Author Archives: microcomp

4 Genius Yard Upgrades Even a Klutz Can Crush

No DIY skills necessary for these outdoor projects. Did we mention they’re really, really easy?


You don’t need to be the host of an extreme home makeover show to build an amazing backyard. In fact, the transformative projects below are easy enough for even the klutziest home improvement newbie to complete.

Just don’t be shocked when the Johnsons appear at your door with hot dog buns in hand, begging to throw a cookout at your place.

#1 No-Blow Outdoor Curtains

When Cara Daniel of “The Project Addict” blog spied a neighbor’s unruly outdoor curtains, she hacked some for her porch that could withstand a gusty Tornado Alley afternoon without upending a glass of lemonade or ensnaring an unsuspecting guest.

She found the sweet spot by slipping conduit pipes through the curtain tabs up top and a hem at the bottom, and securing the pipes with wires (taut, but not too tight).

Daniel did all the hard work of dreaming up the curtains, so a DIY newbie can definitely recreate the project, which uses easy-to-find materials like washers and camping stakes.

Upkeep has been equally simple thanks to her sturdy choice of fabric. “The marine fabric is better than outdoor fabric that I bought,” says Daniel. The easy-to-wash choice has kept the curtains looking picturesque after five years of use.

#2 Shutter Privacy Fence

No fence? No problem! Daune Pitman of the “Cottage in the Oaks” blog MacGyvered an attractive privacy feature from a friend’s pile of discarded shutters.

The $0 price wasn’t the only thing that made the material desirable for an outdoor nook’s privacy screen, though. “They were tall,” says Pitman, “could easily be attached to posts, had the vents — which allows air to flow through — and didn’t weigh too much.”

After nailing the shutters to four-by-fours cemented into the ground (an easy task with a store-bought bag of pre-mixed cement), the nook-facing side got a charming French-blue facelift and the back a coating of foliage-matching bark brown paint.

It’s a kind of self-explanatory project because all you need is:

  • Shutters
  • Posts
  • Cement
  • Hinges (plus screws) for the shutters
  • Paint

What could be easier?

#3 PVC Pipe Pergola

Suburbanite Monica Mangin of the site “East Coast Creative” jumped at the chance to rehab a client’s neglected urban patio.

The showstopper was a clever PVC pergola decked with industrial-style lights. She was inspired by traditional wood pergolas, but wanted an easier material.

“A lot of mason jar light fixtures were trending,” says Mangin.”I liked the look of that but wanted to turn it a little more industrial.”

PVC pipe — with rebar inside as an anchor — won out for its ease on the DIYer and wallet. Could it get any easier?

A simple coat of hammered metallic outdoor spray paint gave the pipe a pricier look, and industrial-strength zip ties kept the string of dimmable, Edison bulb-style lights in place.

Although the project doesn’t take much time or skill, Mangin recommends recruiting two friends to help. Have one hold each end of the pergola while the third secures the lights with zip ties. Overall, it’s a dinner party-friendly cinch that’s surpassed the one-year mark.

#4 Solar Light Hose Guards

Topping the list of Sad Gardening Ironies is when the hose you’ve lugged out to help your landscaping stay lush mows over a bed of delicate flowers you just planted. Sigh.

Lynda Makara of the blog “Home of Happy Art” figured out a pretty and pragmatic solution using affordable solar lights.

The DIY part entailed trashing their original plastic stakes (they weren’t strong enough to hold a hose in place), hammering 24-inch pieces of rebar into the ground, and slipping a light over each piece.

Those sturdy posts could handle even the bulkiest hose, protecting Makara’s plantings during waterings then casting a lovely spotlight on them post-dusk.

“The rebar is maintenance free,” says Makara. “I have had to replace some of the batteries in the solar lights, but I think that’s pretty normal.”

It doesn’t get much easier than hammering a stake into the ground. Although Makara suggests straightening the rebar with a level, that’s about as technical as it gets to create a more functional, flowering garden.

8 Popular Tips That Cost Homeowners More in the Long Run

Hacks and advice that are more hurtful than helpful.

You’re always on the lookout for smart ideas and hacks to manage your home (and save money!) — whether that means listening to the wisdom of your parents who’ve owned a home longer than you’ve been alive, or scouring every corner of the internet for savvy tips.

But just because a tip has been pinned, shared, and Instagrammed thousands of times doesn’t make it smart. Here are eight tips (myths, really) that most people believe are good advice, but instead will cost you cash you don’t need to spend:

Myth #1: Lemons Are Great for Cleaning Garbage Disposals

What it could cost you: A plumber’s visit (and maybe a new disposal)

Proceed with caution when it comes to this well-circulated DIY fix. Citric acid is a natural deodorizer, but plumbing experts say it can corrode the metal in your disposal. That tough lemon peel can also damage the grinding components and clog your pipes. Next thing you know you’re Googling reviews for plumbers.

