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The Simple Dollar

A vendor pedals a bicycle past a Pepsi advertisement in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, in this August 2012 file photo. Hamm writes that ignoring ads and focusing on impartial sources, like Consumer Reports, can help you avoid making a bad purchase. (Khin Maing Win/AP/File)

How to control marketing messages

By Guest blogger / 09.08.12

Let’s just start off by answering the obvious question: what are the primacy effect and the recency effect?

The primacy effect means that people tend to remember the first information presented about something better than information presented later.

For example, let’s say that your first awareness of a product was during a segment on a morning show, where they lauded how well the product worked. If you were paying attention, that information is more likely to stick in your head (“this product is good and does the job well”) than information you find out later on about the product.

However, there is something that trumps the primacy effect: the recency effect means that people tend to remember the most recent information presented about a product above all else.

So, let’s say you’re interested in this product because of that morning show segment. However, later you discover that the product isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At this point, the recency effect is on top, so your impression of the item is negative. Later on, though, you hear a few more positive reports, which match well with the first thing you heard. The primacy effect (the first thing you heard) and the recency effect (the last thing you heard) are both telling you the product is good, so you’re very likely to think the product is good.

Marketing people use this all the time. They want to control the first message you hear about a product and make sure it’s a positive message. They also want to control the last message you hear about a product before you make a buying decision.

They control the first message by using pre-release hype. They’ll find every way they can to talk up an upcoming product. They’ll use television, radio, print, and internet advertising to attempt to give you the first information you hear about a product.

Often, they’ll use contacts in the news media to get stories written or presented about the upcoming product. I consider those to be the most pernicious.

For example, I’ve seen countless “news” stories touting the upcoming release of the iPhone 5, as well as the upcoming release of Windows 8. I’ve seen many previews of the upcoming novels by J. K. Rowling and Michael Chabon. In each case, the goal is to get a positive perspective on those upcoming things into my mind before anything else and, in most cases, it’s worked.

At the same time, they strive to control the last message, too. They do this by packaging products in very eye-friendly containers, ones that highlight the tastiness or sleekness or sophistication of the product. The more attractive the packaging and the better the product looks, the more useful it is.

The problem with all of this is that the research you actually do for a product ends up being the “middle” pieces of information, the ones you’re most likely to forget.

What can you do about that?

First, you can tackle the primacy effect by doing research on your needs as soon as you think about it. Don’t look at advertisements or other things. Instead, head straight for a trusted source of unbiased information on the product you’re considering, such as Consumer Reports. The less you know about specific products in a genre before you actually dig into the facts, the better. The best situation is when real data is your primary source on a subject.

Second, you can conquer the recency effect by using a shopping list. Figure out what you actually intend to get from your research and write it down. Keep it with you when you start to shop, and trust what you’ve written. Don’t let product displays or “anonymous” reviews sway you in the shopping process. You’ve done the research, so trust what you’ve discovered. Let that product name you’ve written down be your most current piece of information about what to buy.

Don’t let the biases of your mind get in the way of making a good purchasing decision.

A billboard advertises car insurance in this commercial file photo. Understanding your motivation for getting insured is the first step to seeking out coverage, Hamm writes. (Business Wire/File)

Insurance: Why do we need it?

By Guest blogger / 09.06.12

Insurance is a reality of modern life. Many state laws require homeowners and automobile insurance. On top of that, most people have health insurance and many people have life insurance for themselves and their loved ones. There’s long term care insurance, long term disability insurance, umbrella insurance… the list goes on and on.

The challenge with all of these insurance types is that people are often unsure as to what exactly they need. Not only are there tons of different kinds of insurance floating around, there are many different types as well.

Muddying the water even further are insurance salespeople. Most are honest. Some will sell you anything they can.

What can a person do to simply stick with the insurance they need at a reasonable price? The first step is to know why you’re insuring.

For me, most of the motivation for insurance comes from two sources: my children and the law. We have homeowners insurance and auto insurance as required by law, and we have health insurance (for our family) and large term life insurance policies (for Sarah and myself).

Let’s take a look at the life insurance choices in more detail. For each policy, I can state exactly why we have that policy.

For myself and Sarah, our large term policies exist because we want to be able to maintain our children’s lives as well as we possibly can if something were to happen to us.

