Skip to main content
home check map image

Search such categories as , , ,

searchPage

, ,

searchPage

, , , ,

searchPage
Featured Articles

Preventive Maintenance Tips for your Home-Part 3

This month we have completed handy tips for every 6 months.

Article Thumbnail Small

Welcome back to Rocky’s Corner! Last month we discussed Part 2 of an 8 part series of Preventive Maintenance Tips for your Home that included every month and every 3 months suggestions.

This month we have completed handy tips for every 6 months. Every 6 Months

SMOKE AND CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTORS: Change batteries and check to make sure they are operating properly. Check with your local building department to see if newer codes recommend adding more detectors than were required when your home was built Consider installing a carbon monoxide detector if you don’t currently have any.

BASEMENT AND FOUNDATION: Check for cracks and moisture and make any necessary repairs.

TOILET: Check for leaks in water feed, tank bottom and repair or replace the toilet if necessary. Consider changing older models for newer.

INTERIOR CAULKING AND GROUT: Inspect caulking and grout around tubs, showers, and sinks; clean and replace if deteriorating.

PIPES: Check your pipes for rust or white lime deposits that may indicate a leak is starting; replace if necessary. Check for leaking around the outside hose bibs. Install insulation around outdoor water pipes to protect from freezing.

WATER HEATER: If you do not routinely flush a quart of water from the tank four times a year, then every six months you should turn off the power source and drain it completely until it’s clear of sediment. Also inspect flue assembly (gas heater); check for leaks and corrosion. A leak usually means the bottom of the storage tank has rusted through. You’ll probably benefit from replacing it with a more energy efficient model.

CENTRAL AIR CONDITIONING SYSTEMS: At the beginning and end of each cooling season, vacuum out the unit and lubricate the motor. If the unit is not cooling properly, contact a technician to check the pressure level of the refrigerant.

GUTTERS AND DOWNSPOUTS: Clear/install/repair gutters and downspouts and make sure the runoff is directed away from your home so it can’t erode the soil around the foundation or run into your basement or crawl space. Install gutter accessories to divert water, channel underground drain lines into existing yard drainage or storm sewers.

NATURAL STONE TILES AND SOLID COUNTERTOPS: Natural stone needs regular maintenance every six months by sealing with an impregnating liquid silicon stone sealer to help repel both water and oil based stains more effectively and be much easier to clean with proper cleaning solutions and methods.

INSPECT YOUR ROOF: Check for warping, aging, moss, and cracking making sure that shingles, shakes or tiles are sound and repair as needed. Inspect the flashing around chimneys, skylights and vents. Seal cracks or openings where water could penetrate. Consider a roof replacement if you notice considerable wear or damage.

SIDING: Inspect siding (especially on the south and storm sides of the house) for evidence of deterioration, including cracks, splintering, decay, and insect damage; clean, treat and repair as needed. Brick and stone: check joints between wood and masonry Waterproof, repair or repaint. Wood: look for lifting or peeling paint, splitting wood or areas where the wood grain is separating . This is evidence that water is getting into the siding. Stucco: a chalking residue that rubs off on your hand is evidence of oxidation, a deterioration of paint or color coat that reduces stucco’s insulation value. If the stucco is cracked, this allows water to get in around windows and doors. Trim: look for peeling paint on the fascia boards, window sills and sashes that could allow water in to form mildew and fungus on the interior of your home behind curtains, blinds and window coverings.

LANDSCAPING: Cut back any trees or shrubs that are touching the exterior. Prune deciduous and flowering shrubs regularly to promote healthy growth, control plant size and shape, and increase the number of flowers and fruit. Check with a local gardening service or your county extension agent for information about appropriate measure in your area for fertilizing, thatching, aerating and reseeding lawn, and controlling disease and insects in all your landscaping.

DOORS AND WINDOWS: Clean exterior of upper-story windows twice a year; clean and lubricate sliding-glass-door tracks and window tracks. Lubricate door hinges and locks.

