MONEY home improvement

3 Ways to Boost Your Home’s Curb Appeal During a Drought

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ML Harris—Getty Images

Consider a lawn alternative.

With drought conditions becoming more prevalent across the country, it’s in everyone’s best interest to learn a few robust landscaping techniques. This is especially true for a seller’s home with suddenly flagging front yard curb appeal.

It’s not rocket science; curb appeal is important. Trying to sell your home with listing photos of a dead, crispy front lawn is not ideal.

Use these front yard landscaping ideas to turn your water-starved lawn into an outdoor haven even in the midst of serious drought.

Lawn alternatives

Gone are the days of the predictable green grass lawn and a white picket fence. Born of necessity and creativity, many yards are now a mixture of stone and drought-tolerant perennials and shrubs.

If drought has turned your once-lush lawn into a crunchy brown mess, consider replacing it with a more drought-tolerant ground cover such as Asiatic jasmine or even pea gravel. No longer considered a lesser substitute, these materials require very little maintenance and give the home a more polished look all year.

Intermixing the gravel with stone pavers or big pieces of sandstone gives the space a more sophisticated and textured feel. Round out the stone with ground cover; they require very little water and fill the gaps between stones beautifully.

Drought-tolerant plants

There are probably plenty of colorful water-conserving plants and grasses to choose from at your local garden center. Using a mix of native sea grasses cuts down on watering as well as trimming. Forget the once-a-week mowing job. These grasses need tending only twice a year — also attractive to a buyer.

Water-conserving gardens can be as beautiful as any other and are also low- to no-maintenance. With weeding, trimming, and mulching in the rearview, install a hammock and enjoy your new space. Play up your nontraditional lawn in the listing comments and appeal to buyers who want to spend less time maintaining their outdoor space and more time actually enjoying it.

Faux lawn

If you’re in a time crunch and a bit of a lawn traditionalist, consider a very untraditional method: Paint your lawn green. Laughable? Not at all. Gaining in popularity, lawn paint looks real and is safe for both pets and children. It’s quick and budget-friendly as well. You can either call in the professionals to handle it or DIY with a quick purchase from your hardware store. And in the meantime, you’ll have time to install a rain barrel and start saving water to turn that grass green again next season.

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MONEY Utilities

Google Can Now Tell You How Much You’d Save Going Solar

Google's newly announced Project Sunroof is now available in only three cities.

Google has unveiled Project Sunroof, an effort the company says it has launched because it wants to make installing home solar panels “easy and understandable for anyone.”

Built on Google Maps, Project Sunroof uses that mapping information, along with other data, to calculate a “roof analysis” letting you know the size of the solar panels you might install to cover up to 100% of your energy usage, along with the money you’d save under different financing options.

Should you decide to install solar panels on the roof of your house, Google can also put you in touch with local solar providers.

At present, the service is available in only three cities: Fresno, Calif.; Boston; and, of course, San Francisco.

Read next: Why You Should Think Seriously About Going Solar

MONEY home improvement

13 Eyesores That Kill Your Home’s Curb Appeal

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David Harriman—Getty Images

Don't sell your home short.

You only get a few minutes to make a first impression, so when selling your home, you have to make those minutes count – and that’s where curb appeal comes in. To lure would-be buyers, you have to make sure you’re not undermining your efforts. So step outside, take a good look at your home and watch out for these curb-appeal killers.

1. Lackluster Landscapes
Carpet-bombing the front yard with red roses sounds lovely, but too much of the same flower can look boring. As Houselogic explains, the yard will look great when the flowers are in bloom, then drab for the rest of the year. The better solution is to mix things up and opt for seasonal color. For instance, planting summer-blooming roses and autumn camellias can help keep your lawn colorful year-round.

2. Dying Shrubs
Refusing to bury the dead can scare away buyers faster than you say compost. As Houselogic notes, spent plants are ideal for a pile, as long as you grind them up first. Otherwise, bag them up and add them to the trash. And remove the dead or dying shrubs, pronto.

