Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Quest for an Energy-Efficient House

We Undertake Four Home 'Audits'; The Pros vs. DIY

Preventing energy waste has become a household preoccupation in the era of nearly $4-a-gallon gas and rising prices for everything from airline tickets to milk. Whether motivated by environmental impulses or a desire to reduce utility bills, many Americans are researching ways to create a more energy-efficient home.

Statistics from a range of sources provide plenty of motivation. The U.S. Department of Energy's office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) estimates that draft reduction within a home can lower energy costs anywhere from 5% to 30% annually. Meanwhile, according to Department of Energy data provided by the U.S. Green Building Council, homes account for 21% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. And claiming a green home remodel makes for great neighborhood bragging rights.

Eager to lessen our carbon footprint and plan a responsible remodel, we undertook four so-called "energy audits" on our 1966 Seattle home, which has a finished 1,100-square-foot main floor and a partially finished 1,100-square-foot basement. We wanted to learn both how to improve the finished portion of our home and how best to add insulation and factor energy efficiency into an eventual basement remodel.

Energy audits -- assessments of your home's energy efficiency -- run the gamut from free do-it-yourself audits offered online to paid inspections in which professionals with varying credentials spend up to three hours scrutinizing the home and determining what gestures will improve its energy efficiency and which fixes will reduce energy expenses. More sophisticated professional audits employ high-tech devices, including "blower door" fans, which lower indoor air pressure and enable technicians to measure draft levels, and infrared (thermographic) scanning, which can measure surface temperature variations and thus spot air leaks and poor insulation.

We started with two do-it-yourself energy audits offered free online, including the Home Energy Yardstick offered by Energy Star, the organization that promotes energy efficiency and endorses energy-efficient products, and Home Energy Saver, a free online audit from the Environmental Energy Technologies Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a Department of Energy lab operated by the University of California.

The free Home Energy Yardstick was disappointingly basic -- especially given how much data we had to provide from 12 months' worth of utility bills. However, it's not a bad starting point. The Yardstick calculated that we have a 1.7 efficiency score on a scale of 1 to 10 (oops). Tips for making changes were basic, such as using a programmable thermostat (already in use), energy-efficient bulbs (check), and Energy Star-endorsed appliances. Nice tips, but rather generic.

Next up, Home Energy Saver put us through more paces, asking us to answer 20 categories of questions ranging from insulation levels in attic walls to our furnace type. We had to guess at some answers, but, assuming we guessed right, the data provided were detailed: The program spat out nine pages worth of information on possible improvements, including the cost to implement each, and how much we would save in energy costs. For instance, insulating our basement to R-11 (insulation-speak for thickness levels -- the higher the better) would cost only $480 but could save us $115 per year in reduced bills. These were estimates, to be sure, but they helped us shape priorities.

The professional inspectors drilled deeper, looking more at the "building envelope" of our home and making more concrete recommendations. The Home Detective, a home-inspection company that also performs energy audits, sent an inspector who checked our exterior, climbed in our attic and perused our basement, but didn't bring out some of the higher-tech gear. The upshot? It suggested that we increase the "R" value of attic insulation to R-30 or more, insulate interior walls surrounding our non-insulated garage, and insulate the perimeter of the basement's ceiling -- an area known as the house's "rim joists." Minor fixes would include sealing ducts and any spot where pipes intersect with a floor or ceiling. The cost: $169.

Pinnacle Inspections used both a blower door test and infrared scanning to investigate how airtight our home is. The blower door test, which the technician ran twice to make sure results were solid, revealed that our home is relatively airtight for its age -- possibly due to our new windows. The technician seconded Home Detective's recommendation to insulate rim joists and walls adjacent to our garage, but also was able to use infrared scans to point out non-obvious sources of drafts on our main floor, all needing only minor fixes. These areas included the front door (which needs weather-stripping), switch plates (which need fireproof electrical insulation), window trim (which needs insulation), the attic trap door (which could use weather-stripping or other insulation), and a bathroom fan that is vented into the attic (and could be better insulated).

In the end, we felt that Pinnacle's high-tech energy audit was worth the $550 price tag, since it gave us short-term and low-cost repairs we could make now as well as guidance for future insulation projects. Now, we're ready to tackle that basement.

