like to curl up in front of a crackling fire with a good book and maybe a friend. If you have a wood-burning fireplace, while you are sitting there you might want to consider whether your chimney needs cleaning.

Creosote is a highly flammable, black residue that builds up in your chimney as a result of burning wood. To keep your system clean and prevent a chimney fire, The National Fire Protection Association recommends having your chimney swept once a year. Spring or fall is the best time to have this done, but it can’t hurt to schedule it now while it’s on your mind.

Find a certified chimney sweep and other great resources on chimney care and fireplace safety here

If you just bought your home, you may not know when the last cleaning was done. Here are some signs that you may be due for a cleaning:

  • There’s a smell of burned wood coming from the fireplace even when it’s not being used.
  • Smoke comes into the room when a fire is burning – even though the damper is open.
  • The damper is black. Shine a flashlight up and scratch the damper with your fire poker. If you can scratch a groove more than 1/8 inch deep, schedule a cleaning now for the spring. If you can scratch a groove more than 1/4 inch deep, do not use your fireplace until it has been cleaned.

And don’t forget the chestnuts!

Have a safe and happy holiday season.
From all of us at PRG!
  

Batten Down the Hatches!

Brace yourselves, it’s coming: another Minnesota winter. If you’ve been in denial, it’s time to snap out of it and get your home ready for the inevitable cold, snow, and ice.

Turn off the exterior water source
To prevent pipes from freezing and bursting, turn off the exterior water source from the inside and open the water spigot on the outside of your home. Drain hoses and store them in your garage or basement.

Empty your rain barrel
If you have a rain barrel, empty it and disconnect it from the downspout to prevent freezing and cracking. Turn it upside down for the winter.

Clean out your gutters
Gutters clogged with leaves and other debris can cause water to pool in the spring, inviting animals and insects (mosquitoes) and potential water damage to your home.

Protect your perennials
About mid-late November, cover your perennials with a layer of mulch or fallen leaves. Roses need extra protection. Click here for more tips on winterizing your plants.
Change your furnace filter and give your furnace a tune-up
To keep your furnace running efficiently this winter and improve your indoor air quality, change the filter. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to do it. And for safety, efficiency, and reliability during the cold winter months, now is also a good time to have your furnace inspected. Learn more from CenterPoint Energy’s Home Service Plus®.

Change the batteries on your CO2 detector and smoke detectors
It’s a good idea to change the batteries on your CO2 detector and smoke detectors twice a year. An easy way to remember to do this, is to change them when you change your clocks at the beginning and end of daylight saving time. Daylight saving time ends on November 2. When you turn your clocks back one hour, don’t forget to change your batteries! (And if you don’t have a CO2 detector, now is a good time to buy one. It could save your life.)

Photo by Kim’n’Cris Knight and used under Creative Commons license.

Work? Let’s call it “Play”

Give your lawn and trees a little extra love before winter closes in, priming them for a green and healthy spring!

Don’t forget to water

Even though the weather is cooler, your trees and lawn still need water. Continue watering until the ground is cold and beginning to freeze.

Put down sod
It’s too late this year to put down grass seed – wait until spring for that. It is, however, a good time to sod.

Fertilize your lawn
About mid-late October give your lawn a final feeding. It will absorb and store those nutrients for spring growth.

When mowing your lawn, drop your mower one notch lower
Keep your lawn between about 2-3 inches in the fall. Too short and it will have a hard time making and storing food for spring growth. Too long and you invite “snow mold”.

Plant a tree
Fall is a great time to plant a tree! Just don’t forget to call Gopher State One Call at least three days before you dig at 651-454-0002. They’ll mark buried utility lines for your safety. It’s the law.

Not lawn-related, but don’t forget to caulk or touch up paint on the exterior of your home
When the snow melts in the spring, water can get into your siding where the paint is chipped and the wood exposed. Seal or cover those spots now with caulk or paint – before the temperature drops below about 35 degrees.

And don’t forget the lemonade!

Photo by Carol VanHook used under Creative Commons license.

