6 Ways Home Buyers Mess Up Getting a Mortgage

Getting a mortgage is, by general consensus, the most treacherous part of buying a home. In a recent survey, 42% of home buyers said they found the mortgage experience “stressful,” and 32% found it “complicated.” Even lenders agree that it’s often a struggle.

“A lot can go wrong,” says Staci Titsworth, regional manager at PNC Mortgage in Pittsburgh.

If you’re out to buy a home, you have to be vigilant. To clue you ipre-anto the pitfalls, here are six of the most common ways people mess up getting a mortgage.

Waiting until you can make a 20% down payment

20% down payment is the golden number when applying for a conventional home loan, since it enables you to avoid paying private mortgage insurance (PMI), an extra monthly fee of 0.3% to 1.15% of your total loan amount. But with mortgage rates where they are today—in a word, low—waiting for that magic 20% could be a huge mistake, since the more time passes, the higher mortgage rates and home prices may go!

All of which means it may be worth discussing your home-buying prospects with lenders right now. To get a ballpark figure of what you can afford and how your down payment affects your finances, punch your salary and other numbers into a home affordability calculator.

Meeting with only one mortgage lender

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, about half of U.S. home buyers only meet with one mortgage lender before signing up for a home loan. But these borrowers could be missing out in a big way. Why? Because lenders’ offers and interest rates vary, and even nabbing a slightly lower interest rate can save you big bucks over the long haul.

In fact, a borrower taking out a 30-year fixed rate conventional loan can get rates that vary by more than half a percent, the CFPB has found. So, getting an interest rate of 4.0% instead of 4.5% on a $200,000, 30-year fixed mortgage translates into savings of approximately $60 per month, or $3,500 over the first five years.

So to make sure you’re getting the best deal possible, meet with at least three mortgage lenders. You’ll want to start your search early (ideally, at least 60 days before you start seriously looking at homes). When you meet with each lender, get what’s called a good-faith estimate, which breaks down the terms of the mortgage, including the interest rate and fees, so that you can make an apples-to-apples comparison between offers.

Getting pre-qualified rather than pre-approved

Mortgage pre-qualification and mortgage pre-approval may sound alike, but they’re completely different. Pre-qualification entails a basic overview of a borrower’s ability to get a loan. You provide a mortgage lender with information—about your income, assets, debts, and credit—but you don’t need to produce any paperwork to back it up. In return, you’ll get a rough estimate of what size loan you can afford, but it’s by no means a guarantee that you’ll actually get approved for the loan when you go to buy a home.

Mortgage pre-approval, meanwhile, is an in-depth process that involves a lender running a credit check and verifying your income and assets. Then an underwriter does a preliminary review of your financial portfolio and, if all goes well, issues a letter of pre-approval—a written commitment for financing up to a certain loan amount.

Bottom line? If you’re serious about buying a house, you need to be pre-approved, since many sellers will accept offers only from pre-approved buyers, says Ray Rodriguez, New York City regional mortgage sales manager at TD Bank. Here’s how to start the process of mortgage pre-approval.

Moving money around

To get pre-approved, you have to show you have enough cash in reserves to afford the down payment. (Presenting your mortgage lender with bank statements is the easiest way to do this.) Nonetheless, your loan still needs to go through underwriting while you’re under contract for your loan to be approved. Because the underwriter will check to see that your finances have remained the same, the last thing you want to do is move money around while you’re in the process of buying a house. Shifting large amounts of money out or even into your accounts is a huge red flag, says Casey Fleming, mortgage adviser and author of “The Loan Guide: How to Get the Best Possible Mortgage.”

So if you’re in contract for a home, your money should stay put.

Applying for new lines of credit

If you apply for a new credit card or request a credit limit increase a few months before closing, watch out: Credit inquiries ding your credit scoreby up to five points. So, don’t let the credit inquiries add up.

“Worse than the actual hit on your credit score is any pattern of trying to borrow more money all at once,” says Glenn Phillips, CEO of Lake Homes Realty. Translation: Applying for multiple lines of credit while you’re buying a house can make your mortgage lender think that you’re desperate for money—a signal that could change your mortgage terms or even get you denied altogether, even if you’ve got a closing date on the books.

Changing jobs

Mortgage lenders like to see at least two years of consistent income history when pre-approving a loan. Consequently, changing jobs while you’re under contract on a property can create a big issue in the eyes of an underwriter.

Your best bet? Try to wait until after you’ve closed on your house to change jobs. If you’re forced to switch before closing, you should alert your loan officer immediately. Depending on the lender, you may simply need to provide a written verification of employment from your new employer that states your job status and income, says Shashank Shekhar, the founder and CEO of Arcus Lending in San Jose, CA.

10 Crucial Questions to Ask a Real Estate Agent When Selling Your Home

If you’re looking to sell your home, you’ll want to hire an amazing listing real estate agent to help—and there are certain questions to ask so that you can pinpoint the right professional for you.

It’s smart to be picky! A great real estate agent can help find buyers to sell your home fast, and for more money. Make the wrong choice, and your listing might languish. Then, the lowballing bargain hunters come circling—it’s not pretty.

Not sure where to get started? You can search for real estate agents in your area with online tools that offer you the chance to read real estate agent reviews from previous clients. From there, you’ll want to call or meet with a few you like and probe further.

Here are some important questions to ask a real estate agent when selling your home, to ensure you get a good price.

