Back-to-School: Are you Ready?

Back to pencils, back to books . . . we are getting closer to the day our students head back to class.

This means it’s time to start gearing up for the fall routine ― the back-to-school shopping for clothes and school supplies, getting used to a new sleeping schedule and trying to get a handle on those transportation issues.

Thankfully, we have some tips for you to help make the transition a bit easier.

Ease everyone into the fall routine

Think back to those first days of summer vacation. If you have teenagers, especially, you know that they went from waking to an alarm at the crack of dawn (at least to them) to snoozing half the day away without missing a beat.

Yanking them into the reality of fall isn’t easy. Ease them into it instead by starting the new schedule a week or two before school starts.

Set the alarm clock for the time they’ll need to rise to get to school on time and put them through the paces of a normal school morning with breakfast, making lunches and whatever else your family does to get ready for school in the morning.

Be extra attentive to the Kindergartener

I vividly recall my first day of Kindergarten. I remember feeling apprehensive, yet a little excited.

My father walked me to my classroom and then left. I followed him, screaming at the top of my lungs to him, begging him to not leave me there. I even recall reaching my pathetic little arms through a gate, coaxing him to come back for me.

For some kids, the very first day of school can be traumatic.

Easing them into what will become years of routine is important. A lot of their anxiety centers on the teacher and fellow students. So, meet this angst head-on by attending your school’s back-to-school night.

This way, your child can meet the teacher before classes start. And, there’s a good chance he or she will meet fellow students as well. When next they meet, during school hours, they’ll have a bit of recognition of one another, making it easier to break the ice.

Shopping Tips

Some shopping experts claim that parents should buy only enough clothes to last the first few weeks of the new school year. Why?

First, in around the middle of September, retailers hold sales. It’s the very best time to buy the bulk of your child’s school wardrobe.

Next, it will take your student a couple of weeks to determine the latest fashion and which items he or she wants to add to the wardrobe.

School supply shopping, on the other hand, has to be done before school starts. Many of our local schools post a supplies list on their websites which you can print off and take with you when you shop.

Take your child with you on the shopping trip. Not only will the trip result in buying what the child needs and wants, but it helps the little ones build excitement when you point out how each item will be used at school.

If you can’t afford the required supplies, contact the Kids in Need Foundation, a nationwide program that helps parents get what their kids need. Check the list of resources to find one near you.

If there isn’t a resource center in your area, contact the school’s or district’s social worker.

Getting back to school is a tough transition for both kids and parents but getting off to a strong start is critical to your child’s success. With your planning and support, your children will thrive during the school year.

Keep your home safe while on vacation

Planning for a vacation is distracting. Sitting at your desk at work, mentally going over what you’ll need to pack, visions of sandy beaches and cool water dancing in your brain – there’s not a lot of room to consider anything else.

But you need to make room

Crime rates increase about 10 percent during the months of June, July and August, according to the FBI and summer-on-the-brain and the distractions it causes most likely accounts for many of them.

So, before you pack another beach towel and bathing suit, take steps to protect your home from the burglars that may be lurking around your unoccupied home. 

Check all doors and windows

If you open your bathroom window to let the misty air out while bathing, don’t forget to lock it when you’re finished. Many Americans don’t remember, which is why most thieves check the bathroom window first, according to a convicted burglar, Jerome Gilgan.

“Bathroom windows have always been one of the best ways” to get into a home, he tells Kyle Iboshi, KGW News in Portland, Oregon.

Thirty-two percent of burglars gain entry to homes through an unlocked front door. But locking the door doesn’t guaranteed that you won’t become a victim.

If the door is locked, many burglars will check the most common places homeowners hide the key.

But, not finding the key doesn’t stop them. “If they know you’re not home, many thieves will simply kick in the door or remove it from its hinges,” according to the pros at Crime Prevention Security Systems.

Don’t let newspapers and mail pile up

Gilgan told KGW News that one of the things he looked for when casing which homes to burgle was overstuffed mailboxes. Hire a neighborhood kid to pick up your mail while you’re gone. Or, have the post office hold it for you.

Don’t forget to tell the newspaper delivery person to cease delivery for the period you’ll be out of town. A collection of newspapers in the driveway is a dead giveaway that nobody is home.

