Monthly Archives: July 2016

Tips to Cut Your Home Energy Bill This Winter

Five strategies to beat the deep-freeze and save money on your energy bills this winter.
Tips to more energy efficient home

This year, the average Canadian will spend upward of $1,800 on natural gas and electricity bills; much of that during winter, when cold drafts entering the home can significantly jack up indoor energy use. Here are some hints on how to stay toasty warm this winter—without taking a financial hit.

– Maintain your furnace

Do-it-yourself: Check furnace filters once a month for lint buildup, and clean or replace them every three months. Clogged with dirt and dust, they can be an energy suck and won’t last as long. Regardless of age or quality, a furnace should undergo a checkup every two years (or annually, for an oil system) to prevent expensive breakdowns and maintain the manufacturer’s warranty.

Big fix: Pellet stoves heat up large spaces by burning sticks of compressed sawdust and scrap wood. They take more maintenance than gas or oil stoves but allow you to turn the thermostat down, or even off, if you’re spending a lot of time in one part of the house.

– Turn down your thermostat

Do-it-yourself: Setting your thermostat back by 4°C to 6°C for eight hours each day can shave up to 15 per cent off your heating bill. The Canadian Centre for Housing Technology finds it most efficient to keep your home at 22°C when you’re at home in the daytime and at 16°C to 18°C otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, your furnace won’t work extra hard to bring temperatures back up.

Big fix: Try a thermostat with a brain: some will track your daily home-and-away habits, set the temperature accordingly and are programmable using your smartphone. (One, called the Nest, is even designed by the minds behind your favourite Apple products.)

– Inspect your roof and gutters

Do-it-yourself: Before temperatures dip below freezing, clean your gutters and downspouts of any leaves and debris clogs—clogs mean melting ice will seep into roof shingles. If you have an operational fireplace, make sure its damper is still working and keep it closed when not in use.

Big fix: Think of insulation like the toque your roof needs to wear in winter—up to 25 per cent of a home’s heat can be lost through the roof if it’s not properly insulated.

– Seal windows

Do-it-yourself: A thrifty treatment for thin glass windows is to line them with bubble wrap: mist your windows with water and push the bubbled side of the sheet against the pane. No glue needed—simply re-mist and reattach if the plastic loses adhesion.

Big fix: Adding storm windows to existing frames is one way to boost heat retention. Replacing them entirely with Energy Star-certified windows, double- or triple-glazed and filled with insulating argon or krypton gas, keeps them sealed year-round.

– Seal doors

Do-it-yourself: Prevent cold-air leaks with a draft snake: a plush doorstopper placed in entryways to stop drafts. If you’re crafty, make your own, but something as simple as a rolled-up towel will do.

Big fix: If your front door lets in more drafts than people, consider upgrading to an airtight model with double- or triple-glazed glass, an insulated core and good-quality weatherstripping (some newer frames include a magnetic strip that seals more tightly).

Tips to Keep a Contractor From Saying No to Your Small Job

Your handyman was happy to replace the rotting wood on your exterior window sills, but he balked when you asked him to do comprehensive work on your busted bay window. So you call five general contractors about the job: Only one has promised a quote, another gives you attitude, and the rest don’t return your messages. Why? Don’t they realize there’s a hole in your house that needs to be fixed? Don’t they like money?

Convincing a general contractor to take on small, inexpensive jobs can be a challenge. After all, they have entire homes to build and kitchens to renovate — why would they waste time taking on tiny projects?

It can be maddening, but don’t lose hope. Contractors can be convinced to handle your small-scale project. You just need to use the right tactics. Here are a few to try:

1. Make It a Twofer
Replacing and trimming out one bay window might not compel a busy contractor. But tack on the installation of a water-saving toilet and that rainfall showerhead you’ve been pining after? That’s a different story.

“Try to bundle it up,” says Bryan Clayton, a former general contractor with 15 years of experience. Combining projects is a win-win for you and the contractor: You get the home you want, and they can charge enough money to make the job worth their while.

Okay, it’s a win-sort-of-win. Obviously, two jobs will cost more than one. But, then again, you’ll knock off half your honey-do list in one fell swoop. And that’s pretty sweet.

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2. Take On the Hassle of Buying the Goods
Contractors will be more tempted to take your job if their overhead is low, and the hassle is really minimal. In other words, if you take care of buying the materials and making sure they’re available when the contractor needs them.

