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.

MONEY Housing Market

Renting a Home Could Become the New Normal

Residential Real Estate As City Becomes The Least Affordable U.S. Housing Market
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images Pedestrians walk past a "For Rent" sign that is displayed outside of an apartment building in the Mission district of San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

Homeownership rates have been falling for the last decade.

Is renting a home the new American dream? A report by the Urban Institute projects that even after the housing crash and the Great Recession are a distant memory, homeownership rates in America will continue to decline.

The report estimates that between 2010 and 2030, the majority (59%) of the 22 million new households that will form will rent, while just 41% will buy their homes.

The homeownership rate has been falling since 2006, when the housing bubble began pricing out many would-be homeowners — and the recession furthered that trend. In 2006, the homeownership rate was 67.3%; it now sits at 63.6%, even lower than it was in 1990, according the U.S. Census’ most recent American Community Survey.

But even the economic recovery won’t reverse that trend, according to the Urban Institute. It offers six reasons:

  1. Wages. Real wages have declined among adults ages 25 to 34 since 1996. “Even for young adults with good jobs, low vacancy rates and high rents make it more difficult to save,” the report says.
  2. Student loan debt. Total outstanding debt was about $300 billion in 2003; now it is over $1.3 trillion. Long-term debt makes additional long-term debt less appealing.
  3. Delayed household formation. Both women and men are waiting four years longer before marriage than in 1980. “Because of the delayed marriage and childbearing, homeownership is apt to occur later. At a result, people will spend less of their lives as homeowners, placing a drag on the homeownership rate,” according to the Urban Institute.
  4. Lingering effects of the recession. Roughly 7.5 million Americans lost their homes during the recession; most will have a hard time buying a new one, dragging down the homeownership rate.
  5. They’re not that into homebuying. More Americans are consciously choosing to rent over buy. One study looked at “prime candidates” — married couples earning at least $95,000 annually who have at least one child. “Even for this group, after controlling for race and ethnicity, the homeownership rate declined from 87.3% in 2000 to 80.6% in 2012,” the report says.
  6. Higher borrowing standards. The report says that lenders are still “historically tight,” particularly among borrowers with lower credit scores.

The report also considered changing demographics — a majority of new households formed in the U.S. during the next two decades will be non-white — and while those groups traditionally have lower homeownership rates, the Urban Institute found that will not contribute significantly to overall homeownership rates in the future. That story is a mixed bag, however.

“For at least the next 15 years, whether the economy grows slowly or quickly, the homeownership rate for African Americans will decrease while the rate for Hispanics will increase,” the report found. “More than 50 percent of the 9 million new owners between 2010 and 2030 will be Hispanic, nearly one-third will be other races or ethnicities, 11 percent will be African American, and only 7 percent will be white.”

The shift from owning to renting means that many more rental units should be built, the Urban Institute says.

“This change will create a surge in rental demand from now until 2030 that we are unprepared to meet,” it says.

It also suggests that mortgage lending standards be relaxed to nudge more would-be renters to buy their homes.

That conclusion doesn’t sit well with everyone, however.

Logan Mohtashami, a California-based loan officer, says the notion that lending standards are tight is a myth.

“There remain a number of highly respected housing ‘gurus’ who continue to profess that it is unfairly tight lending standards, not the lack of qualified buyers that are suppressing a housing recovery. The difference is not academic,” he says. “A quick review of the requirements for some of mortgage loans available may surprise you.”

VA loans require no down payment, for example, he notes. And buyers can get other mortgages with credit scores as low as 560, with 50% debt-to-income ratios, or down payments as low as 3%.

“At this point all you can do is bring back 0% down loans and stated income loans for wage earners,” said. “Look who is really pushing the tight lending thesis. People in New York, D.C., San Francisco. What I call economic bubble cities. Main Street America gets this thesis I am saying.”

Read next: Should You DIY These 5 Home Improvements?

More From Credit.com:

MONEY buying a home

When Your Dream House Appraises for Less Than The Accepted Offer

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Astronaut Images—Getty Images/Caiaimage

Never pay more than the appraisal value.

It’s a nightmare situation: You’ve spent months searching for your dream house, finally get an offer accepted, and then … the house doesn’t appraise for the agreed-upon price.

DOOM.

Now what?

Take a deep breath

“It can be heart-wrenching for the buyer and seller if the deal falls apart because of the appraisal,” says Virginia real estate agent Lori Strickland.

