MONEY Ask the Expert

The Best DIY Home Projects

Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’m pretty handy, and I enjoyed building sweat equity in our first home, but now my time is very limited. What’s the best place to focus my DIY efforts?

A: That all depends on what “pretty handy” means to you. Does it mean you have a full, Norm-Abram quality woodwork shop in your basement? Or just that you know how to oil the door hinges when they start squeaking, reboot the wireless router when it lags, and jiggle the toilet handle to stop the toilet from running?

Chances are, your skill set is somewhere in the middle. We’re betting you have good construction instincts, a bit of experience—and some tolerance for a few minor mistakes in the results if it means saving money.

So keep it simple: Don’t tackle a task you haven’t done several times before, unless it’s an out-of-the-way spot where it won’t get much visibility, says Pittsburgh DIY consultant Michael R. Wetmiller. Don’t reshingle the front of the house until you’ve reshingled the garage. Don’t tile the foyer floor until you’ve tiled the kids’ bathroom.

Also, stay away from any job that puts you—or your house—at risk. That means avoiding any ladder over about eight feet tall, electrical wiring, plumbing, and major demolition work.

And look for jobs where your limited schedule won’t become a major stress. “You don’t want to live without a kitchen while you’re spending only weekends and evenings remodeling it,” Wetmiller says. And you don’t want to battle bad weather or darkness when you happen to have time to invest in the job.

That’s why he suggests that DIYers renovate an out-of-the way interior space, where you can work any time of the day or night. “Finishing the basement is a perfect example,” he says. “You can do as much or as little of the work for which you have time and skills and contract out the rest.” No rush and no disruption of daily life if the project drags on for a while. Here’s what you might save by doing your own:

Drywall: $1,500 to $2,000

Flooring: $1,000

Painting: $500 to $800

Insulation: $200 to $500

Trimwork: $200 to $300

Got a question for Josh? We’d love to hear it. Please send submissions to Check back in with us on Wednesdays to read his answers.


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MONEY Investing

35 Smart Things to Do With $1,000 Now

Andrew B. Myers

These moves can make you smarter, healthier, happier—and richer.

1. Buy 1 share of Priceline Group THE PRICELINE GROUP INC. PCLN -1.3111%
The fast-growing travel biz has just 4% global market share, leaving plenty of room to expand.

2. Buy 10 shares of Apple APPLE INC. AAPL 1.2301%
The Mac daddy has a dividend yield of 1.9% and a cheap price/earnings ratio of 14.1.

3. Buy 50 shares of Ford FORD MOTOR CO. F 0.9889%
The automaker has a P/E of 10.5, a 2.8% dividend yield, and a record (5%) market share in China.

4. Grab the last of the great TVs
While they’re considered superior to LCDs—for having deeper blacks and any-angle viewing—plasma TVs haven’t been profitable enough for manufacturers, so most are curbing production. LG is one of the last in the game, and its ­60-inch 60PB6900 smart TV (around $1,000) has apps to stream digital content and 3-D performance besting its peers. Get the extended warranty, since a service company would have to replace the TV if parts are no longer available.

5. Kick tension to the curb with yoga…
Half of workers say they’re less productive due to stress, the American Psychological Association found; worse, research from the nonprofit Health Enhancement Research Organization found that health care expenses are 46% higher for stressed-out employees. Regularly practicing yoga can help modulate stress responses, according to a report from Harvard Medical School. Classes cost about $15 to $20 a pop, which means that $1,000 will keep you doing downward dog twice a week for about half a year.

6. …Or acupuncture
A recent article in the Journal of Endocrinology found a connection between acupuncture and stress relief. Your insurer may cover treatment, but if not, sessions run $60 to $120 a piece. So you can treat yourself to around 10 to 15 with $1,000.

7. …Or biking
Research suggests that 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So take a bike ride after work. The ­Giant Defy 2 ($1,075) is one of the best-value performance bikes out there, Ben Delaney of says.

8. Give your kids ­a jump on retirement
Assuming your kids earn at least a grand this year from a summer job or other employment, you can teach them the importance of saving for retirement by depositing $1,000 (or, if they earn more and you’re able, up to $5,500) into Roth IRAs in their names. Do so when the child is 17, and it’ll grow to over $18,400 by the time he’s 67 with a hypothetical 6% annual return, says Eau Claire, Wis., financial planner Kevin McKinley.

9. Get over your midlife crisis
Would getting behind the wheel of your dream vehicle make you feel a teensy bit better about reporting to a 30-year-old boss? Then sow your oats—for 24 hours. Both Hertz and Enterprise offer luxury rentals; you can find local outfits by searching for “exotic car rental” and your city. Gotham Dream Cars’ Boston-area location rents an Aston Martin Vantage Roadster for $895 a day.


Andrew B. Myers

10. Iron out your wrinkles
For a safer and cheaper alternative to going under the knife, try an injectable dermal filler. Dr. Michael Edwards, president of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, recommends Juvéderm Voluma XC, which consists of natural hyalu­ronic acid that helps smooth out deep lines and adds volume to cheeks and the jaw area. It lasts up to two years and costs near $1,000 per injection.

11. Live out a dream
Play in a fantasy world with these adult camps, which cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 with airfare: the four-day Adult Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala. ($650); the Culinary Institute of America’s two-day Wine Lovers Boot Camp in St. Helena, Calif. ($895); or the one-day World Poker Tournament camp in Vegas ($895).

12. Hire someone to fight with your folks
Is your parents’ home bursting at the seams with decades of clutter … er, memories? Save your breath—and sanity—by hiring a profes­sional organizer (find one at for them. Mom and Dad may listen more to an impartial party when it comes to deciding what to toss, says Austin organizer Yvette Clay. Focus on pile-up zones, like the basement, garage, and living room (together, $500 to $1,500).