1. What are your credentials?

As you start out to sell your home, at the very least hire an agent who has a state license and belongs to the local real estate trade association. This means that they will have access to the multiple listing service, or MLS, and can list your property far and wide to attract buyers.

However, you may want to look further and find someone who’s a member of the National Association of Realtors®, which requires additional training and adherence to a code of ethics.

2. How many sales did you close last year?

A real estate agent’s past performance doesn’t guarantee a quick sale. Their track record of success with buyers and sellers, though, is some assurance that they are professionals who will know what they’re doing in selling your home.

Ask potential agents about how many clients they’ve worked with in the past and about the price range of the homes they have sold. You ideally want someone who knows just which real estate features will be valued by buyers in the appropriate income bracket. You may also want to ask for recommendations from previous clients.

3. Do you specialize in this neighborhood?

Having a local expert can be a huge advantage for sellers. Local agents will be aware of any upcoming developments in the area, plus plans for stores or other amenities that might affect the value of your property, how quickly it will sell, and the price you’re likely to get. They’ll also know what local buyers are looking for in real estate.

“You want to know that your agent understands the market for your neighborhood right now,” says Ashlie Roberson, a New York City–based agent at Triplemint. She also advises sellers to inquire about the agent’s favorite places in the area.

“Your agent needs to be able to not only sell your home, but your neighborhood.”

4. How do you arrive at the listing price?

Few things are as important to a seller as the discussion of how to price your home, and your real estate agent’s ability to land on a listing pricethat is pitched at just the right level for the local market.

A property that is priced too high will languish, eventually turning off potential buyers; but a home priced too low might leave money on the table.

Make sure your agent is knowledgeable about the local market and what other similar homes have recently sold for. This will help you arrive at the right price to complete your real estate transaction. Be sure to get answers to any of your questions about the process of coming up with a list price.

5. Whom will I be working with?

You want to find out if you will be working with one specific real estate agent or a member of the agent’s team. Each scenario has pros and cons for sellers, so ask lots of questions. Different agents work with clients in different ways.

“Having a team of agents makes accommodating showings easier, but specific requests made by the seller can get lost among a big team,” says JoAnn Schwimmer, associate broker and certified relocation professional with DJK Residential in New York City.

6. How much will selling my home cost?

Ask several questions about the costs that you, as the seller, will be paying in the real estate transaction, such as broker’s commissionclosing fees, and anything else, so you can plan accordingly—and compare from one agent to the next. This should all be covered in the listing agreement with the real estate agent.

7. What is your sales plan?

A good agent should have a written plan for selling your home that identifies the marketing plan for your property to attract buyers, from listing services to open houses to social media. This helps ensure you’ll get a high sales price.

“Don’t let them just rely on mailers,” says Roberson. She advises using an agent who has the capability to provide professional photography, a custom website, and even video, if appropriate. This will make the best impression on buyers.

“Marketing is the key to a successful sale,” she says.

8. What should I do to get my house ready?

See what the agents’ advice is for necessary repairs or upgrades or what hacks they might suggest for budget-friendly but impactful improvements that would attract buyers. Find out if they suggest staging services or just a good cleaning and declutter.

Also ask questions about whether the agents are willing to accommodate your schedule and what days and times they prefer to show houses.

9. How will we communicate?

If you’re a texter and your real estate agent prefers lengthy phone calls, that could present a problem. Likewise, you might prefer the personal touch of a call over an email. Knowing the method and frequency of communication can be important in selling your home. Your agent should also be available to answer any questions that you have along the way.

10. How long will the process take?

While no agents can guarantee how fast the sale and full real estate transaction will go, they should be able to give a ballpark range on how long it will take to sell your house. The national average is 65 days, but it depends greatly on where you live.

Home-Showing Tips That’ll Persuade Buyers to Bite

Having an open house is the exciting part of selling a home, but let’s face it: It takes a lot of work to get there.

Once you’ve made repairschosen a Realtor®, real estate agent or listing agent, and then decided on an asking price, your home is almost ready for market—but first, how about a little primping and polishing? Or maybe a lot of primping and polishing. This is where an open house for potential buyers comes into play.

Showing tips for a successful open house—and a big sale

After all, you want your home and your open house to make a great first impression on buyers—and that’s where we can help. To host an open house and show your home in the best possible light, it’s worth listening to these savvy seller tips and step-by-step advice.

Stash your stuff during an open house

When you’re just living in your home, a bit of clutter is business as usual—but for a buyer, a mess can spell doom.

You know the drill: video game cartridges in the bathroom, toolbox in the kitchen, tuxedo shirt inexplicably in the garage. But know this as a first-time seller: All this disorder can be deadly during an open house.

That’s because clutter can make even spacious real estate look cramped and dirty, distracting from a home’s assets and putting off potential buyers, says Darbi McGlone, a Realtor with Jim Talbot Real Estate in Baton Rouge, LA.

Smart open house ideas include paring down your belongings, by going room by room and boxing up anything you haven’t used or worn in at least six months.

What’s that you say? There’s nothing you’re not using? Try anyway—it’s important for an open house. You’ll probably be surprised by the stuff you won’t miss. (Bonus: You’ll have less to move later.)

One area where you’ll want to be merciless as you stage for an open house is your kitchen counter. Remove everything but your coffee maker, so that people (and potential buyers) will think, “Wow, such a huge kitchen!”

And to allow home buyers to really envision themselves living there, you’ll also want to depersonalize by removing items such as the framed photos, report cards on the fridge, or your kid’s collection of “Star Wars” snow globes. But don’t declutter by just stuffing those things in the closet.

