With This DIY Sporting Goods Catch-all, Game Day Is No Sweat

This project will help you organize your garage and become the LeBron James of DIY projects. With all your gear in the same place, you’ll always be prepared when someone yells, “Where’s my basketball?” (Or volleyball, hockey stick, tennis racket, etc.)

See how it’s done, then follow the step-by-step instructions to build one of your own.

1. Find a bookcase

Choose a bookcase with at least three wide shelves so you can store gear in a variety of sizes.

2. Add locking wheels

Attach locking wheels to the bottom of the bookcase so you can easily move it around the mudroom or the garage.

3. Drill holes

Drill evenly spaced holes (about four or five, depending on the width of the bookcase) along the top surface of one of the shelves. You’ll want the holes to be fairly close to the edge – about one-half inch away or less.

On the underside of the shelf below, drill holes to match up exactly with the holes on the shelf above.

4. Attach bungee cords

Place the bungee cord hooks in the drilled holes, and arrange the cords vertically so they create a net. You want the cords to be pretty taut, so be sure to get the right size for your bookcase.

5. Mount peg boards

Frame the sides of your bookcase with 1x2s to support peg boards that have been cut to size. Secure the peg boards with a few nails on the top and bottom.

6. Customize with hooks and holders

Place hooks and holders on the peg board so you can hang your tennis rackets, baseball gloves, jerseys, helmets, and more.

7. Load up your catchall, MVP!

Grab your gear and organize the bins like you’re Russell Westbrook going for another triple-double. Now all you have to worry about is scoring the winning goal.

Originally published September 12, 2017.


  • Regain Your Garage: Simple Tricks for Getting Organized
  • DIY Backyard Fire Pit: Build It in Just 7 Easy Steps
  • DIY Weekends That Work

A-Frame Cabin With Creekside Soaking Tub – House of the Week

Talk about a midsummer night’s dream. 

When Ryan Southard and his wife, Val, moved from New York to the Pacific Northwest in 2013, they wanted a retreat from the hustle and bustle of their East Coast lives.

They found their perfect escape in an A-frame nestled among the evergreens of Mount Rainier National Park and dubbed their little slice of heaven the Little Owl Cabin.

Photo by Ellie Lillstrom.

The couple spent about a year gutting and renovating the rustic hideaway, giving it a Mid-Century Modern feel. They hunted down vintage pieces at area flea markets, hung antique skis on the wall, and added pops of crimson to the paint and furniture.

Photo by Ellie Lillstrom.

Built in 1976, the home has 2 bedrooms, including an upstairs loft with views of an old-growth forest. A second bedroom features custom-built bunk beds that can sleep up to three people comfortably.

Photo by Ellie Lillstrom.

Outdoors, a 200-square-foot deck and outdoor fire pit are perfect for endless summer nights under the stars. String lights illuminate a cedar soaking tub, and there’s a hammock to nap on as you listen to the sounds of Coal Creek, just 20 yards away.

Photo by Ryan Southard.

Sandwiched about 2 1/2 hours from both Portland and Seattle, the cabin is roughly 5 miles from one of the entrances to Mount Rainier. Hiking, skiing and wineries are all within driving distance.

Photo by Ellie Lillstrom.

The home is currently available as a short-term rental.

Photo by Ellie Lillstrom.

Top photo by Ellie Lillstrom.


  • A 200-Year-Old Log Cabin That’s Anything but Old Fashioned – House of the Week
  • 10 Cozy Cabins for $300,000 or Less
  • What You Need to Know Before Buying Your Dream Cabin

5 Myths (and 5 Truths) About Selling Your Home

Everyone has advice about the real estate market, but not all of that unsolicited information is true. So when it comes time to list your home, you’ll need to separate fact from fiction.

Below we’ve identified the top five real estate myths – and debunked them so you can hop on the fast track to selling your property.

Myth #1: I need to redo my kitchen and bathroom before selling

Truth: While kitchens and bathrooms can increase the value of a home, you won’t get a large return on investment if you do a major renovation just before selling.

Minor renovations, on the other hand, may help you sell your home for a higher price. New countertops or new appliances may be just the kind of bait you need to reel in a buyer. Check out comparable listings in your neighborhood, and see what work you need to do to compete in the market.

