Spring has officially sprung, which means plenty of house hunters and home sellers are ’tis-ing the season. But if you’re settled in your humble abode, the warm weather can serve as a different inspiration. Yup, it’s the home improvement season, too.
Of course, major renovations aren’t in everyone’s budget and it’s best not to go into debt if your home doesn’t actually need repairs. (That’ll just hurt your bank account and your credit — you can see how your scores are doing for free on Credit.com.)
Still, homeowners hankering to get handy will be happy to hear there are a few simple projects that can actually save them some money — at least in the long run. Here are three projects you might want to put on your to-do list.
1. Go Green
Going green and becoming more eco-friendly is great for those interested in reducing their carbon footprint, sure, but, you can also benefit financially from making your home more energy-efficient.
Yes, you’ll have to have to make an initial investment, but green upgrades tend to pay for themselves by lowering your monthly utility bills. Plus, by incorporating eco-friendly solutions into your home improvement plans, you may also be eligible for tax rebates on the local, state or federal level next year. You can check with an accountant to determine if you can save on your taxes by going green with renovations. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the top suggestions for making your home more energy-efficient are:
Insulated windows using low-emissivity coatings
Energy efficient refrigerators using advanced compressor technology or magnetic refrigeration
Water heaters using electric heat pumps
Loose-fill fiberglass insulation
2. Spring Clean
Sure, it’s cliche, but checking some tasks off your annual homeowner to-do list (get yours right here) can prevent a major repair and save you money down the line. As part of a deep spring clean, be sure to check your drains and gutters, service your A/C (which can keep it from breaking on the hottest day of the year), replace any window screens you removed during the winter and repair any shingles or bricks that came loose due to bad weather.
Of course, this also a good time to clean our your closets, cabinets and crawl spaces. Fewer things means less stuff to worry about. Plus, you may be able to make a buck or two selling your wares online.
3. Smarten Up Your Home
The idea of programming your home and all of its appliances to answer your every verbal command is certainly not one the average homeowner is going to entertain. However, there are some simple ways to smarten up your home that won’t break the bank — and, in fact, can save you in the long run.
For instance, you could look into installing smart thermostats, which can be programmed or learn to change the temperature in your house throughout the day. They’re designed to ensure you don’t heat or cool your house unnecessarily and, thus, can wind up saving you on utilities. Similarly, consider changing out all your incandescent light bulbs for Smart (and energy-efficient!) LEDs. You’ll have to put out some cash to do this, as LEDs bulbs cost much more than your regular old light bulb, but the swap should pay off in the long run because they also last longer and use less energy.
Last year, most of us in the colder states got lucky with one of the warmest winters on record. We didn’t have to crank the heat and cheaper fuel prices staved off high utility bills. But we might not be so lucky this year.
Although no one can never truly predict the exact weather months in advance, The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting “exceptionally cold” weather for most areas of the U.S. and some pundits are predicting increased utility costs as a result. If you’re hoping heating bills don’t bite into your holiday budget or new year savings plan, read on. We reached out to energy savings experts in some of the coldest states in the U.S. to find ways to lower your utility bill.
1. Insulate Walls, Attic & Floors
In Alaska, the coldest state in the U.S., surviving the cold is a matter of life or death. Temperatures routinely plummet far below zero, and have set the country’s low temperature record of -80 degrees. (Alaska’s winters get so cold that a steaming cup of water will freeze before it hits the ground.) “Since fall is so short in Alaska, many people start thinking about their winter energy use near the end of summer,” said Michael Rovito, spokesman for Alaska Power Association/ARECA Insurance Exchange. They make insulating their homes a priority. “The first task many Alaskans think about is to make sure their insulation and weather stripping is in top condition. This helps to prevent against heat loss from the home during the long Alaska winters,” Rovito said.
According to the laws of physics, if it’s colder outside, heat will always leave your house without a proper barrier to block its departure, and “experts estimate that 40 million single-family homes in the U.S. need more insulation,” according to Black Hills Energy, which provides gas and utilities to some of the colder states, such as Wyoming, where January temperatures can hover around -5 degrees.
