Real Estate Tips

Real Estate Tips

Sealing and Insulating Your Ductwork

Insulation isn’t free, but as the old saying goes, sometimes you have to spend some to make some. When it comes to adding duct insulation, your monthly savings in utility bills will soon cover the costs, especially if you install the insulation yourself.

The problem with uninsulated ducts

You need insulation – even around your ducts – no matter where you live. Insulation isn’t only about keeping heat in. It also keeps the heat out of the home (or duct).

In the average home, around 20% to 30% of the heated or cooled air flowing through the ducts is lost to leaks and uninsulated surfaces, according to the Department of Energy. The result is higher utility bills, wear and tear on the heating and cooling system, and difficulty maintaining the temperature inside your home. Additionally, uninsulated ducts can accumulate condensation, which eventually leads to rust. Once the ducts start rusting, you face having to install new ducts.

Evaluating your ducts

First, consider the duct location. The greater the temperature extreme between the air inside the duct and the air surrounding the ductwork, the greater your need for duct insulation.

Unfortunately, so many houses – especially newer homes – end up with ductwork running through the attic. Unheated basements, crawl spaces under the home and even garages are also unconditioned (neither heated nor cooled) runs for ductwork.

If, on the other hand, your ducts run across the ceiling of a heated basement or inside well-insulated walls and ceilings, your need for duct insulation is minimal. However, if the ducts have a lot of leaks, the air that makes it to your rooms will not be as warm or as cool as intended. So duct loss matters no matter what.

Then there’s the duct material itself. Most heating and cooling ducts are metal. These are the bulky, gray box-shaped ducts so common everywhere. Sometimes metal ducts are lined with duct liner, a 1-inch-thick fiberglass board that insulates the interior of the duct, rather than the exterior. Duct liner isn’t generally a DIY installation, and if your ducts already have liner, you don’t need to insulate the exterior.

Duct board, much like the duct liner, is also a fiberglass product. Made from 1- to 2-inch-thick sheets of rigid glass fiber and coated with an aluminum laminate for a moisture/air barrier, duct board comes in sections that fit together like metal ducts. Duct board’s advantage is that it is already insulated, eliminating the need for further work, as long as it is structurally sound.

Another product, known as flex duct, is a round framework of wires coated with fiberglass and encased in either foil or plastic to resist moisture and air leakage. Although flexible ducts don’t require further insulation, they are vulnerable to damage, especially punctures. Since they are generally used for short runs, when working on the remainder of your ductwork, check any flex ducts as well.

Types of duct insulation

Once you determine that your duct needs insulation, consider the type of insulation you want. To insulate the exterior, you have a choice between sleeve-style insulation and blanket wraps, which literally wrap around the ductwork.

To install sleeves, you must either disassemble the ductwork and slide it on before reassembling the ducts or – as many homeowners find themselves doing – slit it and wrap it around like the blanket-style material. In the end, it’s probably best to buy the blanket insulation.

  • Duct insulation sleeves: Come in pre-measured lengths. They may have an adhesive strip to make the installation a little easier. Common sleeve materials include foam, bubble wrap and fiberglass, all typically featuring a foil-like outer surface to provide air and moisture resistance. To fit your ducts, simply cut the sleeve to length with a sharp pair of scissors. Like any other insulation, use additional layers to provide better insulation power.
  • Foil-backed self-adhesive foam duct insulation: Installs easily and wraps around irregular ductwork areas well. Most brands come in rolls a foot in width and several feet long. While fairly thin, it works well to dampen sound and can be combined with other forms to increase the insulation rating. Best of all, you eliminate the fiberglass in that area of your home. However, never apply just any foam to your ductwork – only formulas designed for the application. Many foam products are highly flammable and toxic when burning.
  • Fiberglass and cotton duct insulation: This type typically includes an aluminum foil backing to repel moisture invasion or air leaks. Available in a variety of thicknesses, rolls are usually a foot wide and several feet long. It’s often a cheaper form of insulation, though the end value relies on installing it properly. Fiberglass and cotton are easily cut to size.
  • Foil-backed bubble wrap: May not deliver the insulation power and vapor barrier performance you expect if you opt for a cheaper brand. Another drawback is that as a reflective insulation, you must provide an air gap between the duct and insulation itself. Special spacers are purchased to ensure this gap. Alternatively, you can cut squares of the insulation and line the length of the duct with these squares, tape or glue them in place, then install the insulation. Use enough to ensure the length of outer insulation doesn’t touch the duct anywhere. This is quite a hassle, so think carefully before choosing this duct insulation style.

