MONEY

8 Lessons ‘Star Wars’ Taught Us About Money, for May the Fourth

In honor of May the Fourth (a.k.a. Star Wars Day), we are geeking out with a roundup of lessons that the "Star Wars" movies can teach about careers, investing, borrowing, being smart shoppers, and resisting the temptation of the Dark Side.

On Star Wars Day, let us be among the first to say, “May the Fourth be with you.” (Get it?) And let us put our Star Wars and personal finance nerd credentials on display by sharing some money lessons that can be gleaned from all the action and drama that unfolded a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

  • Negotiate for the Best Deal

    STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE
    Lucasfilm Ltd.—courtesy Everett Collection STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE

    In “The Phantom Menace,” Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn is stuck on the planet Tatooine with a broken ship, and without the money (or “credits”) to get it repaired. He haggles adeptly with the junk dealer Watto over the terms of a wager that nets both the part necessary to fix the ship, as well as the release of the slave Anakin Skywalker, who grows up to become Darth Vader. Another example of good negotiating comes in “A New Hope,” when Anakin’s son Luke and his Uncle Owen insist on a new droid (R2D2) after one they’d just purchased breaks down.

    MORE: Car Dealers Swear They Don’t Haggle, Find the Idea Insulting

  • Pay Off Your Debts

    STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE
    Lucasfilm Ltd./courtesy Everett Collection STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE

    For most of the time moviegoers get to know Han Solo, he is haunted by a debt owed to the underworld boss Jabba the Hutt. Bounty hunters—the equivalent of debt collection agencies in the “Star Wars” universe—are dispatched to track down Solo, and eventually he winds up in the hands of Boba Fett. Solo is frozen in carbonite and carted off to Jabba the Hutt’s palace as a prize wall ornament. (Side note: It’s best to avoid becoming indebted to murderous crime lords in the first place.)

    MORE: Should I Save or Pay Off Debt?

  • Make Your Boss Happy

    150504_EM_StarWars_PleaseBoss
    LucasFilm/20th Century Fox—The Kobal Collection RETURN OF THE JEDI

    Let’s hope your boss doesn’t react to disappointment like Darth Vader, who uses the Force to remotely choke an admiral to death after Rebel ships elude the Empire. “You have failed me for the last time,” Vader says as the man drops to the ground, and then promptly promotes another staffer into the position of command. (We’ve heard some variation of this scene takes place, with slightly less lethal results, in Wall Street offices on a regular basis.) The moral is: To keep your job—and to breathe easy, so to speak—always be mindful of avoiding missteps that could turn the boss into a vengeful tyrant.

    MORE: Why It Pays to Make Your Boss Your BFF

  • Work for Something Beyond Money & Power

    STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI
    Everett Collection STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI

    Most research indicates that once a person earns a decent salary ($75,000 in the U.S.), making more money does not increase happiness. In fact, some high-paying jobs tend to make people miserable. The happiest employees are instead those who are challenged and find their work fulfilling. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re working for some great humanitarian cause. A 2015 survey named construction workers as the happiest category of employees, and that one’s satisfaction with colleagues and satisfaction with the nature of the work were most important in determining who is happy at work. It’s hard to think that money-driven bounty hunters like Boba Fett and Greedo were happy, nor that people working for the Empire felt good about their jobs. Look at what eventually happens to the power-hungry Emperor too.

    MORE: 5 Big Myths About What Millennials Truly Want

  • The Weak-Minded Are Easily Tricked

    STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE
    Lucasfilm Ltd.—courtesy Everett Collection STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE

    Jedi mind tricks are used to persuade individuals to do what the Jedi wants—to stop a bar fight that’s about to happen, for example, or to overlook one’s duty to find two wanted droids. But these mind tricks only work on the weak-minded. So too do the mind tricks routinely practiced by marketers, advertisers, and sales people, who are in the business of persuading the masses into buying merchandise and adopting habits that typically benefit the seller more than the buyer. Be skeptical rather than weak-minded and easily persuaded. Don’t allow any advertisement, shameless marketing ploy, or car salesman to successfully play some “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” trick on you.