“Closets often end up being the dumping ground to store all the clutter that was visible,” says McGlone. “Which is never good, because closet space is an important buying consideration. You want potential owners to be able to see the true amount of space in each closet (and buyers are going to open every door to peek inside and gauge how much real estate is in there).”

Instead, real estate agents say that it’s a good idea for sellers to stack boxes neatly in the attic, basement, or, best of all, a storage facility. The perceived extra space you add to your home could be worth the rental cost and then some.

Stage to sell for a successful open house

These days, home staging is all the rage in the real estate world: On average, staged homes sell 88% faster and for a whopping 20% more than ones where home sellers just kept their furnishings in place.

And while you can hire a professional stager for your open house, you can also cop a few of their tricks and tips for free—and maybe snag a buyer fast.

For instance, hanging curtain rods higher can give the illusion of taller ceilings. Well-placed mirrors can make rooms appear bigger and brighter during an open house.

Want to go the extra step as you prepare for your upcoming open house? Paint your walls white, layer in neutrals, then add pops of color with pillows or a cashmere throw on the couch, for a cozy glow.

“I always think to move the furniture toward the walls during an open house to make it feel like there is more space,” McGlone says. Push furniture out and away from each other to open up floor space, but be careful to keep window space clear.

Conceal flaws whenever possible; if the view from a window isn’t great, put up sheer curtains so that the light comes in but the scenery stays hidden, say real estate agents.

And as with all your possessions, think “Less is more,” although stagers do sometimes strategically add furniture (such as a cozy reading chair in a bedroom corner) to give a future buyer the illusion of more space. Go figure!

Boost curb appeal at your open house

Finally, it’s time to take a hard look at the outside of your house, the way a neighbor or buyer might do. After all, that’s the first thing buyers will see when they pull up, so you’ve got to work that curb appeal hard.

For starters, take a good hard look at the paint. If it’s looking dull or dingy, try power washing first.

You can rent a power washer from most home improvement stores; a good wash can take off layers of dirt that make your home look shabby.

Most professional paint jobs come with a 25-year warranty, and if you’re long past that, it may be time for a new coat.

At the very least, slapping a coat of paint on your front door will give you the most bang for your buck—because that’s what buyers will see up close before they even knock.

Door paint aside, your yard also needs to be in order. Overgrown trees can make a home seem dark and creepy. If your trees are touching any part of your house, you should scale them back. If your front lawn is lacking in shrubs and flowers, add some.

Even in winter, you can find hardy plants, such as evergreen boxwoods and holly bushes.

Also, make sure your lawn is mowed, and if you have a pool that’s open, keep it sparkling (your neighbors appreciate a pretty lawn and pool too).

“A dirty pool will remind people how much upkeep there is, even if they asked for a pool,” McGlone says.

Once you’ve gotten your home looking fantastic both inside and out, it’s time to break out your camera and spread the news (on social media, too) that it’s up for grabs: with an eye-catching real estate ad for your open-house flyers or open-house signs, of course!

Flat-Rate Movers vs. Hourly Movers: Which One Saves More Money?

Are you thinking of moving? As the customer, it makes sense for you to review each company and the prices. Flat-rate movers may sound like the best deal. You pay one moving rate, no matter what. But when hiring a moving company, you want to save money, right? Sometimes hiring the flat-rate movers can end up sending your moving costs through the roof.

It turns out that the whole hourly versus flat-rate moving question largely boils down to the size of your current home and the distance you’re traveling. Here’s how to weigh each moving company option and decide which one is right for you (the customer!)—plus measures to take to keep the price low and get the best offer in either case.

When to hire hourly movers

Here’s a sample scenario: If you’re moving across New York state to a new home or within the same New York City apartment building, this is considered a local move, and therefore the hourly option is better.

A price based on time, which can range from $100 to $150 for two or three movers, often starts with a minimum of three hours, plus an hour for travel. A two-bedroom apartment might take three to four hours to move; a three-bedroom house could take seven or eight.

If you’re worried about your moving costs spiraling out of control, ask the moving company whether it can cap the cost for customers at a certain amount, even if the time spills over.

When to hire a flat-rate moving company

A flat rate is exactly that—a number that’s determined after an in-home or virtual assessment by the moving company of the size of your space and the amount and type of furniture you own.

A flat rate is typically the right choice if you’re planning an interstate or cross-country move, or moving a greater distance, like to a new apartment a couple of hours away, since moving like this contains more unknowns. If your moving truck gets stuck in gridlock traffic, we doubt you’ll enjoy paying your movers an hourly rate for this added time.

But don’t be fooled: The flat-rate price or flat offer you get from a mover may not include all the costs associated with your move.

“In many cases, flat rates are not flat at all,” warns Manuela Irwin, a moving expert with MyMovingReviews.com. Sometimes professional movers will charge unexpected fees for things you might assume are included (e.g., moving furniture up stairs or moving specialty items such as a pool table, piano, or bulky exercise equipment).

To avoid getting blindsided by hidden company fees or a surprise rate from your movers, it’s better to take the time and have an in-home estimate of your move. This way the movers can’t say that you hadn’t mentioned you have a piano when they saw it for themselves.

Also be sure to ask the movers or the customer service office if there are any extra fees if they end up moving certain items or providing extra services or spending more time (like unpacking your belongings, hauling away packing materials, or disassembling furniture). The more details you can provide about your move, the less likely it is that you’ll end up being surprised by unknown moving charges from the company.

