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How to Hire a Contractor

Working as a Team on Your Next Home Project

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

Part I: Overview

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

Plan out your project.

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

Determine the kind of contractor you need.

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

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

Consider the professionalism of your contractor.

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

Verify insurance and licence information.

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

Ask for references and call them! 

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

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

Review estimates for differences and find out why.

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

Create the contract.

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

Part II: Checklist

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

Hiring a Contractor Checklist:

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

Part III:

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

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

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

  • Subcontractor Performance Agreement for Residential Construction
  • Deadline Extension Amendment

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

Spooky Vacations

Haunted Hotels, Inns, Castles and more!

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Today thrill seekers can go skydiving, cliff jumping, white water rafting or paragliding, just to name a few. Looking for a little adventure in your blood but it's too wet outside to play? Why not snuggle indoors and thrill your imagination with a haunted vacation? Many hotels, inns, and even castles offer spooky weekend getaways. Perhaps a friendly ghost will fold your clothes and lay them out on the bed; a mischievous one might turn on the lights and radio at 2AM; or perhaps one with a chip on his shoulder might give you a little bump to remind you he's there. You might find it a good laugh or a little fun to shake up the winter humdrums. Below we have compiled a short list of some haunted places to stay. We have tried to collect from across the US and added in a few international destinations just in case you want a ghost with an accent! Enjoy and have some fun! International Haunts: Ireland: Ross Castle | United Kingdom - England: The Feathers Hotel Wales: Ruthin Castle **Many haunted houses seem to get their start from murder or untimely death. Although we have not gone into graphic details here, please note that if you follow any of the links to the right, some of these sites do go into much more (sometimes gruesome) detail! 17-Hundred-90 Restaurant & Inn - Savannah, GA The History: This inn was actually built in 1820, not 1790. First a boarding house and later an inn, this home has had many owners and guests. One of these guests was Anne Powell. The legend says she was unhappily married at 16 years of age to an Englishman. She fell in love with a German sailor who left her "in the family way." She watched his boat sail away and then committed suicide by jumping from the window, landing on the brick pavement below. The Haunting: Anne Powell is the most famous ghost, believed to haunt guest room 204 from where it is said she jumped to her death. She doesn't seem to be a menacing spirit: she sits beside the fire, lays out guests' clothes on the bed or plays pranks on guests waking them up in wee hours of the morning by setting off the radio alarm. Another ghost in the basement kitchen and restaurant doesn't like women very much and likes to shove them around. But this ghost is countered by the ghost of a merchant marine who will help the staff turn the lights off at closing. How to see it: Savannah ghost tours stop here for a drink but you can go to the restaurant yourself and have a bite to eat. Or if you really dare, spend the night instead - ask for room 204! Brumder Mansion - Milwaukee, WI The History: George Brumder had the home built in 1910 for his son, George Jr. After they sold the home, the house was everything from a boarding house to an activity center for a Lutheran church. They used the home for office space, a theater, and later opened a coffee house with a live music venue. The current owners purchased the home in 1997 and opened the renovated space as a B&B in 1998. The Haunting: The Gold Room was once the room for one of the Brumder daughters who never married after being spurned in love early in life. She is said to still stay in the room, in fact she was quite appalled and upset when the current owner spent the night in this room with her dogs - no dogs allowed! Your dreams will be haunted if any dogs sleep on the bed! How to see it: It's a Bed & Breakfast, so take the plunge and spend the night - request the Gold Suite! You can even join a ghost hunting seminar or enjoy a haunted history dinner! For more information, click here. The Carolina Inn - Chapel Hill, NC The History: Owned by UNC, this inn was built by a UNC graduate in 1924. Throughout its history it has been used by the campus to host conferences, guests and alumni. Today the proceeds from the inn are given to the university library. The Haunting: Professor William Jacocks likes to haunt room 252. Although guests do claim to have encounters with the professor, the hotel staff say he has never frightened anyone to the point of packing their bags and running. Instead he is a friendly ghost who plays pranks such as holding the doorknobs so rooms won't open, rustling papers, and making the occasional noise. Some claim there are additional ghosts walking the halls and looming over their shoulder, but always more curious than menacing. How to see it: You can spend the night in this historic hotel Crescent Hotel - Eureka Springs, AR The History: Founded in 1886, the Crescent Hotel started its career as a sleek and elegant hideaway for the Victorian wealthy. However, not able to stay afloat the hotel closed. It was reopened in 1908 as the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women. But this school closed in 1924. In 1937 it was opened as a hospital and health resort. Norman Baker claimed to have a cure for cancer but was