 

Mind your landscaping

Professional thief Michael Shayne Durden, who performed hundreds of burglaries in Texas over a period of 20 years says that one of the things he looked for when casing homes was overgrown lawns.

Durden focused on neighborhoods with well-maintained homes, so a home with an un-mowed lawn, is a “dead giveaway” the owner is on vacation, Durden admitted in a jailhouse interview by the Allen, TX police department.

Then there’s that privacy landscaping around the front of the house. Sure, it keeps out neighbors’ prying eyes, but it’s something that burglars are happy to see. Just like you, they don’t want neighbors watching them, so a home with lots of cover becomes a target.

Before leaving on vacation, have your gardener cut back anything that provides a screen between the street and your windows and doors. 

Leaving a light on isn’t enough

I “would drive through upper class neighborhoods looking for many things, like a porch light on with all window blinds closed,” one burglar inmate told KGW News.

Gilgan wholeheartedly agrees, saying that “keeping the blinds or drapes closed” while on vacation is one of the biggest mistakes homeowners make.

So, open the window coverings, and turn on some lights and the TV.

Other ways to deter burglaries

The best way to deter a burglary while you’re out of town is to make the home look occupied. One of the best ways to do that is by parking a car in the driveway. If you’ll be leaving your car at the airport, ask a neighbor to use your driveway while you’re away.

Install a wireless security system. “It’s a major deterrent,” according to Durden. When he sees signs for these systems implanted in front and backyards, he feels that “There’s no point in even going there.”

In fact, homes without security systems are three times more likely to be broken into, according to SecurAmerica, LLC.

Then, put a sign advertising the system (ensure that it says “wireless” on it) in both the front and back yards. 

Hide your valuables

The most commonly stolen items from a home include:

  • Cash
  • Prescription drugs
  • Jewelry
  • Electronics (TVs, gaming consoles, computers, iPads and smartphones
  • Firearms

Don’t hide any of these items in the master bedroom while you’re on vacation because it’s the first place a thief will look. “Put jewelry in your garage, and mix it in with your tools,” Durden suggests.

“Or, put it in the ceiling or in the attic.” Burglars are in a home for such a short period of time, these are places they typically don’t get to.

“People really need to pay attention to their offices,” Durden continued.

He’s found credit cards in home offices (which he then used at Walmart to buy popular electronics that he sold on the street) and financial records, including bank account numbers with routing numbers.

Before leaving on vacation, do a tour around the home, ensuring that doors and windows are locked and that valuables are hidden away.

Then, go and have some fun!

Do these 5 things as soon as you move into your new home

In all the excitement of moving and trying to get settled in the new home, the last thing you want is a honey-do list, right? Some things, however, shouldn’t be put off but need to be taken care of now.

So, push the boxes aside for a day or two and let’s get ‘er done!

1. Change the locks

Although this may seem like a no-brainer, changing the door locks on a new home is something many homebuyers neglect doing. Hey, when you consider all the little details that need attention, such as changing over the utilities, registering the kids in new schools and ensuring everyone has your new address, something is bound to fall through the cracks.

Since you don’t know exactly how many people have keys to the home and who they are, put this one at the top of your to-do list.

Unless you’re opting for a smart lock, changing the locks on a door is a common DIY project and costs very little.

2. Locate your home’s main water shutoff valve

Scrambling to figure out how to shut off the water in your new home wastes precious time in an emergency. Scout out the location of your main water shutoff valve now and share the location with other household members.

Unfortunately, there are a number of places that it could be located. In cold-climate areas you’ll typically find the water shutoff valve somewhere indoors, such as in the basement. In warmer weather regions it may be located outdoors or in the garage. If the home is on a slab foundation, check for the valve near the water heater.

3. Secure your home purchase paperwork

Before putting away all those documents you signed at closing, make copies of them and store them in a safe place, off-site. No, you may not need to refer to this paperwork, but then again, you may, so it’s a good idea to keep everything.

While you’re in the paperwork groove, consider purchasing an accordion file and use it to hold all the paperwork you’ll accumulate as a homeowner. This includes receipts for repairs and improvements, insurance information and warranties.

When it comes time to sell the home, you’ll be glad you have all of this important information in one place.

