Small Kitchen? Try These 9 Tips for Making the Most of Your Limited Space

Is there some kind of law that requires rental apartments to supply no more than a single square of kitchen counter space to each unit?

Between the white walls, scarce and often outdated cabinets, and a lack of amenities, it’s rare to find a solid kitchen in the world of yearlong leases.

But no good makeover starts with a beautiful subject, right?

All you need to transform that bleak little kitchen into a well-designed, functional space is a bit of imagination, some basic home maintenance skills, and a few solid pieces.

Here’s where to begin.

Donate first

Before moving into your new space, make sure to get rid of all those things you don’t need anymore.

Have you actually used that discounted bundt pan in the past year or two? If not, donate to your favorite local charity shop. Someone else might get use out of it, and you’ll be saving yourself from more clutter in your new home.

Think vertically

Vertical storage is a tried-and-true method of using space, and the kitchen holds some unique opportunities for making the most of it.

Hanging pot racks, magnetic knife strips, mounted dish-drying racks installed above the sink, and rods with hooks for towels, aprons, small tools and oven mitts are all excellent ways to keep clutter in its place – and keep the surfaces and lower area of the room free.

Find beautiful cleaning tools

The ugly truth is that a lot of everyday items just make sense to keep out – but that doesn’t mean they have to be such an eyesore.

Skip the plastic and get yourself a classic wooden broom, natural fiber dish brush and a glass soap dispenser. These items don’t cost much, but they add a softer look while also getting the job done.

Tap into change

Just because your place didn’t come equipped with a dishwasher doesn’t mean you have to suffer. Installing a quality faucet with a pull-down sprayer can make your chores less of a chore (and, as long as you swap it back before you move out, it shouldn’t violate your rental agreement).

Have space and the budget for something more? Portable dishwashers are a massive timesaver. From small countertop models to wheeled butcher-block-top options, there are sizes that fit into almost any space and require nothing more than your standard sink to function.

Live the island life

A kitchen island is a versatile tool for almost any space – even the tiniest micro apartments!

Whether you choose a larger center-of-the-room-style piece or a small butcher-block number, these additions create more counter space and storage, all in one piece.

Bonus: If your island has wheels, it can serve as a portable bar for your next party. (Hey, if we can call bingeing our favorite shows with a few of our closest friends a “party,” so can you.)

Light it up

Another timeless tip: Good lighting is everything.

If your kitchen is dedicated to getting things done and starting your day, invest in cool lighting – the kind that washes everything in a bright, sunlit glow. A refreshing, cooler light wakes us up and creates an invigorating feeling.

If you’re more of a romantic and enjoy taking your time in the kitchen, keep relaxing, warm lighting around so that you can let the day melt away as you sip your merlot.

For those who prefer a bit of both, app-enabled bulbs can customize the mood for any occasion, and some even use every color of the rainbow.

Think (temporarily) BIG

If there’s one common complaint about renting, it’s the stark white walls. Removable wallpaper adds a touch of personalization and won’t break the bank – or at least, it doesn’t have to.

To keep costs low, stick to one accent wall. Finding a large-scale print will make the space feel larger, and layering a sizable mirror on top will maximize the look and any light.

Curate unique displays

One of the best ways to keep an assortment of oddly shaped kitchen items is to dedicate either one section of the room (think: the top 12 inches of the walls) or one wall to showing them off.

Whether it’s your grandmother’s antique creamer collection or the jumble of cookie cutters that won’t fit into your drawers, making them into a vignette adds a layer of personalization to your space while also providing covert storage in plain sight. Easy-to-install hooks or some simple shelves are great ways to achieve this solution.

Keep it alive

Every room deserves a plant. Not only do they look good, but they also improve the quality of the air around them. If you don’t have the floor or counter space to spare, a hanging plant will do the trick.

No natural light in your kitchen? Or perhaps you’re better at killing plants than keeping them green? No matter – there are plenty of realistic artificial plants these days, which means everyone can benefit from the organic shapes of ferns, succulents and the ever-popular fiddle-leaf figs.

Have pets? Make sure to check the toxicity of your plants before choosing their placement.

No matter how uniquely challenging your space might be, there are solutions waiting for you to find them.

Related:

  • ‘You’re Throwing Money Away’ and Other Myths About Renting
  • The Top 5 Renting Nightmares and How to Face Them
  • ‘Where Should I Keep My…?’: Solving the Ultimate Small Space Dilemmas

Kitchen Countertop Buying Guide: Meet the Main Players & Find Your Best Match

Your kitchen is the heart of your home, which means your countertops have to be fit for the job.

Sure, it’s nice if your countertops are stylish. But are they durable? Cost-effective? And will they ultimately suit your lifestyle?

In this buying guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about popular countertop surfaces so you can make an informed choice.