3. Unwanted Guests
Deer and rabbits are cute, but their constant nibbling can leave your landscape in disarray. They can also leave branches denuded. If an electric fence is too pricy an option, do as Houselogic suggests and spray critter repellent. After a hard rain, spray it again. No luck scaring away Bambi? Consider deer- and rabbit-resistant plants.

4. Monotonous Mowing
Yes, even a well-mowed lawn can scare away buyers. As AOL explains, mowing grass in the same direction, day in and day out, can “mat down the turf and inhibit growth.” Varying the pattern in which you mow encourages growth and reduces wear. You’ll also avoid missing or mowing over the same spots.

5. Barely-There Lawns
Speaking of mowing, only about one-third of the grass blade should be cut. Short clippings break down easily, and according to AOL, make natural nitrogen return to the soil—a bad thing for plants trying to grow. Cut too much at once and the grass can stress out, leaving it withered, drab-looking and flat.

6. Ugly Siding
Drab siding can put a dent in your home’s curb appeal. Take a peek and see if there’s well-preserved wood underneath, Time magazine suggests. You can remove the siding, repair the old wood, and/or try a new coat of paint. Replacing the siding with fiber cement siding, which can look like real wood, is also an option.

7. Old Garage Doors
If it’s a large slab of vinyl or lackluster steel, it’s probably time for an upgrade. Time magazine suggests choosing doors with “moldings, windows, or an old-fashioned carriage house look.” A coat of glaze can dress the door up, as can paint or power-washing the exterior.<

8. Missing or Torn Shingles
A roof in good repair will hardly go noticed, which is a good thing, says roofing expert Matthew Lopez. But if your roof is more than 10 or 15 years old, chances are the shingles will start coming apart and buyers will spot them a mile away. Check your roof regularly so you can repair any missing or torn shingles before buyers notice.

9. Bold colors
Bubblegum pink may be your thing, but chances are most buyers won’t dig it. In general, homeowners are drawn to neutral colors like blue, light brown, beige and gray. When selecting a new color, keep in mind what your neighbors have chosen and make sure it complements your home’s landscaping and hardscaping.

10. Clutter
If prospective buyers are mistaking your home for a junkyard, you’ve got a problem, says Pro.com. Neatness counts for a lot, especially when showcasing a home. Move the clutter out of the front lawn and consider giving away what you don’t need. The idea is to make your home shine, not have it pass as a backdrop for hoarders.

11. A Dingy Front Door
If your front door’s been around since Truman was president, it may need a facelift. “A front door should beckon buyers to come inside and make them think about what their future houseguest will see,” explains Pro.com. If buying a new door is out of your budget, consider switching the hardware (door knob, hinges and knocker) or tacking on a wreath for a nice pop of color.

12. Beaten-Up Hardscaping
Hardscaping refers to the use of brick, concrete and natural stone — and if it’s cracked, it can turn away buyers. Driveways are especially important to keep free of cracks, as are the walkway and other immediately visible areas. Make sure the hardscaping complements the landscaping and home siding, Pro.com recommends, so the look feels consistent.

13. Bad Neighbors
Yes, even your neighbors can wreck your home’s curb appeal. If their yard is covered with weeds, lacks a fence, or any number of things, prospective buyers may question whether the neighborhood is worth it. If you decide to confront your neighbors, broach the topic with care, Zillow says. Not everyone wants to hear that they need to spruce up their home.

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MONEY home improvement

The Worst Home Remodel Projects for Your Money

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Steve Cole—Getty Images

Time to rethink that sunroom.

When you consider which home remodeling projects to tackle and which ones to shelve, it is wise to think about the payback potential. Which projects will increase the value of your home enough to recoup your investment potentially? Remodeling Magazine may be able to help you decide. They recently completed their 2015 lists of remodeling values, broken down by the type of project and geographic market. Thirty-six projects were compared in over one hundred markets, making this the most comprehensive remodeling payback guide available.

People tend to associate remodeling with kitchen or bath makeovers, but neither project provides the greatest return on investment. Upscale kitchen and bathroom remodeling recouped in the 59-60% range of costs, rising to 67-70% for midrange projects.