The better way: Turn on the disposal and, while running cold water, dump in two or more trays of ice cubes. Despite the clamor, this will safely dislodge buildup on the walls and the impellers, which grind up the food. Use vinegar to deodorize.

Myth #2: Use Duct Tape to Seal Ductwork

What it could cost you: Pricier energy bills

Despite its name, don’t rely on duct tape to seal leaks in your HVAC’s ductwork. Testing by the U.S. Department of Energy found it deteriorates over just a few years (hot air from the HVAC system degrades the glue), letting conditioned air escape without doing its job.

The better way: Use duct mastic (a gooey substance kind of like caulk that dries after applied) to seal metal and flexible ductwork, and use it along with a layer of fiberglass mesh for gaps larger than 1/16 of an inch wide. Use gloves with metal ducts because the edges can be sharp, and mastic is messy stuff.

Myth #3: Bleach Will Banish Mold

What it could cost you: A threat to your health, plus hundreds of $ (even thousands)

Although bleach can kill mold on non-porous surfaces, it isn’t effective on absorbent or porous materials — you know, the places it loves to lurk, like grout, caulk, drywall, insulation, and carpet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead, it just bleaches it so you can’t see it. And diluted bleach can feed future mold growth (yikes!) because only the water will be absorbed, which mold just loves.

The better way: Use a commercial anti-fungal product to take out mold at its roots. And only tackle mold removal yourself if the area is less than 10 square feet and you use protective gear, such as a respirator and chemical-resistant gloves. Otherwise, call in a mold remediation specialist who’ll know how to remove it without spreading it’s yucky (and potentially harmful) spores.

Myth #4: Change Your HVAC Filter Every Month

What it could cost you: Around $100 a year

Although the air filter should be changed regularly to keep your home’s HVAC system operating efficiently, this piece of advice is more of a convenient general rule that could cause you to throw away perfectly good filters (and money!).

“The harsh truth is that it’s easier to say, ‘Do it every month’ and know that means people might do it every three or four months,” says homeowner advocate Tina Gleisner of Home Tips for Women.

The better way: The Department of Energy recommends checking, but not necessarily changing, your air filter every month. Change it if it looks dirty, replacing it at least once every three months.

Myth #5: Buy a Rinse Aid for Spot-Free Dishes

What it could cost you: Dollars instead of cents

Most dishwashers now come with a built-in dispenser for commercial rinse aids, plus a free sample to get you started. So now you’re hooked (spot-free glasses every time!), and it has become a regular item on your shopping list, even if it does cost almost $4 for 8 ounces.

The better way: If you’ve never tried, run your dishwasher without a rinse aid. If your water is soft, your dishwasher may deliver spot-free sparkle without any extra help. But if you’re still seeing spots, just fill the rinse-aid dispenser with plain white vinegar (less than a 50 cents for 8 ounces).

Money Tip: Rinse aid does help dishes dry faster, which stops those annoying wet drips from top rack to bottom when you unload. But instead of spending money, unload the bottom rack first while letting the top rack air dry.

Myth #6: Home Improvement is Always a Good Investment

What it could cost you: Thousands of dollars in disappointment

Dreaming of diving into your own pool or adding a second bath to put an end to those morning squabbles? That’s the beauty of owning your own home, you can renovate to make all your dreams come true. And you’ll get money back on most any improvement you do, but don’t expect it for all improvements. FYI: A new bath returns 52% of its cost.

The better way: First off, your own happiness matters, so by all means, follow your remodeling bliss if you’re financially able. But if payback is important, do some research and talk to a REALTOR® who knows what buyers are seeking in your market. The Remodeling Impact Report from The National Association of REALTORS® (the sponsor of HouseLogic) is a fantastic resource to get the scoop on what projects will boost your equity the most. For example, it points out that small projects such as an insulation upgrade, refinishing floors, and even seeding your lawn will recoup almost all, and in some cases more than, your original investment.

Myth #7: Put Dryer Sheets in Air Vents for a Sweet Smell

What it could cost you: Higher energy bills and a potential fire hazard

Social media PSA: Thousands of pins and shares do not mean a remedy is smart or safe. If you follow this popular hack, you’ll block the flow of air in your vents, making your HVAC system work harder and increasing your energy costs. The blockage even can pose a fire risk when the furnace is pumping out hot air.

The better way: If fragrant air is what you’re after, there are no shortage of options available that won’t burn your house down. Give each room — or each day — a signature scent with all-natural scented candles, sprays, oils, and aromatherapy devices. If you’re seeking a scent to mask an offensive odor, however, it’s important to find and remove the source. Some stinky suspects — like mold, mildew, sewage, and gas leaks — can carry health risks.

Myth #8: Product Warranties Will Save on Repair Costs

What it could cost you: $50 to $100 or more

The last time you bought a major appliance or even a hand mixer, you were probably offered a warranty or service plan. While marketed to cover repair costs, these contracts typically cost more than you would ever spend to fix an item. And keep in mind that most manufacturers offer at least a 90-day warranty anyway.

