This Stylish Treehouse Is Luxury Off-the-Grid Living

Kati O’Toole and her husband, Darin, wanted to create a giant piece of artwork on their private and heavily wooded seven-acre property in Montana. They ended up with what they refer to as the Montana Treehouse Retreat – a two-story, fully finished treehouse nestled among three living trees.

“Everybody thought we were crazy [at] the beginning, like ‘What are you guys doing building a treehouse here?’ Our parents thought we were crazy,” says Kati.

But the hard work and vision paid off, and now visitors from all over the world routinely come to stay at their carefully crafted work of art. The 700-square-foot treehouse features a master suite with a deck that overlooks the forest, a living area with three benches that can double as sleeping quarters, and two bathrooms. Guests can also prepare a meal in the treehouse’s downstairs kitchen, complete with a refrigerator, a stove, a sink and a dishwasher.

“There’s even air conditioning in this treehouse, because we wanted to create a very luxury experience here. I have to be honest – the treehouse is nicer inside than the house that I live in, so I like to come back here and just have a little retreat away from it all,” says Kati.

Every detail of the treehouse was painstakingly thought out, and most of the materials were either sourced locally or repurposed. The trim and the interior feature wood that Darin himself milled, sanded and finished, and the breakfast table nook was made from the base of a tree located right on their property.

One of Kati’s favorite details of the treehouse, however, is the spiraling exterior staircase, which is wrapped around a large tree shipped in from Darin’s grandmother’s yard, roots and all.

Although Darin handled most of the heavy-duty construction of the structure, Kati’s handiwork is all over the interior.

“We wanted it to be kind of funky and modern – but still have some Montana accents and still be a little rustic too. So there were many things coming into play, and we wanted people to feel like it was a very cozy home away from home when they came here, and just like a one-of-a-kind Montana experience,” she says.

A combination of white shiplap and multicolored wood paneling covers the interior walls, giving the home an eclectic yet polished farmhouse look, and expansive windows create an open, airy feeling in the small living spaces. Modern elements that are dotted throughout the house, like the industrial chandelier in the kitchen and the black hexagon and subway tiles in the bathrooms, are more reminiscent of a boutique hotel than a remote treehouse located near Glacier National Park.

Close to Kati’s heart are the pieces by local artists that don the walls, with some of the pieces coming from guests who created the artwork while staying at the treehouse.

“It’s been really cool to see [how] this place inspires people,” she says.

But the defining characteristic of this home – and what guests travel miles for – is the unique experience of living out your childhood dreams of sleeping in a treehouse.

“It’s a very unique feeling that most people have never experienced, to be lying in bed and seeing a tree – or you’re actually moving. And people have told me that they love the experience, and it’s – yeah, it’s a treehouse. That’s the beauty. It’s a real treehouse,” says Kati.

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Buyer, Beware: Is Your Future House Haunted?

We’ve all heard home-buying horror stories. Sellers backing out or financing falling through can quickly kill a deal. But these snags don’t hold a candle to buying a “stigmatized” home.

A home where paranormal activity, suicide, murder, cult activity or other misfortunes and crimes took place could be categorized as a stigmatized property.

In real estate terms, a stigma refers to an intangible attribute of a property that may prompt a psychological or emotional response on the part of a potential buyer. In addition to physical defects, a house may have unusual features or a history that negatively impacts its value.

Get to know your state’s disclosure laws

Here’s a scary fact: A listing agent may not be required to disclose a stigma to buyers.

Ever heard the phrase “caveat emptor” (let the buyer beware)? In the past, sellers were not required to disclose anything about homes they were selling. Over the years, most states have made changes to this rule and now require that buyers be made aware of certain issues.

The law urges buyers, sellers and their agents to engage in fair and honest dealing with all principals in the real estate transaction. However, the laws that regulate disclosure of sketchy events vary from state to state. Some state laws explicitly relieve the salesperson or broker of the obligation to disclose certain property stigmas.

For instance, what if a house is haunted? Massachusetts is particularly lax when it comes to stigmas. In the witch city of Salem, a seller’s agent does not necessarily need to volunteer information about paranormal activity or even a felony, suicide or homicide that has occurred in a home.

But if you or your agent asks a seller’s agent directly, they must answer truthfully. This differs from California’s stringent laws, which, in addition to other disclosures, mandate that buyers be informed of any deaths that occurred at a property in the last three years.

While it’s certainly ethical for sellers to be upfront about any defects that may impact the value of a property, it may not be a legal requirement.

