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Becoming a Landlord

How to be a Good Landlord

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Perhaps you inherited property or purchased property as a new investment and now you are contemplating becoming a landlord. If you decide to rent an extra piece of property, you should know some ground rules. In this months article, 'How to be a Good Landlord,' we will discuss some of the basics that every landlord should know. We will discuss what it takes to be a landlord, what makes a good rental property, what are your responsibilities as a landlord, how to advertise your property, how to avoid legal pitfalls and how to evict a tenant if the relationship deteriorates. Overall, this is a short list, hopefully it will help you start with a little more direction and know-how.

Do you have what it takes to be a landlord?

The decision to become a landlord should not be taken lightly. Contrary to popular belief, this is not the type of job where you just sit back and watch the cash flow in. Regardless of the challenges, more than half of landlords are self-employed. Doing it yourself will mean you take on the responsibilities of a small business owner. You need to have great communication skills. You will be working with all types of people; sometimes even the difficult ones. Being an effective communicator in person and in writing is vital. You are an accountant. This includes everything from rent payments and deposits to repair and maintenance costs. You are a manager. You may have staff to train and watch over. Their professional behavior reflects upon you and your property. If they are inconsistent with your policies they can damage your business or even get you into legal trouble. You may also need to contract repair or maintenance jobs you cannot complete on your own. You will need to project manage these items through to completion. You are a marketing director. Getting your place advertised and your units filled is an ongoing challenge. Advertising also includes many legal regulations that you should know (more on this below). Your knowledge of this business should also include legal knowledge. Consulting a lawyer is recommended for anyone starting as a landlord, especially since every state has specialized landlord/tenant laws. But in addition to this, you will be responsible in making sure any staff or contractors you use also know the laws when working with tenants. You should be dedicated and patient. Being a landlord is a tough road to start. You should be prepared for hard work with a slow, trickle-in type of income, especially at the beginning. On average, a landlord should only expect about a 10% profit annually. The rest of the monies will be recycled into items such as mortgage payments, taxes, repairs, management costs, insurance, advertising and a rainy day fund (to name a few). There are tax breaks available to landlords, however, these are not enough to turn your profit margins sky-high. These qualities listed above will help you become a great landlord.

Perhaps there is a trait above that gives you pause. "I really don't want to manage all the accounting." or "I don't want to live onsite or nearby." All is not lost. You can hire a property manager. Doing so will cost you about 10%/month of any monies the property takes in. However, it can be a wonderful way to manage your business. When looking for a project manager, treat it like any other contracted service. Perform rigorous interviews, check references and make sure you have the same ideas about responsibilities of each party. Find out if they are insured, if they already have working contracts with maintenance and repair companies, and if they charge any extra fees for these contacts. Once you decide on a property manager, be certain to create a detailed contract covering all responsibilities. As with any of your other endeavors with your rental property, keep all your records and agreements in writing! Other professionals you may use to help manage your property include accountants, maintenance specialists, marketing directors and lawyers. Of course all of these will eat into your profit, but be honest with yourself and utilize these people when you need them. You can save yourself headaches down the road if you strengthen any weaknesses at the beginning.

What makes a good rental property?

When purchasing a rental property, there are some important questions to ask:

Do you have a enough for a down payment? Because rental property is viewed by lenders as a higher risk, you may be asked to put as much as 25-40% down on the property. Lenders calculate about 75% of your mortgage payment will come from renters. This leaves you with 25% to make up and even more if you cannot rent all the units. They may give you the option for a lower down payment at a higher interest rate. However, the higher interest rate may defeat any benefits.

Could you live on the property? If you use one of the units as your own residence this will help lower the risk factor for lenders. Lenders can offer a lower down payment and you can learn the ropes of being a landlord without being far from your investment.

Can you get the rent you need for the mortgage? Take a look at the neighborhood and compare the rental costs. Your rental rate needed to cover mortgage should not be too far above the market or you will lose your ability to rent units. - If you inherited or already own the property, you should consider if you can meet current mortgage payments. It may be more beneficial to sell the owned/inherited property and reinvest in another neighborhood.

Is the building up to code? Make sure to hire a home/building inspector before purchasing the property. Make sure the inspector is aware that you hope to rent the place as this may change some safety and code requirements. Take time to make yourself familiar with codes for your locality. This will help you ask better questions and understand any improvements you may need to make.

Is the property maintained? At first you may think it won't be a problem to repaint, re-roof, update the wiring and plumbing, etc. until your list becomes too long for the investment to be worthwhile. Again, hire a home inspector and make certain you know what needs repair and the estimated cost of repairs before you buy.

Is the property secure? Review reports on neighborhood safety. Check for ample lighting, especially at entrances and in parking areas. Make sure windows and doors are solid. Consider the cost to change all the locks and add window locks. Think about the security of your tenants in the property.

What are the responsibilities of a landlord?

Let's assume you are going to take on most of the business yourself and have found a wonderful property to rent. Now, what are some of the responsibilities you have as a landlord?

Tenant Screening: Your first interaction with possible tenants will be the background check that includes a financial review and calling references. Overall, you must perform background checks fairly. You should not do the check on one person and not on the other as this favoritism, or "trusting your gut feeling," is a disservice to all involved. You owe it to yourself, possible tenants and current tenants to perform fair background checks. For yourself, you can avoid headaches with tenants that don't pay the rent or have caused problems, such as costly repairs, in the past. For possible tenants, you may be providing that reality check - can they really afford your rental? For your current tenants, consistent background checks let them know you are looking after your investment giving them a sense of security. On average, working with an agency, this will cost you about $20 per check; an investment well worth the cost.

