MONEY home improvement

How to Beat the High Cost of Replacement Windows

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I don’t want to replace the gorgeous hundred-year-old windows in my house (especially not for the $1,500 each my contractor quoted me!), but the triple-track storms are another story. What would I have to spend to upgrade those?

A: You’ll be happy to know that new storm windows will produce nearly as much energy savings as full replacement windows at less than a quarter of the price—and they’ll reduce your house’s long-term window maintenance needs too.

Many of the same technologies used in replacement windows, such as weatherproof gaskets to stop drafts and low-emissivity glass that blocks the flow of heat through the pane, are standard in today’s storm windows too. And the storms will keep water away from the windowsill, which helps prevent rot in what is generally the most rot-prone spot on any old house.

“Your existing triple-tracks are probably decades old,” says contractor Les Fossel, of Restoration Resources in Alna, Maine, “which means they’re bare aluminum color, the rubber holding the glass is dried out and cracked, and the panes rattle in their tracks every time the wind blows.”

Here are four options that Fossel recommends to his clients. Any of them will upgrade both the appearance and effectiveness of your current storm windows.

Triple-tracks (about $200 per window, installed): These are the same traditional format you already have, with two glass panes and a screen, each set in its own track so it can be raised and lowered with the seasons and removed for cleaning. Factory made to your window sizes, today’s products are far more efficient than your aging units and will also be less noticeable because you can order them to match your house’s trim color.

Double-tracks (about $350 per window, installed): These factory-made storms also have two panes and a screen that you position up or down, but the three components live in only two channels. Rather than sliding them up and down, you remove the screen and/or window from their shared channel, then rearrange and reinstall them. This takes slightly more effort at the change of seasons, but it makes the storm about 1/4-inch thinner and therefore a bit less noticeable on your house.

Wood exterior storms ($500 per window, installed): A single pane of glass inside a contractor-built wood frame that’s painted to match the trim, this type of storm hangs from hooks mounted on the window trim and sits flush with the exterior trim for a nearly invisible look. You’ll want to also have a few screens made in the same fashion so you can swap them onto a few key windows seasonally to allow fresh air into the house.

Interior storms: ($150 per window, installed): These whole-window storms cover the window from the inside, maintaining the antique, stormless look of an old house. Factory made with thin aluminum frames painted to match your interior trim, they simply press tight inside the window opening. They won’t protect the sill from weather damage, but they look a whole lot better than those plastic shrink-wrap window insulation kits.

MONEY

The Hidden Costs of Homeownership Are Way Higher Than You Think

man fixing sink
Andersen Ross—Getty Images

In some areas, they add up to more than $1000 a month.

Buying a home is so much more than finding the perfect place, applying for a home loan and budgeting for a monthly mortgage payment — it’s thousands of dollars more than many homeowners expect. American homeowners pay about $9,500 annually in unexpected home expenses, according to an analysis by real estate company Zillow and Thumbtack, a company that helps consumers find service providers.

The bulk of those expenses come from necessary bills like property taxes and insurance — things all homeowners need to deal with but many forget to factor into their expenses when determining what they can afford in a new home. On top of that, many consumers find themselves unprepared for the cost of home maintenance, particularly if the home is very different from where they’ve previously lived, either in structure or location.

“Homebuyers too often fixate on the sticker price or monthly mortgage payment on a house, and don’t budget for the other expenses associated with ownership — which can add up quickly,” said Amy Bohutinsky, Zillow chief marketing officer, in a news release about the analysis. “For example, new buyers can get really excited about having a backyard of their own for the first time, without budgeting for how they plan to maintain that space.”

These so-called hidden costs vary by location, but nationally, they average $9,477 annually. To arrive at that figure, Zillow analyzed data like property taxes and insurance, and Thumbtack assessed service costs for five common maintenance costs homeowners hire professionals to complete, like carpet cleaning and yard work. The companies also looked at the costs in 15 large metropolitan statistical areas. Here’s how the costs vary in some of the most populated areas of the country.

15. Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, Ariz.
Annual unexpected homeowner expenses: $7,550

14. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, Ga.
$8,043

13. Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, Colo.
$8,146

12. Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev.
$8,789

11. Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, N.C.-S.C.
$8,865

10. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minn.-Wis.
$9,782

9. Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, Fla.
$10,100

8. San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, Calif.
$10,647

7. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, Ore.-Wash.
$10,672

6. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, Calif.
$11,333

5. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash.
$11,549

4. Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, Pa.-N.J.-Del.-Md.
$11,953

3. Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, Ill.-Ind.-Wis.
$12,236

2. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Calif.
$13,287

1. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Mass.-N.H.
$13,930

Determining how much house you can afford is only one of many things you need to figure out financially when buying a house. A large down payment and high credit score will help you access the best interest rates on a home loan, but don’t forget to shop around for estimates on other expenses as well, so you are prepared to handle the full cost of your new place. Without proper planning, you may find yourself in a challenging financial situation that could jeopardize your ability to pay for your house or make other important payments, which could cause credit damage and long-term harm to your finances.

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MONEY home improvement

5 Fantastic Fire Pits for When You Have Money to Burn

You can buy your own portable fire pit for as little as $100 or hire a pro to create custom designs like these, starting at $2600.

  • Modern Fire Pit Vessel

    Melissa Jones

    An outdoor living area designed by Phil Kean Designs in Winter Park, FL connects the main home to the guest home with a center garden sanctuary. A $2,225 black granite saturn fire vessel from Stone Forest, with lava rock and a separate natural gas kit for $390 is the main feature of this landscaping project. To create a garden sanctuary to use day or night, the design objective of this outdoor living area was accomplished with a raised seating area surrounding the stone fire pit. If you like to move your outdoor space around and don’t want to commit to a permanent fire pit, portable fire pits like the saturn fire vessel may be just what you’re looking for. You can buy a portable fire pit from your local hardware store that has individual character and a unique appeal, ranging from $100-$400 depending on the style and size.

  • Concrete and Copper Fire Bowls

    Giovanni Photography

    If you want to save yourself from the hassle of building your own fire pit, add a unique enhancement to your landscape design with a decorative fire bowl. Similar to a fire pit vessel, a fire bowl is a high quality natural gas or propane fire pit that typically comes in copper or concrete and can be operated remotely from your home or pool operated system. This home in Quail West in Naples, FL designed by Marc-Michaels Interior Design, includes multiple fire bowls around the pool and a circular fire pit made by Grand Effects set in front of lounge chairs in the private courtyard. Easy to install on any deck or patio, you can get your own modern fire feature for your landscaping starting at $2,800, depending on the size, shape, and style.

  • Gas Fire Pit Table

    AAA Landscape Specialists

    A modern twist in landscaping, this San Diego outdoor living project for a single-family residence features a spectacular fire pit in the corner of this backyard retreat. Installed by AAA Landscape Specialists for $3,200, this home’s gas fire pit table was made from relatively inexpensive and long-lasting concrete masonry blocks that are typically used for building retaining walls. While firebrick forms the flame retardant interior wall of the fire pit, the exterior is finished with travertine noche veneer stone for an elegant aesthetic appeal. Bring a piece of paradise to your backyard by adding the elegant touch of colorful fire pit glass rocks, to make you feel as if you’re in a fancy restaurant or luxury hotel while in the seat of your home. Many homes build a fire pit in an outdoor table for extra space to hold food or rest drinks while you entertain and relax.

  • Permanent Stone Fire Pit

    Alderwood Landscaping

    Blending effortlessly with nature, this large fire pit project brings the natural northwest environment to life. Built by Alderwood Landscaping in Sammamish, WA, the $7500 backyard fire pit features basalt boulders and natural stone veneers to produce a backyard escape for the ultimate relaxation. Without the extra landscaping and plumbing, building a masonry fire pit can cost you less than $500 depending on the size of pit and type of stone you choose. Whether you’re starting your landscaping from scratch or only adding a fire pit, hire a professional to make sure your backyard addition abides by all fire codes and regulations in your local neighborhood.

  • Round Stone Fire Pit

    Create a focal point on your patio or in your backyard with a round stone fire pit that is simple, but still makes a statement. This fire pit in Aurora, Ohio is the perfect place for a crowd of friends to gather and socialize or roast marshmallows. For $12,000, the professionals of House of L designed an affordable luxury fire pit fit for extravagant living. The fire pit features a custom blend of stone with limestone cap and a chipped edge detail. The fire pit has a gas start for easy light up, bringing the ultimate comfort to this home’s backyard. One of the more popular fire pits to DIY, you can make your own stone fire pit in the ground by digging a hole about ten inches deep, setting and layering stones with masonry adhesive, and then adding a fire ring and gravel inside.