Research before you fall in love

Since you’re unlikely to find the descriptors “haunted” or “former crime scene” in a property listing, how should you go about digging up some dirt?

  • Check with a real estate attorney in your state to see what disclosures are required.
  • Ask the seller’s representative if criminal or paranormal activity has been reported. Again, sellers and their agents are legally obligated to reveal problems they’re aware of when asked.
  • Carefully review the seller’s disclosures, if one is included with the listing. In many states, property owners are forced to put their real estate disclosures in writing.
  • Get the inside scoop from the neighbors.
  • Always Google the address of your future home. You may uncover a headline that sways your decision.

You may learn that a former owner passed away in the house. In areas with older properties, this is likely going to be the case, though it may not be cause for concern. Someone peacefully passing away in the comfort of their home is a lot different from a situation that involved foul play.

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3 Simple DIY Driveway Ideas

A DIY driveway can be an easy want to add parking or improve the look of your home. Here are three relatively simple options.

1. Carve out a parking pad

The easiest, most affordable way to get an extra parking space is to clear out some grass and throw down mulch. It works fine, looks good and can be done in a day.

But beware: Mulch isn’t a permanent solution. Mulch breaks down over time, floats away in a heavy rain and fades in the sun. Over time, you may end up spending more money sprucing up the mulch than you would have pouring concrete in the first place.

Be sure to use a store-bought landscape barrier, or even lay down newspaper to prevent weeds.

If mulch seems too temporary, consider other loose materials like gravel, stones or crushed oyster shells.

2. Build a DIY driveway with pavers

A more solid parking option is a concrete or brick paver driveway. It can be installed either professionally or DIY. Thousands of videos online show the steps and all the tricks of the trade. It’s really quite simple:

  1. Excavate the area to be paved.
  2. Install a base material, such as crushed concrete, at a thickness of a few inches.
  3. Pack down the base material with a compactor, making sure to slope it as desired.
  4. Install a thin layer of sand on top of the base material.
  5. Install paver blocks on the sand layer, laying them in place in the pattern of your choice.
  6. Install a border row of bricks along the edges, and back that row with a poured concrete edge restraint, which will keep things from moving outward.
  7. Put another layer of sand on top of the finished surface and broom it into the joints between the bricks.

When installed properly, a paver driveway can last for decades.

3. Go with classic concrete

Finally, there is the tried-and-true concrete driveway. There’s a reason concrete is still the most common driveway product in the world: It looks good, doesn’t cost a fortune and lasts a very long time.

There are fewer steps to pouring a concrete parking area than there is to installing pavers, but it’s not quite as beginner-friendly. If you’ve never poured concrete before, it’s a good idea to start with a smaller area, such as a sidewalk, before tackling a large area.

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Say What? Home-Buying Lingo You Should Know

DTI, PMI, LTV … TBH, it can be hard to keep all this stuff straight. This lexicon of real estate terms and acronyms will help you speak the language like a pro.

Appraisal management company (AMC): An institution operated independently of a lender that, once notified by a lender, orders a home appraisal.

Appraisal: An informed, impartial and well-documented opinion of the value of a home, prepared by a licensed and certified appraiser and based on data about comparable homes in the area, as well as the appraiser’s own walkthrough.

Approved for short sale: A term that indicates that a homeowner’s bank has approved a reduced listing price on a home, and the home is ready for resale.

American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI): A not-for-profit professional association that sets and promotes standards for property inspections and provides educational opportunities to its members. (i.e., Look for this accreditation or something similar when shopping for a home inspector.)

Attorney state: A state in which a real estate attorney is responsible for closing.

Back-end ratio: One of two debt-to-income ratios that a lender analyzes to determine a borrower’s eligibility for a home loan. The ratio compares the borrower’s monthly debt payments (proposed housing expenses, plus student loan, car payment, credit card debt, maintenance or child support and installment loans) to gross income.

Buyers market: Market conditions that exist when homes for sale outnumber buyers. Homes sit on the market a long time, and prices drop.

Cancellation of escrow: A situation in which a buyer backs out of a home purchase.

Capacity: The amount of money a home buyer can afford to borrow.

Cash-value policy: A homeowners insurance policy that pays the replacement cost of a home, minus depreciation, should damage occur.

Closing: A one- to two-hour meeting during which ownership of a home is transferred from seller to buyer. A closing is usually attended by the buyer, the seller, both real estate agents and the lender.

Closing costs: Fees associated with the purchase of a home that are due at the end of the sales transaction. Fees may include the appraisal, the home inspection, a title search, a pest inspection and more. Buyers should budget for an amount that is 1% to 3% of the home’s purchase price.