    MORE: 10 Subliminal Retail Tricks You’re Probably Falling For

  • Penny Pinching Can Lead to Your Doom

    150504_EM_StarWars_PennyPinching
    courtesy Everett Collection—Copyright © Everett Collection / Everett Collection STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE

    The Empire seemed to spare no expense on the building of the Death Star, the moon-sized battle station powerful enough to destroy planets. Yet some genius overlooked the design flaw that allowed the Rebels to fly inside and blow the thing up. Surely the Empire could have spent a few more bucks—perhaps by scaling back slightly on the power of the super laser—and made the Death Star truly impenetrable. Likewise, if you’re buying a house, it’s unwise to pinch pennies by, say, skipping the home inspection or ignoring landscaping issues that will lead to water in the basement. Spending a bit more upfront on things like better-insulated windows and energy-efficient appliances and heating and cooling systems will save you money in the long run as well. Finally, don’t skimp on repairs and upkeep for big-ticket purchases like your home and car: Addressing minor problems as they arise will help you avoid cost explosions down the line.

    MORE: What Are the Steps in a Home Purchase?
    MORE: Should I Get a Home Inspection?

  • Develop Good Mentor-Mentee Relationships

    Lucas Films/Mary Evans/Ronald Gr—Everett Collection

    The theme of teaching, learning, and mentorship runs throughout “Star Wars,” with Qui-Gon Jinn offering guidance and knowledge to his young Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi, Obi-Wan serving as mentor to both Anakin and Luke Skywalker, and Yoda passing along nuggets of wisdom for pretty much everybody. On the other hand, Darth Maul, Count Dooku (Darth Tyranus), and Darth Vader, who all head to the Dark Side and choose the evil Sith Lord Darth Sidious (a.k.a. Emperor Palpatine) as their mentor, don’t exactly live happily ever after.

    MORE: How to Convince Someone You’ve Never Met to Be Your Mentor

  • Size Matters Not

    STAR WARS: EPISODE III-REVENGE OF THE SITH
    20th Century Fox—Courtesy Everett Collection STAR WARS: EPISODE III-REVENGE OF THE SITH

    Among other things, this bit of wisdom from Yoda applies to one’s career (“small” jobs and “small” companies can represent terrific opportunities) and the amount of money a young worker can allocate to start an investment portfolio. It may seem silly to begin investing when your expenses eat up all but perhaps $1,000 per year. But there are many wise moves to make with a spare $1,000, let alone $10,000, and no matter how much you start with, investing early on is proven to add up big time over the course of several decades. The goal is that some day your portfolio will contain buying power equivalent to Yoda’s grasp of the Force. Hopefully, this happens before “900 years old you reach.”

    MORE: 14 Steps to Be a Smarter (and Richer) Investor

MONEY Warren Buffett

This Is How Much It Costs to Live Next Door to Warren Buffett

Getting to call the Berkshire Hathaway CEO your neighbor won't come cheap.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett famously still lives in the Omaha, Nebraska, home he bought in 1958 for $31,500.

But the five-bedroom, 5 1/2-bath house that just went on sale right across the street is going for a bit more.

Although it was recently appraised for just under a million dollars, according to current owner Phil Huston, the home’s list price is 10 “A shares” of Berkshire Hathaway stock, equal to about $2.15 million today.

Given that many are willing to pay up for Buffett’s time and former possessions—including one man who paid more than $2 million to lunch with the Berkshire CEO and one who splurged for his old Cadillac—it seems reasonable to think that a buyer might pay a premium to become neighbors with the Oracle of Omaha, says Huston.

“Call it the Buffett factor,” he says.

Huston, who has lived at 225 S. 55th street with his antique-dealer wife Anne since 1994, says the residence—built in 1922—has an interesting history of its own. During the 1950s it was the home of the late Donald Keough, who was not only a long-time friend of Buffett, but also went on to become a top Coca Cola executive. (Buffett, an avid consumer of the soft drink, led Berkshire Hathaway to become a top shareholder of Coke stock.)