By: Jane Hodges
Wall Street Journal; September 18, 2008

How to Choose a Mortgage Lender

When choosing a mortgage lender, the first thing one usually thinks of is getting the lowest interest rate available. While interest rates are important, there are other notable considerations, such as choosing a lender you can trust and with whom you can work. Take time to research area lenders.

As you will see in this brief out­line, obtaining a mortgage can be a lengthy and complex process. Along the way, there are many opportuni­ties for problems and misunder­standings.
Select a lender in whom you can have confidence and trust - one you can depend on to help you make decisions for your long term benefit. Taking time to research the lenders in your area just may prove to be the most valuable investment you will make toward the purchase of a new home.

The Best Mortgage

All lenders offer a variety of home financing options. A good lender will work with you to find what best suits your individual circumstances.

Most loan rates will not differ widely. However, differences in loan structure can result in large savings of costs to you. Loans may differ in such items as: Term (length of the loan), prepayment options or penal­ties, processing fees, no credit fees, etc.

While most mortgages are offered for terms of 15 and 30 years, other terms may be available. Keep in mind that the shorter the term, the less you will pay for your house over the life of the loan. However, the shorter the term, the higher your monthly payment will be. Your lender can help you decide which loan arrangements are best for you.

Finding A Lender

  • Build a list of lenders. Talk to people you know who have bought or refinanced a home recently.
  • professionals. Or simply look in the yellow pages under "Mortgages."
  • Talk to a loan officer. Call or visit the lenders on your list. Get a feel for what it will be like to work with them and how they approach your needs. If you're still uncertain, ask for references from recent home buyers like yourself. Ask about their experience with a particular lender.
  • Compare rates for similar loans. Among the things you'll want to discuss with prospective lenders are the rates they offer on mortgages. But when comparing rates between lenders, be sure the rates are for comparable loans, and remember to include fees and other costs so you're really comparing apples to apples.

It is important to verify that you lender is a member of a state as­sociation for mortgage lenders. This is a trade association made up of members engaged, either directly or indirectly, in the mortgage lending business. Each member is bound by a strict code of ethics to encourage the highest standards of conduct in dealing with the public and other members. The purposes of the as­sociation can be summed up as follows:
  • Encourage among its members sound and ethical business practices in making, marketing and servicing of real estate loans.
  • Inform the members of changes in government laws affecting real estate.
  • Provide education to the membership and the public on real estate matters.

In a continued effort to provide consumer education and assure compliance by all members to the canon of ethics, an ethics committee is in place to provide assistance to you. If you have a complaint or need general information, contact your state's mortgage lenders association.


Before you start house hunting, it is wise to determine your price range. This can be done through the simple process ofpre-qualifi­cation. To become pre-qualified, a lender or real estate agent will use financial information you provide to estimate the maximum mortgage you should be able to obtain. The process doesn't guarantee that your mortgage application will be accept­ed, but it does help you narrow your search to homes you can afford.

Interest Rate Protection

When applying for a loan, you will be given an option to "lock in" a rate, thereby guaranteeing your interest rate during the processing and underwriting of your loan. It is wise to obtain a written, rather than verbal, interest rate agreement if you choose this option. The other option is to let the rate "float," allowing the final rate and fees to be set nearer the settlement date. This means your rate would be subject to market conditions at the time and date that your rate is locked in prior to the closing.

Loan Application Process

A loan officer will complete the application form and collect all information necessary to begin pro­cessing the loan. Discuss the loan program and terms best suited to your financial needs with the loan officer. Then a loan processor will verify your loan application infor­mation. The loan processor assembles your documentation for submission and final risk approval to the underwrit­er, who then forwards your package to a closer to prepare the closing documents. If denied, a letter outlin­ing the reasons for denial is issued to you.

Loan Closing

When the lender approves your loan, it is time to close. Closing the loan and transferring the title to the property are the legal procedures that are handled by a real estate attorney.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Properly Fixing a Roof Now Will Save Time and Money Later

Take time to fix your roofFall is upon us, and it won't be long before you look at your roof and see snow piling up. While that isn't an image many people enjoy, it reminds us that it is a good time to check your roof to make sure it is ready to handle the harsh winter weather.