Closing disclosure (CD): A five-page document sent to the buyer three days before closing. This document spells out all the terms of the loan: the amount, the interest rate, the monthly payment, mortgage insurance, the monthly escrow amount and all closing costs.

Closing escrow: The final and official transfer of property from seller to buyer and delivery of appropriate paperwork to each party. Closing of escrow is the responsibility of the escrow agent.

Comparative market analysis (CMA): An in-depth analysis, prepared by a real estate agent, that determines the estimated value of a home based on recently sold homes of similar condition, size, features and age that are located in the same area.

Compliance agreement: A document signed by the buyer at closing, in which they agree to cooperate if the lender needs to fix any mistakes in the loan documents.

Comps: Or comparable sales, are homes in a given area that have sold within the past six months that a real estate agent uses to determine a home’s value.

Condo insurance: Homeowners insurance that covers personal property and the interior of a condo unit should damage occur.

Contingencies: Conditions written into a home purchase contract that protect the buyer should issues arise with financing, the home inspection, etc.

Conventional 97: A home loan that requires a down payment equivalent to 3% of the home’s purchase price. Private mortgage insurance, which is required, can be canceled when the owner reaches 80% equity.

Conventional loan: A home loan not guaranteed by a government agency, such as the FHA or the VA.

Days on market (DOM): The number of days a property listing is considered active.

Depository institutions: Banks, savings and loans, and credit unions. These institutions underwrite as well as set home loan pricing in-house.

Down payment: A certain portion of the home’s purchase price that a buyer must pay. A minimum requirement is often dictated by the loan type.

Debt-to-income ratio (DTI): A ratio that compares a home buyer’s expenses to gross income.

Earnest money: A security deposit made by the buyer to assure the seller of his or her intent to purchase.

Equity: A percentage of the home’s value owned by the homeowner.

Escrow account: An account required by a lender and funded by a buyer’s mortgage payment to pay the buyer’s homeowners insurance and property taxes.

Escrow agent: A neutral third-party officer who holds all paperwork and funding in trust until all parties in the transaction fulfill their obligations as part of the transfer of property ownership.

Escrow state: A state in which an escrow agent is responsible for closing.

Fannie Mae: A government-sponsored enterprise chartered in 1938 to help ensure a reliable and affordable supply of mortgage funds throughout the country.

Federal Reserve: The central bank of the United States, established in 1913 to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible and more stable monetary and financial system.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA): A government agency created by the National Housing Act of 1934 that insures loans made by private lenders.

FHA 203(k): A rehabilitation loan backed by the federal government that permits home buyers to finance money into a mortgage to repair, improve or upgrade a home.

Foreclosure: A property repossessed by a bank when the owner fails to make mortgage payments.

Freddie Mac: A government agency chartered by Congress in 1970 to provide a constant source of mortgage funding for the nation’s housing markets.

Funding fee: A fee that protects the lender from loss and also funds the loan program itself. Examples include the VA funding fee and the FHA funding fee.

Gentrification: The process of rehabilitation and renewal that occurs in an urban area as the demographic changes. Rents and property values increase, culture changes and lower-income residents are often displaced.

Guaranteed replacement coverage: Homeowners insurance that covers what it would cost to replace property based on today’s prices, not original purchase price, should damage occur.

Homeowners association (HOA): The governing body of a housing development, condo or townhome complex that sets rules and regulations and charges dues and special assessments used to maintain common areas and cover unexpected expenses respectively.

Home equity line of credit (HELOC): A revolving line of credit with an adjustable interest rate. Like a credit card, this line of credit has a limit. There is a specified time during which money can be drawn. Payment in full is due at the end of the draw period.

Home equity loan: A lump-sum loan that allows the homeowner to use the equity in their home as collateral. The loan places a lien against the property and reduces home equity.

Home inspection: A nondestructive visual look at the systems in a building. Inspection occurs when the home is under contract or in escrow.

Homeowners insurance: A policy that protects the structure of the home, its contents, injury to others and living expenses should damage occur.

Housing ratio: One of two debt-to-income ratios that a lender analyzes to determine a borrower’s eligibility for a home loan. The ratio compares total housing cost (principal, homeowners insurance, taxes and private mortgage insurance) to gross income.

In escrow: A period of time (30 days or longer) after a buyer has made an offer on a home and a seller has accepted. During this time, the home is inspected and appraised, and the title searched for liens, etc.

Jumbo loan: A loan amount that exceeds the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac limit, which is generally $425,100 in most parts of the U.S.

