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!

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at

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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Five Easy Fall Porch Decorating Ideas

This fall, make your house the envy of the neighborhood without breaking your back or your bank. Here are five tips for sprucing up that front entry area, quickly and simply:

  1. Less is More. Unless you have a truly massive front porch, don’t load it up with mums, pumpkins, gourds, hay bales, corn stalks, and scarecrows. Pick two or three of those things, group them in odd numbers (3, 5, 7 at most) on either side of the door and/or steps, add a fall wreath, and call it done. Too much clutter is kitschy at best, messy at worst.
  1. Cozy Up the Furniture. Transform your existing porch furniture into an inviting autumn sitting area with the addition of a plaid blanket boasting reds, golds, oranges and browns. Any old thing will do (as long as it’s clean and colorful.) How about that stadium blanket you carry in the trunk for tailgating? Or the afghan (throw, not hound) on the family room couch? See? Cozy-in-a-second, and it didn’t cost you a dime.
  1. Keep it Classic. There are some simple materials that unequivocally say “fall”: inexpensive burlap fabric, for instance (try wrapping it around a terra cotta pot and tying with straw twine), and, of course, pumpkins, gourds, and mums. Consider buying the “fake” squash and flowers at your local craft store. The good ones look authentic and will last for years rather than turning to mush in weeks like the real thing.
  1. Use What You Have. You might be surprised at what you find in your garage, tool shed, or potting bench. Wagons, metal tubs, watering cans, and the like add a lot of character to a front porch tableau when paired with some colorful mums, pumpkins, or gourds.
  1. Do the Unexpected for Halloween. Ghosts, witches, and cobwebs, ho hum. Try something new. How about a colony of bats or a murder of crows making their way across your front door area? To see a picture of this idea, and examples of the other suggestions herein, visit our Pinterest Fall Front Porch board.

Wise homeowners keep the look interesting with well-thought-out and targeted efforts. Now, go forth and decorate cleverly!

image courtesy of phoenix4stl

Who Ya Gonna Call? Mess Busters!

Let’s say you have an urgent home improvement problem to solve. Who ya gonna call? Sometimes, you have no idea. Here are three examples of how we helped folks with just that conundrum this month:

  1. “Help! There are wasps in my baby’s room, and I can’t find the nest!” These folks already had an exterminator. What they needed was someone who knew how to take siding apart and put it back together again so the exterminator could locate and destroy the wasp’s nest. HomeWise put them in touch with an experienced siding contractor who was able to get to them quickly, remove the siding, wait while the exterminator did his thing, then reattach the siding expertly. In the process, a wasp’s nest the size of a cantaloupe was removed from their infant son’s wall.
  1. “Europe was terrific. The ceiling that fell completely while we were gone, not so much.” This couple came back from vacation to discover that the ceiling in their living room had, for no apparent reason, fallen completely, leaving debris and a mess all over their beautiful furniture, rug and piano. They knew they needed a contractor who could put the ceiling back up, but the bigger question was why it fell in the first place, and how to prevent it from happening in the future. HomeWise recommended contractors who met with the homeowner that same day, and had actually seen this sort of thing happen before. They were able to diagnose the problem as use of the wrong kind of nails and a lack of glue during the original building process. Fortunately, the homeowner’s insurer stepped up to cover the cleanup and repair, which can now be done without the mistakes that were made by the previous owner’s builder.
  1. “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” It’s called the Law of the Instrument, defined as the human tendency to depend, when problem solving, on whatever one’s narrow focus or expertise happens to be. This was on vivid display this week when we received a phone call from a woman who was noticing precipitous sinking of the concrete slab anchoring her home in the basement. The several contractors she’d consulted already were, generally, waterproofing experts (because basement) and were recommending solutions that involved drilling holes to allow seepage from the cinder block walls; this, despite the presence of a sump pump that appeared to be working fine, and the absence of any evidence of water or moisture. She was concerned about whether these proposed solutions would prevent further sinking, and was getting few suggestions about how to correct the sinking that had already occurred. HomeWise had just the professional for her: a company owned by a structural engineer who has many tools at his disposal, including a thorough structural evaluation, foundation underpinning options, and waterproofing techniques. They’re meeting next week. At least she’ll know she’s working with someone who sees the entire picture.

Wise homeowners don’t waste time guessing at what they need; they go where they can get the right contractor the first time (hint: it’s to HomeWise.) Now, go forth and live efficiently!

Image courtesy of  cbenjasuwan at



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