While fall is often a time when homeowners focus on some indoor home improvements, one of the most important home improvements may be putting on a new roof (see if this is covered under your home warranty). Sure, a new roof doesn't have the "wow" factor that a new kitchen or finished basement has, but it is vital in eliminating the potential for serious water damage in your attic. If you have an older home, or even one built in the last 20 years, there is a good chance you need a new roof.

Of course, one of the most common questions I get from callers is, "How do I know if I need a new roof?" If you have any obvious leaks in your attic or ceiling, that's a sure sign that you need a new roof. Even if you don't have a problem with leaks, it doesn't mean your roof is fine. To determine if your roof is in need of repair or replacing, take a pair of binoculars and inspect your roof shingles. If they are cracked, discolored or curling, you should call a full-service roofing contractor to get it inspected.

Once you determine that you need a new roof, you should learn all you can about roofing and roofing products. For example, in the past, many homeowners that had one layer of shingles on their roof would elect to have the roof "re-covered." That's where the contractor would put a new layer of shingles over the old ones. While that is certainly cheaper than a complete "tear-off" of the old shingles, it is not the best solution to your roofing needs.

ORA Warranty is one company that doesn't recommend re-covering. According to experts, if you do a re-cover, it means you are assuming the wood underneath and the original shingles are in good shape. However, you can't really know that unless you tear off the old shingles and inspect the wood. If that wood is rotting or in need of repair, your roof could still leak even after a re-cover.

Home warranty and construction experts also say that re-covering a roof doesn't enable a roofer to address other important areas of the roof's integrity, such as flashing walls and areas around chimneys or stack-vent pipes.

When it comes to roofs, you get what you pay for. Therefore, saving some money by doing a re-cover could unfortunately lead to paying your deductible on an insurance claim when your ceilings are damaged by water leaks.

Cost of shingles

You also get what you pay for in terms of roofing products.

While most contractors may be similar in pricing for installation of a new roof, the bigger cost differences are in the type of shingle you choose. There are two categories where the cost for a shingle can vary dramatically. One is the style of the shingle, while the other is the shingle warranty.

In the past, most shingles were the flat, three-tab variety, and only came in a few basic colors, such as black, gray or brown. Fortunately, today's homeowners can choose from a variety of architecturally designed shingles in a several colors that complement the look and color scheme of your home.

So, today's shingles can actually bring better curb appeal.

Of course, these architectural shingles are more expensive than the flat, three-tab version, but there are various price points for you to choose from to help you stay within your budget.

The other important price factor when considering roofing shingles is the warranty. Obviously, a shingle that is warranted for 50 years is going to cost more than one warranted for 25 years. But it also will be better then the 25-year warranted shingle, so it will last longer.

When it comes to warranties, you need to know what the warranty covers before you can decide whether it's worth the investment. The best warranty is one that has a "No Dollar Limit." Which means that no matter how bad the problem or the cost, the shingle manufacturer will take care of the problem.

If you are planning to get a new roof, it's important to familiarize yourself with the common terms used in the roofing industry to help you make an educated decision when choosing a contractor and roofing materials. See the accompanying story for some of the most common terms used in the roofing business.

Once you have settled on the type of roof shingles you want, make sure you have enough roof and soffit ventilation to improve the shingle's life. With the proper amount of insulation on your attic floor, your attic temperature is closer to the outdoor air temperature, which eliminates the potential to "cook" the underside of the shingles. Most roofing contractors will recommend and install the proper ventilation system for your roof.

Make Home Repairs Before Autumn Sets In

Making small home repairs can prevent larger issues laterWhen you're working, wrangling the kids and generally living a full life, it's easy to let taking care of your home fall to the bottom of the priority list. But you need to stay on top of maintenance chores if you want to keep your home and all the good things in it functioning smoothly.

As fall approaches, it's time to start thinking about a top-to-bottom inspection to check for any damage and to prepare for the upcoming cold winter months.

Bite-sized projects

When it comes to staying one step ahead of maintenance headaches, we have to admit, our preference would be to bury our heads in the sand and hope that someone else takes care of any problems. Fortunately, we learned a trick that helps us overcome that mental block. If we break a big task down into smaller tasks, and then put one task on our to-do list each week, we will surprise ourselves by tackling something we didn't think was possible.