Insulate just about everywhere. Things like improperly installed ceiling fans, chimneys and improperly insulated ducts can whisk heat away and cost you up to 30% of your house’s heating (or cooling) energy, and a whopping 30% of your energy costs could be saved by better insulating your attic or top floor, according to Black Hills Energy. Another 20% of energy can be contained by insulating your exterior walls. And insulating the floor areas over crawl spaces, basements and garages can save another 8% if you insulate properly, according to Black Hills Energy.
2. When You’re Hiring, Get Specific
Some insulation jobs might need a professional, and if you’re choosing an insulation contractor, get a few estimates. Once you decide, make sure the contract includes the job specification, cost, method of payment and warranty information provided by the insulation material manufacturer, according to the Insulator Contractors of America. Keep in mind that some types of insulation are better for different areas of the house, and make sure that your contract lists the type of insulation to be used and where it will be used, and that each type of insulation is listed by R-value (which indicates resistance to the passage of heat).
3. Cover Windows
Heat escapes through a single pane of glass almost 14 times faster than through a well-insulated wall, according to Black Hills Energy. Other penny-pinching options if you can’t afford new windows or storm windows are plastic sheeting, a thick curtain made of thermal material and double glazing (i.e. installing another window or door to reduce the heat transfer between the windows or doors).
4. Apply for Help
If boosting your home’s energy efficiency seems like too much of a financial hurdle, the Department of Energy has a Weatherization Assistance Program which, according to its website, “provides funding to states, territories and tribal governments to improve the energy efficiency of the homes of low-income families, persons with disabilities and senior citizens.” It’s also wise to check with your utility provider since programs are also offered through many utility companies and there may be state programs to assist you as well.
5. Look for Energy-Efficient Appliances
“A furnace that is over 10 or 15 years old, may not be as efficient,” said Roger Morgenstern, spokesman for Consumers Energy of Michigan, which has several months of below-freezing temperatures. Furnaces now are 96 to 97% efficient, which means they burn fuel more effectively, he said. Also, have it inspected once per year by a licensed heating and cooling professionals. When buying appliances, seek Energy Star labels that indicate lower energy usage, and make sure your lint trap and exhaust trap are cleaned to prevent fire hazards and keep the dryer from working so hard, said Morgenstern. Also keep the dryer only 75% full so that the clothes have room to dry.
6. Consider a Programmable Furnace (or Thermostat)
Wouldn’t it be nice if your house could be toasty warm just in time for your arrival but stay cool during the day? This is another tool Alaskans use to cut their heating usage. “Many Alaskans invest in programmable furnaces so they can adjust the temperature of their home and control costs. This is helpful since it remains cold for so long that it’s important to regulate how long a household’s furnace runs,” Rovito said. Installing one before the winter could save as much as 20% on your heating costs and recover your investment in the first year, according to Consumers Energy.
7. Limit the Energy Vampires
Reducing your water heater down to 120 degrees, or turning it off when it’s not needed, can save you more than 20% on energy, according the U.S. Department of Energy. And some appliances and electronics still draw electricity when they’re not in use. Unplugging them or confining them to a power strip that you can flip on and off can help you to lower your utility bill. Also turn off lights when leaving a room, use timers on holiday lights and switch out old, fluorescent bulbs, recommended Rovito.
8. Put Weather Stripping Around Doors
If you can see daylight around your doorframe, or can feel a draft around a gap, get some weather stripping from the hardware store. “A half-inch gap around your door would be the same as a softball-sized hole in your door to let that cold air in,” Morgenstern said.
9. Know Average Local Utility Costs
Residents in some states spend more on their utilities than others, and, if you’re new to an area, or considering a new house and mortgage, it helps to know what an average utility bill will be for your source of fuel so that you can budget ahead. (You can check out our housing cost tool here for more budget planning.) It also helps to know your credit history, because some utility companies will charge you a larger down payment if your credit isn’t stellar. (You can get a snapshot of your credit report for free every 14 days on Credit.com.) People spent an average of $1,121 on their residential utility bills in frigid Alaska in 2012, according to a chart from the Department of Energy, and $918 in New York, while Hawaii spent $814 and Utah spent an average of $518.
