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 home improvement

Lumber Liquidators Drops Chinese Flooring Suppliers

Lumber Liquidators has dropped some Chinese-made laminate flooring after reports surfaced it contained toxic levels of formaldehyde.

MONEY home improvement

The Best Garden Tools for Mom

gardening tools
Andrew Unangst—Getty Images

Q: My wife and I started a gardening seriously a couple of years ago, and I want to get her some solid, high-quality tools for Mother’s Day to replace the standard “homeowner-grade” junk we’ve been using. Can you recommend a good basic set?

A: Gardening tools are one of those purchases where you really do get what you pay for. Affordable, light-duty products will inevitably snap, bend, or fall apart if you put them through anything more strenuous than, say, planting annuals each spring. And you’ll find that top-of-the-line tools also make laborious tasks easier. Here’s a roundup of high-quality yet reasonably affordable basic gardening gear.

Hand pruner: For everything from clipping overgrown bushes to removing spent flowers so a plant can produce more blooms, you’ll want a good set of bypass pruners, such as those made by Felco ($53 at homedepot.com).

Hand tool set: Look for heavy-duty metal hand tools, such as Lee Valley’s 3-piece set ($62 at leevalley.com), plus Fiskar’s tool apron, ($13 at amazon.com), which is designed to wrap around a standard 5-gallon bucket (about $3 at any home center) so you can carry all your tools and supplies in one hand.

Cart/seat: Gardening means getting down into the dirt, either by kneeling or sitting on a comfortable seat. A Tractor Scoot ($90 from gardeners.com) is a seat plus a storage bin set on chunky wheels.

Gloves: Make sure to get her a pair of good leather gauntlet gloves, which protect wrists as well as hands. While you’re at it, get yourself a pair too ($30 at duluthtrading.com).

Long-handled tools: Perhaps nowhere is quality more important than with tools designed to quite literally do the heavy lifting. For starters, consider the forged round-point shovel, PROHOE 6-inch scuffle hoe, and Union half-moon turf edger ($46, $35, and $40, respectively, at amleo.com).

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

MONEY Financial Planning

Kill The Clutter: When to Toss Financial Documents

wastebasket
Getty Images

A handy guide to what to keep and what to throw away.

If you haven’t already opted to go paperless, you might be swimming in a flood of receipts, bills, pay stubs, tax forms, and other financial documents. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of those papers need to be kept, but others can be shredded and tossed.

Here’s a guide on what to keep and for how long.

Receipts
Receipts for anything you might itemize on your tax return should be kept for three years with your tax records.

Home improvement records
Hold these for at least three years after the due date of the tax return that includes the income or loss on the home when it’s sold. If you plan to sell the house and you have made improvements to it, keep receipts for those improvements for seven years — you may need them to lower the taxable gain on the house when you sell it.

Medical bills
Keep receipts for medical expenses for one year, as your insurance company may request proof of a doctor visit or other verification of medical claims. If your medical expenses total more than 10% of your adjusted gross income, you can deduct them. If you plan to take that deduction, you’ll need to keep the medical records for three years for tax records.

Paycheck stubs
Keep until the end of the year and discard after comparing to your W-2 and annual Social Security statement.

Utility bills
Keep for one year and then discard — unless you’re claiming a home office tax deduction, in which case you must keep them for three years.

Credit card statements
Keep until you’ve confirmed the charges and have proof of payment. If you need them for tax deductions, keep for three years.

Investment and real estate records
Keep for three years, as you may need the documentation for the capital gains tax if you’re audited by the IRS. These records help track your cost basis and the taxes you owe when you sell stocks or properties. Once you receive the annual summaries, you can shred your monthly statements.

Bank statements
You’ll need bank statements for up to three years if you are audited by the IRS. If your bank provides online statements, you can switch to receiving your bank documents online and cut down on paper.

Tax returns
The IRS recommends that you “[k]eep records for 3 years from the date you filed your original return or 2 years from the date you paid the tax, whichever is later.” If you file a claim for a loss from worthless securities or bad debt deduction, keep your tax records for seven years.

Records of loans that have been paid off
Keep for seven years.

Active contracts, insurance documents, property records, or stock certificates
Keep all these items while they’re active. After contracts are completed or insurance policies expire, you can discard these documents.

Marriage license, birth certificates, wills, adoption papers, death certificates, or records of paid mortgages
Keep forever.

More from Daily Worth:

MONEY home improvement

The Best Flooring for Your Money

Empty room with finished parquet flooring
Getty Images

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

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

Hardwood Flooring

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

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

Laminate Flooring

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

Get more smart home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

Read next: The Best Kitchen Countertop for Your Money

 

MONEY home improvement

How to Squeeze the Most Value From Your Home

woman in kitchen
Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MONEY Housing Market

6 Smart Real Estate Moves That Will Pay For Themselves

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

 

  • Rent Until You Can Stay Put

    rental sign in front of apartment buildings
    Alamy

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

  • Ready to Buy? Remember 28/36

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

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

  • Fix Up Your Home—the Cheap Way

    home with new driveway
    Greg Nicholas—Getty Images

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

  • Fix Up Your Home—the Luxe Way

    attic bedroom
    Martin Barraud—Getty Images

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

  • Ditch the 30-Year Mortgage

    Local and Express subway signs
    John Ott—Flickr Creative Commons

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

  • Pick the Right ‘Hood

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

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

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

MONEY deals

Long-Lasting LED Bulbs Now 90% Cheaper

Philips bulb
Philips

A new lightbulb from Philips, combined with a special deal from Home Depot, means that efficient bulbs with a 10-year lifespan cost as little as $2.50 apiece. Similar bulbs cost $25 or more not long ago.