Why aren’t our children insured? We can afford any burial expenses for them out of pocket, so there is no need for term insurance.

Why don’t we have any investment-type insurance policies for anyone? We can get better investment returns outside of such policies based on the returns we’ve been quoted.

When you know the “whys,” decisions related to insurance become easy. The challenge is to sit down and figure out the “whys.”

For Sarah and myself, those questions are the fodder for a lot of discussions between us. We make most of these decisions together, and our discussions not only helped us understand what insurance we needed, but helped us understand what is truly important to us.

One final suggestion: talk about insurance before you talk to a salesperson. Investigate what you’re buying on your own and know why you’re buying it. That way, you can largely ignore the sales pitch and head straight for the items that you actually need.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

In this June 2012 file photo, real estate agent Jim Klinge, right, hosts an open house in San Diego. Hamm recommends renting out extra rooms to keep up with home maintenance costs. (Gregory Bull/AP/File)

Extra rooms? Rent them out.

By Guest blogger / 09.05.12

Right now, we live in a four bedroom house. Soon, it may become a five bedroom house. That makes sense, because we have five people living here.

Now, let’s roll the clock forward fifteen years. At that time, there will be two people living here, with five bedrooms.

Naturally, we’ll want to hang onto one or two or even three of them as rooms for when the children come home at Christmas and the like.

However, we have a family room, a bedroom, and a bathroom down in the basement that will largely be unused at that point. With a bit of remodeling, the basement could have its own exit to the outside.

Why not rent the whole thing out and enjoy another revenue stream?

Many people find themselves in the very situation I’ve described. They have a nice big home, perfect for raising a family, but then the children grow up and move out, leaving you with an empty nest.

That empty nest often includes a few empty bedrooms, ones that only fill up when the children and grandchildren visit. Sometimes, other rooms become empty, too.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to have a house that much bigger than what you need. The best solution is to downsize, of course, but for many people, that doesn’t make emotional sense. They raised a family in this house. They don’t want to leave.

So, you’re left with empty rooms. What should you do with them? Leaving them empty costs you money in terms of property taxes, as well as heating and cooling.

You might as well fill them with people.

Naturally, since you’re renting part of your house, you can be as selective as you want with the tenants. Choose people that you feel comfortable with. You can give a low-rent opportunity to an industrious graduate student. You can charge a higher rent level to a single professional. You control the situation, so you only have to rent in situations you’re comfortable with.

If you have extra rooms in your home, think about renting them out. It can put more money on your plate.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

Installing an aerator on your home faucet can restrict water flow by as much as a gallon a minute, Hamm says. (Business Wire/File)

How conserving water affects your wallet: 5 ways

By Guest blogger / 09.04.12

Does conserving water save real money? Never mind the environmental questions. What does it cost your wallet if you waste a gallon of water?

The EPA reports that the national average cost of water is $2.00 per 1,000 gallons. This varies greatly from area to area: in some dry areas, you’ll pay much more, for example.

So, a single gallon of water wasted will cost you two-tenths of a cent. That’s not much in the big scheme of things. It’s perhaps easier to see it in the context of uses in your home.

Toilet Use
 A typical modern toilet uses 1.6 gallons of water per flush, so we’ll use that as a metric. Let’s say you flush a toilet in your home ten times a day. That’s 16 gallons. Over the course of a month, that’s 480 gallons, or about a dollar’s worth of water.

Back in the 1970s, when the mantra was “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down,” toilets used between 5 and 7 gallons per flush – let’s call it six. If your toilet was flushed ten times a day, would add up to 1,800 gallons per month, or a little below four dollars of water.

If you used the above philosophy and trimmed out half of those flushings on an old-fashioned toilet, you would reduce your cost by $2 per month, or $24 per year. If you did it on a modern toilet, though, you’d only save $0.50 per month, or $6 per year. It’s perhaps worth it in the first case, but probably not worth it in the second case.

Shower Heads
 Modern shower heads vary in flow from one gallon per minute to 2.5 gallons per minute (depending on the head). So, using the numbers above, let’s look at some math.

Let’s say there are three showers taken in your home each day, and each shower lasts for ten minutes. That’s thirty minutes of shower time.