Myth #2: My home’s exterior isn’t as important as the interior

Truth: Home buyers often make snap judgments based simply on a home’s exterior. Therefore, curb appeal is very important.

“A lot of buyers search online or drive by properties before they even enlist my services,” says Bic DeCaro, a real estate agent at Westgate Realty Group in Falls Church, VA. “If the yard is cluttered or the driveway is all broken up, there’s a chance they won’t ever enter the house – they’ll just keep driving.”

The good news is that it doesn’t cost a bundle to improve your home’s exterior. Start by cutting the grass, trimming the hedges and clearing away any clutter. Then, for less than $50, you could put up new house numbers, paint the front door, plant some flowers or install a new, more stylish porch light.

Myth #3: If my house is clean, I don’t need to stage it

Truth: Clean and tidy is a good first step, but professional home stagers have raised the bar. Tossing dirty laundry in the closet and sweeping the front steps just aren’t enough anymore.

Stagers make homes appeal to a broad range of tastes. They can skillfully identify ways to highlight your home’s best features and compensate for its shortcomings. They might, for example, recommend removing blinds from a window with a great view or replacing a double bed with a twin to make a bedroom look bigger.

Of course, you don’t have to hire a professional stager. But if you don’t, be ready to use some of their tactics to get your home ready for sale – especially if staging is a trend where you live. An unstaged house will pale when compared to others on the market.

Myth #4: Granite and stainless steel appliances are old news

Truth: The majority of home shoppers still want granite counters and stainless steel appliances. Quartz, marble and concrete counters also have wide appeal.

“Most shoppers just want to steer away from anything that looks dated,” says Dru Bloomfield, a real estate agent with RE/MAX Platinum Living in Scottsdale, AZ. “When you a design a space, you need to decide if you’re doing it for yourself or for resale potential.”

She suggests that if you’re not planning to move anytime soon, decorate any way you like. But if you’re planning to put your home on the market within the next couple of years, stick to elements that have mass appeal.

“I recently sold a house where the kitchen had been remodeled 12 years ago, and everybody thought it had just been done because the owners had chosen timeless elements: dark maple cabinets, granite counters and stainless steel appliances.”

Myth #5: Home shoppers can ignore paint colors they don’t like

Truth: Moving is a lot of work, and while many home buyers realize they could take on the task of painting walls, they simply don’t want to.

That’s why one of the most important things you can do to update your home is apply a fresh coat of neutral paint. Neutral colors also help a property stand out in online photographs, which is where most potential buyers will get their first impression of your property.

Hiring a professional to paint the interior of a 2,000-square-foot house will cost about $3,000 to $6,000, depending on labor costs in your region. You could buy the paint and do the job yourself for $300 to $500. Either way, if a fresh coat of paint helps your home stand out in a crowded market, it’s probably a worthwhile investment.


  • Quiz: Should You Renovate Your Home or Sell?
  • 9 Listing Photo Do’s and Don’ts
  • Small Updates, Big Return: 5 Ways to Increase Your Home’s Value

Originally published April 1, 2014.

6 Smart Ways to Build Home Equity

Home equity is the percentage of your home’s value that you own, and it’s key to building wealth through homeownership. Let’s take a closer look at how to build home equity without blowing your budget – and how to access it when you need it.

How much equity do you have?

Equity is easy to calculate when you first buy a home because it’s basically your down payment. For example, if you put $11,250 down on a $225,000 home, your down payment is 5 percent and so is your equity.

From 2016 to the first quarter of 2018, most first-time home buyers in the U.S. started with about 7-percent equity, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. This is encouraging because it shows you don’t need to spend years saving for 20 percent down or more before you buy. Repeat home buyers started with more equity, at about 17 percent.

How to build your equity

Here are six ways your home can create wealth for you. Some require time, money – or both. A lender can help you decide what works best for you.

1. Let your home appreciate

Building equity through appreciation can take little time or a lot, depending on the market. With home prices going up like they have in recent years, appreciation has been a boon for many home owners.

Zillow research indicates that the median home value grew from $185,000 in April 2016 to $216,000 in April 2018. If you bought a home for $185,000 in April 2016 with a down payment of $12,950, your beginning 7-percent equity would have grown to 23 percent by April 2018.