The Hustons don’t have any offers on their home yet, but they hope to pique the interest of those visiting Omaha this weekend for Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting. Click through the gallery above for more images of the residence.

MONEY home improvement

The Best Flooring for Your Money

Empty room with finished parquet flooring
Getty Images

The right flooring can not only help you snag potential buyers, it can also boost your home's value.

So you’ve finally decided to pull up the old carpet in the family room and replace it with a wood floor. But what kind of wood floor? Hardwood is naturally beautiful, but it’s expensive. Engineered wood, made up of multiple plywood layers with a top layer of hardwood veneer, is quick to install. And synthetic laminate can mimic the look of many different wood species for a fraction of the price. When deciding which one to choose, consider not just the cost but also the return on your investment. Here’s some help with the decision.

Hardwood Flooring

There’s nothing like a beautiful wood floor to bring a “wow” factor to your home. But those good looks come at a cost. Expect to pay between $9 and $12 per square foot installed, compared with $3 to $5 a square foot for carpet. For a 250-square-foot living room, installation of new hardwood could run more than $2,000.

But while the up-front cost may be higher, hardwood flooring can have a great resale value. A study of homebuyer preferences by USA Today using data from the National Association of Realtors found that 54% of home buyers were willing to pay more for a home with hardwood flooring. Wood is easy to clean and maintain, and unlike engineered products it can be sanded and refinished multiple times, which means it retains its value for the long haul. A majority of real estate agents surveyed by the National Wood Flooring Association said houses with hardwood flooring are easier to sell, sell for more money, and sell faster.

Laminate Flooring

There is not much difference in cost and ROI between solid hardwood flooring and engineered hardwood, but the same isn’t true of laminate flooring. On the plus side, laminate is easy to clean, scratch-resistant, and can be installed in places where natural wood can’t go. And though it doesn’t last as long as hardwood, it costs 50% less on average to buy and install. Expect to pay about $5 to $8 a square foot for laminate flooring. Laying laminate floors is a relatively easy project, so you can save even more if you opt to DIY. (Note: Before you begin any floor project in your home, contact a local flooring expert to help you decide which flooring option is best for your particular application.)

But there’s no getting around the fact that laminate, while it may do a great job imitating wood, has few of the qualities of the real thing. In high-traffic areas it can show wear and tear, and laminate can’t be sanded or refinished for an updated appearance. Because of its lower price point, laminate also won’t do much for your home’s resale value.

The Bottom Line

So which type of flooring is better for you? To get the most bang for your buck, stick with hardwood. Potential buyers will find it more desirable—and you get to enjoy its natural beauty for as long as you own your home.

Get more smart home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

Read next: The Best Kitchen Countertop for Your Money

 

MONEY home improvement

How to Squeeze the Most Value From Your Home

woman in kitchen
Getty Images

Buyers and sellers are getting busy, but if you're planning to stay put, low rates on home equity loans and lines of credit make this a good time to remodel.

In part one of our Spring Real Estate Guide, we told you what to do if you’re in the market for a home this year. In part two, we offered tips for sellers. Today we’ve got advice for those who want to say put and add value with smart home improvements.

It’s always nice to remember that the value of your house should climb while you’re enjoying it—and at a great mortgage rate (assuming you take the advice below about refinancing!). If you’re at the love-it rather than list-it stage of your life, remodeling may be a good option. Nationwide, 57% of home-owners surveyed recently by SunTrust said they planned to spend money on home-improvement projects this year. But be warned: The competition for contractors in many markets is fierce. You may have to wait your turn in line.

If you’re staying where you are, here are three ways to get the most out of the home you’re in.

Hit the refi table. According to CoreLogic, roughly 30% of all primary mortgages still carry an interest rate of 5% or higher—even though the average fixed rate today is 1.3 points lower. If you took out a $300,000 loan in mid-2009, say, and refinanced the roughly $270,000 balance at today’s rates, you’d cut your payments by about $370 a month.

You might consider making a few other changes. First, don’t assume that your current lender will offer you the best deal this time around—different lenders are marketing different kinds of loans.