    Get more gardening and home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

     

MONEY home improvement

8 Home Upgrades That Are Worth the Splurge

159637817
Peter Zoeller—Getty Images

Whether strictly for resale value or for your own enhanced quality of life, these home features pay off.

In the real estate game, there are home features that always win (a great kitchen, a gorgeous master bath) and others that … well, don’t. (Almost anyone who’s owned an in-ground pool will regale you with the costly horrors.)

When you start thinking about home upgrades, these are the eight features that are worth the splurge, whether strictly for resale value or for your own enhanced quality of life.

1. A fancy new front door

Location, location, location is certainly important, but also: curb appeal, curb appeal, curb appeal. One of the quickest and least expensive ways to change the look of your abode is to switch up your front door.

Remove that rusty storm door and swap in a new steel-reinforced model in a bright, contrasting color; high-gloss hues are especially appealing. If your home is a lighter color, consider stripping the paint off your existing door and then staining it dark ebony for a dramatic contrast.

2. Professional landscaping

A serious landscaping upgrade is almost always worth the cost. Front plantings significantly improve initial impressions of your home, especially when they’re installed by a professional. Landscape architects not only know how to maximize planting space and choose appropriate foliage based on your soil type, but they also can put in lighting, pathways, and fencing for extra flair. (Rule of thumb: More is often more, as long as it doesn’t obscure your home’s exterior.)

And black thumbs, rest assured: Landscape architects will leave you with long-term strategies on maintaining and pruning your newfound greenery.

3. High-quality wood deck

Speaking of outdoor space: Think of a new back deck as a lower-cost expansion of your home. In warmer months, a new deck can add hundreds of extra square feet to your living area. You don’t need elaborate patio furniture or decor to make an outside space feel alluring; throw rugs, floor pillows, and string lighting do the job nicely.

And potential buyers are always fans of nice outdoor spaces — the ROI on a deck or patio is higher than on many other home improvements.

4. Extra bedrooms

Sure, it’s fun to think creatively about that empty attic space. (A recording studio, perhaps?) But when it comes time to list your place, an extra bedroom is a surefire draw.

Buyers always covet extra rooms, whether for future children or houseguests, and you’ll instantly attract those shopping in a higher budget range. Strange man caves, on the other hand, can turn off prospective buyers; even home offices prove unappealing to many, especially those who don’t work remotely and don’t want to redo the space.

5. Kitchen refresh

Well-appointed, newer kitchens are a guaranteed hit among buyers. Here’s the trick: Keep the renovations on the lower-cost side — a huge remodel rarely pays out in the ways you hope.

Instead, paint or replace the cabinet fronts, swap in higher-end drawer pulls, replace the countertops, upgrade an appliance or two, and replace or refinish any worn-out flooring. If you add detailing like a backsplash, keep it as neutral as possible, lest your design preferences turn off future buyers.

6. A bold garage door

Here’s another upgrade you might not have considered. Changing your garage door can change the look of your whole house.

If your car is one you’re proud of, think about swapping in a glass-paneled door; even minimalist windows help break up the lines of your home. A bold accent color can also add to your home’s aesthetic appeal.

7. New siding

There’s a twofold effect here. First, by updating your home’s siding, you’ll improve the home’s appearance, especially if the old siding is worn or warped, while avoiding the future maintenance costs of repainting.

Today’s siding options are far improved over those of previous generations: They’re fade-resistant and low-gloss, and some varieties even come with a grain pattern so as to more closely resemble natural wood. New siding can also improve the energy efficiency of your home, saving you money over the long term — and you can always document those energy upgrades for prospective buyers down the line.

8. Hardware, paint, and fixtures

You don’t need a five-figure budget to subtly upgrade the look and feel of your home. Instead, swap out the ceiling lights, upgrade your bath fixtures, change the doorknobs, and replace your mirrors; even changing the light bulbs will alter the ambiance. It can be worth it to splurge on the little things that buyers notice.