WEATHER-STRIPPING: Check the weather-stripping around all doors and windows and replace if necessary to reduce drafts and the loss of heated and cooled air. Join me next month for Part 4 of our series on Preventive Maintenance Tips for your Home. We will be discussing Maintenance Tips for once a year. Visit us at www.freminshomeimprovement.com

Mold and mildew in older HVAC systems

Air conditioning systems should keep us comfortable and mildew free.

Article Thumbnail Small

In South Carolina where the summers are hot and humid, We rely on our air conditioning systems to keep us comfortable and keep the inside of our houses dry and mildew free. A great many homes in this area have what is commonly known as a Gas Pack system with an air conditioning condenser unit on the outside of the house, and a gas furnace and air conditioning evaporator coil in the crawl space under the house. The evaporator coil becomes very cold, and air that passes over it is cooled and looses its moisture in the form of condensation. This process cools and dries the air in your home so that you feel comfortable. In a very humid climate, the amount of condensation can be considerable. This moisture typically drains into a pan under the coil and is then either pumped or drained by gravity out of the crawl space and away from the structure. If the drain line becomes clogged, or the pump fails, or a pipe fitting comes loose, water backs up in the tray and/or drains onto the crawl space floor. Standing water in a dark, hot and humid crawl space is an invitation for mold and mildew to form. Many older HVAC systems are not airtight and allow crawl space air to enter the system, and where the condensation drainage is interrupted, mold and mildew can be pulled into your HVAC system. If, during an inspection, I find a broken, leaking or obstructed drain line, I report it to the home owner with a recommendation to have it repaired. It’s not a bad idea to have an annual heating and air conditioning check up, and to ask the technician to pay careful attention to the drain pan and pipes, and to make sure that the ductwork is in good condition with no splits, holes or gaps. If you suspect mold, contact a certified mold inspector.

Unmarried Couples Your Property Rights

Moving in Together or Splitting Up

Article Thumbnail Small

Unmarried Couples
Your Property Rights: Moving in Together or Splitting Up

Recent nationwide surveys show many couples are deciding to live together before marriage or live together with no intention of marrying at all. For these couples, buying a home is not necessarily more difficult but it does come with additional challenges and items to consider before signing the dotted line.

Unmarried couples will find they have the common options of Tenants in Common or Joint Tenancy contracts when they purchase property. In some states one of these options will be considered automatically for them so they should be aware of what type of contract they are signing in advance.

Tenants in Common:

  • Contract between two or more people to own property together. There is no limit to the number of owners. This type of ownership is common for unmarried couples, groups investing in larger property and those interested in buying property in expensive markets they could not otherwise afford on their own.
  • Tenants in Common can sell their share of the home at any time. If no additional contract is made, they may do this without forewarning other owners.
  • Shares of the Tenants in Common does not need to be equal. Percentages can be assign based off contribution amounts. Sally A. may own 50%, Tony B. 25% and Mary C. 25%.
  • To terminate a Tenants in Common contract one owner may buy out the other(s) or all parties can agree to sell the property and split the profits according to percentage(s) owned.
  • If one owner passes away, then it is whomever they specified in their last will and testament who inherits that share.

Joint Tenancy:

  • Most of the above conditions also apply to joint tenancy. However, a joint tenancy offers a right of survivorship. If one of the owners passes away, the other(s) automatically get ownership without the necessity of a last will and testament.

It is important to realize the above contracts cover the basic property rights for a mortgaged/purchased home or property. The above do not protect individual property (i.e. furniture), discrepancies in contributions to home improvements, or other expenses of owning a home. Therefore, it is imperative that unmarried couples write up a contract that address these issues. Almost like a pre-nuptial agreement (and often perceived as unromantic as one) a contract of terms will protect both parties in case paths do part.

