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Clothes dryer venting. Do’s and Don’ts

Many years ago when I was doing maintenance work for a large property management company, I got a call to look at a clothes dryer that was not working properly.

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Many years ago when I was doing maintenance work for a large property management company, I got a call to look at a clothes dryer that was not working properly. The tenant said that her clothes were just not getting dry no matter how long she ran the dryer. What I found was that the dryer lacked a lint screen, and the flexible vent hose under the house was sagging considerably and had been trapping moisture and lint for a very long time. The more moisture that became trapped in the hose, the more it sagged. The result was that the hose had become completely blocked by an oatmeal-like mixture of lint and moisture. No air could pass through this blockage, and the dryer could not do it’s job. In this case, replacement and proper routing of the vent hose solved the problem. When the proper flow of air is blocked, the clothes dryer has to work harder to dry your clothes, and this could lead to premature failure of the appliance, and in some cases could cause a fire. Whenever you have a home inspection, be sure to ask the inspector to look at the dryer vent hose, and it’s also a good idea to check it at least once a year.

Landscape Your Paradise

How to Select a Landscape Designer

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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!

Summer Safety Tips

The summer has a pull for us, no matter our age.

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The summer has a pull for us, no matter our age. It is a time to take a few days off work, barbeque in the backyard, go for a picnic, a hike, a swim, a bike ride or go out on the water on our boat. It is also a time to mow and weed the lawn, plant flowers and finish countless chores around the home that have been put off until the weather "cooperated." Needless to say, summer is a busy time when we do more activities and chores and can very easily overexert ourselves. That is why this month we are focusing on some tips that can help you have a fun and safe summer. Part of having fun is being aware of what precautions you should take and how you should plan ahead for whatever you choose to do. But we know you are busy, so here is the quick list for a safe summer!

Barbeque and Food Safety:

Always check your grill before using it after a long seasonal break. If propane is used make sure to check all the connections! Check your individual user manual for your grill; all of these will have a checklist of items to review that are specific to your make/model.

Grills are for outdoor use only. NEVER bring a grill indoors to cook. Carbon monoxide will accumulate and can be fatal.

Always set up the grill away from the home (at least 5 feet or more).

If using a charcoal grill, use a charcoal lighting fluid instead of gasoline. Make sure to let the fluid be absorbed by the coals before lighting. Move the lighter fluid away from the grill before lighting. Once you light the fire, stay with the grill, never leave a cooking grill unattended.

That goes for all of you - NEVER leave a cooking grill unattended! Have baking soda handy for a grease fire and a fire extinguisher on hand as well.

For safest results, always grill with a meat thermometer. See the recommended meat temperatures to the right.

Before cooking or preparing anything - wash your hands! In between working with different dishes - wash your hands!

Invest in some long cooking utensils for the grill - this will help prevent burns!

For best grilling results, thaw frozen meats before cooking them on the barbeque. The safest way to thaw foods is slowly in the refrigerator.

If you use the microwave to defrost meats, then make sure you are grilling them shortly afterwards and not storing them again before cooking.

If marinating food then do so in the refrigerator - not on the counter! If you want to have extra marinade to use as a sauce later, make sure to separate a portion ahead of time. Never reuse marinating sauces!

Use one plate for taking meats to the barbeque and another clean plate to take cooked items to the serving area. Never use the same plate. The raw juices can contaminate your cooked meats and side dishes.

When hosting a barbeque, make sure to supply plenty of clean plates and utensils. Encourage guests to get a new plate if theirs has been sitting out in the sun and became a playground for flies, ants, etc. as they waited between helpings.

That evil mayo - did you know according to the Department of Health, it is not really the mayo that is making that potato salad a dangerous game of chance. Instead it is the fact that when making salads usually the ingredients are mixed together when still warm creating a breeding ground for bacteria. Instead, chill all your ingredients separately before mixing them together.

Refrigerate any left over food within 2 hours of its initial serving. If the temperatures are higher, then 1 hour or earlier. Meat should be be kept hot for serving (140°F) and unused meat should be refrigerated immediately as it cools. If you have too much left over meat, make sure to freeze whatever you won't eat within the next 2 days.

When you shut off the grill make sure to shut off the propane as well.

For a charcoal grill, let coals burn out completely. The ashes should sit 48 hours before being disposed of in aluminum foil in a noncombustible container.