We calculate this by subtracting your current loan balance ($165,600) from your home’s current value ($216,000). Then we divide the difference by your home’s current value. One-eighth of this additional 16 percent equity is from paying down your mortgage, and the rest is market appreciation.

If you waited two years and bought the same home in April 2018 with a 20-percent down payment of $43,200, you started off with 20-percent equity. You also used 3.3 times more cash to make the purchase. And here’s the kicker: Your total monthly housing cost would be the same – about $1,050 in both cases.

This example illustrates two things:

First, the power of home appreciation. It’s a lot like buying stock and benefitting as its value goes up. But there’s also a difference: While you’ll pay capital gains on rising stock value, you’re exempt from paying taxes on primary-home capital gains up to $250,000, or $500,000 for married couples.

Second, waiting to “save enough” isn’t the primary factor in determining if you can afford to buy a home. When it comes to qualifying for a loan, lenders do indeed look at your down payment. They’ll also want to know how much you’ll have in cash reserves after closing. But there are lots of options for low down payments that require minimal reserves.

Your monthly budget is the primary factor lenders consider when deciding whether you can afford a home. Lenders will allow you to spend between 43 percent and 49 percent of your income on monthly bills, which is actually on the high side and could strain your budget.

Since 2016, most first-time buyers have spent about 38 percent of their income on housing and other debt, which is a pretty safe cap for budgeting.

2. Make a larger down payment

You can do this but, as we’ve seen, waiting to save extra cash can go against your broader financial interests if you lose the chance to build equity through appreciation. Therefore, you must strike a balance among down payment, monthly budget and savings for other priorities. A good lender can provide rate and market insight to help you do this.

3. Use financial windfalls

Take advantage of work bonuses, family gifts and inheritances to pay down your mortgage. If you do pay down in lump sums, see if your lender will recalculate (or “recast”) your payment based on the new, lower balance.

4. Double up on payments

Make mortgage payments every two weeks instead of once a month. Over the course of a year, this will add up to 13 monthly payments instead of 12. You’ll build equity faster and shave five to six years off a 30-year mortgage. Just make sure your lender isn’t charging extra for processing bimonthly payments.

5. Cut your loan term in half

Take out a 15-year mortgage instead of a 30-year mortgage, and you’ll build equity twice as fast. Two caveats here: You’ll have a significantly higher monthly payment and, because of that, you may have a tougher time qualifying.

6. Make home improvements

New appliances or cosmetic features like paint are unlikely to increase value. Only big improvements like new kitchens, or additional bathrooms or other rooms will add meaningful value. Make sure the cost of such improvements will create the added value you’re looking for.

How to use your equity

You must borrow or sell your home to use your equity. The three most well-known ways to get to your equity through borrowing are a home equity line of credit (HELOC), home equity loan or cash-out refinance. Compare the pros and cons of each.

Rates are rising right now, so these borrowing options might cost more in the future. Talk to your lender to determine the best approach for you.

Top image from Shutterstock.


  • The Counteroffer: Negotiating a Real Estate Deal
  • Buying Your First Home? Plan for These Hidden Costs
  • 6 Home-Shopping Red Flags Even an Inspector Could Miss

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

Look Inside America’s First 3D-Printed Home

More than one billion people are living without shelter across the globe. New Story – a nonprofit building homes in the developing world – is reminded of this problem every day.

“We would go and look at where kids were being born into tents with mud and sewage that would rush through the dirt floor,” says New Story CEO Brett Hagler. “We learned that they couldn’t really sleep at night, and would get sick just [because of] where they are.”

When you consider the cost and time it takes to build homes, this problem isn’t just daunting – it’s insurmountable.

But 3D printing could be the silver bullet. ICON, a construction technologies company, designed a 3D printer to produce homes. A single-story home, with a total footprint measuring 600 to 800 square feet, can be printed in underserved communities in less than 24 hours.

The cost? Just $4,000.

3D printing can deliver a house – and I mean fully deliver ready to move in – for about 30 percent less than conventional building,” explains Jason Ballard, ICON’s CEO and cofounder.