And of course, repainting rooms can refresh your home’s color palette. But when it comes time to sell, consider choosing neutral shades so potential future owners can project their own visions onto the space.

Read next: 5 Home Upgrades That Just Aren’t Worth It

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MONEY home financing

The Right — and Dangerously Wrong — Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Early

Beware mortgage accelerators.

You probably don’t need a pricey service to pay down your mortgage more quickly.

There are many great reasons for wanting to pay off your mortgage fast — not in the least part because it can save you a lot of money in interest payments.

Although mortgage accelerators may be a tempting way to speedily pay down your loan, it’s worth being cautious. They just might be too good to be true.

How do mortgage accelerators work?

There are primarily two types of mortgage accelerator products, and they’re both designed to help you budget your finances.

One type of mortgage accelerator product asks borrowers to send the accelerator company money, and this company will in turn send biweekly checks to your mortgage lender. This product has an initiation fee of about $300, as well as a monthly fee of about $5. Biweekly payments can help you pay down your mortgage more quickly — but this isn’t something you can’t do yourself (without fees of about $2,000 over a 30-year period).

A second mortgage accelerator deposits your paycheck into an account that acts like a line of credit. As you pay your bills, you draw against this balance. Whatever’s left at the end of the month is then used to pay down your mortgage.

Here’s the rub: Some of these accelerator products have high upfront costs for the software that’s used to manage your monthly cash flow. And while you do have to pay interest against this line of credit whenever you draw against it, if you use this money to pay down your mortgage, you could ultimately end up paying a higher interest rate than the interest rate on your mortgage itself.

Rather than paying for a service to help you budget or borrowing from one loan to pay another, you can achieve the same goals with the help of easier budgeting tricks. You can simply set up a system on your own that eliminates any fees or interest you’d pay using a mortgage accelerator product.

Round up payments

By increasing monthly payments to the next $100, $500, or some other amount you choose, you can shave years off your mortgage payments. This money essentially prepays your mortgage and lowers your balance so that you owe less overall.

Make an extra payment

One extra payment a year can make a big difference. There are a few ways to approach this plan. Making half a mortgage payment every two weeks (instead of a full mortgage payment every month) will result in an extra payment — you’re making 26 payments a year with this plan. Another way to accomplish this is to calculate a new payment by multiplying your monthly payment by 13 and dividing by 12.

Refinance

If you can afford a much higher payment, refinancing your 30-year loan into a shorter 15-year or 20-year loan will not only shorten your mortgage term but also lower your interest rate. Consider your financial situation and job security before making the leap — higher payments could become a burden in the event of unemployment.

Make a lump-sum payment

When you have a nominal balance with no interest to deduct, a lump-sum payment could eliminate this debt. This strategy makes sense only if you have the cash readily available and aren’t planning on using money pulled from retirement plans, since there could be taxes and fees associated with anything you withdraw.

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MONEY home improvement

5 Home Upgrades That Just Aren’t Worth It

494488303
Nick David—Getty Images You might be able to recoup the cost of a kitchen backsplash, but the specific type of tile won't matter as much to buyers.

You may love your new pool, sunroom or kitchen tile, but none are likely to drastically increase your home’s overall value.

Myth: All upgrades will add value to your home.

Fact: You may never recoup the full cost of some home upgrades.

If you’re hoping to increase your home’s value (above and beyond the cost of an upgrade itself), you should know that some updates that are valuable to you may not be valuable to potential buyers.

Here are five of the most common upgrades that cause homeowners to lose money.

1. Putting in a pool

Pools can be hit-or-miss when it comes to added value. You may see some return, but often it’s not enough to pay for the pool itself.

In fact, adding a pool to your home could be a major turnoff to some buyers. Buyers with small children may be concerned about safety risks, those looking for a low-maintenance yard won’t want to deal with the hassle and upkeep of cleaning a pool, and buyers who are on a tight budget may not have the extra cash to deal with the added expense.

If you live in a warm-weather climate where people are inclined to use a pool year-round, you’re more likely to get a favorable response from buyers.

If you’re looking to add a pool, don’t forget that you’ll need to operate and maintain the pool yourself, and this comes with a sizable extra cost. Your likelihood of recouping the money you spent on maintenance, in addition to the installation costs, is pretty low.