4. Open a new savings account

Yes, you paid a whole lot of money at the closing table, but that was just the beginning of what it costs to own a home. Routine maintenance and emergency repairs need to be factored in as well.

“No new homeowner, myself included, can ever feel fully prepared for the maintenance costs and renovation costs associated with homeownership,” Pamela Capalad, a Brooklyn NY financial planner tells NerdWallet.com.

But a savings account, dedicated specifically to pay for home maintenance and repairs can go a long way toward being prepared.

Most financial experts say to set aside 1 to 2 percent of the home’s value each year for both maintenance and repairs. For example, if your home is worth $250,000, you should dedicate from $2,500 to $5,000 a year.

Make it less painful by having a monthly amount (from about $210 to $420) automatically deducted from your pay and sent to the dedicated savings account.

Deferring routine maintenance may impact your home’s future value, by the way.

5. Replace your air filters

Changing an old HVAC filter just one time is enough to convince many of us to make changing them a routine. Sadly, that isn’t the case. Many homeowners neglect this inexpensive and easy home maintenance chore and end up breathing in that brown fuzz that clings to old filters.

Not only that, but they’re setting the entire system up for failure. “A system that has a dirty filter can suffer from pressure drop, which can lead to reduced air flow, or ‘blow-out,’ resulting in no air infiltration at all,” according to Nick Gromicko and Kate Tarasenko for the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (InterNACHI).

Change the filter in a busy household with kids and pets once a month, otherwise you may be able to wait three months before installing a new one. Learn how to change the filter at thefamilyhandyman.com.

Win hearts at your next tailgate party: Margaritas for a crowd.

Sure, beer is the official beverage of the great American tailgate party. But it’s time to step out of the rut and add a little flair to this year’s festivities.

Every tailgate crew has that one person who has a signature tailgate dish. Well, this year it’s your turn to take the spotlight.

You’ll have people waiting all year for tailgating season just to wrap their lips around the salted rim of one of your frosty margaritas.

Whether your tailgate crowd is nibblin’ on sponge cake or somebody had the good sense to bring a huge platter of nachos, you, my friend will be toting the frozen concoction of everybody’s dreams.

History of the Margarita

It’s hard to believe, but there is nobody to thank for this classic Mexican cocktail. Yes, there are plenty of people that want the credit, but nobody is quite sure which one of them is the creator.

Back in the mid-1930s a bartender named Willie, from Matamoros, Mexico, was smitten with one of the bar’s regular customers. Her name was Marguerite Hemery. Legend has it that Willie concocted the first margarita in Hemery’s honor. But, if that’s so, why don’t we drink marguerites?

Then there was Danny Negrete, a bar owner who created the margarita as a wedding gift to his future sister-in-law. Another tale is that he made it for his girlfriend, who was fond of salt in her drinks.

Bastante Gutierrez is said to have created the margarita to honor his favorite actress: Margarita Cansino, whom we know as Rita Hayworth.

Finally, we have Francisco “Pancho” Morales, to whom the Mexican press gives credit for inventing the margarita. Seems a customer ordered a drink he’d never heard of. Rather than asking the lady what was in it, he created his own concoction. She loved it and it became the margarita.

Types of Tequila

At one time only wine and scotch and, more recently beer, had snooty aficionados. Today, tequila has joined those ranks. There are two main types of tequila: 100 percent agave and Mixto, which is a blend of at least 51 percent blue agave and other stuff – which varies according to manufacturer

These two types are further broken down into:

·        Silver, also known as blanco, white and platinum. This is pure blue agave; it’s clear but not aged.

·        Gold tequila is typically a mixto type of tequila, although there are exceptions. It’s also generally less expensive than the pure forms of tequila.

·        Reposado is a lightly aged agave – usually stored for between two and 11 months. Sometimes stored in wood barrels, the tequila may take on the flavor of the type of wood

·        Añejo is agave tequila that is aged for at least a year. Before pure agave tequila can bear the Añejo label it must be aged in barrels that hold a maximum of 600 liters. Añejo is a darker colored tequila.

·        If it’s aged more than three years it can be called Extra Añejo, for “ultra aged.” Barrel capacity requirements are the same as for añejo. After aging, the tequila is quite dark in color and extremely smooth. This is definitely a sippin’ tequila.