About a year ago, New Story and ICON partnered to print 100 homes in El Salvador. To test the technology, they printed a prototype in Austin, TX this March. It’s the first site-printed, permitted 3D-printed home in the U.S.

“One of our favorite things to hear about as we unveiled it was, ‘Holy cow, I would live in that house,’” Ballard recalls. “And that really made us feel like we had succeeded.”

The prototype shows off what the technology can do – like printing curved walls and a sloped roof as easily as straight lines. The Austin home was printed in 47 hours, with the machine at quarter speed. ICON expects homes to be printed in 11 to 12 hours at full speed.

The prototype was printed to last in a developing country, not just Texas. Made of concrete, it’s strong and cool enough to withstand extreme temperatures, hurricanes and even earthquakes. Bonus: Printing homes produces zero waste.

“We wanted to make this feel like the kind of house you could feel proud to live in,” Ballard adds. Knowing concrete can feel stark and uninviting, they planned the design to incorporate lots of natural light. The windows, roof and doors were added after the printing was complete.

While the homes in El Salvador will be similar in size to the prototype, each design will be custom. New Story hosts workshops in each country they serve, asking families what they want in their future homes.

“Unfortunately, they’re not used to being asked for their input and their opinions,” Hagler says. “But when it finally clicks that we not only care, but we’re actually going to implement what they say – it’s really beautiful to watch.”

Each home will have 1 to 2 bedrooms, a bathroom with a shower and toilet, and a living room. The rest is up for debate.

“It’s about shelter, but it’s also about dignity, respect and ownership of your home,” Hagler adds. 

If the printing goes well, more communities will follow.

“This really is a paradigm shift,” Ballard notes. “With this technology, we can imagine for the first time what it would be like to end homelessness as a lack of shelter.”


  • This Shipping Container Will Make You Do a Double Take
  • Rising Rents, Stagnant Wages, and the Burden of Unstable Housing
  • Combating Homelessness in New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Tampa

10 Tiny Vacation Homes for Sale

The idea of living in a tiny home may not appeal to you for everyday life, but if you’re in the market for a vacation home, a tiny house in a beautiful setting could be just the ticket.

Compared to full-scale options, tiny vacation homes are easier to keep up and quicker to clean, which means you’re spending more time enjoying your vacation location and less time worrying about maintenance.

These 10 tiny vacation houses are all 600 square feet or less and ready to become your own private petite resort away from home.

An itty-bitty beach bungalow

If you’re looking for a California dream beach bungalow, this tiny home in Venice, CA fits the bill. At just 520 square feet, this adorable cottage boasts 2 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and a short walk to Venice Beach. The home is simple and stylish with an open-concept floor plan, acid-washed concrete floors, cedar-shake siding, and a large deck to enjoy those gorgeous California evenings.

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Venice homes for sale.

A tiny houseboat that’s swimming in charm

Enjoy city scenery from calm lake shores in this stylish Craftsman-style houseboat in Seattle. This mid-century style houseboat has so many charming details housed in its 503 square feet, such as a custom stone fireplace, warm wood ceilings and floors, and a spacious kitchen with butcher block counters and a subway tile backsplash.

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Seattle homes for sale.

A pocket-sized retreat in the woods

This rustic tiny cabin in Walla Walla, WA is the perfect place to unwind in nature with your family, or the retreat you’ve always wanted to finish writing the Great American Novel. With exposed brick walls, wood planking on the walls, and hardwood floors throughout, this teeny cabin is the definition of classic.

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Walla Walla homes for sale.

Tiny living in a California Craftsman

 This cute Craftsman home in San Diego may only be 473 square feet, but it’s chock-full of character and makes great use of its space thanks to the open-concept floor plan. The home has hardwood floors throughout, a small but functional kitchen with updated appliances, and a darling front porch with a built-in porch swing.

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more San Diego homes for sale.

A mini cabin in the mountains

Adventure is calling from this cozy cabin in Boone, NC. Surrounded by 35 acres of Southern Appalachian mountain land, this beautifully built 420-square-foot cabin has it all: an updated kitchen, a spa-like bathroom, and a spacious deck to get out and enjoy nature. 

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Boone homes for sale.