For example, Sarah recently moved into a new house and there were about 50 little maintenance issues, such as a knob that had fallen off the dresser drawer and a leaky faucet that was keeping her up at night, which she knew she had to deal with. So she broke it down. Week one, she created a checklist. Week two, she went to the hardware store for all the supplies she'd need to fix the broken things. Week three, she fixed the broken knob. And so on. When you're feeling overwhelmed, break the project down into smaller bite-sized steps, and you'll be off to the races in no time.

Getting help

If you keep putting off maintenance tasks because you're too busy, reach out to others who can help you. I am happy to admit that I am out of my depth in many areas of home maintenance. Why? Because that means my job as a homeowner is really about finding the right people to help me for the right price.

Here are three essential chores to tackle this week to get your home ready for the transition to fall.

No. 1. Change esssential batteries

Don't wait until your smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors chirp at you to be changed, since that usually happens when you're busy doing something else (like sleeping). Buy a few extra batteries when you're at the grocery store this week and swap out the old batteries for new ones in all of your detectors.

No. 2. Change the filters

As much as half of the energy used in your home goes to heating and cooling. A dirty filter will slow down air flow and make the system work harder to keep you warm or cool -- thus wasting energy. A clean filter will also prevent dust and dirt from building up in the system, leading to expensive maintenance and/or early system failure. If it's been more than three months, buy some new filters and put them in your heating and cooling systems this week.

No. 3. Sweep the chimney

Chimneys need periodic examination and thorough cleaning to maintain efficiency and to reduce the chance of a chimney fire. Book an appointment with a chimney sweep to have yours professionally cleaned and checked for loose or missing mortar.

By: Sarah Welch and Alicia Rockmore
Detroit News; September 20, 2008

Creating a Wonderful Master Bedroom And Bath

Remodeling a home does not have to be so stressfulEnlisting the help of a professional could be a saving grace

To shorten their extremely long commute, many Americans are moving out of the suburbs and into the city. However, this also means trading in a brand-new, spacious dig for a 100-year-old row house that needed lots of work.

To save money, the many intrepid couples decided to don safety glasses and sledgehammers and do it themselves. But after a certain length of time goes by, couples have realized they have bitten off more than they can chew. Their houses are still in shambles, and they often run out of money, ideas and patience.

Many couples often grow weary, and consider abandoning their projects. However, if they can afford to hire a professional to finish their kitchen remodel, for instance, the couples' sanity can be saved. Couples also might want to consider simplifying their projects, like purchasing a bath enclosure rather than completely redoing a bathroom.

Here is a professional's account of a typical couple who has enlisted help:

The couple wanted their third-floor bedroom to be an open space with a bright, airy loft feeling. They had gutted it with that in mind, but the shell of a room lay unfinished in a heap of dust and debris. So the first order of the day was drywall -- a lot of drywall. I created walls and ceilings, and lay down a sub-floor covered with beautiful dark vinyl that has the look of wood.

Once the basics were in place, I chose a color palette for the space. When searching around for inspiration, I found a box labeled "Barb's favorite fabrics." In it, I discovered a gorgeous sage-and-gold cloth that gave me the jumping-off point I needed for the paint, fabrics and tiles.

I then got busy dividing the loft into two zones: a bedroom and a bathroom. I separated the two areas with a wall of closets that provide storage, privacy and soundproofing. In addition, I closed off the smaller entrance to the bathroom with a series of woven panels on a track system that will slide across the space when privacy is needed.

In the bedroom, I put in a king-sized bed with a chocolate-brown upholstered headboard.

For added warmth and ambience, I put in gorgeous linens and throw pillows in a variety of textures and colors. And, for a touch of romance, I installed a beautiful crystal chandelier above the bed.

In the bathroom, I created a little closed-off space for the toilet, but left the rest of the space open.

In this open area, I installed a gorgeous old-style tub with cast-iron feet (after I reinforced the floor to accommodate this 700-pound beauty); a glass-enclosed shower, complete with solid white quartz walls and a feature wall in a beautiful green rippled tile; and a stylish vanity with a quartz countertop, a stunning sink in a gold-and-green paisley pattern, a mirror and two sconces.

