Last week, we developed a leak near the main water line. The water pressure regulator was just replaced two years ago, so we knew it wasn’t that. After testing the water pressure with an $11 water gauge, we determined the leak was probably from a worn out Pressure Relief Valve. I went to Home Depot and bought the $10 replacement part. Then I returned home and discovered that we couldn’t fix it ourselves because the previous homeowners were idiots.

Stupid Homeowner Tricks
There are actually several questionable remodeling choices that have been made to our home over the years, but most of them are either things we can live with or things that can wait to be fixed.  But the discovery we made this week just smacks of stupidity, and will likely cost us at least $75 to fix it. At some point, our garage was converted into a master suite, and a carport was added. Decorative stone was installed on the back carport wall. The main line is also on this wall. When installing the stone, they made a cut out behind the hose bib, pressure regulator, and inlet pipe so repairs can be made. However, they didn’t make the cut out around the entire main line setup. They installed the stone behind the pressure relief valve, leaving only a half inch gap between the valve and the wall. There is no way to get a wrench in that space, and because the valve has a downspout, the valve won’t rotate past the wall even if you could get a wrench in there. To make matters worse, the owners installed a concrete pole in front of the relief valve to support a gate.

What Needs to Happen to Fix This
The part is cheap, but the labor will cost a lot because the plumber or handyman either needs to have special tools to fit in that space, or cut out some of the stone to allow regular tools to fit into the space. It’s possible that we would have needed to call a plumber anyway because the valve is so old it’s potentially stripped, or the valve may not actually be the problem, but I would have liked to try to fix it myself first.

What We Learned
I can’t say we learned anything specifically. We already knew the previous owners had done stupid things over the years. All homeowners do. We probably will, too.  However, whenever you do remodeling or additions of any kind, inspect the area carefully to be sure you’re not restricting access to important plumbing or electrical pipes or connectors.

Update: We Really Did Need a Pro
When the plumber came out, he discovered that the home warranty plumber who replaced the pressure regulator two years ago had installed it incorrectly. The regulator was also blown and he found additional leaks.. While he was at our house, he rearranged the main line plumbing so all parts can be accessed without using stone saws and replaced all the leaking parts. It did end up costing $500, but a regulator alone is about $300.  And now we have a fully accessible system.

We have a problem with our towels. We only bought them 18 months ago, but they’ve already lost their fluffiness. I’m wondering if it’s because our new, energy-efficient laundry machines are less powerful than our apartment’s industrial machines, but it’s a problem whatever the reason. I’m not ready to buy new towels yet (see how I deftly avoided the cliché there?).

Wash Towels in Vinegar or Baking Soda
Over time, towels pick up detergent and fabric softener residue, which can make them rough and less absorbent. You can remove that, though. Wikihow has a complete rundown of the steps, but the basics are simple: Run your towels, and your towels only, through two hot loads. No detergent, no fabric softener, nothing. Add 1 cup of white vinegar to the rinse cycle of the first load. Run the towels through again, adding ½ cup of baking soda to the water. This should get out any smells or residue, but you might need to do it a few times. Then start using less detergent on future loads. You don’t need nearly as much as they recommend! If you can dry them outside on a line, that’s the best way to get fluffy towels.

Use Old Towels for Household Projects
At some point, a repair person will ask if you have some old towels they can use. Pull out those crappy, threadbare towels stuffed in the back of the linen closet. If they’re in really bad shape afterwards, toss them. If not, wash them and return them to the closet for future repair people.

Old towels are also great for cleaning up spills, pet vomit, and other yucky stuff.

I used an old set of towels to apply paint thinner to our hardwood floors. The paint thinner helped restore their finish, then I threw out the towels since I don’t want a lot of paint thinner in my washing machine.

Make the move from paper towels to cloth towels by turning your old towels into rags. They don’t have much lint left in them by the time we retire towels, so they’re perfect for cleaning tables and counters, dusting, and polishing silver. They might work well on mirrors and windows, but newspapers actually work best for that. If your towels are too big for your needs, just cut them up. It’s not like they need to look nice.