This one is definitely a win-win, because you’ll be saving money, too. Contractors often mark up the cost of materials to cover transportation and storage costs. “If they buy the materials and have to wait 15 or 20 days to get paid, they need to get compensated for the capital risk,” Clayton says. “Cut that out and pay directly.”
For instance, the cost of installing new hardwood floors will be lower if you have the wood shipped directly to your house. It removes the contractor’s risk while saving them time and effort. “They love to hear that,” says Clayton.

[ See How Much You Can Save if You Buy-It-Yourself ]

3. Chill Out Until Winter
Assuming your project doesn’t need completion before your in-laws visit next month, it’ll benefit you greatly to wait for the off-season. Most contractors will be eager for work once temps start to dip into the freezing zone.

“Absolutely wait until winter,” Clayton says. “During that time of the year, you’ll get a better contractor at a better price.”
This applies doubly if you need any exterior work, like repairing a deck. Most homeowners don’t think to do exterior work in cold weather, but that’s when these contractors have the most availability. Yes, it might take a little bit longer, especially if the weather gets unruly, but the job will still get done — and possibly cost you way less.

4. Send a Snap
Trying to find a contractor for your small job might seem like an Olympian endeavor for one seemingly small (but endlessly frustrating) reason: You can’t get them to come out and give you a darn quote.

To be fair, their hesitance is understandable. Homeowners often get multiple quotes, so there’s a good chance the contractor’s visit won’t bring in any new business. For a job that sounds like a pittance, why would they bother?

Save them the trip and take pictures. Email or text the pics, plus basic information about your project, and the process can be expedited for both you and them.

“I can give them a quote in 20 minutes,” says Danny Ruby, a general contractor in Boston.

5. Be (Sigh) Patient
Does your project need completion today? Or can you bear waiting a few weeks to get those front porch steps replaced? Allowing a flexible timeline might encourage contractors to pick up your small job.

“The more flexible you are, the better,” says Clayton. Contractors might fit in smaller jobs during downtime for larger projects. They can pop over and work on your built-in window seat while they’re waiting for tile to arrive for a bathroom remodel they’re doing nearby.

Beware, though, Clayton says. Squeezing in bits of work might mean the job takes a long, long time. It’s fair to not let a project drag out too long, but offering flexibility can get a project started — and hopefully finished — sooner.
“Be polite and patient, but also know if you’re getting the run-around,” he says.

6. And, Finally, Don’t Act Shocked at the Cost
Contractors are different from handymen for a reason. Handymen have a wide variety of skills that lets them tackle odd jobs, like patching up holes and fixing wobbly doors. Contractors offer a deeper knowledge of construction and are typically licensed in a specific trade (like plumbing or carpentry), letting them tackle complex projects with precision.

A handyman, for instance, can hang shelves. But you’ll want someone with specialty skills for constructing new built-ins, a complex task that could go wrong in many interesting ways. Hence, the general contractor. And you should expect to pay extra for those special skills.

“Homeowners can’t expect to pay handyman costs, but have a contractor come over,” Ruby says. “They’re going to have to pay accordingly.”

Typically, contractors also provide liability insurance for your project, workers comp for their employees, and a warranty in case something goes wrong.

Not balking at those legitimately higher rates can go a long way toward convincing a contractor to take your smaller job. While pricing specifics will depend on your area or job, expect a handyman to cost roughly $25 per hour. A contractor might charge $60 or (much, much) more.

“I have no problems doing small jobs, but when I tell homeowners how much they cost, they aren’t happy,” Ruby says.

Some Mistakes That Cost Homeowners BIG Money During Cold Weather

Wintry weather is great at turning up problems you didn’t even know you had. Like that first snowy night in front of your fireplace that you thought was pure bliss — until you noticed a leak in the ceiling corner, which apparently was caused by a lack of insulation. How were you supposed to know that?

Many homeowners don’t realize they’re making critical missteps that can cost a ton when winter sets in. Here are seven wintertime mistakes homeowners often make (and what they could cost you!):

1. Not Buying a $2 Protector for Your Outdoor Faucet
What It’ll Cost You: Up to $15,000 and a whole lot of grief

It’s amazing what a little frozen water can do damage-wise. An inch of water in your basement can cost up to $15,000 to pump out and dry out. And, yet, it’s so easy to prevent, especially with outdoor faucets, which are the most susceptible to freezing temps.