Items to consider in a contractual agreement:

  • If you have a Tenants in Common agreement, make certain all parties do have a last will and testament to clear any possible confusion of ownership in case of death.
  • Include terms for terminating the joint ownership. -Specify if the other party should be given a required number of days notice of the sale and an option to buyout before one of the owners sells their half. -Set limits on the amount of the time allotted for the buyout. A fair time should be offered with a consideration of time constraints created by working through the banking process. -If the property will be sold, make sure to include the percentages of the property owned so each party gets their share.
  • Detail how expenses will be kept on equal terms. Will the mortgage be split? Will one pay the mortgage and the other all the household utilities and joint bills? Again, if the contribution is not equal the difference should be recorded.
  • It may be too cumbersome and unrealistic to include personal property items such as furniture in this contract. Instead you may want to make a separate record. List items that each individual brings into the household. If furniture is later purchased together, many unmarried couples will find it beneficial to keep track of contributions. Because their separation will not be treated as a divorce, disputes over items like these will be harder to resolve without some record.
  • Do not include chore items such as who does the dishes. This can make your contract frivolous and tossed out in a court of law. However, some counselors do suggest making chore lists for all couples (married or not) to help cope with the pressures and expectations of our fast passed lives and homes.

If the unthinkable does happen and you do separate, make sure to give yourself time to cope and process. Even without a marriage it is a major life change. With or without contracts it is important to work together until you can sell or buyout the house if at all possible.

Some coping strategies:

  • Accept and expect mood swings
  • Don't expect to be able to concentrate and work at 100% for a while
  • Don't expect to understand why you separated right away - this takes time and reflection
  • Don't become a hermit - instead use this as a launching pad to rediscover your interests and hobbies
  • Prioritize your needs

Becoming a Landlord

How to be a Good Landlord

Article Thumbnail Small

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.

Landscape Your Paradise

How to Select a Landscape Designer

Article Thumbnail Small

Both the front and back yards of our house offer a buffer between our home and the outside world. Often, especially in the case of backyards, they may be manipulated into a sanctuary outside, giving us a place to relax and enjoy the outdoors at home. Many weekend warriors find outdoor projects fun and rewarding challenges for their spring through fall months. However, sometimes an idea may be too grand or a space too oddly shaped for us to visualize how to put it all together. This is where a landscape designer** may be helpful. These professionals are the "exterior decorators" of the outdoors. They can help in a wide range of outdoor projects whether it be redesigning a whole yard or helping incorporate one feature into your greater masterpiece. They also have an extensive knowledge of plants that will help you find the right color and texture for your yard with a plant that will be happy in that area's light and soil conditions. Before hiring a landscape designer, you should first consider what you want to get out of your yard/project. After this you can begin interviewing different landscape designers to find one that will work with your ideas.

**Frequently today the terms landscaper, landscape designer, landscape architect, landscape contractor are used synonymously. For ease we have chosen to use landscape designer as a "Jack/Jill of all trades" in this article. Keep in mind that these professionals may use the different titles. Also, keep in mind that sometimes your project will require a team of landscape professionals as they may be more specialized. For example, you may hire one landscaper who does only pre-design of the project and hires out the labor to another contractor. Contents: Introduction

Part I: Determining Your Yard Project

One of the major hurdles to your landscape design or redesign will be deciding on what you want to change. Many times the change options can be overwhelming. However, if you concentrate on limitations and functionality of your living space, you will be better prepared to meet with a landscape designer. Here is a basic checklist of things to consider before contacting a landscape designer:

  • The most important first step you can take is to determine your budget. Be honest with yourself and set your limit in advance. Once you get started with a landscape designer it can be tempting to stretch your budget. Your landscape designer will appreciate knowing in advance what budget to work in, and your wallet will too!
  • **To save money, some do-it-yourself warriors may hire a landscape designer for only a plan and do all the physical work themselves. Many landscape designers will do this and include a list of plants and types of building materials for your reference. Knowing your budget in advance may help determine if this is the best option for you.
  • Next you will want to consider your time frame. How quickly do you want things done? Do you need things done by a certain time for an event such as a wedding? Or are you interested in a tackling one area at a time and can spread it out over months or even years? The latter may be considered by those who are interested in purchasing plans but may do most of the physical labor themselves.
  • Consider what will be the function of the landscaped space. Are you interested in a gathering place for entertaining guests; a play area for kids and pets; a private hideaway; or a garden for growing flowers and/or edibles? You may even be interested in a combination of more than one of these uses. Also, if you don't use your back or front yard much now, it may help to consider how a change to the space will make you use it more. Or if you are not interested in using it more, perhaps how a change to the design will help with self-maintenance.
  • After you have considered the function of your new space(s), you will want to consider any of the hardscapes. These are areas such as patios, decks, paths or anything else that may mean putting down cement, wood, pavers, etc. Knowing what you would like to use for some of these areas will help the landscape designer determine cost and possible layouts. There may also be the chance that the landscape designer will need to contract out some of this work and this effect the price and/or the timeline.
  • Think about any particular plants you want to either keep or incorporate into your yard. If you have a tree you want to protect or transplant this can effect design and cost. Or if you want more privacy you may want to consider the growth rate, height and coverage of a particular plant or plant type.