Quartz countertops

Quartz countertops have become increasingly popular due to their solid stone-like appearance and even coloring. While quartz is a naturally occurring mineral, quartz countertops are actually manufactured from quartz particles mixed with a binding resin. Thus, the final color pattern is designed and not a product of nature.

Pros and cons
Quartz countertops have a lot of the benefits of a solid stone slab countertop, like granite, but there are some drawbacks you need to be aware of.

Since quartz countertops contain a large amount of resin, they’re susceptible to heat damage. Placing a hot pot or pan on a quartz countertop can burn, melt or damage the surface.

Unlike granite or marble, however, quartz is resistant to staining from liquids like red wine, and it doesn’t require a sealant to keep it stain-free.

Budget
Quartz is made by different brands, and each brand has their own colors and product names. Quartz prices vary, but you can expect to pay a little less on average than granite – typically around $50 per square foot, with added costs for upgraded edge profiles.

Where to buy
You can shop for quartz at home improvement stores or granite and marble yards. Because it’s manufactured and doesn’t have natural color variations and vein, like marble or granite, you don’t need to shop for it in slabs. Looking at small sample pieces is fine – what you see is what you get.

Some of the brands will carry quartz with faux veining in it, so you might be able to see larger images of those particular products. For the most part, you can take samples home to your kitchen to get a better idea of what you like.

A quartz countertop isn’t a DIY-friendly option, but it does typically come with some sort of warranty. Be sure to shop around for the best price.

What to look for
Selecting the right quartz countertop really comes down to coordinating the color and edge options with your kitchen and personal taste.

Both the light and dark color patterns are the most popular since they are fairly neutral. For edge profiles, a simple, beveled or eased edge will be the lowest cost option and will look fine in most homes.

For a higher-end look, consider a more ornate edge profile that gives a more regal feel to the space.

Glass countertops

If you want a unique and modern look, consider a glass countertop. Glass countertops offer a multitude of designs, configurations and price points.

Recycled glass countertops

Pros and cons

These manufactured countertops are made from broken shards of glass, which get embedded in a resin or concrete base. They come in a wide range of glass and base colors, but most commonly feature blue, green or brown glass pieces.

Some versions are resistant to high heat, but others aren’t, so be sure to check the product details for each product you consider.

Budget

The biggest advantage to this type of glass countertop is its affordability. Recycled glass countertops will range in price from around $75 to $100 per square foot. Expect to pay more for counters with concrete substrates.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Solid glass countertops

Pros and cons

Solid glass countertops are manufactured individually for your unique application and feature a seamless look with blue or green hues. These countertops are much less common than recycled glass versions, due to both their higher price and stark appearance.

Solid glass countertops can withstand high heat from pots and pans, and they can also be used as a cutting board. They clean up very easily with soap and water or glass cleaner.

But, just like any piece of glass, they show dirt or smudges, so you will need to wipe them down more often than other countertop materials.

Budget

Since this type of countertop requires specialty equipment to manufacture, there aren’t as many manufacturers making them. Consequently, you’re going to pay quite a bit for this type of counter. Prices range from just over $100 to well over $300 per square foot.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Where to buy

Because glass countertops are much rarer than granite or marble, you might have trouble finding a supplier. You won’t be able to find glass countertops at your local home improvement store.

The best way to shop for this particular product is to search online for the style, type and color you like. Visit the websites of the various brands you like, and then connect with their individual suppliers.

What to look for

Before you select a glass countertop for your home – either recycled or solid – make sure you see pictures of the same product in a similar installation. It’s best to visit a showroom if you can.

Seeing sample pieces in person is very helpful; this type of countertop is stark, and seeing how a large, bright countertop will affect a room is critical.

Marble countertops

Marble has an elegant appearance that elevates the feel of any kitchen. However, marble isn’t always the best choice for some homes, nor is it the most affordable countertop option.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Pros and cons
There are fewer marble color options compared to granite or quartz, but there is still a relatively large variety. Although most people seem to prefer the lighter options, like the Carrara or Calacatta, marble is not just a white stone.

Marble is mined all around the world, and different regions produce different colors of slabs. You can find marble in cream, brown, green and dark hues, although darker colors are typically harder to find in a countertop slab compared to the lighter tones.

Before you decide on marble as your countertop material, be aware that it stains fairly easily from acidic liquids, like red wine. You don’t want to spend several thousand dollars on a countertop only to have an orange juice spill discolor it. Just be sure that marble is the right material for your kitchen habits and lifestyle.

Budget
Marble comes in a wide variety of prices, and it’s typically quoted per square foot, so it’s a good idea to know how much you’ll need.

Since marble is a natural product, every slab is unique. You can expect to pay anywhere from $75 per square foot up to several hundred dollars per square foot, depending on the features of the individual marble slab. If you want a thicker countertop or a more decorative edge, you’ll pay more.