Food Safety on the Road:

Wash all fruits and vegetables. Even those with tough outer skins that you do not eat. When slicing these the knife may pick up bacteria from the outer skin.

Pack drinks and food in separate containers. The drink cooler is opened more often changing the internal temperature. This way the food container is disturbed less often and can remain colder.

Once at your destination, keep the cooler(s) out of the direct sun. Keep them in the shade, covered with a blanket. If on the beach, burry it partially in the sand in a shady spot or under an umbrella.

If grilling at the park and you need to dispose of ashes, make sure to place them in heavy duty aluminum foil and soak them in water before placing them in a noncombustible container.

If you use a recreational vehicle such as a camper, always review any canned foods that may have been left there. If temperature fluctuated and cans were frozen and thawed then they need to be discarded. Make sure to thoroughly clean the refrigerator out before using it this travel season.

Bug Prevention:

The best insect repellents contain DEET. However, they should not be used on children under 2 months of age. Also, bug repellent should be applied once per day. Do not get a sunscreen/bug repellent combo as you will need to reapply the sunscreen every two hours.

Avoid using scented soaps and perfumes. Also be careful with bright colored clothes as they attract certain bugs as well. Be extra careful around stagnate pools of water, heavily flowered areas and unused areas as these are more likely to be nesting areas or feeding areas for bugs.

Wear hats and long sleeves in the woods. Make sure to examine clothing and scalp for ticks. If you find a tick gently pull it out with tweezers. Do not use your fingers as you may squeeze it too hard. The methods of burning ticks with matches or suffocating the tick with nail polish don't work for removing ticks from the skin. If you live in a wooded area, try to keep your yard well maintained, ticks do not like direct sun and are looking for overgrowth areas.

Lawn Mower Safety:

Nearly 75,000 Americans are seriously injured in lawn mower accidents each year. About 10,000 of those injuries involve children. Data from University of Michigan

Always read and review your owner's manual at the start of the mowing season. There will be specific checks you will need to perform.

If you can, get a mower with an easy kill switch, a double handle that stops the motor when dropped is a good design to have.

Keep children and pets indoors or well away from the lawn mower at all times. Don't let children ride on the mower for "fun" and it is recommended that children not operate mowers until 16 years of age.

Pick up debris before mowing the lawn.

Wearing protective eye gear is also recommended.

Wear sturdy shoes when mowing. Never move the mower back towards your feet, always go forward.

Sun Safety:

The harshest time to be out in the sun is between 10:00am-4:00p.m. This includes cloudy days as the sun still penetrates the clouds although you may not feel it. During these hours of the day you should have a sunscreen of 15SPF or higher. Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before going outside and reapplied every two hours. During really hot hours, stay indoors as much as possible.

Sunglasses that protect you from at least 90% of UV sunlight should be worn.

Dress for the heat. Wear light colored clothes of a breathable fabric, such as cotton. Wear a hat or use an umbrella if in direct sun for long periods of time.

Drink plenty of water, drink water even if you do not feel thirsty as you need to keep your body hydrated. Avoid drinks with caffeine or alcohol as these will only aid dehydration.

Eat smaller meals more often. Eat less protein to reduce metabolic heat.

Avoid strenuous activity. If you are going to be doing really strenuous work or sports, do them early or late in the day. Take breaks often!

Need to know "HEAT" definitions:
Heat definitions from www.redcross.org

  • Heat Wave: More than 48 hours of high heat (90°F or higher) and high humidity (80 percent relative humidity or higher) are expected.
  • Heat Index: A number in degrees Fahrenheit that tells how hot it really feels with the heat and humidity. Exposure to full sunshine can increase the heat index by 15°F. Heat cramps:
  • Heat cramps are muscular pains and spasms due to heavy exertion. They usually involve the abdominal muscles or the legs. It is generally thought that the loss of water and salt from heavy sweating causes the cramps.
  • Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is less dangerous than heat stroke. It typically occurs when people exercise heavily or work in a warm, humid place where body fluids are lost through heavy sweating. Fluid loss causes blood flow to decrease in the vital organs, resulting in a form of shock. With heat exhaustion, sweat does not evaporate as it should, possibly because of high humidity or too many layers of clothing. As a result, the body is not cooled properly. Signals include cool, moist, pale, flushed or red skin; heavy sweating; headache; nausea or vomiting; dizziness; and exhaustion. Body temperature will be near normal.
  • Heat Stroke: Also known as sunstroke, heat stroke is life-threatening. The victim's temperature control system, which produces sweating to cool the body, stops working. The body temperature can rise so high that brain damage and death may result if the body is not cooled quickly. Signals include hot, red and dry skin; changes in consciousness; rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing. Body temperature can be very high--sometimes as high as 105°F. Call 911 or your local EMS number. Move the person to a cooler place. Quickly cool the body by wrapping wet sheets around the body and fan it. If you have ice packs or cold packs, place them on each of the victim's wrists and ankles, in the armpits and on the neck to cool the large blood vessels. Watch for signals of breathing problems and make sure the airway is clear. Keep the person lying down