In general, to recover your costs on a project, smaller is better. Four of the thirty-six projects were estimated at less than $5,000 (for professionals), and three of those were in the top five for return on investment. Those were entry door replacement with a steel door (101.8% return), and midrange and upscale garage door replacements at 88.4% and 82.5% return, respectively.

The other two high-return projects were in the next tier of expense ($5,000-$25,000). The addition of a manufactured stone veneer returned 92.2% on a $7,150 cost while an upscale fiber-cement siding replacement returned 84.3% on a $14,014 investment.

Conversely, the poorest returns came from the addition of a sunroom with a 48.5% return on a $75,726 investment and a home-office remodeling with a 48.7% return on a project cost of $29,066. No project that cost more than $25,000 finished in the top ten, with the attic bedroom coming in twelfth with a 77.2% return on a $51,696 investment.

Higher-return projects had another common thread — most were exterior projects. Curb appeal is incredibly important to a home sale, and many exterior projects cost less than interior ones, thus providing a double benefit in value.

Replacement projects (doors, windows, siding, etc.) tend to have a better payoff than full remodeling projects, and this report reinforced the trend. The gap extended to a 12.4% higher payoff for replacements compared to remodeling (73.2% compared to 60.8%).

Where you live also plays a large factor. If you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you cannot go wrong with remodeling. San Francisco tops the list with a 103% expected return on any project and a 147% expected return on the addition of a wood deck.

How do you maximize the value with your geographic location and housing needs? First, there is no reason to embark on any of these projects just because you are trying to increase the value of your property. Replace as you need to, and remodel as you want to. Renovations should fit your vision and needs.

Assuming you have identified a project, try to time it to when local contractors are in a slow period, typically early spring or the late fall/early winter depending on the climate you live in. You can gain a bit more leverage that way. Avoid trendy picks — backup home generators skyrocketed after Superstorm Sandy, but plummeted to one of the lowest return investments in 2015. Of course, if you do live in a storm-prone area, a backup generator might be a good idea regardless of resale value.

Details and general trends may be found at the Remodeling website. Look them over for advice on the types of remodeling that give you the best return on investment — and then go ahead and do what you want. It is your house, and you should enjoy it and modify it in your own way.

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MONEY home maintenance

4 Ways It Pays to Save Your Home Repair Records

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Tuomas Marttila—Getty Images

Receipts for repairs and replacements can save you time, money and hassle.

It’s the moment of truth: You just had your furnace tuned up, with a fancy new filter that leaves dust mites equal parts frustrated and terrified. Carl, your new favorite furnace tech, pulls off a carbon copy of your work order (in a flattering pink shade) and hands it to you. You walk Carl out and bask in your dust-free, perfectly temperate climate, looking down at your fuchsia receipt. As you begin to crumple it into a ball, a sliver of doubt appears.

Should you keep this slip of paper? (Answer: Probably.)

It’s worth getting a scanner (or even a scanner app on your smartphone) and filing all these receipts away in Dropbox or iCloud — or going retro with a filing cabinet if you’re feeling sassy. Here’s why:

1. Know when to spend

Are you good at breaking things? My washing machine had problems from day one. Turns out, I was way too ambitious about the size of load it could handle — but didn’t learn that until a technician wearing those weird paper booties came to my house.

You need only a few of those experiences before you realize it’s not worth throwing good money after bad. If you keep your receipts and maintenance records, you can figure out when it makes sense to just buy a new one and push your old large appliance into a rock quarry. (Except for the rock quarry part; don’t do that.)

2. Selling your place

People go a little nuts when buying a home. When you’re selling, chances are good that you’re going to run into a buyer who is over-the-top bananas meticulous. They’re going to want to know not only how many years old your new gutters are, but also what time of day they were installed, the blood type of the man who installed them, and also whether Saturn was in retrograde at the time. (It affects gutter strength, you know.)

And that’s totally cool; they should do their due diligence. But when they come at you with questions, you need to be ready to throw down your receipts as though they’re a royal flush.