To get an estimate of how much it will cost to move into your new place, check out this moving cost calculator, where you can punch in your number of bedrooms, beginning and ending ZIP codes, and move date.

Or use the phone number for your moving company and ask for a free quote. Ask movers about their fees for interstate and local moving so you end up with great service and a (relatively) stress-free move.

Why Does My Mortgage Keep Getting Sold?

A letter arrives in the mail and tells you your mortgage has been sold. It also informs you to send your monthly payments to a new address. Don’t panic! This happens all the time, and you shouldn’t see many (if any) changes.

“I would say probably 30% to 50% of the time [borrowers are] going to eventually end up mailing their payments somewhere else different from when they first originated it,” says Rocke Andrews, president of the National Association of Mortgage Brokers.

So why does your mortgage get sold—and why can it happen multiple times? Banks and mortgage servicers constantly check the numbers to find a way to make a buck on your big loan. It all takes place behind the scenes, and you find out the result only when you get that aforementioned letter in the mail.

What does a mortgage being sold mean for homeowners?

The short version: When a loan is sold, the terms of that loan don’t change. But where a mortgage-holder submits payment and receives customer service may change as the loan gets sold. And that could affect a few things.

“The level of service that you receive may vary depending upon who the servicer is,” Andrews says. “Certain servicers might offshore a lot of that [work]. So when you would call into servicing you could get a call center in India or over in Asia somewhere and people were less than knowledgeable about the product.”

But service issues that lead to frustration are the exception, not the rule, says Andrews. “Most [consumers] don’t deal with the servicers that much, they just send in a payment and things are happy.”

The new servicer might offer different payment options and may have different fees associated with payment types, so be sure to check any auto payment or bill pay functions you’ve set up.

The basics of mortgage servicing

To understand why mortgages are sold, it’s important to understand some basics.

First, when you take out a mortgage to buy a home, a lender approves your loan and you make payments to a loan servicer. Sometimes, the servicer and the lender are one and the same. More often, they’re not.

The servicer “collects the payment and disburses it out,” Andrews says. “They distribute the payment to the investors, [send] property taxes to the local taxing entity, and [pay] homeowners insurance. They are taking care of all the payments coming in and getting them distributed to the people they belong to.”

Andrews says a small portion of the interest you pay on a loan—often a quarter of a percent—goes to the servicer.

“Typically servicing is a labor-intensive business—there are only five or six servicers [nationwide] that probably handle 75% to 80% of all the mortgages in the United States,” Andrews explains. Major players include Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Freedom, and Mr. Cooper. Some of these companies service the loans they originate.

Servicers can sell your mortgage

Lenders can enter agreements with servicers to purchase batches of loan servicing. Or lenders may shop around for a servicer if they’re carrying too many loans on their books.

Servicers are interested in buying loans in order to sell other products to their new-found customers. Andrews uses an example of a big bank that can then attempt to sell retirement funds, credit cards, or other profitable financial product to customers they had no prior relationship with.

Many lenders originate loans, and then proceed to sell off the servicing or the loan itself. If the servicer changes, the customer must receive a notification. There will be a grace period in case a borrower accidentally sends payment to the wrong place.

Lenders often sell the loans to financiers as a mortgage-backed security for investors or to government-sponsored entities like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae.

So why does my mortgage get sold?

Loan servicers are businesses in search of a profit. Andrews says the value of the servicing depends on two main factors:

  • Whether a borrower pays on time or not
  • How long the borrower will be paying

If a servicer receives a quarter percent for servicing a 30-year mortgage, a consumer who pays steadily for the life of the loan is more valuable  than a borrower who opts for a refinance within a few years.

Keep in mind: During a refinance, the new loan pays off the old loan, and new terms are set. So if a servicer was expecting to earn a quarter of a percent over 30 years and the borrower refinances after only five years, the servicer gets the share for five years as opposed to 30.

For example, if you have a $100,000 loan at 4% for 30 years, you’d pay about $70,000 in interest over the life of the loan. However, the lender would need to wait a full 30 years to make that full $70,000. In hopes of a quicker profit, lenders will often sell the loan.

If servicing a loan costs more than the money it brings in, lenders may attempt to sell the servicing of it to lower their costs. The lender may also sell the loan itself to free up money in order to make more loans.

Loan servicers have another consideration in play. They need to pay investors who buy mortgage-backed securities—even if a consumer with a mortgage can’t make payments or is in forbearance.

“The downside to forbearance is the servicing company has to make your payment for you,” Andrews says. “That’s why we’re running into problems.”

With millions of homeowners asking for forbearance, Andrews predicts more mortgages will be sold.

Can I state that I don’t want my mortgage sold?

Somewhere in the terms and conditions of your mortgage paperwork, it likely says your mortgage can be sold. Andrews says there is really no way to keep it from happening.

The trade-off for the odd behind-the-scenes shuffling of your mortgage is a lower interest rate for you—the all-important borrower.

“It’s just part of making the entire mortgage industry safer, more liquid,” Andrews says. “Back in the old days you would go to the bank and make your payment at the bank.” The rates depended on how much money the bank had and the area economy.

But instead of the bygone days of interacting with the local banker, nationwide competition for your borrowing needs has been unlocked.

“By nationalizing the mortgage market, you provide lower rates and better options to the consumer,” says Andrews.

6 Reasons You Should Never Buy or Sell a Home Without an Agent

It’s a slow Sunday morning. You’ve just brewed your Nespresso and popped open your laptop to check out the latest home listings before you hit the road for a day of open houses.