Clear, Consistent Communication: To avoid any misunderstandings, make sure all your interactions with tenants are clear.

  • HAVE A CONTRACT! Make sure you supply the tenant with a copy of the contract so they may reference it if any questions arise. Review the contract with a renewing tenant and discuss any questions they may have over the language or meaning.
  • Collect rent on a schedule. Keeping consistency with your tenants is imperative. If you are too lax one month, you may have a hard time collecting rent the next month. Or, if you are lax with one renter and not another you can create tension or even a legal issue.
  • Always provide written notice before entering a tenants space. This varies from state to state. However, for good business practice and common curtsey, let the tenant know when you need to enter the property they call home.
  • Use signs, flyers or other WRITTEN communication to inform tenants of policies and policy changes. Provide all tenants with copies and/or make clear postings around the complex.
  • Serve notices and warnings in writing. Verbal notices will not protect you if a situation deteriorates. Make certain to give your notices in writing and make yourself available for questions or discussion. Serving a notice and then disappearing from sight does not offer clear communication and can aggravate a situation!

Provide a Safe and Maintained Environment: Every landlord should offer tenants a living space that is up to code, safe for habitation and in working order. Even if you decide to contract out maintenance services, you should provide your tenants with repairs in a reasonable amount of time. Make good relationships with contractors that understand the nature of the work and are willing to come out after normal working hours. Save money for a rainy day so you can pay for emergency repairs when they arise. Maintaining the property will encourage tenants to take pride in their home and maintain their surroundings. Also, strive to make your tenants safe. You cannot control all conditions. However, changing locks, providing ample lighting for parking and having emergency procedures written and distributed are a few of the ways you can keep your tenants safe.

How do you advertise a rental property?

Advertising a rental property is important for getting units filled. Today you can use everything from word of mouth to online sites to advertise your property. In larger cities, you may even use "finding agencies" or real estate agents/brokers to advertise. When advertising your property, keep a clear list of amenities and useful services in the neighborhood. When composing your advertisement you must watch your wording as you cannot exclude any demographic. There are many federal laws/protections that regulate how you advertise your rental. The fair housing laws make it illegal "To make, print, or publish, or cause to be made, printed, or published any notice, statement, or advertisement, with respect to the sale or rental of a dwelling that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin, or an intention to make any such preference, limitation, or discrimination." (Source: U.S. Code Collection - Cornell University Law School). In addition to this clause, many states and cities may also prohibit discrimination based on marital status and sexual orientation. Most landlords have good intentions to rent to all qualified tenants. However, there are certain ways of wording advertisements which may be perceived as discriminatory. For this reason, you should carefully choose your wording when advertising your rental property. Avoid words and phrases such as: prefer, suitable for, ideal for, ethnic neighborhood [or other cultural identifiers]. For a good list, take a look at the Pennsylvanian Human Relations Commission's Reading Between the Lines: A guide for housing and commercial property advertisements as they include a list of terms to avoid. Another resource for examples is the Guidance Regarding Advertisements Under §804(c) of the Fair Housing Act by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Keep in mind this good rule of thumb: always describe property, never describe people.

What are some legal pitfalls to avoid?

There are a lot of legal concerns when renting out property. As we have seen, the law influences advertisements of rentals. In addition to this, you create a contract agreement with your tenants every time you rent. Therefore, it is important to have sound legal advice as a landlord. Establish a relationship with a lawyer who you may hire for any contract questions or possible representation. No one ever wants anything to get as far as a lawsuit. So here are some ways to avoid legal pitfalls in the first place:

  • Always perform background checks with every possible tenant.
  • Call tenant references.
  • Treat every tenant the same in process; never cut a corner for one tenant because of a "gut feeling" or personal relationship.
  • Keep all notices in writing. 
  • Keep all due dates consistent from month to month and from tenant to tenant. 
  • Always perform background checks on any staff.
  • Make certain all staff are trained. They should know what they can and cannot do for tenants. If they are handling rental paperwork or advertising, they should know fair housing laws.
  • If you contract out maintenance work, make certain they treat your tenants professionally. Although they don't work for you full time, they do represent you since you hired them.
  • Keep housing up to code and safe for living.
  • Investigate any complaints against your staff immediately.
  • If a situation arises, consult a lawyer. Know how to legally proceed before taking any action.

How do you evict a tenant?

Evicting a tenant is one thing all landlords would rather avoid. However, sometimes circumstances deteriorate and eviction is the only feasible solution. If you have tried open communication but cannot get the tenant to pay rent or obey rules of the property it may be time to start the eviction process. The rules behind evicting a tenant vary from state to state. It is therefore imperative you discuss your options with a lawyer. Indeed, for the best security, you may want to do the whole eviction process through your lawyer. Regardless of the ups and downs involved with evicting a tenant, make certain to always maintain a professional decorum. Do not allow personal emotions to collide as this can only lead to further legal issues. Keep all of you requests in writing. The first step to any eviction is to send a written notice for them to pay back rent, fix problem behavior or move out. For example, in some states you may send a Demand for Rent or Notice to Quit form to a tenant who is behind rent payments. Or you may send a Notice to Cure Breach of Lease to inform the tenant that they must fix behavior that is contrary to your rental agreement. A Notice Regarding Termination of Lease may be used in some states when there is no chance for reconciliation. For example, the tenant is involved in illegal activity on the premises such as drug trafficking. If problems have not be rectified after notices have been given, then a suit is filed against the tenant. Upon winning this, it is law enforcement personnel who deliver written notice when the tenant may remove their items from the premises. You should never remove a tenant's items yourself. Using the police will ensure that you cannot be accused of taking or damaging any of the tenant's property. Essentially, make certain to obtain legal advice, serve warning notices required by your state, keep all notices and communication in writing and use local law enforcement to help keep you protected from any accusations of unfairness.

