Fireplaces: gas or electric??

Fireplaces: Pros and Cons of Wood, Gas and Electric

fireplace burning wood
ShutterstockAs much as they might like the idea of a fireplace, most homeowners don’t use theirs regularly.

A fireplace can add ambiance to a room and value to a home. Many homebuyers say they would like their residence to have a fireplace. The reality is, most homeowners don’t use their fireplace on a regular basis. Sure we pose for family portraits in front of the fireplace, but it’s really the mantle that gets more daily attention, from displaying decorative vases and candles, hanging Christmas stockings, erecting framed art or mirrors above it. Without an ornate mantle, surround or decorations, frankly a fireplace would be rather boring to look at, and not much of a glorified focal point in the room.

But for those who love the idea of a fireplace, nothing generates debate over a home amenity as much as conversations about wood vs gas vs electric — other than perhaps whether to leave the toilet seat open or closed.

Here’s a look at some pros and cons of wood, gas and electric fireplaces.

Wood Fireplaces

Pros: If you love the crackling sound of logs burning, the smell of hickory and the ability to roast marshmallows or hotdogs over indoor open flames, this may be the choice for you. You can curl up with a glass of wine, a good book or a loved one on the rug in front of the flickering glow and feel the warmth on your face.

Cons: Don’t mistake the warmth you’re feeling on your skin from the fire as also warming the room or your home. Wood-burning fireplaces are quite inefficient as a heating source since most of the warm air is flowing up and out the chimney. And it’s not just the warmth of the fire being pulled out of your home, so is the heat from other rooms. As the heated air rises through the chimney, the draft created pulls in other warm air from other parts of the house. That draft helps to suck in oxygen, which a fire needs in order to keep burning.

Note: The burning wood creates air pollution, inside and outside the home. That woodsy smell is actually a health hazard, and it creates Creosote, a byproduct build up that can coat the lining of the chimney and would need to be removed by a professional. (If you don’t regularly bring in a professional to check out your chimney you increase your chances of having a chimney fire.)

Even long after the wood-burning fire goes out, you’re losing warm air because you need to keep the damper open for about another 12 hours in order to keep the dying fire from depleting the oxygen in your home, thus you’re losing even more heat after the fire goes out.

Solution: Use hard woods, such as hickory, ash, oak and hard maple for fuel, as they produce more heat than soft woods, such as pine and spruce. Thus you an offset the heat loss just a tad, but you’re still losing more heat than you’re bringing in. Also use doors to close off the fireplace when in use and when not in use.

Home affordability and rates – what’s the relationship?

Affordability Has Nothing to do with Home Prices or Rates -RealtyTrac

Jann Swanson | Mortgage News Daily |Oct 30 2014 | link

“A real estate market that should be flying high is instead a real estate market that is faltering,” according to Brian Mushaney, Executive Vice President, Data Solutions, for RealtyTrac. Writing in the current issue of RealtyTrac’s Housing News Report he points to a market which he says should be a buyer’s paradise in many ways, with property values well below historic affordability levels, banks with tons of cash to loan, interest rates near their all-time lows, and foreclosures abating.

“So why,” he asks, writing, “have home sales stalled in recent months?  It is an issue of affordability he says, but not the way we usually think about it.

The 30 percent of income as a measure of the maximum to be spent on housing doesn’t work today because markets vary enormously. The better approach is a relative measure that compares a market or a micro-market to itself rather than to other markets.  He uses Omaha and San Francisco as examples of two places that are essentially incomparable.  The percentage of income needed to buy in Omaha (17 percent in a recent survey) won’t work in San Francisco.  Even though median household incomes are 45 percent higher in the latter area, it requires 75 percent of that median income to buy.

Looked at another way, the MIT Living Wage Calculator shows it takes $18.64 per hour for a household with two adults and two children to “make it” in Douglas County, Nebraska (Omaha) whereas the same family would need $25.44 in San Francisco.

Mushaney said that “for our purposes” affordability raises two issues.  First, communities which are not affordable will soon run out of teachers, first responders and many other professionals the community needs to survive.  “Second, when affordability sags you have fewer first-time buyers and that means trouble.”

RealtyTrac’s data shows that sales of lower priced houses, those most likely to be first-time purchases, have “fallen through the floor.  It’s the clearest demonstration of a first-time buyer affordability gap.”  And without first-time buyers there will be no buyers able to move to their second home and so on up the tiers.

So back to the issue of affordability.  Home prices rose quickly last year but appreciation has slowed and real estate values have not yet reached (except in a few cities such as the major ones in Texas and in Denver) to their previous pre-crisis peaks.  So property, the author says, is comparatively affordable.

Then too, “lender vaults are stuffed with cash”, perhaps as much as $2 trillion in excess funds and that has caused mortgage rates to stall in the low 4 percent range whereas just before the housing crisis (April 2007) the Freddie Mac rate was 6.18 percent.  This means a huge differential in payments.  A $200,000 loan in 2007 would have carried a payment of $1,222.34; at the end of this past July the Freddie Mac’s 4.12 rate would cost the borrower $958.72 each month.