met with scrutiny as it came to light that he had no medical education. He was later imprisoned on mail fraud. It wasn't until 1946 that efforts were made to reestablish the hotel. The Haunting: Perhaps the fresh spring water under the hotel attracts spirits thirsting for a little human interaction. This hotel has many different haunted areas from guest rooms, to the lobby, to the grounds. Guests have seen a women in the hall, a tall man knocking on the doors, and former cancer patients and nurses to name a few. A long list of guest experiences can be found at the hotel's ghost website. How to see it: The hotel offers history tours for groups of 10 or more. Ghost tours are available by Eureka Springs Ghost Tours. Driskill Hotel - Austin, TX The History: Jesse Lincoln Driskill opened this hotel in 1886. The hotel was grand and luxurious, funded by his success as a cattle baron. In 1888, the family lost its fortune due to drought and a cold winter that killed most of the cattle. The hotel then changed from owner to owner with the most recent change of hands in 1995. The Haunting: Driskill is claimed to still wander the hotel, puffing cigar smoke while he turns lights on and off. There is the ghost of a small girl, daughter of a Senator who was left unattended and fell to her death while playing with her ball - she can still be heard bouncing the ball today. How to see it: The hotel is open to guest today and offers all kinds of pampering. The Feathers Hotel - Ludlow, Shropshire, UK The History: The original building was built in 1619 and has been added to and modified since. First a private residence, it was changed to an Inn in 1670 after the English Civil War and would remain one for the next 200 years! In 1863 it changed to a hotel and started to acquire more land and expand. Why feathers? There are faded motifs of ostrich feathers on the outer woodwork still visible. They were a symbol of the Prince of Wales and "en vogue" at the time of construction. Not to mention the town of Ludlow was royalist even during the English Civil War. The Haunting: There is a female "guest" in room 211 who is known to bother women rather then men in the room, pulling their hair and letting them know they are not welcome. There are a couple gentlemen ghosts roaming about including one who is accompanied by his ghost dog! How to see it: You can join on a ghost hunting adventure either with Eerie Evenings or Haunted Breaks. Or you may opt to spend the night and enjoy the historic surroundings. Heceta House - Yachats, OR The History: This house accompanies a lighthouse on the Oregon coast built in 1894. Many families occupied the house complex over time which included a post office, school and the light house. But it is only the keeper's house that has tales of hauntings. Many believe this is the mother of child who fell off the cliffs back at the turn of the century. The Haunting: The ghost named Rue is said to be an extra caretaker of the house. She makes it known if she is displeased with any activity in the house. One of the more humorous accounts was of her screaming in the middle of a card game, she didn't want them playing cards in her house! How to see it: This house is now a bed and breakfast. It also has guided tours from its interpretive center. Although the current owners don't play up and advertise the ghost they have said guests have told them of strange encounters. Hotel Del Coronado - San Diego, CA The History: Babcock and Story built this resort to be the "talk of the Western world" in 1888. Since then it has been visited by presidents, foreign dignitaries, celebrities and heroes like Charles Lindbergh and Thomas Edison. The hotel was famous as a backdrop for "Some Like It Hot" starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The Haunting: According to the hotel website, the tales of ghosts started with the untimely death of Kate Morgan. She was a guest in November 1892 that never left. She came to meet her estranged husband but he never showed. Kate was then found dead on the hotel steps leading to the ocean. She had died of a gunshot wound to the head that was officially deemed a suicide but is speculated to this day by some to be a case of murder. She likes to slam doors and randomly turn on the TV. Some have also seen indentation in the sheets as if someone was sleeping there. There are other ghosts in the hotel as well that love to flicker the lights, provide cold spots and make some random noises. How to see it: Of course you can stay at this stunning resort and enjoy the spa, golf course, pool or take some surfing lessons. To find out more click here (Kate's room was 312, then renumbered to 3312 and now to 3327 - check with staff to verify your request). Hotel El Convento - Old San Juan, Puerto Rico The History: This former Carmelite convent named The Monastery of Our Lady Carmne of San Jose was founded in 1651. The nuns left this convent in 1903 and site fell into ruin until 1962 when Robert Woolworth purchased it to make it into a resort. The Haunting: Dona Ana was a noblewoman who lost her husband in the war with the Dutch and then turned to her faith. She donated the land for the Carmelite convent. It is said her spirit and those of nuns can be seen about the grounds and gliding through the halls. How to see it: For information about how to enjoy a luxurious stay with these faithful spirits Jerome Grand Hotel - Jerome, AZ The History: Built in 1926, this building was originally the United Verde Hospital. The hospital was built to be fireproof and withstand blasts from the dynamite mining nearby. One of the best hospitals in the west, it unfortunately was phased out when the mining in the area began to slow down and closed by 1950. The building stood empty until 1994; it had been a time capsule having been unchanged for 44 years. It is now being restored as a hotel with many of the rooms already completed and open for guests. The Haunting: Being a hospital, there were many patients that perished in its walls. However, there were deaths of two orderlies that many believed to have been murder. There is also one recorded suicide. When the building lay dormant for 44 years, locals claimed they would still see lights burning in the vacant building. Since being reopen, more paranormal activity has been noticed. The most common is for guests to feel temperature drops and hear coughing or labored