None of the above is a substitute for legal advice. An attorney should be consulted.

FREE Rental Agreement Forms

In cooperation with our partners at Lawchek® and Lawsonline™, Homecheck is pleased to provide a sample Rental Agreement Forms for FREE. This is not a substitute for legal advice. It is never recommended that an individual undertake his or her own representation in such matters as real estate law, even though most states do permit such activity. Any individual who is serious about proper real estate transactions would want to have capable legal assistance. An attorney must be consulted.

  • Blank Rental Agreement Form Example Rental Agreement Form
  • Blank Apartment Lease
  • Blank Notice to Quit "

This work is protected under the copyright laws of the United States. No reproduction, use, or disclosure of this work shall be permitted without the prior express written authorization of the copyright owner. Copyright © 2008 by LAWCHEK, LTD."

Resourceful Links

Fair Housing by CivilRights.org
www.fairhousinglaw.org 
The Fair Housing National Multimedia Campaign is designed to increase public awareness of the Fair Housing Act and its protections, encourage the reporting of fair housing discrimination to the appropriate agencies, and provide information and resources to help communities and institutions support individuals and families who exercise their fair housing rights.

Landlord.com
www.landlord.com
In early 1998 the decision was made to spin Landlord.com off as a separate entity, dedicated to providing services to landlords and other real estate professionals on-line.

National Fair Housing Advocate Online
www.fairhousing.com
The National Fair Housing Advocate Online is a resource designed to serve both the fair housing advocacy community and the general public with timely news and information regarding the issues of housing discrimination. Find local organizations to help with any Fair Housing questions: http://www.fairhousing.com/index.cfm?method=agency.search

National Fair Housing Alliance
The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) is the only national organization dedicated solely to ending discrimination in housing.

US Department of Housing - Home & Communities
www.hud.gov/offices/fheo/
The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) administers and enforces federal laws and establishes policies that make sure all Americans have equal access to the housing of their choice. We can help you with your housing discrimination problem. If you feel your rights have been violated, let us know.

US Department of Justice - Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. 3601 et seq., prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing, such as landlords and real estate companies as well as other entities, such as municipalities, banks or other lending institutions and homeowners insurance companies whose discriminatory practices make housing unavailable to persons because of: race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability.

ONIONS

Wood pests, wood destroying organisms, structural pests, termites and dryrot, or, fungus, whatever or however you refer to them, they are the uninvited, unwanted guests that can degrade the wood structure of your home, or, the home you are interested in purchasing.

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Wood pests, wood destroying organisms, structural pests, termites and dryrot, or, fungus, whatever or however you refer to them, they are the uninvited, unwanted guests that can degrade the wood structure of your home, or, the home you are interested in purchasing. What is interesting is how these conditions are addressed in the various states. Some states allow Home Inspectors to identify and report on these issues if the inspector is properly certified/licensed. Meanwhile, other states (California is one) do not allow Home Inspectors to identify wood destroying organisms unless that inspector is also licensed as a Structural Pest Inspector, of which there are very few. But, if the inspector is properly licensed, then the reporting will be done on a report form mandated by the Structural Pest Control Board located in Sacramento, and the reporting process falls under a whole slew of regulations administered by the Structural Pest Control Board. In California, a Home Inspector can only mention a “wood pest” or “white growth” condition and note it in his or her report, and then, can only refer/defer to a licensed Structural Pest Inspector/Company for further details, proper identification of the wood pests involved, and, recommendations necessary to correct/repair the issues present.

This practice is unfortunate as that process breeds (in California anyway) a huge conflict of interest situation that revolves around the home sale/purchase activity. In California, the Structural Pest Companies perform the “termite” inspections (the term commonly used to describe a Structural Pest Inspection) for little or no money with the intent of getting their “foot in the door” to do the chemical treatments and repair jobs, which can be very expensive. So, lets peel off the first layer of the onion. The scenario goes: The inspector/company you call to make the inspection is the same person/company who provides you with a report that outlines the repairs and chemical treatments that he/she says are needed, which is the same person/company shoving a pen and a work contract into your hands to sign, which is the same person/company that sends out their repair crew to perform the work, which is the same person/company that “inspects” the completed work and then issues a Notice of Completion and certifies the property “free and clear.” I don’t know about you, but in my opinion, that is a big conflict of interest.

But wait, lets take it one more step further. Lets peel off the next layer of the onion. How about the fact that many of the “termite” companies pay their inspectors straight commission on WORK PERFORMED/COMPLETED! Might that smack of a little conflict of interest? How comfortable would you feel having your home inspected under those conditions? How objective and impartial do you feel the outcome of the “termite” report will be, knowing that the “termite” company/inspector lost money the moment the tailgate of the inspectors’ truck went through the shop gate on the way to the inspection and now they need to recoup?

Time to peel the next layer off of the onion (are your eyes watering yet?). Now lets throw the real estate agent into the mix. The agent calls the “termite” company for his client (purchaser) and orders the inspection. All fine and good unless this agent happens to be one of those who has a predetermined idea as to what the outcome of the inspection should be in order to close the deal quickly and with no hassles even though the inspection report may have no basis of reality as to the conditions present. This is why, on occasions too numerous to count, two inspections of the same home are worlds apart. The rule is: both/all reports of the same home should contain the same findings, but the recommendations to repair may differ as inspectors may have different methods to correct the conditions found. It is very disturbing when comparing two reports of the same home, that, the diagram, as well as the findings, are as if the two inspectors looked at two different homes. But, this occurs all too often because of the pressure applied by the agents by “black balling” inspectors that are perceived to be “deal busters” because they actually do their job and accurately report conditions present.