Excuse me, what?

Caulk. PRG real estate & development coordinator Erin Wilson says maintaining the caulk around windows, tub, sinks, and toilets is one of her favorite ways to keep her condo in great shape. Here’s Erin’s wisdom:

Why?

It’s an inexpensive, simple way to seal up gaps. In wet areas, this can extend the life of your walls and cabinets by preventing water damage. And especially in older homes, eliminating cracks around windows and doors can prevent heat loss in winter, keeping your home warm more efficiently and reducing drafts.

When?

Most caulk should last five years, but inspecting caulked areas should be part of your yearly home maintenance checklist. Look at each area carefully, and replace any caulk that has holes or is disintegrating.

How?

First, remove the old caulk.

Then, choose the right caulk for your job. Ask your local hardware store staff for help, paying attention to the surfaces you want to apply it to, whether the area is wet or dry, and whether you’ll want to paint over it.

A caulk gun (very inexpensive) makes it easy to apply caulk evenly. Follow the directions on the container for cleanup and finishing.

You’ll be rewarded with a smooth, neat surface and the knowledge that air and water will stay where they belong.

Happy caulking!

Photo by Alyson Hurt used under Creative Commons license.

When it comes to keeping track of your home’s maintenance needs, will you go for all the bells and whistles, or keep it simple?

There are dozens of apps and online tools available to help track regular home maintenance tasks. A few PRGers checked out a couple of the most popular free options.

HomeSavvy

Erin and Mindy tried HomeSavvy. This app makes a customized maintenance schedule and sends you reminders when it’s time to take action. It also has listings of local contractors and vendors for services homeowners might need.

Mindy Liked: the maintenance suggestions and checklist.

Erin Liked: Some of the alerts are just right for the season: Interior spring cleaning and A/C maintenance. And you can scroll through the app and customize which tasks you want alerts for throughout the year.

Mindy Disliked: In order to access the contractor information, I had to enter my contact information, and then I received daily phone calls from one of the contractors for weeks! Also, even though the app asks for your location, the suggested maintenance doesn’t always necessarily fit with the local weather. For example, it suggested something about lawn maintenance when we still had piles of snow.

Erin Disliked:  I entered that I owned a condo, but it still sent me reminders to fertilize the lawn, clean gutters, etc. These are not necessary for a majority of condo owners—heck, this is why we own condos! Also, I agree with Mindy about the contractor list; I’d much rather call contractors myself than have them call me.

BrightNest

Carolyn took a look at BrightNest, a website (with a mobile app option) that has short articles on many home-related topics, and builds you a custom to do list with reminders based on info you enter about your home.

Liked: The site is fun to visit. There’s a good mix of practical how-to articles (“9 Things You Didn’t Know Could Fix a Toilet”; “5 Common Door Problems and How To Fix Them”), ideas for projects I’ll never do (“Unique Uses for Eggshells”), and fun information that interests me (“What’s the Best Color to Paint Your Bathroom?”). It’s easy to set up a “reminder” (you choose when and how often) to do one of the projects or tasks, whether practical or playful. You can also add other household members to your account and share to do list items.

Disliked: It’s so cute it stresses me out. I don’t have time to “upcycle nail polish into mini flower vases”; I’m too busy trying to keep my downspouts unclogged … and all the adorable extras make me bite my nails a little.

Keep it Simple?

One thing we all noticed is that, as in many areas of home ownership, we are consumers, and these “free” apps are advertising to us. From not-so-subtle product placement to lists of contractors, we’re on our guard (and you should be, too!) about what’s great advice and what’s a sales pitch. And we know that the information we enter about our homes to get a customized to do list also helps the app give us customized advertising—which can be useful, but can also feel creepy. Sometimes we think a generic to do list app—or a plain old paper calendar—would be just as good.

 

Photos cc Osman Kalkavan and David Reber. Cropped from original images. 

Sometimes water can’t be avoided.