You might also want to switch to a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, especially if you are a decade or so from retirement and looking ahead to reducing your debt. You’ll pay more each month: about $170 more than the current payment on the $300,000 30-year mortgage at 5% cited previously. But you’d retire the loan nearly a decade sooner and save tens of thousands in interest.

There’s a good reason some homeowners haven’t refinanced at all: They couldn’t. In 2012 about a quarter of homeowners owed more on their homes than the houses were worth. Thanks to rising property values, that’s changing. Today only 11% of owners have negative equity, according to CoreLogic.

If you’re one of them, you may still be able to refinance, perhaps without having to bring cash to the table. Borrowers with FHA and Veterans Administration loans are eligible for “streamlined” refinancing, which looks at payment history rather than equity. For borrowers with conventional mortgages, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) is still available and has undergone some improvements since it was introduced in 2009. If you were turned down before, it’s worth another shot, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH.com, a mortgage information provider.

Get the right renovation financing. For a project that requires a one-time loan and at a fairly predictable cost—say, a bathroom—you may want to consider a home-equity loan, says Gumbinger. The 5.9% rate isn’t all that favorable, but you have the security of its being fixed. For a larger project in which you’ll need ongoing access to funds, a home-equity line of credit can be a better option since it operates like a credit card. HELOCs are now ringing in at 4.8%. The downside is that the rate is variable, so if you won’t be able to pay the debt off in two years, it might not be your smartest choice.

Think about the next owner. According to a 2014 survey by Houzz, 53% of homeowners who are remodeling say they are hoping to increase their home’s value. Yet most upgrades won’t help your resale. The most common remodeling projects are kitchens and bathrooms—9.5% and 7.7% of all upgrades, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. But according to Remodeling magazine’s 2015 Cost vs. Value report, you’ll recoup only 70% of costs on a bathroom remodel, 59% on a bathroom addition, 68% on a major kitchen remodel, and 79% on a minor kitchen. (The only project that recoups more than its cost: installing a steel front door, which runs from $500 to $750.) That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t renovate; just know that you’re not going to get back all of what you put in.

No matter what project you choose, consider adding improvements to appeal to aging baby boomers. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies, just over half of existing homes have more than one of five key features for aging in place. Notably, only 8% have wide doorways and hallways or levered door and faucet handles. Those could become huge selling points. Just think: Those renovated doors could provide the perfect entrée to your next great home.

Read next: If You Want to Buy a Home Here’s What You Need to Do Now

MONEY Housing Market

6 Smart Real Estate Moves That Will Pay For Themselves

Whether you're new to the housing market or already live in the home of your dreams, these 6 moves can help put money in your pocket.

 

  • Rent Until You Can Stay Put

    rental sign in front of apartment buildings
    Alamy

    When deciding whether to rent or buy a home, don’t forget the fees, commissions, and closing costs that come with buying, says Darrow Kirkpatrick of CanIRetireYet.com. Local prices and appreciation trends matter too. Use the rent/buy calculator at Trulia.com to see the tradeoffs. A good rule of thumb is to rent if you might move in three years or so. (For more help with the decision, see “Should I Rent or Buy a Home?“)

  • Ready to Buy? Remember 28/36

    woman looking at real estate signs
    Dave and Les Jacobs—Getty Images

    Eight years after the real estate crisis, lenders are making mortgages more accessible. But don’t go back to the old days of high borrowing, even if a lender offers some wiggle room. Housing should take up no more than 28% of gross monthly income; housing plus other debt, 36% or less.

  • Fix Up Your Home—the Cheap Way

    home with new driveway
    Greg Nicholas—Getty Images

    Looking to sell fast? Curb appeal literally gets buyers in the front door. An overlooked simple project: a fresh seal coat on the driveway, which “gives a pop” of a first impression, says Kokomo, Ind., agent Paul Wyman.

  • Fix Up Your Home—the Luxe Way

    attic bedroom
    Martin Barraud—Getty Images

    You’ll get the most bang for your buck by adding living space, says Craig Webb of Remodeling magazine. An attic bedroom and basement remodel average $51,700 and $65,400, but, he says, “buyers will appreciate that you made space that wasn’t previously available.” (For a rundown of major projects and what they return in your area, check out Remodeling‘s annual Cost vs. Value survey.)