Part II: What to Look for in a Landscape Designer

After you have considered your budget, timeline, function, etc., you will be prepared to contact landscape designers and start to collect estimates. Like working with any other contractor, you should get at least three or more estimates and compare the landscapers available. Do research, review contracts and credentials and make certain you get all your questions answered. Many landscape design projects will not come cheap, so doing your homework will be worth your time and money. Here are a few things to look for when hiring a landscape designer:

  • You may want to start in locating a landscape designer by asking friends, family and neighbors who may have first hand knowledge of their work. You may also search the phone book or an online database. More and more you may find examples of their work posted on online websites which may help in your initial selection process as well. Finally, check with local nurseries in your area as they will more than likely know quite a few landscape designers (and they might be able to give some "reference" input as to their reputation as well)!
  • When you contact the landscape designer, ask them to come out to your home and view your yard first hand. This way they can get a good idea of the layout of your land and give a more accurate estimate. It is also helpful if you have a list of criteria, gathered during your pre-planning, to give them as a guide to follow.
  • It will also be beneficial to look at a couple of the projects they have done in the past. Preferably they will be projects similar to your project's size and style. Many landscape designers will have pictures available, however, if possible try to see a couple sights in person.
  • Like with any other contractor, you will want to get a bid before moving forward. Again, having a rough outline of what you want to see accomplished will help the bidding process.
  • Ask for references and call them! One of the common errors people make is that they ask for references but then never follow up. Granted, references are rarely dissatisfied customers. But their insight on how the whole project and process worked for them can be invaluable when working out any details for the contract.
  • Review licensing and insurance information. If the landscape designer and their crew will be working on your property, you want to make certain they are covered by their insurance. Also make certain they are going to apply for or help you apply for any needed permits. Any contractor that says, "You don't really need that." should be quickly shown the door!
  • Once you have decided on a landscape designer, get a written contract for the project. This should detail cost, payment agreement (never pay all in advance!), timeline, materials included, labor included and any warranties. Also, consider any changes to the timeline or cost in advance. How much of a delay is acceptable if the weather turns bad? Is there any leeway on material costs?
  • Know the details of any warranty - make sure to determine what is covered under warranty and for how long. What happens if plants die, the fountain breaks, etc.? Who do you contact if your fountain stops working after two years?
  • Detail any sub-contracted areas on your project. Who will be sub-contracted, what will they be expected to do and who will be in charge of resolving any questions if the work is not 100% satisfactory.
  • Consider the size of plants that will be included in the project. Many nursery plants will not see their potential size until later - sometimes years later. Consider if you want to pay more for a more mature sized plant or change the plant chosen due to its size and growth rate. Go over this carefully in advance with your landscape designer!

So your yard is perfect. You don't need anyone to change a thing or add anything new. But there is that little task of maintenance. Do you have the time to keep your eden in tip top shape? If not, you may want to consider hiring landscape maintenance. Here are some things to look for when hiring for landscape maintenance:

  • Before you call, make sure to consider exactly what you want to see done. Is it just weeding, mowing and raking? Or do you also need special maintenance for your pond or pool? Also consider a schedule. What tasks should be done on a weekly, monthly or seasonally basis?
  • Ask friends, family and neighbors for references. Check to see if there are already landscapers who come to your neighborhood. Also check with local nurseries. Check the yellow pages or online directories.
  • Get estimates! Have the landscaper come out and see your yard. Give them a list of the exact tasks you want to see done. This way they can better see the size and scope of the projects and give you a better estimate.
  • Ask for references and call them! Check on to see if they are punctual, neat, thorough and easy to work with. Find out if there is anything you should be more specific on in the contract to avoid any miscommunication.
  • Check for business licence and insurance. They will be working on your property, make sure they have their own insurance to cover any accidents.
  • Make sure they are aware of and respect local laws. Are they aware of watering restrictions, burn bans, etc.
  • If this will be a long term agreement, then make certain to get a written contract. Even for a one weekend job you may want to get a contract to make sure there are no questions about what is expected. As with any contract, the more details the better. Specify cost, payment, timelines, warranties and delays in service.
  • Discuss if there is any warranty on their work. If they are taking care of your coy pond and all the fish die, who is responsible?
  • Discuss the types of chemicals they may use on your yard. If you have children and pets playing in the yard there may be certain products you do not want used! Discuss the type of equipment they will use. Do they expect to use any of your equipment? Do they have equipment that is safe and properly running?
  • Keep in mind that working with a landscape maintenance crew can be a dynamic rather than static relationship. Make sure you continue to get good service and communication is open and easy. If at any time you feel you are not getting your moneys worth or being understood, it is time to end the contract. Don't just accept that this is "just how it is" or "they know better than I do." It is a business deal like any other and you should feel comfortable that you are getting the services you pay for.

Conclusion

It can be fun being the week-end warrior and master of your outdoor domain. However, sometimes the projects you have in mind for your front and/or back yard can be a bit overwhelming. Consider hiring a landscape designer for part or all of the project. You will learn some great design and technique ideas from them and save your back a bit too!

Home Improvement Web Sites

These days you can find a web site that covers anything. Included in this trend are home improvement web sites.

