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Tom's Blog

Q: Who Should Be Called to the Project First, the Contractor or the Architect?

June 1, 2012 1:38 pm

A: Opinions vary about which professional to call first. Some say the architect comes first because “you have to design it before you can build it.” The architect, who is trained to resolve problems creatively, can help define the project in ways that provide meaningful guidance for the design. The architect can also do site studies, help secure planning and zoning approvals, and perform a variety of other pre-design tasks. On the other hand, a contractor will be the one you interact with on a regular basis and the person who will likely be in your home every day, possibly for an extended period depending on the scope of your work. Many contractors have in-house design services, or design/build firms, and can possibly offer better price and integration between design and implementation. Others may have several architects with whom they work directly, which could also provide a smooth integration between design and implementation.

Selling Your Home: What is Silent Fraud?

May 31, 2012 5:34 pm

If you are planning to sell your home this year, I want to bring you up to speed on an important responsibility—to present your home in as positive and honest light as possible. 

Joy Watts, a real estate professional in Kalamazoo, Mich., recently blogged about 'nondisclosure' and why consumers need to be fully educated about this important piece of terminology, which is also referred to as “Silent Fraud.” 

According to Watts, if you are a seller, you will be asked by your real estate professional to fill out a Sellers Disclosure form. This form is used to give potential buyers additional information regarding your home and property they would not know by looking on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) or the printout given to them by their buyer’s agent. 

As the seller, you need to fill out the Sellers Disclosure Form to the best of your ability. You may not know the answers to all of the questions but Watts advises you to do the best you can.

You do not want to commit “Nondisclosure” or “Silent Fraud” on this form or at any time throughout the process of selling your home. The following are ways you can commit fraud:
• Your home has a defect and you purposely do not disclose the defect
• You disclose the defect but you understate the severity of it when questioned
• You become aware of a defect during the selling process and you do not correct a statement made previously to a buyer or you do not make a change to the Sellers Disclosure Form

You may think that if you state that the property is sold in “as is condition” this eliminates the risk of fraud. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. Watts says even if you are selling your property in “as is condition” and you are aware of defects you still must disclose those defects even if you have no intention of correcting those defects.

Fuel Efficiency the ‘Way to Go’ This Summer Driving Season

May 31, 2012 5:34 pm

Memorial Day kicked off the summer driving season. While gas prices have dropped, you can still do plenty to make the fuel in your tank last longer. 

Recent public opinion polls show that many Americans find gas prices burdensome, and some experts believe that worries about jobs and the economy could keep would-be vacationers at home this summer. “So even with gas prices below their historic highs of a few years ago, it’s a good time to employ fuel-efficiency tips to save at the pump,” says Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan.
The Alliance calculated that the average U.S. household will spend $3,475 to fuel its vehicles this year. As demonstrated by the Alliance’s fuel-efficiency videos, proper vehicle maintenance and smart driving can keep more money in your pocket. 

Tips for Vehicle Maintenance 

Tune Up
Fixing a car that’s out of tune or has failed an emissions test can improve its gas mileage by an average of 4 percent, saving about $82 a year. Fixing a serious maintenance problem, such as a faulty oxygen sensor, can improve your mileage by as much as 40 percent, or more than $1,300! 

Inflate Your Tires
Keeping tires properly inflated can improve mileage by up to 3.3 percent, or about $61 a year (under-inflated tires can lower mileage by 0.3 percent for every 1 psi drop in pressure in all four tires). Proper inflation also improves tire longevity – and driver and passenger safety. 

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) cautions not to rely on the pressure setting on the tire’s sidewall, but to consult your owner’s manual or look for a sticker on the driver’s side door jamb or in the glove box.
Get the Right Oil
Use the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil or risk lowering your gas mileage by 1-2 percent, wasting up to $40 annually. DOE also advises looking for the phrase “Energy Conserving” on the American Petroleum Institute performance symbol to ensure that the oil contains friction-reducing additives. 

Unpack & Unload
Get the junk out of the trunk! Remove unnecessary items in your vehicle’s trunk – an extra 100 pounds could reduce your mileage by up to 2 percent, wasting $40 a year. 

Also nix a loaded roof rack, which can cut fuel economy by 5 percent, or $98 per year. 

Tips for Smart Driving 

Keep a Steady Pace
Avoid aggressive driving. Speeding, rapid acceleration and rapid braking can lower gas mileage by at highway speeds, wasting about $980/year, and 5% around town, wasting about $98/year. 