2. Highly custom design decisions

Your idea of a dream kitchen probably isn’t everyone’s idea of a dream kitchen. Unless you plan to stay in your house for many years to come, think twice about renovations that are too personalized.

If you install a kitchen backsplash, you might recoup the cost, because the difference between “no backsplash” and “backsplash” is noticeable. But the specific type of tile might not matter to buyers. Similarly, choosing a beveled countertop edge that’s complex and ornate, rather than a basic beveled edge, can turn off buyers whose tastes don’t align with yours.

In fact, these custom features may wind up costing you come listing time, as many buyers will factor in the money they’ll need to spend to change the house to suit their own tastes. If you’re going to upgrade your kitchen just for the sake of selling, stick with neutral, builder-grade design decisions.

3. Room conversions

Buyers will be looking for certain basic staples when they tour your home: typically, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a garage. Getting rid of these expected spaces (or altering them into something unusual) may harm your resale value.

Every bedroom, for instance, is coveted space that can bump your listing up into the next bracket. Buyers are looking for a two-bedroom, three-bedroom, or four-or-more-bedroom home.

You might not need that extra room and dream of knocking down a wall to create a giant walk-in closet. Or perhaps you’d prefer to cover the walls with soundproof foam and convert it into a recording studio.

Unfortunately, most buyers likely won’t share your interests. Instead, they prefer an extra bedroom for children or guests.

4. Incremental square footage gains

Sizable square footage gains — like finishing your dingy basement so it becomes an additional livable floor — can be a boon in buyers’ minds. But tiny, incremental changes may not give you much of a return on your investment. (You may love your new sunroom, but it’s not likely to drastically increase your home’s overall value.)

Adding square footage in a way that doesn’t flow well with the floor plan can also backfire. Sure, a half bath on the first floor would be useful, but if buyers have to pass through the kitchen to get to it, the half bath loses some of its appeal.

5. Overimproving

No one wants to buy a megamansion on a block full of split-levels. When your upgrades feel overboard for your neighborhood, you alienate buyers on two fronts: buyers who are drawn to your neighborhood won’t be able to afford your home, and buyers who can afford a home of your caliber will prefer to be in a ritzier area.

Keep the “base level” of your neighborhood in mind. Tour some open houses on your block to see how your neighbors’ kitchens look before you invest a small fortune in granite countertops and high-end fixtures. Being a little nicer than the other houses around you can be a selling point, but being vastly more luxurious is not.

Pursue these upgrades for your own enjoyment — but don’t trick yourself into believing you’ll more than recoup the cost of the improvement in the form of additional home value. You can always opt for the projects that have the best potential to draw in a buyer instead!

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MONEY

8 Landscaping Tips That Can Save You Money

trimming hedge
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

Try these low-cost approaches to sprucing up your yard.

Whether you are hoping to sell your home, or it’s summer and you just want an excuse to be outdoors and dig in the dirt, sprucing up your landscaping can be a wise investment. Research has found that sophisticated landscaping with large plants can increase a home’s value by as much as 12.7%.

But what are your options if you are trying to make every dollar stretch as far as possible? There are ways to make your yard look more inviting on a budget.

1. Mulch — for Free

Mulch can freshen up a flowerbed and save you time and money (less weeding and watering). Save by snagging free mulch. Some communities offer curbside pickup of lawn waste, which is then turned into mulch that’s yours for the asking. “If you simply bring a utility bill (to prove you live within city limits) to the distribution center, you can get free mulch by the truckload,” explains Cherie Lowe, blogger and author of Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After. Check with your local government to see if there is a program available in your area.

While you are at it, consider composting your food waste. Not only will you send fewer food scraps to the landfill, your plants will love you for it.

2. Prune, Trim, Pull

Simple pruning, trimming and weeding can make your yard appear tidy and more attractive. “The best, easiest and most inexpensive way to spruce up a yard is to trim/prune shrubbery, add new mulch or extra rock and plant some seasonal flower pots,” says Shawn Edwards, managing partner of A+ Lawn & Landscape in Des Moines, Iowa. “An instant and easy makeover!”