The better way: Maintain the appliance as recommended by the manufacturer, and smartly stash the dollars you would spend on a warranty in a repair fund instead. Also, buy with a major credit card, such as AmEx or Visa. Many credit card companies extend product warranties (for free!) up to a year or so. Might be worth checking to see if yours does.

Are You a Cheap vs. Frugal Homeowner? How to Tell the Difference

Sometimes trying to save will actually cost you more. Here’s when that happens.


You’ve got all the loyalty apps (free burrito after you buy 10!), you shopped around for the lowest rate on your mortgage, and you never go to the grocery store when you’re hungry. You’re frugal, and the rising amount in your savings account is a testament to that.

Since saving cash is never a bad thing, you’ve got nothing to worry about, right?

Unless, of course, you venture so far past frugality you enter the world of cheap. And cheap homeowners always end up paying more in the end when quick fixes and half-solved issues become big, pricey problems.

Here are six things homeowners do when they’re trying to be frugal, but instead they’re really being cheap (yikes!):


Using the Wrong Tool

You’ve finally decided to paint the molding in your foyer. There’s not much to paint, so you figure you can get by with that 2-inch flat brush in your garage cabinet, even though the paint guy recommended a different (and pricey!) one. Why buy a new one when you already have a perfectly good one at home?

Halfway into your project (which you thought would take two hours, and now you’re into hour four), your back is aching from trying to get those bare spots in tight spaces. And the paint just doesn’t look right. It’s uneven and splotchy.

Turns out you used a brush meant for latex paints, and you’re using oil paint, which requires natural bristles to get a polished look. Plus, you needed an angled brush to get into tight corners. Four hours wasted, and it looks worse than when you started. Now you’ve got to buy more paint — and that darn brush!

Financial planner Daniel Grote says not buying the brush the paint guy recommended is a classic sign of cheapskate-ness: “Frugal homeowners buy when it’s necessary — and are fanatical about good-value purchases. Cheapskates don’t buy, even when they should.”

Some other cheap tool moves homeowners often make instead of spending money:

  • Using glue when you really should use a screw.
  • Using chemicals for clogs instead of calling a plumber or investing in an auger.
  • Using cheap screwdrivers that strip screws.
  • Using a hammer in place of a mallet.
  • Using a manual saw in place of a table saw.

How to be frugal: Invest in the right tools, not cheap knockoffs. “Finding the right tool is important,” says personal finance expert Bob Lai. “It will take less time and money in the long run.” If it’s an expensive one that you only need once or twice, rent it or borrow it.

Bonus: You’ll find DIY projects get easier because your skills (and the results) will improve with the right equipment.

Letting the Yard Wither Away to Avoid High Water Bills

You swear your water bill is trying to topple your heating bill as the king of Utility Mountain. You’re terrified it just might do that next month. You may just as well give up and stop trying to nurture your landscaping. Survival of the fittest, right? Besides, that means less time maintaining it.

But a wilting yard also means a drop in the value of your home (read: $$$ lost when you sell). Or if you’re in an HOA, you could face costly fines that’ll make you pine for those high water bills.

How to be frugal: Invest in water-wise landscaping. It’s not just about desert-friendly plants, it’s about plants that thrive on the amount of rain that naturally occurs in your climate, which translates to less watering and lower utility bills. And if done right, it can actually boost your home’s asking price when you sell. Plus, you’ll still get the advantage of less maintenance. For even more savings, invest in rain barrels. That water is free.

Never Paying Retail

Everyone knows that if you’re patient enough, you’ll be able to get that slate flooring (it’s slip resistant, yay!) for your new bath at a deep discount.

So you waited, and, yes, the price was cut almost in half. But, wait, there’s not enough tile left to cover your entire floor. Sigh. Back to square one.

In the meantime, your contractor is threatening to walk out because you’re running more than two weeks behind schedule, and he’s got another job lined up he doesn’t want to risk losing while sitting around waiting on you.

How to be frugal: Definitely do some serious comparison shopping, but don’t forget to consider delivery times and prices as part of the equation. Once you’ve identified the most-value-for-your-money price, lock it in.

Otherwise, you risk costly delays and disappointing results if you keep waiting for a lower price.

Focusing Only on the Bottom Line When You Get a Bid

Crooked countertops. Misaligned tiles. Paint that warps and cracks if it’s even the slightest bit humid. Cheap contractors often cut corners to give you that low quote — and fixing their errors is definitely not cheap.

How to be frugal: 

  • Make sure each bid has the same line items.
  • Ask why high prices are high and low prices are low.
  • Check references.
  • Scour online reviews.

Putting Off Maintenance Tasks to Save Money

You know you’re supposed to keep your gutters clear, but, geez, it’s like your trees are laughing at you and raining down debris as soon as you get them clear. You don’t have the time to deal with it, so you’re going to have to pay a pro.