Concoct It, My Friend

The basic margarita mix, according to the drink masters at Jose Cuervo, contains tequila, Cointreau (a high-end brand of triple sec), and fresh lime juice.

You won’t, however, be famous for your tailgating margaritas if you stick with the basics, now will you? Here are two margarita mixes to get you started:

Sin City Top Shelf Margarita

Courtesy of an ace bartender at Las Vegas’ famed XS Nightclub. This recipe is for one cocktail so you’ll need to multiply the ingredients by the amount of margaritas you want to make.

  • 3 oz. sweet & sour
  • 1 oz. añejo tequila
  • ¾ oz simple syrup
  • ½ oz Grand Marnier
  • Fresh limejuice from ½ lime

Shake all the ingredients except the limejuice in a cocktail shaker. Squeeze the lime over the top before serving.

Wastin’ Away Again Margaritas

Thanks to Portland’s Clyde Common bar manager Jeffrey Morgenthaler for this margarita mix for the masses. Although the recipe is his, the name is mine.

  • 6 cups of your favorite tequila
  • 2.5 cups triple sec
  • 2.5 cups fresh lime juice
  • 2.5 cups fresh lemon juice
  • 2 cups simple syrup

Mix ingredients together in gallon container – such as a clean one-gallon milk or water container. Keep it refrigerated until the tailgate party. Makes 20 margaritas.

By the way, Jeffrey says that you’ll need two 750 ML bottles of tequila and you’ll have a bit left over after you measure out the 6 cups. You’ll need one 750 ML bottle of the triple sec.

If you don’t happen to have simple syrup in your pantry, whip some up.

Simple Syrup

Bring 2 cups of water to a full boil.

Slowly pour in 2 cups of granulated sugar. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture is clear. Allow the syrup to cool and then pour it into a bottle.

For the designated drivers in the group

Call it a virgin Margarita if you like but we prefer the term “mockarita” for this one.

  • 2 oz. simple syrup (see recipe above)
  • 1 oz. lime juice
  • 1 oz. lemon juice
  • 1 oz. orange juice
  • Ice
  • lime wedge

Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake vigorously.

Pour into a mason jar for easy transport. Refrigerate until game day.

When serving, garnish with a lime wedge.

It’s Tick Season

When we think of ticks and the diseases they spread, we typically think of Lyme disease. But, did you know that the nasty little critters also spread ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis?

The former is more common in the southeastern and south central United States while the latter is caused by the same tick that spreads Lyme disease, in the country’s Northeast, mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest and West Coast regions.

In fact, a bite from a tick infected with both Lyme and anaplasmosis can infect a person with both diseases, according to merkmanuals.com.

What ticks are – and aren’t

Ticks are small arachnids (related to spiders and scorpions), so they aren’t insects or “bugs.” They are also parasitic, meaning they live off the blood of birds, mammals and even reptiles.

Most varieties of ticks live in grassy or wooded areas. The deer tick (which spreads Lyme disease) thrives in “shady, moist areas at ground level … no more than 18 to 24 inches off the ground, according to New York State Department of Health.

Deer ticks are also frequently found on our pets, especially in regions with high humidity, with the exception of Hawaii. Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania are the five states with the highest incidence of Lyme disease.

Lyme disease – in a nutshell

Lyme disease is an infection caused by a bacterium, Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried by the deer tick. It may take from 3 to 30 days after a bite from an infected tick for symptoms to occur, according to webmd.com.

These symptoms typically (but not always) include a rash, fever, headache, chills and other flu-like symptoms.

These symptoms comprise the first of three stages of Lyme disease. The second stage is known as “early disseminate Lyme” and symptoms include weakness and/or pain in the arms and legs, heart palpitations, chest pain and even facial paralysis.

The third stage of Lyme disease may occur “weeks, months or years after the tick bite,” according to webmd.com. Symptoms of late-stage Lyme include severe fatigue, vertigo, mental confusion and arthritis.

Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics and around 10 percent of patients don’t shake the symptoms even after treatment. See the Centers for Disease Control’s website for additional information on symptoms.

Preventing tick bites

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests using a repellant on your skin and clothing to ward off ticks. Use the tool on the agency’s website to choose the repellent that fits your needs.

The CDC recommends that you check your body (and your children’s and pet’s) for ticks after spending time outdoors. If you find a tick, use tweezers to remove it.