Listing price: The price of a home, as set by the seller.

Loan estimate: A three-page document sent to an applicant three days after they apply for a home loan. The document includes loan terms, monthly payment and closing costs.

Loan-to-value ratio (LTV): The amount of the loan divided by the price of the house. Lenders reward lower LTV ratios.

Market value coverage: Homeowners insurance that covers the amount the home would go for on the market, not the cost to repair, should damage occur.

Mechanic’s lien: A hold against a property, filed in the county recorder’s office by someone who’s done work on a home and not been paid. If the homeowner refuses to pay, the lien allows a foreclosure action.

Mortgage broker: A licensed professional who works on behalf of the buyer to secure financing through a bank or other lending institution.

Mortgage companies: Lenders who underwrite loans in-house and fund loans from a line of credit before selling them off to a loan buyer.

Mortgage interest deduction: Mortgage interest paid in a year subtracted from annual gross salary.

Mortgage interest rate: The price of borrowing money. The base rate is set by the Federal Reserve and then customized per borrower, based on credit score, down payment, property type and points the buyer pays to lower the rate.

Multiple listing service (MLS): A database where real estate agents list properties for sale.

Origination fee: A fee, charged by a broker or lender, to initiate and complete the home loan application process.

Piggyback loan: A combination of loans bundled to avoid private mortgage Insurance. One loan covers 80% of the home’s value, another loan covers 10% to 15% of the home’s value, and the buyer contributes the remainder.

Principal, interest, property taxes and homeowners insurance (PITI): The components of a monthly mortgage payment.

Private mortgage insurance (PMI): A fee charged to borrowers who make a down payment that is less than 20% of the home’s value. The fee, 0.3% to 1.5% of the yearly loan amount, can be canceled in certain circumstances when the borrower reaches 20% equity.

Points: Prepaid interest owed at closing, with one point representing 1% of the loan. Paying points, which are tax deductible, will lower the monthly mortgage payment.

Pre-approval: A thorough assessment of a borrower’s income, assets and other data to determine a loan amount they would qualify for. A real estate agent will request a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter before showing a buyer a home.

Pre-qualification: A basic assessment of income, assets and credit score to determine what, if any, loan programs a borrower might qualify for. A real estate agent will request a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter before showing a buyer a home.

Property tax exemption: A reduction in taxes based on specific criteria, such as installation of a renewable energy system or rehabilitation of a historic home.

Round table closing: All parties (the buyer, the seller, the real estate agents and maybe the lender) meet at a specified time to sign paperwork, pay fees and finalize the transfer of homeownership.

Sellers market: Market conditions that exist when buyers outnumber homes for sale. Bidding wars are common.

Short sale: The sale of a home by an owner who owes more on the home than it’s worth (i.e., “underwater” or “upside down”). The owner’s bank must approve a lower listing price before the home can be sold.

Special assessment: A fee charged by a condo complex HOA when cash on reserve is not enough to cover unexpected expenses.

Tax lien: The government’s legal claim against property when the homeowner neglects or fails to pay a tax debt.

Third-party review required: Verbiage included in a home listing to indicate that the lender has not yet approved the home for short sale. The seller must submit the buyer’s offer to the lender for approval.

Title insurance: Insurance that protects the buyer and lender should an individual or entity step forward with a claim that was attached to the property before the seller transferred legal ownership of the property or “title” to the buyer.

Transfer stamps: The form in which transfer taxes are paid by the home buyer. Stamps can also serve as proof of transfer tax payment.

Transfer taxes: Fees imposed by the state, county or municipality on transfer of title.

Under contract: A period of time (30 days or longer) after a buyer has made an offer on a home and a seller has accepted. During this time, the home is inspected and appraised, and the title is searched for liens, etc.

Underwater or upside down: A situation in which a homeowner owes more for a property than it’s worth.

Underwriting: A process a lender follows to assess a home loan applicant’s income, assets and credit, and the risk involved in offering the applicant a mortgage.

VA home loan: A home loan partially guaranteed by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs and offered by private lenders, such as banks and mortgage companies.

VantageScore: A credit scoring model lenders use to make lending decisions. A borrower’s score is based on bill-paying habits, debt balances, age, variety of credit accounts and number of inquiries on credit reports.

Walkthrough: A buyer’s final inspection of a home before closing.

Water certificate: A document that certifies that a water account has been paid in full. The seller must produce this certificate at closing.