As new and innovative products arise continually, these are by no means the only types of duct insulation available, nor will they remain the main types. When evaluating any type of duct insulation, make note of the installation method, the drawbacks and the advantages, as well as the insulation power, known as the R-value. Talk to others about what works for them and shop around before choosing any insulation for any part of your home.

Considering your insulation R-value

More important than the type of insulation (provided it is installed properly) is the R-value of the insulation you use. R-value is the measure of the ability of the insulation to prevent heat from either penetrating or escaping the object insulated. The higher the R-value (literally meaning resistance value), the better the insulation works. However, there is a ceiling on the effective R-value because, at a certain level, the cost of the material becomes greater than any additional savings.

Before selecting your duct insulation, determine the optimum R-value for your region. In general, the colder your climate, the higher the R-value you will need. Even then, different areas of the home may require greater or lesser insulating power. As a rule of thumb, expect to install a minimum of R-5 material. To be precise, consult the Department of Energy’s Duct Insulation R-value Chart.

When selecting your duct insulation, use the R-value you require to determine what product – or combination of products – you need. Use more than one layer if a single layer won’t give you the value you desire.

Testing and sealing: the critical first steps

Well-meaning homeowners commonly make a couple mistakes when insulating their ducts. First, some don’t realize that you can’t use paper-backed fiberglass insulation. Perhaps the most commonly used insulation for joists and walls, the fiberglass itself is fine, but it doesn’t take much to get the paper hot enough to burn. Never use anything not specifically intended for use with HVAC ductwork.

The second mistake is even more common: DIYers often do not understand that they must seal the ducts first. Failing to perform this basic step will undermine your insulating efforts. No matter how well you install the insulation or how high the R-value, even with the moisture/air barrier attached to the exterior of the insulation, it won’t prevent air and temperature loss if your ducts aren’t structurally sound.

Some ducts, depending on the material and the location, are more vulnerable than others when it comes to air loss, but any duct has the potential to leak. With age, house settling, rust from moisture, animal intrusion and a variety of other hazards, your ducts may obtain anything from pinholes to gaping voids, loose and leaking connections between pieces, or even potentially missing ducts. Your joists or wall studs may actually form the “duct” run if a portion of your HVAC ductwork is missing – or the air may simply pour out to the exterior.

To ensure you aren’t wasting your time, money and insulation, have a duct leak test conducted before sealing the ducts. A professional duct leak test identifies leaks inside your home’s ducts. Generally called a duct blower door test, the technician seals the air intake and outlet registers before blowing air through the system. With the aid of specialized tools, the technician can determine the amount of air leaking from your ductwork and where it’s occurring. Common problem areas include around the registers and vents, where they enter the room they service, and at each duct joint (connection).

Having your ducts tested adds to your expense, of course, with most professional inspections running $100 to $200. Only a professional has the equipment and knowledge required, so it’s really not a DIY-friendly task. Still, spending the money will end up paying off in the end.

Also, local building codes are gradually beginning to require that new houses have a whole-house and duct blower door test performed. How does this apply to you? At any point that you make any upgrade involving your ducts that requires a building permit, you will have to follow the current code. It’s also a good selling point if you ever put your house on the market.

To find a professional to perform the work, try your local utility company, HVAC service company or specialized testing companies. The Department of Energy provides excellent tips on choosing your technician. Also look for energy efficiency credits that may be available through the utility company or the state or federal government for testing and insulating your ducts. This may offset your costs significantly.

Sealing and insulating: getting down to work

Some duct testing companies will seal the ducts for you, eliminating leaks and holes, as either part of the service or for an additional fee. Do what you’re comfortable with – if you feel confident about doing the sealing yourself, it will be messy.

If you decide to proceed without testing your ducts, perform a thorough examination, looking for any rust, holes, severely damaged pieces, loose connections or missing portions, starting at the furnace and air unit and working back to the very last register in the home. Mark problem areas with a marker or chalk. After the inspection, seal your ducts, keeping a few tips in mind:

  • Start with clean, dry ducts. You don’t have to wash them, but wiping them with a damp cloth or whisking them with a broom and making sure the surface is dry will help the sealant-to-duct bond.
  • Select your desired sealant, or use a combination of products as appropriate. Mastic is the most common sealant, but specially formulated duct sealant, in cans or caulk tubes, is also available. Silicone caulk will work in small areas.
  • Choose a tape to use with the sealant when necessary. Special foil tapes work well, or select a mastic tape. Never use duct tape – it will not stick for long. In general, only use the tape by itself when you have no other choice. Any tape tends to degrade or peel away with age, while mastic hardens to a stiff, durable surface. When the tape is used with the mastic, however, it works very well.
  • Spread duct mastic or sealant across the duct seams, joints and very small holes. Follow the product instructions for precise application instructions.
  • Apply mastic in a layer about as thick as a nickel. An even, generous layer helps ensure your duct will never leak again. Use a stiff-bristled paintbrush or your fingers to spread the sealant. Wear rubber gloves to limit skin contact.
  • Wear old clothes during application. Mastic and other products may not wash out.
  • Tape cracks or holes larger than 1/8-inch diameter with the tape selected. Cover with the mastic to create a durable duct patch.
  • Seal all the duct joints, holes and connections near the furnace. Seal the duct-to-register connection as well. Wherever there’s a joint or intrusion, use sealant. Keep in mind that it is better to over-seal than to have a remaining leak.
  • Work from the furnace or air unit back to the last (farthest) register in the home. This allows you to prioritize your sealing efforts, ensuring the most important areas are covered. Holes, leaks and gaps closer to the HVAC unit encounter higher air pressure than those farther away, so your greatest savings and increase in efficiency will come from sealing well at and near the unit. Leaks also tend to be common close to the blower fan and where the ductwork emerges from the furnace.

After the sealant is dry, the final step is insulating the ducts. The process is simple if you use a wrap-style insulation product. Before beginning, read the product instructions and follow wherever they deviate from general duct insulation guidelines:

  • Measure and cut your duct insulation a little large to allow overlap at every seam, both lengthwise and on the ends.
  • Wrap the insulation around the duct, allowing the beginning edge to ride up slightly over the previous piece.
  • Ensure the material is turned the proper way; the vapor barrier should face out, and the fiberglass or other material should be against the duct.
  • First staple, if possible, then tape each seam, both lengthwise and between pieces. When overlapped 2 to 3 inches and secured with tape, each joint should be very secure and leak-free. Use a pressure-sensitive vapor retarder tape designed for ductwork.
  • Tape any punctures in the insulation’s vapor barrier to prevent leaks.
  • Avoid compressing the insulation. Most insulation relies upon the air space between its fibers to deliver the R-value promised. When insulation is squeezed, flattened or compressed, its R-value drops tremendously. Some compression is unavoidable, such as around bends.

Once your ducts are sealed and insulated, you can have a technician retest your ductwork if you desire. Some companies may offer the “after” test for free. Following these guidelines and installing everything properly guarantees that your second test will blow the first away – pun intended – but better yet, your utility bills will show the difference.

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Real Estate Tips

10 Things You Need to Do When Buying A Home

A home is often the biggest financial investment you’ll make in your lifetime. In fact, a recent Zillow analysis reports that the typical American homeowner has 40% of their wealth tied up in their home.

Several years ago, I wrote a complete guide to financial planning on one index card, which went viral and later became a book: “The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated” (co-written with Helaine Olen).

Now, following up on my original index card, I’ve written a guide on buying a house. Below is the housing index card – a handy resource to print and take with you as you look at houses or think about buying one – plus some additional advice as you contemplate making the big decision.

Photo by Harold Pollack.

1. Buy for the long run

A home is a significant investment, not to mention a linchpin of stability. According to the Zillow Group Consumer Housing Trends Report 2017, the majority of Americans who sold their homes last year had lived in their home for at least a decade before selling.

Some are even staying for the long haul. Almost half (46%) of all homeowners are like me – living in the first home we ever purchased. In short: Buy a home you want to live in for at least five years – one equipped (or ready to be equipped) with the features and space you need, both now and in the future.

2. Buy to improve your life, not speculate with money

Your home is more than a financial investment; it’s where you sleep, eat, host friends, raise your children – it’s where your life happens.

The housing market is too unpredictable to buy a (primary) home purely because you think it will net a big short-term financial return. You will most likely be living in this home for several years, regardless of how it appreciates, so your first priority should be finding a home that will meet your needs and help you build the life you want.

3. Focus on what’s important to you

Today’s housing market is short on inventory, with 10% fewer homes on the market in November 2017 than November 2016.

So, focus on finding a home you can afford that meets your needs – but don’t get distracted by shiny features that might break your budget. Nice-to-have features often drive up the price tag for things you don’t particularly value once the initial enjoyment wears off.

Make a list of your basic needs, both for your desired home and for your desired neighborhood. Stick to finding a home that meets these needs, without buying extra stuff that adds up.