Sun Safety for your Pet:

Dogs and cats don't sweat to lose excess heat, instead they pant. Most of our pets know better and will not over exert themselves in high heat. However, if chained in the sun or locked in a car, there is little they can do to avoid it. Never leave you dog unattended in a car. Although it is only 75°F outside, in the car it can reach up to a 100°F in one half hour. If you return to your car and your pet is agitated, wide-eyed and panting rapidly they may have heat stroke.

Always provide shade and water for your pet on hot days. If there are heat wave warnings bring them inside with you.

Animals have a natural higher temperature than humans (100°-102°F for both cats and dogs). However, anything 105°F is a sign of heat stroke. Other signs of heat stroke in animals include rapid panting, wide eyes, salivating, pale and dry gums, staggering and weakness. They may even become unconscious.

The best way to treat heat stroke is to get them wrapped in wet towels and fan them as you would a human. Some suggest immersing them in cold water, but depending on the severity this may be too much too quickly. Also run cold water in their mouth. Keep track of their temperature, get them down to 103°F. Call your vet or animal hospital immediately.

Hiking Safety:

Plan ahead for any hiking trip. Take a look at the route and consider what equipment and skills you may need. Discuss emergency plans with your group before heading out. Know where the nearest ranger station is from where you start. Also, leave a detailed itinerary with someone back home. Let them know what car you are taking, where you will be starting and how long you expect to be.

Always hike with at least one other person. In more remote areas it is suggested that you hike with at least four people in your group. This way you will have one to stay with an injured person and two to go for help.

If a trail is marked as closed DO NOT go there. If an area requires special permits - DO NOT go there unless you have already obtained them.

Be prepared for bad weather and extreme weather changes. You should have enough supplies to get you through a night if needed.

Always assume the water from streams and rivers is NOT safe for drinking.

A Hiking Backpack Checklist:
Info from www.redcross.org

  • Candle and matches
  • Cell phone
  • Clothing (always bring something warm, extra socks and rain gear)
  • Compass
  • First aid kit Food (bring extra)
  • Flashlight
  • Foil (to use as a cup or signaling device)
  • Hat
  • Insect repellent
  • Map
  • Nylon filament
  • Pocket knife
  • Pocket mirror (to use as a signaling device)
  • Prescription glasses (an extra pair)
  • Prescription medications for ongoing medical conditions
  • Radio with batteries
  • Space blanket or a piece of plastic (to use for warmth or shelter)
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Trash bag (makes an adequate poncho)
  • Water Waterproof matches or matches in a waterproof tin
  • Water purification tablets
  • Whistle (to scare off animals or to use as a signaling device)

Survival Pack - one pack should be carried by EACH person in your group and should include: a pocket knife, compass, whistle, space blanket, nylon filament, water purification tablets, matches and candle in a waterproof container.

Bicycle, Skateboard & Scooter Safety:

Always wear a helmet when bicycling. If on a scooter or skateboard, wear the proper protective gear such as knee and elbow pads and a helmet.

Only ride a bike that is properly fitted for you. If not fitted correctly you may hurt your knees, back, arms and will not be able to maneuver or stop as well as you should be able.

When entering the roadway from the driveway - always look! This is a high accident area as many cars do not see those coming out of driveways on bikes, skateboards and scooters.

If traveling on the road, make sure to follow all the road signs and lights. Bicyclists should follow the same rules as cars and use standard hand signals. Skateboard and scooter users should be extra carful on roads as well. HOWEVER, it is strongly suggested that scooters users stay on sidewalks and skateboarders stay well away from roads, preferably skate at the skate park.

Be predictable. Do not weave in and out of the roadway or cars. If you come to an obstruction in your path, stop and look around and behind you before going around it. A sudden swerve out into the road will not be anticipated by automobiles that are traveling much faster than you are.