13. Launch
A professional website will help you stand out to employers, says Jodi Glickman, author of Great on the Job. Buy the URL of your name for about $20 a year from GoDaddy and find a designer via Elance​.com or; $1,000 should get you a nice-looking site with a bio, blog, photos, and portfolio of your work.

14. Become a techie—or just learn to talk to one
Technical knowledge isn’t just for IT folks anymore. “Digital literacy is becoming a required skill,” says Paul McDonald, a senior executive director of staffing agency Robert Half International. Get up to speed with one of these strategies. Understanding how websites, videogames, and apps are built is useful to almost any job dealing in big data or search algorithms, says McDonald. Take a course in programming for nonprogrammers at ­ ($550), then get a year’s subscription to ($375) for more advanced online tutorials.

15. Get tweet smarts
Take a class to give you expertise—and confidence— in using social media and analyzing metrics. MediaBistro’s social media boot camp includes five live webcast sessions for $511, and you can add four weeks of classroom workshops with pros for $449. #olddognewtricks

16. Buy the Silicon Valley gear
Need a new laptop now that you’re a tech whiz? To best play the part, go with Apple’s MacBook Air ($999) or its big brother the MacBook Pro ($1,099). With a long battery life and powerful processors, the Air and Pro are the preferred picks for developers, coders, and designers, says’s Brian Westover.

David Kilpatrick—Alamy

17. Save your cellphone camera for selfies
Your most important memories shouldn’t be grainy. Get a digital SLR camera featuring a through-the-lens optical viewfinder, “which is still essential for shooting action,” says Lori Grunin of CNET. Her pick, Nikon’s D5300 ($1,050). Its 18–140mm lens produces sharp images shot quickly enough for most personal photography.

18. Class up your castle
Interior decorating can cost a fortune—insanely priced furnishings, plus a 30% commission., launched in 2012 and now in eight metro areas, upends the model. The site’s decorators charge hourly ($130 or less) and suggest affordable furnishings.

19-21. Hire a good manager
With only 10 C-notes, your mutual fund choices are limited by minimum investment requirements. Besides simply letting you in the door, these actively managed funds have relatively low fees and beat more than half their peers over three, five, and 10 years:
Oakmark Select large blend; 1.01% expenses
Schwab Dividend Equity large value, 0.89% expenses
Nicholas large growth, 0.73% expenses

22. Primp the powder room
Get a new sink and vanity for a refresh of your guest bathroom without a reno. You can find a combined vanity and sink set for under $650; figure another $100 to $200 each for faucet and labor.

23. Replace light fixtures
Subbing in new lighting in the dining room, the front hall, and possibly the kitchen can take 20 years off your house, suggests Pasadena realtor Curt Schultz. You’re likely to pay $100 to $400 per fixture, plus $50 to $100 for installation.

24. Swap out the front door
It’s the first impression guests and buyers have of your home. Look for a factory-finished door—possibly fiberglass if it’s a sunny southern or western ­exposure without an overhang. You could pay $1,000 for the door and the installation.

25. Catch up on retirement.
If you’re 50 or older, you can put in $1,000 more in an IRA (above the $5,500 normal limit) each year. Do so from 50 to 65, and you’ll have $27,000 more in retirement assuming you get a 6% annual return, per T. Rowe Price.

Ingolfur Bjargmundsson—Getty

26. Fly solo to see the Northern Lights
As more companies package deals to Iceland, prices are dropping, says Christie McConnell of You could recently find four-night packages with airfare, hotel, and tours for $800 a person. Go in late fall to see the Northern Lights.

27. Hit the beach in Hawaii
The islands are still working through the overbuilding of hotels that began before the recession, says Anne Banas of Three-night packages for fall with hotel and airfare start around $500 a person from the West Coast.

28. Give your car a makeover
You can’t get a new set of wheels for 1,000 smackers, but you can make your old car feel new(ish) again with this slew of maintenance fixes: A new set of tires ($600), a full car detail ($100), new wiper blades ($50), a wheel alignment ($150), and a synthetic oil change ($100). You’ve likely been putting these off until something breaks, but there’s good reason to do them all at once. Besides giving your car a smoother ride, “this preventative maintenance will help you nurse your car longer, while also saving some gas,” says Bill Visnic, senior editor at New car smell not included.

29. Make like (early) Gordon Gekko
Wall Street buyout firms KKR and Carlyle are inviting Main Street investors into private equity funds for $10,000 and $50,000, respectively. Want to play the game with less scratch? Invest $1,000 in Blackstone GroupBLACKSTONE GROUP LP, THE BX -0.1511% . Shares of the private equity giant have a 5.1% yield and a cheap P/E of 8.5, plus Blackstone is a top-notch alternative-asset firm, says Morningstar’s Stephen Ellis.

30-32. Put your donations to work where they’ll do the most good
Groups that focus on improving healthcare in the developing world have some of the best measurable outcomes of all charities, says Charlie Bresler, CEO of The Life You Can Save. Many of the supplies used to improve and save lives, like vaccines or mosquito nets, cost pennies to produce, he says, and surgeries that cost tens of thousands in the U.S. can be performed for a few hundred bucks overseas. Three great organizations working in those areas: SEVA Foundation, which works to prevent blindness; Deworm the World, which seeks to eradicate worms and other parasitic bacterial disease; Fistula foundation, which provides surgical services to women with childbirth injuries.

33. Defend the fort
An alarm system can pare as much as 20% from a homeowner’s policy, and the latest ones have neat bells and whistles. Honeywell’s LYNX Touch 7000 (starting at $500, plus $25 to $60 a month) links to four cameras that stream live video. It randomly switches on lights to make an empty home look occupied—and can detect a flood and shut down water.