Make Believe Accessories
An old pillowcase or towel makes an awesome cape if you’re five. Making a Halloween costume? Puff it up with old towels. It’s cheaper than fiberfill and it doesn’t really matter if the costume falls apart the next day.

Pet Baths
We only bathe our cats once every couple of years, but we don’t use our nice towels when we do. Cats and water are not friends and good towels will only wind up shredded. I’m sure dogs are easier to bathe, but there’s no reason to use a new towel on something as furry as a pet.

Can you think of any other uses for old towels? Tell me in the comments!

Summer has officially been over for two weeks. In some areas, fall is in full force. In others, winter is getting ready to make itself known. Now is a great time to perform five home maintenance tasks, and save yourself potential trouble this winter.

Check Weatherstripping on Windows and Door Frames
Check the weatherstripping around windows and door frames for drafts now. Then head to the home repair store to pick up new materials. Damaged weatherstripping can allow leaks during a heavy rain storm. They also let the warm air out and cold air in, which will increase your home heating costs. If the draft is really bad and weatherstripping doesn’t fix it, you may need to replace the window.

Look for Roof Leaks
During the next rain, go up in your attic and look for leaks. Also check ceilings and around windows for leaks. If you find anything, caulk the windows or call a roofer for repair. Do it now, before the winter really sets in!

Clear Brush Around the House
Clear brush that could become a haven for insects and rodents. If you live in a fire zone, clear any brush or shrubbery that overgrew during the summer.

Test the Furnace
You don’t want to find out your furnace is broken on the first cold night. So, crank up the heat now to test the furnace. You may notice a bad smell at first. If it doesn’t clear up soon, call an HVAC specialist to check the system.

Check the Fireplace for Cracks and Brush
Fall leaves have a way of gathering around the chimney. Clear out the chimney cap to prevent sparks from starting a fire on the roof. You should call a chimney service to inspect your chimney and any gas lines leading to it for cracks or leaks. A damaged chimney or gas line could start a fire in your house.

None of these take a lot of time and the service calls shouldn’t cost a lot of money, but they could save your home from a fire or save you money on repairs and energy.

If you’d like to get a free refinance, also called a no-cost refinance, I would start by calling a local broker. If you don’t know a broker personally, ask around. Someone you know does. Call them up and explain your current loan balance, interest rate, and income. Tell them you’d like to know if they offer a free or no-cost refi.

How Can It Be Free?
Obviously, it’s not really free. You pay a slightly higher interest rate for not having costs. Usually 1/8 of a point. In most cases, that’s not a big deal, but you should run the numbers to make sure it makes sense in your situation.

You should also make sure that the loan value is equal to or lower than your home value. In our case, both our appraisals came in higher, one substantially higher, than our purchase price. Actually, I think the second appraisal was too high. There’s simply no way my home value has increased 6% in the last year, even with the window treatments and new paint. But whatever, it got me my refinance.

If you need to pay down your mortgage to qualify for a refinance, determine whether you’ll really save that much money and have enough cash to pay the difference without completely draining your emergency fund.

When Should You Refinance?
Keep an eye on mortgage rates. Right now, they’re at record lows so it’s a great time to refinance. Keep in mind that the averages you see are just that: averages. Unless you pay points or costs, you won’t get the absolutely lowest rate available. Also, if you have a conforming jumbo or jumbo loan, your rate will be higher. You may hear rates being advertised on the radio that are much lower than yours, but those are reserved for loans below $417,000. If you’re close to that, ask your broker if paying down the mortgage to get below that magic number will reduce your rate.

What Kind of Mortgage Should You Get?
It really depends on your budget. Obviously, in this market a fixed rate is the best way to go. Today’s low adjustable rates will rise, but a fixed rate is a fixed rate for the term of the loan.

There is the question of a 30-year mortgage vs. a 15-year-mortgage. If you’re in the first couple years of your loan, a 30-year loan is probably the most doable. If you’re halfway through, then a 15-year-loan will help you save money on interest, both by reducing your rate and reducing the interest paid over the term.