Pay attention at all times. Obstructions such as wet leaves or loose gravel may come upon you quick if you are not paying attention. Also be careful around parked cars, you may not see someone opening the car door until you are right on top of it.

Try to avoid being out on the road at night or in bad weather. If you are out, be extra careful; imagine the cars cannot see you and ride defensively. You should have bright colored clothing and reflectors or battery operated lights as well.

All skateboarders should learn out to fall. Considering fractures and breaks from falls are the most common skateboard injuries, knowing how to brace yourself is important. If starting out in the sport, start small, skateboarding is just like any other sport, it takes practice and time to develop the skill.

When riding on the trails always give pedestrians the right of way. If passing from behind let them know by using a bell or stating "on your left," before passing. Keep a controlled speed on trails as you do not always know who is there around the bend. If the trail is shared with horses, slow down and give them a wide space when passing. Again, let them know you are coming by stating "on your left."

Water Safety:

Learn to swim! This is a skill everyone should take time to learn. Even the basic knowledge can help!

Children and inexperienced swimmers should use an approved floatation device/life jacket when in or, in the case of children, near the water.

Never leave a child alone around water. Make sure someone is watching them at all times!

Never swim alone. Always swim with a friend or in a supervised area. Never snorkel alone. Never surf alone.

Read and OBEY all posted signs. Do not dive in the water unless the area is clearly marked as safe. Even when marked, make sure to check for any person or debris below before diving. If the area is not marked, always enter feet first.

If swimming in lakes, rivers, or the ocean, be familiar with these bodies of water. Make sure you are aware of risks such as debris, under tows, and currents. Also, always be aware of your energy level; you need enough energy to make it back to shore!

Pay attention to your surroundings. Pay attention to the weather. At the first sign of bad weather, leave the water!

If pulled out by an ocean current do not swim against it. Instead swim parallel to it gradually moving towards the shore. You have to move out of the current by swimming across it before you can head back inland. Think of an arc instead of a straight line.

Check surf conditions before entering the water. Keep away from piers and pilings when in the water. Watch out for wildlife and have some basic knowledge of what animals and plants are in the water. Know what you need to avoid and leave wildlife alone!

Do NOT mix alcohol and swimming activities - they do not mix!

If you own your own pool, make sure it is supplied with emergency equipment and first aid. Keep a phone nearby and have instructions for emergencies posted. Have CPR instructions and make sure to take lessons in CPR. Every adult responsible for watching kids around the pool should have CPR training.

Take lessons before attempting SCUBA diving. Never dive alone. Only dive for areas you are trained for. Be familiar with your equipment and check it often.

Boating & Watercraft Safety:

Always have on life jackets. Make sure they properly fit everyone on your boat - especially children!

Learn to swim! Also, take a boating class, learn everything from navigation rules to information about your particular boat.

Do NOT mix alcohol and boating activities - they do not mix!

Let someone on shore know how long you will be gone and where you are going.

When using jet skis or other personal watercraft make sure to know the rules of the water body you are on and obey these rules. Be courteous to others and look out for swimmers, skiers in the water, etc.

Do not water ski at night. Always have someone in the boat to watch and aid the skier. Always approach a skier in the water with the engine off.

If fishing, scale, gut and clean the fish as soon as they are caught. Wrap fish separately in plastic and keep on ice. It is recommended that fish be cooked and eaten within 2 days or frozen. Frozen fish can last up to 6 months. Shellfish should be kept alive until cooked. Lobsters and crabs should be cooked the same day they were caught. Oysters, mussels and clams should be cooked within 5 days.

Charity 101

How to choose the best & avoid scams.

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Giving to others in need seems to be a natural impulse the world over. Many of us enjoy giving to causes, programs or research that we agree with and believe in; however, sometimes we are caught unaware and are asked to give by volunteers. We may love the idea of the cause but know little about the organization. Or we may like the idea, but prefer it were handled differently. So where do you go to find the best fitting charity and how do you determine if they are legitimate? Below we have compiled some things to consider when choosing a charity, such as when to give, how to avoid scams, and other ways to give to the community rather than a cash donation.

Before you Give

What Touches You? - It may sound simple (and it is) but one of the best gauges for which charity to choose should be what you are passionate about. What causes mean the most to you? What charities benefit research, education or programs you believe in? This should be your first consideration when choosing a charity. It will help narrow your choices and there is nothing better than having pride about the organization you choose. Who knows, that initial donation could lead to volunteering and becoming actively involved in something you really care about.