3. Insurance fistfights

Let’s say insurance pays for a new roof after a tree falls on your house and damages it. You’re happy until four months later when, for reasons unknown, the insurance company decides it paid too much and wants some money back. What in holy heck? (It’s true; I’ve seen it happen.)

If you have your maintenance records and your receipts for the repairs, then you can fight it. It won’t be fun, but it will keep money where it belongs — in your pocket.

4. Budgeting brigade

Repairs are inevitable and maintenance should be too, lest your home veer into shanty status. It’s all a pain in the pocketbook when it happens: $100 here, another $450 there. And the worst part is, it always feels unexpected.

Here’s a good idea: Hang onto your maintenance records, and when you have a year’s worth, crunch some numbers to set up a maintenance budget for the year. Budget a little higher at the start, but do this every year so more data will make it more accurate. That way, when something goes wrong, you will have the money ready to spend and it won’t feel as though you are taking it away from something else.

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TIME advice

7 Creative Kitchen Storage Ideas

kitchen
Getty Images

Maximize your counter space

Maybe once upon a time you thought it was the perfect size, but after years of purchasing kitchen gadgets and new dishes, along with a growing family, the thrill is gone.

But there’s no need to fret. We’ve got you covered with seven space-saving, creative storage solutions to make your kitchen feel brand new, and hopefully you’ll fall in love with it all over again.

1. Go high: above cabinets

Step back and look at your kitchen as a whole. Notice anything? You may see there’s prime real estate up high, such as on top of the refrigerator and above cabinets and doors. Take advantage of these spaces to store cookbooks, canisters or even wine bottles.

2. Get low: toe-kick drawers

Get low. Make existing features in your kitchen functional with toe-kick drawers. Most cabinets sit off the floor with toe kicks, and now there are kits available to create drawers that open with a tap of your toes. A toe-kick drawer is a great place to house pet feeding dishes.

3. Hanging on: pegboards and hanging baskets

Sure, you can hang pots and pans from the ceiling or add a rack on the wall, but you might try hanging baskets to store dishcloths and towels. Use hooks to hang pot holders or utensils.

Pegboards aren’t just for tools in the garage. Use them to create a cool place to hang pots and pans, mugs or utensils.

4. Slide and glide: sliding drawers

Install sliding drawers on the side of your range to add functionality. The drawers don’t take up much room but are deep enough to provide plenty of storage. A sliding storage tower (on wheels!) is another option to make use of narrow spaces, such as between your oven and fridge.

5. Rack it up: door racks and wine racks

Door racks on the inside of cabinet or pantry doors provide instant space-saving storage.

While you’re in the mood, add racks to the wall near the stove to store spices, olive oil or other often-used items for easy accessibility, or create a wine rack with everything you need — bottles, glasses and a corkscrew.

6. Island living: cabinets and shelves

The options for using your island are endless. Add cabinets underneath for additional storage, shelves on one side to store kitchen gadgets, or install a built-in trash can to preserve floor space.

7. Cubby it up: bakeware storage

Take it back to elementary school by creating cubbyholes for cookie sheets, cake pans or other bakeware. Think high again, and build cubbies in the space between the cabinet and ceiling to store wine bottles.

MONEY home improvement

How to Get Color in Your Garden Without Spending a Fortune

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

Q: Not a single flower is blooming in my yard. We had so many in spring, but every July and August, we’re left with monotone greenery. Can we add late-summer color without spending a fortune?

A: Yours is a common problem in the northern tier of the country, where the vast majority of plants bloom in spring. But the good news is that there are plenty of affordable ways to add flowers throughout the summer and into the fall, says Tony Abruscato, director of Chicago Flower & Garden Show.

The easiest, most affordable solution is annuals—that is, plants that complete their entire life cycle in just one year. Annuals don’t come back from year to year, although you’ll sometimes get lucky and the seeds they release in the fall will sprout new plants in the spring.

The great thing about annuals is they bloom pretty much nonstop for the whole growing season, especially if you remove spent flowers to encourage new ones to form. They also spread, so a small patch of them will expand into a large patch over the course of the summer.