10. Get a Budget Plan
This is a free option from your utility company that levels out your bills so that you don’t have to go into debt, overburden your credit card or become a holiday spending scrooge when you face a large utility bill. It works by mashing up your utility bills over the last year and averaging them into one consistent amount for each month. “That way, you’re not paying significantly more over the winter months and less over the summer,” said Morgenstern. If it’s a new home to you or your first year at your apartment, the average is taken from past bills at that address, but it’s reconciled and adjusted every year, said Morgenstern.
As soon as my husband and I pulled up to see the house we’d eventually buy, it already had a good vibe to it. A blue house with a red door— just like the one I grew up in. It struck a sentimental note with me immediately.
After living in one-bedroom apartments for the past seven years, we were looking to finally make the move from renters to homeowners. It wasn’t a quick process— buying a house (and getting a mortgage) aren’t things that move quickly, generally. But once we moved in, we knew we had a long to-do list of things we wanted to accomplish to make this house ours. There were a few bumps along the road, though. Here are the sometimes costly, often annoying and always informative things I learned from my first few months of homeownership.
1. Recycling & trash aren’t necessarily provided by your county/city.
Once we moved in, we knew we had to set up all of our utilities. As apartment-dwellers though, we didn’t realize how many services aren’t included in some areas’ public works departments. In our area, trash and recycling were not provided gratis by the city or county— we had to pay the government to take our garbage away or hire a private service to do it instead. It’s not an incredibly expensive item to add to our budget, but it was definitely an expense we weren’t anticipating.
2. Get ready for higher utilities.
The biggest apartment my husband and I had ever lived in was just about 900 square feet and it was a garden apartment, so it remained pretty moderate temperature-wise throughout the year. Our utility bills were pretty low. That’s why our first bill for our considerably larger house came as a bit of a shock. We moved in the late fall, so we knew winter heating bills were ahead of us, but we weren’t expecting our first electric and water bill to be nearly three times what our apartment’s bill was.
After we got that bill, I had a much bigger appreciation for why my parents nagged my sisters and me about leaving the lights or TV on when we left a room. Kids, take it from me, parents just understand how expensive electricity is.
If you’re really worried about your bills, you can ask about budget billing or “levelized” payments. Those plans allow you to pay a similar amount each month, adjusted periodically depending on your use. We haven’t done that yet. I wanted to wait a year to see if it made sense— get a feel for how different every month can be and how we can just do a better job of being more efficient too.
3. Air filters — you have to change them more often than you think.
I’ve never had to own a heating and cooling system before, so maintenance was an expense I expected, but had no idea how to budget for. Air filters on your air-conditioning and heating units need to be changed every 4-6 weeks. We got that tip when we moved in and set reminders for ourselves so we won’t forget.
4. A big yard is beautiful, but hellish to maintain.
I loved the big, open green space at our house when we bought it. Then, when we finally moved in, we had a yard fully covered in leaves and the work began. That first weekend we were in our new house wasn’t actually spent inside the house. It was spent in the yard raking and leaf blowing and collecting sticks that had fallen from our big oak trees. It was a two-day, two-person job and, of course, the next weekend the yard was covered again. Maybe next year we’ll opt to get a lawn maintenance company to help with the work load, but it will all depend on the price.
5. Buy a snow shovel immediately.
You never know when you’ll need it and don’t want to be without one when you get a foot of snow. Trust me. That storm in January that dumped a foot of snow on the Mid-Atlantic? Yeah, that hit us hard.
6. You’ll be going to home improvement stores … A LOT!
We had one room we wanted to completely re-paint and freshen up. It had dark, glossy, stained-wood built-in cabinets all along one wall, with trim and ceiling beams to match. The walls were a yellow-beige and it was the one room that almost made us walk away from the house before we bought it. (It was literally marked “man cave” on our breaker box, as my husband discovered about a month after moving in.) We decided we wanted to paint all the trim, molding, paneling, built-ins and beams white and the walls and ceilings a light gray. It took four weekends of work to finish the whole project. But the real kicker was that it took probably half a dozen trips to a home improvement store to finish the job.
