Fall Home Checklist for a Warm, Safe Winter

This one is from a few years ago, but the advice is timeless, and timely, so we’re reposting:

A recent poll of the outstanding professionals in my network yielded the following list of home maintenance projects to ensure your safety and warmth this winter. Some of these things you can do yourself. For those that require a contractor, please contact HomeWise for a quick and hassle-free connection to the right professional.

Concrete and Pavement

Water will seep into cracks, then freeze over the winter and expand, causing larger damage to your driveways, walkways and patios. Check for cracks and, if large ones are found, have them repaired before they worsen. Concrete work should be done before temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.


Have a licensed contractor professionally clean and inspect your fireplace/chimney once a year to remove creosote build-up and detect and repair firebox or chimney liner cracks, gas line leaks, chimney cap cracks, bird screen holes and other fire hazards.


Check foundation walls for cracking, heaving, or deterioration. Small cracks are normal, but those wider than 1/8 inch or having edges that don’t match up should be filled in. Home improvement stores sell filler products but, if you have buckling or bulging, let HomeWise put you in touch with a structural engineer or licensed general contractor to see whether more extensive repairs are needed to protect your home’s structural integrity.

Gutters and Downspouts

Avoid winter ice damming  (which leads to roof, fascia and siding damage) by cleaning gutters and downspouts, inspecting them for proper drainage (gutters should be slanted ever-so-slightly toward the downspout), repairing leaks (generally found at seams), and reattaching any loose portions. Add extensions to direct water away from your home’s foundation.


Consider installing a programmable thermostat to turn the HVAC system on and off based on your occupancy schedule or decrease the temperature during sleeping hours then raise it just before you wake up. This could save between 3% and 5% on your utility bills. BUT, if you have a heat pump, efficient operation dictates that you set your thermostat at the desired temperature and leave it there.

Remember to change your HVAC’s filter regularly, at least once every 1 ½ to 3 months. A dirty filter decreases airflow and efficiency and can lead to system failure and unnecessary repair bills.

Consider a maintenance contract with a reputable HVAC service company. They usually pay for themselves with two free annual seasonal checkups of your system and often include significant discounts on labor and/or parts if you need repair during the contract period.


Cut back and trim all vegetation and overgrown bushes and make sure your grading slants away from the house to prevent basement and foundation water damage.


Touch up areas of exterior cracking or peeling to avoid exposure of the underlying material to winter’s severe weather. Exterior painting work should be done before temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.


Frozen pipes can be prevented. Never leave your home without heat during cold weather. Always allow a little heat in unused rooms and cut off water supply lines to outside hose bibs. Drain these lines before cold weather hits and disconnect all hoses. If freezing should occur, contact a licensed plumber for assistance.


Have a licensed contractor inspect your roof for gaps in flashing around the chimney and gable intersections, loose or missing shingles, “soft spots”, and other conditions that could lead to leaks during icy/snowy conditions.

Smoke  and Carbon Monoxide Detectors

You should change batteries twice  a year.  Fire stations recommend doing this when you “fall back” and when you “spring forward”.  “Fall back” day is November 3 this year.


Ensure that your sump pump and emergency back up systems are in good working order. Just one snowstorm or rainstorm with loss of power could cause a flooded basement, damage drywall and flooring, and lead to mold growth. If your waterproofing system has not been maintained or you do not have a sump pump or battery back-up system, consult a waterproofing specialist.

Windows and Doors

Inspect the caulking around your windows and exterior doors. If you find gaps, replace old caulk with a clean secure bond. This will lower your energy bills and prevent insects from getting in. You should also repair holes in screens and cracked windows, replace broken or missing window or door hardware and tighten and lubricate door hinges and closers.

A little work during this fall season will keep your home safe, warm and happy through the winter.

Debbie Farson is the owner/operator of HomeWise Referrals, Inc., a FREE service to Northern Virginia, DC and MD homeowners connecting them with licensed, dependable contractors for every home repair, home improvement or remodeling project. She can be reached through the company website, or by phone, 703-360-8222.

Presidential Residences Hold Lessons For Us All

Which way are you leaning?  Do you hope to see the White House bathrooms renovated with gold-plated faucets, or are you looking forward to news of a pantsuits-only closet in the private residence?

No matter your preference in 2016 presidential candidates, there is a lot to be learned from the homes of our nation’s previous chief executives. Here are three such homes, and the lessons they hold for the rest of us.