Where to buy

You need to shop for marble at a granite or stone yard. You’re not going to find marble countertops at a home improvement store.

Most granite suppliers will have some marble slabs for you to choose from, so you can start by checking with them first. It’s best to know exactly what marble color you’d like before you start looking. That way, you can call the suppliers ahead of time to find out what they have in stock.

What to look for
When you are shopping for a marble countertop, look for a slab that’s not only attractive but also consistently colored throughout. Bright white marble with subtle veining is going to cost more than an asymmetrical slab with dark, multicolored veins.

Most slabs will have veining to some extent. Be on the lookout for any yellowing or discoloration. If you find a slab that you really like, but it has some areas in it you don’t love, you might be able to have the countertop patterns cut out around those areas for an additional cost.

Granite countertops

Granite is one of the most popular choices for kitchen countertops and for good reason. It’s a beautiful, natural product that not only adds value to your home but also holds up well in daily use.

Pros and cons
Granite is a durable substance, so it doesn’t scratch easily and can handle a little wear and tear. It’s also resistant to heat, so you’re safe to put pots and pans on it.

The drawback is that granite is porous, and if your countertop is sealed poorly, it can harbor stains and bacteria. Most granite countertops need to be sealed every year.

Budget
Granite comes in a wide variety of prices. It can vary from $45 per square foot up to around $100 per square foot, depending on the grade and color pattern.

Two nearly identical pieces of granite can have different prices if one has a more even color pattern or simply looks more attractive than the other. And thicker granite is going to be more expensive than thinner granite.

In terms of a total kitchen renovation cost, plan on budgeting around 10 percent of your material costs for a granite countertop. That base price usually includes measurement and installation costs and a basic edge profile. More ornate or wider edge profiles will also add to the cost.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Where to buy
You can shop for granite countertops at all major home improvement stores, which have dozens of granite sample pieces to browse. However, you should also look at a granite or stone yard.

Granite yards typically have a large warehouse with many different countertop slabs. You can pick out the exact slab of granite that will go in your kitchen. They may also have deals where they’ll include a free under-mount sink with a countertop purchase.

What to look for
You shouldn’t pick your granite countertop until you’ve picked your cabinets. You want a slab that will coordinate with everything else in your kitchen. To make that task easier, bring a small piece of a backsplash tile or kitchen cabinet door with you to see how it pairs with those items.

Look at the entire granite slab before you place your order. If you find a slab you like, but it contains a vein or a color you don’t like, the granite yard might be able to cut around that discoloration.

Concrete countertops

Unlike granite or marble, concrete countertops aren’t cut from a slab and trimmed to order. Instead, concrete countertops are custom-made for each individual kitchen application, giving you near total control over the finished look.

Pros and cons
Because of its industrial vibe, concrete usually looks better in a city loft than a country kitchen. However, concrete countertops can be incorporated into any style if designed properly.

Concrete colors are predominantly on the darker side of the color scale, with a few lighter options. Edge options may be more limited compared to granite or marble, depending on the supplier.

One concrete’s big advantages is that you can make it whatever thickness you’d like. Standard granite and marble countertops are around 1 to 1.5 inches thick, but it’s not uncommon to see concrete countertops 2 to 4 inches thick.

However, once you start making your concrete countertop thicker than a standard 1.5 inches, you’re adding a lot more weight. A 3-inch thick concrete countertop is like two granite countertops stacked on top of each other – that’s a lot of weight.

To handle the extra weight from the countertops, your kitchen cabinets might need to be reinforced. A countertop installer can make some recommendations for what’s needed.

Budget
Concrete countertops run around $100 per square foot, depending on how thick you want them.

Although the material costs are low for concrete (around $5 for an 80-pound bag), a significant portion of the cost is in labor – much more so than granite or marble.

Build techniques
There are two basic approaches to building concrete countertops: off-site and in-place.

The off-site method involves building a template of your countertops and molds. The molds are built off-site where the concrete is poured and polished.

The in-place approach involves building a mold right on top of your floor cabinets and pouring the concrete right in your kitchen.

The off-site method generally looks better and is significantly less intrusive and messy. But the in-place method doesn’t give you as smooth of a finished surface, and most concrete countertop builders prefer the off-site method.

Countertop options abound, and there’s no right or wrong answer. Just consider your lifestyle, budget and style, and you’re sure to make a choice that you’ll be pleased with for years to come.

Related:

  • Sellers: Here’s How to Update Your Home With Looks Buyers Love
  • Pro Tips for Making the Most of Your Kitchen Remodeling Budget
  • Balancing Home Improvements With Big Price Tags

This Historic Connecticut Home Once Hosted a Dancing George Washington

Built in 1680 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this center hall Colonial home on 1 Sill Lane, Old Lyme, CT, is not only a living testament to early American architecture – it’s also got a storied past of its own.