  • Ditch the 30-Year Mortgage

    Local and Express subway signs
    John Ott—Flickr Creative Commons

    The 30-year mortgage has been called the best friend of the middle class, since it allows families to buy bigger homes. But is that in your best interest? Meet your new buddy: the 15-year loan. The shorter term makes you stay on a tighter budget. The trick is to commit before picking a house, because “that really forces you to save,” says financial planner Ron Rogé. Say you can afford $1,950 payments on a $400,000 home with a 30-year loan at 3.75%. With a 15-year at 3%, you’d have to settle for a $310,000 home. But you’d have a better shot at retiring debt-free. And the total cost savings are immense.

  • Pick the Right ‘Hood

    Ample Hills Creamery ice cream shop, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York
    Richard Levine—Alamy Brooklyn, New York

    “Don’t buy in the part of town that’s already hot—you’ll have missed the opportunity to buy low and sell high,” says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. Look in an adjacent area “and wait for the cool to come to you.” And don’t listen to that old saw about buying the worst home on the best block. That will bite you when it comes time to sell. One surprising indicator of value? Starbucks. “Homes within a quarter-mile of Starbucks doubled in value, whereas the average home in the U.S. appreciated 65%” from 1997 to 2013, Humphries says.

    Adapted from “101 Ways to Build Wealth,” by Daniel Bortz, Kara Brandeisky, Paul J. Lim, and Taylor Tepper, which originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of MONEY magazine.

MONEY home prices

15 Insanely Expensive Homes on the Market This Spring

It's finally beginning to feel like spring, and that marks the start of home shopping season. We've teamed up with real estate website Zillow for a peek into the most expensive listings in 15 U.S. cities.

MONEY real estate

Four Moves That Will Make Your House a Great Place to Retire

Q: I want to remain in my current home when I retire. What can I do to make sure it is a place where I can age well?

A: If your home is where your heart is, then you have lots of company: Three-quarters of people 45 and up surveyed by AARP say they’ll remain in their current residences as long as they can.

Adapting your home to accommodate your needs as you age takes work, however. So the earlier you start, the better. Do it now, while you have the income and energy to tackle the project, advises Amy Levner, manager of AARP’s Livable Communities initiative. Here’s your plan of action:

Start with the easy fixes. Many of the upgrades that make it easier to stay in your home as you get older—such as raising electrical outlets to make them more accessible, installing better outdoor lighting, and trading in turning doorknobs for lever handles—aren’t expensive. “And these small changes can make a big difference,” says Levner. Check out AARP’s room-by-room guide at aarp.org/livable-communities for more suggestions of what to fix.

Assess the bigger jobs. To make your house livable for the long, long run, consider investing in some more extensive renovations. These include things like bringing the master suite and laundry room to the first floor to avoid stairs, adding a step-in shower, and covering entranceways to prevent falls. Such jobs can be costly (see chart below), so get a bid from a contractor—then determine if it’s worth that price to you to stay or whether you’ll just move later if need be. The good news is that changes you make for aging in place can also make the home more appealing to future buyers, says Linda Broadbent, a real estate agent in Charlottesville, Va.

Notes: Prices for grab bars, door handles, and lights are per unit. Sources: AARP, National Association of Home Builders, AgeInPlace.org, Remodeling magazine

Budget for outsourcing. No getting around the upkeep a house requires. Sure, when you’re retired, you’ll have more time to mow the lawn and paint the fence. But don’t forget that you may be away from home for periods traveling or visiting the grandkids. And later on, you probably don’t want the physical drudgery of home maintenance. Research the fees to hire out some of the tougher tasks such as snow removal and yard work, and build those costs into your retirement income needs.

Deepen community connections. Your close-by social network is just as important as the house itself. “Living in a place where people know you and can help you or provide social interaction will give you a better quality of life,” says Emily Saltz, CEO of geriatriccare-management service provider Life Care Advocates. Use these pre-retirement years to strengthen local ties—explore volunteer opportunities, check out classes, and get to know your neighbors.