34. Enjoy a buffet of entertainment
The average cable bill is expected to hit $123 a month in 2015—or $1476 a year—according to the NPD group. What if we told you you could cut the cord, redeploy $1,000 of that to getting two years worth of the following digital libraries, and still bank about 500 bucks? Yeah, we thought so.
For old movies and TV shows…get Netflix ($7.99-$8.99/month). Analysts estimate the company’s library is much larger than that of Amazon Prime.
For current TV shows…watch via Hulu ($7.99/month), which offers episodes from more than 600 shows that are currently on air.
For music…stream with Spotify Premium ($9.99/month). The premium version lets you skip commercials and listen to millions of songs even offline.
For books…read via Kindle Unlimited ($9.99/month). You can access the company’s library of more than 600,000 ebooks and audiobooks with one of its free reading apps, which work Apple, Android or Windows Phone devices.

35. Protect your heirs.
For about $1,000 you can have a will, durable power of attorney, and health care directive written up. Find an estate planner at

Related: 24 Things to Do With $10,000 Now
Tell Us: What Would You Do With $1,000?

MONEY home improvement

$209 Created This Office Alcove

After: Opening up the closet helped give the family access to more precious floor space. Planked walls and a desk finished with bin pulls fit with the home's Craftsman cottage look. Six drawers and two upper cabinets offer plenty of room for stashing school supplies and paperwork. Courtesy of This Old House

Tight quarters often inspire creative solutions. Just ask Carrie Gray, who dreamed up this charming office nook after years of having only a single drawer in which to store supplies and lesson plans for homeschooling her four children.

To create a workspace in their small 1914 bungalow, in Chardon, Ohio, veteran DIYers Carrie and her husband, Mark, cleared out a wide catch-all closet in the family’s dining room and cut away the wall beside the door to open up the recess.

Finding the closet’s plaster in rough shape and not wanting to invest the time or money for a redo, Mark used a nail gun to attach 6-inch planks of plywood to the walls, ceiling, and floor; then Carrie painted them white. Mark added an area rug underfoot, cut to fit the space.

To make a perfect-size desk from a secondhand dresser, he cut out the middle drawers to create knee room; Carrie painted the base white, and Mark added new cottage-style bin pulls and reattached the top. After wiring in a new sconce, Mark installed two wall cabinets made from old cabinet boxes, leftover lumber, and 100-year-old glass taken from their kitchen in a previous remodel. To finish the nook, he trimmed the opening using leftover plywood, baseboards, and MDF. Now, Carrie says, “It’s the one space that I have to myself in the house, and I love it.”

Before: The wide closet had a narrow doorway, making it a tricky storage spot with a lot of wasted space. Courtesy of This Old House
The Project Tally:
• Removed the closet wall to make an open nook $0
•Covered the walls, ceiling, and floor with plywood cut into planks $60
•Added an area rug underfoot, cut to fit the shape of the space $15


For the fully tally, see the original story at This Old House.

MONEY home improvement

The This Old House Great Giveaway

This Old House giveaway promo

The folks over at MONEY’s fellow Time Inc. site, This Old House, are giving away $728,840 in home products in “The Great TOH Giveaway” sweepstakes.

You could win one of the hundreds of prize packages, including kitchen appliances and utensils, hardwood floors, master bath fixtures, vacuum cleaners, cruise vacations, stereo systems, a new roof, windows, window treatments, and more!

Go to to choose which prizes you’d like to enter to win. You can pick them all, or check only the prizes you want. Enter every day between now and September 2 for more chances to win.

The $468 Farmhouse Kitchen
The Best Yard Tools for Your Money
4 (Mostly) Cheap and Easy Ways to Green Up Your Grass

MONEY home improvement

4 (Mostly) Cheap and Easy Ways to Green Up Your Grass

Greening up the grass
Jason Schneider

Brown patches and weeds getting you down this summer? To keep your turf lush and thick, try some of these cost-effective tactics.

Does it feel like the grass really is greener in other people’s yards? Summer’s heat and low rainfall are tough on turf, so neighbors sporting lush lawns this time of year probably have better species of grass, higher-quality topsoil, and automatic irrigation. You, too, can have all that—for perhaps $10,000 or more—with a complete lawn replacement. Or you can try more affordable approaches to keeping your existing grass verdant.

Mow smarter

“Taller grass holds more moisture and stays greener than short grass,” says Mark Schmidt, principal scientist at John Deere. “Plus, it shades the soil, helping to keep the roots wet.” Set your mower deck to three inches (or as high as it will go). Also, inspect the grass right ­after mowing. Jagged tears indicate that the blade is dull, and these wounds sap moisture from the plants. Get a replacement blade for $10 to $40 or take your mower for a tune-up ($75 to $200), which includes blade sharpening.

Do not feed the plants

When a lawn turns brown, it’s not dead—it’s just gone dormant to save energy for cooler, wetter times. You may be tempted to apply fertilizer and weed control, but if not done right, those chemicals can burn a heat-stressed lawn, says Oregon State University horticulture professor Alec Kowalewski.

Water on schedule

Dragging around the hose and sprinklers to hydrate parched grass may do more harm than good. “Coming in and out of dormancy can kill the lawn,” says John Stier, a playing-field consultant to several National Football League teams. “So don’t water unless you’re going to be superconsistent about watering all season long.” That’s probably not realistic with manual efforts, so either let nature take its course or go for automatic irrigation, a $2,000 to $4,000 expense for which there really isn’t a good low-cost workaround. To maximize your investment, ask the installer to arrange sprinkler heads into zones based on the quirks of your property so that shady, sunny, poorly drained, and sloped areas can get programmed for their own watering needs. Opt for a rain sensor too (around $150), which will override sprinklers when Mother Nature provides irrigation for free.