Article Thumbnail Small

These days you can find a web site that covers anything. Included in this trend are home improvement web sites. Some of these helpful sites may be related to a television program (as discussed in our April article 'Home Improvement Television'). However, there are also many that are mostly web based that offer great home improvement hints, tutorials and visual aids. Below is a list of some of these web sites. We have included the web site message to the consumer, our short review and our ranking of the practical features (such as navigation) to the right. Web sites are listed in alphabetical order. Hopefully you will find some information here that may help you on your next home improvement project! About.com Home Repair http://homerepair.about.com/ Web Site Summary: [About.com contains areas maintained by experts in the field; the only description we found about this section was about the expert.] Bill Lewis is a professional electrician. He has also been a carpenter, a contractor, an editor, a publisher and an urban planner. Bill focuses in this site on repairs and improvements with an eye to saving money and adding value. Homecheck Summary: Helpful articles about various projects and home repair issues. A good article reviews the pros and cons of do-it-yourself work. Overall the articles are quick and to the point. No illustrations are offered but the advice is good and well written. Would like to see more topics and visual aids. Al's Home Improvement Center http://alsnetbiz.com/homeimprovement/ Web Site Summary: Als Home Improvement Center is the site for do it yourself and how to tips covering all aspects of residential home repair, home improvement, remodeling, and renovation projects around the house. Featuring tips, advice, how-to articles and step-by-step information to help you maintain and improve the value of your home. Homecheck Summary: Random. This web site is primarily made up of links to other home improvement sites. However, there are some written guides and tutorials. The web site itself is basic in appearance and has few visual aids. However, some of the tutorials do offer step by step pictures. The site may be hit and miss but does seem to have some hidden gems. Ask the Builder www.askthebuilder.com Web Site Summary: Once you are in my new cool web site, here is what you will find: Over 400 Step-by-Step Guides- these contain the extra content, how-to instructions, links to manufacturers, etc. that the newspapers didn't have the room to print when they ran my original columns. Numerous TV Video Clips - watch me show you new products and cool tricks on how to do things. Over 150 Radio Shows - These radio shows have been stripped of the boring commercials. Each show is broken out into the individual callers. I explain in great detail how to do things as I talk to callers. You can listen to the segments or shows as often as you want. Each week I add the latest radio show for your listening pleasure. Email Questions and My Answers - Live questions from visitors just like you along with my responses. [This description is what a premium, paid for membership includes, some of these materials are available for free on the web sit as well.] Homecheck Summary: This web site does offer some good articles about home improvement. A paid for membership will give the user access to much more. Good content in the articles and Q&A, but not very many visual aids. Some of the material is for geared towards those with advance knowledge of home construction. A good site to review and would be even better if you want to pay for the membership; check out what a paid membership get you, click here. Better Homes & Gardens www.bhg.com Web Site Summary: BHG.com is focused on decorating, building and remodeling, crafts, entertaining, cooking, and gardening. It also has extensive information for women and families. In addition to providing useful tools and advice, BHG.com's trusted experts keep visitors up to the minute with information on the latest developments and trends around home and garden. BHG.com was designed with real people in mind. It has easy-to-use interactive tools; clear visuals; specific, step-by-step instructions; and money saving suggestions. It makes life easier and more enjoyable. Homecheck Summary: One of the first things you'll notice are the pop up ads on every page; incredibly annoying and overused! This site does have home improvement and restoration articles available online. However, the articles are brief and some do not have pictures. The Tools & Guides are useful and easy to use. These tools include planning the layout and painting rooms to calculators for figuring out the cost of materials in advance. Overall this site is better for stimulating decoration and remodeling ideas but does little to tell the do-it-yourselfer how to tackle these projects. BobVila.com www.bobvila.com Web Site Summary: Online and on the job site, home improvement pro Bob Vila helps homeowners build their dreams. Homecheck Summary: This web site offers a lot more information than just TV listing times. It is easy to get around, however, there is so much information available the choices at first can be a bit overwhelming. Articles are very practical and thorough, fix its include diagrams and photos, and the videos are a great way to review topics if you missed the television show. Design tools and the bulletin boards do require a sign up, but it is FREE! These tools are great and easy to use. Overall this site is one of the most informative and generous internet sites offering expert advice. DoItYourself.com http://doityourself.com Web Site Summary: N/A Does list a great deal of quotes from media sources and what they say about the site. Homecheck Summary: This web site really uses the point and click method. Once inside, most of the pages show all possible selections at once leaving the user to scroll and review at will. For shopping this works best. Once in the home improvement section, each topic has How To, Q&A and Tips. All are written concisely and use some pictures when applicable. Some How To's are more informative than others. Depending on the topic, users may find not all their questions answered as the subject may only have an introduction/summary instead of a full