Prepping for Spring: De-Mossing Your Green

How to keep moss from overtaking the lawn

Tim Johnson, Chicago Tribune, January 20, 2012, link

Q: We have 2 1/2 acres with a beautiful lawn and wonderful oak trees. The problem: Moss seems to be taking over. Everywhere I look there is more moss. Is there something I can do to control it?

— B. Wiley, West Chicago

A: Moss invading lawns is not unusual, especially when site conditions are shady. Moss can out-compete lawns when the conditions are better for moss than for grass. Your moss is a signal that your grass is weak and has thinned for some reason.

Moss prefers sites that have poor drainage and are shady and damp with acidic soil. Turf grass does not perform as well in those conditions. The shade in your lawn will have increased as the trees have grown, which may explain why the moss has increased over time. Grass evolved to grow in full sun.

Managing your site conditions will be the best strategy to improve your lawn. Start by reviewing your lawn care practices. Mow your lawn so it always is at least 2 1/2 to 3 inches tall, so the grass can develop a better root system that will help it resist stress and will help choke out competitors. Core-aerating your lawn will help reduce compaction and encourage a stronger root system.

Established lawns in shade require less fertilizer that those in full sun, so apply only 1 to 2 pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet of shady lawn per season. If you are irrigating your lawn, switch to watering less frequently and more deeply. Soils in shade take longer to dry out, so watering the lawn three or more times a week will help the moss and discourage the grass. Most likely, you would be fine with one supplemental watering per week. Water only if there has not been adequate rain.

Have a soil test done to see if you need to apply lime to make the lawn less acidic. (Many soils in northern Illinois are alkaline, so adding lime probably is not necessary.)

You could consider some pruning of your oak trees to increase the amount of light for the lawn, but use pruning practices that favor the health of the oaks over the health of the lawn. Lawns are easier to replace than trees. It is best not to make major changes to the grade of the soil where the oak trees are growing.

You also should consider overseeding the lawn with a good-quality shade mixture of grass seed. Broadcast the seed right after the core-aerating or use a slit seeder, which is a machine that will cut a slit in the ground and drop in the grass seed into it. Using the slit seeder will likely be most effective.

In deep shade areas, consider replacing the grass with a shade-tolerant groundcover, which will be better adapted to handle life beneath trees.

Prepping for Spring: Some Tech Tips, Actually

Garden and nature apps to help you grow

Chicago Tribune Newspaper, January 20, 2012, link

We’re always looking for ways to make gardening more fun, more successful, more exciting. Katie Walker of Organic Gardening magazine offers these favorite iPhone apps; she also lists some cool tech toys for gardeners too. Go to Organic Gardening’s website (organicgardening.com) and type “best apps” in the search field.

GardenPilot: Informational videos, plant information for 15,000 plants, and a database of local retailers make this a gardener’s best friend; 99 cents.

Eden Garden Designer: Create a virtual garden by taking pictures of your space and adding digital plants, for fun or planning; 99 cents.

Chirp! Bird Songs USA: More than 200 bird songs and useful information will delight even the most dedicated bird-watcher; $2.99.

Bugs and Insects: The database of more than 900 species ranges from pests to butterflies; 99 cents.

Herbs+: A wide range of information on herbs, including culinary and medicinal uses; $2.99.

Upgrade!: Getting Ready to Sell

Market Ready

TIM McKEOUGH, New York Times, January 18, 2012, link

Q. I’ve inherited a rundown home. Is it better to sell as is or invest in repairs and upgrades?

Market Ready is a series of articles on strategic home repairs and redecorating that can be done to prepare a home for sale.

A. If the home has serious problems or damage, like a water leak, mold or severely peeling paint, it should be repaired before you list the property, says Elayne Roskin, a senior vice president and managing director at Brown Harris Stevens who frequently handles estate sales.

“If there’s a massive leak, the ceiling is falling down and the floorboards are wet, that has to be fixed before anybody goes in there,” she said. “Those big structural line items, for sure, need to be dealt with before the property ever gets on the market.”