That being the case, what’s the real harm in waiting until the end of the leaf-falling season to clear the gutters? Pay to have it done once instead of twice or thrice? That’s how to save, right?

While you’re waiting for all the leaves to fall, your gutters already are full. And that means water could already be sneaking into your foundation because it’s spilling over the sides instead of through the downspouts that take water away from your foundation. Clogged gutters can also damage your gutter system, forcing you to replace part of it or suffer even more costly damage. A clogged gutter can also create an ice dam, which can slowly release water into your home’s walls and roof causing thousands in damage. So much for saving a couple of hundred of dollars.

How to be frugal: Anticipate maintenance costs, knowing that they are insurance against more costly repairs. Build them into your budget so they don’t feel like unexpected expenses.

Overestimating Your DIY Skills

When you got the bid for refinishing your hardwood floors, you thought, “Why not do it myself and save that $5K?” So off you go to your big-box store to rent a sander. How hard could it really be?

You’d be surprised. You could create dings, dents, and even valleys if you’re not sure what you’re doing. And keeping it dust-free during the polyurethane stage is practically impossible unless you’re such a neat freak that no speck stands a chance.

It’s not just the sander. Other powerful tools, like power washers and lawn aerators, can cause more harm than good in the hands of amateurs.

How to be frugal: Concede that sometimes paying someone else really is the better fiscal thing to do. If you ruin your floors, you’ve hurt your home’s value. If you sell, you might not get the best price. Or you’ll have to replace the floors completely, which would cost more than hiring a pro in the first place. Research the difficulty of projects and tools before committing to them.

No one wants to be a cheapskate. Now you can be sure you’re not.

The Dirty Places in Your Home Your Guests See — But You Don’t

Are you blind to the grime in your home?


Admit it: It’s easy to get a little “Judge Judy” inside someone else’s home. We notice gunk on the floor, cobwebs in the corners, and dust on the overhead fan. But guess what? Unless you’re Adrian Monk, you’ve probably got some gunky places that your friends notice, but you don’t. (Sad trombone.)

This is why we tracked down a domestic guru to help us with this article. No matter how hard it is to find dirt hideaways on your own, a little expert advice can make it alllll OK. Jan M. Dougherty, author of “The Lost Art of House Cleaning: A Clean House Is a Happy Home,” revealed the seven spots you’re likely to miss — and the best ways to make them presentable, stat:


#1 Light Fixtures

Look up. Your light fixtures are loaded with dust and dead bugs. Take them down, spritz with a cleaning solution, and wipe clean. Dougherty uses a solution of five parts water and one part Krud Kutter, a non-toxic odorless all-purpose product. (Handy tip: When making the Krud Kutter solution, put the water in first. “Otherwise it’ll bubble over,” she says.)

#2 Toilet Body

You probably clean your tank fairly often, but what about all the bits and pieces that surround the tank, and the floor itself? For porcelain thrones, Dougherty recommends Soft Scrub with bleach to clean the minuscule cracks that form in the glaze over time. For any non-porcelain parts, she says vinegar will do. Start with the top of the tank and spray all the way around — the lid, under the lid, the seat, down to and on the surrounding floor, and even the walls behind the toilet.

#3 Dust Collectors

The TV mount, picture frames, computer printer, keyboards, and remotes are great dust collectors. Use a microfiber rag that you’ve sprayed lightly with vinegar to banish it all. Vinegar isn’t electrostatically charged, so dust will take longer to return to that spot.

#4 Drawer Organizers

Crumbs and dirt love those little compartments. Suck them up with a handy vac, or spray with vinegar and wipe away with a rag. Don’t wait until the crumbs are three inches deep and have taken root in the drawer. If that’s the case, break it down and clean with the Krud Kutter solution.

#5 Ice Maker

Old ice absorbs food odors, so it’s a good idea to clean and sanitize the whole system every once in a while. Stop the machine from making more ice, pull out the ice bin, and dump the ice. Wash the bin and ice maker with vinegar, or put the bin in the dishwasher if your manual says it’s safe to do so. Wipe the ice maker with a dry rag to remove moisture.

#6 Appliance Handles

You touch them so many times every day. And you never think about it. Spray them all down with the Krud Kutter mix and then wipe. “One night a week, I take the knobs off the stove, remove the dish and the grease screen from the [over-the-range] microwave, and take the bowl with utensils that sits next to my stove and put them all in the dishwasher,” Dougherty says. “Do this before bed and by the morning you’ve cleaned half your kitchen, yet touched nothing.”

#7 Glass and Mirrors

Dougherty washes dull, smudged glass and mirrors with straight vinegar. Be aware that if you’ve been using commercial cleaners it may take “four, five, six, maybe seven cleanings with vinegar to get all the wax off the glass,” she says.