If you’re at less than fifteen years, take a close look at those numbers again. How much interest do you really have left on the loan? Make sure your the total interest over the life of the loan will be less than you’d pay in total with the original loan. Finally, you can refi to any term, but continue to pay the same amount you did before, which will allow you to pay down your mortgage faster.

Crazy like a fox! Yes, just one year after closing on my original purchase, I’ve refinanced my mortgage twice. It cost me nothing but a little bit of time and paper, but the combined refinances will save us $160 a month on the mortgage. Over ten years, that’s a whopping $15,000!

How I Got Two No-Cost Refis in Six Months
I have a mortgage broker friend. He emailed me about four months after we closed on our first loan to let me know he could get me a free refi that would drop our rate by a quarter point. At the time, this was a fantastic deal.

We sent him our bank statements, got the appraisal, and then he sent a notary to our house to sign the papers. We closed right before Christmas.

Fast forward five months. After rising slightly, interest rates started falling drastically. My mortgage broker friend emailed again, with another free refi offer. This time he could get us down to 5% even. I confirmed that we could refi while my husband was on disability. He checked and said yes, so we started the process again.

Fortunately, the answer turned out to be no. We were midway through the process when we had to call a halt. I say fortunately, because rates continued to fall. About six weeks later, my husband was back to work full time and we had a full-time paystub to send over. The appraisal was still good, and in fact our loan paperwork was still in the system. Even better, we could now get a rate of 4.875. We closed within ten days of restarting the process.

What about the Extra Year of Interest?
Both times we refinanced into new 30 year mortgages. We didn’t add to our loan balances, so the equity we’ve accrued over the past year is still ours. We did essentially “lose” that extra year of interest we paid, however it’s not a big concern for me for three reasons:

First, we don’t plan to stay in the house for 30 years. I imagine we’ll be here about ten. It doesn’t make a difference at that point whether we’re at year nine of our loan or year ten. The loan balance is the same.

Second, if we did somehow stay in the house for more than ten years, by that point we should be able to make catch up payments. We’d have $24,249 in interest to make up, but it’s still doable if we spread it out over a couple of years.

Third, over thirty years, the interest savings is $25,640, so even if we stayed thirty years and never made catch-up payments, we’d still save $1,400 in interest.

Why Not Pay Costs?
Both times we could have paid the closing costs to get the rate down another 1/8 of a point. We opted not to because the additional savings weren’t significant enough to save us a big chunk of change. We’d rather keep that money in our pockets, thank you!

Why Not Wait?
We could have waited a little longer to see if rates fell further, but I also need to buy a new car. It looks like I’ll be buying it in the next two weeks. I wanted that refi done before I started applying for car loans.

So now you know my story. Tomorrow I’ll tell you how to get a free refi of your own.

So, my vacation happened to coincide with the one-year anniversary of buying my house. It’s been quite a year. Here’s a quick review of my first year:

Boxes Moved: 80
Rooms painted: 9
Rooms left to plant: 1
Ceilings painted: 2
Ceilings I will paint in the future: 0
Thanksgivings Hosted: 1 (my first)
Refinances: 2
Husband’s surgeries: 2
Employer reorganizations: 1
Pieces of furniture bought: 17
Pieces of furniture left to buy: 10
Rugs bought: 0
Rugs left to buy: 6
Lemons picked from my tree: I lost count, but let’s conservatively say 200
Tomato plants planted 3
Tomato plants producing fruit: 2
Tomato plants suffering misfortune: 1
Tomatoes harvested: 15
Compost bins started: 1
Contractors to visit my house (including estimates): 33
Expensive plumbing repairs: 2
Warranty claims: 7
Warranty claims that resolved a problem: 2
Fires burned in either of my two fireplaces: 0
Lessons Learned: 1,000,005

I’ve posted several of my adventures in homeownership along the way, but here are a few of the more important lessons I’ve learned:

Schedule three repair estimates. Only two will show up.