Aerate in autumn

Whether or not you irrigate, think of lawn restoration as a multi­season project. In the fall, plan to aerate—cutting hundreds of holes to loosen the soil—and top with compost and a mix of grass seed bred for your climate ($500 to $1,000 to hire out the job). Repeat for several seasons, and you’ll gradually improve the soil and grass type, making your lawn more drought-resistant, and yours the greener side of the fence.

MONEY home improvement

Which Areas Will Spend the Most on Home Improvements This Year?

The homebuilders association estimated home improvement spending for this year. Porch adjusted the numbers to take cost of living into account. So who will spend the most?

We talk a lot at Porch about how much money is spent on home improvements, but the National Association of Home Builders’ estimates of 2014 spending on improvements by zip code is a good breakdown of just how much money is being spent, even all the way down to your local neighborhood.

According to the NAHB, the average zip code in America will see over $5 million spent on home improvement this year. That’s a lot of new roofs, landscaping, and remodels.

On average, total spending on improvements in a zip code is projected to be about $5.1 million in 2014. The top 5 total-spending zip codes are all in Maryland, Texas, or Illinois. Each of these top 5 zips contains at least 15,000 owner-occupied homes and home owners who average at least $145,000 in income and are 60 percent or more college educated. Most of these top 5 zips don’t have an unusually large share of homes in the key vintage for remodeling (homes built from 1960 to 1979), except for the zip at the very top of the list—#20854 in Maryland, a close-in suburb of Washington DC. 20854 is the only zip where over $60 million in spending on improvements is projected for 2014, and over half the owner-occupied homes in that zip were built 1960-1979.

See NAHB’s heat map of average remodeling spend per home by zip code. Lots of heavy activity in the northeast, Colorado, SoCal, and San Francisco Bay Area.

Here’s the NAHB’s list for all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Read on to see how I adjusted these figures for cost-of-living.

NAHB 2014 Spending Projections by State

1 District of Columbia 110,668 $299.6 $2,707
2 Connecticut 913,482 $1,961.7 $2,147
3 New Jersey 2,099,380 $4,471.1 $2,130
4 Maryland 1,459,393 $3,106.4 $2,129
5 Massachusetts 1,583,170 $3,351.2 $2,117
6 California 6,863,765 $14,053.1 $2,047
7 Hawaii 260,435 $529.5 $2,033
8 Colorado 1,320,302 $2,659.0 $2,014
9 Virginia 2,059,305 $4,136.8 $2,009
10 Alaska 161,691 $315.9 $1,954
11 New Hampshire 372,053 $723.4 $1,944
12 New York 3,894,151 $7,569.7 $1,944
13 Washington 1,690,642 $3,203.4 $1,895
14 Rhode Island 248,947 $470.3 $1,889
15 Minnesota 1,536,021 $2,840.5 $1,849
16 Vermont 185,244 $340.5 $1,838
17 Illinois 3,195,820 $5,866.9 $1,836
18 Utah 653,230 $1,189.1 $1,820
19 Oregon 953,810 $1,735.2 $1,819
20 North Dakota 199,492 $362.5 $1,817
21 Texas 5,825,370 $10,288.5 $1,766
22 Delaware 249,624 $436.2 $1,747
23 Nebraska 498,327 $861.8 $1,729
24 Kansas 750,703 $1,295.5 $1,726
25 Montana 278,602 $478.7 $1,718
26 Arizona 1,555,284 $2,669.8 $1,717
27 Georgia 2,310,104 $3,953.1 $1,711
28 Wisconsin 1,558,251 $2,628.8 $1,687
29 Pennsylvania 3,444,645 $5,805.0 $1,685
30 Florida 4,867,931 $8,165.4 $1,677
31 Wyoming 158,372 $265.6 $1,677
32 New Mexico 526,208 $864.4 $1,643
33 Oklahoma 986,719 $1,619.6 $1,641
34 Missouri 1,614,450 $2,636.4 $1,633
35 Ohio 3,045,022 $4,969.2 $1,632
36 North Carolina 2,534,475 $4,132.5 $1,631
37 Nevada 580,080 $942.8 $1,625
38 South Dakota 224,676 $363.2 $1,617
39 Idaho 415,126 $670.6 $1,615
40 Iowa 898,866 $1,451.5 $1,615
41 Michigan 2,739,690 $4,420.4 $1,613
42 Louisiana 1,161,174 $1,873.1 $1,613
43 Maine 402,697 $646.4 $1,605
44 Tennessee 1,694,955 $2,684.2 $1,584
45 South Carolina 1,264,229 $1,997.5 $1,580
46 Alabama 1,292,936 $2,017.3 $1,560
47 Indiana 1,747,919 $2,697.0 $1,543
48 Kentucky 1,159,697 $1,787.3 $1,541
49 Arkansas 771,194 $1,178.6 $1,528
50 Mississippi 755,676 $1,131.7 $1,498
51 West Virginia 538,188 $782.4 $1,454

In general, the states at the top of the list are mostly high-cost areas, and those at the bottom are lower-cost areas. So I adjusted the list based on first quarter 2014 cost of living data to get a better sense of which states are going to be doing more home improvement in 2014.