But you’re not alone. This situation happens more often than you might think, especially in rising markets.

Sometimes the comparable sales aren’t applicable to the home you want, or maybe distressed sales in the area have skewed the appraisal.

“Traditional lenders will generally only lend funds up to a certain percentage of the appraised value [80% of appraised value as opposed to 80% of the contract price],” says Michael R. Santana, a Florida attorney.

If the appraisal is less than your offer, you might need to come up with more cash — but you do have other options.

Look over the appraisal contingency clause

An appraisal contingency clause built into your contract means you can reevaluate the situation or renegotiate. But even with a contingency clause, you could end up spending more or walking away to look for another house.

Sometimes all parties need to band together to make the deal work: sellers, buyers, and agents. Sellers might come down on price, you might pay closing costs, and agents might take less of a commission — but the deal still goes through.

Get a second opinion

Maybe the appraisal you got was inaccurate. If so? Sam Heskel, CEO of Nadlan Valuation Inc., a New York City appraisal company, recommends a value appeal.

“The appraiser will review the appeal and respond by reevaluating the property or explaining why he or she did not use the comparable sales the lender sent,” says Heskel.

“In some instances, especially if you are well qualified, sellers are willing to pay for the second appraisal to keep the deal on the table,” says Santana. Another option is to try working with your lender to get a second appraisal. They might be willing to accept the subsequent, higher appraisal.

To help guard against a lower appraisal, make sure you let the appraiser know the reason you made the offer you did.

“The selling agent should meet the appraiser at the property to provide comparable sales and listings,” says Casey Fleming, a former appraiser and author of The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.

Try not to pay more than appraised value

You might have found the only house you’ll ever love, but with that mindset, you’re liable to get hurt. Distance yourself a bit.

Try to remove your emotions from the equation. “The euphoria of offering and counteroffering on a home can quickly become buyer’s remorse,” says Nevada real estate professional Bruce Specter.

“Do not pay more than the appraisal,” says Lori Strickland. If you do, you’ll pay more than the house is worth. If you wouldn’t pay more than the list price for a car (or even for shoes for that matter), you generally shouldn’t do so for a house either.

Forget about whether you’re in a hot market

Although some buyers pay a premium for houses in hot markets, keep in mind that yours isn’t the only stomach churning at the thought of a low appraisal.

“Even in a hot market, the seller panics when the appraisal comes in low,” says Gary Lucido, president of Lucid Realty in Chicago. Unless cash buyers are ready to swoop in, you can use the low appraisal as an opportunity to renegotiate.

As long as you’re not in a hot market, Tamela Ekstrom, owner of Haven Real Estate in Detroit, says, “the seller will typically drop down and sell for the appraisal amount.” Once people are entrenched in a deal, they usually try to work things out.

More from Trulia:

MONEY buying a home

3 Tips for Buying a Vacation Home

Photograph by Gregory Reid; Prop styling by Megumi Emoto

1.1 million vacation homes sold in 2014. Here's how to find a hideaway of your very own.

Second–home sales leaped 57% last year, according to the National Association of Realtors. Why? A strong stock market and an influx of baby boomers buying vacation homes for retirement have helped, as well as still-depressed prices in some second-home markets. That said, Lawrence Yun, the NAR’s chief economist, expects prices–and sales–to rise in 2015.

Are you looking? Consider these buying tips:

Search for bargains. Nearly half of all vacation homes purchased last year were foreclosures or short sales. While that puts the number of distressed properties at an eight-year low, some vacation markets still have a hefty backlog, according to Realty Trac. Among them: Miami, Ocala, and Winter Haven, Fla.

Rent your place. If you hope to generate some cash, think about buying where rental demand is strong. Coastal North Carolina, Telluride, Colo., and around California’s Lake Tahoe and Bass Lake are very hot now, according to HomeAway. Just remember: If you rent for more than 14 days, the income is taxed, though you can deduct mortgage interest and other expenses.

Learn the market. Visit several times—and in different seasons. One vacation doesn’t make you an expert.

MONEY home improvement

3 Money-Smart Ways to Boost Your Home’s Curb Appeal

yellow victorian style house
Stewart Cohen—Dream Pictures Dallas, TX

Cosmetic fixes can put a prettier face on a plain-Jane home, and the bill doesn't have to hurt.

Just as every mother believes her son is a handsome devil, we homeowners tend to see the best in our houses—or at least we become comfortably familiar with the way they look.