Bonus tip: ”When you go into a room to clean you shouldn’t have to think. You should be able to turn up the music and rock and roll your way around the room,” Dougherty says. She uses a method she calls “The Path” — start in one corner, progress around the perimeter, and then head to the middle. Clean everything in your path as you go around the room.

Must vs. Lust: What You Really Need in a New Home?

The super-simple (and fun) way to separate needs from nice-to-haves.


Make a List of Wants

Start by making a list of everything you want in your house. If you love it, jot it down. Have your spouse or partner do the same thing in a separate document.

Once you and your partner have everything down, start sorting your wants by order of importance. What’s your No. 1? Do you need large windows? How about a sunroom? Double sinks in the master? You get the idea.

Come up with your top 10, and then compare your list to your partner’s top 10. What things appear on both lists? Those items should carry more weight because you both want them in your home.

Highlight the Important Stuff

Next, look at your list and consider:

  • The things that can’t be changed without a massive investment. I’m talking things like square footage, window size, and number of bedrooms. This is your heavyweight list. These things should take priority in your home-buying decision.
  • Features that are purely cosmetic, especially things that can be DIYed. These items should be moved waaay down the list or taken off entirely. Backsplash tile, paint color, and lighting can all be changed inexpensively and after you’re living in your house. You don’t want to pass up a fantastic house because you can’t see past a red accent wall.

At this point, you should have a combined list of 10 or so items.

My last tip is to figure out the priority of each one of the items. Ask yourself, would you be willing to give up item number 4, say, to have item number 5? Would you be willing to give up hardwood floors for a home theater room? This is the hardest question to answer, but it’ll put your must-haves in the right order.

I always picture this activity like an eye appointment when the doctor says, “1 or 2? OK, now 2 or 3?” Do that with your list! Pool or flooring? Flooring or yard size? Yard size or square footage? Make sense?

Bring Your List When You Look at a Home

As you’re out looking at houses, keep your list handy. Maybe you’re not willing to give up hardwood floors for a jetted tub, but would you be willing to compromise for a jetted tub and extra square footage? Refer back to your must-haves list often. It’s easy to get distracted.

Here’s a quick checklist that I use when searching for a home. If you answer “yes” to all of these, then a “want” may be worth the splurge — that is, if you can be sure that you’ll be able to afford the feature (in terms of your monthly mortgage payments and living expenses).

  1. Is it on both of your lists?
  2. Is it something that’ll be extremely expensive and difficult to change or add?
  3. Would you be willing to sacrifice something else to have it?
  4. Would you feel like your house would be incomplete without it?

To make your house hunting a happy experience, contact Cynthia by calling (858) 353-1638 or drop a note on her contact form.

Don’t Panic! You CAN Do Your Taxes Error-Free. Here’s How

Experts list the tax deduction mistakes that homeowners often make.


Getting a bit queasy as tax time nears? Worried about making mistakes or missing out on a deduction — especially if this is your first time itemizing?

Unless you’re a CPA, it can be easy to miss deductions, or worse: raise a red flag with the IRS because you got deduction happy. Here are the top six homeowner tax blunders accountants see the most.


#1 Missing the Mortgage Interest Deduction

Itemized deductions can be a great way to lower your tax bill. But homeowners, particularly newbies, may be used to claiming the standard deduction because they haven’t had enough of the expenditures that qualify them for itemized filing.

You can deduct the interest portion of your mortgage payments. That might mean your itemized deductions will now exceed the standard, saving you tax dollars.

The savings are at their maximum early on, when most of your mortgage payments go to interest, not principal. Over the years, the balance shifts, and for some it might seem that they lose the itemized advantage. But there’s a way to keep the savings maximized.

The trick is to use an alternating approach to filing, according to Chris Hardy, a certified financial planner with Paramount Investor Advisors in Suwanee, Ga. One year you maximize every deduction you can, including MID, and prepay whatever you can for the next year, such as property taxes and charitable contributions. The next year, you take the standard deduction. Overall, says Hardy, you may end up saving more money.


#2 Assuming Everything House Related Is Deductible

Deductions are great, but you can’t write everything off on your taxes. And to stay in the good graces of the IRS, you don’t want to over-deduct.

Talk to your accountant or tax prepare to be straight on allowable deductions, which, for a homeowner, generally means mortgage interest and real estate taxes. You may also deduct points charged on the mortgage in the year you purchased the home.

“A lot of people will try to take homeowners association fees or condo association fees as deductions even though it’s not an allowable deduction,” Hardy says. “I see them try to deduct keeping up the yard as an expense.”

Although claiming unallowable deductions might not immediately flag you for an audit, according to Hardy, if you do get audited for something else, the IRS will look to see what else it can find. The result could then be back taxes, interest, and penalties. And the IRS will likely check as many back years as it legally can.