NAHB 2014 Spending Projections Adjusted for Cost of Living

1 Virginia 97.0 $2,071
2 Colorado 100.4 $2,006
3 Utah 93.0 $1,957
4 District of Columbia 139.6 $1,939
5 Illinois 95.5 $1,922
6 Texas 92.8 $1,903
7 Kansas 91.3 $1,890
8 Nebraska 91.7 $1,886
9 Washington 102.6 $1,847
10 Georgia 92.7 $1,846
11 Minnesota 101.8 $1,817
12 Oklahoma 90.4 $1,816
13 North Dakota 100.4 $1,810
14 Maryland 117.7 $1,808
15 Wyoming 93.2 $1,799
16 Tennessee 89.7 $1,765
17 New Mexico 93.4 $1,759
18 Iowa 92.5 $1,746
19 Massachusetts 121.3 $1,745
20 Missouri 93.7 $1,743
21 Montana 98.6 $1,743
22 Ohio 94.1 $1,734
23 Michigan 93.9 $1,718
24 Connecticut 125.2 $1,715
25 Idaho 94.2 $1,715
26 Kentucky 90.0 $1,712
27 Wisconsin 98.8 $1,708
28 Mississippi 87.8 $1,706
29 Indiana 90.7 $1,701
30 Louisiana 95.3 $1,693
31 Alabama 92.4 $1,689
32 Arizona 101.8 $1,686
33 Florida 99.7 $1,682
34 New Hampshire 116.1 $1,675
35 New Jersey 127.6 $1,669
36 North Carolina 97.8 $1,667
37 Pennsylvania 101.6 $1,659
38 Delaware 105.7 $1,653
39 Arkansas 92.5 $1,652
40 South Dakota 98.3 $1,645
41 South Carolina 96.1 $1,644
42 Nevada 100.2 $1,622
43 California 127.1 $1,611
44 Vermont 117.2 $1,568
45 Rhode Island 120.9 $1,563
46 Oregon 121.7 $1,495
47 Alaska 131.8 $1,482
48 West Virginia 98.6 $1,474
49 New York 132.2 $1,470
50 Maine 109.7 $1,463
51 Hawaii 162.9 $1,248

After adjusting for by how expensive each state is, the top five for home improvement activity in 2014 are Virginia, Colorado, Utah, the District of Columbia, and Illinois. The bottom five are Alaska, West Virginia, New York, Maine, and Hawaii.

Bottom line: If you live in a state near the top of the list, don’t expect that you’ll have a lot of flexibility on schedule or price when working with a pro for your home improvement project since lots of your neighbors are probably planning similar projects, too. If you’re in a state near the bottom of the list, you might have a little more leeway.

More from Porch:
Tips to Conserve Water in Your Home
Should You DIY Your Bedroom Remodel?
These 5 States Love Pianos Almost as Much as TVs

Tim Ellis is a data journalist for home improvement website Porch.

MONEY Shopping

Smart Money Advice for Rookie Gardeners

Gnomes at the Gnome Reserve, Devon, UK.
Gnomes at the Gnome Reserve, Devon, UK. MBP-one—Alamy

Before you dig in with plans for a big garden project, or an entirely new garden, consider this brutally honest advice from some experts in the field.

When the clueless aspiring gardener heads down to the local garden-supply shop or home improvement store and randomly scoops up whatever looks good, two results are likely: He’ll blow a ton of money, and not much will grow as planned. Yes, to some extent, gardening is a matter of trial and error. But completely winging it, without doing much in the way of doing research or seeking sound, practical advice from folks with experience, will be an exercise in futility—and wasteful spending.

Sources such as This Old House and Southern Living’s Grumpy Gardener blog are undoubtedly trustworthy and worth exploring for recommendations and insights. I’ve also come to enjoy the advice, attitude, and outspoken and opinionated takes on gardening at Garden Rant, an independent group blog featuring the work of gardening writers around the country.

We asked a few of the Garden Ranters to name the best (and worst) ways to spend money when trying to get a garden growing. All agree that there are smart and not-so-smart ways to allocate one’s landscaping budget, and they promised not to pull punches, especially when it comes to anything they consider a total waste of money.

Best Way to Spend Your Gardening Dollars
Here are some areas where it doesn’t pay to skimp. They may not be the sexiest or most eye-catching aspects of gardening—heck, they may not even be things that a newbie gardener thinks of for half a second—but they’ll help you lay the foundation for a beautiful yard, so they’re more valuable than even the prettiest plant.

According to Ranter Evelyn Hadden, the overall look of the garden can be defined by the stuff that doesn’t grow at all—namely, manmade structures like paths, patios, and walls. “Put in the right hardscape,” she says, “and the garden will feel comfortable and more finished even while the plants are small. Invest a little more in artistic paving and walls that will provide winter beauty.”

Structural Plants
Susan Harris, who recently launched, a resource for gardeners and garden lovers in greater Washington, D.C., stresses the importance of basics such as shrubs, trees, and groundcover. Sure, they “may not ‘pop’ with floral display, but they’re the plants that make the garden in three years or so,” says Harris. Garden Rant colleague Elizabeth Licata is on the same page concerning the importance of structural plants. “Trees and shrubs also provide important habitat for birds and beneficial insects,” she says.

Trustworthy Gardening Books
Ivette Soler, the Ranter also known as The Germinatrix, advises against solely relying on the Internet for gardening information. “Buy the classic garden books for your climate and area of interest,” she says. “Many of the resources on Internet search engines are conflicting, confusing, or just give you a tiny bite of pertinent info. Go old-school and buy books. Look for the big, heavy books brimming with horticultural knowledge, and make sure the information is applicable to the area of the U.S. where you garden.”

For people living in the West, for instance, the Sunset Western Garden Book comes heavily recommended. No matter where you live, America’s Garden Book, featuring the input of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s staff, and Hortus Third: A Concise Dictionary of Plants Cultivated in the United States and Canada, are worthwhile classics.

Design Help
Even if you always imagined a garden as a purely DIY project, it’s wise to consult a professional landscape designer. (You can find them in your area listed here.) Using a pro to help with your overall garden design may save years of failure. “Good designers know the right places for the right plants,” says Harris. Licata points out that a designer can provide the equivalent of a handsome frame, which the artist—i.e., you—can fill with a changing palette of color and texture.

Hired Muscle
For hardscape installation and big yard cleanup jobs, don’t be a hero. Harris and Licata, among others, say that they save their backs for the fun stuff, and they never regret paying a crew of landscapers for a hard day’s work.