Maintaining a social circle is especially important if your kids live far away or have demanding jobs. Good friends will shuttle you to doctors’ appointments and hold the ladder while you change the fire-detector battery, as well as help you up your tennis game.

 

MONEY selling a home

If You Want to Sell Your House This Year, Start Doing These Things Now

Living room
Michael Grimm—Gallery Stock

With home prices recovering and interest rates still low, now may be the time to act. Here are 8 things successful sellers need to know.

In part one of our Spring Real Estate Guide, we told you what to do if you want to buy a home this year. In today’s part two we’ve got tips for sellers. Stay tuned for part three, with advice for those who want to say put and add value with home improvements.

If you haven’t sold a house in the past decade, brace yourself. Today’s buyers are demanding. They’re savvier about market dynamics and data and want to see houses on their own schedule, says Redfin’s chief economist, Nela Richardson. “We’re finding that buyers want access to your house when it works for them,” she says. “They don’t want to wait for the open house.” Baking cookies won’t cut it anymore.

Some things in your favor: Low interest rates are your friend too. Buyers know that rock-bottom mortgages can’t last forever. If interest rates start to tick up, there could well be a rush to buy. On the other hand, if rates go up too far, that will almost certainly dampen prices. “As a buyer’s monthly payment goes up with rising rates, something’s got to give—and that’s likely your home price,” says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH, a mortgage information provider. In other words, sellers: If you snooze, you may well lose.

Your Action Plan

Sell first, then buy. The dilemma most sellers face is whether to buy a new place at the same time. In general, it’s smarter to sell before you buy—there’s nothing worse than having to carry two mortgages at once. You may be able to rent your house from the buyer for a few months, or at least find a short-term rental elsewhere. The one thing you don’t want to do is try to buy a new place with the contingency that you have to sell your old place first. Nothing kills a deal faster, especially if you’re up against other bidders.

Don’t just list your home—market it. Gorgeous photographs, video walk-throughs, perfect floor plans—buyers want it all. You need an agent who can develop a full-blown marketing plan, including social media. “People are doing so much more research ahead of time, going through listings online, and weeding out properties before they see them,” says Benjamin Beaver, an agent with Coldwell Banker in San Angelo, Texas. That’s especially true of millennial first-time buyers, who have grown up with information on demand.

And a top-flight agent can help pay for himself. Redfin found that listings with photos taken by a professional got 61% more views, and homes listed between $200,000 and $1 million sold for $3,400 to $11,200 more than similarly priced homes. A video tour including views of the neighborhood (parks, restaurants, main street) is another great tool. “If your photos capture an interested buyer, the video can help boost their interest,” says Rae Wayne, a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Plus, a video can help drive additional traffic to your listing.

Negotiate with your agent. Bernice Ross, the CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, has a brilliant method for testing a potential agent’s bargaining skills: Ask her for a reduction in her commission—and then think twice about hiring her if she agrees. “If they can’t negotiate a full commission on their own behalf, how are they going to negotiate the best price for you?” she says.

Don’t “test” the market. Pricing right is an art these days. The last thing you want to do is accidentally list too high out of the gate. Not only does it require cutting the price—in many cases to less than the estimated value—but it also means more time on the market. “It’s not like the old days where you put in a 10% buffer,” says Jacquie Sebulsky, a broker with Cascade Sotheby’s International in Bend, Ore. “People are savvier, and many agents won’t even show a house if it’s overpriced.” According to Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate, a house that is priced right will sell in about half the time of one that is overpriced.

Another reason to price right: traffic. In the first week a listing goes on the market, it gets four times as many visits as a month later, Redfin found. Moreover, if you do end up dropping your price, says Richardson, it sends a signal to buyers that you’ll come down more. “One agent described it to me as ‘blood in the water,’ ” she says.