If you’re using a higher-flow showerhead for these showers, you’re using 75 gallons of water per day for showers. Over the course of a month, that’s 2,250 gallons, or about $4.50 in water costs.

If you instead used a low-flow showerhead for these showers, you would be using 30 gallons of water per day for the showers. Over the course of a month, that’s 900 gallons, or a bit less than a dollar in water costs. You save $3.50 per month by having a low-flow showerhead in this example.

If you used my preferred shower money-saving technique, which is to focus on getting the job done in there and shaving off time, you might be able to shave three minutes off of each shower. That drops the total daily shower time down to 21 minutes, saving you $1.50 per month with a high-flow showerhead or about thirty cents a month with a low-flow showerhead.

Faucets
 The biggest determining factor in the rate of water use at a home faucet is the aerator, which typically screws onto the end of a faucet. These can restrict water flow by as much as a gallon per minute. For example, most kitchen faucets come with aerators that restrict flow to 2.2 gallons per minute, while bathroom faucets restrict flow to 1.5 gallons per minute. If you install aerators on these faucets, you can reduce them both easily to 1.0 gallons per minute (or move the bathroom aerator to the kitchen, so you have 1.5 in the kitchen and 1.0 in the bathroom).

Let’s say you run water through your kitchen faucet for five minutes a day on average, and the bathroom faucet for two minutes a day. Over the course of a month, your kitchen faucet with the original aerator uses 330 gallons, while your bathroom uses 90 gallons. Do the aerator switch described above, and you are left with 225 and 60 gallons per month, respectively. You’ll save $0.27 per month on your water bill.

Clothes Washers and Dish Washers
 Obviously, these devices use a lot of water, and they vary greatly in their efficiency.

An EnergyStar dishwasher uses as little as four gallons of water, while others use as much as six or seven. Older dishwashers and industrial strength dishwashers can use a lot more water. (Washing dishes by hand usually uses more water but far less energy than a dishwasher load, making hand-washing slightly cheaper.)

Washing machines, depending on type, can use anywhere from eight gallons to forty gallons of water per load. If you do a load of laundry per day like we do on average, that adds up to 240 to 1,200 gallons per month, a difference of about $2. Over the course of many years, that can add up quite a lot.

Little Amounts Make a Big Difference
 For most household use, the amounts we’re discussing for water use are pretty small. The things you change will save you a few dollars a month. They won’t, by themselves, make an enormous change in your finances.

However, water conservation is one of those things that is an easy small thing to change in your life. The savings that come in from water conservation are almost effortless once the initial change has been put in place.

If you buy a new showerhead and install it to replace a much higher-flow showerhead, you’ll spend $20 or so up front, but thereafter you’ll save a few bucks a month on your water bill. You’ve paid for that showerhead in half a year and after that it’s pure savings.

However, larger replacements, like installing a water-efficient dishwasher, generally aren’t worth it until you’re forced to replace the item for other reasons.

The best change you can make is changing your behavior a little. Take shorter showers. Wash a few dishes by hand instead of running a partial load in the dishwasher. Install more efficient aerators on your faucets (they’re really cheap).

You won’t save a ton of money this way, but you will save a little bit, and that little savings appears each and every month on your water bill. Every little bit helps when you’re pushing to pay off debt or struggling to make ends meet – or even if you’re just trying to gear up to invest your money.

Frederic Fokejou Tefot of Cameroon prepares to lift in the men's +105-kg, group B, weightlifting competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Hamm offers five tips to overcome resistance in achieving your goals. (Mike Groll/AP/File)

How to defeat resistance

By Guest blogger / 09.03.12

When I get up in the morning, I know that I should exercise, but I often really don’t want to do it. I usually have a checklist of other things I need to do, so I’ll use that as an excuse. Some days, I’ll find some minor physical reason not to do it (“I have a tiny blister on my toe” or “I think I have a cold coming on” or “My knee hurts”). Other days, I’ll not even think about it. The easiest path often seems to be the one that doesn’t involve exercise.

Resistance.

When I was trying to get my financial life in order, my entire social network was full of cues to spend money. The television programs I watched depicted affluent and interesting people who just happened to have things that were compelling to me in some way. I felt like my family expected me to buy nice gifts and treat them to meals when they came to visit. The easiest path seemed to be the one that involved spending more money.