tutorial. More diagrams and drawings for some of the How To sections would be nice as well. Finally, a collection of manufactures and suppliers are listed by area of expertise or in advertisements throughout the site. (For professionals interested, listing on these pages begins at $30.) DoItYourself Network www.diynetwork.com Web Site Summary: DIY Network is your television source for the latest do-it-yourself projects, including Home Building; Home Improvement; Automotive & Boating; Crafts; Gardening; Living; and Woodworking. Informational and entertaining, DIY's programs and experts answer your most sought-after questions, plus offer creative projects that will inspire you to do something out of the ordinary - yourself. DIY's web site, DIYnetwork.com, features step-by-step instructions for all that you see on-air, totaling more than 15,000 projects online. Homecheck Summary: The tutorials do point out the television show times. However, if you miss the show, a step by step detail with pictures from the project are available online. Not all the show reviews are meant to be tutorials of how-to but instead are examples of what may be accomplished; a sort of idea bank. Overall the tutorials are clear and easy to follow. There are also some project planners available, but these are borrowed from the Lowe's web site. Home Decoration Concepts www.homedecorationsconcepts.com Web Site Summary: Homedecorationconcepts.com is a site that has been built to ensure you have all the information you want when you build your own house. The information presented here covers various aspects of home decor ranging from individual articles on decoration bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms etc to general articles on furniture &furnishing the house. The site even provides you with articles based solely on how to paint and maintain your house. In short, Homedecorationconcepts.com can be your first step towards your dream house! Home Depot www.homedepot.com Web Site Summary: The Home Depot is the world's largest home improvement retailer and second largest retailer in the United States. We help our customers build their dreams by being more than a store. Learn about Home Depot and our other subsidiaries that specialize in everything from flooring, lighting and interior decor to landscape supply. See how we're making your community a better place to live. Find a career with a Home Depot company or invest in your future as we drive to establish wealth and financial security for our investors. Homecheck Summary: An extension of the store, this site is intended to sell products. However, it also has some tips and ideas for using the products available. The tutorials on this site do come with difficulty rating and photographs of the project steps/procedures. An easy tool included in the tutorials is a printable shopping list so you may know exactly what you need (and where to buy it!) for any project. The only downside is the planning tools are brand based and only show painting color schemes, shelving layouts, etc. using one particular brand. Home & Garden TV www.hgtv.com Web Site Summary: At HGTV.com, you'll find even more of what you love about HGTV: instructions for thousands of home and garden projects, video tips, an interactive Program Guide and episode finder, Calculators, Message Boards and more. Just click on your favorite topic—Decorating, Remodeling, Gardening, At Home, Crafts—to learn the latest on enhancing your nest. And be sure to visit the HGTV Store for unique home and garden gear. Homecheck Summary: The How-To tutorials are great. They take you through step-by-step with audio and visual review. After watching the segment you may print out written instructions as well. It does work best with a high speed internet connection. Only negative comment is we wish there were more! But these are sponsored by Lowe's and users may always click on the advertisement to go to their library as well. The Home Improvement Web www.the-home-improvement-web.com Web Site Summary: The New Home Improvement Web Directory - Tips, Design, Decorating, Repair and Improvement Information For The Consumer and Professional! Find Improvement Tips, Products, Professionals, and Services in Canada, United States, and United Kingdom! Homecheck Summary: Some great articles about home maintenance and repair. However, there are no illustrations. Many of the articles are submitted by other web sites/sources, but the quality of the articles seems to stay about equal. HomeStore.com www.homestore.com Web Site Summary: Homestore, Inc. is a leading supplier of media and technology solutions that promote and connect Real Estate Professionals to consumers before, during and after a move. Homecheck Summary: This site is primarily geared to those looking for realtors, homes, apartments and other real estate listings. To find home improvement articles go the Home & Garden tab at the top right. Here you may find decorating and some guides to home improvement projects. The tutorials are borrowed from the Creative Homeowner text and include great pictures with the step by step guide. Finding the tutorial you are looking for can take a little time through the different menus. It is easy to click on another feature and be taken to another site; although the new site is owned by the same group, why you went there may not be clear at first. Again, do-it-yourself home improvement is not the main feature of this site so unfortunately there are not as many articles and projects; but the articles it does offer are easy to follow and have good visual aids. HomeTime.com www.hometime.com Web Site Summary: Welcome to Hometime.com your online source for home improvement, remodeling, and repair information. Here is where you’ll find project advice, information about current and past TV episodes, behind-the-scenes Hometime information and a variety of products to help you with all your project needs. Homecheck Summary: This site has project advice, information about the show and a variety of products to help you with all your project needs. Also find lists of vendors and their contact information for materials you see used on the show. The how-to tutorials on the web site are basic. Check out the archives to find past episodes that relate to your own