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A DIY Guide to Concrete Pavers for Driveways

Beyond the variety of styles, colors, textures and shapes available, pavers – often called paving stones – have distinct advantages over other driveway surfaces.

Why choose concrete pavers for your driveway?

Among other benefits, a concrete paver driveway delivers the following.

Strength, durability and longevity: Sheet concrete and asphalt look good, but they really aren’t as strong and durable as you might think. Your driveway becomes nothing more than one giant slab. Although strong when in good condition, it won’t handle age or freezing and thawing very well. Eventually, it will crack, calling for major repair work or replacement.

Concrete pavers, in contrast, combine the strength and comfort of newly poured, solid driveway surfaces with the flexibility they lack. Concrete pavers will not crack from weather and will likely last for decades. The biggest drawback is that pavers may settle if the foundation material underneath shifts. The fix is simple, however: Remove, readjust and reset the affected pavers.

Ease of maintenance: Whether you have to recoat, reseal, spread more of it, grade it or replace it, it seems like there’s always something your driveway needs when you have a traditional driveway material. A concrete paver driveway is about as close as you can get to “install it and forget it.” Once laid and sealed, it’s virtually maintenance-free unless you need to adjust or replace a paver or two.

Cost: Sure, concrete pavers typically cost more upfront than stone and slab paving materials. However, a concrete paver driveway pays for itself over time in both lower maintenance costs (including time and money) and the fact that long after other driveway materials fail, your concrete pavers will likely still look – and work – wonderfully.

DIY installation: Ask anyone who has ever poured concrete or asphalt – it’s hard work. Done improperly, the material is likely to fail. Even spreading dirt or rock is tiring. In contrast, most concrete pavers are fairly DIY-friendly. The hardest portion is grading and preparing the base material, and any specialized equipment is easily rented. Alternatively, consider hiring a contractor for this part of the driveway project. Next, simply start laying pavers in place like a jigsaw puzzle.

Planning your driveway

While you’re looking at other concrete paver projects and considering the myriad colors, styles and other options, you’re also planning the driveway project. The two steps go hand in hand. You can’t really plan how many pavers you need, after all, until you know the size of your driveway and a general idea of what you want. You also can’t really plan the final appearance until you choose your pavers.

Try making a sketch first. Having your vision on paper allows for more precise planning. Next, stake out the driveway area. Measure and mark the length and width, following any curve or direction you choose. Allow for a minimum driveway width of 12 feet in the vehicle parking area to provide plenty of walkway around the cars. For length, allot at least 18 feet of length for each vehicle planned.

Decide what portion – if any – of the work you wish to do yourself. If the driveway area needs excavation, professional help will be useful. It also needs to be graded – meaning slightly sloped to allow water to run off into the appropriate area. A contractor knows how to easily grade the area while digging it out.

On top of hiring out the excavation and grading, you can also hire someone to lay the substrates (two layers) and even the pavers themselves. If you go this direction, make sure to comparison shop. Ask the contractor about other projects they’ve worked on and ask for pictures. Find out specifically what the contractor will and will not do.

If you choose to do the work yourself, make sure to line up everything you need before you start. Besides pavers, you also need the substrate materials (usually aggregate and sand) and the tools. You can rent plate compactors, diamond blade wet saws and other heavy equipment at most tool and equipment rental stores.

DIY concrete paver installation

Even if you prefer to have someone build your concrete paver driveway for you, it’s still useful to understand the general process.

The most important part of the job is a properly prepared and compacted substrate. The driveway foundation is essential for a quality installation that lasts. While the following information covers the basic steps, it isn’t intended to be an exhaustive guide. If you’re uncertain about any procedure or have questions, consult a concrete paver installation professional.

  • Call 811 to request an underground utilities check. Never dig without first checking for these.
  • Excavate the driveway area to at least 15 inches. Your area may need a deeper drainage base. Talk to local building professionals if you’re uncertain. Depth depends on the results of a percolation test, which measures how fast the soil absorbs rainwater. Contact your local Cooperative Extension for more details.
  • Compact the subgrade to provide a solid, stable soil base.
  • Install screen, if desired, to discourage weed growth.
  • Spread and compact a layer of paver base. Typically this is a 6-inch layer of washed, crushed stone (not river gravel or other rounded rock). Choose rock with a 3/4- to 2-inch diameter.
  • Cover the base with a 1-inch layer of concrete sand. Screed the surface – take a long flat edge and pull it across the surface to leave it perfectly smooth and level.
  • Set the edging around the driveway borders. Edging, called restraints, is critical – it isn’t just ornamental. It helps keep each paver from shifting.
  • Place the concrete pavers according to your design. Set pavers together closely to minimize joints.
  • Spread mason sand over the pavers. Tamp down the pavers mechanically to force sand into the joints.
  • Finish with a layer of concrete sealer once the driveway is completely set. Spray on with a garden sprayer, following the product instructions for best results.