The things that seem vital can usually be put off, and the things that seem like they can be put off will probably irritate you so much that you do them sooner.

Everything is expensive, especially when it comes to plumbing.

Painting a ceiling is really, really hard. Especially when you get the wrong kind of paint. Do yourself a favor and hire a pro.

If your mom informs you that you’re hosting your first Thanksgiving and you don’t have a dining room table, a six-person patio table will do. Just put baby mittens on the legs so they don’t scratch the floor.

Do not hire Mike Diamond. For anything. Ever. Not even an estimate.

We have a few projects pending on our house and we’re debating whether to DIY them or hire them out. Sometimes, it comes down to cost, and sometimes it comes down to effort. Where do you draw the line?

As I’ve mentioned before, I have access to cheap fabric. When we moved into our house, I calculated the cost of making or buying curtains for a very large entrance/window where blinds or other coverings simply won’t work. I did some research and determined that buying curtains would cost over $1000. I could get fabric at $8-10 a yard and make them myself, which would bring the cost closer to $330, including lining and supplies. I decided to make the curtains myself. I’ll keep them simple – just cut and sew straight seams and use clip-on rings. It will take me a couple weekends to make the curtains, but it’s worth it to save $670, at least.

I also bought some gorgeous sheer fabric for another room. This fabric was about the same cost as ready-made panels, but it was gorgeous, so in the end this one is a break-even.

Backyard Steps
We have a hill in our backyard that has three steps at the bottom and one step at the top. In between, there are no steps. From the view, it’s pretty clear that there were steps at one point and they were ripped out. It’s possible the old brick steps had crumbled, but it’s not clear why they weren’t replaced. Especially since our primary storage – the shed – is at the top of that hill.

We priced out the cost of railroad ties and rebar at Home Depot and the materials themselves are fairly affordable. However, the effort would be huge. Home Depot would probably cut the ties for us, but we’d have to rent a truck to get the lumber home, and then we’d have to lug heavy railroad ties to the backyard, drill holes in them, grade the hillside, and hammer the rebar into the ties once they were in place. Since my husband recently had surgery, this job would largely fall to me and my best friend. We’re not wimps, but I think the effort far outweighs the cost of hiring landscapers to build the steps for us, even if the cost is $500.

Again, we’d have to spend money for a sod roller and spend a great deal of time prepping the lawn to make way for the new sod. Instead, we can hire our landscapers to lay the sod for us. If we buy the sod and have it delivered, that should reduce some of the cost, but it’s possible our landscapers could get a better deal. We also want to install grass plugs at the top of the hill in the back, but that’s a small enough space that we (meaning I) could tackle it.

In the end, it comes down to cost vs. effort and experience. I’ll do a high-effort task that will save me a lot of money if I have the necessary skills. If it’s a high-effort task that I don’t know how to do, and may not save me that much money, then I’d rather hire professionals to do the job. What would you do in these situations?

As I’ve mentioned before, I have several Home Depots and a Lowe’s near me. Both have garden centers, however I’ve found that I usually prefer to go to the local small chain nursery for plants, even though the prices are higher. Sometimes, the better service and quality is worth the higher prices.

Soil and Compost
If I just need a bag of garden soil, I’ll hit Costco or Home Depot. In this situation, the higher price isn’t justified – the name brands sold at the big box stores are better. However, I like to mix the soil with compost. I’ve found that the nursery’s compost is better – I get a good mix instead of a single-source compost. Ultimately, it’s cheaper to buy the mix instead of several different kinds of compost if I only need a little. Of course, home compost is the best, but mine’s not ready yet.

Planters and Garden Supports
Definitely go to the big box store for these. The nursery will have a similar selection, but the prices will be much higher. One ceramic pot is as good as another, so there’s no reason to pay more. Unless, of course, you’re buying a lot of plants and don’t want to make an extra run to the big box stores. In this case you have to decide whether an extra hour of your time is worth more than the price difference.