1done-ready

 

Even if you’ve followed all the great advice in the world about gutters, downspouts, and grading, a 100-year-old foundation is just not waterproof, and in a year with lots of snow, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with some wetness where you wish it weren’t.

We don’t really think you’ll need scuba gear, but even a little moisture can be a big pain if you’re not prepared.

 

 

Here’s how to get ready:

done-boxes

If a gradual seep toward sogginess would hurt it, keep it away from the basement floor and walls.

done-mop

Cleanup is less painful when you have good tools ready.

done-fan

Maybe you haven’t seen yours since the last hot days of August. Figure out where it is now, in case you need to use it to dry out a damp space. A dehumidifier (though pricier, at $100 and up) can also help, especially if you have ongoing, low-grade dampness.

done-mind

In an older home, some amount of moisture in the basement during a wet spring is just part of the deal. If you’ve done all you can to minimize it, protected items you store in the basement, and prepared for cleanup, you can go through the spring thaw season with serenity—or at least keep from freaking out the day you discover seepage!

Snow removal isn’t just for sidewalks!

We know: you’ve already spent hours shoveling snow this week, and you’re wondering when it will ever end. We are, too!

But take a few minutes and make sure these areas are clear of snow, too. They’re all important to your health and safety!

furnace intake

If you have a side-vented furnace, you’ve got these guys: an air intake and a vent. Make sure they’re not covered with snow.

talking fire hydrant

Find the fire hydrant on your block, and do your part to clear the snow around it. A few minutes of work now might save a life in the event of a fire.

talking gas vent

If your gas meter is inside your house, a flexible hose leads from the meter to the outside wall, and a character like this (about the size of a doughnut hole) sticks out of the side of your house. Make sure no snow or ice block it; it’s a gas pressure regulator vent.

talking outdoor meter

If your gas meter is outside your house, the regulator vent is part of the meter, and it’s important to keep the whole meter clear of snow and ice to prevent dangerous buildup of natural gas. More on this from Xcel Energy here.

trash

Last but not least, don’t forget your garbage and recycling bins. Clear off the tops, make sure they aren’t frozen onto the ground (or frozen shut), and clear a path from the bins to the alley or street.

Done with all that? Bravo! Enjoy the peace of mind of knowing that the important parts of your house are clear of snow … and also that spring will come someday and melt the rest away!

House and giftsIn the spirit of holiday gift guides, the elves at PRG have put together this list of presents your home would love to receive.

Under $10

Energy: Save yourself from the annoying low-battery “peep” by proactively replacing batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors twice a year. One easy way to stay on top of this is to do it every spring and fall when you change your clocks for Daylight Saving Time. But, if you missed this past fall, why not make it a holiday tradition? Another hidden battery in your house: the one in your programmable thermostat.

Light: Efficiency and longevity vary, but slowly upgrading to compact fluorescent or LED light bulbs can be a cost-effective, energy-efficient move. Consumer Reports has a nice run-down of the options.

Under $20

radonPeace of Mind: If you don’t already have a radon mitigation system installed, winter is a good time to test your home for radon, a gas that can raise the risk of lung cancer. Simple test kits can be found at hardware stores and mailed in for analysis. If the test finds that radon is at a hazardous level in your home, a system can be installed to improve it (typical cost for a mitigation system, if needed, is $1200 to $1800).

Under $50

A Little Blanket: Your water heater might benefit from some extra insulation to increase its efficiency. Follow these steps to see if a pre-cut water heater blanket might be on your home’s wish list.

Fresh Air: Your furnace has to work extra hard to keep you warm when its filter is full of dirt, dust bunnies, and pet fur.  There are lots of options for filter types. Consult your owner’s manual for filter replacement recommendations, and follow them.

Under $100porch light

A Little Bling: How about a nice new light fixture to spruce up the outside of your home?

$500+

A Big Blanket: Attic insulation is on the pricey side, but your home will show its gratitude with warmth and lower heating bills for years to come.

Free

Sunshine: On sunny winter days, make sure you open the shades and blinds on the south side of your house to take advantage of the absolutely free warmth of the sun.