Note: In colder climates, consider installing a special snow-melting system beneath the pavers. Much like radiant heating systems indoors, these driveway-warming devices use heated cables to keep ice and snow off your driving surface. Ask a professional for further information.

Driveway maintenance

Concrete paver driveways don’t require much maintenance if they are protected with a quality sealer and the joints are properly filled. To keep your driveway looking its best:

  • Sweep regularly to keep dirt, leaves and other debris from accumulating.
  • Rinse when necessary to remove heavy soiling.
  • Treat oil and grease stains with a pressure washer and the appropriate cleaning solution.
  • Reseal the driveway surface every few years.
  • Plow or shovel in winter as needed. Avoid using sharp objects to chip at the ice, which may result in shattering or cracking the pavers.

Use sand or a noncorrosive deicer like calcium magnesium acetate, never rock salt (sodium chloride) or calcium chloride. These products may cause efflorescence – a white, chalky discoloration.

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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.

Investment Property: How Much Can You Write Off on Your Taxes?

There are certain things you can do as a real estate investor to help manage your tax bill and maximize your after-tax return on investment. To do so, however, you need to understand the primary ways in which investment real estate portfolios get taxed. You must also have a general grasp of some abstract concepts like calculating your tax basis, as well as the depreciation of capital investments.

Warning: This article is not going to make you an expert. But it will acquaint you with the basic terminology so you can be better prepared for a meeting with your tax adviser.

Taxation of rental income

The IRS taxes the real estate portfolios of living investors in two primary ways: income tax and capital gains tax. (A third way, estate tax, applies only to dead investors.)

Rental income is taxable – as ordinary income tax. That means you must declare it as income on your tax return and pay income tax on it. Unlike wages, rental income is not subject to FICA taxes.

Your income is everything you get from rents and royalties on the property, minus any deductible expenses. You can’t deduct everything though. You can only deduct mortgage interest and repairs you make that restore the property to its original minimally functional condition. You can’t deduct capital investments like new buildings, additions or renovations. More on these later.

Capital gains tax

The second tax bill you need to worry about is capital gains tax. The IRS taxes you on any net profits you get out of a property when you sell it. If you’re flipping the property and you’ve owned it for less than a year, you pay short-term capital gains tax, which is the same rate as your marginal income tax rate. If you’re in the 28% tax bracket, you’ll pay a 28% tax on short-term capital gains.

If you hold the property for 12 months, you’ll qualify for more favorable long-term capital gains. Depending on your marginal income tax bracket, these taxes could range from 0% to 15%. In every bracket, however, the IRS takes a smaller cut out of long-term gains than out of ordinary income or short-term gains.

Calculating capital gains

You pay capital gains tax on the difference between your selling price in the property and your adjusted tax basis. Your adjusted tax basis in a property is the original cost you paid for the property, plus any amount invested in renovations and improvements (including labor costs on these projects) that you have not previously deducted for taxes.

If you have deductions associated with the property, you subtract them from your tax basis. If your adjusted tax basis is higher than your sale, you have a capital loss. You can subtract capital losses from a given year from capital gains to reduce your tax bill. If you have more capital losses than capital gains, you can “carry forward” these capital losses into future years to offset future capital gains. If you have no capital gains, you can deduct $3,000 annually until you have recognized all your capital loss carryforward.

How to defer capital gains taxes: an intro to like-kind exchanges

The IRS provides an important exception to capital gains taxation, made-to-order for real estate investors: If you own an investment property, you can sell your property at a profit and roll your money over into another property within 60 days without having to pay capital gains taxes at all. This transaction is known as a Section 1031 exchange, named for the section of the U.S. Revenue Code that allows it. You cannot swap your rental property for a personal residence, or vice versa. For this reason, these exchanges are called like-kind exchanges, in that the property you replace it with needs to be substantially similar to what you sold.

The 1031 exchange makes it possible for real estate investors to defer paying capital gains tax, which is another advantage over investing in mutual funds, stocks, bonds and other securities or collectibles. Outside of a retirement account, you have to pay tax on gains in these items by April 15 of the year after you sold them.