This is one area where I find the real difference. Although the big box stores have decent plants, the plants at the nursery are generally healthier. They may also be locally grown instead of shipped in from out of state. Interestingly, your local insects (especially our greatly suffering bee population) prefer locally grown versions of the same plant to those shipped in from elsewhere. If you plan to plant a vegetable garden, locally grown flowers and plants that attract bees will greatly improve your success with pollination. Depending on the plant, you’ll usually pay anywhere from $1-$5 more at the local nursery, but it might be worth it.

The local nursery wins, hands down. I can walk into my local Armstrong, which is about two blocks from my house, and ask any of the employees for advice. If they can’t answer, they’ll get one of the managers to help me. Twice I’ve taken in tree leaves to ask for help correcting a problem. They told me exactly what type of food I needed and how to apply it. When I said I didn’t want to use bug spray, they offered other solutions. Try that at a big box store. You might get lucky, but you might have to wander for a while to find someone with enough knowledge to help you.

As another example, I wanted to plant bee-friendly flowers or herbs near my tomato plants. I asked the first guy I saw and he immediately named two plants. As we walked to the plants, he asked me a little more about my goals, then pointed out the plants, advised me on their maintenance, and told me that they didn’t need a lot of water (important in Los Angeles).

Plant Food
The plant food at my local nursery is much more expensive, but it’s also usually organic. When the nursery recommends a food, I usually buy it there the first time, but then I buy it from the big box store when the first batch runs out.

Both types of stores have their advantages, so it’s really a matter of choice. Do you want higher quality or lower prices?

I don’t think I’ve spent as much time visiting hardware stores as I have in the last eight months. Our local hardware store is an Ace, which we use for small parts and screws. It’s a bit pricier than the big box stores, but it’s also only a half mile from our house. We also do some garden shopping at OSH. However, our main hardware stores are Home Depot and Lowe’s. The nearest Home Depot is five miles away and the nearest Lowe’s is ten miles away. We’ve found that both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Home Depot vs. Lowe’s Prices
It really depends on what you’re looking for. Some items are cheaper at Lowe’s, others are cheaper at Home Depot. Overall, I’d say that Home Depot is probably cheaper for most of the items we’ve purchased, but not so much cheaper that we’d automatically choose one store over the other.

Customer Service Comparison
Lowe’s customer service is light years ahead of Home Depot’s. While I can sometimes find good help at Home Depot, often I find myself wandering to even find someone who can help. Our local Home Depots seem to have a lot of clueless teens working there. For example, when we moved into our house, neither of our fireplaces had screens. It was August, but we thought we might be able to find something. The kid at Home Depot said, and I’m not making this up, “What’s a fireplace screen?”

When I shop at Lowe’s, there are always knowledgeable people on hand to help me find what I need. If the person I ask doesn’t know the answer, he’ll find someone who does. (Yes, it’s always a man. I’ve never seen a woman anywhere except the register.)

Selection Comparison
In general, Home Depot has more products, but Lowe’s sometimes has a better selection in specific categories. I prefer Lowe’s garden and lighting departments, but Home Depot’s tool and lumber sections are better. Doors and windows are about the same, but Home Depot has more appliances.

Lowe’s seems better organized. It’s much easier to find items and prices for them. I usually end up wandering around for a while in Home Depot until I find what I need.

Home Depot Coupons vs. Lowe’s Coupons
This isn’t even a contest. Lowe’s wins. When we moved into our house, our real estate agent signed us up for Lowe’s mailing list. In addition to a 20% coupon that was good for three months, we received numerous “project” coupons, usually for 10-20% off. I signed up for the Home Depot coupon new homeowner 20% coupon, which was only good for about two weeks after I received. The store still accepted it, but it was a bit more of a hassle. I signed up for additional newsletters to get more coupons, but they tend to be discounts on particular products I don’t need.