After adding a variety of accents and accessories, this third-floor bed and bath were complete. With some high-end fixtures and finishes, a mixture of textures and colors and creative planning, Barb and Evan got the loft space they desired.

Now, with their bedroom-renovation woes behind them, the couple can finally get a good night's sleep -- and start dreaming about finishing the other rooms in their house. How divine!

Luxurious Condo Life

Luxurious Charlotte CondosGlenmore Garden Villas offers luxury living at affordable prices

In today's market, homebuyers have more options – especially when it comes to purchase price.

That's why several developers are building homes and luxury condos that are more affordable than many of the luxury-prices dwellings that came to market a couple of years ago. Yet at the same time, they're not skimping on luxury details.

Elaine Burgin, Marketing Vice President at Glenmore Garden Villas, says there has never been a better time to buy a new condominium, with extremely low mortgage interest rates and great values in the housing industry.

One example is Glenmore Garden Villas, located right off of I-485 on McKee Rd. in Charlotte, North Carolina. Glenmore Garden Villas is being developed as an attached-condo community with units starting from the low $400s.

“Our condos are close to I-485 for easy access to other popular areas of South Charlotte like Ballantyne, Southpark, Center City and the Charlotte Douglas Airport CLT for easy flight arrivals and departures with quick access to the CLT airport parking and terminal.,” says Burgin.

But even with such reasonable pricing, “These units definitely offer luxury-line amenities,” Burgin says. “For example, they all have high vaulted ceilings and cultured marble countertops in Master Bath and Guest Bath rooms. They also include hardwood floors, arched openings, top of the line appliances, and granite countertops in the kitchen.”

Buyers choose one of two floor plans, both equipped with a flex room and office. The Highland Villa is a 2,899 square feet condo, with three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and an open living/dining area. The Forest Gate Villa is also 2,899 square feet and has three bedrooms and two and a half baths, but the dining area is separated and slightly more secluded.

The Glenmore community has 16 acres on which it offers peaceful fountains, gardens, elegant pools, a cabana, and pergola covered lounging areas.

For more information regarding luxury condos, visit Glenmore Garden Villas' website.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Burning Issue

woodstoves may not be the best alternative way to heat your homeAs wood stoves gain popularity, air-quality concerns rise

The soaring prices of heating oil and natural gas are prompting many Americans to warm their houses with a less expensive fuel -- wood.

Consider Julia and Jim Fusari of Freeport, Maine. Last year, they burned 500 gallons of oil to heat their 2,000-square-foot home. They hope to cut that figure in half by supplementing their oil furnace with a new stove that burns pellets of compressed wood waste. Relying solely on oil is "just too expensive," Ms. Fusari says. "We can't afford it.".

But increased reliance on wood stoves is worrying many environmental regulators and activists, who say the practice emits harmful pollutants. Around the country, local environmental regulators are limiting the use of stoves when pollution is especially bad, and in some cases they're offering incentives to get people to buy the cleanest models possible.

"People conceive of burning wood as being natural. Tobacco is natural, too -- until it burns," says Julie Mellum, president of Take Back the Air, an organization concerned with neighborhood air pollution, and Midwest director of Clean Air Revival, a group concerned with the medical hazards of wood-smoke exposure. "When many people are burning wood, the effect is all the more hazardous."

Burning Money

Many homeowners feel they have little choice but to switch to wood stoves. Residential heating oil, an energy source for 8.1 million U.S. households, will average $4.13 per gallon this winter, according to a projection from the Energy Information Administration, a federal agency that tracks energy statistics. The average household can expect to pay $2,524 for heating oil this season, up more than 30% from last year. And natural-gas bills will increase 19% to $1,017, the agency predicts.

The threat of high heating costs is pushing up stove sales across the country. Second-quarter shipments to dealers of pellet-burning stoves and stove-like inserts that fit inside fireplaces rose 212% over the same period last year, reports the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group in Arlington, Va. Shipments of wood-burning stoves and inserts were up 54%.

Burning wood offers consumers sharply lower fuel bills. In some cases, adding a wood stove can reduce oil consumption by half or more, and the cost of fuel can be as low as about $1,380 per season for a pellet stove in a midsize house. The problem? Wood burning produces toxins such as dioxin, arsenic and formaldehyde, and emits fine particles into the air -- known as particulate matter -- that can become embedded in the lungs.