#3 Neglecting Your Home Office

Many people fail to take the home office deduction for fear of being audited, or because it’s just plain hard to calculate if you don’t use the newer, simplified method. (More on that math-saving gem later.) However you compute this deduction, it’s a great way to save some cash.

To qualify for the deduction, your office space must be used regularly and only for business. If you work for someone else, says Hardy, there has to be documentation — it could be an email from a supervisor — that your work at home is required as part of the job and is for the employer’s convenience. In addition, employees can’t take the deduction if they rent any part of their home to their employers and use the rented portion to perform work for the employer.

If your use is legitimate, you can deduct a proportionate amount of a number of expenses, including insurance, repairs, utilities, services, and depreciation, which can really add up. Or you can use the uber-simple method of multiplying the square footage of the office by $5 for your total deduction. Check IRS Publication 587 for details.

And, better yet, if the home office is your base of business, you may get additional deductions from your business income, such as mileage for driving to and from your clients’ locations because now it’s considered a business expense rather than commuting.


#4 Not Understanding Rental Income

Renting out a room or wing of your house on Airbnb can be a fun way to meet new people and make extra income. It can also have several important tax implications.

When renting out a room in your personal residence, says Greg Freyman, managing partner with Freyman CPA in New York City and Westwood, N.J., the amount of mortgage interest and real estate taxes you can claim as itemized deductions changes. You can only deduct MID and real estate taxes for the portion of the house that isn’t rented. So, if you have a 2,000-square-foot house and rent out a room of 100 square feet, you can deduct 95% of the mortgage interest and taxes on Schedule A.

However, because the rented space is now converted to investment property, you can also take deductions on your rental expenses. Some examples are the rental area’s portion of overall maintenance and utilities, again calculated by the percentage of overall square footage.

But (there’s always a but when it comes to taxes) you can only claim those rental expenses for the time period you rented the space, says Honolulu-based Crystal Stranger, president of 1st Tax Inc. and an enrolled agent who can represent taxpayers before the IRS. If you rented that 100-square-foot room mentioned above, which is 5% of the total space, for a total of six months, you’d take 5% of the maintenance and utilities, divide them by half, and then deduct that amount on Schedule E.


#5 Paying a Relative’s Mortgage

Good on you for helping someone in need by covering their mortgage payment, but be a smart philanthropist. No one will get any deductions for those payments if you directly pay the lender, Freyman says, unless you’re listed on the deed.

To increase the chances that someone snags the deduction, make a gift of the money to your parent or other beneficiary and let her be the one to pay the bills — although you won’t get any tax benefit unless you can claim her as a dependent. Treating a relative who doesn’t live with you as a dependent means meeting certain requirements. For instance, you need to have a certain type of relationship with the person and the relative must pass a gross income test.

Also, remember that there’s a limit on the amount of money you can give someone in a year — $14,000 — without incurring a gift tax. If you exceed the annual total, you may have to pay the tax.


#6 Never Challenging Property Tax Bills

For many, local property tax is a big chunk of their paycheck, and sometimes that chunk is bigger than it needs to be. “Values go up and down over time,” says REALTOR® and Atlanta attorney Bruce Ailion. “The assessor reassesses areas of town in bulk from time to time. Often these bulk reassessments result in a valuation 10%, 20%, even 50% more than a home’s value.”

Reassessments happen at different times, depending on location, and local and state laws will govern what you must do. Typically, you have fewer than 30 days to challenge the assessment, and, in a large metropolitan area, the process could take as long as a year.

You’ll want to start by checking the assessment data — size of the lot, number of rooms, bathrooms, etc. — to be sure that the facts are correct. If not, the appeals process may be easy.

You can also check to see if the assessment seems reasonable. Work with your real estate pro to get market data, such as info on comparable properties — known as “comps.” Then look at local tax records to see if the value of your property seems overly high in comparison to like properties. You could even hire an independent appraiser, although that can run $350 to $600, undercutting the savings you might ultimately receive.

You then appeal the property tax bill first to the assessor’s office. If the result is unsatisfactory, you may be able to appeal to a local board or possibly to a court. The odds are good enough that appealing usually makes sense. “I’ve done about 150 appeals and never had an increase,” Ailion says. “The worst case is the value stays the same.”

Sick of Winter? These Houseplants Will Perk Up Your Mood

Yes, there are plants for winter depression, and here’s how they work.


Real talk: “JanuFeb” can be grim. The holidays are a distant memory, and now you have to slog through a barrage of dark, frigid days until spring makes its glorious appearance.

To escape that persistent winter funk, shake off that heated Snuggie and take a trip to the garden center. Studies suggest that stocking your home full of humble houseplants can boost your mood, big time — not to mention make your space feel cleaner, brighter, and healthier.


The Power of a Flower

Scientists agree that houseplants likely improve your outlook. Research suggests that plants have a positive effect on stress reduction, pain tolerance, and physical discomfort — but environmental psychologists aren’t exactly sure why this happens. It could be that plants simply make a room more colorful and attractive. Or, an indoor brush with nature may provide the same natural high and stress relief people feel in the great outdoors. There’s even a name for the phenomenon — biophilia (a love for nature) — and entire buildings have been designed to recreate it.