But let’s face it, to the objective eye, not every man is George Clooney and not every house is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. There are a lot of drab, even downright gloomy façades out there, especially among homes that were built shortly after World War II, when many builders abandoned traditional architectural styling to streamline costs and mass-produce housing.

Thankfully, the cosmetic surgery required to put a beautiful face on your home doesn’t require a big-ticket construction job. “Creating curb appeal isn’t about trying to transform the house from a plain-Jane ranch into a grand Victorian,” says Charlotte, Vt., architect Ted Montgomery. “Just changing one or two little details is all it takes.” It’s an investment that will boost your home pride, endear you to the neighbors, and generate a lot more interest from buyers someday.

To find inspiration, you can hire an architect (about $100 an hour) to offer ideas and maybe sketch a plan (expect these to take a few hours each). Or look at similar homes in your area while keeping the following strategies in mind.

Subtract Flaws

Assuming the house and yard are already well maintained, job one is to get rid of blemishes left by a penny-pinching builder or the misguided efforts of previous owners:

Replace the garage doors. The most prominent facial feature of many homes is a pair of big garage doors, which all too often are flat, lackluster slabs of steel or vinyl. Trade them for more visually appealing doors with moldings, windows, or an old-fashioned carriage-house look ($3,000 to $8,000 a door, including labor). See DesignerDoors and ClopayDoor for examples.

Remove siding. Sometimes ugliness is only skin deep. “Peek under dreary aluminum, vinyl, or asbestos siding and you may find well-preserved wood clapboards,” says Asheville, N.C., architect Jane Mathews. If so, remove the siding, repair the old wood, and give the house an attractive paint job ($10,000 to $20,000). If not, you could paint the siding or replace it with fiber cement siding, a no-maintenance product that looks like real wood ($15,000 to $25,000).

Lose the funky railings. Swap out bad porch or stoop railings, such as black iron bars or chunky pressure-treated decking components, for visually interesting banisters and spindles that are worthy of their prominent placement ($1,000 to $10,000).

Add Character

Like a dimple or a cleft chin, the addition of an interesting architectural element can give your house some distinctiveness.

Install a salvaged door. The typical post- war front door is decidedly dull, but the entry should be your home’s focal point, says Corvallis, Ore., architect Lori Stephens. For interesting replacements, look in an architectural salvage yard (see page 26). Consider a recycled mission-style oak door, a six-panel Colonial with blown-glass windows, or arch top French doors ($400 to $1,600; more if you’re converting a standard opening to an arch top).

Add moldings. Many newer homes lack exterior trim; the siding just butts up against the windows and doors. A contractor can give the house a more sophisticated, traditional look by cutting back that siding and slipping in wide, flat moldings around the openings and possibly at the corners of the house and between its stories ($3,000 to $4,000). It’s best to use a synthetic product like cellular PVC for your new moldings, since it looks like wood but will never rot.

Enhance the roof. A straight, unadorned roofline makes a house look about as interesting as a shipping container. So consider adding windowed dormers (a.k.a. gabled peaks) or extending the eaves (the roof overhangs) a few feet beyond the front of the house with detailed moldings on the underside ($2,500 to $10,000 per dormer or eaves extension). This is major surgery, though; do not attempt it without first getting an architect’s input.

Enhance the Effect

Invasive procedures aren’t always necessary. Just adding the right accents can transform your home’s outer look—not unlike a pair of stylish new specs or a good haircut.

Replace light fixtures and hardware. Lose generic shiny brass or black house numbers and mailbox and porch lights (especially bare-bulb fixtures) and substitute something unique and substantial, perhaps made of antiqued copper, bronze, or brushed nickel. For ideas, see Rejuvenation and Restoration Hardware.

Plan for a nonstop flower show. Most of the flowers in your yard probably bloom in the late spring, which makes for a beautiful May—or whenever the big show happens in your climate—but leaves you with a bland yard for the other 10 or 11 months of the year. A local nursery can help you choose and plant additional bulbs, shrubs, and trees with different bloom times (as well as plants with colorful autumn foliage and winter berries), so there will always be something performing ($50 to $250 a shrub, $500 to $1,500 a tree).