Heat Source

Particulates can aggravate respiratory conditions and lead to cardiac problems and lung disease, according to Janice E. Nolen, a policy advocate for the American Lung Association in Washington, D.C.

In 1988, an Environmental Protection Agency regulation required new stoves to keep particulate emissions below certain levels. Some states and municipalities require that all stoves sold and installed carry an "EPA certified" designation.

But some clean-air advocates say the EPA's certification standards aren't stringent enough to curb runaway pollution. Even wood stoves that are certified as "clean burning" by the EPA still emit 107 times more fine particulates than an oil-fired furnace.

Earlier this year, the Western States Air Resources Council in Seattle and Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management in Boston, both of which are groups of air-quality agencies, urged the EPA to tighten its certification standards with stricter particulate requirements. The EPA says it's reviewing the information it needs to revise the standards.

State by State

In the meantime, local regulators are cracking down. In July, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco approved its first mandatory controls on indoor residential wood burning. The air district can prohibit burning on nights when particulate matter exceeds 35 micrograms per cubic meter -- something that occurred seven times during the 2007-08 winter season. Violators could incur fines of up to $1,000.

Similar measures are in effect elsewhere in California, including Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley, as well as in other states. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency in Seattle bans indoor burning of any type of wood or pellet stove -- unless it's the only adequate heat source -- when pollution reaches its highest levels. (That's on top of Washington State's stringent emissions standards for wood stoves, which are tougher than the EPA's.) In Colorado, residents can use only stoves certified by the EPA or state when pollution is high in the wintertime.

Other states are trying to get residents to replace older stoves with cleaner-burning models or other heating sources. The state of Washington this summer awarded $1.5 million in grants to local clean-air agencies for one such effort. Last year, a Puget Sound Clean Air Agency program offered consumers in three communities incentives ranging from $200 to $750 to make the switch. A total of 238 households participated, and more than 100 switched to cleaner-burning wood or pellet stoves.

A similar program in Libby, Mont., saw 1,130 stoves replaced between 2005 and 2007. The result: a 28% reduction in fine particulates during winter months, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. But Montana air officials say the state needs three years of data in order to be more certain of the program's effects.

Some states with a wealth of forestry resources are trying to balance their convenient fuel source with cleaner air. In Maine, for instance, Gov. John Baldacci has established a Wood to Energy Task Force to explore a transition to cleaner-burning stoves and pellet fuels.
What to Look For

So, what's the best move for consumers interested in heating cleanly with wood? First, do your homework. Standards vary among states and local jurisdictions, so make sure you know what's legal for your area. And look carefully at performance levels, which can vary even among certified stoves.

Hearth Condition

* The Popular Alternative: As oil and gas prices soar, people are flocking to stoves to help heat their homes.
* The Drawback: Burning wood releases harmful pollutants -- leading lots of states to crack down on wood-burning stoves.
* The Smart Solution: Before you buy, do your homework on local rules and figure out what size stove you need. Also, look into ways to keep the heat in your house, such as an efficient shower enclosure, to prevent drafts.

"Look at the emissions numbers and try to purchase the cleanest-burning unit you can," says Lisa Rector, a senior policy analyst with the Northeast States air-quality group.

EPA-certified stoves carry a label that that shows how a particular stove performs on a scale of acceptable emissions and its wood-burning efficiency. The lowest particulate emissions among stoves are generally between 1.8 and 3.0 grams per hour; the EPA limit for wood stoves with the most popular type of combustion system is 7.5 grams per hour.

Also bear in mind that some wood stoves and fireplaces are exempt from the EPA standards, which apply mainly to appliances not intended for residential heating, such as cook stoves, decorative fireplaces and outdoor wood-fired boilers. But it's illegal to install noncertified stoves in places with strict standards, such as Washington State.

Adding to the confusion, many pellet stoves don't require EPA certification at all if they already meet certain standards required for certified wood stoves. They are also relatively clean because the pellets burn more efficiently than regular wood, producing more heat and less pollution (generally about 1.2 grams of particulate emissions per hour). Stoves that burn coal, corn and other organic waste are also unregulated.