breathing in empty rooms or corners of their own guestroom. One ghost is said to be a woman who died in childbirth. She is upset that her child was buried in an unmarked grave and prowls the ground looking for the babe. How to see it: You may stay in the hotel today. Room rates begin at $110 and go up from there. Being the highest point in the Verde Valley, it offers some great views. And if you're lucky, maybe a glance at a ghost or two! Kehoe House - Savannah, GA The History: This home was built in 1892 for William Kehoe and his family. The large family (they had 10 children!) kept the home until 1930. After that the home became a boarding house, funeral parlor, and a private residence. In 1992 the home opened as a B&B, it changed ownership in 2003, but remains an inn with a B&B atmosphere. The Haunting: The main tragedy of the house (that we know of) was the death of the Kehoe twins who died when playing around the chimney. Children can be heard running the halls and some guests have even had children check in on them in their rooms. But if you don't see the children, their mother Annie is reputed to still wander the rooms, making sure to tuck in all the guests at night! How to see it: Why not spend the night? Ask for rooms 201 or 203. Kewaunee Inn - Kewaunee, WI The History: Built in 1912 by William Karsten this inn is still commonly known as the Hotel Karsten. Father and son managed this hotel until William Karsten Jr.'s death in 1964. The hotel then changed hands and received various facelifts. The most recent owners renamed the hotel to the Kewaunee Inn at Hamachek Village in May 2008. The Haunting: The ghosts at the Kewaunee Inn didn't start to bug the living until after renovations started in 1966. The inn website mentions the triad of ghosts include William Karsten Sr, Billy Karsten III (who died at 5 years of age shortly after his grandfather), and Agatha the housekeeper. Agatha seems to be the most active, floating about the halls and popping up behind you when you look in the mirror! She doesn't seem to like men much - so any male guests be on your guard! William likes to have a drink at the bar now and then and Billy still runs up and down the hall playing. How to see it: Brave enough to spend the night? Lemp Mansion - St. Louis, MO The History: This house was purchased by William Lemp around 1864 to use as a residence and office for the family brewery. William's father had used a family recipe/method to create a lager beer. This beer quickly became popular and William's father abandoned his grocery store to become a full time brewer. The beer continued to be made by the family until 1922 when family mishap and prohibition forced them to shut down and sell for good. The mansion itself has a sorrowful history with one brother dying under mysterious circumstances and three other men of the family committing suicide inside. The Haunting: With three suicides one can easily guess where the idea of ghosts haunting the mansion started. However, the families odd history also adds fuel to the imagination. There is the rumor that William Lemp had an illegitimate son with down syndrome who was kept hidden in the mansion attic his whole life. He is now said to be seen haunting the mansion and has the nickname "Monkey Face Boy." Tales of haunting first started after 1949 when the mansion was sold and turned into a boarding house. Strange knocking and footsteps throughout the mansion scared the tenants away so the house started to run into disrepair. In 1975, the mansion was saved and renovated and turned into a restaurant and inn. All types of sights and sounds have continued and are still reported today. How to see it: Spend the night! Or take a tour if you're too scared... The mansion is a bed and breakfast that offers tours and a restaurant to those who don't want to spend the night. They also host a Halloween Party and Murder Mystery Dinner Theater. Lizzy Borden House - Fall River, MA The History: As with so many haunted homes, this story begins with a murder. On the morning of August 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were murdered by ax in their home. Their eldest daughter, Lizzy, was tried and latter acquitted of the murders. However, she was ostracized from the community for the rest of her life. Some consider that she had a split personality, even those close to her recall erratic and violent behavior. And of course there was the creation of the rhyme: Lizzie Borden took an ax Gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done Gave her father forty-one! The Haunting: There is a strange woman who tucks guests into bed and perhaps the same woman can be heard weeping in the night. Objects move on their own and electrical equipment such as lights and cameras have some interference. Many claim the most active room is Lizzy's old bedroom - which you can stay in if you want... How to see it: The home is now a bed and breakfast. You may spend the night, take a tour or even spend a weekend at Ghost Hunter University! Magnolia Mansion - New Orleans, LA The History: This home was built in 1857 by Alexander Harris. After Alexander died of yellow fever his widow remarried and sold the home to the Maginnis family. John Maginnis owned a cotton mill and it was rumored he was struck by lightning because of the cruel way he treated his employees. In 1939, John's daughter inherited the home and willed it to the Red Cross. The Red Cross used the home to train nurses for WWII and the Korean War. In 1954 the home was again sold into private ownership. Magnolia Mansion was renovated in 2001 and opened as a B&B in 2002. The Haunting: When renovating the home, the crew had to stop as an oily substance appeared over the walls. The owner then verbalized her plans for the place out loud so the ghosts would know exactly what she was up to. She told them she was improving the home and the ghosts would not be able to scare the guests away. This appeased them for awhile. However, ghosts are still reputed to slam doors and snuggle into bed with guests on occasion. Many guests have photos of orbs and a few extra faces from their visits as well. How to see it: This adult catering B&B offers a great escape to any non-smoker over 21 years of age. Specializing in romance with Elopement and Wedding packages, the B&B also has fun with their ghosts offering a Romantic Ghostly Getaway Package which includes a