But if the home merely appears outdated because the fixtures, finishes and appliances are decades old, Ms. Roskin recommends selling the property as is. “When it’s an estate sale, which is what we’re talking about, the majority of people know that they will be renovating,” she said. “Every buyer that walks in there is going to expect to have to renovate.”

To prepare such a home for sale, Ms. Roskin suggests clearing all the clutter (but not the furniture, which helps a home show better), cleaning and bringing in fragrant flowers. “We like to make it smell pretty,” she said, noting that many older homes have a musty odor.

Stacey Jacovini Storm, the principal of Ascape Architecture, offered similar advice. “Are there leaks?” asked Ms. Jacovini Storm, who has designed apartments and houses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “Is the mechanical system not working well or safely? Does the toilet flush? These are the basic questions. You want to make sure that someone could live there, and that there’s nothing unsafe.”

She recommends replacing any appliances, windows and bathroom fixtures that are broken. But if the home is otherwise inhabitable, she says, it should be left more or less untouched.

Most buyers who are planning to renovate prefer to start from scratch, she says, and some might be put off by a seller’s alterations — particularly if the home was “renovated halfway.”

From a buyer’s perspective, she said: “You don’t want people to start making decisions for you. Then it’s like, ‘Gosh, it’s a shame that they just fixed up that bathroom,’ ” which might have to be ripped out.

Ms. Roskin agrees. Many buyers “specifically want something that hasn’t been touched,” she said. “They do not want to pay for someone else’s renovation.”

As an architect who enjoys giving old homes new lives, Ms. Jacovini Storm says she has seen too many disappointing renovations over the years. “I’ve seen houses where I would have paid a contractor to put his hammer down and walk away,” she said, “so that I could have fixed it up before they ruined it.” 

Upgrade!: Best Kept Secrets from People In-the-Know

A Contractor Spills His Secrets

A builder of luxury homes reveals how he created his weekend retreat on a budget

Nancy Keates, Wall Street Journal, link

As a top contractor in Silicon Valley, Dick Breaux is in a rare position: Amid a national housing slump, he continues to build big and elaborate houses. Projects have included a renovation of a 65,000-square-foot mansion and a 22,300-square-foot redo that required a crew of artisans from England, and he’s currently working on a 14,000-square-foot compound with an amphitheater on 12 acres in Hillsborough.

Dick Breaux, a top Silicon Valley builder of luxury homes, uses his experience to create his weekend retreat for less. Nancy Keates has details on Lunch Break.

Yet for most of his 35 years in the area, Mr. Breaux and his wife remained in their 3,000-square-foot ranch house in the less-pricey town of San Mateo. It was like the cobbler who never has time to make his own kids’ shoes, said his wife, Kate.

The couple still live in San Mateo, but they have built a new house for themselves: a 6,000-square-foot, four-bedroom weekend home, in a golf community just outside Sacramento. Finished in late 2010, the house includes many of the techniques Mr. Breaux gleaned from the Bay Area’s better-known architects and designers. It also cost him $340 a square foot to build, compared with the $600-and-up cost of the houses he usually builds for others. Though some of the savings came from lower labor costs, more came from choices Mr. Breaux made to maximize a luxurious look for less, from selecting standard window sizes and less-pricey patio materials to deciding to use off-the-shelf closets instead of a custom made alternative.

Standing almost isolated on a wooded road, in a development mostly populated by French- and Mediterranean-style houses, the Breauxs’s three-story Tudor-influenced house resembles something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, with a slate roof, gingerbread brown wood columns, a pale yellow stucco exterior, light-green window frames and two stone fountains out front. Inside, the first floor is mostly open—”75% of the houses I do now are all open,” Mr. Breaux said—with windows and glass doors that overlook the golf course.

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To make the exterior look classic and more imposing, Mr. Breaux picked slate for the roof, with copper flashing instead of galvanized metal. Inside, the flooring on the entire first level is radiantly heated limestone. To also convey a sense of luxury, he built very large bathrooms, rooms with slanted corners so they don’t resemble boxes and stairways lighted from underneath that give a more flattering glow to the house.