Add color. A paint job ($2,000 to $10,000) in pleasing hues can make any structure appealing. “But don’t choose a bright, high-contrast color scheme—that only exaggerates a house’s flaws,” Montgomery warns. For subtler suggestions, check out the book House Colors by Susan Hershman ($26 at Amazon) or go for the colors of nature—muted greens, deep reds, and pale yellows—and keep the body and trim close in color. That will give your home a friendly, peaceful look rather than make it say, “Hey, look at me!” Sort of like an average-looking guy choosing a simple charcoal suit instead of a flashy powder-blue one that only a Hollywood star could pull off.

For more on money-smart home upgrades, check out The Money Guide to Home Improvements, available on newsstands June 12.

MONEY real estate

The Surprising Way to Snag a House in a Bidding War

couple taking keys to house
Getty Images

Bidding wars are back. Here's how to win.

Homes are selling faster, and getting more multiple offers and bids above the asking price than just before the financial crises, new research shows. Yet with the typical home still selling for less than it did in 2006, it is difficult to call this a bubble.

Some 28% of homes this year and last year sold within two weeks of being put on the market, up from just 19% pre-recession, according to a survey from Coldwell Banker Real Estate. Meanwhile, 47% of recent home sales saw multiple offers, vs. 42% pre-recession; and 27% got offers above the asking price, vs. 25% preceding the recession.

This data, however, may be somewhat misleading. For starters, the median home nationally sold for $219,400 in April, up 9% from the year earlier and a robust 42% from the market bottom in 2011-2012. But that remains shy of the $230,400 median price reached in July 2006, and after the sharp bounce back price gains now seem to be leveling off, says Budge Huskey, CEO of Coldwell Banker Real Estate.

And most of the heated activity is taking place in desirable neighborhoods, where obstacles to new construction put a premium on existing homes. The bidding wars generally are occurring on move-in-ready homes that are priced to sell. “The vast majority of markets around the country reflect more balanced inventories and rates of appreciation which have decelerated from the pace of the last two years,” Huskey says.

Still, in many ways this is a seller’s market, fueled in part by rising interest rates. Mortgage rates remain low at just above 4% for a 30-year fixed rate. But the trend has been up since January, and many expect rates to continue climbing. That brings in buyers from the sidelines that want to act before the cost of money goes higher.

Even if sellers fail to entice an offer above the asking price, they may take advantage of the conditions and be exceptionally choosey about a buyer. Just 46% of sellers take the first offer they get, down from 59% during the recession, the survey shows. A record 36% of sellers since 2013 say they chose a buyer based on emotion in addition to their ability to pay—up from 19% pre-recession.

Keep that in mind if you are buying. A downsizing baby boomer may not get the price they had counted on before the recession. But they may want to be sure the house where they raised their kids goes to a family they like. “It’s increasingly common for buyers in competitive situations to provide extensive information on why they would prove the perfect owners and neighbors,” Huskey says.

 

MONEY home improvement

How to Never Buy Another Propane Tank for Your Grill

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

Q: I just ran out of barbecue gas midway through cooking for a backyard party, and I am so done with the hassle of propane tanks. What would I have to pay to connect my grill to my household gas line?

A: If you have a gas-burning heating system or range in your house, you can connect your grill to the supply line—probably even the grill you already have—and never have to go out and fill up another propane tank again.

“It’s the best $300 or $400 you’ll ever spend,” says Dan Marguerite, owner of the Backyard Barbecue Store in Wilmette, Illinois.

You will need to hire a licensed plumber to open up and connect to the gas line in your house or near the meter (about $150), then run a new line over to your grill, using rigid pipe inside and buried flexible hose outside (about $7 per foot in both cases).

If your house uses propane (meaning you already have a large supply tank that gets refilled regularly by a delivery truck), your plumber will just remove the regulator on your grill, and you’re ready to start cooking. If your house uses natural gas (the kind that comes in through a meter from the street) you’ll need to install a conversion kit on the grill, which essentially makes the burner orifices larger to account for lower gas pressure. Most grills can be converted, with the kit running $75 to $100, plus perhaps another $50 if you hire your plumber to install it, which is a good idea, Marguerite says.

You will experience no difference in the temperature or operation of the grill using the new connection, he says. “The larger orifices and the different regulator on the gas line mean you’re still getting the same BTUs and the same cooking feel.”

Of course, if your particular grill doesn’t offer a conversion kit—or if the inside is so covered with charred barbecue sauce that you don’t even want to try—this is also a perfect excuse to buy a new grill, maybe one with lighting, rotisserie attachment, and built-in smoker ($1,800 to $3,000 and up).