Take Control - Be proactive about the charities you choose to support. Don't wait for someone to come knocking at your door or spend money on reminders in the mail. Instead, take the first step by actively searching for charities that give to the causes you believe in. To begin your search, check out some of these sites: Charity Navigator | Guide Star | IRS Search

Money 101 - Find out where your donation goes and how it is spent. Most organizations offer easy charts and/or percentages detailing how much money goes to the cause, administration, events, publications, etc. Although you may like the ideas behind an organization, you may not agree with how they choose to spend the money. The only way to know is to check them out and if you can't find the information, practice our next point and ask questions!

Ask Questions - Don't be afraid to ask questions! Perhaps how they spend money on fundraising events is worded ambiguously to you. Or you are not certain if the funds will stay local or move nationally. Any questions you have are okay to ask. Sometimes people don't want to ask as they think they are pestering the volunteers and wasting their time - that is not the case! By thoroughly answering your questions, volunteers know they are ensuring your continued loyalty, confidence and support for their organization. If they don't want to answer, then consider someone else - there are plenty of charities to choose from.

Reputation - Find out about the charity's reputation. Have there been complaints about your charity? Are there accolades for your charity? Take some time to see what others are saying about the charity of your choice. Better Business Bureau | Charity Navigator

The Quick List - If you don't want to spend the time researching the charities out there, take a look at some of these lists to see how they are already ranked by organizations. American Institute of Philanthropy | Charity Navigator

When You Give

Dust Off the Checkbook - It is best to donate by check rather than cash or credit card. This way you can specify the money only goes to the organization. Always write the check - don't give any information directly to your bank account. Credit card is okay online if you really know the source is reliable. But be very cautious!

Guard Your Information - As with your bank account information, keep most of your information private. As you will read in the 'Signs of a Scam' section below, caution is unfortunately the best practice when donating money.

Ask if Your Gift is Tax Deductable - Not all charities actually count as a tax deductable donation. Although we realize this is not usually the impetuous behind giving to a charity, it is something to keep in mind if you do plan to claim it on your taxes - especially if it is a sizable donation. The charities won't be offended, just ask.

Get a Receipt - Even if your donation is not tax deductable, get a receipt. This will help you track your records and if you are ever unfortunately caught in a scam, it might help in developing a case against the criminal.

Think Ahead - Consider giving to the charities of your choice once a year or up to a certain amount every year. This will make it easier to choose a charity that you know rather than off the cuff impulse. Also, it will make it that much easier to say no to those who solicit your donations if you know you have already given as much as you want/can for the year.

Signs of a Scam

Appearance is Not Enough - Charity scams can be everything from a person with a jar asking for a particular cause to elaborate schemes that include personnel, office space, logos and image branding - all the signals of a legitimate operation. Thus, we say it again, it is important to do your homework before you give.

Know the Name - Many charity scams are set up using names very similar to bigger and better moderated charities. Be careful and take the time to double check that the organization you are donating to is the one you are really thinking of.

The Copycat - Unfortunately, even knowing the correct name of the charity may not be enough. Some scammers (especially in person) will claim to be from an organization they are not. The best option is to check with the charity to see if they are running a drive in your area before you donate.

Opportunity Knocks - The primary means for charity scams to get your money is by approaching you in person (i.e. at the grocery stores or going door to door), spam emails, and even telemarketing. To be safe, take the information about the charity down but wait to give until you have had a chance to check them out. If they turn on the high pressure "sale" when you mention researching them more, simply walk away. Instead, a legitimate charity will be happy to give you the information about their organization and where to find out more. As for emails, donating to unsolicited emails is never a good idea. Email is only a good option if it is from an organization with which you already have a relationship (usually a reminder to come donate again) or someone you personally know (i.e. participant fundraising for a benefit walk/run/etc.).

Too Much Pressure - Yes we just wrote it above, but it is worth mentioning again - high pressure "sales" from charities is a huge no-no. If they turn up the sob story, guilt trip, or state the need is now or never - be wary and just walk away. Most legitimate charities avoid high pressure tactics and have guidelines for volunteers against such tactics as they are just as glad to have raised the awareness if not always the cash.

Registration Please - It is good practice to ask a charity if it is registered and has a registration number. You can then use this number to look it up with the Better Business Bureau.