The home once served as a storefront during the Revolutionary War and was largely used as the Peck Tavern throughout the second half of the 18th century and early part of the 19th century.

It’s even rumored that George Washington stopped by to dance in the former ballroom, which is now used as the master bedroom.

The house was also once headquarters for the Old Lyme Guild, an organization started in the 1930s that exhibited and sold arts and crafts.

For a period of time, there were even shops for cabinetmakers, bookbinders, metal workers, potters and weavers out in the barn.

“Can you imagine the conversations that have happened in this house? That’s something I like to think about,” says the homeowner.

In addition to its spectacular history, the home is also architecturally significant. Hand-hewn beamed ceilings and corner posts, original wide board floors, and rare double-arched paneling that was specific to the Connecticut River Valley in the 18th century are just a few of the unique features in the home.

Updated for modern living (yet still keeping the historical integrity), the home now has geothermal heating and cooling, a modern kitchen and updated bathrooms, as well as plenty of space for entertaining.

“It’s been a wonderful house to be able to share with friends and family,” says the homeowner.

The home is listed for $1.195 million by William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty.

Photos courtesy of Peter Harron.

Related:

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5 Expenses Homeowners Pay That Renters Don’t

Homeownership may be a goal for some, but it’s not the right fit for many.

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. Even still, more than half of millennial and Gen Z renters consider buying, with 18 percent seriously considering it.

Both lifestyles afford their fair share of pros and cons. So before you meet with a real estate agent, consider these five costs homeowners pay that renters don’t – they could make you reconsider buying altogether.

1. Property taxes

As long as you own a home, you’ll pay property taxes. The typical U.S. homeowner pays $2,110 per year in property taxes, meaning they’re a significant – and ongoing – chunk of your budget.

Factor this expense into the equation from the get-go to avoid surprises down the road. The property tax rates vary among states, so try a mortgage calculator to estimate costs in your area.

2. Homeowners insurance

Homeowners insurance protects you against losses and damage to your home caused by perils such as fires, storms or burglary. It also covers legal costs if someone is injured in your home or on your property.

Homeowners insurance is almost always required in order to get a home loan. It costs an average of $35 per month for every $100,000 of your home’s value.

If you intend to purchase a condo, you’ll need a condo insurance policy – separate from traditional homeowner’s insurance – which costs an average of $100 to $400 a year.

3. Maintenance and repairs

Don’t forget about those small repairs that you won’t be calling your landlord about anymore. Notice a tear in your window screen? Can’t get your toilet to stop running? What about those burned out light bulbs in your hallway? You get the idea.

Maintenance costs can add an additional $3,021 to the typical U.S. homeowner’s annual bill. Of course, this amount increases as your home ages.

And don’t forget about repairs. Conventional water heaters last about a decade, with a new one costing you between $500 to $1,500 on average. Air conditioning units don’t typically last much longer than 15 years, and an asphalt shingle roof won’t serve you too well after 20 years.

4. HOA fees

Sure, that monthly mortgage payment seems affordable, but don’t forget to take homeowners association (HOA) fees into account.

On average, HOA fees cost anywhere from $200 to $400 per month. They usually fund perks like your fitness center, neighborhood landscaping, community pool and other common areas.

Such amenities are usually covered as a renter, but when you own your home, you’re paying for these luxuries on top of your mortgage payment.

5. Utilities

When you’re renting, it’s common for your apartment or landlord to cover some costs. When you own your home, you’re in charge of covering it all – water, electric, gas, internet and cable.

While many factors determine how much you’ll pay for utilities – like the size of your home and the climate you live in – the typical U.S. homeowner pays $2,953 in utility costs every year.

Ultimately, renting might be more cost-effective in the end, depending on your lifestyle, location and financial situation. As long as you crunch the numbers and factor in these costs, you’ll make the right choice for your needs.

Related:

  • Hidden Costs of Homeownership Typically Top $9,000 a Year
  • 5 Mortgage Misconceptions Set Straight
  • ‘You’re Throwing Money Away’ and Other Myths About Renting

Originally published August 18, 2015. Statistics updated July 2018.

This Nashville Treehouse Will Drench You in Light – House of the Week

Somewhere in East Nashville – at the intersection of windows and woodwork – you’ll find something wonderful.

That’s exactly what Sloane Southard and Emily Leonard Southard intended when they imagined a guesthouse on a tree-filled piece of land in the city they love.

“Sloane and I designed it together, and he built it,” said Emily, a painter and artist. “[Sloane] owns a home restoration company, called The Standard Sash, that specializes in windows, which is why we used so many salvaged windows in the design.”

Photo by Laura Dart.