Spa Treatment: Spend some quality time giving your home some extra cleaning. You’ll enjoy the gleaming smile you see in return. Tasks like vacuuming off your fridge’s coils and/or air intake will even increase the appliance’s efficiency and life!

 

   

PRG has been heading up homebuyer workshops for 20 years. Thousands of first-time homebuyers have attended our nine-hour workshops and come away pleased with what they know.

When we first started offering this service, in-person workshops were the only way to find so much good, impartial information on the home buying process. Today, you have the internet and lots of ways to research and learn online, including the new FRAMEWORK™ option.

But the face-to-face workshop continues to be a great way to learn, and we’re committed to making it available. If you choose to attend an in-person workshop, here are some things we think you’ll love:

High quality: We start with the widely respected Home Stretch curriculum, which includes everything you need to know to get started on your home ownership journey. The presenters are PRG staff and volunteers who work every day with first-time homebuyers, who know the material inside and out, and who are committed to talking to you about what you need to know.

Engaging: You’re not just listening for nine hours; you’re participating. You have the opportunity to connect what you’re learning with your own situation, ask questions to clarify what’s happening, and get to know the experts who are sharing the information you need.

Local: The PRG staff and home ownership professionals who present the workshops are your neighbors—people who work in your community and know the local climate with all its unique opportunities and challenges.

Certified: Your Home Stretch certificate is a key to accessing many loan programs and other forms of assistance. PRG’s Home Stretch workshops are also HUD-approved and NSP-certified.

Personal: From the moment you sign up, through the workshop itself, on through your home purchase and beyond, PRG is here for you. Our free individual homebuyer counseling (available whether or not you attend the workshop) is highly personalized to help you figure out your best next steps toward your goals. Our monthly Home Tips email keeps you in the loop about home buying topics and opportunities. And we’re here to support you if you run into trouble during or after your home purchase.

By far the most frequent comment we receive from workshop participants is, “I wish I’d known about this sooner.”We hope you’ll sign up for a workshop early in your home buying adventure, or call us to find out more: (612) 721-7556.

Many homeowners feel stretched to pay their mortgage or are have fallen behind on their payments. Scammers, often calling themselves “foreclosure consultants” or “foreclosure relief companies,” take advantage of people who are experiencing this very common problem.

How can you tell if an offer of help is legitimate? Beware of:

  • Anyone who guarantees a mortgage modification. There are no guarantees. Your success in finding a solution to make your mortgage affordable will depend on many things, including how soon you seek help; your income; and the reasons you’re having trouble making payments.
  • Anyone who charges an up-front fee to help you. Trustworthy, professional assistance is available free through HUD-approved non-profit organizations that abide by rules that keep your information secure and assure you of the best assistance possible. A “consultant” or “counselor” who charges a fee up front may not actually provide any of the promised services, and may actually disappear or become unavailable once you’ve paid the fee.
  • “Attorney backed” programs. According to the Minnesota Attorney General’s office, “These companies may tell homeowners that they are exempt from Minnesota’s law prohibiting up-front fees because they use attorneys and that homeowners will receive better service because they are working with attorneys.” In reality, these companies use lawyers who are not authorized to practice in the state of Minnesota, and typically require extremely high fees for “services” that give the homeowner no positive results.
  • Phone calls that seem to be from your bank. Some scam artists may try to give the impression of being representatives of your mortgage servicer. Of course, it’s possible that your bank actually might call you on the phone, but remember that a real representative of your bank shouldn’t need to ask you for personal information (they already have it!) If you’re in doubt about the identity of a caller or the legitimacy of an offer, end the call, and call a number that you know belongs to your bank to investigate.

This list of tips draws from information provided by the office Minnesota Attorney General. See the Attorney General’s website for more details on these and many other tips related to mortgage scams.

If in doubt, contact an advisor at PRG or another HUD-approved organization. Our assistance is confidential and free of charge.

Welcome to spring! Here are some tips on taking care of your home throughout the freeze-thaw cycle that is March (and April) in Minnesota.