Around Earth Day 2013, the average price of an LED lightbulb with the equivalent brightness of a 60W incandescent bulb was about $25. The average American house has roughly 40 lightbulbs, so upgrading your home to LED cost a cool $1,000.

But, as with virtually every emerging tech and consumer product, prices for LED bulbs have dropped steadily as manufacturing has ramped up and the products have been embraced in the mainstream. When This Old House published a guide to LED bulbs a year ago, most of the 60W equivalent bulbs it recommended sold at retail for $20, some went as high as $35, and one outlier was priced at a comparatively cheap $10. Manufacturers and retailers have also periodically used coupons and rebates to further bring down the cost and tempt consumers into into buying unfamiliar, non-incandescent bulbs.

Now, during Earth Day week, Philips Lighting has introduced a long-lasting LED bulb that’s simply “Too Cheap to Ignore,” as Wired put it. The 60W equivalent bulb will sell at retail for $4.97, no coupon or rebate required. What’s more, starting May 1, Home Depot will be selling two-packs for a limited time for that same $4.97.

So essentially these efficient bulbs, which have a 10-year lifespan and are expected to add just $1.02 to your annual utility bill, cost slightly less than $2.50 apiece. Remember, two years ago the typical price of a similar bulb on the market was $25. Prices have come down by a factor of ten in a remarkably short period of time, and the total cost of outfitting your home with LED bulbs can run as little as $100, rather than the $1,000 outlay a couple of years ago.

It’s been estimated that 70% of lightbulbs in the U.S. are inefficient models—usually old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. But government regulations improving the energy efficiency of bulbs are more or less phasing out the usage of incandescent bulbs. A few years ago, some shoppers were buying up all the incandescent bulbs they could find out of fear they wouldn’t be available in the future—and that they’d be stuck with overpriced alternatives that some deemed inferior. As the cost of innovative bulbs has declined and quality has improved, however, the argument in favor of old-school, inefficient incandescents has been harder to make.

For instance, Home Depot still has 40-watt and 60-watt Philips incandescent bulbs for sale, and at $3 and $4, respectively, for a two-pack they’re cheaper than the new LED bulb offer. Yet the incandescent bulbs have an expected lifespan of 1.5 to 2.7 years, compared with 10 years for the new 60W-equivalent LED bulbs. What’s more, the estimated energy cost of using the 60-watt incandescent bulb is $7.23, compared with $1.02 for the LED bulb.

Overall, now that LED retail prices have come down so substantially, there isn’t much debate about which option provides more value. Clearly, in this instance, paying a little more upfront will save you money in the long run.

MONEY sustainability

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

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

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

  • Walk or Bike

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

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

  • Group Errands Together

    150420_EM_EarthDay_GroupErrands
    Getty Images—Getty Images

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

  • Use Public Transportation

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

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

  • Drink Tap Water

    150420_EM_EarthDay_WaterBottle2
    Alamy

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

  • Shop with Reusable Bags

    canvas bag
    Getty Images

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

  • Don’t Overdo It on Groceries

    shopping list
    Getty Images

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

  • Heat and Cool Your Home Wisely

    Insulation
    Jonathan Maddock—Getty Images

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

  • Use Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs, Appliances

    150420_EM_EarthDay_Lightbulb
    Alamy

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

  • Be Practical About Landscaping

    cactuses outside home
    Trinette Reed—Getty Images

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

  • Compost

    Dumping compost
    Jill Ferry Photography—Getty Images

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

MONEY home improvement

Getting Your Lawn Equipment Ready for the Season

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

Q: I learned the hard way that lawnmower gas goes stale over the winter, so now I use gasoline additive in my mower, string trimmer, snow blower, and generator. But my neighbor says it’s better to burn the tank dry. Is that true?

The reason that gas gets “stale” and can gum up power equipment engines is that it contains ethanol, which absorbs water. That water can damage the engines of non-road equipment, says Kris Kiser, of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade association.

Most gas-station gas contains 10% ethanol, thanks to a 2007 federal mandate designed to reduce carbon emissions. And 15% ethanol is now being sold at some stations, but only for cars built in 2001 or later.

It actually turns out that ethanol doesn’t provide nearly the environmental benefit that was expected—and some lawmakers are proposing eliminating the mandate altogether—but that’s another story. For now, the vast majority of small-engine problems can be traced to ethanol, says Kiser, and you have three choices for avoiding trouble:

  1. Buy ethanol-free fuel. You can get it at home centers and outdoor power equipment dealers. Burn it and you won’t have to worry about your gas going stale. The problem is you’ll pay around $6 a quart for “E-0” gas. That equates to a very steep $24 a gallon.
  2. Use a fuel stabilizer. It prevents the ethanol from absorbing moisture and thereby prevents regular gas-station fuel from going stale and gumming up the motor. A bottle that costs only about $9 will probably last you several years.
  3. Run your gas tank dry. By rationing small portions of gasoline into your power equipment as needed and always running the machines until they burn all that gas and stall out, you ensure that no gas is left in the engine to go stale. This solves the problem and offers another large benefit, especially for gas-powered generators. The standard advice to run generators monthly is largely designed to burn the old gas and prevent it from going stale. But if you leave the tank dry, there’s no need to do that. Just start it (with very little gas) every few months to ensure it’s working properly, and run it until the gas is gone.

“Any of these three options works well,” says Kiser, “but check your owner’s manuals because different manufacturers have different requirements for their machines.”

 

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