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.

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.

Trying to keep warm without breaking the bank? Helping keep the earth green by using less fuel? Here are some home energy efficiency ideas:

How efficient is your home?
You could compare gas bills with all your neighbors, but using the federal Energy Star site is probably easier. Their calculator helps you look at your home’s energy use and costs compared to similar homes locally and nationally.

What can you do about it?

Locally, the Community Energy Services program run by the non-profit Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) gives free presentations about simple steps to keep your family comfortable and save energy. After attending a presentation, you can schedule a low-cost ($30) home visit to check out (and sometimes even fix, at no charge!) some of your home’s needs, including installing programmable thermostats, insulating pipes, and more.

Xcel Energy provides some efficiency information on their website, too, including rebate programs that could save money if you’re upgrading to a more energy-efficient furnace or other appliance.

And if you’re considering higher-budget efficiency improvement projects CEE’s search tool lets you see available financing and incentives at the city, state, and neighborhood level.

  • The counseling gave me the confidence to buy my first home.

    Jamar, PRG Homeowner, Jordan
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