If you feel like you are in a constant battle with weeds, consider this inexpensive solution: homemade weed killer. Lowe says she makes her own weed killer from one gallon of white vinegar, 1-2 cups of salt (table or Epsom salts) and a small squeeze of dish detergent. “(It) can eliminate weeds like nobody’s business,” she says. “Mix it together in a spray bottle or a bigger weed sprayer and apply,” she advises. “It takes 1-2 days for it activate, killing off unwanted weeds and costs a fraction of the price.”

Some gardeners swear by an even cheaper weed killer: boiling water. Simply pour it directly on weeds, avoiding plants you don’t want to damage. Since it doesn’t cost anything, it is certainly worth a try.

3. Free Can Be Good

One way to make your money go further is to check Craigslist for free or low-cost plants. Garden clubs may also hold plant sales or swaps. Or ask a neighbor for a cutting from one you admire. Better yet, let them know that if they are thinning out their plants you are happy to help them do that — and take what’s no longer needed.

When Mary Leonard worked at a garden center, she bought plants at a fraction of their cost at the end of the season. In a story on Stretcher.com, she shared how a generous customer gave her hundreds of dollars in free plants and then revealed that she got many of hers for free by offering to dig them up from homes that were going to be demolished.

4. Love Your Lawn

A freshly cut lawn always looks and smells great. And it can look even more elegant if it’s “striped” using an attachment added to a lawnmower. “It always gives your yard that great look whether you have a big or small yard,” says Mark Savoree, owner of Savoree Properties. “They are very cost efficient, as the striper kits normally run $100 to $300.”

If you live in an area of the country where grass doesn’t grow abundantly, or watering restrictions make it impractical to maintain a lush lawn, native grasses can be a practical alternative. “In drought areas like California, replacing a turf grass with a native or climate-compatible grass can substantially reduce costs,” says Cassy Aoyagi, president of FormLA Landscaping in Los Angeles.

5. Buy Smart

Before you plant, get your soil tested to help you understand which types of plants or grasses will grow best on your property, suggests Jeff Oddo, president of City Wide Maintenance. “This will leave you with lush lawns, shrubs and flowers–instead of an unsightly exterior and money wasted on dead and dying landscaping,” he says. Inexpensive testing may be available through your Cooperative Extension service (see the final tip).

He also urges homeowners to know their climate and “pay attention to placement and understand how much sun/shade your plant needs to ensure it looks its best all season long.”

6. Plant Local

“Substantial cost savings are possible with native foliage, as they will be naturally climate-appropriate and many are perennial, saving annual planting costs,” says Aoyagi. “Also, natives will thrive without costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides.” These plants can also invite wildlife, such as birds and butterflies, making your surroundings even more attractive. Wild Ones, a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization offers information on starting native plant projects.

7. Lighten It Up

Try outdoor lighting. “Outdoor lighting can be done for as little as $50,” says Steve Bollinger, owner of Landscaping by André, Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz. “You can add night time visibility, security, decorative and do it yourself for anywhere from $50 to $500, depending on the size of your space,” he says.

“LED solar lights can add a warm hue (and safety) to your environment and they are great for areas used for entertaining since they don’t attract bugs,” says Danyelle Kukuk, VP Category & Product Management at Batteries Plus Bulbs. For spot and flood lights, she recommends LED bulbs: “These will save 86% energy, last over 20 years, and retain light levels so the yard will shine bright even when autumn comes back around,” she says.

8. Ask the Experts

Have questions about choosing plants or helping the ones you already have thrive? Expert help may be available for free through your local Cooperative Extension program, or through volunteer programs and services offered by ”master gardeners,” individuals who are trained in horticulture and then volunteer in their communities. In my community, for example, master gardeners are available to answer questions at no charge at local libraries on a specific Saturday each month. Not long ago, I picked the brain of one stationed at a local home improvement store to dispense advice. (She wasn’t there to sell something; in fact, her advice included the phone number of someone she knew who was giving away some plants.)

Feel free to share your best tips for saving money on landscaping in the comments!

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MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best Landscape Lighting to Showcase Your Yard

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve always loved the dramatic look of landscape lighting shining up on a house and its trees, and I see solar-powered do-it-yourself lights that look affordable and easy. Are they a good option?

A: While DIY solar lights are unquestionably affordable and easy to install (just press them into the dirt like a tent stake), they probably won’t deliver the dramatic results you’re seeking.