Resistance.

When I’m trying to adopt any life change, there are always a lot of reasons not to do it. Usually, it’s much easier to just keep doing things the way I’m doing things. It’s comfortable. I understand it. I know it’s not going to hurt to stick with the status quo, at least not in the short term. My family hints that this change might not be the best idea.

Resistance.

Our enemy is resistance, and we shall defeat it.

Here are our weapons in this battle.

Forge a new path of least resistance. Fighting to overcome the munchies? Toss all of the unhealthy munchies out of your home (take them to a food pantry, for example). That way, the easiest path to getting your snack fix involves eating something healthy. Fighting to exercise more? Reserve a parking spot as far from your workplace as possible, or put your jogging shoes right in front of your door so that you have to actively move them to avoid them.

Use some motivation. Why are you really making this change? Hold that motivator front and center. For a long time, I kept my credit cards wrapped in a photograph of my children. I’ve started using a picture of me at my heaviest (although that’s about fifty pounds heavier than I am now) in several places to encourage exercise.

Make simple milestones. There’s a reason so many of my friends have found success with the “Couch to 5k” running program. It sets up simple little milestones that can easily be achieved, but they’re still enough to fill you with accomplishment each step of the way. If you’re working towards something new, set up little milestones for yourself.

Track your progress – but not too much. Tracking your financial situation too frequently will give you a false sense of failing because of the short-term impact of bills and the like. Similarly, tracking your weight too frequently will give you a false sense of failure because of short-term weight fluctuations. Check it once a month and be proud of what you’ve achieved. Make that checking day important – mark it on your calendar and give it some psychological weight, so that you’re looking forward to it throughout the month.

Use social pressure. Find someone to share in your goal, either face-to-face or on the internet. Share your progress extensively and cheer the successes of the others involved in the goal. A community of people all striving toward the same individual goals can be a very powerful method for minimizing resistance to change.

These are your tools. Use them wisely.

This Aug. 21 file photo shows an exterior view of house with a pending home sale sign in Palo Alto, Calif. According to Hamm, comparison shopping for a mortgage is something that few people think to do, even though it can yield significant savings. (Paul Sakuma/AP/File)

You better shop around. For a mortgage.

By Guest blogger / 09.02.12

I shop around for everything from cars to soap. Why wouldn’t I shop around for my mortgage?

It seems like such a common-sense thing. Different banks offer different rates on their mortgages. They also have different amounts on their closing costs. Finding the best deal among many offers makes a lot of sense.

So often, though, when I talk to readers who have recently gone through the home-buying process, the single most common mistake I hear about is that they didn’t shop around for a mortgage. They looked at some rate advertisements, applied for one of them, and ran with it.

That’s a mistake. Shopping around for a better mortgage deal will usually save you significant money.

At what point in the process do you shop around? I suggest shopping around before you even begin seriously looking at homes. This way, you can be pre-approved before you move forward. You’ll also obtain a good faith estimate of the costs associated with each loan.

Should you apply for every loan under the sun? There’s no reason to do so.

Start off by doing your homework before you apply. Know exactly what type of loan you’re looking for before you ever go near a bank. I would strongly urge you to avoid adjustable rate loans, as they often tend to adjust at an inconvenient moment in your financial life. Stick with a thirty year fixed loan unless you’re sure what you’re doing (or, even better, a 15 year fixed).

You’ll also want to filter the banks you apply to. You may prefer to go with a local credit union or a local bank because of the convenience of the service, or you may be fine with simply basing everything purely on the advertised rates (using a service like Lending Tree).

This might be a good time to check your credit report. The federal government makes this process pretty easy. Just make sure that your credit report has nothing on it that’s incorrect and damaging to your credit, as lending institutions will examine your credit report to determine the interest rates they’ll give you. Although most lenders use a similar model, some lenders are more forgiving of questionable credit than others.

In my own experience, tapping your social network can do wonders in situations like this. You can often find pointers to responsive lenders, as well as lenders to avoid.