4. Set a budget and stick to it

It’s important to set a budget early – ideally before you even start looking at homes. In today’s market, especially in the more competitive markets, it’s incredibly easy to go over budget – 29% of buyers who purchased last year did.

The most common culprit? Location. Zillow’s data indicates that urban buyers are significantly more likely to go over budget (42%) than suburban (25%) or rural (20%) buyers.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Local schools matter, and psychologists tell us that a short commute improves your life. But be realistic about your local market and about yourself. Know what you’re willing to compromise on – be it less square footage, home repairs or a different neighborhood.

5. Aim for a 20% down payment

If you can afford it, a 20% down payment is ideal for three reasons:

  • Buyers who don’t put a full 20% down pay a premium, most commonly in the form of private mortgage insurance (PMI). This is less financially punishing than it used to be, given today’s low mortgage rates. A monthly mortgage payment (with PMI) may be lower than a monthly rental payment in many markets – but still.
  • Buyers who put more down upfront typically make fewer offers and buy faster than those who put less down. Zillow research found that buyers with higher down payments make 1.9 offers on average, compared to 2.4 offers for buyers with lower down payments (after controlling for market conditions).
  • A higher down payment reduces your financial risk. You don’t want to owe more money than your house is worth if local markets dip when you need to sell.

6. Keep a six-month strategic reserve

While a down payment is a significant expense, it’s also important to build up a strategic reserve and keep it separate from your normal bank account.

This reserve should cover six months of living expenses in case you get sick, face an unexpected expense or lose your job. A strategic reserve will not only save you from financial hardship in an emergency but also provide peace of mind.

When we accumulated a strategic reserve, my wife and I finally felt ready to build for our future. Without it, we were living from paycheck to paycheck, anxiously managing our cash flow rather than saving or budgeting.

7. Get pre-approved, and stick with a fixed-rate mortgage

The pre-approval process requires organizing all your paperwork; documenting your income, debt and credit; and understanding all the loan options available to you. It’s a bit of a pain, but it saves time later. Getting pre-approved also shows sellers that you’re a reliable buyer with a strong financial footing. Most importantly, it helps you understand what you can afford.

There are a variety of mortgage types, and it’s important to evaluate all of them to see which is best for your family and financial situation. Those boring 30- and 15-year mortgages offer big advantages.

The biggest is locking in your mortgage rate. In short: A 30-year fixed mortgage has a specific fixed rate of interest that doesn’t change for 30 years. A 15-year fixed mortgage does the same.

These typically have lower rates but higher monthly payments, since you must pay it off in half the time. Conventional fixed-rate mortgages help you manage your household budgeting because you know precisely how much you’ll be paying every month for many years. They’re simple to understand, and current rates are low.

One final advantage is that they don’t tempt you with a low initial payment to buy more house than you can afford.

8. Comparison shop to get the best mortgage

Though a home is the biggest purchase many of us will ever make, most home buyers don’t shop around for a mortgage (52% consider only a single lender).

I certainly didn’t. This did save me some annoying calls and hassle, but it cost me $40 or $50 every month, for years. The difference of half a percentage point in your mortgage rate can add up to thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the loan. It’s important to evaluate all the available options to make sure you’re going with the lender who meets your needs – not just the first one you contact.

The three most important factors are that the lender offers a loan program that caters to their specific needs (76%), has the most competitive rates (74%) and has a history of closing on time (63%).

9. Spend no more than a third of your after-tax income

It’s better to regret spending too little on your home than spending too much. One-third of your after-tax income is a manageable amount. This isn’t always possible if you live in a place like San Francisco or New York, but it’s still a good yardstick for where to be.

10. Be willing to walk away

Buying a home is a time-consuming, stressful but ultimately rewarding endeavor – if you end up closing on a home that meets your needs. But it’s important to manage your expectations in case you don’t immediately find a home you can afford with the features you need.

Always be prepared to walk away if the sellers don’t accept your offer, the home doesn’t pass a rigorous inspection or the timing isn’t right. Hold fast to your list of must-haves, stick to what you can afford and don’t overreach or settle.

It’s no tragedy to miss out on any particular house. Remember that you’re playing the long game. You want to be happy 10 years from now.

 

Related:

Originally published January 2018.

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Real Estate Tips

Creative Ways to Add Color to Your Rental

Living in a rental can dampen your design options. With unchangeable fixtures and cabinets, bland paint colors, and the threat of losing your security deposit if you make changes, a lot of renters suppress their personal style and settle for builder-grade basic.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. By getting creative with your furniture and accessories, you can have a colorful and inviting home without sacrificing your deposit or infuriating your landlord.