room, treats and ghost walking tours. Mason House Inn - Bentonsport, IA The History: This hotel was built in 1846 for steamboat travelers along the Des Moines River. Later, the Mason House was used as a 'holding hospital' during the Civil War for soldiers being transferred to Keokuk. It also served as a 'station' along the underground railroad. The Mason House keeps its name from the Mason family who owned the property for 99 years. The Haunting: Three of the owners have died in the building and there was also one murder in one of the guest rooms. In 1860 poor Mr. Knapp had been drinking and accidentally went to the wrong room. The occupant thought he was being robbed and stabbed Mr. Knapp in self-defense. The home had also been a 'holding hospital' in the Civil War and some patients may have died in the home. Also a Doctor renting a room in the 1940s died in the building. All in all, a great hangout for ghosts. The ghosts come in many forms. There are wisps of fog and cold spots to actual figures who appear and disappear from sight. There is a boy that plays tricks; he likes to rustle sheets and tug at guests as they sleep. There are footsteps, thuds and a woman in white. An abundance of ghosts and paranormal events for all! How to see it: Today you may stay at this B&B for about $80/night ($125 if you are staying in the restored caboose!). Request to stay in the main house on the 2nd floor (rooms 5 & 7) for the best chance of paranormal dreams! Ghost Hunting 101 and 102 classes are also available about twice a year and a Halloween Ghost Walk around Oct 31st. McCune Mansion - Salt Lake City, UT The History: This mansion was built in 1900 by a railroad tycoon named Alfred W. McCune. After leaving for California in 1920, the McCune's donated the mansion to the Latter-Day Saint Church. It was then turned into the McCune School of Music. It later became a Brigham Young University Salk Lake City Center and Virginia Tanner Modern Dance School. In 1999 it was purchased by Phil McCarthy who worked to restore the mansion and open it as a hotel. The Haunting: Music is said to still haunt the McCune halls. A small room under the stairs was used by the McCune's as a stage for hired musicians. The whole house would be filled with music but their guests did not know from where it came. It is said this music still fills the air. Other happenings include doors locking that are not fit with locks, doors opening on their own and lights going on and off on their own. How to see it: You can schedule a tour of the mansion through the Utah Heritage Foundation. Myrtles Plantation - St. Francisville, LA The History: This home was built by David Bradford in 1794 but stories of hauntings did not start until the 1950's. The house had a long history with many different owners. There is only one recorded murder of William Winter in 1871. However, there are many tales that are told about the home to justify the hauntings. Most of these seem to be fabricated tales, but many say that is just because the house is so haunted, people needed to make up some kind of explanation. The Haunting: Among the haunting activity is the ghost of a woman in a green turban who some believe to be the ghost of a slave killed for poisoning the head mistress and her two daughters. Others claim this ghost is not a young slave but an older, unknown woman. There is also a little girl who has appeared as well as a frustrated piano player who continuously practices the same cord over and over on the old piano. How to see it: You can dine in the restaurant, take a tour or spend the night. The choice is up to you. The Queen Mary - Long Beach, CA The History: Her maiden voyage was May 27, 1936 but with the coming of WWII she was refitted and used as a troop ship housing 5500 souls by May 5, 1940. By the end of the war it was used to transport as many as 12,886 war brides and children from Europe to the U.S. and Canada on six voyages in four months. More war bride voyages would follow. It became a cruise ship in 1963. By 1967 it was purchased for Long Beach, CA to act as restaurant and museum with the first hotel rooms opening in 1972. The Haunting: The first class swimming pool has some of the most recorded ghost sightings and noises. Many women dressed in 1930 swimsuits have been sighted. But the spirits like to wander and have been seen in many parts of the ship - especially the engine room where two men were crushed to death by the heavy "Door 13". Those who take the self-guided walking tour of the ship have been spooked more than once! How to see it: Brave enough? Click here to find out how to spend the night or click here to take a tour with Ghost and Legends of the Queen Mary group. The tour is technically enhanced to make certain you get a few jumps and spooks. The hotel also hosts a 'Terrorfest' of haunted mazes on Halloween. Ross Castle - Ross, County Meath, Ireland The History: This area shows record of settlement since the Iron Age. The castle tower was completed in 1537 by Richard Nugent, 12th Baron of Delvin. A family loyal to the English crown for their title and rank hoped to received the extra boon of £10 given as encouragement for each fortification built in Ireland. In time the Nugents began to marry the once rival Celtic nobles especially the O'Reillys. In 1644 the castle was pulverized by Cromwellian soldiers in retribution for Myles O'Reilly's defiance. Restoration was begun by the family in the 19th century and the castle was later modernized with plumbing and electricity. The Haunting: The castle's founder, Richard Nugent was also known as the Black Baron and, you guessed it, he had a reputation for being quite unpleasant. The Black Baron had a beautiful daughter named Sabina who had the unfortunate luck to fall in love with Orwin O'Reilly (at this time still an enemy). Moved by love to give up their home, family and wealth, they decided to elope. However, as they made their escape by boat a storm came up and it capsized. Orwin died but Sabina lived. Crushed with heartache, she pinned away in Ross Castle tower until she finally gave up the ghost which in turn walks the halls to this day. She is said to sometimes be heard screaming! The Black Baron is also rumored to haunt the grounds and can be quite unpleasant. How to see it: Besides ghost hunting, you can go fishing, golfing, horseback riding, sailing, boating, hiking, cycling, go see the races