Depreciation and amortization

This is a broad concept, so we can only cover the very basics here. When you buy investment property – be it a building, a computer or a horse – the IRS knows that the item won’t stay young and new forever. Over time, the property will decrease in value. Depreciation is the process of claiming a deduction to compensate you for the property’s decrease in value during the year.

Note: You can’t depreciate your personal residence. You can only depreciate investment property. For more information on the process of depreciation, see IRS Publication 946, How To Depreciate Property.

Land, of course, doesn’t depreciate. But minerals underneath the land do. If you are extracting oil or other minerals, or timber, for that matter, from the land, you will account for the gradual loss in value through a process called depletion.

Likewise, when you make a purchase of investment real estate or capital equipment with a useful life of longer than a year, the IRS knows you will be using that property to generate income for a long time to come.

Except in certain circumstances, the IRS does not allow you to deduct the full cost of your investment in the first year. Instead, you must amortize your investment over a number of years. For real estate, you must spread the deduction out over 27.5 years.

Passive activity rules

Again, these rules are complex. But in a nutshell, if you are a passive investor – meaning you are not working day to day in the business of managing your real estate investments – you are subject to passive activity rules. Basically, you can only deduct passive losses to the extent that you can cancel out gains from passive activities. These rules restrict your ability to use passive activity losses to offset capital gains elsewhere in your portfolio. Congress implemented these rules in 1986 to eliminate tax loopholes and abusive tax shelters.

Most individual investor landlords can deduct up to $25,000 per year in losses on rental properties, if necessary (subject to income limitation). Hopefully you won’t have to make use of this provision much.

Property taxes

Expect to pay property taxes to local and county governments each year. Your local government will assess the market value of your property at its “highest and best use” and charge you a percentage of that value every year. You can deduct property taxes against your rental income, though, provided the property tax is uniformly assessed throughout the jurisdiction and is not a special assessment.

Other tax deductions

Watch for opportunities to take deductions for these common real estate investment expenses:

  • Mortgage interest
  • Legal fees related to your investment properties or business
  • Mileage
  • Business use of your home (the home office deduction)
  • Advertising fees

Employees (but if they are working on capital improvements or renovations, you have to amortize their labor costs as part of your capital investment, rather than as a current year expense.)

Related:

  • What is Tax Assessed Value, Tax Appraised Value, and Market Assessed Value?
  • Small Updates, Big Return: 5 Ways to Increase Your Home’s Value
  • Want to Rent Your Vacation Home? Beware These Lender Rules

How to Modernize a Split-Level Home

What’s not to love about a split-level home? The interior spaces flow. And while the change in floor level creates a partial separation of spaces, they are visually connected from one level to the next. Split-levels are cool – on the inside.

The outside is often another story. Split-level exteriors tend to be a bit bland. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. And that’s probably because so many of them were built during the 1970s. T1-11 siding (plywood sheets with vertical grooves spaced 8 inches apart) is common on the upper levels, and the upper floors tend to be cantilevered out over the structural walls below.

Split-level homes can feel dated. But a few simple modifications can transform them, making  them one of the best fixer-upper options.

Let’s take a look at a few of the primary changes you might make to create a modern masterpiece from the average split-level home.

Split-level remodel: siding

Modern home styles are generally made up of two surface types. The predominant surface is generally smooth and clean. Stucco is the most common material used to achieve this look, and thankfully, it’s not very difficult to stucco over many existing exterior siding products, such as T1-11. Any split-level modernization project should look very closely at ways to make those exterior walls smooth.

The second exterior wall surface, which can make a huge impact and is easily retrofitted, is a natural stone of some sort. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and take note of the contrast between perfectly smooth wall surfaces and the texture of natural stone used intermittently throughout the design. A split-level home already has the structural breaks that make this kind of mix look perfect.

Split-level remodel: windows

Single-hung windows, which feature bottom panes that slide up to open the windows, are common in split-level homes from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. And many of them are Colonial style, meaning that they feature grids that divide the window into 12 or more small “lites,” rather than larger panes of glass.

Replacing old windows with a more modern style can greatly modernize your home’s look. Consider casement windows, which feature cranks and swing out to open up. Horizontal sliders can also provide a more modern look. Fixed glass is another very modern type of window, but it won’t work for bedrooms that require an emergency escape and ventilation.

Split-level remodel: roof color and material

The roof is an oft-overlooked aspect of a home’s exterior, which is surprising given the size of both the visible surface area of the roof and the investment required to have a new one installed. A roof is far more than a utilitarian way to keep precipitation out of the house – it’s an important design element that can make or break an exterior remodel.