Annuals are also extremely low cost: about $1 to $6 per plant, versus $12 to $30 (or more) for a perennial, a plant that goes dormant for the winter and comes back the next year.

Color Options

You can get annuals that flower in almost any color. Many thrive in shady areas, which are tricky spots for flowering perennials. Popular annuals include impatiens, zinnias, petunias, begonias, dahlias, geraniums, and verbena.

Abruscato also recommends tropical perennials, which can’t tolerate northern winters and so die off each winter like annuals. These include Mexican petunia, Mexican sage, and ginger lily. “If you plant them in pots, you can move them indoors for the winter, and put them back out next spring,” he says .

There are also many standard perennials that will bloom late in the growing season. And because most people’s attention has turned from gardening to vacationing this time of year, you can often get them at a 40% to 50% discount. That means you can probably pick up a plant that will add color every July, August, or September for perhaps $10 to $15.

Abruscato suggests several long-blooming perennials: black-eyed Susan, Echinacea, astilbe, aster, geranium Rozanne, allium, Lacey blue Russian sage, and oak leaf hydrangea. Rose of Sharon shrubs also offer late-season flowers, he notes.

Ask your local garden center for plant recommendations that are suitable for your area. Then select a mix of bloom times, so something is always putting on a show in your yard.

TIME advice

7 Ideas to Maximize Your Small Garden

garden-boxes
Getty Images

Time to get creative

It’s time to make your garden dreams a reality. Ideally, we’d all have gorgeous backyards with tons of space to grow all of the flowers, vegetables, and herbs we’d like, but for most of us that’s just not the case. If you’re working with a smaller space, don’t be discouraged! You can build a beautiful garden of any size with good planning and a little bit of creativity.

Vertical Planters from Ruffles and Truffles

If you don’t have much space in your backyard, work vertically! This option is also great if you don’t like bending over your flower beds all day to weed and water, or if you’re growing veggies that you’d like to keep out of reach of hungry rabbits.

Pallet Herb Garden from Pink When

Pick herbs that don’t need much room to grow, then stack them on top of each other with a cute DIY pallet planter. This layout also makes it easy to find the herbs you want right away, so you’re not trying to push aside a giant basil plant to get to the peppermint.

Balcony Gardens from AnnaMKB at Hubpages

This blogger has a very extensive how-to for creating balcony gardens. One of the best tips? Put your plants in separate boxes to keep the ones that have a tendency to spread from taking over your whole space.

Hanging Gutter Garden from Apartment Therapy

Plants with shallow roots can be planted in hanging gutter gardens. You can even attach the gutters to a fence or the side of your home to save even more space.

Shoe Organizer Herb Garden from Curbly

If you want to grow herbs in the summer, but don’t have much space, use a hanging shoe organizer. The large number of pockets lets you have a variety of plants, but you can hose it off and store it in the colder months to free up space.

Cinder Block Planter from Traditionally Modern Designs

If you want to plant a garden in a space with a lot of concrete, embrace your materials. Cinder blocks are resilient enough to stand up year after year and will give your space a unique look. You can also decorate them however you want to liven up the space.

Windowsill Garden from Shelterness

If you have no outdoor space at all, hang individually potted plants from a rod in your kitchen (or any sunny room in your home). Spray paint the hooks, rod, and pots the same color to bring all of the elements together.

This article originally appeared on All You

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MONEY Buying a House

Best Dessert Contest Has $390K California Home as the Prize

Grand Prize home from Homerecipecontest.com
courtesy homerecipecontest.com With a $100 entry fee and a great dessert recipe, this 1906 Craftsman home in California could be yours.

Winning sure would be sweet.

Inspired by a recent contest that featured a Maine B&B as the prize for writing the best essay, a realtor in northern California has decided to cook up a contest of her own.

Instead of an essay, however, the contest will be determined by who submits the best dessert recipe. And the prize will be a 1906 four-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,267-square-foot Craftsman home in Jackson, Calif. It was purchased last fall for $239,000, and after an extensive renovation is currently valued at $390,000.