MONEY home improvement

Should You DIY These 5 Home Improvements?

cleaning pool
Getty Images

The right choice can save you big.

For many, summer’s arrival signals the end of school, summer Fridays at the office, and, of course, a chance to kick back at the beach.

But for ambitious homeowners, it means just one thing: It’s time to tackle those outdoor home-improvement projects that have been waiting in the wings all winter.

Just one question remains: When should you save some green and tackle a project yourself—and when is it smarter (and safer) to call in the big guns?

To find out, we tapped contractor Danny Lipford, a nationally syndicated TV and radio host based in Mobile, Ala., and Rory McCreesh, a master builder and founder of Duce Construction in New York City, to offer their sage advice for getting the job done right.

Summer Project #1: Pool Cleaning

Your husband’s 8th annual water polo tournament. The kids’ birthday parties. Your pool is poised to get plenty of use this summer—which means it will need to be properly cleaned and treated for safe swimming.

And while you’re equipped with mesh skimmers and brushes galore to remove leaves and algae, when it comes to shocking the water with chemicals, that’s where you could use some help.

DIY or Hire a Pro? This surprisingly simple chore is all yours.

Getting the Job Done “[Maintaining your pool] is a great DIY project,” Lipford says. “Retail pool supply stores, like Leslie’s, are very helpful in analyzing your pool’s condition and recommending the needed chemicals to have a summer-ready pool.”

All you have to do is take a sample of pool water to the supply store in a sanitized container. Once you tell the clerk your pool’s dimensions, they can calculate the proper ratio for agents like chlorine and cyanuric acid, and provide detailed instructions on how—and when—to add them to your pool.

All in all, Lipford says regular chemical maintenance can run you between $25 and $75 a month, depending on the size and type of pool you have—compared to about$165 for once-a-week pro cleaners.

Summer Project #2: Landscaping

From planting petunias to installing a flagstone path to your front door, a little landscaping can go a long way when it comes to beautifying your property.

But with so many types of flora to choose from and the perplexing science of soil to contend with, you might be wondering whether you need a landscape architect to make your yard really sing.

DIY or Hire a Pro? For the most part, small-scale tasks—mulching beds, shrub pruning, and weeding—can easily be successful DIY projects. “The beauty of minor landscaping is that it requires few yard tools, very little skill, and, in most cases, little time to achieve fantastic results,” Lipford says.

The only exception: breaking out the chainsaw and going to work on that overgrown oak in the front yard.

“Pruning large trees should be done by a reputable, experienced tree-care company or arborist,” McCreesh says. “Not only is it a skill that requires talent and expertise, but it also poses safety hazards, as the work entails ladders and sharp tools.”

Getting the Job Done If gardening is one of the top landscaping projects on your list this summer, Lipford recommends first researching your location on the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to ensure you’re working with the right plants for your region of the country, climate and sun exposure.

For example, flowers like geraniums and oleander perform best in full sun, while plants like hydrangea and dogwood thrive in shadier areas. The same goes for your sod or grass selection, Lipford says. St. Augustine grows best in the shade, while centipedegrass performs better in full sun.

Regardless of the type of plant you pick, Lipford says they all have one thing in common when it comes to successful care. “All plants need proper irrigation.Installing a soaker hose is an easy DIY way of providing a constant stream of water,” he says. “A soaker hose will run about $15–$20, can be partially buried, and can even be attached to a simple timer for another $15.”

Ready to hire someone to help you with that tree-trimming project? Lipford issues one word of caution: “Never let anyone work in or around your home without having proper insurance, like general liability and workman’s comp. This is important because it protects you in the event of an accident.”

Summer Project #3: Pest Control

From mosquito bites to chewed-through vegetable plants, creepy-crawlies are an unwanted reality of the warm-weather months.

Sure, you can load up on citronella candles and DEET for the season, but how much sweeter would it be to enjoy a bug-free summer—for your family and your prized tomato plants?

DIY or Hire a Pro? Call in the experts.

“Typical services include pest control for termites, ants, spiders, cockroaches, beetles, biting and stinging insects, rodents and wildlife control,” McCreesh says. “Most homeowners do not have the necessary chemicals on hand or the knowledge required to effectively and safely manage this task.”

Getting the Job Done Just how much you’ll shell out varies based on the size of your yard, whether the interior of your home is included in the work, and if there are any issues to address—such as a termite infestation, McCreesh says.