Wall to wall

Many homeowners paint the walls as a relatively easy way to bring color to a space. But landlords and property managers often forbid changing a rental’s interior paint color.

Think beyond paint, and you’ll discover a multitude of ways to dress up your walls without touching a paintbrush. The key is to think big.

Find large-scale art pieces that speak to your style and feature punchy colors. Collect snapshots in ombre frames of your favorite hue (instead of traditional black or white) and assemble a gallery wall.

Have an artistic streak? Paint a mural on a large piece of canvas and tack it over an entire wall.

For the less artistically inclined, removable wallpaper or decals in bright shades and eye-catching designs provide an instant pick-me-up. You can also cover entire walls or awkward spaces with a pretty patterned curtain or piece of fabric for a cozy bohemian vibe.

Punch it up

Rentals often come with outdated cabinets, fixtures, and flooring that can’t be altered. Beige, brown and off-white are the norm for these spaces, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it restrict your style.

Add visual interest and draw attention by bringing in splashy pieces of furniture and decor. Look for pieces in your favorite color or choose a theme, like sunny yellow and coral, to drown out the drab.

Vibrant painted wood chairs can give your dining space some zing. Or purchase a couch or chair in a daring tone like emerald or sapphire.

Don’t have a ton of cash to spend? Go DIY. Find furniture with good bones at your local thrift shop or garage sale, and give it a makeover. Use spray paint for smaller decor pieces and latex or chalk paint for dressers and side tables.

Add extra flair with stenciled details and paint-dipped legs. Line the backs of bookshelves with decorative paper, and temporarily replace boring kitchen and bathroom pulls and knobs with vibrant versions.

Soft goods, bold tones

Textiles in assorted colors will be your best friends for dressing up your outdated or dull apartment. Start with an inviting rug in a rich jewel tone or a trendy overdyed hue. And stay away from traditional white and beige curtains – instead, opt for a bright color or lively pattern.

The same goes for bedding. White may be a traditional go-to for duvet covers, but in the case of a blah apartment, pick a print or hue that will make your bedroom an energizing getaway or relaxing retreat. If you’re looking for a calm feel, search for a bed set in cool indigo, lavender or sage. Want to make it upbeat instead? Try poppy colors like coral, tangerine or sunflower.

Fun throw pillows and blankets will spice up your bed, couch, lounge chairs and more. Keep the color trend going into the bathroom and kitchen by choosing pretty hand towels and bathmats.

 

Make it yours

By punching up the walls with custom artwork, bringing in attention-grabbing furniture, and using pretty textiles to boost the style factor, you can have a colorfully custom home without ever touching a drop of paint.

The key is moderation and intention. Stick with a few favorite shades and mix it up by using variations of those hues instead of pulling in every color in the rainbow. Choose a few important focal points to infuse with color and let the rest blend in.

You’ll be happier for the design boost, and your landlord will be glad you haven’t made any big changes. That’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Related:

Originally published June 13, 2016.

 

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Real Estate Tips

Boho and Minimalism Top Our List of 2019 Outdoor Living Trends

It’s easier than ever to create an outdoor oasis that’s an extension of your home, and this summer’s biggest trend is creating a backyard space that is as comfortable as your indoor one. Design styles like bright and bold boho and Scandinavian minimalism are heading outside, according to our 2019 Outdoor Living Trends Report.

“The lines have been blurred between what’s indoor-only and what you can use outside, which means it’s never been easier to create an outdoor space that’s cohesive with your indoor design,” says Kerrie Kelly, design expert and founder of Kerrie Kelly Design Lab.

Here’s her rundown of this year’s five hottest outdoor trends:

1. Mixed materials

This summer, design elements that were once considered indoor use only – brass, rope, textured upholstery and webbing – are combining in new, unexpected ways for outdoor spaces. Chandeliers, soft rugs and cozy floor cushions are now popular for outside, and new fabric options now include outdoor-safe velvets, leathers and nubby chenilles.

2. Minimalism to the max

Scandinavian minimalist design is now showing up in outdoor furnishings. Lounge chairs, love seats and bistro tables are trending this summer in lightweight, powder-coated aluminum. Finish the look with neutrals like black, white and gray, or mix-and-match with a natural material like teak.