Avoid Speeding
Mileage usually decreases rapidly above 60 miles per hour. DOE says each five mph over 60 is like adding as much as 31 cents per gallon to the price of gas. 

Avoid Idling
Idling gets 0 miles per gallon, wasting a quarter to a half gallon of fuel per hour depending on engine size and air conditioner use. Yet it takes only a few seconds’ worth of fuel to restart your engine. 

Use Cruise Control & Overdrive Gear
Using cruise control on the highway helps you maintain a constant speed and, in most cases, save gas and money. 

And don’t forget to engage the overdrive gear to reduce engine speed, which saves gas and reduces engine wear. 

Plan Ahead
Combining errands into one trip saves not only time but money, too. Taking several short trips from a cold start each time can use twice as much fuel as one multipurpose trip covering the same distance with a warm engine. 

Beat the Traffic
When possible, drive and/or commute during off-peak hours to avoid stop-and-go traffic. You’ll reduce stress as well as gas costs! 

Tips for Smart Commuting 

Choose Efficient 
If you have a choice of vehicles, use the more fuel-efficient one whenever possible. 

Consider alternatives to driving solo. Take advantage of carpools and ride-share programs to cut your weekly fuel costs by as much as half – and save wear on your car. Many urban areas allow vehicles with multiple passengers to use High Occupancy Vehicle, or HOV, lanes which are typically less congested, further improving your fuel economy. Carpooling twice a week with two others can save each of you more than $150/year. 

Consider telecommuting from home, if your employer permits it. Doing that just twice a week can save you more than $450/year. 

Take the Train
Look into public transit options, too. The American Public Transportation Association has links to information about public transportation in each state. 

Source: Alliance to Save Energy

Remodeling Your Home? Start from the Outside in

May 31, 2012 5:34 pm

(ARA) - The kitchen and bathroom are at the top of most home remodeling project lists. But homeowners intent on remodeling should also consider investing in the exterior of their homes - maybe even start there.

That's the advice of Sarah Susanka, one of the nation's leading voices for redefining the American home, and author of the Not So Big House series, a collection of nine books focusing on home design, architecture and remodeling.

The reason for investing in the exterior is simple. The exterior should set the tone for your home's interior look and feel. Also, first impressions really do count to the long-term value of a house, especially when it comes time to sell it.

"I firmly believe that the experience we have in living in our homes can have a profound impact on the way we look at life," Susanka says. "That experience begins the moment we walk, bike or drive up to it, and extends through the transitions we make as we move between the landscape, the exterior and the interior of the home."

The feeling of satisfaction that comes from making your house look good on the outside is experienced at many levels - from the colors and textures of your home to the quality of the materials used to build or remodel it, to the benefits of those materials in the long term, such as the character they lend, or the ease of maintenance they offer. The good news is that if you haven't remodeled your house in a long time, there are a number of new, sustainable products that are helping homeowners create exteriors that are both beautiful and green, such as APEX siding and Integrity windows, both made with pultruded fiberglass, a tough, low-maintenance, sustainable material offering a rich selection of colors.

"A Not So Big House is not only built better rather than bigger," adds Susanka. "It is also designed to be a good custodian of the planet's resources. It's built to last. Finding green products that also make it easy for homeowners to maintain the home is a big step toward true sustainability. If a house isn't both beautiful and practical, no matter how green the materials used, it won't live up to its sustainability goals. People only look after what they love, and beauty is a big part of that picture."

If you're thinking about remodeling in the near future, here are several more ideas to make the most of your remodeling budget:

Create a master plan. Many homeowners cannot afford to do a complete remodeling. Most do it in chunks. Before you lift a hammer, hire an architect to create a master plan for your home, which will guide your remodeling efforts for years to come.

Connecting inside with outside. The interior and exterior of your home need to work together. They need to be integrated and harmonize with one another as you move from the surrounding landscape to the interior, or as you look out from inside your home to the garden beyond. To enhance this connection, think about the first impression you want to give a visitor. Do you want it to communicate comfort? Connectedness to the outdoors? Creativity? Or tradition? All these can be accomplished with thoughtful detailing of the home's exterior, as well as landscaping.

Small changes; huge impact. Small changes to the exterior, such as adding another color to the exterior palette, adding texture such as stone, brick or lap siding, or framing the windows with wider trim boards, can have a huge impact on the look of your home, and make it feel both more expressive and more inviting.