Stylish but small in Louisiana

Creative storage solutions and an upstairs sleeping loft make this 230-square-foot Longville, LA home appear much larger than it is. And you’re guaranteed to see more than a few gorgeous sunsets from the home’s cozy front deck.

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Longville homes for sale.

A little luxury living in the Hamptons

Forget the Hamptons’ mansions – this tiny seaside cottage in Southampton, NY is every bit as chic as the big homes on the shore. There are so many small details that make this home special, from the Vermont pine floors to the bathroom light fixture, which was reclaimed from a ship off the Florida coast.

Photo from Zillow listing.

 See more Southampton homes for sale.

A small beach hideaway in Florida

A pretty Arts and Crafts-style exterior and a screened-in front porch are just a couple of reasons why this 600-square-foot Steinhatchee, FL tiny home would make the perfect vacation getaway. Located just a short drive from the beach and with access to resort amenities like a pool, spa, and fitness room, this tiny home would be a great home base for all your beach and pool activities.

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Steinhatchee homes for sale.

A lakeside tiny home in Minnesota

This fully furnished log cabin in Brainerd, MN is a lakeside haven for those who like to be right in nature. The 592-square-foot cabin is simple and small, but offers beautiful views of the lake and is just steps away from the sugar sand beach.

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Brainerd homes for sale.

A mini Midwest lakeside retreat

This tiny Stages Island home on Lobdell Lake in Linden, MI is the ultimate vacation home for those who want to unplug from it all. The home, which is only accessible by boat, offers lake views from every room and a large deck to enjoy sunsets (and maybe a lakeside cocktail or two).

Photo from Zillow listing.

See more Linden homes for sale.


  • Industrial-Style Tiny Home Made for Outdoor Living
  • Tiny Home With 100-Mile Desert Views
  • You’ll Be Climbing the Walls of This Tiny Home


This Double Shipping Container Home Has Twice the Delight – House of the Week

It’s not every day that a home becomes a neighborhood draw. 

If you live in the historic, tree-lined Carrollton area of New Orleans, however, you might attract a bit of a crowd when you build your home from two massive repurposed shipping containers.

Becoming a neighborhood sensation wasn’t what landscape architect Seth Rodewald-Bates intended when he set out to design a home for him and his wife, Elisabeth.

They’d fallen in love with the area, known for brass bands and bayou music, and found that their double-box design was so outside the box that it became a destination for the neighbors during the build.

“Everyone was very curious,” Rodewald-Bates said. “Some people thought it was a self-storage unit. One younger kid asked if it was going to [be an] Apple store, which was high praise in my mind.”

While there’s no Genius Bar in this home, you will find an open kitchen and living area. 14-foot ceilings and ample windows give the 775-square-foot space an airy feel.

There are wide-plank wood floors throughout and dark granite countertops in the kitchen. Open shelving above the sink and stainless steel appliances add a modern touch.

Floating night tables maximize space in the bedroom, and bedside lamps in fire-engine red provide a pop of color.

The true coup de grace is a pool perfect for those steamy NOLA afternoons. It’s Rodewald-Bates’ favorite feature of the home.

An urban setting for a container home might seem a little unusual, but the house is scaled to fit the neighborhood, Rodewald-Bates added. Getting to the finish line, however, wasn’t always a given.

“The city was actually very reasonable to deal with, but financing was the biggest hoop to jump through,” Rodewald-Bates said. “We went to either 8 or 10 banks with the plans, and none of them would even send them to their appraiser.”

“Make sure you have financing secured,” he said, when asked about his biggest advice to others, “and remember that containers are designed for cargo, not people!”

Photos by Jacqueline Marque.


  • How to Buy a Shipping Container (for Your Next Home)
  • This Shipping Container Will Make You Do a Double Take – House of the Week
  • House of the Week: 12-Foot-Wide Slice of the Big Easy


A DIY for the Books: How to Get Custom Built-In Shelves on a Budget

Built-in shelves can take your room from boring to bespoke in a snap. Unfortunately, they can also come with a hefty price tag.

But I’m going to share the insider secrets you need to DIY your way to rich results without breaking the bank. (Hint: The secret is starting with assembled bookcases, like the IKEA BILLY!)