It’s important to note that rate isn’t always the ultimate answer when it comes to which lender to use (although it’s a pretty big factor). Lending institutions with poor customer service reputations should be avoided. For example, my own home lender routinely failed to make correct payments out of my escrow, causing me to be late on property taxes and homeowners insurance. After that, I had to call both the lender and the institutions multiple times each time a payment was due. It was a significant hassle that would have made another lender more preferable.

Shop around for your mortgage, just like you’d shop around for a car or a DVD player. Your checking account will thank you.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

In buying home maintenance equipment, like lawn mowers, a hardware store shouldn't be your first stop, according to Hamm. Instead, check Craigslist and local yard sales. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File)

Don't overspend on home maintenance equipment

By Guest blogger / 09.01.12

When you first move into a home, you’re going to immediately be hit with a lot of little home maintenance tasks that need to be handled with some urgency. The lawn will need mowed. The bushes will need trimmed. The windows need cleaned. The gutters will need to be cleared of leaves. A few overhanging branches will need to be cut.

If you’re observant at all, you’ll find lots of little things that need your attention after you’re settled in.

If you’re moving into a house for the first time from an apartment, you likely don’t have much when it comes to home maintenance equipment. No lawnmower. No ladder. No hedge trimmers. No caulking gun. No leaf blower. No snowblower.

Right off the bat, you’re hit with a bunch of expenses. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be back-breaking.

When you see all of these needs around your new home, the first temptation is to head to the hardware store. That’s a mistake that will cost you.

Your first step should be to check Craigslist and local yard sales for used equipment. You need something cheap that will get the job done in the short term. Don’t worry about buying the perfect lawn mower right now. Just get something inexpensive that will trim your grass for the moment.

Our first lawn mower at our current home was a yard sale push mower that we literally pushed home from the yard sale that was several blocks away. The hedge trimmers we still have for trimming the bushes around our home were purchased at a yard sale.

Even if the first item you own turns out to only work for a year or so, that’s still time you have to save the money for a replacement and properly research it, both of which are financially in your favor.

Another option is to check your social network. If you have friends who are homeowners nearby, they’ll often be very happy to lend you basic home maintenance items for a while.

In our case, some of our friends came over for a day right when we moved in and helped us with many little tasks, from unpacking and moving things around to mowing the yard and trimming things up.

If you have small needs, ask your neighbors. Few things begin to open the door to a good relationship with your neighbors like borrowing some hedge trimmers or a screwdriver shortly after you move in. You may even find that they volunteer to help, which means you’re well on your way to building a good relationship with them – something that will be very valuable, indeed.

Don’t just go on a buying spree when you move into a new home. Take your time and use some sense. You might find that you don’t have to spend as much money as you first thought.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

Tony Silverio of Silverio Mechanical installs the pipes for plumbing at Sheep Dog Hollow in this 2009 file photo. With the wealth of free information available on the Internet, in the library, and from helpful friends, Hamm says, even complicated-seeming home repairs can be done without the help of a professional. (Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/File)

DIY home repair: Five steps to becoming your own handyman

By Guest blogger / 08.30.12

Yesterday, I posted a long list of home maintenance tasks that you should consider doing regularly around your house. As was discussed then, doing regular home maintenance can save you a lot of money over the long haul and even directly put some money in your pocket with a higher home value.

The problem is that many of these tasks can seem completely intimidating to the uninitiated.

I’m speaking from experience here. When I first moved into a home of my own, there were many simple tasks that seemed like a total mystery to me. I had no idea how the inside of a toilet tank worked. I didn’t know the first thing about re-starting a pilot light. I was pretty much afraid to go near the breaker box.

Yet I overcame all of that. I’ve fixed toilets. I’ve fixed hot water heaters. I’ve cleaned out drains. I’ve replaced faucets. I’ve caulked windows. I’ve done countless little tasks that would have been completely alien to me before I became a home owner.

Each one of those things that I’ve been willing to do on my own has saved me money. It’s kept me from having to call in a repairperson and it’s also kept me from just letting an item that I would otherwise know how to fix fall into disrepair.

So, what’s caused this transition? How did I go from someone who was practically afraid of changing a light bulb to a person who installs ceiling fans and replaces outlets without skipping a beat? There are a few basic tools that helped me through this change.

First, I realized that if you know how to turn off the power and how to turn off the water to a particular location in your house, there’s almost nothing you can mess up too badly. You can’t electrocute yourself if you’ve flipped the breaker. You can’t flood the bathroom if there’s no water flowing into the toilet. The first step is to simply learn how to turn these things off.