Worst Ways to Spend Your Gardening Dollars
Alongside your home itself, a garden can easily turn into a money pit. Stay away from the following traps that snag too many rookie gardeners.

Fancy Overpriced Plants
The kinds of books recommended above should clue you in as to what kinds of plants do well in your neck of the woods, as will a rudimentary look around at what’s flourishing in your neighbor’s yards. On the other hand, be wary of obscure and unproven plants, even if they are gorgeous in the store.

Licata cautions against the fancy hybrids of tried-and-true perennials: “Those glow-in-the-dark, double Echinacea (coneflower) may look great for one season, but they are not as hardy and reliable as the original pink varieties.” The biggest difference between the hybrids and their native forebears, she ways, is in price.

“And beware of those big, fat perennials,” adds Allen Bush, who works at wholesale producer and seller Jelitto Seeds. “They look tempting, but the smaller sizes soon catch up in size, and they’re cheaper and easier to plant, too.”

Seed Starting Kits
“If you’re not detail-oriented, save yourself some headaches and spring for the little plants,” Hadden advises. “Or start with easy seeds like sunflowers and peas that you plant directly in the ground.” Licata notes that in areas with short summers such as New England, seed-starters must emulate greenhouse conditions in order to be successful. That’s just beyond the capabilities of many home gardeners.

Commercial Pesticides and Fertilizers
Landscaping companies constantly mail out fliers to homeowners or call up out of the blue to give the sales pitch for special garden or lawn treatments. The Ranters say that homeowners should pass. “Not only are these expensive, most of the chemicals literally flow down the drain, polluting our waterways,” says Licata. “Even home applications of the store-bought potions can be expensive. And they often don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

Instead, she suggests that gardeners make their own compost and simply spread shredded leaves as a natural mulch. An organic garden creates its own protection against pests. Weeds in an organic lawn can be tolerated under the “mow what grows” policy, says Harris. And in perennial gardens, tight planting of healthy plants make weeding minimal or nonexistent.

Mass-Produced Garden “Art”
Soler is emphatic on this. “Just say no to tchotchkes!” she declares. “Let flowers, foliage, and hummingbirds be the art in your garden, plus a few high-quality pots.”

MONEY home improvement

Swimming Pools: Valuable Home Upgrade or Just a Pain in the Wallet?

Is Lisa Gibbs' pool a valuable upgrade or just annoying? She says "both."

The average inground pool costs about $22,000. Worth it? Yeah, but not because it will increase your resale value.

That lovely patio and pool you see in this photo is my Fort Lauderdale backyard. As summer steams in, maybe you’re dreaming of a similar view.

Before you call the contractor and start picking out float toys, let’s make sure you know what you’re getting into.

The average in-ground swimming pool costs $21,919, according to home improvement site Fixr. And that’s for a pretty basic 32’ by 16’ model. (Eleven years ago, we spent about $24,000 on our pool plus that pavered patio.)

But that’s just to build the thing. Then you have to take care of it.

Not only are we basically lazy people, my husband and I learned that keeping a pool clean and clear is actually tricky business. After a few too many “Ooh, why is your pool water green” comments (we have a salt pool, so no algae-killing chlorine), we gave in and 911-ed the pool service company.

Cost: $85 a month, plus an extra $1,000 or so a year for annual maintenance items (new filters, etc.) Then there’s the pool vacuum we had to replace last year ($600) and now we’re dealing with frequent leaks. At 11 years old, our pool needs resurfacing—that’ll be $2,500 please.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the patio furniture we need to replace (the Florida heat, storms and salty air is hell on outdoor surfaces), the new layer of sand we need to throw on the patio every year or so and the outdoor sound system we “had to have.” Finally, a pool pump and, if you go that way, a heating system will absolutely up your utility bill, and it will almost certainly bump up your homeowner insurance premiums because of the increased exposure to liability.

But at least we’ll get our money back when we sell our home, right?

Well, not so fast.

Remodeling surveys and real estate agents seem to agree: A swimming pool is probably a wash in terms of cost vs. value, and it depends on the area.

In sunny states like where I live, a pool is practically standard equipment for any family-size home. If every house on the block has a pool, the lack of one will subtract from a buyer’s perception of value.

That said, even in Florida, some buyers are wary either of safety issues—especially if they have very young children—and the maintenance costs. Massachusetts agent Kimberly Kent sums up the annoying ambiguity of it: “A pool is a great selling feature for those buyers who want one, and a major detractor for those who are absolutely against one.” See other agent comments on this Zillow thread.

In northern climes, a pool is a tougher sell. As agent and Zillow consumer expert Brendon DeSimone told me, it’s “too specific.” Meaning, it’s uncommon enough that buyers don’t expect it and are more likely to run away from the costs and effort.

One sign of a pool’s popularity in your area may be the sheer number of pool service companies: Check out Porch’s take on the top and bottom “pool-loving states.” A few of them are a bit head-scratching: Wyoming? Really?

Clearly, “value” goes beyond money recouped in a home sale.

When we put in the pool, our kids were 7 and 5 years old, respectively. The pool provided a lot of easy entertainment on a lot of slow summer days, not just for the two of them but for their gazillion closest friends. Now that they’re surly teens, guess how many times they’ve gone in the pool lately? Yeah, exactly zero. Still, we got years of pleasure out of it and still do.

Nothing beats being able to splash in my pool at the end of a hot day (well, at least after the afternoon thunderstorm passes) and, at the very least, my lovely backyard provides a nice mental oasis to stare at when I need a break from my office and the incessant demands of my slavedriver bosses.