Stunning vintage windows fill every wall of the tiny home, which is perched a few feet above the ground. There’s a peekaboo skylight overlooking a vintage-style bed. A plant hangs from above.

Photo by Laura Dart.

Emily, an artist for more than 15 years, filled the space with her work, including the floor murals.

Photo by Laura Dart.

The duo added other vintage touches to the home they lovingly call The Fox House. There’s a weathered turquoise trunk that serves as a coffee table and a Mid-Century Modern couch in the perfect shade of 1950s green. 

Photo by Laura Dart.

There’s little more to the home beyond books, a patio and a writing desk. (Relaxation is the story you’ll want to write here.)

Outside, there’s a hammock and string lights, which glow as the sun sets on the space. With deer, birds and squirrels for neighbors, you might catch a passing glimpse at a fawn grazing on some grass.

Photo by Laura Dart.

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

Photo by Laura Dart.

Top image by Laura Dart.

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How to Build Your Own Vertical Garden With Shipping Pallets

Take your green thumb to new heights (and small spaces!) with a vertical garden.

This DIY is a great way to integrate a little greenery into any space, including an apartment or small porch.

Supplies:

  • Two pallets
  • Tarp
  • Hammer
  • Pry bar
  • Gloves
  • Safety goggles and ear protection
  • Sanding blocks or sandpaper
  • Paintbrush
  • Water-based stain
  • Water-based clear sealant
  • Two 3 1/2-inch utility hinges
  • Screws
  • Landscape fabric
  • Staple gun and staples
  • Screwdriver or screw gun
  • Scissors
  • Organic potting mix
  • Fertilizer
  • Plants

A note on plant choice: Before you go wild at the garden center, consider your vertical garden’s placement.

To grow most vegetables, herbs, succulents and annual flowers, you will need at least six hours of direct sunlight. A shady spot limits your choices, but you can still create a lush planting of shade-loving foliage plants, begonias and coral bells.

Many vegetables and annuals will only succeed in certain conditions, so read the tags to decide if they’re right for this season. Finally, consider the potential size and habit of each plant before packing them into such a small space.

1. Source heat-treated pallets

Many pallets are treated with toxic chemicals, so look for the initials “HT” to select heat-treated pallets. The wood should also be hard, clean and relatively smooth.

2. Add space by removing boards

Wearing ear and eye protection (it’s a loud process!), remove every other board with a pry bar. This will give plants sunlight and room to grow.

3. Sand rough spots

Wearing gloves, remove any debris. Sand down the splinters and rough edges, hammering down or replacing any protruding nails.

4. Apply waterproof stain

For a decorative finish, apply a water-based wood stain. Using a paintbrush, paint along the grain of the wood, and wipe off any excess stain with a rag.

If you’re growing vegetables or herbs, line the inside with plastic before planting. This will prevent chemicals from leaching into the potting mix.

Allow the stain to cure for at least 24 hours. Once dry, apply a layer of water-based clear sealant to protect the wood from the elements.

5. Connect pallets with hinges

Stack the two pallets together, ensuring that the bottom edges are level. Attach the hinges to the sides of the pallets with screws, placing them about one-third and two-thirds of the way down for stability.

You may also choose to drill pilot holes first to prevent splitting.

6. Cut landscape fabric

Since pallets come in all shapes and sizes, use the first sheet of landscape fabric to create a template. It should provide ample planting room, as well as about an inch of overlap for the stables.

Once you’ve tested the template, cut the remaining sheets to the same size.

7. Line pallets with fabric

Create a pocket by tucking the landscape fabric into the opening, and staple it in place along the outer edge. Repeat for the remaining pockets.

If extra moisture retention is needed, include an extra layer of fabric.

8. Add organic soil

Before adding potting mix, move the pallet garden to its final location, making sure that it will receive enough sunlight for the plants you’ve chosen.

Fill each pocket about three-fourths of the way full with moisture-retentive potting mix. Set aside some potting mix so that you can add a layer after planting.

9. Add fertilizer

If the potting mix doesn’t already contain fertilizer, sprinkle fertilizer over the surface according to label instructions.

10. Add plants

Before planting, water each plant to keep their brittle roots from breaking. Then slip each plant’s rootball out of the pot, soil and all. Gently tease apart the roots with your fingers, and nestle them into the potting mix, one by one.

Since excess water will drip down to the lowest pockets, fill the upper pockets with drought-tolerant plants such as succulents, sedums, rosemary and lavender. In the lower pockets, incorporate thirstier plants like ferns, basil and mint.

Once the plants have been arranged to your liking, cover with another layer of potting mix, and lightly sprinkle with water to help the mix settle around the roots.

Caring for your vertical garden

Water the uppermost pocket every morning, allowing enough water to reach the other plants. You may need to water two to three times for thirstier varieties of herbs and vegetables, particularly on hot days.