Check out this dramatic before and after:

I still walk in sometimes and can’t even believe it’s the same room. Of course, there have been many other updates and projects to get this look, but the shelves definitely set the stage. 

Let’s get started!


Note: Always measure first to get your supplies right. Our measurements were not exactly equal, with a width of 41″ on one side of the fireplace and 43″ on the other. But we compensated with our build-out around it, and it made no difference at all.

  • Two BILLY bookcases with extension, or similar product
  • Two 1″ x 12″ x 6′ whitewood boards (for tops)
  • Two 1″ x 12″ x 10′ whitewood boards (for visible sides next to fireplace)
  • Two 1″ x 4″ x 12″ common boards (Each cut to length, then screwed into the wall studs flush behind each shelf for support. This compensates for the 1″ difference in the whitewood boards and BILLY bookcase depth)
  • 3″ drywall screws to attach common board to studs
  • Three 2″ x 4″ x 10′ boards (for hidden sides next to walls and for header frame)
  • Eight 2″ x 4″ x 11″ pieces (to fill gaps between shelf and whiteboard on fireplace side)
  • Four  4 1/4″ x 1 1/8″ x 9″ plinth blocks of choice
  • Four  4 1/4″ x 1 1/8″ x 4 1/4″ plinth blocks of choice
  • Four 15/32″ x 3 9/16″ x 96″ strips of millwork molding (to cover the left and right edges of each shelf)
  • Eight 1 1/2″ x 2″ x 1 3/8″ 18-gauge steel brackets and nails
  • Brad nails (or finish nails)


  • Miter saw or skill saw
  • Brad nailer (recommended)
  • Drill kit
  • Tape measure

Let’s build!

  1. Mark your studs, and screw the cut 1″ x 4″ common board to the wall and into the studs with the drywall screws, spaced every 6-12″. Space the strips a few feet apart from top to bottom to get the best support.

  1. Cut out the crown molding, shoe molding and baseboard if needed.
  2. Press the bookcases flush to the strips on the walls, center them and attach the steel brackets to the bookcases and the strips screwed to the walls.
  3. Measure (ceiling to floor) the wall side where you want the outer edge of your shelf.
  4. Cut the 2″ x 4″ to length and attach to the wall.
  5. Measure (ceiling to floor) the fireplace side where you want the edge of your shelf.
  6. Cut the 1″ x 12″ whiteboard to length and attach using 2″ x 4″ blocks to hold the gap.

  1. Measure from the inside of the 2″ x 4″ to the inside of the 1″ x 12″ across the top of the bookcase. Cut another 2″ x 4″ to fit the space, and screw it in on each side.
  2. Measure and cut the 1″ x 12″ whiteboard designated for the top. Brad nail across the front first and then the side.

  1. Now place and brad nail the plinth blocks.

  1. Next, measure and cut the millwork to length, and brad nail that into place.

  1. Arrange shelves as desired. I cut a few in half to make the vertical breaks and used another 1″ x 12″ to fill the remaining longer gaps to my liking.

  1. Paint, stain and decorate as desired. Here’s our finished product!

Now it’s time to invite your friends over to enjoy your upgraded space and spoil you with compliments on the fruits of your labor … manual labor, but it was worth it, right?!

These are pretty much guaranteed to be a clutch selling feature if you do decide to put your house on the market. In the meantime, I hope you love your new custom built-in bookcases as much as I love mine!


  • DIY Backyard Fire Pit: Build It in Just 7 Easy Steps
  • Personalize Your Space With a DIY Gallery Wall
  • Repurpose Your Rope: 3 Decorative DIYs to Try

Quiz: Which Summer Space Melts Your Heart?

There are 93 days to enjoy this summer, which means 93 chances to chase fireflies, stick your toes in the sand or tell ghost stories under starry skies.

Gather up the marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers, and weigh in on which spaces you’d rather gather ’round on a warm summer’s night.

Photos from Zillow listings: fire pit, fireplace.

Photos from Zillow listings: fire pit, fireplace.

Photos from Zillow listings: fire pit, fireplace.

Photos from Zillow listings: fire pit, fireplace.

Photos from Zillow listings: fire pit, fireplace.

Photos from Zillow listings: fire pit, fireplace.