To help you arrive at a price, your agent should show you up to 10 comparable active, pending, and recently sold (in the past three months) listings and sales. The most recently sold and the ones that are pending are the best; six or even four months ago may not reflect today’s market, says Brendon DeSimone, a broker in New York City and the author of Next Generation Real Estate. Automatic valuation tools, such as from Zillow and Trulia, are definitely great sources of intelligence. They’ll show you how quickly houses are selling in your market, how close they are going to asking price, and more. But data can tell buyers only so much. “The computer can’t see the inside of the house,” says Ross, “and it can’t see if your house has a view.”

Go green. With homes selling at a healthy pace, you probably don’t need to make any major pre-sale upgrades. One that does pay off: the front lawn. A 2012 Texas A&M survey found that curb appeal increases sales prices by up to 17%. “Green grass is huge, whether that means new sod or just fertilizer and lots of water,” says Wayne. Sustainability and low maintenance are the top trends for residential landscape projects, according to the 2015 Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey, so you might add simple native plants. You don’t have to spend a lot. See what’s on sale at Home Depot. It only has to be green, not gorgeous.

Fix what’s broken. Paul Reid, a Redfin agent in Southern California, recommends getting a home inspection and fixing any problems before you list the house, despite the out-of-pocket costs. “First-time homebuyers in particular don’t want to come in and do a ton of work,” he says. “They’re making a huge financial commitment and don’t want a money pit. I’ve seen it time and again where a buyer will get in escrow, have the inspection, and back out because the list is overwhelming.”

Go clean. Ten years ago it was mostly upper-end sellers (and maybe desperate ones) who went to the trouble to “stage” their home. Now, the idea that you need to clean out your closets, clear off the counters, take down your photos, and pare down the furniture and accessories is Real Estate 101. That said, you don’t need to hire anyone (though you may need to find someplace to store all your junk). Two areas not to forget: the entrance (that expression about not getting a second chance to make a good first impression is true) and the bathrooms. “I like to say that big, fluffy, white towels can add $10,000 to the price of a house,” says Sebulsky.

Give yourself a deadline. It’s true that houses tend to sell faster in spring and summer (in large part because families want to be settled before the new school year begins). And if your home is still sitting come Labor Day, think twice about keeping it on the market into the fall. “By then a lot of people have made their choices, and if your house has been on the market for six months, people automatically assume something is wrong,” says Sebulsky. Every market is different, of course, but winter may actually be a better option. There’s less competition from other sellers, as well as some pent-up demand after the holidays. Bonus: Anyone trudging through open houses during the winter “tends to be pretty serious about finding a house,” Sebulsky says.

Get more answers to your questions about home buying and selling:
How do I make my home attractive to buyers?
What renovations will pay off when I sell?
Will I pay income taxes on the sale of my home?

MONEY sustainability

10 Super Easy Practices That Are Good for the Earth—and Your Budget

In honor of Earth Day, here are 10 incredibly easy things we should all be doing: They're good for the environment and save money at the same time.

Taking major steps like installing rooftop solar panels or buying an electric car are hardly the only ways to go green. It’s very possible to practice an earth-friendly lifestyle without incurring a major cost outlay. In fact, tons of tiny, easy tweaks to what you do and what you buy day in, day out can not only help the environment, they’ll save you money as a bonus. Here are 10 green cost-saving practices for Earth Day—and every day.

  • Walk or Bike

    Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.
    James A. Parcell—The Washington Post via Getty Images Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.

    Cities and even many small towns are increasingly focused on becoming more walkable and bike-friendly. So why not take advantage? Obviously, neither of these modes of transportation requires the use of fossil fuels or electricity. They’re also free or nearly so. Depending on where you live, you might not even have to buy a bike: The bike share program in Washington, D.C., for instance, costs $75 per year and rides are free if they last 30 minutes or less. (Check out MONEY’s ranking of the Best Places to Walk or Bike.)

  • Group Errands Together

    150420_EM_EarthDay_GroupErrands
    Getty Images—Getty Images

    You could take separate car trips to go grocery shopping, get the oil changed in the car, and visit the doctor for an annual checkup. Or you could combine them into one outing, in a process some call “trip chaining,” which is as simple—or challenging, for some—as being a little more organized and efficient. By planning ahead and grouping errands, you save time and gas money and reduce congestion on the roads.