You’re DIYing this real estate thing, and you think you’re doing pretty well—after all, any info you might need is at your fingertips online, right? That and your own sterling judgment.

Oh, dear home buyer (or seller!)—we know you can do it on your own. But you really, really shouldn’t. This is likely the biggest financial decision of your entire life, and you need a Realtor® if you want to do it right. Here’s why.

1. They have loads of expertise

Want to check the MLS for a 4B/2B with an EIK and a W/DReal estate has its own language, full of acronyms and semi-arcane jargon, and your Realtor is trained to speak that language fluently.

Plus, buying or selling a home usually requires dozens of forms, reports, disclosures, and other technical documents. Realtors have the expertise to help you prepare a killer deal—while avoiding delays or costly mistakes that can seriously mess you up.

2. They have turbocharged searching power

The Internet is awesome. You can find almost anything—anything! And with online real estate listing sites such as yours truly, you can find up-to-date home listings on your own, any time you want. But guess what? Realtors have access to even more listings. Sometimes properties are available but not actively advertised. A Realtor can help you find those hidden gems.

Plus, a good local Realtor is going to know the search area way better than you ever could. Have your eye on a particular neighborhood, but it’s just out of your price range? Your Realtor is equipped to know the ins and outs of everyneighborhood, so she can direct you toward a home in your price range that you may have overlooked.

3. They have bullish negotiating chops

Any time you buy or sell a home, you’re going to encounter negotiations—and as today’s housing market heats up, those negotiations are more likely than ever to get a little heated.

You can expect lots of competition, cutthroat tactics, all-cash offers, and bidding wars. Don’t you want a savvy and professional negotiator on your side to seal the best deal for you?

And it’s not just about how much money you end up spending or netting. A Realtor will help draw up a purchase agreement that allows enough time for inspections, contingencies, and anything else that’s crucial to your particular needs.

4. They’re connected to everyone

Realtors might not know everything, but they make it their mission to know just about everyone who can possibly help in the process of buying or selling a home. Mortgage brokers, real estate attorneys, home inspectors, home stagers, interior designers—the list goes on—and they’re all in your Realtor’s network. Use them.

5. They adhere to a strict code of ethics

Not every real estate agent is a Realtor, who is a licensed real estate salesperson who belongs to the National Association of Realtors®, the largest trade group in the country.

What difference does it make? Realtors are held to a higher ethical standard than licensed agents and must adhere to a Code of Ethics.

6. They’re your sage parent/data analyst/therapist—all rolled into one

The thing about Realtors: They wear a lot of different hats. Sure, they’re salespeople, but they actually do a whole heck of a lot to earn their commission. They’re constantly driving around, checking out listings for you. They spend their own money on marketing your home (if you’re selling). They’re researching comps to make sure you’re getting the best deal.

And, of course, they’re working for you at nearly all hours of the day and night—whether you need more info on a home or just someone to talk to in order to feel at ease with the offer you just put in. This is the biggest financial (and possibly emotional) decision of your life, and guiding you through it isn’t a responsibility Realtors take lightly.

10 Realistic Ways to Lower Utility Bills

It doesn’t have to cost a lot of time, money, or effort to lower utility bills. While things like swapping out single pane windows for double pane windows or installing a smart thermometer will definitely go a long way toward reduced energy costs, there are lots of quick and practical things that you can do right now to put a dent in your monthly utility spending—no major investment required.

Of course, there are lots of reasons beyond just trying to lower utility bills to cut down on your home’s energy usage. Using less energy in our day to day lives is better for the environment, and particularly important as temperatures fluctuate a bit from what we’re used to during the seasons. Being mindful of how you use energy—and taking small steps to use just a little bit less—is always good practice. And hey, saving money is a pretty great benefit too.

So how do you lower utility bills without completely disrupting your budget or your way of life? Here are ten realistic things you can do right now to use less energy in your home.

  1. Cover Your Outlets

    There are lots of sneaky places where air from outside of your home can leak inside of your home—and your outlets are one of them. Even a small stream of air from outside can put strain on your heating and cooling system by causing it to gain or lose heat when you don’t want it to, which results in higher energy costs.

    To remedy, go around to all of your outlets on a cold day and put your hand in front of them. If you feel air coming through, that means your outlet isn’t doing a great job at blocking out the temperatures outside. Fortunately, you can fix this super quickly with some plastic outlet covers, available at any big box home improvement store.

  2. Take Shorter Showers

    Everyone loves a good shower, but if you want to lower utility bills then cutting down the time you spend lathering, rinsing, and repeating (or maybe just skipping the repeating altogether) is one of the easiest ways that you can do it.

    The average American takes an 8.2 minute shower and uses 17.2 gallons of water in the process. At around two gallons of water a minute, that means that cutting back to a five minute shower could make a huge dent in how much water you use while still giving you plenty of time to savor the steam.

  3. Wash All Clothes in Cold Water

    Unless a fabric specifically requires warm or hot water to be cleaned, wash all of your clothes and linens on cold to reduce water heating costs and, ultimately, lower utility bills. Cold water washing is perfectly suitable for most items that you’re tossing in the washing machine, and is effective at removing stains. In some cases, it’s actually preferable, since certain stains can set into fabrics when exposed to hot water. And considering that 75% to 90% of the energy your washer uses goes to warming the water, switching to cold is a small change that can make a big impact.