Place the tweezers as close to the skin as possible and pull upward on the tick. Wash the bite area with soap and water or rubbing alcohol.

Learn more about how to remove ticks on the CDC’s website. After removal, the CDC recommends monitoring your family for symptoms of Lyme disease.

Is your waterfront home a cliché?

Whether you live in a condo with a water view or a multi-million-dollar beach house, there is an ever-present temptation to overdo nautical or other beach-related décor.

Wicker, white and blue ― if this describes any element in any room in your waterfront condo, you’re living a cliché, according to Phoebe Howard, with Mrs. Howard and Max & Company.

She tells Coastal Living magazine that there’s nothing wrong with “coastal touches” in your design scheme but keep them subtle.

Place “an antique sailor’s valentine over a bed, a sea star that hides amid the swirled pattern of a throw pillow. The result is a home with . . . trappings that accent, rather than exploit,” the views out the windows.

If you love the coastal look but have grown tired of your home feeling like an airbnb or VRBO tourist rental, consider a more natural, neutral beachy look.

Fabric

If you’re new to beach living, it’s easy to go overboard in a coastal decorating theme. Remember Howard’s words above and resist the cliché.

Instead, find subtle ways to work the coastal look into the home’s decor and one of the best is through your choice of fabrics.

From bedspreads to sofa and chair upholstery, eschew the bold floral prints for a solid, neutral color and use lightweight or nubby fabrics, such as anything linen-like. Then, go bright and bold on the accent pillows and artwork.

Wood

The heavy, dark woods are stunning in Mediterranean and neoclassic design schemes but they don’t offer the breezy feel you should aim for in your coastal décor. Homeowners seem to instinctively understand this and typically opt for bamboo or rattan.

Although lovely choices, they are best suited to furnish patios or sunrooms. Using them in the living areas makes it looks as if you’ve brought your outdoor furniture indoors.

Between the two extremes lies weathered dark wood, or even pine or maple, especially when upholstered with a cotton/linen blend fabric. Yes, it’s subtle, so use your accessories to add in the bolder colors.

An example of this is a sea-glass green for sofa throw pillows or, take a tip from the pros at Coastal Living and “use a color wheel: hues that sit opposite each other on the sphere, like purple and orange and pink and minty green, are guaranteed to look pretty when paired.”

If you decide you must have rattan, cover the upholstery with something nubby, such as burlap or linen. Get ideas for some heavily textured fabrics at etsy.com, perennialsfabrics.com and vintagefashionguild.org.

Color

As with any décor scheme, your aim should be to get the message across without clubbing visitors over the head with it. So, choose your colors carefully.

Tone down the typical coastal décor palette by taking a cue from the view. Consider neutral colors that you can pluck from the scene right outside the window: seaweed, sand, driftwood.

Keep in mind, however that “if not done right this look can seem plain and boring,” warn the experts at JustDecorate. Be mindful of the balance required between the dark and light neutral colors and keep the darkest colors in your accents.

Layer in a variety of textures as well, such as plumes of dune grass in striking vases, a sisal rug and woven roman shades.

Whether you’re decorating your new home or just looking for a fresh approach to the typical coastal decorating scheme, you’ll find all the inspiration you need right outside your window.

Impress at your next barbecue. Learn grilling tips and tricks from the pros  

Did you wonder if grilling season would ever get here? Finally – a chance to get outdoors and polish that pit master image you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.

Even the pros seek out tips and tricks, however, so we’ve brought you some of their most brilliant.

Grill a better burger

Shopping for the right meat is half the battle when grilling burgers. “Ground beef that’s too lean will be tough and dry, so you’ll want to look for meat with a fat content of at 20-30%,” recommends the pros at Miami Beef.

“Hamburger patties about 5 inches across and ½-inch thick maximize surface area (and grill flavor) and ensure that the burgers cook through quickly and evenly,” according to Tony Rosenfeld, b.good burger restaurants co-owner and chef.

Then, before plopping them on the grill, use your thumb to make a slight indentation in the top of each burger. This avoids the “puff-up in the middle as they cook,” suggests Jamie Purviance, author of “Weber’s Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling.”

You want the burgers to sear on the outside so don’t be tempted to flip them too early. Then, plan on flipping them only once. And, never press down on the patties as they cook.