Paint brushes, drop cloths, caulk, more caulk cause we underestimated how much we’d need, liquid sandpaper, paint, more paint because we didn’t like the samples we got the first time, gloves, rollers, paint trays, and even more paint because we underestimated how much we’d need (again). It was a lot of trips back and forth. Luckily, we have some supplies now so the next home improvement project will go more smoothly.
7. Gutters fill up so quickly.
Think your yard is bad? The gutters are worse. We swore up and down when we cleaned them up the first time because we thought the previous owners had maybe neglected them for a while— they were filled to the brim with rotting leaves, twigs and sludge. Then we lived in the house for another two months and realized that was just a year’s worth (maybe less) of buildup. We’ll be encountering the same horrible sludge next year.
8. Make sure your home inspector looks at the outside of the house too.
Our home inspector did a great job, pointing out some potential trouble spots. One in particular was a tree that looked like it was distressed. We were able to get a credit for the tree, and about a month ago called out a tree trimming service to have the tree taken down. The problem? Our credit would only cover half of the cost of removing the whole tree. We opted to remove the branches that looked dead and maybe revisit it next year when we could see if that had fixed the problem or if the whole tree needed to go.
It was a lesson learned though. If our inspector hadn’t done a really thorough job and taken a look at the yard and other parts of the exterior of the house (often this is not required in an inspection) then we could have had a big problem the next time we had a major storm.
9. Don’t buy furniture just to fill space.
I already knew that new homeowners often over-extend themselves when they first buy a house by opening new credit cards and buying tons of furniture to fill the space — it’s an effect of working in personal finance. But what I didn’t realize is how strong the urge is to buy, buy, buy. You want to welcome friends and family into your home as soon as you buy it. You want them to get a sense for where you’ve settled down. But that urge can blind you to the fact that the dining room table you desperately want is out of your budget right now. Trust me— I knew better and still was tempted to splurge unnecessarily.
10. The first time you make a fire in your fireplace, make sure you own a fire extinguisher.
There are tons of YouTube videos that can help you figure out how to operate your fireplace. Be sure to look through them before you attempt it. After successfully making a fire in our fireplace for the first time (without incident), my husband and I both realized we hadn’t bought a fire extinguisher yet. It could have been a disaster, though luckily it wasn’t. We bought one the next day.
11. The local library has a wealth of resources for home and lawn care advice.
I know nothing about gardening. My mother and mother-in-law both have green thumbs, but now I have to put to the test whether that trait is genetic. I started by going on Pinterest to find some information on composting and some other gardening basics, but the best resource I found was the local library. Here’s why.
Every gardening book will tell you that lawn care and plant selection are dependent on knowing your environment. I found that our local library had at least a dozen books on the local climate and what grows best in the state. I don’t have the results of my efforts yet, but I would highly recommend hitting up your local library before you start a gardening project— it’s free (just remember to return your books on time!).
12. My credit score actually improved once we got a mortgage.
When I first applied for a mortgage, my credit score took a small hit because of the inquiry on my report. (I check my credit scores for free on Credit.com every month so I was able to see the impact almost immediately.) But, just a few months later, my scores are the highest they’ve ever been. Adding an installment loan to my credit history and a positive payment history has improved my score more than 25 points already, and I’m just a few months into homeownership. I would never recommend buying a home just to improve your credit, but I was surprised at how much it impacted me.
13. Renting is so much easier.
There are a lot of things I learned in just my first few months of homeownership, but the overarching lesson is that renting is way, way easier. There are so many things you don’t have to worry about when you rent. But— and this is a big “but”— it’s not nearly as rewarding as figuring out how to tackle the new challenges of owning a home. I was so proud of my work when I shoveled a foot of snow from my driveway. I looked at my yard and felt accomplished when we cleared out all the leaves that first weekend. I still look at the re-painted room we’ve now settled into and marvel at all the work it took and how great it looks now. Plus, I’m building equity in my house— this is an investment for us as well. We plan to be here for a while (even though our closing attorney said we’d be back in 6-7 years ready for a new place). In the meantime, I plan to keep challenging myself with new projects. Next up: how to lay a paver patio.