The details of the unusual arrangement are spelled out at HomeRecipeContest.com. Submissions must include (of course) an original dessert recipe, along with a $100 entry fee, payable only by cashier’s check or money order.

Erin Allard, the 26-year-old real estate agent at Rockford Investments who came up with the contest idea, told the Contra Costa Times that she is “deeply passionate about improving housing,” and apparently also quite passionate about baking and desserts. The “Jackson market is small and rural, it typically takes many months to sell a home,” she said of her motivations to award the home as a contest prize. “I figured if I was going to have to wait awhile, I wanted to do something fun to ‘sell’ the house in the meantime.”

Speaking with the Daily Mail Online, Allard explained that the judge’s panel will consist of pastry chefs, food bloggers, and home bakers, who will give each dessert submission up to 100 points based on how unique it is, as well as accessibility, creativity, crowd appeal, and the clarity of the instructions. “I weighted ‘inspirational’ and ‘accessible’ more strongly to encourage entries that would be easy and fun to make for chefs of all experience levels,” said Allard.

There’s more than one reason Allard’s real estate company wants to encourage as many entries as possible. The publicity can only help the fledgling business along. What’s more, it’s not like the home is simply being given away. The more entries, the more entry fees are collected. The Maine inn contest planned on getting 7,500 submissions at $125 apiece, which would total $900,000. It’s conceivable that by the time submissions for the California home contest are cut off on September 7, Rockford Investments could collect more in entry fees than the home is worth.

MONEY home improvement

8 Home Upgrades That Add Real Value

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David Papazian—Getty Images

Remember: the whole package is far more valuable than the sum of its parts.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to remodeling and upgrading your house, and deciding where to put your precious dollars can be tough. Many of these remodeling decisions can be made based on whether or not you’re planning to stay in your home long term.

Let’s take a look at the places where a $10,000 investment in your home can go the furthest.

If you are planning to sell your home within the next two years

It’s important to remember that there’s not always a direct relationship between exactly how much you put into a specific renovation project and exactly how much you get out of it.

If you consider home improvements item by item, you’ll likely conclude that undertaking almost any individual home improvement prior to the sale of your home is a losing proposition. However, when you add small improvements together with vision and creativity, you create an overall house improvement and a big return on your investment. The whole package is far more valuable than the sum of its parts!

The top six target projects

1. Kitchen. A $10,000 investment is not going to get you a full kitchen makeover and leave enough extra cash to make many other upgrades. Instead, think about upgrading tired old appliances. Cabinet resurfacing and upgrading the countertops can be very affordable and give a big splash. One word of caution: Make sure you don’t overspend for your neighborhood. Know your market.

2. Master bath. Again, here in the master bath, $10,000 will not go very far, but you can create a wow effect. Consider upgrading the shower to a frameless glass shower enclosure, adding new fixtures, and maybe a new vanity and countertops.

3. Paint. Repaint the interior of your home and keep it neutral with soft earth tones. Then make sure you pick up some fantastic pillows and accessories to add punches of color.

4. New carpet. No homebuyer wants to walk barefoot across your tired, old, stained, dirty, worn-out carpet. When you replace the existing carpet, go with a neutral shade.

5. Curb appeal. This is a low-cost no-brainer. Trim up the hedges, give the grass some TLC, plant some flowers, and give the front door a fresh coat of paint in a wonderful accent color. Create a strong first impression by adding shiny new house numbers and maybe even a new mailbox. Finally, add in some wonderful outdoor lighting, and presto!

6. Push the inside out. If there’s an existing room that looks out to the backyard, push it out! Replace existing windows with French doors and build a small deck. You’ve just increased the “size” of that room — and added value to the house for very little money.

When you’re planning to stay in your house

If selling isn’t in the cards for you and your family, you can still consider all of the tips above. You’ll enjoy living in an upgraded house, especially if you’re staying put. Additionally, think about these projects for long-term payback.

1. Heating and air system upgrades. New heating and air systems will actually reduce your monthly utility bills over time and are a great investment.

2. Going solar. In sunny climates, investing in solar technology can increase the value of your home and reduce your monthly and yearly utility costs.

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