Choose sustainable products. It's important not only to the environment, but to the overall maintenance and longevity of your home. Consider remodeling your house with some of the new, high quality sustainable products that are entering the remodeling marketplace, such as APEX Siding, Susanka's current favorite find, which is made from pultruded fiberglass, derived from sand.

Reduce maintenance and future repairs. Another key to remodeling is to use materials and building methods that are resistant to wear, tear and the elements (rain, sunlight), which reduce the likelihood of needing to make expensive repairs in the future, as well as reducing the amount of time spent on maintenance. Knowing that your home is well protected from the elements is an important part of the overall satisfaction with your home.

Mix it up. Many people are afraid to use more than one color on the exterior of their home. That's why so many houses appear dull and lifeless. Consider using two colors of siding and a third color for your trim boards to add personality and vitality to the exterior. Products like Apex fiberglass siding and trim, and Integrity windows, for example, are available in a palette of rich and attractive colors. Also, consider adding a trim band, or belt line, below main level windows of your home, and using a contrasting color of siding below that band to help ground the house and connect it in with the surrounding landscape.

Invest in quality over quantity. Even with a limited budget, try to invest in high-quality products that will look good for the long haul, and will stand the tests of time, rather than buying lower-quality products that may offer the short term benefit of getting a greater share of your remodeling projects done, but which end up looking dilapidated and unattractive in short order. You'll feel better about the integrity of your home by focusing a significant part of your budget on the bones and outer clothing of your home - the roof, siding, windows, electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems.

Word of the Day

May 31, 2012 5:34 pm

Highest and best use. Use of land that is most logical and productive. Refers to the greatest income it can bring the owner, as well as factors such aesthetics and benefits to the surrounding community.

Q: Who Are the Professionals That Do Home Improvements?

May 31, 2012 5:34 pm

A: They vary depending on the size and scope of your job. General contractors are companies or individuals who contract with you to manage all aspects of the project, including hiring and supervising subcontractors, obtaining building permits, and supplying materials and labor equipment needed to do the project. Specialty contractors, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with installing products, such as cabinets and fixtures. Architects design homes, additions, and major renovations. And design/build contractors basically offer one-stop service, providing design and construction services and overseeing a project from start to finish.

Tipping Point Seen in California Housing Market

May 30, 2012 5:26 pm

Consumers who have been holding off jumping into the California housing market may want to consider recent indicators that the best time to buy may be now. 

The median home price in the Golden State’s jumped six percent in April over April 2011, according to real estate information source Data Quick. At the same time, sales of new and used homes and condominiums rose two per cent over the previous month and 8.6 percent over April 2011. 

“It appears that the California market is taking a step in the direction of normalization,” said Data Quick president John Walsh, who noted these recent sales figures are the highest seen since April 2006.
In Southern California, the median home price rose 3.6 percent from a year earlier to $290,000, and home sales rose by 5.1 percent. In the Bay area, the median sales price rose 8.3 percent to $360,000, while home sales rose 13.1 percent. 

A separate report by RealtyTrac showed U.S. foreclosure activity fell last month to its lowest level since the start of the credit crisis in 2007, driven largely by big drops in states like California, where heavy foreclosure rates had been dragging down prices. 

“Activity here in Southern California continues to increase,” said REALTOR® Ellen Parker, who specializes in high-end homes in the non-beach areas of southern Orange County. “Mortgage rates remain at historic lows, and that seems to be one of the reasons people are coming in off the sidelines, shaking off the winter doldrums, and taking renewed interest in buying and selling property.” 

A total of 38, 241 newly built and previously owned homes, town houses and condominiums sold statewide in April, marking the ninth consecutive month that sales improved year over year, Data Quick said.

Walk on the Wild Side with America’s Top 10 Zoos

May 30, 2012 5:26 pm

Planning to visit a zoo this summer? TripAdvisor® recently announced the top 10 zoos in the United States, according to the TripAdvisor Popularity Index. Animal aficionados of all ages can take in an array of scales and tails at these animated attractions. 

1. Henry Doorly Zoo, Omaha, Neb.
Omaha’s famous zoo boasts the Desert Dome – the largest indoor desert in the world, which spans 84,000 square feet and is home to a variety of vegetation and a colony of critters. Travelers can also take in the Lied Jungle, a rainforest setting featuring cascading waterfalls and monkeys jumping from tree to tree. “It’s a wonderful education for children and adults,” commented a TripAdvisor traveler. Admission costs $13.50 for adults (ages 12 and up), $12.50 for seniors, and $9 for children (ages three to 11); children under two get in for free. 