In most modern homes, there’s a breaker box that consists of a bunch of switches which are usually labeled. If you flip a switch for an appropriate area of your home, you’ll turn off the power to that area. Flip the switch back and there’s power again. Similarly, if you’re about to work on a sink or a toilet, look around for a simple valve that you can turn, either under the sink or behind the toilet. This will shut off the water supply, meaning you can’t flood anything, no matter what goes wrong.

If you take these basic precautions, you don’t have to feel too bad about any attempt at maintaining or repairing anything. After all, if you mess things up too much, you can still call a repairperson to fix it for you.

So, how do you figure out how to do these things? Youtube is my first stop when I’m looking for home repair help. If I can’t figure out what I want to know from a Youtube video, I ask friends for help and/or hit the local library for home repair and maintenance books.

In terms of pure maintenance, read your manuals. Almost everything in your home should have a manual. If you can’t find one, look at the equipment you have, identify any model numbers you can easily find, and hit the internet. Most manuals explain in very simple language what you need to do to maintain the equipment in question.

What you’ll find is that the more home and auto maintenance and minor repair that you do, the easier it all seems. Things no longer seem intimidating and you’re willing to try bigger and bigger tasks. Each thing you do on your own saves you the cost of hiring someone to do it and often gets the job done quicker, anyway.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

Jason Preston, Jermaine McNair, and James Hayes put up shutters on a house as Hurricane Isaac approaches Gulfport, Miss., August 28, 2012. Hurricane or no, monthly home maintenance is a small time investment that can save save serious money in the long run. (Michael Spooneybarger/Reuters)

How monthly home maintenance will save you big bucks

By Guest blogger / 08.29.12

Your home is one of the biggest investments you have. For most people, their first mortgage is the biggest financial commitment of their life compared to their net worth.

Just like everything else, your home needs maintenance and care. Sure, we all clean our houses and such, but there are a lot of little things that are easy to overlook in a home. The more things you overlook, the more it will cost you.

How will it cost you? Your heating and cooling bills will go up. Your unexpected repair costs will go up. Your house finishings and furnishings will wear down faster. You’ll run into countless little difficulties when something important comes up. Your home will have significantly less value when you go to sell it because all of the little neglects will show up.

All you have to do to combat all these things is spend a couple of hours during your free weekends doing some simple home maintenance tasks.

Personally, I use a home and auto maintenance checklist. Whenever I have a few free hours without much to do, I’ll usually turn on my headphones (if I’m home alone) or recruit a young helper (if the kids are home) and get to work on a few tasks.

Over five years ago, I posted a sample monthly home and auto maintenance checklist. I’ll quote it here, for reference’s sake. This is long, but don’t worry about it. I’ll explain how to make this very easy in a moment.

Check the tire pressure on all cars and air them up to the recommended maximum

Check the oil on the lawnmower and sharpen the blades – well-sharpened mower blades drastically reduce mowing time

Check, clean, and perhaps replace the air filter on all automobiles

Check the fluid levels in all automobiles and adjust as needed

Check and fill all gas cans for lawnmowers, etc.

Check for squeaky doors and oil them as needed

Check and clean range hood filters

Check and replace furnace filters

Check and replace other ventilation system filters

Check and replace humidifier filters

Remove grills on forced air system ducts and vacuum inside the ducts

Examine the foundation for any cracks

Examine exposed wood (attic, etc.) for insect damage and do any insect preventative maintenance that needs to happen

Test all ground fault circuit interrupters

Check all vents (inside and outside) and make sure there are no obstructions

Remove screens, clean window wells, and dry them

Examine all outdoor items and see whether any seasonal maintenance needs to be done

Drain off a pan full of water from the clean-out valve at the bottom of your hot water tank (removes sediment and maintains efficiency)

Check your sump pump for any issues

Test all fire/smoke/carbon monoxide detectors in the house

Check all window and door locks to ensure they’re all in working order

Check your fire escape plan and make sure that furniture additions haven’t changed this

Check all faucets for dripping water and change washers if needed

Run all sinks, toilets, baths, and showers to ensure no problems (mostly just the ones not used frequently)

Check the gauge on all fire extinguishers and replace if needed

Use a pipe cleaner and baking soda to clean all drains

Check all gutters for blockage and clean as needed (bird’s nests, leaves, etc.)