Solar-powered path lights, fence-post-toppers, step lights, and spotlights get their energy from the sun by day then come on automatically by night. No wiring or professional installation is required, and you’ll pay only about $10 to $30 per light, depending on the style.

But these products tend to provide only dim illumination and generally don’t have enough power supply to shine all through the night (especially after a cloudy day or if they’re located in a spot that doesn’t get all-day sun).

Stepping up to the next grade of do-it-yourself outdoor lighting means spending $20 to $40 per fixture—and several hours connecting and burying the wires. These lights use low-voltage wiring, meaning you don’t need an electrician to install them as long as you have exterior outlets you can plug into.

You connect the wires by crimping them together and bury them either under your mulch or several inches underground, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Look for a product that uses LED lights, which are brighter and use less power than halogens so they last longer into the night. Also, check the bulbs’ color temperature: “Aim for 2700 kelvin, or something close,” says Michael Potucek, of Artistic Outdoor Lighting, in Lombard, Illinois. “Once you get up to 4000 or 5000 kelvin, the light is very stark and cold.”

Better yet, hire a specialist—or your landscaper—to install a pro-grade lighting system. You’ll get the 2700k light of traditional incandescent bulbs, plus higher-grade electronics, buried in deep trenches with protective conduit in locations where you’re likely to dig (like mulch beds). That means no cut wires from gardening projects or short-outs from water that seeps into the wire connections.

You’ll pay around $3,000 to $4,000 for the full package—pathway lights, uplights on the house and trees, step lights on the stoop.

And you’ll get more than just a higher quality product. A good lighting specialist will bring professional design techniques to your lighting plan, not just by placing the lights for the best results but also using a variety of different lenses on the fixtures and wattages for the bulbs to create a pleasing scene.

“There’s an art to getting it right, almost like lighting a stage,” says Potucek. A professional job will fully illuminate your path rather than just its edges, for example, your trees will look dramatic whether their leafed out in summer or bare branches in winter, and every part of your house will be equally bright, from its highest peak to the lowest.

MONEY landscaping

7 Spectacular Summer Flowers for Gardeners on a Budget

These heat-tolerant blooms will brighten up your front stoop or backyard — for as little as $2.

  • Asters

    Asters in bloom.
    Andrew Weathers—Getty Images Asters in bloom.

    These beautiful daisy-like perennials burst into blooms of bright starry flower heads, ranging in shades of color from blue, purple, pink, or white. Attracting butterflies and birds, aster grows well in full sun exposure and moist, well-drained soil, specifically in climates of the USDA hardiness zones 3-9. Aster can grow up to around eight feet tall and four feet wide, best planted as borders around your yard or home.

    Thriving through the summer and into fall, you can find these flowers at nurseries by the gallon for under $20. Aster is known to be drought resistant, but look out for powdery mildew collecting on your asters, as this fungus disease takes away plant nutrients and can potentially kill your flowers. Perfect for windowsills or tabletop centerpieces, a cluster of asters will refresh any space with their pretty pastel colors.

  • Bachelor’s Button

    Close-up of a Bachelor's Button, commonly known as the cornflower.
    Getty Images Close-up of a Bachelor's Button, commonly known as the cornflower.

    This long lasting old-fashioned flower has been blooming in gardens for centuries. Bachelor’s buttons are annuals that will reseed freely in your garden for years. Easy growing and drought tolerant, you can purchase one quart of bachelor’s buttons from your local garden nursery for around $13. Growing to about three feet tall, these blooms will tolerate almost any condition, as long as they receive plenty of sun. Bachelor’s buttons are traditionally blue in color, but can now be found in other shades, such as pink, red, and white. These frilly flowers will outlast others in arrangements, but can suffer from powdery mildew and rust if they get too wet. Also known as cornflower and centaurea, bachelor’s buttons can be planted just about anywhere, but prefer loamy soil and will last for about a month after the first blooms.

  • Hollyhocks

    Hollyhock flowers (Alcea rosea) in field, close-up.
    Toshiaki Ono—Getty Images Hollyhock flowers (Alcea rosea) in field, close-up.