An Icy Haiku

Homeowner Glenn sent us this question:

“Water dripping from gutter … then freezes over night… sidewalk slippery …”

Glenn’s quick message actually touches on a bunch of issues that many homeowners experience. Let’s look at them one by one.

1. Snow on the Roof, and what happens to it next.

If water’s dripping from your gutters, it could be that you have (or are about to have) ice dams. A neighboring organization in St. Paul, Community NHS, has put together a great slideshow on ice dams—what they are and how to prevent them. As you’ll see if you follow that link, ice dams can lead to problems much bigger than a slippery sidewalk. Long-term, the solution is often better insulation; short-term, it’s removing snow from the roof. Check out that link for more details.

2. Gutters and Downspouts

It’s also important to look at where the water runs once it leaves the roof. If your downspouts are clear, you may just need to redirect the downspouts to deposit the water in a spot where you don’t mind a little ice.

Some homeowners have also had success threading heat tape through the downspouts to keep them clear. That takes a lot of electricity, though, so use sparingly.

3. Your Sidewalk

As a last resort, if redirecting the downspout doesn’t work, you might look at changing the location of sections of the sidewalk away from the downspout/discharge area.

4. Ice Happens

Sometimes all the insulation, snow removal, and downspout modification in the world can’t keep ice from forming on your sidewalk. For those few weeks of unavoidable ice, use grit (plain sand or kitty litter) or a salt product (be careful with this around plants or lawns) to help keep walkers safe.

If you’re looking for the perfect ice melt product and you only need to treat a small area try calcium magnesium acetate (CMA). This material is one of the safest deicing products because it has very low corrosive potential, meaning less damage to vegetation, sidewalks etc. CMA is biodegradable, and its ice melt properties are comparable to most standard salt formulations, but its biggest limitation to use is cost—it is 20-30 times more expensive than traditional rock salt products.

5. Spring Happens!

If all else fails, wait for spring to do its work. All this cold and wet stuff is bound to be gone sooner or later, and you’ll have several months to get ready for next year’s ice and snow!

When you own a house, you own a lot of things that might need fixing. This month, the PRG staff share their most treasured tools to have on hand.

Kathy :  A Multi-Bit Screwdriver

“I purchased one last year and keep it in the kitchen junk drawer.  No more running down to the basement for the right screw driver.  Mine also has a ratchet function.”

Erin : A Good Flashlight

“I live in a condo, so most tools are not necessary for me, but I always have a flashlight on hand. You never know when the lights are going to go out!”

Carolyn : A Drain Snake

“I have in an old house and don’t want to eat away the plumbing with corrosive drain cleaners. This thing is kind of gross to use, but it’s a bargain compared to calling a plumber when the tub won’t drain. (I also recommend a good pair of work gloves and plenty of rags or paper towels.)”

Kevin : A Cordless Drill

“This one’s a bit of an investment, but comes in handy, especially for bigger projects around the house.”

Paul : A Tape Measure

“For jobs as simple as hanging a picture or rearranging the furniture, or as complicated as you want to get. You could just eyeball it  … but that might not end well.”

Tools on a Budget?
Here are some ideas for getting your hands on the tools you need (especially the larger, more expensive items) without overspending:

  •  Borrow from friends or neighbors.
  •  Use your block club to arrange sharing of bigger tool purchases or rentals.
  •  See if your local hardware store rents the tool you need.
  •  Check out garage sales and second-hand stores.
  •  Get in touch with your neighborhood organization. Some offer voucher programs to help residents keep up with repairs and improvements.

Your house—and the way you live in it—can help deter crime.

Tip #1:  Design for Crime Prevention

Design sounds intimidating, but a few small, low-cost improvements can go a long way toward preventing crime in and around your home. Think about doing one or all of the following:

  • Install motion-sensing lights to brighten entry areas and draw attention to activity around your home at night.
  • Make your doors and windows visible. By eliminating high hedges or fences, you make it easier for neighbors to help keep an eye on your house, and harder for someone to break in without being detected.
  • Low, thorny shrubs (low enough to leave the windows themselves visible) can deter intruders from attempting to enter that way.
  • Maintain your property well. Research shows that signs of disrepair in a neighborhood can attract and encourage more crime.