or even take flying lessons! Plenty to do and see in a romantic setting. Ruthin Castle - Ruthin, North Wales, UK The History: Legend has it that the original castle was a wooden fort lorded by Huail. He fought King Arthur and wounded him in the knee. A truce was called but Huail later mocked King Arthur and was beheaded. The first stone structure was put up by King Edward I in 1277 and the castle was owned by the crown off and on until sold by Charles I in 1632. The modern stone structure was built in 1826. However some of the older walls, dungeons and tunnels are still standing today. The Haunting: This castle comes with its own Grey Lady, dating back to the time of Edward I, this ghost was sentenced to death for killing the lover of her husband. Soldiers are said to still march around the grounds and prisoners long dead are still heard moaning in agony. How to see it: If you don't find ghost hunting or random spooks exciting enough, this castle offers other entertainment including medieval banquets (one even with a murder mystery theme!), golf, and romantic getaway packages. The Sagamore - Bolton Landing, NY The History: This hotel was originally built in 1883 to provide a getaway on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains. This historic building suffered two fires but was reconstructed in 1930. The resort was meant to be a retreat for the wealthy and is still neighbored by palatial mansions across the lake. The Haunting: This hotel has many ghosts including one of a little boy on the golf course! This boy chased balls and sold them when alive. He died in a tragic accident when he was hit by a car running after a ball. Now his shadowy form can be seen running after golf balls on the course. He likes to steal balls and laugh at golfers as they look for them. When they give up he tosses the ball at them, again, laughing. Other ghosts include the guest who come down from the second floor for dinner every night and wait patiently in the reception area before they literally vanish. Then there is the portly cigar smoker in the elevator who may not appreciate the non-smoking policy these days. How to see it: You can stay in the hotel, vacation lodges or a castle (if you have the cash!). Themed getaways are available including the Murder Mystery Weekend Oct 17-19, 2008 The Stanley Hotel - Estes Park, CO The History: Six miles from Rocky Mountain National Park, this hotel has famous views and offers a serene escape. F.O. Stanley created this hotel after moving to the west when forced to by poor health. Besides the hotel he helped to create the sewer, power and water supply for the area. A recent claim to fame is that a stay in this hotel inspired Stephen King's The Shining. The Haunting: Both F.O. and his wife Flora haunt the hotel. They are amicable ghosts that enjoy hanging about the rooms they loved so much such as the Billiard room and Ballroom. Rooms 407 and 418 have reputed activity of lights going on and off, noises and of course rascally kids playing in the nearby hallway. One story relates some guests checked out early as the kids playing in the hall kept them up all night. When the hotel staff looked at the register there were not any kids as guests (at least not any live ones!). How to see it: Not only can you spend the night but you can sign up for a Historic Ghost Tour that tells you all the history that has created a haunted playground. The hotel has fun with the reputation and is hosting 'The Shining Ball' this year on Oct 25 and 31, 2008! The Stone Lion Inn - Guthrie, OK The History: F.E. Houghton built this mansion in 1907. It served most of its years as a residence and later was turned into a funeral home. The only person to die in the home seems to be a young girl who died of whooping cough after receiving the wrong medicine. The Haunting: After turning this mansion into an inn, the new owners woke up at night to the sounds of footsteps and doors opening and closing. They called the police but no intruder was found. Soon after they realized they had their first "guest" who may be a small girl as she likes to take out the toys at night to play. The Story Inn - Nashville, IN The History: This historic inn is located at the boarders of Brown County State Park and Hoosier National Forest. This inn and its collection of buildings is actually what remains of the town of Story that was established in 1851, set up as a lodging community. The Haunting: The Story Inn is haunted by a lady in blue who floats about the second floor of the general store that has been turned into guestrooms. There has also been activity in the restaurant below. A guestbook details the experiences of the spooked over the years. How to see it: Snuggle in for the night. If you don't want a ghost watching over you there are other cabins available in this small community. Thornewood Castle - Lakewood, WA The History: Thornewood Castle was built for Chester Thorne, a successful founder of the Port of Tacoma. This Tudor/Gothic estate was completed in 1911. Inspired by the estates in Britain, the stained glass windows were even imported from a castle in Europe. The castle has many different imports that add to structure and contents of the building. One of the more interesting aspects is the "wishbone sticks" left by the Native American workers who helped in the construction. These sticks help to ward off evil and are found at the foundation in the basement. The Haunting: There are multiple photographs taken of orbs throughout the castle and reports of objects moving on their own. Tape recorders have picked up voices, one of an unknown child. One child did drown in the lake and is said to haunt its shore, perhaps they visit the house as well? Overall, the spirits at Thornwood seem to be a good natured sort. There is not a violent history attached to this home. Although the wife of Mr. Thorne is said to haunt the halls, this is more because she likes the place rather than she is out to get anyone. In fact, some believe Thornwood Castle acts as a vortex and can attract ghosts from the other side. Some guests have reported making contact with loved ones from their lives who have no connection with the castle. How to see it: You may stay in the castle as it is now a B&B. There are Candle Light Tours: for $100 and the cost of a room you can spend the night exploring the haunted halls with a small group of ghost hunters.