The simplest thing to do is to remove your garden hose from your outdoor faucet and drain it. Then add a faucet protector to keep cold air from getting into your pipes. They’re really cheap (some are under $2; the more expensive ones are still less than $10). “Get these now,” says Danny Lipford, home improvement expert and host of the “Today’s Homeowner” television and radio shows. “When the weatherman says we’ve got cold coming, they’ll sell out in minutes.”

While you’re at it, make sure any exposed pipes in an unheated basement or garage are insulated, too, or you’ll face the same pricey problem.

Wrap pipes with foam plumbing insulation — before the weather drops. It’s cheap, too, just like the faucet cover (only $1 for six feet of polyethylene insulation). And it’s an easy DIY project, as long as you can reach the pipes.

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2. Instagramming Your Icicles Instead of Preventing Them
What It’ll Cost You: $500 — if you’re lucky; a lot more if you’re not

Those icicles make your home look so picturesque, you just gotta take a few pics. But you better make them quick. Those icicles can literally be a dam problem. (Yes, dam — not the curse word that sounds the same. )

Icicles are a clear sign that you’ve got an ice dam, which is exactly what it sounds like: a buildup of ice on your gutter or roof that prevents melting snow and ice from flowing through your gutters. That’s really bad news because these icy blocks can lead to expensive roofing repairs.

Depending on where you live, expect to pay at least $500 for each ice dam to be steamed off. Leave the ice and you risk long-term damage, which could ultimately cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to your roof, depending on what type of shingles you have and the size of the damaged area.

How to prevent them? Insulation. “Ice dams, icicles, and ice buildup on the gutters is a symptom of not enough insulation in the attic,” says Chris Johnson, owner of Navarre True Value and several other stores in the Twin Cities area.

And “you need to have at least 14 inches of insulation in your attic, no matter where you live,” says Lipford. If you live in a colder climate, you’ll need more.

If you don’t have the cash to insulate, heated gutter cables, which run between $50 and $150 each, can be a less expensive alternative when temporarily affixed to areas prone to ice damming, Johnson suggests.

3. Going Lazy on Your Gutters
What It’ll Cost You: You really don’t want to be in a position to find out

It can be so tempting to skip gutter cleanups as winter nears. It seems like as soon as you clear your gutters, they clog right back up again. So what’s the point?

Well, if it looks like you’re living inside a waterfall when it rains, water is missing your gutter system completely. It’s being directed to your foundation instead. And a water-damaged foundation is never, ever cheap to fix.

A contractor can plug foundation cracks for $1,500 to $3,000, says David Verbofsky, director of training for exterior home products manufacturer Ply Gem. But a worse problem, one that requires a foundation excavation or rebuild, can set you back (gulp) $30,000 or more.

Suddenly, cleaning your gutters a few times each fall doesn’t seem so bad. A pro can do the work for anywhere between $70 and $250, depending on the size of your gutter system.

4. Giving Cold Air a Chance to Sneak In
What It’ll Cost You: Nights where you never feel warm, despite sky-high heating bills

“If it were possible to take every crack on the outside of a typical home and drag them together, you’d have the equivalent of a three-by-three window open all the time,” says Lipford. Yikes.

Yet cracks can be easily and inexpensively sealed with a simple tube of caulk, and it’s available in hundreds of colors to match your window panes, outside siding, and even brick. Not sure where to caulk? Look for visible cracks around:

Window sills
Baseboards
Fireplace or dryer vents
Anywhere something inside pokes a hole to the outside
5. Not Getting Personal with Your Thermostat
What It’ll Cost You: Money you could spend on something else besides heating

We all know we should, but we seem to have some mental block when it comes to programming our thermostats to align with our schedules. It’s not that hard, and sometimes all it takes is buying a new one that suits you. (Like maybe a Wi-Fi one that’ll give you a little money-saving thrill each time you swipe your app.)

“From a cost-savings perspective, a programmable thermostat is a great investment,” Lipford says — as much as 10% off your energy bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Related: Get tips on choosing and programming a thermostat

6. Skipping Furnace Tune-Ups
What It’ll Cost You: A furnace that’ll die years before it should — and higher energy bills

“Forget to service your furnace and you could easily cut five years off the life of your system,” says Lipford, who added that five years is a full third of the typical unit’s life span. New units can cost around $4,000 installed, making the $125 annual maintenance charge a no-brainer.