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1:1:16 – how much do you know about the Golden Ratio?

How Architects Take Advantage of The Golden Ratio

classical exterior How Architects Take Advantage of The Golden Ratio

When you really think about it, one of the coolest facets of architecture is the ability to have buildings be so different – so varied in terms of size, shape, and style – and yet so similar at their core. No matter who designs the building, it is constructed from a blueprint. No matter what a structure looks like once it’s finished, it’s still is assembled from a collection of natural materials. No matter what the building’s eventual purpose is, the golden ratio was most likely used to determine its proportions.

This ratio – 1:1.61, for those are wondering – occurs over and over again in nature. It is found in everything from the shape of our universe, the structure of clouds, and the even the proportions of the human body. Humans have incorporated it into everything from mathematics, to artwork, and music.

With such varied applications, it should come as little surprise that this ratio is rooted in architecture’s fundamental principles. Continue on to find out how architects take advantage of the golden ratio in their work. You may find yourself looking at your surroundings in a way that you never have before.

cabin exterior How Architects Take Advantage of The Golden Ratio

It’s Rooted In History

As with any industry, architecture would not be what it is today without relying on the architectural lessons of the past.  Phi, which is another term for the ratio,  is just one of those concepts that inform the way in which we look at buildings today.

While there is some controversy over the exact origins, many people believe that use of the ratio dates all the way back to the Great Pyramids in Egypt. It can also be found in many of the world’s other most famous buildings including: the Parthenon, the Notre-Dame of Laon cathedral, and he Taj Mahal.

Every time you view a building with evenly spaced columns, that’s a nod to the ratio and it’s tenure with the ancient greeks. Every time you look at a home with a peaked and sloped roof that allows for winter snows to easily fall off, that’s also thanks to the ratios calculations. Next time you take a walk around your neighborhood, see how many examples of phi you can see. We think you’ll be surprised how many there are.

exterior columns How Architects Take Advantage of The Golden Ratio

Home buying at any age!

Many soon-to-be retirees own a home, have paid off their mortgage and haven’t been in the real estate market for 25 years or more. A lot has changed, however, and the tips and tricks of the trade that worked in the ’80s could backfire if applied today. Though technology and the flow of information have dramatically altered the process of buying and selling homes, at the heart it’s still an enormous undertaking, no matter your age or generation. Here are some tips for baby boomers and others who find themselves entering the real estate market for the first time in a while.

You can and should begin the process independently

A fact is a fact. Buyers and sellers can start the education process on their own today, in the comfort of their living room recliner. Many of today’s buyers and sellers leverage the Internet and mobile apps to begin the research phase. While you may still prefer a good old fashioned live person, it’s helpful to understand that it’s common for initial search and discovery to begin independently. Aside from listings and photos of nearby homes for sale, you can uncover real estate advice, statistics and forecasts that will help inform your home search or sale. Finding an agent can also happen using the Internet today.

A good local real estate agent still adds a lot of value

It’s easy to think that spending a few hours poring through data is all that’s needed to get in the game today, but a good local agent can still make a huge difference on a real estate purchase or sale. The data and information found online is meaningless without some context behind it. For example, you may see a home that recently sold for a lot less than one you are interested in making an offer on. A strong local agent would know that there was an issue with open permits or violations, that it wasn’t a true arm’s length transaction or some other factor that made it less valuable and, in fact, not a comparable sale. A good agent will have the inside track on off-market listings or knowledge about the final sale price of a home that is pending. Good agents earn their keep not by having access to the listings, but by having years of experience and local market knowledge under their belt.

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The low down on down payments…

With the holiday season of giving just around the corner, it’s a good time to revisit down payment gifts for home buyers. Getting money for a down payment on a home purchase could be the best gift ever, but there are lender and IRS rules for gifts that you must know to make sure everything goes smoothly. Here’s a rundown.

Gifts must be from family members

As an overarching rule, mortgage lenders require gifts for down payments to be from family members. Lenders might make case-by-case exceptions, and if so, will require that the relationship of the non-relative and the other factors of the loan profile be strongly compelling. For example, if you were receiving down payment gift funds from your godparents and could document that they’ve been close to you and your family all your life, that might be a case certain lenders would accept.

The likelihood of a non-relative being accepted as a gift donor is greater if a lender intends to keep that loan on its balance sheet rather than sell to Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac or some other future investor after the loan closes. Even then, most lenders would still want to see strong income history and career trajectory as well as top-tier credit scores for you as a borrower (these stronger factors of an overall profile that offset a factor where an exception is being made are known as “compensating factors”).

Gift tax is imposed on the donor, not the receiver

When starting the gift conversation with family members, make sure they know that gift tax implications are imposed on the donor. Conversely, you don’t have tax implications for receiving the gift. Two main provisions of gift tax law impact donors, and if handled properly, can enable the donor to have no tax liability, even for large gifts.

Annual gift tax exclusion limit

First, under 2014 annual gift tax exclusion law, any individual can gift any other individual $14,000 per year tax free. So a married set of parents can each give $14,000 to their single child for a total of $28,000. Or that same set of parents could gift to a married couple a total of $56,000.