Check all visible pipes for leaks (don’t forget under sinks, etc.)

Check and clean refrigerator and freezer coils (we did this about once every six months, if I remember right)

Check all caulking and repair as needed

Clean all windows – remove the screens, clean the windowsills thoroughly, and also clean the windows thoroughly with Windex

Vacuum under all furniture – and vacuum all furniture, removing the cushions, etc.

Shampoo carpets as needed – this was usually done in a batch every few months

Scrub all non-carpeted floors – soap and brush on your hands and knees

Scour all sinks and tabletops

Sweep the garage floor

Put anything unused into storage (we had an annual “go through the storage” event, too)

Inventory all food staples (pantry, freezer, etc.), throw out what’s old, make a master list, and go to the store to replace what’s needed

Completely clean out refrigerator, thoroughly clean inside, then restock

That’s a lot of tasks. How does one manage it?

Simple. I just keep rotating through this list. Whenever I have an hour or two, I just go through the top few items on my list. Whenever I complete an item, I move it to the bottom of the list. When I’m tired of it or something else comes up, I just put the list aside until later.

Because of that, I get to each item on the list every month or so. Some of the items are done in just a few minutes. Others take an hour or two. If I put in a few hours a week on this list, then the house stays kept up.

(Of course, sometimes I fall behind. Life intervenes. However, if you’ve been doing these things regularly, periods of less activity on the list are tolerated much better by your home and automobile.)

What’s the reward for doing these things? Your house and automobile (and the components in them) have a much longer lifespan. You have far fewer emergency repairs. Your energy and fuel bills are lower. Your car has a longer lifespan. Your home has a larger resale value. It adds up – big time.

Take care of your biggest investments and they’ll take care of you.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

Medal of Honor recipient Col. Van T. Barfoot, seen here in 2009 lowering the flag outside his home, was in violation of his subdivision's homeowners association rules in Henrico County, Va. The association doesn't allow flags to be flown from a flagpole. (Eva Russo/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP/File)

Beware the homeowners association

By Guest blogger / 08.28.12

On the surface, homeowners associations can be very good things.

For one, they usually ensure a clean-looking neighborhood without anyone letting their property fall into disrepair. In an area with a homeowners association, people don’t have unkempt yards or sidewalks in disrepair.

Associations also provide for the maintenance of common areas. They’ll make beautiful road signs, maintain many of the sidewalks, and sometimes manage a village park.

In some neighborhoods, they enforce quiet hours. In the neighborhood of one of my readers, there was a local number you could call to report quiet hour violations, but they never had to call it because the neighborhood became pretty silent at midnight.

Associations also often provide perks, such as community pools, community parks, club memberships, and the like.

Their goal, in the end, is to preserve and maximize the property value of everyone in the neighborhood.

This can sound wonderful, but it comes with a price.

First, there’s the homeowners association fee. This can vary widely depending on the neighborhood. I’ve heard of fees as low as $30 per month, while others have had monthly fees approaching $1,000. The fees can often be greater than property taxes, believe it or not.

Second, there are often rules that you have to adhere to. This usually includes a list of lawn care and house care responsibilities, but can stretch into other areas as well (such as the aforementioned quiet hours). Some associations require a certain number of volunteer hours per year. Other agreements are very detailed, requiring you to plant certain amounts of certain types of plants in your yard.

Along with that, you have to get association approval for any significant change you want to make. If the change looks too different from the rest of the neighborhood, it won’t be approved, which means that you’ll be unable to do it.

Don’t like these rules? The association can start charging you fines if you ignore them. Ignore the fines, and they can put a lien on your house.

If you’re considering purchasing a new home, you need to find out about any association agreements that the house falls under. You need to make sure that you can afford it and that you’re willing and able to abide by the terms of the agreement.

My take is that there are benefits and drawbacks to associations. They’re great for some and provide a net benefit, but they’re not a great fit for others, particularly those who are really financially pressed.

Make sure you know all of the details before you take the leap into owning a home that participates in a homeowners association.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere.

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