3. Some like it hot

This summer it’s all about elevated outdoor spaces that feel as stylish, comfortable and functional as interiors – with all the amenities. Fire features and outdoor kitchens continue to be extremely popular, providing a sense of “indoor cozy.” Beyond adding ambiance, Zillow research found home listings mentioning outdoor kitchens and outdoor fireplaces sold for significantly more than expected.

4. Pops of color

Splashes of bold color are brightening up neutral upholstered furnishings. This summer’s top color trend of citrus-bright oranges, reds, yellows and pinks are lively and vibrant outside. Think about adding a touch of Living Coral, Pantone’s Color of the Year, or play with newly trending emerald green in your accessories.

5. Go green outside

Eco-conscious landscaping, outdoor furnishings and fixtures have gained traction this year. Living walls make a design statement and reduce your carbon footprint, and solar-powered LED accent lights provide upgraded illumination without complex wiring or tricky installation. When it comes time to sell, listings mentioning outdoor lighting were associated with homes selling for 19% more than expected.

Outdoor trends to leave behind in 2019

Matching patio sets

With more options than ever, there’s no need to rely on matching patio sets for a pulled-together look. Instead, curated, eclectic outdoor spaces continue to rise in popularity. Own a patio set? Add mix-and-match, multi-patterned outdoor pillows, a textured ottoman and a vintage rattan side table for a unique look.

Rustic farmhouse

Weathered barnwood dining tables and industrial metal chairs are getting a 2019 makeover with a sleeker combination of teak and aluminum. Take your existing farm table and give it an upgrade with a set of bright, cheery mesh aluminum dining chairs.

Related:

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Real Estate Tips

Spectacular Solariums and Sun Rooms Let in the Light

Sun rooms, solariums, skylights – oh my! While the terminology can be confusing, these rooms designed to offer indoor sunbathing have similar qualities and suit any type of home environment.

If your climate doesn’t offer year-round sun, you can still enjoy the outdoors by adding a sun room or solarium addition to your space.

What’s the difference?

A sun room is a home addition made completely of windows, which offer a 360-degree view of the outdoor scenery without stepping foot outside.

The term “sun room” usually means a room made of glass, and it’s commonly interchanged with conservatory, solarium, greenhouse and atrium, among others. Technically, a sun room is any large room that allows the light to pour in through large windows or glass walls.

A solarium, on the other hand, is a more specifically designed room. To be considered a solarium, the space must also have a glass roof in addition to a wall of windows or glass.

Traditionally, solariums were built as part of hospitals to allow patients to soak up the sun without being exposed to the outdoor elements. Solariums can be attached to the home or stand as a separate structure altogether.

Check out these gorgeous sun rooms and solariums, and get inspired for a sunny space of your own.

Verdant sunlight

This sun room lets the light pour in for the plants while still maintaining a homey charm. The wooden ceiling and leafy plants complement the tranquil view outside, making it perfect for afternoon tea or family game night.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Sunny dip with a view

This palatial Sarasota, Florida, solarium houses a pool you can swim in while enjoying views of the nearby lake. The iron frame and tinted glass allow the homeowners to enjoy the sun but avoid harmful rays and heat.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Dining almost al fresco

This sun room serves as a light-drenched dining room, featuring garden views and easy patio access. Day or night, hot or cold, this multipurpose room is ideal for a quiet meal at home or an intimate gathering with friends.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Room with a view

Boasting sky-high views and traditional architecture, this solarium in Friday Harbor, Washington, shows how outside structures can flow seamlessly to the indoor space. With area rugs and overhead lighting, the solarium feels like a light and bright living room.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Related:

Originally published March 2017. Updated June 2019.

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Real Estate Tips

10 Homes Saluting the Red, White & Blue

You see plenty of red, white and blue on July 4th, but these 10 American homes sport the star-spangled colors of Old Glory year-round. (Psst … they’re all for sale if you’re looking to make a move.)

Portland, Oregon

For sale: $599,900

Photo from Zillow listing.

San Francisco, California

For sale: $995,000

Photo from Zillow listing.

Charleston, South Carolina

For sale: $945,000

Photo from Zillow listing.

Washington, D.C.

For sale: $599,000

Photo from Zillow listing.

Providence, Rhode Island

For sale: $417,750

Photo from Zillow listing.

Boise, Idaho

For sale: $868,000

Photo from Zillow listing.

New Orleans, Louisiana

For sale: $275,000

Photo from Zillow listing.

 

Boston, Massachusetts

For sale: $795,000

Photo from Zillow listing.

Annapolis, Maryland

For sale: $749,900

Photo from Zillow listing.