Becoming a Landlord

How to be a Good Landlord

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

Do you have what it takes to be a landlord?

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

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

What makes a good rental property?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the responsibilities of a landlord?

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

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

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

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

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

How do you advertise a rental property?

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

What are some legal pitfalls to avoid?

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

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

How do you evict a tenant?

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

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

FREE Rental Agreement Forms

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

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

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

Resourceful Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preventive Maintenance Tips for your Home-Part 3

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

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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

How to start a Neighborhood Watch

A neighborhood watch can help police cut down in crime.

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Many people are skeptical when they hear about neighborhood watches. Many think it involves a lot of effort with minimal impact or effect. However, most police departments will inform you otherwise. A neighborhood watch can help police cut down in crime as you are going to notice suspicious, out of place behavior in your neighborhood before they will. An example that is often used is the scenario of the stranger hanging around your neighbor's car. You look out your window and notice a stranger at your neighbors car and know they do not belong to that car. However, when a cop car drives by the stranger casually looks up and waves hello. The officer cannot tell that person does not belong to that car or neighborhood, he/she may wave back and simply drive ahead. Obviously a call from someone in the neighborhood would inform the police of the stranger's suspicious behavior and they can question them. So how does a neighborhood watch work? How do you set one up? How can you and your neighbors reduce crime and help the police in your area?

Why should our neighborhood start a watch?