Misery Loves Company - Be very careful when giving after a large natural disaster or another event which rocks the community. At these times it is usually best to give through charities that have a standing reputation for helping. But again, make sure to check the name is not a quasi copycat. Be careful how you give the money - even when memorial charities are set up for a local family, you can donate through a bank with an established trust. Try not to let the headlines in the news sway you to give to the wrong person!

Allocation of Funds - Although this is not necessarily a scam item, some donators feel scammed when they find out so little of their money actually goes to the cause of their choice. To avoid this, research the charity to see how they allocate their funds. As we stated above, every charity is different in how it will choose allocate the funds raised. Some charities have high administrative costs and use fundraising to pay staff salaries. Others spend a great deal on advertising campaigns. Although neither is illegal, you may want to see if you agree with the amounts spent. You can find details on the individual charity websites or directories, such as Charity Navigator and Guide Star.

And the Winner Is - Another scam to look out for is the offer of a entry for a prize with your donation. This can usually be related to a scam, but also some legitimate organizations use this tactic. In this instance you may want to consider how much of your donation is going to fundraising gimmicks rather than to the cause at hand.

Other Ways to Give

Your Time is Worth Money - Don't have a lot of cash to give? A little of your time can help just as much or even more for some charities. Many organizations need voluntary workers to make their goals a reality. Most Americans consider donating around November and December when the image of helping out the local soup kitchen is etched in our minds. However, many organizations need help the rest of the year. Contact the charity you are passionate about and ask when you can be the most helpful. Have time but don't know where to participate? Try some sites like these to find volunteer opportunities in your area. Many of these sites let you search by interest - if volunteers get to share the love of one of their hobbies they are more likely to enjoy the experience and spend more time helping. www.idealist.org | www.volunteermatch.org | www.1-800-volunteer.org | www.getinvolved.gov

Take a Volunteer Vacation - Some college students have made headlines by taking volunteer vacations during spring break instead of heading to a party hot spot. But these vacations are not just for college students! Many seasoned travelers find these vacations a great way to learn more intimately about other cultures and give a little back in the process. Whether your passion is people, the environment, culture, language, or all the above, this might be the next vacation for you. www.globalvolunteers.org | www.volunteerabroad.com | www.globeaware.org | www.earthwatch.org

Play on the Web - Some online stores and searches will donate to charities if you use their interface. So why not take them up on the free offer? Do Great Good | The Hunger, Breast Cancer, Child Health, Literacy, Rainforest & Animal Rescue Sites | www.searchkindly.org

Consider Giving a Loan - A different way of 'giving' may be to actually lend capitol to the working poor. A new idea in micro financing gives funds to poor families who need a small loan to make their business ideas work. Loans can be as low as $25 and are actually paid back (unlike email schemes). The forerunner in this area is Kiva.org who started in 2005 primarily connecting lenders with 3rd world entrepreneurs. To find out more, visit their website www.kiva.org. This year, Kiva partnered with ACCION USA and the Opportunity Fund to offer micro loans here in the United States as well. For more on this option, please visit www.accionusa.org or www.opportunityfund.org.

Afraid of home inspection?

How much maintenance and repairs will cost depends on several factors.