Austin, Texas

For sale: $550,000

Photo from Zillow listing.

 

Featured image from Zillow listing.

Related:

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Real Estate Tips

DIY Backyard Fire Pit: Build It in Just 7 Easy Steps

Turn your backyard into a cozy camp spot by making your own fire pit. This DIY project is easy to complete, and you’ll be making s’mores around the fire in no time.

Get ready

Before you begin building, consult your local fire code to see if fire pits are allowed in your city and, if so, how far away the fire pit has to be from a structure.

Then, gather your supplies:

  • Bricks for the fire pit wall
  • Gravel
  • Twine or string
  • Tape measure
  • Stake
  • Large shovel
  • Trowel
  • Tamp
  • Level

When purchasing bricks for the fire pit wall, go for something sturdy like retaining wall bricks or concrete pavers. Some home improvement stores even carry bricks specifically designed for fire pits. Use a layer of firebricks, which have a higher heat resistance, on the inner layer of the fire pit as an extra safety measure.

Now that you have all your supplies and you’ve checked your local fire code, you’re ready to build!

1. Create a circle

Pick a spot for your fire pit (ensuring that it is located a safe distance from any structures, bushes or trees) and insert a stake in the ground where the center of the pit will be.

Tie one end of the string or twine to the stake and measure how wide you want your circle to be.

Typically, a fire pit has a diameter of about 4-5 feet. Cut the string and tie the other end to the handle of a trowel. With the string or twine taut, drag the sharp end of the trowel around in a circle, creating a line in the grass.

2. Shovel out the grass

Using a large shovel, dig out the grass inside the circle.

For safety purposes, the hole for a fire pit should be about 6-12 inches deep. Be sure to call 811 before you start digging to ensure there are no utility lines buried under the spot you’ve chosen.

3. Tamp down the dirt

If you don’t have a tamp, you can just use the bottom of your shovel.

4. Make sure the circle is level

Get down on the ground with your level to ensure that the surface is ready for the bricks. Keep making small adjustments until it’s completely level.

5. Add gravel

Put a pretty thick layer of gravel in the fire pit (at least a couple of inches). Spread the gravel around evenly.

6. Arrange the bricks

After you’ve spread the gravel around, arrange your bricks in a circle and stack them in layers until the fire pit wall is at least 12 inches tall.

For extra safety, you have the option to put an inner layer of firebricks. Though you don’t need to use mortar if the bricks are heavy enough to make a sturdy stack, you can use an outdoor fire-resistant mortar between the bricks for extra stability.

7. Relax and enjoy!

Gather a couple of Adirondack chairs, some firewood, a few friends and campfire treats to get full use out of your new fire pit.

 

Related:

Originally published July 19, 2017.

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Real Estate Tips

This Tiny Home Is Ready for Outer Space

Ground control to Major Tom: Here’s a home unlike any other we’ve seen.

A lifelong architect went intergalactic to find inspiration for one of his latest designs: a tiny home shaped like a lunar lander.

Nestled on the banks of the Columbia River in central Washington, the roughly 250-square-foot home is hexagon-shaped, perched nearly 9 feet above the ground on three massive steel beams.

Inside, earthlings are greeted by an open floor plan. A breakfast nook has a porthole-shaped window overlooking the river and the hillside; a kitchen with stainless steel appliances provides space to cook up a feast for an astronaut.

A large geodesic dome skylight showers the room with sunlight.

Just off the bathroom, a deep-blue sink and cerulean-colored mirror have a Mid-Century Modern feel (appropriate, considering humans first walked on the moon in 1969).

The bedroom sits below a small ladder and can comfortably sleep two people. 

Upstairs, there’s enough room for a small outdoor deck where you can gaze at area wildlife, including eagles and lynxes.

If the space reminds you of the tiny well-intentioned living quarters of a boat, it’s no coincidence. The lunar lander’s owner and designer, Kurt Hughes, is a boat designer by trade.

He translated his three decades of boat building to home building – in fact, the wooden table in the dining nook is recycled from the Hughes’ first sailboat.

Beam us up, Scotty.

Photos by Zillow’s Marcus Ricci.

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Originally published May 2018.
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Real Estate Tips

Sanctuary: An Astronomer’s Home Observatory

Jonathan Fay lives a double life. By day, he works in software engineering, but once the sun goes down, he opens a window to the heavens – right in his own backyard.

The amateur astronomer designed and built an observatory behind his Woodinville, Washington, home to house his 12-inch telescope. There, he gazes at planetary nebula and photographs galaxies. For Fay, having his own sanctuary is out of this world.