“Pushing down on the burger presses out all the natural juices. Then people ask why their burgers were so dried out,” Eric LeVine, owner of New Jersey’s Paragon Tap & Table and Morris Tap & Grill.

LeVine also offered up a yummy-sounding recipe for the vegetarian in the group. “Make a patty using black and white beans, steel-cut oats, caramelized mushrooms and onions, roasted red peppers, and potato.

Top that with pickled scallions, red onions, egg-free roasted garlic aioli, and toasted chia seeds, all served on multigrain roll.”

Kabobbing?

While most any meat can be skewered and grilled, chicken seems to be the most popular. And, you may want to take a “cheat day” from your diet because the pros at seriouseats.com suggest that you choose thighs over breasts.

“Chicken breasts seem like a good choice because their thickness make them ideal for cubing, but their lack of flavor and tendency towards dryness totally undermines that one advantage,” they explain. Skinless, boneless chicken thighs, on the other hand, remain moist, making them ideal for grilling.

Position the chicken pieces on the skewer so that they slightly touch one another. This allows them to retain their juices better, according to Purviance. Don’t cram them together, he warns; a slight touching is all that’s needed.

Grill a killer steak

Don’t take your steaks directly from the refrigerator to the grill, cautions Jan Birnbaum partner and former chef at San Franscisco’s Epic Roasthouse. “Always allow meats to rest at room temperature for up to two hours; depending on the size of the meat,” he explains to nydailynews.com.

He suggests putting steaks “on the grill at an internal temperature of 50 to 55 degrees.”

Before that, however, consider adding your salt, pepper or even rub to the steaks as they come to room temperature.

“My secret is coating the meat with a liberal amount of rub an hour before cooking and [leaving] it out so it comes to room temperature,” John Bracamonte, Pitmaster and co-owner of Brazen BBQ in San Diego suggests.”

Use a digital, instant-read thermometer to check the temperature of steaks both before grilling and while they’re still on the grill. Steaks are rare at 125 degrees Fahrenheit, medium at 135 degrees and well-done at 145 degrees, according to World BBQ champion Chris Lilly.

“Remember that steaks will continue to cook after they’re removed from the grill,” he cautions.

Once off the grill, give the steaks time to rest. “I prefer to let my meat rest uncovered, because the covering causes the food to steam and can make the golden brown crust or skin soggy,” said Elizabeth Karmel, author of Taming the Flame.

How long should they rest? About 10 to 20 minutes, suggests John Rivers, owner of 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Florida.

Mmm … RIBS

The tenderest ribs come from long (several hours), slow cooking. “Spikes and valleys of heat will tighten and dry out the meat, but consistently low temps will produce soft and succulent meat,” promises Purviance.

He goes on to caution grillers to wait until the last 30 minutes of grilling to sauce the ribs.

For added flavor, Bracamonte suggests sprinkling on “brown sugar during the last hour of cooking … and let that caramelize over the top.”

Gettin’ saucy

The biggest no-no when it comes to saucing your meat is to do so before you put it on the grill.

“Brush on barbecue sauce during the last part of cooking. Because most contain a lot of sugar, the sauce will burn if added too early,” said Lee Ann Whippen, chef/partner, Chicago q.

If you don’t make your own sauce, check out the results of thedailymeal.com’s taste test of store-bought barbecue sauces before you go shopping.

 

5 DIY landscaping projects you can do over the weekend

Summer is almost here! Grilling, swimming, or just lazing away the day in a hammock with a good book or a snooze — some of the best ways to spend a summer day. Read on if your backyard could use a bit of summer sprucing to make it more conducive to relaxing.

Install edging for a tidier look

If that spot where your garden beds end and the lawn begins is beginning to look a bit blurred, it’s time to install a barrier between the two. That barrier is called “edging,” and it’s easier to install than you may assume.

While faced with the mountain of choices at your local garden center, the simplest to install and most subtle are “4-in.deep strips of steel, aluminum or plastic,” according to the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine.

Want something a bit sleeker and sexier? Consider painted aluminum or steel. Although they cost about the same, those experts at Family Handyman recommend aluminum for the DIYer because it’s lighter and easier to work with. If you insist on plastic, buy the most rigid edging you can find.