Please don’t feel that this discussion is saying that all real estate agents or termite inspectors/companies are “shady.” More are good than bad, but the questionable still exist and you need to be aware and "do your home work” so you don’t end up in a situation for which you didn’t bargain.

So, lets peel another layer off of that onion, but in a positive way this time. ALWAYS, I REPEAT, ALWAYS interview the real estate agent before engaging them. Just because the agent meets you at the door of the office doesn’t mean you are “stuck” with him/her. If the agent is the listing agent of the property, be especially wary. They will not legally be working for you or have your best interest at heart. That is where the questionable termite inspector/company may suddenly appear. You want to ask the hard questions and get the proper answers! You want to know names and phone numbers---- not of sellers, but of purchasers of property handled by the agent so you can find out how their (the purchaser) experience was. Of course, this is a good time to find out how satisfied they were with the pest work that was performed. You would be surprised by how many buyers are very unhappy with the quality/completeness of the pest repair work but don’t have the stamina to “fight the system.”

In closing, referrals from qualified sources are your best way to find the inspector and real estate agent that will best serve you. Remember, the ones charging the least are most likely the ones to give you the least. A home purchase is probably the single largest investment any of us will make in our lifetime, so don’t shortchange yourself by falling into the age-old trap of the “cheapest.” Ron Ringen owns and operates Ringen’s Unbiased Inspections, which is located in Sonora, California. Ringen’s Unbiased Inspections serves the beautiful gold country of California that includes the foothills and Sierra Mountains in the counties of Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amadore. Ron has been involved with the Structural Pest Control business for 43 years and has been a licensed Structural Pest Inspector in California since 1968. Ron is a licensed General Contractor (B) in California and has been since 1977. Ron is certified with the American Institute of Inspectors as a Home Inspector, Manufactured/Modular Home Inspector and a Pool and Spa Inspector.

Galvanized Pipes in Older Homes

My husband and I are buying an 80 year old home in Columbia, South Carolina, but we are not sure about the galvanized water pipes under the house, What is the life expectancy of these pipes?

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Galvanized pipes have a general life expectancy of 50 years, but this can be shortened considerably by the amount of minerals in the water supply. Columbia has naturally soft water, and galvanized pipes here tend to last longer. Other areas of the country such as Southern California have rather hard water, and as a consequence, galvanized pipes won’t last as long there. Two things happen to galvanized pipes as they age.

First, minerals tend to slowly build up on the inner walls of the pipe decreasing the inside diameter. In extreme cases, this can slow the water flow to a trickle.

The other common problem with galvanized pipes is corrosion at the joints. In the process of cutting the threads for the pipe fittings, the protective galvanizing is cut away exposing bare metal. Over time, these threaded joints will corrode and eventually break. In the case of your 80 year old house, if the pipes are original I would definitely consider replacing them. If you are not sure how old they are, I recommend that a qualified home inspector examine them and look for signs of corrosion at the fittings, and check for low water flow at all of the faucets.

Insurance Coverage in an Economic Recession

Limiting Your Risk When Cutting Costs

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Lately, when we turn on the news, we hear about a troubled economy and an unstable job market. The constant barrage of bad news has encouraged most of us to cut spending wherever possible. Perhaps a household will cancel cable TV for a year, limit their cell phone plans, reduce the number of times they eat out as a family, or tackle another cost reducing option. As many different "belt-tightening" measures are taken, everyone should be careful they don't cut the essential items. One annoying essential is the cost we pay for insurance - there is no guarantee we will need it in the near future (in fact, we hope to need it as little as possible), however, if an accident does happen and we don't have coverage, the costs could send us into bankruptcy. Understandably, if a bread-winner of the household loses their job, it is tempting to cut costs where we cannot see the immediate need. This said, it is far better to reduce coverage than to go with no coverage at all.

Before we discuss insurance any further, let us get this down now - it is not worth the risk to eliminate insurance coverage completely.

  • For homeowners insurance, your mortgage lender will require that your home is at least minimally insured. However, it is possible to let your insurance coverage lapse if you don't pay your bills or mortgage. A few months lapse does not mean you lose your insurance right away. However, letting it go longer than a couple of months will leave your home uninsured. When you then try to reenroll your coverage, the insurance company may charge you as much as 2 or 3 times more depending on how long you went uninsured - you have become a higher risk client. If you do not reenroll and let your insurance continue to lapse, your lender can take action to protect their investment. A lender may enroll the house in an insurance policy which they then add to your loan payment. However, they will be the party to receive funds if the home is damaged (i.e. fire). Essentially, you will be forced to pay for an insurance of their choosing (maybe at a higher rate) but you will not receive the benefits of the original coverage under your name.
  • Basic automotive insurance is required by law in most states. If you are driving uninsured, you could be faced with a lot of out-of-pocket expenses as well as legal fines if you are ever in an accident. Again, if you drop insurance coverage and reenroll later, the insurance company may charge you as much as 2 or 3 times more depending on how long you went uninsured as you are a higher risk client. For a chart detailing the amount of coverage required in your state, click here to visit Insure.com. Before you cut your auto insurance to the bare minimum listed, consider some of our insurance shopping tips listed below that may help you lower your costs.
  • Finally, what about health insurance? It is estimated that this year the number of Americans without health insurance is as high as 52 million. Most Americans rely on their employers to help cover some of their health insurance cost. However, as premiums rise for companies, they are forced to increase the contributions of their employees. So in today's economy, both those with jobs and those who have lost their jobs are struggling to keep affordable health insurance. Everyone should have health insurance to offset the astronomical cost of emergency health care. Those without insurance may find that the ambulance ride alone may break the bank and leave them with more debt than they can possibly afford to repay. Below we have provided some strategies for obtaining cheaper health insurance.