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Establishing a maintenance routine How much maintenance and repairs will cost depends on several factors. The age of your home, how well it was maintained by previous owners, weather conditions in your area, and your profit expectations, will all impact how much you spend. In general, homeowners should budget approximately one percent of their home’s value for maintenance and repairs. If you make a habit of putting aside a small amount of money each month to be earmarked specifically for home maintenance, then it will be less painful when unexpected repairs are needed or when appliances must be replaced. Many prospective home buyers will not consider a home that is clearly in need of TLC, even in a hot market. Finishing your “punch list” before contacting a realtor will ensure that you are able to ask the highest price possible for your property. Home insurance Lien holders require that you purchase homeowner’s insurance to cover damages to your property from the elements, fire, accident or theft. Additional coverage may be required for floods, tornados, hurricanes or earthquakes, none of which are covered by the typical policy. If you live in an area threatened by one or more of these, it is recommended that you expand your policy to cover them. Likewise, if you have a large number of valuables in your home, your insurance should reflect that. Weigh the return on investment when making improvements Painting is an obvious way to improve your home’s appearance without spending much money, but what about big-ticket items such as swimming pools, or designer kitchens? It is easy to get carried away when you are decorating your home, but many projects do not add lasting value to your home or guarantee that you’ll recoup your investment. Research what features are hot in your market and consider your expenditures wisely. Keep good records When you buy a car you want to see the maintenance records to make sure the oil was changed on a regular schedule. Why not do the same for your home? Scheduling maintenance on your home and performing regular check-ups of your chimney, mechanical systems, and roofing etc... will ensure problems are fixed before they get out of hand. Check List Items you should routinely inspect are: Grading and drainage. Slope and landscaping need to angle away from your foundation. Sidewalks, driveways, decks and patios. These should also slope aways for your home. Regrading may be required and railings and balusters should be as required by code. Exterior wood. Paint untreated wood, porches, deck columns and fence posts to prevent rot. Doors and windows. Maintain caulking around frames or the money you spend heating and cooling your home will go, quite literally, out the window. Inspect you doors and windows for correct fit, missing caulk, paint, broken glass or cracks. Exterior walls. Check brick and stone for missing mortar which can lead to deterioration from freezing and thawing. Blistering or peeling paint could indicate roof leaks, bad gutters, interior leaks from baths or laundry rooms, etc. Make sure there are no exposed nails or warped boards. Roofing and surface water. Inspect your roof and chimney regularly with binoculars or from a ladder, when safe. Remove debris from gutters, and trim overhanging branches. Make sure to inspect after severe storms and high winds. Garage. Check the door opener to make sure the safety reverse is working. Prime the inside and outside edges and check the rollers, tracks, and weather-stripping several times a year. Walls and ceilings. Don't igonre minor leaks. They are sure to become major ones. Mildew and mold can be indicators of a serious problem. Maintain painted surfaces, inspect grout and caulking around sinks, tubs and showers. Replace missing grout to prevent damage to subsurfaces. Attic. If your attic is accessible, inspect roof sheathing, insulation and moisture barriers. Mechanical systems. Trip circuit breaker every 6 months and ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) every month. Check lamp cords, extension cords and plugs.Test outlets near water for proper polarity and grounding. Most hardware stores carry testers that are inexpensive and easy to use. If fuses blow or breakers trip, have an electrician inspect your wiring. Ask him to make certain GFCIs are installed at any outlet within 6 feet of water. Never work with or near electricity when your hands or feet are wet. Never remove service panel covers. Avoid using extension cords when possible. Never replace blown fuses with larger fuses. Plumbing systems. Know where the turnoff is for your system. Do periodic inspections of toilet tanks to ensure they are not wasting water. Make sure your water heater is performing as outlined in your owner’s manual. Remove sediment that has accumulated at the bottom of the tank. The pressure relief valve at the top of the water heater shoud be opened periodically to see that it is in operating condition. Check all valves in your home from time to time. If corroded, clean them and check for leaks. Water treatment systems. Install a water softner if you have hard water to extend the life of your water heater and pipes. Sump pumps. Periodically check for proper operation. Heating and air conditioning. Service annually. Oil furnaces have parts that must be replaced periodically. Check for leaks, odor and soot. Keep bleaches, paint and other materials sealed and away from the heater. Service air conditioners every spring according to the operating instructions.

TV Reinvented

How Television is Adapting to the Internet

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As many of us look to stretch our dollar a bit further our money spent on entertainment is often cut. However, entertainment is a good way to relieve stress and get a quick break from the real world. Increasingly, the fee paid for an internet connection is offering a bigger return on the entertainment dollar. Improved connection speeds have created a mushroom of online content that allows users to watch streaming news broadcasts, missed TV shows, webisodes, viral videos (i.e. YouTube), free online games (and competitions), blogs and chat rooms - to name a few. Everywhere you turn, everyone is trying to get their movie, TV show, 15 minutes all noticed on the web. Television alone has morphed from episode summaries and casting lists on a single webpage to deluxe sites with missed episodes online, behind the scenes footage, games, screensavers, additional back stories and character development, and much more. So who is leading the pack with the best sites and content? Who is side-stepping the pack altogether? You might be surprised!

The Usual Suspects
Below is our ranking of the major broadcasting stations that are easiest to use and include extra online content.