Feed plants once a week with a liquid fertilizer to replace any nutrients that leach out from the potting mix.

Now it’s time to enjoy your vertical garden and its bounty.

As plants outgrow their space, transplant them to the garden or larger containers. You may also choose to start from scratch each season, planting a whole new garden from seeds or transplants.

Related:

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How to Choose the Right School: 6 Tips for Parents

If you’re a parent, buying or renting a new home isn’t just about where you’ll tuck the kids into bed at night – it’s also about where you’ll send them off to school in the morning.

So, how can you be sure your dream house feeds into your child’s dream school? You’re going to have to do some homework.

1. Go beyond the numbers

Every state’s education department publishes an online “report card” for each district and school. But just as you wouldn’t buy a house based solely on square footage or listing photos, you shouldn’t select a school just for its test scores and teacher-to-student ratios.

Dr. Steve McCammon, chief operating officer at Schlechty Center, a nonprofit that helps school districts improve student engagement and learning, cautions that most reported test scores are for English and math. They don’t provide insight into arts or music programs or how well a school teaches critical thinking skills.

The right school isn’t something you can determine based on any statistics, numbers or even reputation, says Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners and writer for the Eduwonk blog.

“Don’t go where the highest test scores are or where everybody else says you should go,” he says. “Different kids want different things. Go to the school that fits your kid.”

Adds Rotherham: “The most important things are what does your kid need and what does the school do to meet those needs. Whether you’re talking public, private or charter, you can find excellence and mediocrity in all of those sectors.”

2. Take a school tour

Just as you’d look around potential homes before signing a contract, you’ll want to do the same with potential schools. Call and arrange to tour the school and observe.

“Be suspicious of any school that isn’t into letting you visit,” says Rotherham. Some schools may say visitors are too disruptive, but he calls that a cop-out. “With some fairly basic norms, you can have parents and other visitors around without disrupting learning.”

Sit in on a class or two and take notes. You want to see students who are genuinely engaged, not wasting time or bored. It’s OK for a classroom to have lots of talk and movement if it’s all directed toward a learning goal.

Schools should be relatively noisy places. McCammon says, “If you go into a middle school, and you hear no noises, I would be concerned that the principal is more interested in keeping order than in making sure kids are learning.”

Observe how teachers and administrators interact with the students and vice versa. Do they display mutual respect? “You don’t need to be an education expert,” says Rotherham.

See if student work is on display. “A good school is a school where, regardless of grade level, student work is everywhere,” McCammon says. “It means that place is about kids and their work.”

Talk to kids, too – they’re the subject matter experts on their school. And if you have friends with kids in schools you’re considering, ask them what they like and don’t like about their schools. Kids won’t try to feed you a line. “They’re pretty unfiltered,” Rotherham says.

Check out the physical space, suggests National PTA President Jim Accomando. However, don’t get caught up on the building’s age and overlook the quality of the programs going on inside.

Look for signs that the school community takes pride in the facility. It might not be pristine, but trash on the floors or signs of rampant vandalism are red flags. If you see something that seems off or odd, ask if there’s a plan to address it.

3. Check out the community

Go to a school board meeting for clues about the district. Are parents there because their children are being honored or their work is being showcased? Or are they there because of a problem? Likewise, attend a PTA or PTO meeting, and chat with the parents there. They are likely the most involved “outsiders” and can share school challenges and successes.

Another consideration: the makeup of the students. Chances are, if you opt for a neighborhood school, you’ll find a certain similarity between your kids and their classmates, because there are probably a lot of similarities between you and your neighbors. But a school that has a diverse student body offers a big benefit.

“We live in a diverse society,” Rotherham says. “If you want to prepare your kids for what their lives are going to be like in this country going forward, it’s important for them to have experience with diverse groups.”

Even if your child’s school isn’t particularly diverse, avenues like sports and music give them a chance to interact with students from different backgrounds.

4. Think long term

Today’s first-grader will be heading to middle school before you know it. Unless you plan on moving relatively soon, be aware of the middle and high schools in your district.

“If you pick a house because you love the elementary school, you’d better be psyched by the middle school and high school,” Rotherham says. “Or have some kind of a plan” for post-elementary years.

Of course, there is such a thing as planning too far ahead. The music prodigy wowing your friends at her third-grade recorder performance may decide she hates band and wants to focus on soccer by the time she hits middle school. Rest assured: If upper-level schools in your prospective district are about kids doing great work, they’ll likely be a good fit.

5. Watch for boundary issues

Pay attention to the boundaries of prospective school districts. The houses across the cul-de-sac could be in a different school service area or even a different school district. And boundaries often change. To be sure, call the school district and give them the specific address you’re interested in.