I found the paint color options at Lowe’s to be much better than Home Depot’s. Home Depot’s colors always seem just a little bit off, and they don’t have a wide selection. Lowe’s has several paint collections and I found several great colors there. They also have small sample pints that are very cheap. I didn’t end up actually buying my paint from Lowe’s, but I had two of their colors paint-matched at our local Benjamin Moore store so I could use Aura paint. Lowe’s green paint colors were the best I found anywhere.

Overall, Lowe’s is better for the new homeowners and small-time DIYers. If you need home décor hardware, Lowe’s is a good choice. If you know exactly what you need or have a big project, opt for Home Depot.

Last week our new fridge was finally delivered, and this weekend we spent quite a bit of time reversing the door so it swung the right away. So, first, a few tips on determining when it’s time to replace a fridge, and then a few tips on reversing a refrigerator door.

When It’s Time to Replace a Refrigerator
Our apartment refrigerator had been making some rather distressing sounds for several years. A couple times we thought it was on the verge of death, but it chugged on. We held off on buying a new fridge because we were planning to buy a house. We ended up holding off for over three years! Then, because we had to get a cabinet rebuilt before buying a full-sized fridge, we waited another eight months after moving into the house.

When we finally removed the fridge, we learned two things:

  • It was twenty-two years old.
  • The thing cost more in energy than it probably would have cost to replace it four years ago when we started to become concerned.

So, if you’re on the bubble about replacing your refrigerator, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does it need repair and how much does that cost? A friend of mine paid $300 to have her fridge repaired, while a new one was just $500. Worse, the repair didn’t work, and she still had to buy a new fridge. (She got her repair money back.)
  2. Is it more than ten years old? After that time, the likelihood of repeated breakdowns rises and the energy-saving technology is outdated, if it even has energy-saving technology.
  3. Are you planning to move or remodel the kitchen in the next few years?
  4. Can you get a rebate for buying a new fridge? Our utility offers $35 for recycling our old fridge, and may get $65 for buying a new Energy Star fridge.

Do the Energy Cost Comparison
Our new fridge is 21.9 cubic feet while our old one was about 14.4 cubic feet. Even with the size difference, the new one is significantly cheaper to operate. Use the Energy Star calculator to compare the energy costs of the old fridge to a new fridge. If you could save more than the cost of the new refrigerator in energy savings during the time you plan to own it, it’s probably worthwhile to replace the old one.

For example, our old fridge costs $173 per year to run, while a new one of the same size would cost $43 to run. It would pay for itself in four and a half years (assuming a $450 fridge plus sales tax and $75 delivery fee.)

Our new, larger fridge costs $60 a year to run. We didn’t opt for the ice maker, so I’m not factoring that into our costs. A fridge with an ice maker won’t deliver as great an energy savings over an older model. The energy savings from the new fridge will cover its cost in seven and a half years. Since we plan to stay in the house ten years (or we’ll remodel the kitchen at that point), we’ll sell the fridge with the house and start over with a new fridge.

And Now a Word on Reversing Refrigerator Doors
Ug. This took two hours! The instruction manual and the delivery people made it sound easy, but it was actually rather difficult because the instructions were unclear, and in some cases completely wrong. The instructions told us to simply move the hinge screws over to the other side. After twenty minutes of trying to figure out how that would actually work, we realized we should follow the instructions for removing the door instead.

If you’re planning to reverse a refrigerator door, I also recommend having an electric screwdriver, a thin manual screwdriver, a socket wrench, and a friend to help you on hand. Follow these steps:

  1. Empty the refrigerator door.
  2. Remove any hole covers or screws from the side of the fridge that opens.
  3. Remove the handle.
  4. Remove the hinge bolts on the top of the fridge. Put them in a safe place. You don’t want to lose 15 minutes trying to fish a screw out from under the fridge.
  5. Lift the door off the base hinge. Set it down gently.
  6. Remove the bottom hinge screws.
  7. Move the hinge to the other side and screw it back in.
  8. Put the door back on.
  9. Attach the top hinge.
  10. Attach the handle.
  11. Place the hole covers into the empty holes where the fridge now opens.

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