  1. You Can Be Modern and Classic at the Same Time Like Tom

Thomas Jefferson’s home – Monticello in Charlottesville, VA – is a wonder of traditional design on the one hand and the newest, quirkiest, most “modern” ideas of his time on the other. Here you’ll find cutting-edge inventions  (the still functional indoor/outdoor clock and Jefferson’s document “copy machine” are worth the price of admission) housed inside a building that Jefferson intended to be a prime example of classical architecture. So, go ahead and install that whole house blue tooth sound system or download an app to operate your lights or door locks remotely. Those modern conveniences don’t mean you have to sacrifice a classic aesthetic if that’s your style.

  1. Surround Yourself With What You Love Like Ron and Nancy

For 25 years, Ron and Nancy Reagan owned Rancho del Cielo (Ranch in the Sky), overlooking California’s Santa Ynez Valley and the Pacific Ocean. It was their retreat from the executive mansions of Governor and President, the place they went to get away from a busy political life. Ron built much of the ranch himself, prompting the Washington Post to call it the “place to see the hand of the man” and “a true national treasure.” Visitors can view the couple’s riding gear, Nancy’s Bible, and a set of custom-made leather shutters displaying a western scene, among other Reagan personal effects. What does your home say about you? Is your stamp on every room, your personality evident in the items you’re surrounded by? Do you truly feel at peace in your space because it contains memories, people and things you treasure?

  1. Renovate to Suit Your Changing Needs Like Abe and Mary Todd

In 1844, two years into their marriage, the Lincolns purchased a small, one-story home in Springfield, Illinois, close to Abe’s law offices and the state capitol building where he’d serve as a legislator. They couldn’t have known that 17 years later he’d depart from the nearby Lincoln Depot for his presidential inauguration and, just a few years thereafter, return to be buried in the Lincoln Tomb following his assassination.  In the interim, the couple expanded that little cottage into the two-story Greek revival home you can see on the property today. Do you love your location, close to work and other amenities, as Abe clearly loved his? Have you outgrown your home? Consider renovating as the Lincolns did, staying in the neighborhood you love but gaining the space you need.

Wise homeowners see inspiration everywhere. Now, go forth, vote responsibly, and remember that, no matter which candidate wins, your grandchildren will likely be visiting a presidential library housed in a New York City penthouse apartment.

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Wisely Comparing Contractor Quotes

So, you have several quotes for your next home improvement project. How do you choose the best one? “Cheapest” shouldn’t be your only benchmark. Here are four other considerations:

  1. Completeness. A proposal might appear low and affordable only because it is missing key items that will pop up later,  busting your budget when they do. The best contractors will take their time putting together a thorough proposal for a significant project to avoid surprises later.
  2. Allowances Don’t Count. Allowances are simply the contractor’s estimate of what reasonably priced, middle-quality materials (like sinks, light fixtures, and other not-yet-chosen items) will cost. You can pick lower or higher priced items to suit your budget and taste. The allowances are included to give you an idea of what the entire project – – soup to nuts – – will run you. When comparing quotes, take the allowances out and look only at things like labor (and maybe building supplies) over which the contractor, not you, have control.
  3. Avoid Both the Mercedes and the Kia. Contractors want to give you what you want which is why they ask so many questions at your first meeting. The temptation is to throw everything on your wish list into the discussion, figuring you can whittle away at it later if the price comes in too high. This isn’t a bad strategy, necessarily, but couple it with honesty about needs and wants. If you would really like to have hand-made, imported tile for the backsplash, but are willing to take something mass-produced if it lowers the price significantly, let the contractor know. Similarly with floors and countertops – – is top-of-the-line a must, or are you okay with laminate? This may seem like odd advice in light of number 2 above, but the materials you choose often impact labor time and costs (i.e., it takes longer to install hand-made tile than its more sturdy mass-produced cousin.) The same holds true for design elements. If removal of a wall “would be nice” but doesn’t kill the deal for you, speak up about that. It could be that the wall is load bearing and removing it will require an expensive beam installation or other shoring up procedure. If your contractor knows your “musts” and your “nice if I can afford its”, they can present you some proposal options reflecting different prices.
  4. Compatibility Counts. You’re asking for trouble if you throw over a contractor you click with for a cheaper one you really don’t like. These folks will be in your house for days, weeks, or months, depending on the size of the job, so being able to communicate pleasantly and effectively with them and their crew will be very important. If the one you liked best is much higher in price than others, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples when looking at the various components of the proposals, then ask your favorite to tell you why theirs is higher. You could receive an explanation that allays your concerns, or they’ll find ways to lower their price, or some combination of those things.