  4. Replace Your Air Filter

    Being a homeowner means keeping track of a lot of little to dos, many of which slip through the cracks if you’re not paying close attention. But when it comes to the air filter on your HVAC, forgetting to replace it at the appropriate time means inefficient heating and cooling—and higher utility bills.

    On average, you should be replacing your HVAC’s air filter every thirty days. If you’re worried about remembering to make the switch every month, purchase a high-end pleated filter since many of these remain efficient for as long as six months (check the packaging to be sure). Regardless of how often your air filter needs to be changed, put a reminder on your phone so that you don’t end up slipping up and inadvertently running up a higher heating or cooling bill than you need to.

  5. Switch to Smart Power Strips

    Phantom power (also called vampire power or leaking electricity) refers to the amount of electricity that your devices use when they’re plugged in but not in use. Altogether, these unassuming power suckers can account for as much as 5% to 10% of the cost of your electricity bill month in and month out—yikes.

    One thing you could do to limit this waste and lower utility bills is to unplug everything when you’re not using it, but that’s not always ideal, especially for things like TVs and appliances. A better solution? Ditch standard power strips and switch to smart power strips instead, which automatically cut off the electric current to devices when they’re not being used. At a cost of around $15 to $30 per strip, it’s a small price to pay for such impressive long term savings.

  6. Weatherstrip Your Doors and Windows

    This tip usually comes up when you’re reading up on how to winterize your home, but making sure that your doors and windows are efficiently weatherstripped is a smart idea no matter the season. Just like with air drafts coming in through your outlets, leaks—even small ones—around your doors and windows causes your home’s heating or cooling system to overwork itself trying to catch up. And sealing these leaks can save you as much as 30% per year on your utility bills.

    To do it, head to your local home improvement store and take your pick among the varieties of door and window weatherstripping products. These come in a lot of different materials, including plastic, foam, felt, and vinyl, and can be layered up to provide an optimal seal.

  7. Turn Down the Thermostat When You Go to Sleep

    There’s no reason to keep the heat blasting when you’re going to be curled up under blankets. Before you go to bed, head to your thermostat and turn it down five to ten degrees (or more). You won’t notice the difference when you’re sleeping, but you will on your heating bill.

    If your home is empty during the day—such as when everyone is at work or school—that’s another opportunity to lower the thermostat as well. This change can mean big savings, and requires pretty much no work on your part. If you really want to take the guesswork out of it, you could install a programmable thermostat, which will automatically take care of the adjustments for you. But it’s not necessary so long as you make it part of your nightly (and daily) routine.

  8. Use Optimal Fridge and Freezer Temperatures

    Keeping the temperature in your refrigerator and freezer too low isn’t just detrimental to your food—it’s also detrimental to your wallet. Instead of trying to guess where the sweet spot is, go with what the experts say and set your fridge to 38 degrees and your freezer to five degrees. They won’t have to work quite so hard to maintain their temperatures, and your food will still stay just as fresh.

  9. Run Your Dishwasher At Night

    Many utility providers spike their rates during peak use hours when everyone is awake and using their appliances and devices. To figure out if your provider does, look at the breakdown of your bill, or just call them directly. And if it’s the case that rates are higher during busier hours, it goes to reason that running a big energy and water sucker like your dishwasher at night will save you a lot of money over time.

    So why the dishwasher? Most appliances don’t lend themselves very well to being run when you’re not awake. For example—your washer, which requires that you get up to switch the load once the timer goes off. You’re definitely not going to want to run your stove or oven while you’re sleeping either. Changing your schedule with your dishwasher though is an easy adjustment to make, and as a bonus, you’ll wake up to a bunch of clean dishes. While you’re at it, turn off heat dry since you won’t need the dishes right away.

  10. Put Your Monitor to Sleep

    Having your desktop computer running for long periods of time when you’re not using it is a big waste of electricity, using a lot more than if you were to turn it off and turn it back on when you need it again. If you’re stepping away for twenty or thirty minutes, put your monitor on sleep mode. And if you’re going to be away for an hour or more, turn off your central processing unit as well. You’ll lower utility bills by not having these devices running at all times in the background, and you’ll probably get a longer life out of your computer as well.

Waste, whether it’s energy or money (or both), can often be eliminated in our lives to some degree with just a few small changes. Follow the advice above and you’ll reduce your environmental impact and lower utility bills, all with very little effort required.

8 Tips for Budgeting for a Home Renovation

Whether you plan to renovate a house before moving in or are preparing to remodel your current abode, we know budgeting for a home renovation can be a tough process. First, you’ll need to determine what it is you really need versus what you simply want. Next, you’ll have to figure out how you’re going to finance the renovation in the first place. Once you have a general idea of how much money you have to spend on renovations (and where that money is coming from), you should be able to make better decisions on finishes, appliances and other renovation features.

Remember: most renovations end up costing more than originally thought, so be sure to have a money cushion set aside in case of emergencies. This is especially true if you plan to tear down walls and make structural changes, as these projects often end up with unwelcome surprises (think: water damage, mold or electrical and wiring issues). Many homeowners may also be concerned with ways to cut costs and save money without compromising the quality of the home. For tips on budgeting for a home renovation, check out our expert advice below.

8 tips for budgeting for a home renovation

  1. Decide on your top renovation needs and priorities

    The reason for renovating your home probably has something to do with a need that isn’t being met by your current living situation. Perhaps it’s a need for more space or perhaps it’s a need for an updated bathroom. Whatever the reason (or reasons) for renovating, be sure to write down and prioritize all of your remodeling goals. For instance, a larger kitchen island may be at the top of your priority list, whereas updated appliances may be lower down on the list of needs. Keep your goals in mind and avoid getting side-tracked with smaller projects that can wait for later.