Still haven't convinced you? Fair enough, lets look into the benefits of a neighborhood watch a bit more. Unfortunately, most neighborhoods don't consider a neighborhood watch until there is already a problem with thefts, burglaries and/or vandalism. Today, many households have two working parents and kids gone at activities so the home is empty a majority of the day making it a target for thieves. A neighborhood watch helps to place other sets of eyes on your home when you are away. Your neighbors get an idea of who belongs there and will more easily recognize something out of the ordinary. The neighborhood watch will also help build a community partnership. Neighborhoods today are more isolated, people do not know their neighbors so it is more difficult to identify normal behavior for a household. Some neighborhoods have taken this a step further and used the watch to help community in the time of an emergency. Recently in Saucier, MS a neighborhood watch group used their ties to make a list of all those staying behind when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. After the storm, members used this list to make sure everyone was accounted for and also used the list to set up aid for the community including food, water, clothing and other necessities (Neighborhood Watch Needs You, National Crime Prevention Council). In addition to building a sense of community, a neighborhood watch can also help keep the community informed. A neighborhood watch sets up a phone tree system so you know if someone has had a problem in your area. Without this system you may not hear about vandalism or some other problem until a much later date or not at all. Finally, a neighborhood watch helps the police in you area do a better job. As in the example in our introduction, neighbors are the ones that can inform police of suspicious behavior that would not be obvious to them. Also, neighborhood watches may help police build a case on crimes. For example, in one neighborhood, there was a vandal who was slashing tires. In most cases this would only have been a "slap on the wrist" with little real consequence to the vandal. However, with the neighborhood watch, they were able to document that 80 tires were slashed in the neighborhood during the same crime spree. This made it much easier for the police to build a case for stronger prosecution of the vandal (Open Letter to Watch Groups in Kent). These are just a few examples of ways a neighborhood watch can help your community.

What does a neighborhood watch involve?

Meetings - The last thing anyone wants is more meetings to attend! With a neighborhood watch there are really only two major meetings that need to be done.

The First Meeting - The first initial meeting with your neighbors is to see who is interested in joining. This is a vital meeting in that it is where everyone learns what is involved and expected of participants. Once people find out how little time is involved, many neighbors will express an interest. At this meeting you will want to cover setting up a map, a phone tree, and electing a captain and co-captain(s). You may also want to distribute information on programs like Operation ID or other crime prevention programs that your community may find beneficial (your police department can help you find materials or you may also look to the organizations listed in ourMore Info on the Web section).

Yearly Social - After a watch is in place, there should be at least one neighborhood social per year. This may be a BBQ, Community Garage Sale, Neighborhood Picnic, or some other type of family friendly, all-inclusive gathering. At these social events, captains and co-captains may easily give quick highlights and goals for the year. This could be done as a speech or flyers handed out at the event. This would also be a good time to check and see of any changes in information for the watch - such as a change in phone number, etc. After a quick recap of watch business the rest of the social is a community building experience. It is a chance for neighbors to get to know one another and put faces with names. It should be fun - not tedious!

National Night Out - National Night Out (NNO) is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch. It is an annual event for neighborhoods to participate in to promote safety and awareness in their community. Taking place on August 1st of every year, the identified goals are: "heighten crime and drug prevention awareness; generate support for, and participation in, local anti crime programs; strengthen neighborhood spirit and police-community partnerships; and send a message to criminals letting them know that neighborhoods are organized and fighting back." Again this is organized around some social activity such as BBQ, block party, or flashlight walks, to name a few. A neighborhood watch can register their event with NNO and receive helpful information about how to set up their event. To find out more visit their site at www.nationalnightout.org/nno/.

Captain & Co-Captain - Captains and co-captains are those who help organize records and keep track of the changes in the neighborhood. Captains are the contact point for people to notify of changes such as phone numbers or new residents. Usually captains will organize a welcome for any new residents welcoming them and informing them about the neighborhood watch to see if they would like to participate. And most importantly, captains are informed of any problems in the area. It is assumed the effected party would have notified the police. However, the captain can also track events and report it to their contact with the police department; as in the example above, it was a captain who brought it to the attention of the police that over 80 tires were slashed in one crime spree. Keep in mind the police don't have a database that would track minor crimes like this, thus a neighborhood watch can help collect this useful information. Captain should be by no means be an exhaustive position! Instead, they are helped by co-captains and can have their duties covered by co-captains when gone. Many neighborhoods will assign more than one co-captain to help share responsibility. One example is to have a captain designated as the main police contact and then multiple co-captains for each block or cul-de-sac for neighbors to report to.

Phone Tree - A phone tree is the easiest and fastest way to help notify the neighborhood of important events. Like other phone trees, each person only calls a few people and then the next group calls the next so no one person is calling everyone. After a crime has happened a phone tree may be used to help notify the neighborhood a certain type of crime at a specific location occurred. Today, some may opt for an email instead of a phone call. However, make sure to somehow include all that want to be involved. Some residents may not want to use email and still need a mini phone tree.