Keeping all those green guys alive is good for you, too. Research has shown taking care of plants can increase a sense of well-being and reduce stress.


Nature’s Air Freshener

Winter means tightly closed windows and stuffy quarters. Plants reduce stale air by producing oxygen. But also, according to research done by NASA back in the late 1980s, certain plants will even filter harmful pollutants such as formaldehyde, benzene, and ammonia from the air. Some folks get headaches, asthma, or have chronic health issues from these VOCs (volatile organic compounds) — which could be off-gassing right this minute from your furniture, cleansers, and flooring! Just knowing that could make you pretty depressed.

To combat stale air, try some of these air-scrubbing horticultural heroes: Boston fern, English ivy, spider plant, bamboo palm, weeping fig, flamingo lily, peace lily, and cornstalk dracaena.


The Best Plants to Beat the Blues

What other plants can bring your spirits ‘round this winter?

Anthuriums. These beautiful flowering plants are super easy to care for. “They do need a decent amount of light, but they bloom consistently — especially during the February-March doldrums,” says Rebecca Bullene, founder of Greenery NYC, a botanic design company experienced in indoor plant installations and living plant design. “They’re big and beautiful. Those with red, pink, or white flowers are most common.”


Ferns, particularly the Kimberly Queen (Nephrolepis obliterata) and Boston (Nephrolepis exaltata) varieties. ”They need a bit more water and a decent amount of light, but they put a lot of humidity back in the air and will help make your space comfortable,” Bullene says. Plus, the Kimberlys are a little easier to care for than the average fern. “If you forget to water for a day or two,” she says, “they won’t crash out.”


Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema modestum). This hardy plant can handle the low light of winter. “It can be in a dark corner and still look amazing,” Bullene says. “The blackest of thumbs can take care of this plant.”


Golden Pothos or Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum). This plant is also a hardy one that’s hard to kill. Bullene recommends it for anyone without much experience with plants.

Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, Sword Plant, or Snake Plant (Sansevieria). This houseplant of many names is really drought-resistant. You can water it once a month and it grows in high or low light. “There are a lot of varieties that have cool shapes and colors,” Bullene says.


So when the weather outside is frightful, make way for some greenery and invite some friends over. Call it a Houseplant Happy Hour. You just may be surprised by how genuinely happy your greener home makes you all winter long.

Hide Your Home’s Biggest Eyesores With These Genius Ideas

You don’t have to live with the ugly anymore.


Even the nicest homes have secret shames: a floor that never looks clean, a scratched and stained fridge, an AC unit that resembles a 1980s copy machine that didn’t even look good when it was new.

If you could move them out of sight, you would. Except you can’t. Instead, hide your home’s ugliest spots right where they are. Here’s some inspiration:

Exposed Laundry Room

Tanya, the writer behind “Dans le Lakehouse” DIY blog, has a laundry room that’s more of a passageway than a destination. Not an ideal place to be tossing around your, um, unmentionables. So she found a way to hide the washer and dryer from passersby. Plus, “this was such an easy DIY project,” she says.


She bought upholstery-weight fabric (around $15/yard) and a curtain track ($30), which she says is “much nicer than a curtain rod.” It took a couple of days to sew the curtain and only a few minutes to install the rod.

Instant hideaway!

An Ugly Fridge

When the first thing you see as you enter your kitchen is a huge slab of ugly, you get motivated to find a solution.

Homeowner Mary Russell found a unique way to hide her dinged and stained fridge — and turn it into a colorful message board, too.



She stuck plain, white vinyl shelf liner (about $8) right over the ugly and then painted it in bold stripes. While the project isn’t a time hog, she says it does require patience.

“The hardest and most time-consuming part of this whole project was getting the liner onto the fridge evenly.” She says it took about 35 minutes of repositioning and adjusting. And, “since paint doesn’t want to dry on plastic surfaces very quickly,” she says you’ll be waiting awhile before you can actually use it. Completely worth it, though, she says.

Outdated, Dingy Floors

On a whim, blogger, retired registered nurse, and mother of six, Linda Louie decided to redo her laundry room. “I spend a lot of time in there doing laundry for six kids, and that room was boring,” she says.

She added cabinets above the washer and dryer and dressed the space up some, but the floor. The floor.

It was a wreck. Didn’t fit her vision at all. She went online for ideas and saw a checkerboard pattern someone did on a wood floor. “Why not on vinyl?” she asked herself.

Why not?


Louie sandpapered the vinyl so the paint would stick. Then she primed and painted it white using porch paint. Marking and taping the diamonds took a half day “but to my back, it felt like like 24,” she joked. Then she painted in the black squares, and added three coats of polyurethane to protect her DIY efforts.