These ideas are all a part of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design—which can also include much bigger decisions like window placement and the shape of a building. This site provides a good summary if you want to know more.

Tip #2:   Make it Seem Like You’re Home

If you go away for a few days (or even for a long evening), don’t leave an obviously empty house behind.

A simple timer costs under $10 at your local hardware store. You can plug it into any outlet and easily set it to turn a light on and off automatically while you’re away. Simpler yet (or in addition) leave a radio on to make it sound like somebody’s inside.

Tip #3:  Facebook Foibles

What might be wrong with this status update, posted to 300 of your closest friends:

“Off to grandma’s house for a long weekend!”

You guessed it. The more people who know when your house is unoccupied, the more vulnerable it is. It makes good sense to tell a trusted neighbor or two when you’ll be away—they can help keep an eye out for unexpected activity. But broadcasting these plans to a large group of acquaintances is not a helpful move. Think about who sees the information you post online, and be mindful of your security settings, or just wait to share the news of your travels until after you’re safely home.

Whether you own your home or rent it, the people nearby matter! Here are the PRG staff’s best ideas on how to connect with—and grow—the community around you.

Tip #1:  What’s Already in Place?
Find your neighborhood organization . Each of the 81 Minneapolis neighborhoods has an organization, and many are already strong and offer lots of opportunities to get involved.

Your neighborhood organization will also be able to connect you with a block club leader, if there is one on your block. If not, consider starting a block or apartment club yourself . This is a way for neighbors to get to know each other and address issues together. And look at this list of creative ideas for block club activities.

Tip #2:   Find Ways to Share
A small act of generosity is a great step toward a strong community. If you can create a way for many neighbors to connect by sharing … even better!

Too busy? How about a dinner swap—partner up with one or several neighbors to trade cooking duties, and end up with less work (and more food) on your plate.

Look for possibilities related to your hobbies and interests: if you’re a bookworm, put up a Little Free Library where neighbors and passersby can swap their favorite reads. If you’re a gardener, plant something edible in your front yard, like berries or cherry tomatoes, and put up a sign inviting neighbors to stop and sample. If you’re healthy and love a good workout, take a few extra minutes on a snowy morning to help a neighbor clear their sidewalk.

Tip #3: Connect Online
The neighborhood forums run by E-democracy can be a great way to hear from and reach out to the folks around you. E-democracy is independent and locally run, and its site is free of advertising. They also list links to other independent, neighborhood-based online meeting places (those using Facebook or Yahoo Groups, for example).

Chances are good that if you own a home, you also have some land to take care of. Whether it’s a sprawling back yard or just that little strip of ground between the sidewalk and the street, the earth outside your home presents some work … and some opportunities.

Tip #1:  Trees Get Thirsty, Too

Most boulevard and yard trees in Minneapolis need an inch of water per week throughout the spring, summer and fall, and drought conditions in recent years have made them even more likely to suffer without it. What’s an inch of water? It’s roughly equivalent to a nice big thunderstorm, or a whole day of drippy rain. In weeks without that much rain, water each tree by letting the hose trickle water at its base for a few hours. This should only increase your water bill by about $3 for the entire season, and the tree will pay you back with its shade and beauty over a long and healthy life. (This tip comes from this City of Minneapolis web page, which also has a link to a list of licensed tree care companies.)

Tip #2:   Your Yard Can Make Food

There’s no free lunch, but you can grow some food of your own—and it doesn’t have to be hard or expensive. Check out the Local Food Resource Hubs coordinated by the non-profit Gardening Matters. Yearly memberships start at $10 (with scholarships available), and members get free seeds and seedlings in the spring, plus access to discounted/shared tools and gardening classes.