While you’re at it, don’t forget to replace the furnace filter, which cleans the air in your home, and also keeps your furnace coils cleaner, which can shave up to 15% off your energy bill. Johnson suggests at least every three months, but possibly as often as monthly if you have allergies, pets, or smoke cigarettes at home.

7. Foregoing a Fireplace Inspection
What It’ll Cost You: Possibly your life — and your home

“A cozy fire is great, but if you don’t maintain your chimney, a fire can cost you thousands of dollars,” says Johnson, not to mention the risk to you and your family.

Schedule your maintenance appointment as early as you can.”If you wait until the busy season, you’ll have a hard time getting them out there, you’ll pay more, and you’ll get a lower quality job,” says Lipford.

Tips to Prevent Freezing Pipes

Wicked winter weather can cause plumbing pipes to freeze and possibly burst, causing flooding and costly water damage to your home. Taking preventive measures before winter sets in can reduce and eliminate the risk of frozen pipes and other cold-weather threats.

Where the Trouble Lies
“Some pipes are more prone to freezing than others because of their location in the home,” explains Paul Abrams, spokesman for Roto-Rooter.

Pipes most at risk for freezing include:

Exposed pipes in unheated areas of the home.
Pipes located in exterior walls.
Any plumbing on the exterior of the home.
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Preventative Measures for Outside
A frozen garden hose can cause more damage than a busted hose; it can actually burst an interior pipe. When the water in the hose freezes, it expands, increasing pressure throughout the whole plumbing system. As part of your regular seasonal maintenance, garden hoses should be disconnected, drained, and stored before the first hard freeze.

If you don’t have frost-proof spigots, close the interior shut-off valve leading to that faucet, open and drain the spigot, and install a faucet insulator. They cost only a couple bucks and are worth every penny. Don’t forget, outdoor kitchens need winterizing, too, to prevent damage.

Exposed Interior Plumbing
Exposed pipes in the basement are rarely in danger of freezing because they are in a heated portion of the home. But plumbing pipes in an unheated area, such as an attic, crawl space, and garage, are at risk of freezing.

Often, inexpensive foam pipe insulation is enough for moderately cold climates. For severe climes, opt for wrapping problem pipes with thermostatically controlled heat tape (from $50 to $200, depending on length), which will turn on at certain minimum temps.

Under-Insulated Walls
If pipes traveling in exterior walls have frozen in the past (tell-tale signs include water damage, mold, and moisture build-up), it’s probably because of inadequate or improperly installed insulation. It might well be worth the couple hundred dollars it costs to open up the wall and beef up the insulation.

“When nothing else works, say for a northern wall in a really cold climate, the last resort is to reroute a pipe,” notes Abrams. Depending on how far the pipe needs to be moved — and how much damage is caused in the process — this preventative measure costs anywhere from $700 on up. Of course, putting the room back together is extra.

Heading South for the Winter?
For folks leaving their houses for an extended period of time in winter, additional preventative measures must be taken to adequately protect the home from frozen pipes.

Make sure the furnace is set no lower than 55 degrees.
Shut off the main water supply and drain the system by opening all faucets and flushing the toilets.
In extreme situations (vacation home in a bitterly cold climate), Abrams recommends having a plumber come to inspect the system, drain the hot water heater, and perhaps replace the water in traps and drains with nontoxic antifreeze.

Tips to Fool Yourself Into Thinking It’s Spring Inside

Winter is coming, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. If only frigid temperatures brought as much joy as summer sun, a new season of “Game of Thrones,” or heck, even the sandwich you just scarfed down between meetings at work. Unfortunately, the season of oversized parkas and “wintry mix” (meteorologist speak for “cold, wet, sky garbage”) is upon us.

But you don’t have to sacrifice the spirit of springtime just because you spotted a snowflake. Some people say denial is a bad thing; we say it’s a survival technique. Keep your home in a cheerful, spring-like stasis all season long by following these simple tips.

Buy (or Build!) a Window Box
Grow your favorite herbs year-round inside. Mint, rosemary, and thyme thrive with a sunny window during the chilly winter months. And they smell nice, too, making your air as clean as a spring breeze.

Also add easy-to-care-for plants, like the golden pathos vine or the peace lily, to remove harmful contaminants from the air — giving you a literal breath of fresh air when you’re cooped up all winter.