Don’t assume you can fudge an address or get a waiver to enroll your children in a school or a district that doesn’t match your address. Things that were allowed last year may not be this year. If an individual school or district is at capacity, they will get very picky about enrollment outside of the school assigned to your home, which can lead to heartbreak if you find yourself on the wrong side of that boundary line.

6. Look for a place where you feel welcome

Whatever involvement you put into your child’s school will pay off, says Accomando. “If you can be engaged at school, you will understand the pulse of what’s happening there.”

He also says that doesn’t mean getting sucked into a huge commitment. “You can read in your child’s first-grade class. You can hand out water at a fun run or contribute something for a teacher appreciation party at the high school. And when you do, walk the halls and see what’s happening.”

McCammon says good schools should welcome parents as volunteers and visitors. “Look for evidence of parents feeling comfortable and engaging with the school,” he says. The principal should be someone you feel comfortable talking with if there’s a problem.

No matter how welcoming the school, it’s natural to have some butterflies on the first day in a new school. Just as it takes time for a new house to feel like home, it takes time for kids to settle into a new school.

Once they’ve found their way to the restroom without asking directions, made some friends and gotten to know their teacher, they’ll be comfortable with their new learning home. And your research will have been well worth the effort.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

Related:

  • 5 Benefits of Apartment Living for Families
  • Your Essential Moving Checklist
  • 5 Tips for House Hunting With Kids

Originally published January 17, 2018.

7 Qualities of a Good Neighbor

If you want good neighbors, you’ll first have to become one yourself. Master these seven techniques, and even you (yes, you!) can win the approval of your entire neighborhood.

1. Good neighbors bring cookies

Whether you’re new in town or haven’t kept in touch, a delivery of freshly baked goods is a perfect way to break the ice and let neighbors know that you’re thinking of them.

If cookies can keep Santa returning year after year with a bag full of loot, then surely they can train your neighbors to do your bidding. Consider the following scenario.

“Honey, somebody’s robbing the neighbor’s house again.”
“Wait, Janet. The ones who brought cookies yesterday?”
“Exactly. This time I’ll call the cops.”

2. Good neighbors rarely gossip

If your neighbor seems to know the dirt on everyone within a two-block radius, you can count on them to keep tabs on your personal life as well.

The next time Nosy Nellie gleefully describes the contents of the Rickenbacker’s trash again, move the conversation along by refocusing the conversation on her. “So, what are you growing in your garden this year?”

You aren’t in high school anymore, so preserve relationships with your neighbors and avoid the gratuitous gab fests.

3. Good neighbors share phone numbers

For such a connected age, you should really question why you don’t have your neighbors’ phone numbers. After all, what if they receive your package by mistake? What if the house floods while you’re on vacation? Worse yet, what if you need a babysitter?

If you feel uncomfortable bringing it up, ask during one of your cookie deliveries (you are following rule number one, right?) or right before a trip. Jot down your name, number and email address on a piece of paper and ask if your neighbor is comfortable sharing theirs.

4. Good neighbors help before they’re asked

The neighbor who says, “Let me know if you need anything,” probably isn’t going to help whenever you actually need something. You, on the other hand, are a good neighbor and genuinely want to help out.

To get ahead of the meaningless small talk, anticipate their needs. If they have kids and you’re comfortable babysitting, tell them up front. If they’re clearly struggling to mow the lawn during a heat wave, ask for the best time to stop by with your lawnmower.

5. Good neighbors are tidy

Even if you lack self-respect, respect the sensitive tastes of others and clean up your act.

Keep the ironic lawn ornaments to a minimum. Keep trash receptacles hidden in the side yard, or better yet, the garage.

Whenever you’ve finished gardening or landscaping for the day, put away your tools and bags of unused mulch. Rake the leaves and clean up grass clippings and all the other stuff your dad used to bug you about.

And if it’s not too much trouble, pressure wash and paint your house periodically.

6. Good neighbors mow the lawn

An unkempt and weedy lawn is embarrassing for your neighbors, so it should be embarrassing for you as well. Keeping it mowed every week or two is a good start, but it will take more than that to win the approval of the locals.

Trim the edge of your lawn regularly, fertilize on schedule and keep weeds to a minimum. Keep your foundation plantings simple, neatly trimmed and topped off with mulch.

If your neighborhood allows it, go the no-lawn method by planting swaths of low-maintenance, drought-tolerant ground covers. Crucially, don’t overdo it on the sprinklers – especially when it’s raining.

7. Good neighbors communicate

That old “good fences make good neighbors” quote had to come up at some point, right? A good neighbor must respect boundaries. That said, they should also be crossed when the fences themselves start losing pickets and falling over in a storm.

Even if it’s technically their fence, you might not be happy with the shoddy workmanship and resentment that you’ll have to live with when they get around to fixing it themselves.