Want to use your land well but don’t like digging in the dirt? Yards 2 Gardens connects people who want to garden (apartment dwellers, for example), with unused yard space. Check out the stories about homeowners trading gardening space for a share of the harvest! And if you want to grow veggies yourself, you can also use Yards 2 Gardens to find tools, compost, soil, plants, expert neighbors, and more.

You know who sees a lot of homes in need of repair? PRG’s housing development staff. Kevin, Erin, and Kathy scout out homes in need of repair and find ways to fix them. Here are there top simple tips for keeping your home in good shape:

Kathy’s Tip:  Watch Where the Water Goes
Next time there’s a heavy rain, put on your boots, grab your umbrella, and walk the perimeter of your home. Where is the water going?

I did this last week at my house and found two problems—one extension (the thing on the ground that’s supposed to move water away from the foundation) that had become disconnected from the downspout, and one gutter-to-downspout connection with a major leak.

Nobody likes a wet basement, and while you can’t always keep the water out, having an eye on what happens in a rainstorm is a big step toward keeping your basement from turning into a swimming pool.

Erin’s Tip:  Be a Fan 
Ok, I really mean use your fans. Turning on the bathroom fan to get rid of odors may be common sense, but do you remember to run the bathroom or kitchen fan every time you shower or cook? Over the long term, unventilated kitchen and bathroom air will take their toll on your home in the form of mildew and unpleasant smells. Teach everyone in your family to take this simple step—you’ll help lower the humidity in your home and keep the house smelling fresh.

Always forgetting to turn the fan off? Save energy by installing a timer switch, so that the fan turns off by itself after an appropriate length of time. Timer switches are available cheaply at hardware stores and can be installed fairly easily with a little safety know-how.

Kevin’s Tip: Keep it Clean
Keep your major appliances clean, that is. Replace your furnace filter monthly. This helps your furnace and/or your central A/C run more smoothly and efficiently, which saves you money on your utility bill.

Also, once a year, with the hose attachment from your vacuum cleaner, clean out the dust from the coils underneath or behind your refrigerator. This will help your fridge run more efficiently and extend its useful life.

You’ve heard people talk about down payment assistance and affordable home loans. But what are the details, and what do you qualify for?

Down Payment and Entry Cost Assistance
The Home Ownership Center of Minnesota has fact sheets for new homebuyers. These include all kinds of information related to home ownership. Scroll to the bottom of that page, and you can download a comprehensive list of down payment and entry cost assistance programs as well as affordable loan programs. Own A Home MN also has a great list of assistance programs.

Affordable Homes for Sale
Own A Home MN lists affordable homes for sale throughout the state, and you can search by location, price, size, and more. Homes rehabbed by PRG are listed there, as well as here on our website.

Help!

PRG’s homebuyer counselors are available to talk with you—free—about your home buying goals, your finances, and which programs might be the best fit for you. Give us a call at (612) 721-7556 to make an appointment.

An update to last month’s down payment assistance tips:
Last week the Home Ownership Center of Minnesota announced a partnership with Down Payment Resource. This is a simple tool that lets you search for down payment assistance available for your specific home purchase.

Whether you’re a new homeowner or are considering a future home purchase, as April 15 approaches you are probably thinking about taxes.

PRG’s staff are not tax experts, but here are some resources we share with clients who are considering the impact of home ownership on the taxes they pay, or who are seeking help filing:

How does home ownership affect the taxes I pay?

Freddie Mac has a calculator that estimates the effect of home ownership on your tax payment each year.

What if I need help filing my taxes?

AccountAbility Minnesota offers tax clinics that help you file your return. The clinics are available free of charge to individuals earning less than $30,000 per year, and families earning less than $50,000 per year. The Minnesota Department of Revenue lists similar clinics that are available with the same income guidelines, and are free for senior and disabled citizens regardless of income.

Tax Credits

Check out AccountAbility Minnesota’s list of tax credits for a rundown of credits you might be eligible for and how to apply. These credits—including the state Property Tax Refund—are relevant whether you own or rent your home.

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    Leonard, Advising Client
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