Related: The Most Popular Mood-Lifting Houseplants

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Give Your Nose a Spring-y Treat
Speaking of nice smells, you can trick your brain into believing it’s spring with scent. And all you need for an olfactory refresh is a stove, a pot, and 10 minutes at the grocery store — no need for room deodorizers packed with VOCs (volatile organic compounds, which can damage your organs and harm the environment. Ugh, no thanks.). Boil sliced lemon, thyme, and a spoonful of vanilla to make your nostrils swoon.

Or, supercharge your home with spring-like scents every time you clean. Soak cotton balls in your favorite essential oil (try citrus, jasmine, or lavender). Place them in your vacuum bag before you clean to keep the entire space smelling fresh.

Revisit Your Childhood With a Swing
Nothing says spring like reading a book in your favorite hammock. Make the child in you downright giddy by hanging an indoor hammock (or even a swing!) by your biggest, brightest window.

All you’ll need for the world’s coolest indoor swing is a drill, heavy-duty screws, some nylon, a plank of wood, and a few basic Boy Scout knots. One caveat: Make sure to hang the swing by a sturdy ceiling beam (or screw your hammock anchors into the studs). Otherwise your playful plans might leave you with a bump on the rear.

Lighten Up Your Indoor Lighting
If winter’s wimpy rays leave you feeling sad (or worse, afflicted by seasonal affective disorder), now’s the time to lighten up.

The simplest — and cheapest — solution is to clean
DIY Tip
Your bulbs should have a Kelvin rating of 2700 for a soft, warm light that will also give off a bit of heat to warm your room. — Designer Hollie Blakeney
your bulbs. Yep, dirty bulbs not only make your home look dingy, they waste energy, too.

You could go all out and hire a pro (for about $1,500 to $5,000) to retrofit your lighting to boost the mood in each room. You pay that much for a vacation, why not make your home feel like a vacay spot?

Or split the difference and invest in uplights, says Boston interior designer Heidi Pribell. Uplights are tiny (think coffee-can size) and inexpensive compared with traditional lamps — and have the advantage of sending light up to reflect off the ceiling.

“Lights directly focused on the ceiling will spread and make the room brighter,” she says. “A lamp pushes light down, which doesn’t feel nearly as wonderful as the light projected up.”

Leeeeeeet the Natural Light In
Take advantage of every second of sunshine by installing a skylight.

“I have a humongous skylight in my office,” Pribell says. “That natural light coming from above makes working all winter long fantastic.”

Is installation too costly? (It can run as high as $3,000.) Consider a solar tube system, a cheaper alternative that uses reflective tubes to create a patch of sunlight in your ceiling. Even better: Unlike a skylight, they don’t require reframing your attic, which cuts installation costs by half or more.

Ditch Drab Walls
This winter, stop staring dreamily at the paint samples at your local big box store, and do something about your bland, beige walls. Pick a fiery orange or a spunky yellow, or choose a playful wallpaper to bring your space some out-of-season cheer.

“Pattern and color are a great way to counterbalance any somber mood,” says Pribell. “People are timid about that sort of thing, but it does make a big difference.”

No need to slather color over an entire room — even one overhauled accent wall can be enough to uplift your mood.

Do a Ceiling Fan Check
Ceiling fans are made for warm and cold weather — as long as you use them correctly. Once winter hits, make sure the blades are going clockwise to keep your home warm and cozy.

Because heat rises, precious warm air hovers around the ceiling during wintertime. Reversing your fan’s direction sucks cold air upward and pushes warmer air to the floor. Winter chill? What winter chill?

Unleash the Sun’s Heat During the Day
No, your precious heat won’t escape through the windows if you keep your blinds open. With sunlight at a premium, soak up every second by opening your shades on bright days.

“Follow the lead of the Scandinavians and avoid heavy window coverings that block natural light,” interior designer Hollie Blakeney says. “Let in all the light that you can with sheers or no drapes at all.”

And on those rare sunny, sorta-warm days, go ahead and open the windows for a bit “to rid your home of stale winter air,” she says.

Put Your Winter Gear Out of Sight
Thanks, winter. Cold weather means boots, mittens, and heavy coats — not to mention the dour wintry mood that makes cleaning seem impossible. But interiors are more cheerful when they’re decluttered, no matter how annoying organizing all of your woolen accessories might seem. A cluttered living space feels cramped and uncomfortable, especially when you’re trapped inside for the season.

“Keep winter items out of sight through the use of closets, shoe racks, and drawers,” Blakeney says. After all, if you can’t see your parka, it isn’t winter… right?