Wise homeowners are not penny wise and pound foolish. Now, go forth and compare effectively!

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How Much Home Can You Afford?

We all know that living in the DC Metro area is expensive. Does that give you a pass on common sense financial principles when buying a house? Not if you want to take on other important financial goals like college and retirement savings. Here are some basic guidelines:

  1. How Much Does A DC-Area Home Cost?

The median home price in this area is just north of $406,000, according to an August 2016 article published on the consumer loan information website Remember your grade school math: median is the number that occurs in the middle of a list, and most approximates what is “typical”. It is the best measure when dealing with topics like salaries or home values where outliers on either end of the spectrum could skew the results of a “mean” (aka “average”) analysis.

  1. How Much Can I Afford to Borrow?

Experts recommend that you avoid adjustable mortgages and stick with fixed rate loans where your monthly payment – – including principle, interest, taxes and insurance (piti) – – amounts to no more than 25% of your monthly take-home pay. This ensures that you have enough left from every paycheck to take care of regular expenses (food, clothing) as well as future planning.

This means that a couple with after-tax income of $8,000/mo. ($96,000/yr.) and little or no other debt should be able to handle a mortgage payment (piti) of $2,000/mo. If they put down 20% on that $406,000 median-priced home, their monthly payment would be right around that benchmark $2,000 at today’s low interest rates (generally in the mid to high 3%s.) If they want to buy a more expensive house, or they have lower income, they should rent a little longer to save up a larger down payment.

  1. How Much Should I Put Down?

You’re taking on extra expense if you put down less than 20% because you’ll be required by your lender to pay for private mortgage insurance, or PMI. PMI pays the lender if you default. It does nothing for you but you bear the expense of it. PMI insurance adds a whopping $83/month to your mortgage payment for each $100,000 borrowed (about $303/mo. with 10% down on that $406,000 home, making that home unaffordable for our $96K/year couple if they follow the 25% of income mortgage payment rule). PMI drops off when your equity in the home reaches 20% (either through loan pay down or market value increases.)

  1. How Do I Apply All This to My Situation?

Once you understand the basic principles, you can put your own income and home purchase numbers into an online mortgage calculator to figure out what works in your situation.

  1. What Other Expenses Might I Encounter?

When you get into that home, you’ll want to make it your own, or you may need to make some repairs or renovations. So, be sure to save enough for a “fix-it-up fund”. Let HomeWise find you the right contractor so you don’t waste time and money with people who are dishonest or not up to the job.

Wise homeowners wait until they can afford to buy a home. Now go forth and tell the Joneses you’re not interested in keeping up!

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Tax Breaks For Accessibility Remodeling

With advances in medical care and increased awareness and implementation of healthy lifestyle choices, aging is a lot more fun than it used to be. Here’s another advantage for 21st-century seniors: tax breaks for fixing up your home so you can stay comfortably as you age.

Virginia offers homeowners a Livable Home Tax Credit equal to 50% of what they spend to retrofit a home to add accessibility features (like ramps, grab bars, and widened doorways), with a $5000 cap.

Alternatively, Virginia homeowners can receive as much as $5000 in credits if they purchase or build a home with accessibility features.

While there is no age limit on who can use the tax credit in Virginia, seniors wanting to make their homes aging-in-place-friendly are one of the largest groups that will find this credit useful.

Maryland considered an accessibility tax credit this year but it was ultimately rejected.

A proposal for a similar credit for federal income tax payers is wending its way through Congress now. House Ways & Means is considering a bipartisan-sponsored bill – – H.R. 5254, The Senior Accessible Housing Act – – to provide up to a $30,000 tax credit over a senior’s lifetime for expenses incurred in making aging in place modifications.  Unlike Virginia’s tax credit, the proposed federal credit would be limited to persons 60 years and older. The federal bill is in the early stages but, if it passes, it could be a real boost to the home improvement industry and a great help to seniors.

For more information about state tax credits for accessibility modifications, see this August 24, 2016, article by Jenni Bergal for the Pew Charitable Trusts:

For details about the federal Senior Accessible Housing Act, see this Sept. 20, 2016, article from National Review:

Wise homeowners consider all financial consequences before remodeling or relocating. Now, go forth and age frugally – – in place if you want to!

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