Some roof colors simply won’t work with a contemporary design – an old shingle roof usually looks anything but clean and smooth. Dark colors tend to work well with shingle roofs, and the potential to switch to a standing seam metal roof should also be considered.

If you want to go full-on modern, consider hiding the roof completely. This may involve a major structural overhaul, but it’s worth considering. Always consider even the most extreme ideas if you’re planning to be in the home for a long time.

Split-level remodel: exterior lighting

A very simple way of updating the look of a traditional split-level is to add some bling to the design. Exterior accessories such as light fixtures and house numbers can make a huge difference. Modern home designs tend to focus on lighting details. A split-level home has a few great places to start.

  • The pathway to the front door: Often sloped to reach the middle level, this pathway could be an ideal place for some interesting lighting.
  • The overhang of the cantilevered second levels: These existing spaces are great for recessed lighting that illuminates the wall beneath, which you might want to cover in natural stone.
  • Either side of the front entry: If the home design includes a forward-facing front door or a recessed entryway, some nice modern fixtures on either side can accentuate the welcoming nature of the entry. Larger fixtures are often better here.
  • The garage: See below about garage doors and consider a translucent door with interior lighting or some wooden doors with accent lighting.

Split-level remodel: garage doors

If your split-level features garage doors that face the street, they may represent your easiest and best option for modernization. Garage doors are often taken for granted. The original spec was probably a steel door with very little curb appeal. Most of the time, they are downright ugly.

But times have changed, and modern garage door designs can transform the look of the front of your home. Doors with glass-like, translucent flat panels are beautiful in daylight and at night, when interior light can turn them into giant night lights – all while obscuring the contents of your garage from neighbors.

Another great garage door style on a modern home is a wood-look door. If done properly, this can tie in wonderfully with the natural stone sections of wall mentioned above.

These are just a few ideas, and you can use them as a simple spark of design inspiration to get you going. Once you see the possibilities and start looking at the changes that can be made, you’ll realize that a split-level may have more potential to look great in decades to come than almost any other old-school design out there.

Related:

  • 10 Things You Need to Do When Buying A Home
  • 3 Reasons to Live in a New Home Before Renovating
  • DIY Backyard Fire Pit: Build It in Just 7 Easy Steps

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:

  • 6 First-Time Homebuyer Mistakes to Avoid
  • Why Is 20% Ideal for a Down Payment?
  • 5 New Year’s Resolutions That Can Help You Buy a Home in 2018

Originally published January 2018.

Your Zestimate is now smarter – and more accurate

The Zestimate is now more accurate than ever, thanks to new technology that identifies and values home improvements you’ve made based on photos. Plus, we now incorporate even more data into Zestimates for homes on the market, and we update those Zestimates in real time. That’s in addition to the millions of data points that the Zestimate’s complex machine learning models examine for more than 100 million homes across the country.

Here’s the rundown of what’s new.

‘Seeing’ your home features

We can evaluate photos of a home to, in a sense, “see” and value the home features you’re most proud of. Think of the bathroom you remodeled, the new quartz countertops in your kitchen or the beautifully landscaped backyard. Those features now factor directly into your home’s Zestimate, making it the first time the Zestimate can understand not just a home’s facts and figures, like number of bathrooms or bedrooms, but also its quality and curb appeal.

We heard from homeowners over the years that when it comes time to sell, they want to make sure all the work they’ve put toward upgrading it is reflected in its Zestimate. Yet before recent advances in technology, there was no way for computers to look at photos of a home and get the same information that people do. The Zestimate now incorporates advanced technologies that make this possible.

Homeowners can claim their home on Zillow to edit, add or remove photos at any time in just a few simple clicks.

Listing info added in real time

On homes listed for sale, the Zestimate now incorporates data from the home’s listing itself – including listing price and how long it has been on the market – in its calculations. These factors provide important insight into a homeowner and agent’s listing strategy and what the homeowner believes their home is worth, both key variables in how much a home ultimately sells for.

To top it off, Zestimates on for-sale homes update with new information in real time. That means home shoppers get an up-to-the-second snapshot of what’s going on in the local housing market. When the Zestimate launched in 2006, it was updated monthly, so this is a big leap forward as both buyers and sellers navigate dynamic and ever-changing housing markets.

The results of all these upgrades? The Zestimate’s error rate on homes listed for sale is now less than 2%, meaning half of all Zestimates fall within 2% of the home’s eventual sale price.

Just as you look for new ways to refresh your home, we’re always working to improve the Zestimate. This most recent Zestimate refresh is another milestone along that journey, all to provide a more accurate look at the value of the place you call home.