He chose solid cherry cabinets in the bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms; he said cabinets aren’t the place to cut corners because they’re highly visible. The quality of a house also shows in its doors; the home’s doors are solid mahogany and 1¾ inches thick, instead of the standard 1 3/8 inches. He made the ceilings higher than standard—12½ feet in some places. Walls are rounded at the door openings to achieve a more finished look. Other little touches he learned from his jobs include a towel warmer in the bathroom, niches in the halls for sculptures and toilets about 2 inches higher than normal (more comfortable).

To keep costs down, Mr. Breaux used an architect only to draw rough plans and he didn’t hire an interior designer. He avoided certain materials like wrought iron and bronze work and steel windows. He kept his windows to less than $100,000 by getting the largest standard size possible. He used concrete instead of stone for the patio, and made the patio walls out of faux stone topped with real bluestone.

The fireplace mantles in the master bedroom and great room are made from “cultured” stone that’s hand-colored to resemble the real thing, saving over $150,000. The walls are made of Sheetrock that’s designed to look like plaster, saving some $75,000. He used off-the-shelf moldings, saving tens of thousands of dollars more than if he’d had moldings custom made. He also built his patio’s fire pit instead of buying it—something he said pretty much anyone can do.

The master walk-in closet is another place to cut corners where people don’t really notice, he said. Instead of custom-made closets, he used off-the-shelf, saving about $30,000. “You rarely see a decorator at Home Depot,” he said, estimating that at least 40% of the cost of a house is spent on interior surfaces.

Mr. Breaux grew up in a $15,000 ranch house in Indianapolis. He started his career as a high school English teacher and football coach, building spec houses on the side in the summer. An architect friend recommended him to a client in Silicon Valley, and he founded Peninsula Custom Homes in 1978.

Back then, there were few houses larger than 4,000 square feet. It was mainly in the dot-com boom of the 1990s when homes got massive. Mr. Breaux’s break came when he built a house in Hillsborough for Kirk Raab, then CEO of Genentech. He has become known for his work with Bay Area architects like Andrew Skurman and Taylor Lombardo, who tend to build lavish, traditional-style homes.

In 2004 the Breauxs were driving back and forth to Lake Tahoe, where they had an old vacation house and where Mr. Breaux’s company was building two houses for the daughters of a previous client. They wound up selling their Tahoe house—it needed major repairs, and Mr. Breaux wanted to move—and bought the 1.4-acre plot in 2005 for $340,000. A six-bedroom, five-bathroom house in the same golf community is for sale for $1.9 million.

Mrs. Breaux, who doesn’t golf, uses the house for quiet weekends of reading. And at least it has diverted her husband’s attention from their house in San Mateo, where he had already renovated the kitchen four times.

Upgrade!: Bigger Can Be Better

9 remodeling tips to make your home feel bigger

Josh Garskof, Money Magazine, January 20, 2012, link

home remodeling

For a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, you can make your place “live” bigger without actually making it bigger, says architect Sarah Susanka, a small-space specialist and author of “Not So Big Remodeling.”

Call it thinking inside the box; here are nine creative solutions for cramped homes.

1. Multitask the dining room …

Cost: $500 to $2,000

If you have an eat-in kitchen, your dining room is probably used for special occasions only.

“Why have a prime spot sit vacant except for two or three holidays a year?” says Susanka.

Use it every day as an office or homework room without giving up dinner-party capabilities. Install doors ($300 to $500 each, with labor); add shelves or a cabinet for supplies; and invest in fitted pads to protect the tabletop.

For more flexibility, try a table like homedecorator.com’s $629 Mission Table Cabinet, a sideboard that — amazingly — telescopes into a full-size dining table.

2. … and the guest room

Cost: $100 to $3,000

Stop dedicating a whole room to infrequent out-of-town visitors.