  • Use Public Transportation

    150420_EM_EarthDay_MassTransit
    Craig Warga—Bloomberg via Getty Images New York subway

    Some parts of the country have better public transit than others, and surveys indicate that people—millennials especially—place a high priority on living in cities with good options for getting around. This makes sense for a number of reasons. According to a study on commuter satisfaction, people who get to work on foot, bike, or via train are happiest. These options are not only more affordable compared with driving, the time of one’s commute is more consistent and therefore less stressful. Check out the tools at PublicTransportation.org to scope out transit options and see how much money and carbon emissions you could save by using public transportation in your neck of the woods.

  • Drink Tap Water

    150420_EM_EarthDay_WaterBottle2
    Alamy

    Americans spent roughly $13 billion on bottled water last year, up 6% from 2013. We’re drinking roughly 34 gallons of bottled water annually per capita, up from just 1.6 gallons in 1976. Granted, this is a much healthier option than sugary beverages, but is bottled water any better for us than tap water? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tap water is completely safe; many bottled waters are just tap water that’s sometimes (but not always) filtered. And bottled water easily costs 100 times or perhaps even 1,000 times more than tap water. Only an estimated 23% of disposable plastic water bottles are recycled, by the way.

  • Shop with Reusable Bags

    canvas bag
    Getty Images

    The environmental benefits of shopping with a reusable bag like these recommended by Real Simple are pretty obvious: They eliminate the need for plastic bags that tend to wind up in landfills. Shopping with a reusable bag may also save you money, because stores in places like Dallas and Encinitas, Calif., charge customers 5¢ or 10¢ apiece for non-reusable bags.

  • Don’t Overdo It on Groceries

    shopping list
    Getty Images

    Somewhere between 25% and 40% of the food we buy in the U.S. is thrown away. What this shows is that too many of us buy too much at supermarkets and warehouse bulk-supply retailers, and/or that we’re not particularly good at strategically freezing or concocting leftover dishes. To waste less, shop smarter and be creative with foods that might otherwise be dumped in the trash. And to avoid going overboard with impulse purchases at the grocery store, always make a shopping list in advance, and stick to it.

  • Heat and Cool Your Home Wisely

    Insulation
    Jonathan Maddock—Getty Images

    Among the many straightforward and fairly simple steps you can take to trim back household costs and conserve resources: Turn the heat down in winter (you’ll shave 1% off your heating bill for every 1 degree lower); use fans rather than nonstop A/C in the summer; insulate around doors and windows to protect from drafts; and put heating and cooling systems on a timer so that they’re only in use when needed.

  • Use Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs, Appliances

    150420_EM_EarthDay_Lightbulb
    Alamy

    They tend to cost more upfront than less efficient models. But they’ll save you money in the long run because they eat up less electricity when being used, and, at least in terms of lightbulbs, they have longer lifespans so therefore have to be replaced less frequently. As for appliances, look for the Energy Star label as a sign of a product’s efficiency—and its potential to shave dollars off your utility bills.

  • Be Practical About Landscaping

    cactuses outside home
    Trinette Reed—Getty Images

    It’s not wise to battle against Mother Nature by trying to force flowers, plants, and grasses to grow in areas where they’re simply not suited. A low-cost, low-maintenance yard is one that incorporates native plants and greenery that flourish in your zone, without requiring extensive watering, fertilizer, and attention—nor a big budget. Check out classic tips from This Old House and Better Homes & Gardens for landscaping that’s gorgeous, affordable, and earth-friendly. Don’t fixate on having a prototypical grassy front lawn, which may look good but often requires loads of time, energy, money, water, and chemicals to maintain.

  • Compost

    Dumping compost
    Jill Ferry Photography—Getty Images

    Many towns give residents free or deeply subsidized composters, and using one is generally as simple as dumping vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and such into the bin. The resulting material can be help your garden and new plants grow, and eliminate much of the need to water and buy fertilizers and pesticides. Composting reduces the amount of waste in landfills as well, of course. (Even apartment dwellers can get in on the act with vermicomposting, or composting with worms.)

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