  2. Look at cost vs. value for each renovation project

    Planning to sell your home in the future? Keep the return on investment top of mind when choosing home renovation projects. After all, there’s no reason to pour $40K into a kitchen, if the home isn’t going to sell for more than you originally paid. Once you’ve prioritized your home renovation needs, research each project’s cost vs. value using Remodeling Magazine’s latest Cost vs. Value report. The report includes the cost of common remodeling projects and compares them to that project’s resale value. This should give you an idea about which projects are worth the money and which projects aren’t. For instance, the 6 most valuable home improvement projects of 2018 included an upscale garage door replacement, manufactured stone veneer, the kitchen, siding and vinyl window replacements and a bathroom remodel.

  3. Figure out how you’re going to finance the renovation

    Now for the hard part: figuring out how exactly you’re going to finance this renovation. First, take a look at your current finances. Do you have enough cash to cover the renovation? If so, great. If not, you’ll need to borrow money for the project. Unless you have a fairy godmother willing to loan you cash, we recommend either using a home equity loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC), where homeowners can borrow money against their home. Many homeowners also use credit cards to finance their renovation projects. This may be a good idea – assuming you have a plan to pay these credit cards off. If you have strong credit, you may also be able to obtain a loan through SoFi, an online personal finance company providing personal loans and mortgages to high income individuals.

  4. Talk to others who have finished similar renovations

    Discuss your renovation project with someone who has experienced it first-hand. In addition to obtaining knowledge and tips on how to complete a successful renovation, you may also learn how to cut costs and budget appropriately for certain projects. For instance, someone who has renovated a master bathroom before should be able to give you tips on where to find good deals on hardware and supplies. In addition to telling you what to do, they should just as easily be able to tell you what not to do when it comes to renovations. Learning from their mistakes could end up saving you a substantial amount of money.

  5. Create a list of specific needs and goals for contractor bids

    After going over your needs and wants, create a clear list of renovation goals to hand to contractors. This will ensure that your bid (or cost estimate for the renovation) is as accurate as possible. Make sure to include both major structural changes to the home and cosmetic changes. Examples of what to include on a kitchen renovation list include demo, new quartz countertops, new custom-made cabinets, painting kitchen cabinets and walls, new subway tile backsplash, ceiling beam installations and new GE appliances. Make sure to include specific brands you plan on using as well. From here, a contractor should be able to give you a much more accurate quote.

  6. Obtain bids from at least three general contractors

    If you’re planning to use a general contractor, we recommend obtaining bids from at least three different contractors. It’s not uncommon for bids to differ wildly. If a contractor is particularly busy or charges a hefty percentage, then you can bet that bid will be higher. According to Angie’s List, most general contractors charge “between 10 to 20 percent of the total cost of the job.” The total cost of the job includes materials, supplies, labor, permits, etc. Be aware of contractors that give you a too-good-to-be-true estimate. For example, if three different contractors tell you that the project will likely cost between $30K and $40K, but one contractor tells you he can do it for $10K, this could be a red flag that the contractor is either lying to you or is inexperienced.

  7. Research materials and sources for the new home

    When budgeting for a home renovation, it’s absolutely crucial that you have some idea about how much everything costs. We recommend spending a substantial amount of time researching your specific renovation needs. From the cost of countertops and appliances to the cost of bathroom vanities and flooring, researching these specifics will allow you to keep an ongoing tally of renovation costs. While you can always research costs online, you should also spend time at your local Home Depot, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Ferguson Showroom and local warehouses where granite, marble and other stone surfaces are sold.

  8. Cut costs where you can

    Of course, cutting unnecessary costs where you can is never a bad idea – especially if you’re on a tight budget. Those unwilling to compromise on quality materials or finishes should look into purchasing gently-used or refurbished items. Your contractor may also be able to find leftover stone slabs from previous projects. Other ways to cut back on renovation costs include purchasing items when they go on sale, hiring subcontractors instead of a general contractor and doing a little DIY work (i.e. painting a room yourself).

How to Begin the Online Home Search

First Steps

You’ve made your first step by visiting Homes.com, a simply smarter way to search for your first or next home!

Now learn a little about the tools we offer and discover more ways to focus in on your ideal home.

Homes.com aims to make your results and experience more personal, to help you set the priorities that are important to you and your home search partner(s)!

Homes.com Innovations For Your Home Search

Homes.com Match

There’s more to finding the perfect home than just matching the right price and number of beds and baths. Our conversational search begins the search experience and easily navigates you to your ideal location, gives you insights into average area pricing, and allows you to intuitively select match criteria that matter to you most. With many match filters offering a “must-have” and “nice-to-have” option and ‘around’ option on pricing, your search results can surface more relevant listings than traditional search filters. To help you assess how close of a match each property comes to your criteria,  each home result has a clearly displayed match score which shows on a scale of 0-100 just how close your match is in meeting your personalized needs.

The search results page allows you to sort by match score, as well as more traditional sort orders (such as price), and our intelligent algorithms help you discover more properties through ‘close matches’ as well as expanding selection by noting limiting match criteria (e.g. “you could see more homes if you made ‘pool’ a nice-to-have”).

Homes.com Match really does offer a smarter search experience, which means you’ll find exactly what you want, and won’t miss out on homes you might like.