The above said, let us see how you can cut some of your insurance rates!

Cutting your insurance costs does not mean you should go without coverage. Instead, be a savvy consumer and do your research and shop around. Recently an insurance company ran an ad where they asked consumers how long they shopped for their car and received answers from a week to even a couple of months. When they then asked how long they shopped for insurance, there was a pause and the usual answer of, "Er, uh, less than an hour." This commercial proved a good point about how many people approach shopping for insurance with less care than the big ticket items to be covered. Here are some shopping tips to help you find the best price and coverage.

Strategies for obtaining discounts on home, automotive, and health insurance

SHOP before you DROP your money! As the commercial we used as an example above, and as we keep mentioning over and over, nothing can beat comparison shopping. Use the web to your advantage as there are so many quote and comparison sites available. If you aren't comfortable with the web, do some calling around to your local agents. It is worth your time and money! 

Considering the online insurance option? You may give up on some individualized care, but the cost savings may be worth it. Consider these PROS and CONS before you buy online insurance coverage:

The PROS - There are many benefits for utilizing online insurance:

  • Easy Comparison Shopping: Using insurance websites, you can compare coverage and prices on almost any type of insurance. You can also browse the individual insurance carrier websites once you have narrowed your search. Almost all companies now have libraries and tools for you to learn more about their services online.
  • Your Time Is Money: Shopping for insurance online can be done at any time of day. It is hard to get time away from your daily schedule to sit down and comparison shop with insurance brokers, or indeed, individual agents.
  • Low Pressure: Let's face it, many people find it easier to stand firm without the person-to-person contact. Users feel they can be more savvy and better informed when every option is at their fingertips rather than relying on an agent's account.
  • Save Money: Due to the time needed to comparison shop, the pressure to stay loyal to one company, and the uncertainty of other companies, some may lose money by staying blindly loyal to their insurance carrier. The online market allows for easy comparison shopping, less pressure, and research tools to learn more about other companies. By becoming well informed, you can work out a better rate with your current provider or move to a new provider who offers better coverage for your dollar.

The CONS - Be aware of these complications when purchasing insurance online:

  • Understanding Coverage Options: Without an agent to explain 'insurance speak,' you may not know all the coverage you may need. This is especially the case for those getting insurance for the first time. However, if you have discussed options with an agent before and have a generally good idea of the type of coverage you will need, this may be something that is manageable with a little extra research.
  • Is that quote really a deal: All quotes may not be equal. Take care to examine all the coverage included with quotes. The online quotes may help you narrow your search, but should not be taken at face value because not all companies offer the same 'comprehensive' coverage.
  • Buying Insurance Coverage In Your State: Not all states allow you to purchase insurance online. Some allow you to get quotes but still require you to meet with an agent before signing any contracts. Also, because the Internet clouds locality, you will need to make sure the insurance carrier is licensed in your state.
  • Individual Customer Care: Do you really want to push 1, then 2, then 4 to talk to someone about your insurance coverage? Working with a local agent still offers the advantages of individualized customer service. They will also have a better knowledge of the coverage their carrier provides and can help you understand all of your options. They may also be aware of more discounts available to you that you may not know to ask for online. In this way they can offer better individualized care.

For more information about purchasing insurance online, read our article 'Online Insurance: Is Online Insurance Right for You?'

  • Look for and Ask about Discounts: All insurance companies offer discounts, however, not all of them will offer a discount if you don't ask. Since not all insurance companies are upfront with all the discounts they offer, it is best to shop with this at the top of your list of items to ask about. Discounts are available for all types of coverage and include everything from being a long-time client to paying your policy in full (rather than monthly). Homeowners can get discounts by making certain upgrades to their home that make the home more secure and/or energy efficient. Automotive insurance often has the most selection of discounts ranging from a good driving record, a short daily commute, or even a high grade point average (for those student drivers in the house). Health insurers will give discounts for clients in good health - if you lead a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise, no smoking or drinking, you may find completing a health survey will save you money on your premium.
  • Raise your Deductibles: By raising the amount you pay out-of-pocket in the case of an emergency, you can lower your rates substantially. Higher deductibles will mean that you may have to pay as much as $1000 or more out-of-pocket per event. However, it does provide a safer gamble compared to no insurance at all. For health care you may consider a high deductable plan for "emergency" or "catastrophic" insurance. These plans will only cover a major accident but, if you are in good health and don't need a lot of medications, this plan can help offset high rates. However, keep in mind that you will have to pay over $1000 out-of-pocket and these plans will not cover routine doctor visits. Instead, combine this insurance with a Health Savings Account for the best rounded coverage.

MORE Strategies for obtaining discounts on home and automotive insurance: Flood damage is not covered by homeowner insurance. The National Flood Insurance Program is a partnership between FEMA and isnurance companies that offers coverage. 