It's also important to work with a reputable dealer who can help you choose a properly sized stove. If it's too big, for example, it will overheat the room unless you reduce the air flow -- which causes a low, smoldering fire and excessive smoke. What's more, wood selection can play an important role in pollution reduction. Burning dry, seasoned wood reduces smoke output.

Ultimately, says Ms. Rector of the clean-air group, the burden falls on consumers to do research prior to purchasing a stove. "You can burn wood," she says. "But you have to find out how to do it right."

By: Suzanne Barlyn
Wall Street Journal; September 15, 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

Home-inspection Checklist Helps Prevent Problems

When people buy a home, it is advisable to have it inspected by a professional home inspector to ensure there are no major issues with the home before buying it, and to help determine which items might need repair or regular maintenance.

But once people have lived in their homes for a few years, they usually don't bother about putting many of the same items on a home-inspection checklist to ensure there are no developing problems.

It's smart to use regular-home inspections to ensure your home is properly maintained. Certainly having a professional home inspector perform an annual inspection of your home is a great idea, but you can do your own inspections and save a lot of money.

While I wouldn't advise you to crawl into your attic or up on your roof if you don't feel comfortable doing that, there are plenty of other items you can check and repair if needed.

The weather at this time of year is ideal for doing an exterior inspection of your home. When that's done, check the interior as well so you can fix things before additional problems occur.

When doing your home inspection, focus on these key areas that many professional home inspectors find most often are in need of maintenance:

• Gutters and downspouts. Make sure gutters are clear of debris and aligned properly so they can do what they were made to do -- keep rain water from seeping into your basement and causing potential flooding or structural problems. While you are inspecting your gutters, look for leaks in the seams that can be repaired with silicon caulk. If you pull on the gutters and they give way, your fascia boards may be rotting and need replacing.

• Improper grading around the home. Besides leaky gutters, one of the other common reasons people have basement leaks is because the grading is sloping toward the home, rather than away from it. If you have an area of your yard that slopes toward your home, re-grade it with topsoil.

• Shingles and chimney flashing. Loose or missing shingles are a sure sign your roof may be wearing or is damaged. The safest way to do a sight inspection of your roof is to use a pair of binoculars. Look for worn, curling, or discolored shingles, and check the valleys (where rooflines come together).

Cracks in the valleys can lead to leaks in the attic. They need to be sealed immediately. Then, check the flashings around your chimney to see if they need to be caulked or repaired. This will also help prevent water from leaking into your home.

• Exterior caulking and weather stripping. Lack of proper caulking or weather stripping around door and window exteriors can cause air to seep into and out of the home, which increases heating and cooling bills. Replace hardened or cracked caulk and window putty. Make sure all openings where pipes and wires enter the home are sealed and the caulk is still flexible.

• Gas leaks at valves on appliances. Gas valves on appliances, such as dryers, stoves, or hot-water tanks, can begin to leak over time. There have been many incidents where a gas leak in a home resulted in an explosion.

By doing the simple smell test, you can ensure this catastrophe won't happen to you. If you smell gas, call the gas company immediately.

• Dryer vent systems. Every year, thousands of families experience home fires that are caused by cheap or clogged dryer vents. Unfortunately, many homeowners use vinyl tubing rather than hard metal for the dryer vent, or they don't clean the vents regularly. Both can lead to dryer fires.

If your clothes dyer has a vinyl or foil dryer vent, replace it with a solid-metal vent. And make sure you clean your dryer vent at least twice a year.

• Inoperative smoke detectors. Most people have smoke detectors in their home, but don't clean them or change the battery regularly. I recommend cleaning smoke detectors and replacing the batteries twice a year -- on Memorial Day and on Labor Day. Remember, a smoke detector's life span is 10 years.

Building your own home inspection routine into your annual maintenance schedule is a cost-effective way to protect one of the biggest investments of your life.

Also consider getting a professional home inspector to perform an in-depth inspection every five to ten years to help you determine if you have been missing items that need repair and get a home warranty to cover regular maintenance costs.

It is always more economical to repair or upgrade according to your schedule rather than having to repair or replace on an emergency basis. The more carefully you inspect your home, the less you'll have to worry about in the future.

By: Glenn Haege
Detroit News; August 30, 2008