How to Find a Contractor When Renovating a Home

Preparing to renovate your home? Whether it’s a small, one-room makeover or an entire overhaul of the property, you’ll likely need an experienced and reputable general contractor. While expensive, these construction professionals provide valuable services to homeowners renovating a home. In all likelihood, homeowners won’t be able to spend all day, every day at the home overseeing the day-to-day operations. That’s where a general contractor comes in. Not only do general contractors oversee every aspect of the renovation from beginning to end, but they also guide homeowners in making practical yet budget-conscious decisions throughout the process. In addition, they handle complicated inspection and permitting requirements by the city.

Not sure how to find a contractor that fits your needs? We can help. Below we’ve rounded up several places to find a reputable general contractor as well as tips on how to narrow down the search and ultimately choose the right contractor for your home renovation.

How to find a contractor that fits your home renovation needs

Where to find a contractor 

  1. Ask your Realtor

    Did you purchase the home using a trusted real estate agent? If so, don’t hesitate to ask your Realtor for contractor suggestions. Most Realtors have a list of home improvement professionals to meet their customers’ real estate needs. For instance, in addition to recommended contractors, your Realtor likely has a list of handymen, plumbers, pool cleaners, etc. It’s also likely that a seasoned and experienced Realtor has worked with contractors in the past – either by selling them homes or selling their flipped homes. If you haven’t yet purchased the home that you plan to renovate, we recommend asking your Realtor to have their recommended contractors come to the house for a walk-through. The contractor may be able to give you a rough estimate of renovation costs, which could help you decide whether or not the home purchase is worth your money.

  2. Word of mouth

    When searching for a general contractor, there’s nothing more helpful than a good or bad recommendation from a trusted friend, family member or neighbor. If the contact had a good experience with the general contractor, you can bet they’ll be singing their praises. However, if the experience was less than favorable, your contact will likely warn you against hiring a certain contractor. Word of mouth recommendations are valuable, so don’t hesitate to reach out to anyone and everyone you know in the area who has undergone a home renovation. You may also want to consider joining Nextdoor.com or local Facebook groups to obtain contractor recommendations from locals.

  3. Search digital marketplaces

    If suggestions from your Realtor and word of mouth recommendations from friends aren’t enough, try searching a digital marketplace that connects homeowners with home improvement contractors. A few websites to explore include Houzz, HomeAdvisor, Angie’s List and Porch. These websites provide visitors with a list of local contractors. If the contractor has set up a profile with the site, you’ll likely be able to find information about the company, photos of projects and reviews from clients.

How to narrow down the search

  1. Obtain recommendations and conduct research on local contractors

    Just because a trusted friend vouches for a contractor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your due diligence. Make sure you’ve checked to see whether the contractor is properly licensed and insured. Check customer reviews and Better Business Bureau ratings. It’s also a good idea to research how long they’ve been in business, years of experience and projects completed. In addition to reviews available online, we recommend asking the contractor for a list of client references.

  2. Meet with at least three to four general contractors

    Meet face-to-face with at least three to four general contractors before deciding who to hire. This will give you an idea of personality traits and who you jibe with best. It will also give you a chance to complete a walk-through of the project with the contractor. It’s important that the contractor see the home in-person before providing you with an estimate of costs.

  3. Provide a complete list of all renovations and blue prints of the home

    When meeting with the contractor, make sure to provide a full list of all home renovation needs. From changing out door knobs and re-painting rooms to demolishing cabinets and installing flooring, every change (no matter how small) should be included on the renovation list. This will help the contractor put together as accurate a bid as possible.

  4. Compare bids

    Once you receive estimates from several contractors, compare the offerings. Watch out for: 1) the contractor who is extremely expensive. He or she may be very busy and simply trying to price themselves out; and 2) the contractor who is desperate for work. He or she may send you a lowball bid. Unfortunately, this type of bid can be misleading and result in you paying more than expected. Make sure the bids include the cost of labor/subcontractors, the general contractor’s cut (or profit margin), materials, demo and clean-up expenses.

  5. Inquire about their payment schedule

    How does the contractor go about receiving payments for his work? Large projects will usually require a down payment from the homeowners at the beginning and then several subsequent payments as projects are completed. Contractors should have enough money in the bank to pay for subcontractors and materials up-front without having to ask you for money at every turn.

  6. Ask about their communication preferences

    Does the contractor prefer to talk on the phone, text message, send emails or meet in-person? Be sure to ask how they prefer to communicate with their clients. Even if the contractor prefers to communicate by email, it may be a good idea to request weekly on-site meetings to go over goals for the week. These face-to-face meetings will keep you in the loop as decisions get made and projects are completed. 

Who to choose

So you’ve interviewed several contractors, compared bids and narrowed down your search. Now it’s time to choose a general contractor for the job. When selecting your contractor, remember that you’ll be working with this person on a regular basis. That means good communication is key. While you certainly don’t need to be best friends with your contractor, it’s important that you get along and are on the same page about most everything.

When choosing a general contractor, it’s also important to not choose based on their bid alone. Just because one contractor’s bid is considerably lower than another’s doesn’t mean that you should go with the cheapest option. In fact, a lowball, too-good-to-be-true estimate could be an indication that the general contractor is desperate for the job. While price is a consideration, other factors such as quality of work, client reviews and character traits should be top of mind as well. Whatever you do, make sure you’re comfortable with your choice. If none of the contractors interviewed meet your expectations, then start the search over and find new contractors to consider.