  • Bundle to Save: Using one insurance provider to cover your home and vehicle can help save you money as most insurance companies provide a discount to get your business. This will save you money if you check with your current provider, but don't be shy, take advantage of online comparison sites or do some calling around. You may be surprised at the differences!
  • Review your Policy: Make certain you review your policy at least once a year. There may be adjustments you can make in coverage. For example, as your car gets older and subsequently worth less than when you first bought it, you may find you need less coverage. For your home, you may find you have sold high insured items from your household or take inventory and realize you don't need to cover that old computer or entertainment center for as much as you did before. Examining your Personal Property Value may lead to areas you can logically cut coverage.

For more information about homeowners' insurance, read our article 'Understanding Homeowners Insurance.'

Insurance Company Rankings

• AM Best Company - Insurance Reports http://www.ambest.com/homepage.asp
• Consumer Reports (requires membership for ratings) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/money/insurance/index.htm Standard & Poor's Ratings http://www2.standardandpoors.com/
• US News & World Report - Top Health Insurance Companies http://health.usnews.com/sections/health/health-plans/index.html

Online Insurance Comparison Sites

• Insurance.com www.insurance.com
• Quicken http://www.quicken.com
• InsWeb www.insweb.com Insure.com www.insure.com
• eHealthInsurance www.ehealthinsurance.com

 

How to Hire a Contractor

Working as a Team on Your Next Home Project

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You have a great idea of what you want to do but you just don't have the skills to implement it. Whether remodeling the kitchen, a spare room or adding on, some projects are better handled by professional contractors. However, make sure you do not get into an agreement with a contractor on impulse. Instead, picking a contractor should be a selective process that is well researched and prepared. This is not only a financial investment; this person (and their team) will be in your home and working with you on a project that may take days or, more likely, weeks to finish. A sound partnership is important. Below are some suggestions for planning out your partnership with a contractor. Also included are a checklist guide and contract example forms from our partner Lawchek®. All are helpful suggestions and tools before hiring any contractor.

Part I: Overview

The following points may help you in the process of hiring and working with a professional contractor.

Plan out your project.

Whether a full kitchen remodel or a new back patio, make sure to plan out your project in advance. You should know what materials you would like to use and what the end project will look like. If you are uncertain about various options, then consult an interior designer, landscape architect or architect. They can help take the ideas you have imagined and tell you how they can logically work. They can also help you create detailed plans of the project and a list of materials for its completion. Many times they will continue to work with you as the project is being completed as well. Having this type of plan in place before hiring a contractor is essential to ensure clear communication. If you start a project unsure of the final outcome you may cause delays and extra expense if you keep changing your mind. To have a large project planned in advance will help you to remain focused.

Determine the kind of contractor you need.

Will a general contractor be able to complete the whole project or will you need cabinet installer, plumber, electrician, etc.? Preplanning your project should help you answer some of these questions. You can be ready to interview contractors knowing that they either need experience in or will need to sub-contract certain aspects of your job. If they cannot do part of the project, will they expect you to hire a specialist (i.e. electrician) or do they have a partnership with one already established? Consider if they have previous experience with your type of project. Ask if they familiar with the architecture and age-specific concerns of your type of home. How have they met the challenges in the past?

Research any permits that may be necessary. With a plan from your architect or landscape architect in place you will now have an idea of how much you will be changing your home. You may ask these professionals as you work out your plan if the project will need building permits. You may also ask this to your contractor as well. However, keep in mind that although some contractors will handle the building permit process themselves as part of their contract, others may leave it up to the home owner. Some argue that only the contractor should handle building permits as this ensures they follow all codes. If you get the permit and the contractor does not follow the codes you may have a harder time seeking corrections by the contractor afterwards. As a first step, it will be very helpful to know whether you need a permit before even contacting a contractor. This is also key to avoiding any fraud. If you already know that your project requires a building permit but your contractor tells you not to worry about it, you have clear warning that this contractor may not follow local and state building codes, get someone else!

Consider the professionalism of your contractor.

This is the first basic step when looking at different contractors. Check and see how long they have been in business, if they are easy to talk to and if they are able to meet with your timetable expectations. Determine if all of their contact information is current. Also, look for a contractor that is easy to reach; if you are playing phone tag to obtain a quote it is a pretty good indication of what it will be like trying to contact them once your project is started! Find out if they are a member of any trade associations and stay current in their training. As an extra precaution, you may also want to research with the county if they have been named in any past law suits. Contact the Better Business Bureau, Attorney Generals Office, and local consumer protection agency to check on any past complaints.

Verify insurance and licence information.

Insurance: Always make sure the contractor is properly insured. You should receive a certificate of insurance from the insurance agency listing you as the co-insured. It should be original and not a photocopy. The types of insurance you are looking for: General/Personal Liability which will protect your property; Workman's Compensation which will cover the contractor(s) if they are injured while working on your property; and Automobile which will protect you against any claims if they damage another vehicle/object while on your property. All these will protect you from having your homeowner's insurance responsible for any mishaps or accidents that may happen. License: Not all contractors need a license in every state. Also, the cost of a project can sometimes determine if a contractor needs a license or not. In most states the more expensive the project, the more likely they need a license. A good online reference to find out about license requirements in your state may be found at Contractor's License Reference Site. If your state does require a license, make sure it is current.

Ask for references and call them! 