I’m confident that my own thousands of dollars has been money well spent. But I’m also looking forward to the day when I can stop paying the pool guy and just do my swimming in places like these: World’s Coolest Hotel Pools

MONEY home improvement

Remodeling Your Deck: When to DIY, When to Hire a Pro

Large Back Deck
Chuck Schmidt—Getty Images

Before attempting a DIY deck remodel, consider the risks and rewards. You may want to hire a pro instead.

Remodeling your wood deck can be a great way to rejuvenate your outdoor living space and update your home’s whole look. Instructions for tackling your own deck remodel without the help of professionals are readily available. But why go DIY? Labor constitutes 50%-60% of typical project costs, so remodeling your deck yourself can certainly save money in the short term. However, depending upon your exact deck needs, attempting to remodel your deck yourself could cost you more than you think it will. Before you attempt a DIY deck remodel, consider all of the factors.

Understand your deck remodel plan

First, think about your needs and wants. Does your deck require a full remodel, an addition or just a bit of maintenance? Would you like to update your deck’s look to keep up with changing styles? Or do you love your deck as it is, but just want it to look new again?

Understanding your deck remodel plan is the first step in knowing whether it’s a better choice to go DIY or to leave your project to a professional. Check out projects in your neighborhood on Porch to get inspired and see what’s feasible within your budget. Having a very clear understanding of the scope of the project will enable you to decide who should do the work.

Prepare for a time commitment

A deck remodel may sound like a fun weekend project, but even a simple-looking wood deck can be deceptively estimates that just a 12 x 24 foot elevated deck with a staircase and railing will take an experienced professional and a laborer one to three weeks to build.

A qualified deck-building professional has the experience necessary to remodel a deck using the correct materials and building it to code. A pro will provide you with a project timeline, and will have access to the resources necessary to keep things on schedule. In addition, a pro will have experience in handling project hiccups, such as uncovering dry rot or discovering sinking deck footing, without letting the timeline get too far off track. If common problems like these arise, having a professional on the job could mean the difference between having finished deck in time for summer and having a money pit that gets stalled until the following year.

Deck remodel permits

If your remodel constitutes anything more major than a simple sanding and refinishing, you may need a construction permit to do it legally. Obtaining a permit involves calling your local building department or municipal offices to learn which permit or permits your project will require. Then you’ll need to fill out your permit applications and submit them to the building department, along with a copy of your construction plans, a property survey, and a filing fee. You’ll need to accomplish all of this before you begin your project. You could do this yourself and struggle over that learning curve, or you can leave it to a pro who’s already well familiar with the process.

Superficial flaws vs. underlying issues

If your deck is solidly built but the surfaces are dull, weathered, or dirty, then a pressure-washing and refinishing treatment could transform your deck’s look, making it feel like new without a pricey remodel. These procedures can be undertaken by a homeowner and can generally be completed over a weekend. Check your local home improvement store for renting or purchasing equipment and supplies (such as pressure washers, power sanders, varnishes, oils, and application tools) that you’ll need to finish your project.

However, if your deck is showing signs of wear like wobbly stairs, soft wood or separating planks, there’s a possibility that it’s also become structurally unsound. In fact, the existing deck structure may not have been legally constructed to begin with. To fully assess the structural integrity of the deck, hire a professional. A licensed deck building professional will be able to quickly identify problems such as rot, improper construction, or a sinking foundation, so that you can target your efforts and avoid wasting money on a deck remodel that fails to correct major structural problems.

Safety is a must with deck remodels

Hiring a pro to do your deck remodel can help you avoid or fix many common DIY deck-building problems that will make even a new deck unsafe, such as improperly spaced railings or insufficient drainage systems. Even a deck that was originally constructed by a pro should be professionally screened every year for safety and code requirements. Rain, sun, wind, and other environmental stressors can take their toll on even a well-made deck and cause serious problems. This could lead to anything from a sagging platform to a full collapse. In fact, data collected from the Consumer Products Safety Commission shows that thousands of injuries occur every year which result from wooden deck failures.

Check out for deck safety tips, including a helpful Check Your Deck consumer checklist. Then use Porch to find a professional who can ensure that your deck remodel will meet you and your family’s needs for decades to come.

Anne Reagan is the editor-in-chief of home improvement website

MONEY home improvement

8 Ways to Make Your Home a Staycation Paradise


Staying home this summer doesn't have to be a bummer. Use these pro tips to maximize your outdoor space and create a spectacular retreat.

Longing to escape? Summertime entertainment and relaxation doesn’t have to mean taking a trip away from home. The most enjoyable outdoor retreats incorporate basic, and familiar, elements: earth (landscaping, container gardens), water (fountains, swimming pools), and fire (firepit, candles). Add to that quality outdoor furniture, some fun elements and thoughtful design, and your deck, balcony, porch, or patio can easily become a destination. Designing outdoor entertaining areas in your home takes a bit of planning, but these tips can help turn your basic backyard into a staycation paradise.

Before you begin, be sure your outdoor areas are safe and in good condition. Call a decking contractor if you feel your deck might need reinforcement or repair. Cracks in the patio can be hazardous; fill them in or replace the damaged sections. Prepping your outdoor area is no different than preparing your interior rooms. Start with a good clean slate you can enjoy all summer long.

1. Establish your entertaining zones

Maximize your outdoor space by setting up specific zones or areas. Think of your outside space like the inside of your home: Do you want space for cooking and eating as well as a bar? Do you want special seating for lounging or hosting guests? Do you want everyone to face a particular view? Even if your outdoor area is small, you can still create various “zones” by arranging the furniture or containers. Help define the different areas by adding outdoor throw rugs, using containers as “room” dividers, or letting an arbor or gazebo create a separate space. Don’t forget that even the farthest areas can be focal points. A distant tree is a perfect place for a bench, a small hill can be a spot for a birdbath.