    The perfect blooms for your cottage garden, hollyhock is an easy to grow summer bloom that spikes in stalks of ruffled pink, yellow, purple, red, and white flowers. With regular watering in partial to full sun, these beautiful blooms can grow up to eight feet tall. You may find hummingbirds and butterflies flying by your garden with hollyhock planted, but this low maintenance flower will bring color to your landscaping.

    Try planting hollyhock along borders, fences, or walls, as they will grow quickly and are popular in gardens as an ornamental plant. Hollyhock grows easiest from planting seeds in zones 3-8, and can live for several years if stalks are cut properly at the end of summer. The vibrant shades of hollyhock will fill your summer garden with bright sturdy stalks of blooms that will not fade from the summer sun. You can get a packet of 50 seeds for less than $2 or a 12-pack of hollyhock plants for less than $20 at your local hardware store.

  • Marigolds

    Marigold flowers in a park.
    Anthony Swinton—Getty Images Marigold flowers in a park.

    The cheerful marigold flower blooms all summer long. Looking similar to daisies and carnations, these golden flowers need a lot of sunshine and not a lot of fertilizer. Marigolds tend to do better in moderately fertile soil, growing up to three feet tall in yellow, orange, or cream puff balls. Marigolds grow rapidly in a wide range of conditions, blooming midsummer and lasting until the first frost. Pests, insects and fungal infections are possible, but can be prevented with water or insecticidal soap.

    With their strong scent and bold petals, marigolds are great for bouquets (cut or dried), and are also edible. The petals have been known for their tangy taste similar to saffron, added as a garnish to salads. If you want to start form scratch you can purchase 50-100 marigold seeds for about $5, or you can get containers of marigolds for less than $3.

  • Pansies

    Pansies blooming outdoors.
    Ruby Wong—Getty Images Pansies blooming outdoors.

    The ultimate annual flowers, pansies bloom all year long whether planted in the winter, spring, summer, or fall. These colorful flowers come in a wide range of hues and are easy to grow from seeds, and even easier by pansy plug plants. With white, yellow, purple, red, and blue petals, pansies should be planted in moist, well-drained soil with full sun exposure.

    To keep your pansies always growing, make sure they are watered regularly and that dead or faded flowers are removed from the bunch to help new flowers grow. Look out for slugs and snails sneaking into your garden of pansies. This garden favorite can grow up to nine inches in height and three inches in diameter. Pansy plants will give your beds or containers months of color even when your other plants are dormant. Get started planting your pansies by purchasing a 6-pack of plants for $3.

  • Petunias

    Surfinia Petunia, Solanaceae
    De Agostini—Getty Images Pink petunias in bloom.

    One of the most popular beddings flowers, petunias bloom throughout the summer, preferring full sun exposure, but when in extreme heat they will need partial shade. In order to keep your blooms fresh and bright, petunias will require deadheading and pruning to encourage growth. Blooming in red, pink, purple, yellow, and white, petunias are best planted in well-drained soil spaced about a foot apart in order to mature to average heights of 6-12 inches. Water your petunias about once a week and be sure to look out for leaf spots and pests that can harm your plants. If you’re looking to add color to your front steps or garden, petunias are great for containers or window boxes, and if taken care of properly can last all summer long. You can plant your own petunias this summer by purchasing a 12-pack of flowers for $12.

  • Zinnias

    The zinnia ( zinnia elegans ) is a dahlia like flower formerly known as blue point.
    Richard Rudnicki—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images The zinnia ( zinnia elegans ) is a dahlia like flower formerly known as blue point.

    These long lasting perky blooms are a popular annual flower to plant in full sun. When growing zinnias from seed, they need a minimum temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, in fertile well-drained soil. When planting zinnias, seeds should be spaced several inches to multiple feet apart, allowing air circulation for the plant to fully mature. These blooms will bring a burst of color to your garden, window boxes, or borders, with daisy-like flower heads from a single stem.

    An attractive flower to be freshly cut, zinnia can grow up to three feet tall, but can also develop powdery mildew when wet, as well as attract birds, butterflies, caterpillars and other pollinators. Zinnias typically take 70 days to develop from seed to flower, and will require deadheading and pruning to keep growing strong throughout the summer season, until the winter frost arrives. You can buy a pint of zinnia flowers for $2 or you can get giant mixed color zinnia seeds for the same price!

    Get more gardening and home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

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