This doesn’t need to be filed on annual tax returns, but you need to make sure it’s easy to document gift tax compliance later if needed. The clearest way to handle the $56,000 example is to have the mom write two $14,000 checks: one to her son and one to her daughter-in-law. Then the dad would do the exact same thing, for a total of four checks of $14,000 each. Then if the parents were ever asked by the IRS to demonstrate they were within the 2014 annual exclusion limit, it would be easy.

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Remodeling means good news…

Remodeling Market Stability a Positive Sign for Housing

Jann Swanson | Mortgage News Daily | Oct 23 2014 | link

Builders who engage in home remodeling continue to display confidence in their market the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) said today.  NAHB’s Remodeling Market Index (RMI) rose from 56 in the second quarter of 2014 to 57 in the third quarter.

NAHB described the current index reading as a “high water mark” and said it was the sixth consecutive quarter that the reading has been above the benchmark of 50.  This indicates that more remodelers report a higher level of activity compared to the previous quarter than those who see activity as down.

The RMI averages responses about current activity with those about future expectations for work.  Both current and future responses are based on calls for bids, amount of work committed for the next three months, backlog of jobs, and appointments for proposals.

“Most remodelers remain confident that the market is improving as home owners undertake renovations, large and small,” said NAHB Remodelers Chair Paul Sullivan. “The consistency and longevity of positive RMI readings are in line with the gradual recovery of the housing industry.”

The RMI’s future market conditions index rose to 58 from 56 in the previous quarter. All measures – bids, commitments, backlogs, and appointments – remained level with the previous quarter’s reading.

The component measuring current activity increased one point but the categories of both large additions and smaller remodeling jobs each rose 2 points, to 56 and 58 respectively.

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It’s time to start thinking winter weather – and that means windows first…

There’s a chill in the air — do you feel it? Rather than wait around for the mercury to plummet, take steps now to ensure that your home remains comfortable through the coldest months of the year.

Besides proper insulation and HVAC maintenance, I recommend taking a close look at your windows. Notorious for air leaks, windows can not only admit cold air, but also allow heated air to escape. There are many ways to seal such drafts — but first you’ve got to find them.

Windows

Locate the draft

Here’s a quick and easy method of testing the seal on your windows. First, walk through the house and close all the windows as tightly as possible. Next, light a candle. Hold the flame near each window, inches from the glass, slowly moving the candlestick around the seam between the window and its frame.

If, while your hand is still, the flame bends or flickers, then there’s probably an air leak. Mark the trouble spot with a sticky note so you can return to repair it later. Test every window in the house, marking each area where you suspect a draft.

For a more accurate diagnosis, hire a professional to perform an energy audit of your home. Though there’s a cost involved here, many local utility companies offer such services either for free or for a nominal fee. Check with the company that provides your electricity.

It’s certainly worth inquiring, since what professional energy auditors do is a lot more sophisticated than the candle method. They conduct thorough, room-by-room assessments — not only for window drafts, but also for any other instances of energy inefficiency.

Address the cause

Having pinpointed the locations of window drafts in your house, the next step is to seal them all up. There are several ways to get the job done. Some methods are inexpensive, temporary and manageable for do-it-yourselfers. Other more permanent options are quite expensive and best left to contractors. Choose the fix that best fits your needs and budget:

  • Weatherstripping. Easily affordable, with a price tag of only a few bucks per window, weatherstripping lends itself to easy DIY installation. Purchase the product in your chosen material — felt, foam, plastic or metal are readily available in hardware stores and home centers — and, after cutting the strips to size, use them to fill the gaps between a window sash and jamb.
  • Caulking. Indoors and out, caulk windows in two places: where the window meets the surrounding casing, and where the casing meets the surrounding wall (inside) or siding material (outside). Tubes of caulk are inexpensive and with a little practice, using them becomes easy.  If you’ve caulked your windows in the past, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook; caulk deteriorates over time. It may be to remove the old caulk and start over.
  • Draft snakes. Chances are that you’ve seen or even used a draft snake in the past. These are stuffed tubes, placed on a windowsill or under a door, as a modest measure of keeping out the cold and keeping in the warmth. Buy one at low cost or make your own for next to nothing. If you go the DIY route, you can use virtually any fabric, including such materials as extra towels or socks. Fill the middle with batting, rice, potpourri or anything similar you have on hand. Though decidedly makeshift, draft snakes work well in a pinch.
  • Insulation film. If you don’t plan to open and close the window, try sealing it under a layer of insulation film. Sold by the roll, insulation film either self-adheres or goes on with double-stick tape. Also available are special kits, which include plastic shrink film that, once heated with a hair dryer or other tool, creates an impermeable, airtight seal without visible wrinkles.
  • Replacement windows. The bad news: It can cost a small fortune to replace the windows in your home. The good news: Upon resale, the average homeowner recoups about 79 percent of what he invested in the replacement. This isn’t a simple case of out with the old, in with the new. Properly installed, today’s windows are much more energy efficient, minimizing drafts and creating an overall tighter seal. In fact, Energy Star-rated windows can lower your energy bills by 7 percent to 15 percent monthly.

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