Ask potential contractors for references. Do not do any further business with contractors that refuse to supply references. The references should span both recent and older projects that are all similar to yours. If you are getting a kitchen remodel it doesn't make a lot of sense to talk to someone who had a new deck built. Once you have the contact information, do the most important step - call them! You may even see if they are willing to let you see the project first hand with the contractor or if they have photographs of its progress; your contractor may also have photographs available. Below are some sample questions to ask references:

  • Are you pleased with the project result? When talking to references for older projects ask them how the craftsmanship has handled everyday wear and tear.
  • Did the contractor stay on or close to schedule?
  • Did the contractor stay on budget?
  • Did the contractor follow the written contract? In hindsight, is there anything you would add to the contract?
  • Was the contractor easy to talk to or reach when you had questions or concerns? Did the contractor stay on site to supervise his/her team?
  • Did you get along with the contractor's team? The sub-contractors they used?
  • Where you happy with how the contractor and his/her team treated your home and property? Any messes, etc.?
  • If there were any corrections, was the contractor willing to make changes or did you have to place a formal request or hire someone else?
  • Would you use this contractor again and/or recommend him to someone else?

Review estimates for differences and find out why.

Once you have three or more estimates begin to look at the differences. Why are some contractors lower or higher than others? Ask them to explain their estimate. For example, is an estimate lower because of different materials used and does this translate to difference in quality? Does one contractor have a larger team or expect to hire more sub-contractors? Is a contractor "saving you money" by cutting corners on safety, local regulations, etc.?

Create the contract.

Finally, the written contract you create with your contractor is extremely important. So much so that we have listed factors that should be considered for the contract in a separate section below. To review that section now, click here.

Part II: Checklist

The partnership with your contractor can be very rewarding experience if you make sure to plan ahead. With the items mentioned above in mind, we have compiled an easy to use checklist that will help you when reviewing various contractors for your job. We have listed the items below but you may also print out a PDF checklist by clicking here.

Hiring a Contractor Checklist:

  • Where did I find the contractor? (Phonebook, Online, Friend/Family, Other)
  • The contractor is licensed (if required) and registered as a business in this state.
  • Contractor has all necessary insurance to complete the job safely. Including: Worker's Compensation, General/Personal Liability and Automotive.
  • I researched any complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Attorney General’s Office and other local consumer protections agencies.
  • This contractor does not have too many jobs and can fit my project within my time schedule.
  • I obtained at least 3 references (from each contractor).
  • I have called every reference and asked thorough questions.
  • I reviewed at least one project site from the reference list in person.
  • I have a detailed bid from this contractor. Including: describes all parts of project to be completed, estimated material cost, estimated labor cost, estimated time needed for completion.
  • I understand everything in the bid and what that project will entail. I have asked for clarification on anything I do not understand.
  • I understand the pricing.
  • The contractor clearly lists the types of materials he expects to use.
  • The contractor offers warranties on materials and craftsmanship.
  • This contractor will obtain all necessary building permits.
  • This contractor has provided a sample written contract of a previous project. I understand the wording of the contract and can easily see how to adopt a similar one for my project.
  • This contractor is easy to talk to and has been easy to get a hold of for follow up questions.

Part III:

The Contract The written contract between you and your contractor should be taken very seriously as this will be the roadmap that both parties will use to ensure that everyone is kept on task and happy. The following items are highly suggested to be included into the contract. You may add and remove items as they pertain to your particular project or situation.

  1. The contract should specify exactly what is expected to be done. Besides the project, any clean up, where materials will be unloaded, etc., should also be included.
  2. Specify the dates for commencing and ending the project. It is also a good idea to detail what is expected if delays occur due to weather, material delays, etc.
  3. Detail the materials to be used for the project and their cost; this includes brand names and other identification to make certain there is no confusion. Not recommended, but at the very least, detail an allowance specifically for materials with strict parameters.
  4. The contract should detail the contractor's insurance clarifying that coverage is expected through his/her carrier.
  5. It should be clear who is responsible for obtaining permits and what permits are required for completion of the job. Ideally permits will be obtained by the contractor.
  6. Method of payment and payment schedule should be clear. Never pay for the entire job in advance! Depending on your state there may be a limit to your initial down payment. Usually it is enough to cover any special material costs and initial start of the project. There is usually an agreement to pay by interval as different stages of the project are reached. Again, detail this in the contract. Once written, make certain you both understand the payment terms before either of you sign.
  7. Any warranties provided by the contractor should be detailed in the contract. Identify if they are full or limited warranties and describe exactly what they will and will not cover. If warranties include manufactures, make sure all of their contact information is included in the contract as well.
  8. Finally, a method for dispute resolution should be included in your contract. This should detail how each party should be notified of any grievances. The best means would be mediation or arbitration as this can save you both money. However, if a problem does arise make certain every notice of a problem(s) is done in writing so you have record of your attempts at solving the problem.

As a general rule, be as detailed about the project and all expectations as possible. We have included some sample contracts from our partner site Lawchek®. These are only samples and should be reviewed and changed to fit individual project needs.

  • Subcontractor Performance Agreement for Residential Construction
  • Deadline Extension Amendment

This reference should answer basic questions. The questions recited on these pages are the more commonly asked questions of attorneys when a client first makes contact for the purpose of a better understanding of real estate legal matters. This is not a substitute for legal advice. It is never recommended that an individual undertake his or her own representation in such matters as real estate law, even though most states do permit such activity. Any individual who is serious about proper real estate transactions would want to have capable legal assistance. An attorney must be consulted. "This work is protected under the copyright laws of the United States. No reproduction, use, or disclosure of this work shall be permitted without the prior express written authorization of the copyright owner. Copyright © 2006 byLAWCHEK, LTD."