But regardless of the pest control you’re soliciting, he recommends seeking out a seasonal contract, as opposed to a one-time treatment. Good pest control companies providing longer-term services will monitor their work and re-treat as necessary.

Just confirm the fee structure for follow-up appointments. “It should be very clear if there is an additional charge or if it is included in the plan,” McCreesh says.

Summer Project #4: Gutter Repairs

Clean, secure gutters keep wastewater, leaves and other natural nuisances from weighing down your roof.

So unless you want stagnant, rotting debris hanging out like a ticking time bomb overhead, it’s important to repair and patch any holes, seal leaky joints and secure any part of the gutter that’s pulled away from the house as soon as you notice it.

DIY or Hire a Pro? Go with the pro.

“Even though [certain types of] gutter repair can be easy to do yourself, this type of project can frequently result in injury from falls,” Lipford says. “Gutter specialists have unique equipment to create custom gutter sections and links on-site for a home, and can do it inexpensively for about $75 to $180. It’ll give you a better result than using gutter repair materials from a big-box store.”

Getting the Job Done When it comes to seeking out a qualified, licensed and insured gutter repair company, Lipford suggests relying on references from friends, family or a list of recommends from your local chapter of the National Association of Home Builders.

“You might get a cheaper price by taking a chance [on a random company], but you also take a risk with the possibility of further damage, or someone not performing the work that was agreed upon,” Lipford cautions. “It can cost you peace of mind and additional expenses if you need to have work re-done or get damage repaired.”

Summer Project #5: Deck Work

One of the greatest pleasures of summer is spending a warm evening on the back deck, under the starry sky.

But thanks to the wrath of winter—especially this last one—you may have some repair work cut out for you first.

DIY or Hire a Pro? It depends on the scale of the project.

“Deck repairs that involve replacing or securing loose or damaged wood and stainingare all manageable DIY projects,” Lipford says. “But if a deck is in need of structural repair or needs to be completely replaced, it would be better to bring in an experienced carpenter or decking company.”

Getting the Job Done DIY deck projects can be a pretty easy and satisfying feat—with the right equipment.

“I recommend using a pressure washer for cleaning,” Lipford says, adding that renting one from a hardware store, like Home Depot, could run about $100 per day, depending on your location. “It does not require experience or great skill, but take care not to get the tip too close to the surface of the deck boards, which can cause damage.”

If the thought of wielding a pressure washer is too intimidating, try a deck brightener, which Lipford says you can easily snag at a home center in one-gallon cans. “Apply it to the deck’s surface, and wait 15 minutes,” he says. “Then lightly scrub the deck with a nylon brush, and rinse away grime with a regular hose.”

But if you’re leaning toward a project that’s larger in scale or more labor-intensive than a simple cleaning and staining, do your homework.

“It’s important that the homeowner check local requirements for any permits needed, and that all necessary code is followed when planning and building,” McCreesh says. “If you don’t follow local foundation, steps, landings and railing codes, you could be faced with a ‘stop work order’ from the Building Department, or you may have to undo work that’s already in place.”

As for what you can expect to pay a pro, McCreesh says it varies based on square footage, complexity and wood species. So put in the effort to get the best quotes.

“Solicit bids from two to three professionals,” Lipford says. “And get everything in writing, including the scope of the work and total cost. Taking the time to make the right selection for someone working in your home is time well spent.”

Read next: Should You DIY These 5 Home Improvements?

More From LearnVest:

MONEY home improvement

5 Affordable Ways to Get Your Yard Looking Great

DIY Yard
Julian Wass

Get the best yard on the block without spending a lot

A high-end landscaping contractor will charge at least $5,000 to “remodel” a typical compact suburban front yard. But if you can handle a shovel, hose, and wheelbarrow, you have the physical skills to tackle the task yourself. The tricky part is getting the design right. Here’s how to achieve a lush, upscale look all on your own.

Broaden The Beds

A single-file row of plants along the foundation and the property lines looks generic at best. Widen the beds to four to six feet so there’s room for more flora, and to make the plants really pop, use mulch that’s the color of soil, says Newport, R.I., landscape architect Kate Field. That means the fine, dark, compost-like material that costs about 25% more than basic wood chips, or about $120 to $150 (for a small front yard), and that lasts only one year.