2. St. Louis Zoo, Saint Louis, Mo.
Home to more than 650 animals, this popular Midwest zoo features creatures of all kinds. Travelers can immerse themselves in the ten-acre River’s Edge exhibit, a naturalistic habitat featuring roaming hyenas, hippos, elephants, and more. Feathered friends-galore can be spotted at the Penguin and Puffin Coast, while Bear Bluffs boasts some less cuddly beasts, such as Grizzlies, Andeans and Sloth bears. “This is a great zoo and the fact that it’s free is wonderful for families on a budget,” said one TripAdvisor traveler. Admission is free, but some attractions require a small fee. 

3. Cape May County Park & Zoo, Cape May Court House, N.J.
Situated on the southern Jersey Shore, this wildlife sanctuary showcases more than 250 species of animals. Travelers can acquaint themselves with a bevy of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and furry friends – and, when not gawking at quadrupeds, can wander through one of the lush nature trails, or hop on the train and carousel rides. A TripAdvisor traveler noted, “If you and your family like to see animals treated in a fair and humane way and enjoy a wonderful park setting, the Cape May County Park and Zoo is the place to go.” Admission is free. 

4. Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden, Columbia, S.C.
From African Plains to Lemur Island, this attraction’s exhibits let travelers get up close to more than 2,000 animals and 350 species. Giraffes, zebras, and ostriches roam across a vast expanse resembling the African savanna, while wallabies and kangaroos amble around an interactive walk-through area. A TripAdvisor traveler said, “Riverbanks Zoo is the perfect family outing.” Admission costs $11.75 for adults, $10.75 for seniors, and $9.25 for children (ages three to 12); children under two get in for free. 

5. Memphis Zoo, Memphis, Tenn.
In the midst of Memphis, travelers can connect with wildlife in an array of exciting settings, including Cat Country, Primate Canyon, and Crocodile Cove. Those wishing to learn more about the zoo’s remarkable residents can also take in one of the daily shows, which star a lineup of cuddly cast mates. “Well-timed feedings and shows give the experience an educational element,” noted a TripAdvisor traveler. Admission costs $15 for adults (ages 12 to 59), $14 for seniors (age 60 and up), and $10 for children (ages two to 11). 

6. San Diego Zoo, San Diego, Calif.
Set across 100 acres of sun-drenched SoCal soil, this zoo is home to more than 3,700 rare and endangered residents, including giant panda bears, as well as an exotic collection of flora and fauna. Animal lovers can even sleep over at this wildlife kingdom, and enjoy an after-hours stroll through the grounds, before retiring to their tents. “A must-see if you visit San Diego,” commented a TripAdvisor traveler. Admission costs $42 for adults (ages 12 and up) and $32 for children (ages three to 11).
7. Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, Kan. 
This family-friendly attraction lets visitors come face-to-face with exciting species from across the globe. Travelers can visit Malaysian tapirs in the Asian forest, see penguins at play in the Cessna Penguin Cove, or discover the Children’s Farm, where dozens of domestic breeds dwell. “The animals seem to have nice habitats, the zookeepers are frequently roaming around answering questions and educating the visitors,” noted a TripAdvisor traveler. Admission costs $13.95 for adults (ages 12 to 61), $11.95 for seniors (age 62 and up), and $8.95 for children (ages three to 11); children under two get in for free. 

8. Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, Fla.
Built by a community of nature enthusiasts, this sanctuary in the sun showcases several natural habitats, including “Wild Florida.” In this exhibit, travelers can feed white-tailed deer or climb into a kayak for a guided tour through acres of wetlands and their denizens. A TripAdvisor traveler noted, “This zoo is a perfect size for young children. I love the opportunity to get so close to the animals.” Admission costs $14.50 for adults (ages 12 and up), $13.50 for seniors, and $10.50 for children (ages two to 12); children under two get in for free. 

9. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Colorado Springs, Colo.
This elevated establishment mirrors the natural habitats of more than 800 animals. Travelers can view wildlife from across the globe, including giraffes and meerkats in the African Rift Valley and grizzly bears in the Rocky Mountain Wild exhibit. Animal gazers can also soar like a bird and enjoy panoramic views of the mountains in an open-air chairlift ride. A TripAdvisor traveler said, “It’s got everything the large zoos have but in a smaller space on the side of a mountain.” Admission costs $17.25 for adults, $15.25 for seniors (ages 65 and up), and $12.25 for children (ages three to 11); children under two get in for free.
10. Audubon Zoo, New Orleans, La.
At this zoo in the Big Easy, travelers can enjoy a parade of spots, stripes, and scales. Activities at this swamp-side attraction include bug tosses and “Creature Features”, during which patrons can pose for a picture with a critter and learn fascinating facts. Warm-blooded travelers can chill out at the Cool Zoo, a water park that boasts an alligator water slide and water-spitting snakes. A TripAdvisor traveler said, “One of the best zoos I have been to; great displays, beautifully maintained… simply a delight!” Admission costs $16 for adults, $13 for seniors (age 65 and up), and $11 for children (ages two to 12); children under two get in for free. 

“The exotic sights and sounds at these zoos offer travelers a virtual round-the-world trip, without the price tag,” says Karen Drake, senior director of communications at TripAdvisor. “Whether it’s gazing at gorillas or peeping at penguins, these wildlife sanctuaries offer herds of fun for adults and children alike.” 

Source: Trip Advisor

4 Superfoods for Spring

May 30, 2012 5:26 pm

Summer brings to mind a bounty of fresh fruits and veggies. But there is no reason to hold out for summer when you can enjoy some delicious and nutritious spring superfoods! Below are a handful of my favorites.


With two anti-cancer vitamins, A and C, this special spear is one of the best sources for rutin, which strengthens our capillary walls! Stuffed full of anti-carcinogens, the National Cancer institute dubbed it the food highest in glutathione. Take that, cancer!


These sweet Alliums are cousin to the onion, and help eliminate toxins from the liver, as well as protect against heart disease! Sweet and mellow, their flavor is a terrific addition to all your favorite soups and sautés.


High in folate and magnesium, these antioxidant bombs are as delicious as they are fun to eat. Plus, they are super cleansing—and rumored to cure a hangover! Simply steam them and enjoy!


Ah, my personal favorite! These rich, creamy fruits pack a fatty punch, but the good kind! Eating these treats will lower your LDL (bad cholesterol) and raise your HDL (good cholesterol), plus give you filling fiber. Now go rock some guac!

Preparing for the Perfect Summer Barbecue Gathering

May 30, 2012 5:26 pm

(ARA) - Gathering with family and friends in the summer helps to create enjoyable memories of afternoons and evenings spent with delicious grilled foods, fun games and good socializing.

Organizing these gatherings isn't difficult, and with a little practice, you'll be known by your family, friends and neighbors as an expert, both in organizing an excellent outdoor gathering, and in your grilling techniques.

To spice up your barbecue menu and make the gathering one to remember, Chef Aaron McCargo Jr., host of Big Daddy's House on the Food Network, has some planning and grilling tips to share.

"Summer barbecues should be fun, flavorful and carefree. And, it all starts with a flavorful menu," McCargo Jr. says. "This is the perfect time of year to experiment with flavor combinations when planning your menu. From seasonal fruits and vegetables to marinades and sauces, there are many different ways to combine flavors that best represent the mood or theme of your celebration."

Prep your food perfectly. Marinate your meat in freezer bags overnight or several hours before to lock in the delicious flavors you're going to be serving.

Gather together some useful, but often forgotten materials that will make life a little easier during your event, like weights or clips, markers and stickers. The table weights are to keep the table cloth down - old unused keys pinned on the corners work well. Markers are so everyone can write their names on their cups for reusing. For a fun twist, encourage people to make up a name, and then guess whose cup belongs to whom. Finally, put stickers on the underside of a couple of plates and mix up the pile. Hand out a door prize to the people who end up using the stickered plates.

Games are also very important, and have a variety on hand for kids and adults alike. Create your own kickball field, or establish a smaller bean bag toss game to encourage a little friendly competition. Another activity perfect for kids is sidewalk art.

When grilling, turn meat only once. For steaks, turn the meat when the juices start to bubble on the top. The clearer the juice, the more well-done the meat.

Apply sauces containing honey, brown sugar or molasses during the last 10 minutes of grilling to prevent the sauces from burning.

Keep a spray bottle handy so you can calm down grill flare-ups, which could blacken the food.

Clean up throughout the gathering, both to make the process easier when everyone's ready to go home after dark, and also to help keep the insects away.


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