Edging, according to the pros, should be installed so that the top of it ends up 1/2-inch above the soil.

Home Depot offers an easy-to-follow walkthrough on the installation process. 

Install drip irrigation

There’s no more efficient method of delivering water to your landscape than with a drip irrigation system. The best part? It’s surprisingly easy to install and maintain. You’ll find instructions all over the internet. We like the video produced by sprinklerwarehouse.com.

Large gardening centers and home improvement stores sell kits to get you started and all the supplies you’ll need to maintain add on to your system.

Mulch your garden beds

Garden mulch is undoubtably the workhorse of the landscape. Not only does it help discourage weeds, but it helps the soil retain moisture, adds nutrients to the soil and acts as a temperature regulator for tender roots.

Mulch is manufactured from a variety of materials and comes in different textures and colors. Here are just a few of the types of mulch you’ll find in gardening centers:

  • Rock
  • Gravel
  • Bark
  • Rubber
  • Straw
  • Cocoa bean shells (toxic to pets)

Whichever material you choose, you’ll need about 2 to 3 inches of mulch, spread over the soil, but kept at least 6 inches from the base of the plants.

For additional information on mulch, how to apply it and why, watch the landdesigns.com video.

Light it up

You don’t need to hack your electrical system to add lights to the landscape. Spotlights, pathway lights and even strings of lights to hang over your patio or across the top of a fence all come in solar varieties. Stick them in the ground and let the sun replace electricity.

The pros at Pegasus Lighting offer a few tips on what to look for when you shop for solar landscaping lights:

  • Choose lights that use LEDs for the light source. Not only do they tolerate harsh weather conditions better than other light sources, but “LEDs require less energy to produce light, so they are much more dependable,” according to the experts at Pegasus.
  • Shop from among the most recent models to ensure that the photovoltaic cells (the part of the light that captures the sun’s energy to charge the batteries) are durable. Speaking of batteries, newer models contain “next generation batteries,” according to Lynn Coulter at HGTV.com. These batteries “can hold up to 2 ½ times the charge as older types,” she claims.

Create an outdoor dining oasis

Whether you’re grilling or dining on take-out or kitchen-prepped cuisine, dinner on your own patio or balcony can be heavenly after a long day of work. If you already own a patio dining set, give it a fresh coat of paint.

If you need to shop for a set, and you’re on a tight budget, consider buying a used set and refurbishing it. Shop garage sales, craigslist.org or offerup.com.

 

How to lower your monthly house payment

Your monthly mortgage payment, which includes the loan’s principal, interest, property taxes and homeowners insurance, no doubt takes a large chunk of your take-home pay. Most homeowners just live with the pain, despite some concrete steps they can take to lower the payment.

It’s not easy, and it does require effort on your part. But, you can lower your monthly house payment.

Dump the high interest rate

Although mortgage interest rates have been at historic lows, many homeowners bought their homes during periods of high interest rates. And, yes, rates are rising, so you’ll need to take advantage of this tip soon.

By refinancing the home with a mortgage that carries a lower interest rate, your monthly payments will naturally go down. For instance, if you bought your home in 2003, you are most likely paying 5.83 percent in interest.

Lock in today’s rates, 4.625 percent as of this writing, and your house payment will be reduced significantly.

There are aspects of refinancing that need to be considered before jumping into it so run the idea by your accountant or financial planner first.

Lower your property taxes

Depending on where you live, paying your “fair share” to help fund our schools and local government can add a hefty amount to your monthly house payment. In fact, according to the Census Bureau, the average American homeowner pays $2,197 in property taxes every year.

This adds more than $183 to your house payment each month. If you live in a high-tax state, such as Illinois or New Jersey, you may pay close to twice that amount.

Your first step to lower property taxes is to dig out your current assessment and check to ensure that everything in it is accurate, from the home’s square footage to the number of bedrooms and bathrooms. If you do find errors, or if you know of homes in your area that are more expensive yet the homeowners pay less in taxes, you may be able to dispute your tax bill.

Most county assessor’s offices have procedures to file disputes.

Are you paying too much for homeowners insurance?

The average American homeowner pays about $1,083 each year (a bit less than $100 per month) for homeowners insurance, according to ValuePenguin.com.