Newletter - This is not the quickest way of giving out information but it is effective. Either pamphlets or emailed letters will help give the neighborhood updates of what has been going on the last couple of months. Unless there are major concerns, newsletters may be quarterly or every couple of months. Many times these newsletters can also inform residents of local events or holiday related safety and laws; for example, safety tips and local laws for the use of fireworks on the 4th of July. If working with a police department representative they may already have a newsletter available to which you may tack on neighborhood info before distributing. Newsletters are not required for a watch, but some do find them useful.

Map - The map is a extremely useful tool for the neighborhood watch. A standard map will show the streets involved in the watch, the homes, names of residents, phone numbers, emergency in-state and out-of-state contact numbers and email. This information is always voluntary. However, many residents will find the extra security worth it. Most of us will not know an address of our neighbors, instead we know 'it is three doors down' or 'just around the block'. This map will help get the exact address if the need arises to notify the police and neighbor of a problem. This map may be used in a number of ways. This can be used by a neighbor who sees someone prowling outside a window at night to call the neighbor and the police. If there is smoke from a house, a neighbor can tell the fire department the exact address and notify the resident if they are not at home. Or it might be used with the phone tree to raise the alarm in a neighborhood. One example of this is a vandal just broke the front window of the house but was scared off and got in a car and drove off down the street. You can call the neighbor down the street and see if they saw which way the car turned or can see the license plate. All this will help police track them down. This is a good time to note, that a neighborhood watch is used for information gathering - at no point should neighbors be running out in the street as vigilantes to stop crime. Instead they use the phone tree, map and neighborhood connections to track events and relay information to the police!

Operation ID - Operation ID is a way to encourage citizens to inventory their valuables. Residents mark or engrave valuables with a special number. Usually a driver license is used as this is public information and also identification back to you. If you use your driver license number, then make sure to put your state initials before the number and DL after so the number cannot be changed and will help police identify out of state items. NEVER use your social security number! Valuables may be marked with your identification number with invisible marker or engraved. Keep an inventory list of all items marked and store in a secure location such as a lockbox or fire proof (locked!) safe. Once you have inventoried items you may get some decals from the police for your windows and items. If your police department offers these decals it is usually a limited number. You may have to purchase more decals for all your items. Many neighborhood watches purchase an engraver for the neighborhood and then check it out to neighbors. They also then get decals for all participants so the neighborhood is covered and burglars are deterred. **If you sell an item with your ID, then cross it out with one line and initial it. Also make sure to note it on a bill of sale for the buyer. Keep a copy for your records.

Going the Extra Mile - Make an effort to look out for each other on a daily basis. Help each other better protect their homes and the neighborhood by encouraging neighborhood participation in activities.

  • Get all neighbors to turn on porch lights at night.
  • Help older neighbors or others who may need help with the safety of their home. For example, help trim high bushes in front of their door/window or change light bulbs in high outdoor lights.
  • Have clean up parties to help clear out vacant lots, playgrounds/parks or abandoned cars. Help clean graffiti right away.Work together to beautify the neighborhood, let would be criminals know you care about where you live!
  • Recognize captains, co-captains and other participants who go that extra mile to help others!
  • Use the neighborhood watch to sponsor safety events. For example, invite fire fighters to a meeting to help better prepare residents against fire.

How do we start a neighborhood watch?

So how do you start a neighborhood watch? First, contact your local police. Not all departments have facilitators to help set up a neighborhood watch, but they will have resources available. Even if they do not have an official representative, ask the department if an officer may be able to stop by the meeting, many times something like this can be arranged in advance. Next, set up a meeting with your neighbors to give out information and see who is interested in participating. This should be a meeting place accessible to all, maybe a school or church in the neighborhood. As mentioned before, this is the vital meeting where you explain to others what is involved and expected for participation. You will find that many neighbors will express an interest, especially after they find that it does not require a great deal of time or effort. At the first meeting get as much information as possible as it is harder to get the information later. Nominate a captain and co-captain, hand out a form for residents to submit information for the community phone tree and map. Find out if residents are interested in meetings every few months or general meetings about fire safety or if they want to stick with one annual meeting per year. Once the first meeting is over and the information is gathered, the captain and co-captains can compile the phone tree and maps. These will then be given to every participant in the neighborhood. And that was the major bulk of the work. Now it is up to residents to keep information up to date and work with their neighbors on community projects or socials. That's it! 

There are many benefits to a neighborhood watch program. Start the dialogue with your neighbors and see if you can start one in your community. It is a great way to build community, cut down on crime and rethink what a "neighborhood" is all about!

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!