With a decent air mattress, futon, or pull-out couch, you can lose the spare bed and use the room for day-to-day needs. (If you go with an air mattress, make sure to choose one with a built-in reversible motor to simplify the inflating and deflating.)

Add furniture, and what was only a guest room can double as a media or game room or home office.

3. Add a powder room

Cost: $3,000 to $6,000

Adding a first-floor powder room is simple if you have an unfinished basement or crawlspace for running the new pipes. Look for an existing room — a coat closet, say — and you won’t have to build walls.

To save more, forgo the tile. The minimum space required by code is typically 2½ by 4½ feet, but you can often get an exemption to go even smaller.

4. Build a home office closet

Cost: $100 to $3,000

If your family is already bursting the seams of your abode, a home office might seem out of the question. But every household needs at least a small desk for paying bills and to anchor a wireless Internet system — and you can often fit it all in a closet or armoire.

At its simplest, all you need are five or six deep, sturdy shelves made from wood or a composite product, which can total less than $40 at a home center. In a closet, set the lowest shelf at 30 inches high so you can wheel up a chair.

5. Bring the laundry upstairs

Cost: $5,000 to $7,000

Hiking up and down the stairs with laundry is enough to make anyone wish she could trade up. Instead, just move the machines.

Today’s full-size high-efficiency washers and dryers are all designed to stack. You can steal the space — a little more than four square feet — from a closet, hallway, or nook.

You’ll need to run new pipes and wiring, so being near an existing bathroom helps keep costs down, says Raleigh, N.C., architect Tina Govan. Make sure to include a drain pan to collect overflows or spills.

6. Open the floor plan

Cost: $2,000 to $4,000

A choppy layout of undersize rooms can make any house feel claustrophobic.

“People like the look of older homes, but not the way they function,” says Seattle architect Thomas Lawrence.

To open your floor plan without major expense, remove doors from rooms that don’t need them. Interior walls can come out for $2,000 to $4,000, unless they support the building or contain pipes — in which case a window or pass-through may be a more feasible solution.

7. Use built-ins to replace a closet

Cost: $4,500 to $6,000

If you choose to eliminate a closet to expand or enhance your living space, create some built-ins to get back the lost storage. A run of four- to 10-inch-deep shelving along a wall has almost no effect on the size of a room, says Corvalis, Ore., architect Lori Stephens.

And it can handle many times the capacity of a closet. You might spend $4,000 removing the closet and another $2,000 on new built-in cabinetry, or just $500 if you use assemble-it-yourself home-center cabinetry, such as the Billy collection from Ikea.

8. Build a bump-out

Cost: $6,000 to $12,000

Another trick to expand a home without a full-blown addition is called a bump-out. You hang extra space off the side of the house, sort of like an oversize bay window.

0:00 / 1:57 Prohibition home was once a speakeasy

Structurally, it can’t extend more than about three feet from the existing exterior wall, but it can run nearly the whole length of the building — enough space to add an eating area to your kitchen or a closet to your master bedroom suite.

Because there’s no foundation work, a bump-out costs about $150 a square foot — or just $100 if you can tuck it under an existing roof overhang.

9. Finish non-living spaces

Cost: $15,000 to $30,000

Converting a full-height basement or garage into living space gets you an addition at half price. You’ll need a floor, ceiling, walls and more, but no structural work, no foundation, and no roof, so it’ll cost $50 to $100 a square foot — vs. about $200 for a true addition.

Attics are fair game, too, but more complicated because you may need to add a stairway and probably extend the plumbing, heating, and cooling systems a flight up. Doing all that brings the cost to around $150 a square foot.

Foreclosures Up Front: Figuring out the Fraud

Foreclosure deal with banks is ‘very close,’ HUD’s chief says

Legal settlement over alleged foreclosure abuses could help about 1 million

Reuters, January 18, 2012, link

WASHINGTON — The government and banks are “very close” to reaching a legal settlement over alleged foreclosure abuses that could help about 1 million underwater borrowers get mortgage relief, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said on Wednesday.