  • 13 Simple Steps to Prep Your Home for the Best Summer Ever
  • DIY Backyard Fire Pit: Build It in Just 7 Easy Steps
  • Getting and Staying Organized Through the Summer

Renters Beware: These Hidden Costs May Be in Your Lease

By Leigh Raper

Savvy consumers know that companies do all kinds of things to increase the bottom line. Airlines, for instance, charge for a checked bag, while others tack on fees for extra leg room.  And cereal companies keep costs down by putting fewer flakes in the same size of box.

But renters sometimes forget their landlord is running a business too – until they sign a new or renewed lease, that is. Renters may discover that while the rent seems reasonable, the landlord has included itemized charges for utilities or other amenities that add up to a sizable bottom-line difference.

The rental market is extremely competitive in many urban markets right now. According to the Zillow Group Consumer Housing Trends Report 2017, renters account for 37 percent of all households in America – or just over 43.7 million homes, up more than 6.9 million since 2005.

This jump in the number of renters has put pressure on both tenants and landlords. Tenants are scrambling to find the right place, while landlords are trying to find the right price. And both parties are getting creative about how and when to spend their money.

Power play

Utilities are not exactly a hidden cost, but they’re often overlooked by tenants eager to move into a new apartment or renew their current lease.

Always factor utilities into the overall cost of the property. Landlord-tenant laws in each state govern how utilities can be billed, along with what recourse either party has in the case of missed payments or shutoffs.

Sometimes utilities are in the landlord’s name and included in the overall rent charge. Other times, tenants are required to place the electric or gas bills in their names. (Many municipalities require the water and/or sewer accounts to stay in the landlord’s name.)

Then there’s third-party billing: situations where master meters serve an entire building, in which case the landlord splits the charges among all the tenants and bills them individually. Third-party billing makes sense for the landlord, who can advertise a base rental price but charge the utilities as an add-on.

City ordinances

Certain cities have clamped down on third-party billing, which they view as deceptive. In Seattle, for example, the third-party billing ordinance covers all residents living in buildings with three or more units. The ordinance was written to protect tenants from unscrupulous landlords who were fraudulently overcharging them.

The Tenants Union of Washington State, a nonprofit dedicated to education, organizing and advocacy for tenants, provides detailed information for renters about third-party billing and other important issues related to utility costs.

Many of the best practices they recommend apply to all tenants, regardless of location:

  • Ask questions about utility service before you sign a lease.
  • Set up your utility accounts quickly.
  • Pay utility bills promptly and keep documentation of all payments.
  • Take steps to protect yourself with the landlord.
  • Act immediately to resolve utility disputes.

Other “hidden” charges

There are other fees, besides utilities, that your landlord might charge. Some of these are optional add-ons determined by a certain tenant’s particular situation, but others apply to everyone. Landlords in a competitive rental market might even increase these fees based on supply and demand.

The add-ons can include pet fees or a separate charge for parking. Some properties charge an application fee – whether or not the prospective renter is approved.

Other properties, particularly condos or developments subject to homeowners associations (HOAs), charge move-in fees for tenant-occupied units. Amenities, such as cable TV or internet access, which are not considered utilities under most ordinances, might also be billed through an HOA or the landlord.

Of course, this is all in addition to a security deposit and any rent you might have to prepay, like first and last month’s rent due upon move in.

Have questions? Need help?

Advocacy organizations, like the Tenants Union in Seattle, operate around the country. These nonprofits offer help and information to renters.

State agencies also provide information for both tenants and landlords. For example, Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs publishes a Georgia Landlord-Tenant Handbook on its website. A quick internet search will yield similar results in most states.

Sometimes, though, problems and questions can’t be resolved with online information. That’s where consulting an expert can be a smart solution.

Lawyers who specialize in landlord-tenant law not only are familiar with the underlying law in a given geographic region, but also have experience with the systems and processes that can efficiently and economically resolve disputes. Often, spending money for expert advice early on can yield big savings in the long run.


  • The Top 5 Renting Nightmares and How to Face Them
  • 10 Ways to Make Sure You Get Your Security Deposit Back
  • Renters Insurance Required: A Win-Win for Apartment Owners and Tenants

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

Originally published April 8, 2016.