projects. Copies of programs can be bought and usually cover one individual tutorial or the whole series related to construction of one house project. Home Tips www.hometips.com Web Site Summary: Home Tips is your free one-stop resource for help with home improvement, remodeling houses, home repair, decorating, and buying appliances and other home products. Homecheck Summary: This site has some lengthy articles and some quick summaries. Very few pictures and a lot seems to point towards purchasing material through the site. That is not to say the information isn't valuable; many of the articles/buyer's guides offer good reviews of the materials available to the consumer. There is a section of D-I-Y Instructions that offers a bit more insight. But again would like more step-by-step, illustrated instructions. Lowe's Home Improvement www.lowes.com Web Site Summary: [Well the closest we could find!] Lowe's has been Improving Home Improvement ® for more than 59 years. In 2005, Lowe's earned several notable industry distinctions, including: Ranked 43 on the FORTUNE 500; Named 2003, 2004 and 2005 ENERGY STAR Retail Partner of the Year; Operates more than 1,100 stores in 48 states Homecheck Summary: Offered by the retail store as an extra feature, the primary goal of the site is to get information about and/or purchase products for sale. Prompted for your Zip Code, this information is used so you may search for products available in your area (this includes plants!). Navigation is easy, however some pages heavy with images may take longer for some computers to load. Most of the tutorials suggest certain products, which is to be expected. However, these tutorials do still prove to be helpful and diagrams are provided for more complex tasks. Check out their 'In-Depth Microsites' for more information and online tools such as the Garden Planner. The Garden Club has really useful tools with great information about plants. Overall, this site does prove helpful to the home improvement weekend warrior. Michael Holigan's Your New Home www.michaelholigan.com Web Site Summary: Michael Holigan’s Your New House, seen on broadcast stations and cable by more than 2 million viewers every week. We promote tips and advice on how to build, buy and remodel the home through our TV show...serve as a source of expert advice and information for consumers on topics relating to: New home construction, The purchase and financing of new and existing homes, The purchase and financing of manufactured homes, Residential remodeling, Home improvement Homecheck Summary: Tutorials are available through online copies of show transcripts or broken down into step-by-step online tutorials. The use of photos help illustrate the steps of the projects. If you have a good connection you may also watch video excerpts from the show. All around great advice and direction. Just can't wait for there to be even more topics available. MSN House & Home http://houseandhome.msn.com/ Web Site Summary: [Could not find one for this section, but everyone is pretty familiar with MSN.com for which this is an extension.] Homecheck Summary: Tutorials and content is provided by Better Homes and Gardens. Articles are short and to the point. Most have drawn illustrations. Start Remodeling www.startremodeling.com Web Site Summary: StartRemodeling.com’s Roots began in 1997 as an interactive sales tool for Lone Star Specialty Remodelers, a Houston, TX based remodeling contractor, in business since 1982. The site, still owned and operated by Real Remodeling Professionals, was transformed in 1999 to bring visitors to the Internet an informative and easy to navigate site that will allow them to locate anything and everything they may need to improve their homes. Homecheck Summary: Some good short articles and how-to's are in the Interior and Exterior Showcases. The remodeling values article is a nice hidden gem as it was the first we saw of someone illustrating how that major home improvement project may effect the resale value of your home. Overall, the articles are bit hit and miss and could use more visual aids, but there are some definite gems to look over in the archives. This Old House/Ask This Old House www.thisoldhouse.com Web Site Summary: Homeowner Know-how: Our extensive database of do-it-yourself articles and step-by-step instructions help homeowners execute a wide range of home improvement tasks. Organized by topic, this section covers everything from kitchen and bath to yard and garden. Homecheck Summary: Some free tutorials available online. However, most information is only available to magazine subscribers ($4.93/3 issues & presumably much more through online access). The guides that are offered for free are well written, have great photographic visuals and are easy to follow. It may make the subscription worth it to those who want expert guidance and help. TrueValue www.truevalue.com Web Site Summary: True Value, operating worldwide, has been a leader in the hardware industry since 1948. With its broad and deep product selection and helpful customer service, True Value is a trusted resource for do-it-yourselfers in big cities and small towns alike. Homecheck Summary: The web site for the retail store, this site has some good directions for home projects and improvements. The tutorials are very detailed. Drawn pictures serve as visual aids; it would be nice if there were more of them for some of the projects listed. Well written and easy to follow articles. Don't forget to check out the expert Q&A where you may submit questions or review the archive or questions asked. Toolbelt Diva http://media.home.discovery.com/fansites/toolbeltdiva/toolbeltdiva.html Web Site Summary: As the feisty host of Discovery Home Channel's new series Toolbelt Diva, Norma pairs up with female homeowners to tackle a variety of home-improvement projects. Toolbelt Diva proves that any woman can take on just about any home-improvement project, and it also has plenty of information and insight for the man of the house as well. Homecheck Summary: A fun twist to the usual home improvement shows, this tv show's web site also offers video clips and written guides reviewing projects handled on the show. Wish there was more material available online as the topics covered are still rather limited.