“We’re very close to a settlement that would both fix the servicing problems, but also help over a million families around the country stay in their homes and get help,” Donovan said in response to a question during a forum at the Winter Meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington.

Talks between federal and state officials and major lenders aimed at resolving allegations of illegal foreclosure practices have dragged into their second year.

Some states, including California and New York, have criticized negotiators as being too lenient on the banks and suggested the proposed settlement would not provide enough relief to the housing market.

But the Obama administration has seen the broader foreclosure settlement as an opportunity to help reach more borrowers struggling financially as the five-year drag in housing persists. Currently, banks have granted at-risk borrowers principal reductions on a limited basis.

“Principal reduction can have a substantial impact on the housing market nationally,” Donovan said.

He said about 1 million write-downs are expected, and a number of families would also “get direct compensation as a result of the settlement.”

Foreclosures Up Front: Falling Numbers

Foreclosures fall to lowest level since 2007

Les Christie, CNNMoney, January 12, 2012: 8, link

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — Foreclosure filings and repossessions fell to their lowest level since 2007 last year.

Total filings, including default notices and bank repossessions were down 33% for the year to 2.7 million, according to RealtyTrac, the online marketer of foreclosed properties.

One in every 69 homes had at least one foreclosure filing during the year, while 804,000 homes were repossessed. That’s a significant improvement from the peaks reached in 2010 — when 1.05 million homes were repossessed — and the lowest levels seen since 2007.

More than 4 million homes have been lost to foreclosure over the past five years.

While the declines seem like good news for the housing market, where a flood of foreclosed homes has depressed home prices, much of it is due to processing delays caused by fall-out from the “robo-signing” scandal that broke in late 2010.

During the year, banks spent more time making sure paperwork was legal and proper, creating a backlog in the foreclosure pipeline. As a result, the average time it took to process a foreclosure climbed to 348 days during the fourth quarter, up from 305 days a year earlier.

“Foreclosures were in full delay mode in 2011, resulting in a dramatic drop in foreclosure activity for the year,” said Brandon Moore, chief executive officer of RealtyTrac.

0:00 / 2:47 Giving foreclosure families a second chance

However, Moore said there were “strong signs” during the second half of the year that lenders are working through foreclosure backlogs in certain markets. He expects foreclosure activity to rise above 2011’s level but remain below the peak hit in 2010.

Low rates offer some help for homeowners

Early in 2011, many forecasters were predicting a wave of foreclosures due to resetting adjustable-rate mortgages, but low mortgage rates helped many borrowers refinance into more affordable loans, said Moore.

The government helped as well, through efforts like the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP), which made refinancing easier for borrowers who owe more on their mortgage than their homes are worth.

Government foreclosure prevention programs, including HARP and the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), have started about 5.5 million mortgage modifications since April 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“Programs like HAMP and HARP have definitely made a dent in the foreclosure problem,” said Moore “However, they are certainly not living up to their billing of preventing several million foreclosures. In addition, many [HAMP] homeowners fall back into foreclosure later on.”

Of course, there were still plenty of factors working against homeowners in 2011, including the continued erosion in home prices. Falling prices rob homeowners of home equity, which they can tap if they need emergency cash.

Foreclosure hot spots

Hot spots for foreclosures remain mostly in “bubble states,” where speculative investors helped drive up home prices beyond their fundamental values during the mid-2000s housing boom.

Nevada, where one out of every 16 households received some kind of default notice during the year, was the worst hit of all, a distinction it has held for the fifth consecutive year.

Arizona had the second highest foreclosure rate and California came in third. Florida, which had been running neck-and-neck with the other “Sand States” in past years, fell to seventh, behind Georgia, Utah and Michigan.

Among metro areas, Las Vegas suffered from the highest foreclosure rate in 2011. California put seven cities in the top 10, led by Stockton in the second slot. Other cities in the top 10 included Phoenix, which finished sixth, and Reno, Nev. was eighth.