Not an eyesore anymore!

The Utility Boxes in the Middle of Your Cozy Living Room

Why do builders seem to think things like circuit panels and thermostats are either a) invisible or b) a design element? Please. They’re neither.

A true design element is needed to cover up the builder’s lack of vision. Blogger Susan Forint says one of the most genius solutions she’s seen came from a photographer friend of hers:

To cover a breaker box, he matted and framed one of his photos, then hung it on a 1-inch-thick wood cleat screwed to the wall for easy “lift off.”


His next disguise was even more clever:

To hide a thermostat:

  1. Paint a white rectangle around the thermostat.
  2. Hang an open frame (with no glass) so the white looks like matting.
  3. Place a screw in the wall above the thermostat.
  4. Hang a decorative mask with enough cut out of the back to ensure air flow to the unit.

Brilliant! No need to look at that ugly stuff until you have to.

Clunky Air Conditioner Unit

The window AC unit in designer and blogger Holly Westhoff’s condo wall was seriously cramping her chic nest style. With about an hour and $10 in materials, though, Westhoff was able to give the cold shoulder to that in-her-face unit.


She measured the unit, including the “ugly strips attaching it to the wall,” she says. She bought cheap wood and molding, and had them cut to size at the store. She grabbed wood glue; hammer and nails; spray paint; thin brass disks punched out from a sheet (leftovers from a previous project); decorative paper; and a glue gun.

Then, she set to work:

She created a frame on the wall with the molding. She built a box to hang on that frame. She glued together the pieces of wood — top, front and sides, no bottom — then nailed them together for extra sturdiness. She glued molding strips on top of the edges of the flat panel to give it a finished look, then spray painted it white. She glued brass discs to the molding, cut her decorative wrapping paper to fit, and glued it to the front panel.

Now you’d never know it was there (underneath that vase)— until it’s time to crank the cool air.


Classic and Timeless: The White Kitchen

Whether for love or value, you’ll never regret a white kitchen.  A Classic in Stone

Carrara marble has been gracing home interiors for thousands of years. With its pure white color and delicate gray veining, it makes an ideal countertop in a white kitchen. At about $80 per square foot installed, Carrara marble tends toward the high end of kitchen countertops. It’s also a bit high-maintenance — you’ll have to keep acidic foods such as lemon juice and tomatoes away from it, and twice each year protect it with a stone sealer made specifically for marble.


Although stainless steel appliances have been a top consumer choice for years, white appliances are on the rise. White appliances blend seamlessly with white cabinets, letting you put emphasis on other cool kitchen details, such as stone counters and backsplashes. You’ll find white appliances at all price points across the appliance spectrum; choose a 30-inch white gas range for $450 or move up to a pro-style range costing $5,000 and more.


A white countertop is tempting, but how do you keep that snowy sheen clean? A quartz counter blends the toughness of natural stone (it’s about 93% quartz particles) with impervious polymer resins that shrug off stains. Gel-type cleansers easily erase coffee rings and tomato splatters. A quartz countertop is about 10% to 20% cheaper than marble or granite, installed.


This kitchen’s got it all going. Along with the classic ingredients of a white kitchen — bright white cabinets, appliances, and Carrara marble countertops — there are smart design ideas: Back-saving wall ovens, to-the-ceiling upper cabinets for extra storage, and an island with plenty of work surface. Generous clearances give multiple cooks plenty of space to move about.


Love the idea of white marble countertops but can’t swing the price? Low-cost laminatesgive you the look of marble at a fraction of the cost. New technologies are better than ever at hiding telltale laminate seams and at mimicking the patterns of real stone. Plus, laminate is tough, stain-resistant, and will last for years. Top-quality laminates cost $25 to $30 per square foot, installed.


Go all-out for your white kitchen with dazzling white flooring — it’s a super-clean look that’ll throw light everywhere. Tough laminate planks ($3 per square foot) click together and make a sweet DIY project.


An all-white kitchen doesn’t have to be completely monochromatic. Moldings and trim create interesting texture throughout the white cabinetry. Surrounded by the white cabinets and cream-colored walls, this turquoise island becomes a bold spot of happy color and a great focal point. Concerned about marketability of your personality-plus island when it comes time to sell? Simply paint it white.


If you want some pure white cabinetry but aren’t ready to tear out the old ones, try painting them. With the right technique, you can paint over wood, laminate, even metal cabinets. Good prep is key — make sure all traces of oil and grease are removed before you start. Remove the drawer fronts and cabinet doors and paint them where you can lay them flat. Or have a pro do the whole job for $3 to $6 per square foot.


Concrete countertops are pricey, but what you’re really paying for is the skill and know-how of a good fabricator. Creating the pure-white countertop shown here requires mastery of the material — and lots of sanding. White sand, cement, and colorant ensure fantastic results. Concrete countertops are $65 to $135 per square foot, installed.