Address shared interests like fences, drainage ditches and troublesome trees ahead of time so that you can work out a plan that both parties can agree to.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring cookies.

Related:

  • When Selling a Home, the Neighbors Matter
  • 6 Smart Ways to Build Home Equity
  • How to Choose the Right School: 6 Tips for Parents

5 Ways to Get to Know Your Neighbors

Leaving friends and neighbors behind can be the toughest part of moving to a new home.

These five tips will help you make connections and settle into your new community in no time.

1. Knock, knock

For an extrovert, walking over to a neighbor’s home to say hello may feel like a no-brainer. But for more reserved personalities, this tried-and-true method usually requires a bit of a warmup.

Start with a friendly wave as you drive by, then work your way up to a face-to-face introduction. Remember, timing is everything. You don’t want to disturb your neighbors in the middle of dinner or while they’re struggling to get a fussy toddler down for the night.

Try to catch them when they’re already outside, or aim for a weekend afternoon when everyone is much more likely to be relaxed and open to a brief, friendly chat.

2. Snail mail

Can’t work up the nerve to knock on doors? In this age of electronic communication, a nice handwritten note can be a welcome surprise.

Write a few lines for your closest neighbors, introducing yourself and inviting them over for a cup of coffee or cocktail at their convenience.

Be sure to personalize each note by including a small conversation starter (e.g., the roses in front of your home are absolutely stunning! We’re poodle lovers too!), then drop your letters at your neighbors’ front door or in their mailbox.

3. Magic school bus

If you’ve got school-age children, accompany them to the bus stop for the first few days of class.

You’re likely to run into at least one other parent who can fill you in on both neighborhood and school happenings – and people love to talk about their kids, so you won’t have to worry about awkward silences and finding common ground.

Exchange contact info and invite the family over for some weekend fun.

4. Man’s best friend

Our pets often are the friendliest members of the family, so let your four-legged companion break the ice for you.

Dog parks are a natural spot for meeting new friends, both canine and human. You can also meet fellow pet lovers while walking your dog through your neighborhood – cleaning up any messes, of course.

You can get recommendations for trails, vets and parks, as well as ask about any pet-themed meetups in the area.

5. Turn the page

Don’t let the name fool you: Book clubs are as much about socializing as they are about reading.

Check out your library or local bookstore for groups near you, or you can find one online. If possible, contact the host ahead of time to ask whether you should bring any refreshments (wine!), and come armed with a few key insights about the book and recommendations for the next session.

Who knows? You could pick the next talk of the town.

Bonus: life of the party

Once you’ve made a few connections, team up to host a neighborhood block party. Volunteer to handle snacks and other logistics, and ask your more established neighbors to spread the word.

Pick a seasonal theme – hot dogs and lemonade for summer, cookies and warm cider for fall – and spend an afternoon meeting new friends and getting the inside scoop on the best places to eat and play near your new home.

Before you call it a day, pass the torch to another neighbor and make the block party a new tradition.

Related:

  • 7 Qualities of a Good Neighbor
  • When Selling a Home, the Neighbors Matter
  • 3 Things to Do When Your Neighbors List Their Home for Sale

Originally published September 3, 2015.

This Rockin’ Tiny Home Actually Doubles as an Amp – House of the Week

The road home was a long one for Asha Mevlana, lead violinist for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s West Coast tour.

After a breast cancer diagnosis 18 years ago, Mevlana quit her job in public relations and moved to Los Angeles to become a professional violinist.

Mevlana not only successfully went into remission but also prospered in her music career, touring with acts like Dee Snider and Gnarls Barkley.

After years on the road and storage units on each coast, Mevlana decided she was ready to downsize and plant roots somewhere unexpected: Fayetteville, AR.

She made plans to build a tiny house in Arkansas on her brother’s land. The build took only six weeks but produced spectacular results.

Mevlana’s tiny home is separated into two pieces: a 400-square-foot main house and a 160-square-foot amplified trailer/studio/guesthouse on wheels that she can take on the road.

A large deck, which often serves as a stage, joins the two structures, and the amplified trailer is fully operable, ready for use with any electric instrument.

Other unique features of this musician’s haven are a cranking bike wheel that raises and lowers a pot rack, recycled denim soundproofing in the music trailer, and a garage door that serves as a window feature in the main house.

Mevlana said it’s easy to embrace her minimalist lifestyle after all that she’s been through over the years.

“The experience with breast cancer really changed my life in so many ways, and one of those was life is not just about money and having things and collecting things,” Mevlana said.

Photos by Erik Hecht.

Related:

  • This School Bus Is a Tiny Home … to a Family of 6!
  • This Double Shipping Container Home Has Twice the Delight – House of the Week
  • Tour These Whimsical Cabins Made From Recycled Materials