How would you describe your sanctuary?
My observatory is a place of peace where I can collect my gear and spend time with the universe. The nature of astronomy in the Pacific Northwest is challenging, but I’m able to open the dome and start observing without having to set up ahead of time and rush to cover things up when it rains.

What do you like best about the physical space?
It’s separate from the activity of my home, and it’s quiet. I don’t disturb anyone else, and they don’t disturb me.

What’s your home like? Is your sanctuary an extension or departure from your home?
Our home is a two-story wood and brick home. The observatory blends nicely with the house and barn in style, but the dome clearly sets it apart.

Did you have your sanctuary in mind when you chose your home?
No. A few years after I moved in, I realized I needed a more permanent place than a second-floor porch off the bedroom to set up my new telescope.

What was the tipping point that made you decide to create a sanctuary?
When I would do astrophotography imaging runs on the second-floor porch, people would turn on lights or walk around, and the light and vibration would ruin the image. My wife didn’t like having to shut down her life for my hobby.

How did you build your sanctuary?
I designed and built the observatory. I had some occasional help from friends when I needed lifting or a second pair of hands. I also had help from my kids handing me screws and nails while I worked.

Sanctuary_Fay_exterior_05

What was the biggest challenge in creating your sanctuary?
Round stuff is hard. Especially when it has to rotate and be level. The dome was a hemisphere, so it was round in more than two dimensions. Woodworking tools are not optimized for round things.

Has your sanctuary always looked the same, or has it changed over time?
We recently added wood floors from carpet. And we put on a new roof when we re-roofed the rest of the buildings on the property.

How much time do you typically spend in your sanctuary?
Sometimes many hours for several days in a row. Sometimes I go weeks without going inside. It depends on the ebb and flow of life – and how bad I need it.

How did you get into astronomy in the first place?
My aunt gave me a telescope when I was about 12. Since then I have loved space and astronomy, but when I could put a computer-controlled camera on a telescope, that made me want my own Hubble in my backyard.

Sanctuary_Fay_interior_01

Does your hobby influence what you do professionally or vice versa?
Building my observatory, writing all the software for it, and doing astronomical imaging helped me create the WorldWide Telescope project with two of my co-workers. Now millions of people can visit space on their computer or planetarium because of it.

Do you share your sanctuary with anyone? What about your home?
I will share the observatory with just about anyone who asks, and sometimes I invite people to join me. I share my home with my wife and five active kids. So sometimes a getaway is in order!

Sanctuary_Fay_portrait_08

 

If you had a do-over, would you change anything about your sanctuary?
While I love the look of the dome, I would make the shutters open wider to accommodate a bigger telescope.

Do you wish you had found your sanctuary sooner?
It came at the right time for me, and I returned to update it when that time was right.

What advice would you share with those who dream of having a sanctuary someday?
You’re not getting any younger. Just go for it, even if you don’t use it as much as you think you need to to justify the cost. It will always be a great story to share.

Related:

Originally published July 2016.
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Real Estate Tips

Sleep Under the Stars in a Bubble Home

Why live on the bubble when you can experience life inside it?

It’s an appropriate question to ponder while gazing at the forest from inside this unusual dome home in upstate New York.

Made to maximize views while maintaining partial privacy, this geodesic bubble tent is equal parts glamping destination and fishbowl. It’s the perfect place to observe nature without fully immersing yourself in it.

Copyright 2018 Leon Cato Photography.

Tucked away on a farm in Woodridge, New York, the dome is surrounded by a thicket of trees and sits just feet away from a greenhouse, a vegetable garden and a pond.

Copyright 2018 Leon Cato Photography.

Ample windows offer views of the natural environment, and screened-in panels allow airflow but deter mosquitoes in the summertime.

Copyright 2018 Leon Cato Photography.

Still looking to bask in nature? Two outdoor showers and a clawfoot tub allow you to scrub and soak near the sugar maples.

Copyright 2018 Leon Cato Photography.

An open-air kitchen and grill offer up the chance to dine alfresco.

Copyright 2018 Leon Cato Photography.

The home is currently available as a short-term rental in the Catskill Mountains, roughly 95 miles from the heart of Manhattan.

Copyright 2018 Leon Cato Photography.

Bonus: Guests can interact with animals on the property (hello, goats!) and enjoy a recording studio, hiking trails or a weekly yoga class.

Copyright 2018 Leon Cato Photography.

Top featured image by George Apostolidis (portfolio, Instagram). 

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Originally published May 2018.
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