A Greater Green Thumb

Make Your Garden Environmentally Green

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A Greater Green Thumb: Make Your Garden Environmentally Green We hear so much about "going green" in the news today that we sometimes forget that one of the best ways to be environmentally friendly is through a green thumb! Whether through careful design of a major landscape renovation or small changes to a few habits, making your garden green can be as simple or complex as you want. In fact, don't expect to make major changes in how you care for your yard overnight. Instead, consider some ideas you can implement now and then slowly add to them. As you begin to implement new gardening techniques you will also discover that making your landscape environmentally friendly is not just about saving mother nature - it can also save you money! Here are a few quick ideas to get you started on your new green garden: Pesky weeds: Yes, dousing them with weed killer is easier. However, most are not children, pet or nature friendly. Some old fashioned weed pulling can be great exercise or way to get the kids to earn their allowance. - Try to get weeds early in the year as this will mean less pulling later on. - Pulling a little at a time as you walk down a path is much better than a whole day of work. - Putting down mulch can help prevent weeds. - If you have an area that is overtaken by weeds instead of lawn, you might want to consider replanting the area with low native plants that need little attention. Return of the native: Using native plants in your landscaping is a great way of choosing plants that are accustomed to the climate and resistant to pests in your area. Although not foolproof, you will find native plants much easier to care for than many imports. - Also, many imports can be harmful to the native plants of the area. For example, English Ivy may look pretty when you care for it, but left on its own, it is a weed that quickly overtakes native plants and even trees! Research non-native plants beforehand to make certain they are not really noxious weeds for your environment. Homebrewed compost: Adding a compost bin is a great way to recycle food and yard waste and get something in return for it! Composting does take about 3-6 months before you get to use any results, but once you get the cycle going you will have a great way to decrease your garbage and increase your plants. - There are many styles of compost bins from indoor to outdoor, homemade to store bought - you can even find stylized ones that give character to your décor! - If you don't have a garden but have yard removal, check with your waste company's policies, many companies now offer to take the same items you would put in a compost bin (i.e. vegetable and fruit skins). They in turn use this to make compost for city parks. Even if you aren't using the compost, it is a great way to get this type of waste out of the landfill and to areas where it will be more beneficial. Harvest the rain: While your out picking up a compost bin, add a rain barrel too! These barrels can be placed directly under you gutter downspout or out from under the eaves. It is ideal to use the water regularly to keep it circulating. Overall this will help save on your water usage and bills! Water thoughtfully: Watering your plants properly will avoid unnecessary waste. - Use drip hoses for more even watering and to help decrease your water bill. - When watering plants, pay attention to their roots and water them before the sun is high so the plant has time to drink before it evaporates. - Using mulch around your plants can keep natural moisture in. Just make sure the mulch is not too deep and you leave some space at the base of the plant stem. Grow your groceries: What is more green then eating from your own garden? If you have never gardened before, start with a small plot and easier to grow veggies. For local advice, check out your neighborhood gardening associations which often offer free classes. Getting garden fresh foods on your table not only helps the environment but offers you better flavor and ease of mind as you know exactly what went into your produce. - Don't have a large yard? Urban community gardens are a fun way to build a sense of community, get free gardening help and again, harvest some great tasting produce. - Another way to garden in small spaces are through container gardens. Using containers to grow herbs and smaller vegetables like onions or spinach is a great alternative. - As you garden more, you will begin to start your veggies from seeds rather than buying starts at the store. When making starts of your own, use old milk cartons or other containers that you can recycle and use again and again. Invite the birds and the bees: Utilizing plants in your garden that are naturally appealing to beneficial insects and birds is a great way to improve the life of your plants. These good allies will help cut down on bad bug pests and can be fun to watch too! - Plant flowers and plants that are attractive to butterflies, bees and other naturally beneficial insects. Encouraging natural pollinators and cutting down your use of pesticides is a great combo for these natural little friends. - Some nurseries even sell lady bugs as they are a great natural defense for bug problems. - Invite birds into your yard with berry plants, flowers, and a water bath. Birds are some of your best pest reducers. - If you have berries you want to keep for yourself instead of the birds, there are safe netting options out there that don't trap birds but keep them off your berries! Plan your garden: As we have mentioned in earlier articles, planning out a garden can save you a lot of headache and money down the road. But it can also allow you to be more green. When planning your layout you may pay closer attention to what areas of the yard get more sun or rain and install plants that are suitable for different locations. - You can also minimize your gardening chores by planning certain "wild" areas or buffers using native plants that require little upkeep. Hardscapes: Finally, when planning or renovating your yard, consider the non-organic features. From the paths to the containers, consider what impacts the materials you use will have on the environment and your garden's health. - Recycled materials are becoming more readily available for constructing everything from paths to patios. Take a look at all the options and give these recycled materials a chance. - Try to get planters and containers made of recycled material. Some people get very creative with old items that they turn into planters (i.e. an old sink or wheelbarrow). - Try some of the new solar lights to add lighting features to your yard. They are earth friendly and can save you money! Useful Links EPA: Greenscapes www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/green/ Information about going green provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Includes ideas for homes, businesses and recreational areas. USDA Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/ "This section of our Web site will help you find your nearest Cooperative Extension office. The Cooperative Extension System is a nationwide, non-credit educational network. Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes." This resource will help you find state specific plant information. American Horticultural Society List of Mater Gardeners www.ahs.org/master_gardeners/ "The map below links to Master Gardener websites in the United States. Links to Master Gardener programs in three Canadian provinces are listed below as well. Clicking on the map and links below will connect you to some of the best, regionally-specific advice you can get on gardening." To find out more about classes, gardening tips and the best plants for your area, check out these state sites. Buy Green, Going Green, Green Savvy, Eco Products Green Cleaning Products http://www.buygreensavvy.com Quality green and eco friendly products at the best prices!