Focus on Foliage

Arrange shrubs and perennials two or three deep, with smaller plants placed in front of larger ones (check the mature size listed on the label). “Don’t get hung up on picking flowers,” says Portland, Ore., garden designer Darcy Daniels. Blooms are short-lived; it’s the foliage that you’ll see most of the time. Look for plants with red, purple, or multicolored leaves, as well as a variety of textures and shapes. You’ll pay $20 to $100 per plant, de- pending on type and size.

Do More With Less

A lot of do-it-yourself gardeners make the mistake of figuring more is better. They might buy as many different types of shrubs and perennials as their budget allows, and opt for a rainbow of bloom colors. But you’ll actually get a greater impact by buying three to five of each plant type you choose and then grouping them together in the yard, and by selecting just one or two bloom colors for the flowers. The garden will look intentional, sophisticated, and professional.

Accent the Architecture

Create a focal point using a dwarf tree or a large shrub. Don’t just plunk it in the middle of the yard. Instead, place it in line with a structural element of the property, such as a corner of the house, garage, or lot. Japanese maples ($100 to $400) and crepe myrtles ($35 to $140) are two good choices that look attractive in all seasons, says Severna Park, Md., nursery owner Gary Blondell.

Trim With Technique

When it comes to caring for your plants, ditch the electric clippers, which carve bushes into geometric shapes. “That look is passé,” says Field. Unless you’re trimming a hedge, always cut the branches to slightly varied lengths one by one using a hand tool, such as Felco’s Classic Pruner (about $50 at Amazon.com). You’ll get a more natural, flattering yard.

For more on money-smart home upgrades, check out The Money Guide to Home Improvements, available on newsstands June 12.

MONEY mortgages

When a Reverse Mortgage Is Too Big a Risk

Q: Can I take out a reverse mortgage and invest that money in an account that would pay a decent rate of return? My home is paid off and the equity is just sitting there drawing no return. If repay the loan in 10 or 20 years with the money I invested, would I come out ahead? – Stan Larrison

A: In theory it sounds good, but to get the kind of return you’d need to make it worth doing, you’d have to take on a fair amount of risk. “You don’t want to gamble with your home equity,” says Tom Mingone, founder and managing partner of Capital Management Group of New York.

First, a little background on how reverse mortgages work. A reverse mortgage is a loan that allows you to convert your home equity into cash. Based on the amount you borrow, you’ll get a payment every month. You can also take the money as a lump sum or an equity line of credit. The proceeds of the loan are tax-free.

You have to be at least 62 and own the home as your primary residence. How much you’ll get depends on your age, home equity, and current loan rates. The amount you can borrow is capped, typically less than 60% of your home equity. For example, if you are 70, your spouse is 68, and you own a $255,000 house with no mortgage, you could get a $139,000 loan in the New York area, Mingone says. You can use a calculator to figure out how much you would qualify for where you live.

You don’t have to repay the loan as long as you live in the house. Once you do leave it, say when you pass away or move out to assisted living, the house gets sold and the proceeds go toward paying off the loan, as well as any interest or fees that have accrued. Keep in mind that the longer you have the loan, the more you will owe. And depending on the type of loan, the rates may be variable.

If the house sells for more than the loan balance, you or your heirs get the difference. If the house sells for less, you aren’t on the hook; the bank just takes a loss.

Now here’s why it would be hard to come out ahead by investing money from a reverse mortgage. First, reverse mortgages are costly loans to pay back compared with traditional loans. Reverse mortgage rates are currently about 5%, versus about 4% for a typical 30-year fixed rate loan. Closing costs are typically higher too.

You also need to factor in taxes. “If the money is invested in anything that has capital gains or interest income, you’ll owe taxes on that,” says Mingone. So you’ll need to aim for a 7% to 8% return to cover taxes and interest. To find an investment that would give you that kind of return, you’d have to take on more risk.

Still, there are some situations where a reverse mortgage makes sense, especially for retirees who are cash-poor and house rich, Mingone says.

If money is tight, the payments from a reverse mortgage can give you a new stream of income. If you have a mortgage on your current home and it’s hurting your cash flow, you can pay off your conventional loan with a reverse mortgage and eliminate that expense.

It could also be used to pay off high rate credit card debt, fund major home repairs, or cover big medical bills. Check out the AARP Reverse Mortgage Education Project for more information that can help you decide if a reverse mortgage is right for you. If you do go ahead, the federal government requires you to meet with a counselor before taking out the loan. You can find a counselor at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s web site.

“There are definitely times when using a reverse mortgage is a smart move, but investing the money isn’t one of them,” says Mingone.

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