And, many may be paying too much, according to a Consumer Reports study. Among respondents to the survey, “About 9 percent switched insurers in the previous three years, and more than half reported finding a better price,” according to Jeff Blyskal at consumerreports.org.

He goes on to claim that homeowners “can save hundreds to more than $1,000 per year in premiums by shopping around.”

Insurance companies use your credit score when determining your premium, so work on raising your score to get better rates.

Blyskal explains that “an insurance premium for a 45-year-old homeowner with a fair credit score would be 36 percent higher than if she had an excellent score, on average nationally. If the homeowner had a poor score instead of an excellent one, her premium would be 114 percent higher.”

Get rid of PMI

Private mortgage insurance (PMI) or the Mortgage Insurance Premium (MIP) if you have an FHA loan, is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it helps Americans who might not otherwise be given a mortgage to finally become homeowners.

The flipside, however, is that the premiums are tacked onto the house payment every month. With a conventional loan, PMI is removed when the homeowner obtains 20 percent equity in the home.

FHA’s MIP, however, remains for the life of the loan. But, if you’ve hit that magical 20 percent equity mark (and 80 percent loan-to-value), refinance into a conventional mortgage and do away with the MIP payment every month.

How to shop for a new grill for your summer cookouts

There’s a reason grilling takes center stage in summer. The weather demands it ― who wants to be cooped up indoors with all that glorious sunshine outside?

Aside from that, I doubt there’s a barbecuing man or woman in town who doesn’t feel that his or her barbecue prowess kicks hiney over even our best barbecue eateries.

To do it right, though, you need the right equipment and, if you’re in the market for a new grill (or even your first), read on for some shopping tips.

Gas or charcoal?

Or, maybe both? It’s not unheard of for the serious griller to own one of each. If, on the other hand, you don’t have a preference, maybe it’s time to learn about the differences.

Gas grills are faster and easier. You won’t need to deal with the charcoal, the fluid and then waiting for the coals to heat up. You will, however, need to ensure you have a full gas canister before the cookout begins.

Charcoal-cooked food, on the other hand, tastes better. The charcoal smokes, adding the barbecue flavor we all crave.

Consumer Reports claims that most of the gas grills we buy cost less than $300 and we use them for an average of three years. When it comes to replacing parts, expect to replace the burners. They wear out the quickest.

While charcoal grills are typically less expensive than gas grills, you can end up spending a couple hundred dollars for a large one with all the bells and whistles.

Now, charcoal and gas aren’t your only choices. George Foreman makes a lean, mean electric grill (as do other manufacturers) and there are even wood-burning grills on the market.

For the casual griller, gas or charcoal are the typical choices. If you want ease-of-use and have a need for speed, choose gas.

Which features do you need?

Of course, your budget will dictate the features you’ll find on your new grill, but there are some that are must-haves, at least for some chefs.

These might include a rotisserie (for cooking whole turkeys, chickens or roasts), lighted knobs for nighttime grilling and even alarms that let you know you’re on the verge of burning your meal.

Some are a bit extravagant but there are many features you might find quite useful. Shelving is indispensable for the serious griller. They’ll hold all of your ingredients so they are within easy reach as you cook.

A built-in thermometer is nice as well. If you really want to go all out, look for a gas grill with an infra-red burner. It’s ideal for searing meat to give it that crusty exterior and for locking in the juices.

If you’re just interested in turning out a juicy steak or burger, you don’t need all the fancy and expensive features. A basic charcoal grill will do the trick. The classic Weber kettle-style grill costs about $80 at the big home improvement stores and you can often find them on sale for even less.

Other things to think about

Don’t buy a grill without a decent manufacturer’s warranty. “This should keep you from having to spend money on parts that shouldn’t have broken in the first place,” cautions Chef Tony Matassa at BBQGuys.com.

He suggests looking for a gas grill with a 10-year burner warranty. And, speaking of the burner, Matassa reminds us to ensure that the burner size is proportional to the overall size of the grill.

“A lot of grill manufacturers make a large, impressive looking casting with a little burner – that means lots of hot and cold spots.”

Finally, he suggests that if you grill a lot of steaks, and insist on using gas, look for a gas grill that heats to at least 600 degrees Fahrenheit.

Barbecue season gets underway soon, so get out there and fill that empty spot in the backyard with a new grill.