Pro tip: Even the smallest of outdoor spaces can have zones. If you only have a small balcony, consider creating good transition spaces from the indoor to outdoor areas. If you want to grill on the deck but need to eat inside, make sure that the transition between the two feels connected. Or simply reserve the balcony for a cozy post-dinner spot.

2. Give the eye a place to rest

Not every home has a million-dollar view, but even an undesirable background can be made to feel pretty. Looking at natural greenery and giving our eyes a chance to rest upon nature is a great way to make a space feel larger. Arrange your outdoor zones so that guests face a trellis “wall” of ivy or fast-growing bamboo. Or add a small fountain, birdbath or pretty ceramic container as a focal point. Tall objects, like trees, arbors or fences, make the eye travel upwards, creating a larger sense of space.

Pro tip: If your space allows, think about arranging your outdoor furniture zones around focal points. For example, lounge chairs could be grouped around a fire pit, or the dining table could be placed so that the guests view a beautiful tree or outdoor swing.

3. Maximize usable space

Clear and trim away low hanging branches to open up the view, sweep away leftover spring debris, power-wash hard surfaces, and organize storage areas. Not only will cleaning and clearing the outdoor space make it usable, it will make it safer to walk around and play outside, even when the sun goes down. Make sure to leave enough room around high traffic areas like doorways and grills. If you’ve been thinking about extending the patio with paving stones, call in an expert to level the area and add drainage. Now is the time to make your outdoor areas available for entertaining and fun!

Pro tip: Landscaping crews can be hired to do a summertime cleanup of your yard, including power washing, trimming and hauling away debris. You can also ask neighbors to organize a front yard clean-up event so that the whole neighborhood benefits from an upgrade.

Related: Make a Landscaping Budget You Can Stick To

4. Add color to create movement

Believe it or not, as our eyes travel around a space, the mind is tricked into thinking that the space is larger than it is. Create a larger-than-life entertaining area by adding pops of color that force the eye to travel throughout the yard. A collection of flowers in colorful containers, decorative pillows on the seating, or strategically placed garden whimsey will create movement as well as style. Whether you prefer a monochromatic color scheme or want a multi-hued yard, variation creates movement and depth that will make the area feel spacious and retreat-like.

Pro tip: Having trouble choosing outdoor colors? Head to your closet! We tend to wear colors we love so if you gravitate towards blues or purples, consider adding those hues to the yard. Warmer tones like red, orange or pink also coordinate well with lots of greenery.

5. Play interior decorator

The most desirable outdoor spaces look and feel as though a professional designed them. Many professionals like landscape designers, interior designers, and even home stagers, can be hired for a consultation. Their advice might be just the help you need to get your outdoor retreat started. If you want to DIY this project, much of this work can be achieved by simply taking the time to think about your outdoor space as you do your indoor space. If your outdoor space is subject to the elements, start with high-quality outdoor furniture that is designed to last, and purchase a fitted protective cover. If you like to change your colors each season, purchase cushions from a source that will allow you to buy covers separately – this way you can be assured of a good fit from summer to summer. Don’t be afraid of adding patterns or colors; the expansive sky outside allows a lot of room for bold designs.

Pro tip: The best time to find trendy outdoor decor is in the spring. But even old pieces can be given new life with a fresh coat of paint. Scrub away moss and dirt and be sure to use spray paint in a well ventilated area. Experiment with stencils or painter’s tape to create unique designs from season to season.

6. Bring inside elements out

Anytime you can bring your favorite indoor designs outside, it creates an environment that feels tailor-made and unique. Adding an outdoor chandelier, laying down an outdoor-safe rug, or setting the table with quality linens and real silverware will help make your outdoor space feel inviting. Outdoor buffet tables or console tables are not only functional, they make outdoor entertaining easy and the space feel customized.

Pro tip: Do not use an indoor-rated lamp outside. It’s not sealed against moisture and may corrode, possibly causing electrical hazards. Outdoor-rated pendants are easy to find. Keep in mind you can always spray paint to the desired color or use a candle chandelier for added elegance.

7. Just add water and fire

A true destination not only allows us to escape, it draws us in and makes us feel welcome. Both fire and water elements instantly transform an outdoor space into something really exclusive. People have always gathered around a fire for warmth, safety and food. Large outdoor fireplaces or small tabletop versions create an immediate gravitational pull. Candles or outdoor string lighting can help create a similar ambience. Group them en masse to create a stronger affect. Similarly, not every outdoor space can have a swimming pool, water feature, or pond. But a bubbling water fountain can be a great substitute and can be found in a variety of sizes and prices.

Pro tip: It’s easy to build your own water feature. You’ll need a container or receptacle that can hold water as well as a small pump (like this submersible pond pump, available for $15). Decorate the water feature with water plants, rocks or water-safe pond lights. You’ll need to place the fountain close to an exterior outlet and be sure to add anti-mosquito drops to the fountain to keep it bug-free.

8. Mimic your favorite vacation spot

If you desire a true paradise in your own backyard, go ahead and add elements that remind you of your favorite retreats. Love the beach? A grass umbrella, beach chair, fluffy towels and seashells can make you feel like you’ve escaped. Is your ideal vacation filled with quiet reading time while submersed in nature? Style a cozy reading nook next to a bubbling water fountain and scented plants like rosemary or lavender. Adding reminders of your favorite hotel or vacation spots can help you extend your holiday time without leaving the home.

Pro tip: Want to incorporate elements of your favorite hotel or spa? Make a list of the top 10 items that remind you of that place: the scenery, the scents, the view, the colors, particular designs…you can probably find replicas of these pieces and add them to your outdoor area.

More from Porch:
Who Builds More Decks: Boston or Dallas?
Tiny Yard? Best Tips for Creating a Big Garden

Anne Reagan is the editor-in-chief of home improvement website

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