  1. NBC.com http://www.nbc.com/ NBC has a slick and clean menu and you can easily find episodes of your favorite shows. A great plus is that you can watch a whole season if you got lost a while back and need to catch up. Also, you don't have to watch the show the same week it originally airs. Videos load quickly and offer chapter selection to jump where you left off or skim through with ease. 
  2. ABC.com http://abc.go.com/ The website is clean and easy to navigate. A big disappointment is that not only does the user have to sign an agreement but then download a special plug in just to watch online episodes. The entire site has a much more proprietary feel to it. However, they did redeem themselves a bit by allowing access to episodes from previous seasons for one of their most popular (and confusing) shows 'LOST.'
  3. CBS.com http://www.cbs.com/ CBS has a fairly easy menu. The best is to go by show as viewing directly by video is a bit more messy and makes it harder to find past episodes. The option to watch TV and chat at the same time is slow to load (I gave up after two minutes of the loading icon spinning). Video without chat loads quickly and is just as fast as the other stations. Plenty of content about shows but the webpages have an older point-and-click menu that takes a bit longer to navigate. There wasn't a lot of clarity in the order of episodes if you were trying to catch up for the season.
  4. FOX.com http://www.fox.com/ A slick moving website that is easy to navigate. However, FOX allows access to fewer full episodes then the other stations. The individual show websites offer a lot of extras but are not as clear to navigate.

Cable Networks
So if you don't subscribe to cable, who gives you the best online?

  1. Discovery Communications Group Discovery Channel - http://dsc.discovery.com/ | The Learning Channel - http://tlc.discovery.com/ Animal Planet - http://animal.discovery.com/ | Science Channel - http://science.discovery.com/ This family of websites has a similar menu and limited selection of full episodes like FOX. However, the fact that current shows with new content is available is a plus compared to other cable stations. Overall, a great way to get highlights of what you're missing for chats around the water cooler. Also, the extra games are a nice touch.
  2. Comedy Central http://www.comedycentral.com/ Full episodes are available for most shows. The individual shows do keep separate URLs which made it a little harder to navigate back to Comedy Central. However, all offered complete sites with extra content.
  3. Disney TV http://disney.go.com/index This site has a slick design and offers plenty of content including games and fan pages for their most popular shows. One negative is there is almost too much content. Many 'teaser' videos play when the user enters a new page without being selected. Although some full episodes are available online, they are not necessarily in discernable order.
  4. Nickelodeon http://www.nick.com Plenty of fun games and video bites for kids. Like Disney, there is background content that loads as soon as you enter a page. The pages are busy and harder to find content.
  5. A&E TV http://www.aetv.com/ Not the easiest navigation at first. However, more episodes and clips of episodes are offered then on some comparable cable sites.
  6. USA Network http://www.usanetwork.com/ A couple to a handful of episodes available of USA original shows. Some are available without commercial interruption which is a nice touch. However, not all series offer episodes for online viewing.
  7. Bravo http://www.bravotv.com/ Some behind the scene information and recaps. Videos are offered with some full episodes. However, the navigation of videos is not user friendly and is geared more towards a fan who knows what they are looking for on the channel.
  8. TBS.com http://www.tbs.com/ Again a required download of a plug-in before being able to view videos. Basically a collection of a few variety shows and reruns. There is not access to the movies, only their schedule.

A Brand New World
Sites without a presence on television but offering television/movie entertainment.

  1. TV.com http://www.tv.com/ There is definitely more content on this website then some of its competitors. This site has a larger variety of shows and even news broadcasts are easy to search and view here. TV.com offers an easier navigation if you want to find information and summaries of a particular television show. However, the video interface is not as friendly.
  2. Hulu.com http://www.hulu.com/ Hulu offers episodes of series from all different TV channels. Episodes are separated by genre rather than channel, but an easy search will help you find your favorite quickly. Interestingly, some episodes will load directly from Hulu whereas others will take you to the home website making Hulu act more like a search engine. An added plus are the movies. Many of your re-run favorites from Sunday afternoon can be found here. Load time is good, even for full movies.
  3. Boxee http://www.boxee.tv/ This is a free membership website that dose require users to download their program. It checks all your media on your computer and then creates a one stop area for everything from photos to music. With an open source code it is intended to be manipulated by users so they can add user generated content. However, it is not really ready for all computer systems at this time and was overall frustrating to install. PC to TV or TV to PC? Considering the competition for your entertainment dollars, it should be no surprise then that many TV's offer WiFi connection to your computer to make certain you can enjoy all these extra goodies from the comfort of your couch. However, some computers are also pushing their new models of All-in-Ones aimed at being one-stop entertainment centers. These new computers are offering bigger and better viewing screens, more compact CPUs and easy plug and play for cameras, music players (iPod, Zune, etc.), and much more. Depending on your budget and your pocket book, there are some wonderful choices on the market already.