How to maintain healthy air quality in the home

For the past few months, we’ve been admonished to “stay home” or “shelter in place” to keep ourselves and families safe from COVID-19.

In the process of doing so, however, we’re exposing ourselves to common indoor pollutants that may be of a concentration that is comparable to a “polluted major city,” according to University of Colorado Boulder researchers.

“Even the simple act of making toast raised particle levels far higher than expected,” claims Marina Vance, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who led the study.

Indoor pollutants are sneaky; many we can’t smell or see but may cause allergy-like symptoms, nausea, headaches and even cancer.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take to mitigate the level of pollutants in the air in your home.

First, let’s take a look at that elephant in the room

Decades ago, NASA and The Associated Landscape Contractors of America (now known as The National Association of Landscape Professionals) collaborated on a study of how plants may clean indoor air.

The results, that plants were “a promising, economical solution to indoor air pollution,” was gleefully picked up by the media and distorted into the myth that we live with today.

Yes, plants may clean the air of volatile organic compounds (VOC) such as those emitted by paint, carpeting, drywall and more.

But, only in a hermetically sealed environment, such as a space station or laboratory.

Since our homes are not hermetically sealed, houseplants offer aesthetics, not clean air.

Regardless of what they tell you on your favorite online plant store’s blog, rubber plants do not “filter formaldehyde” from indoor air and pothos won’t get rid of the benzene from the air in your home.

You can read more about this debunked study at NationalGeographic.com, Newsweek.com and ScienceDaily.com.

How does this stuff get into our homes?

Indoor pollutants have a number of ways of entering our homes. “Some are carried in on the breeze; some are carried in, unwittingly, by you,” according to Mary H.J. Farrell at ConsumerReports.org.

Carpet, furniture and other upholstered items emit pollutants. Even the paint on the walls may be a contributor. The list also includes:

  • Cleaning and personal care products
  • Central heating and cooling systems
  • Smoking in the home
  • Cabinetry or furniture made of “certain pressed wood products” (EPA)
  • Carbon monoxide fumes from an attached garage

For a more complete list, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency online at EPA.gov.

Improve your indoor air

Knowing that the air inside your home is polluted is frightening, but, as mentioned earlier, there are steps you can take to improve your air quality. These include:

  • Keeping dust to a minimum.
  • Using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Mopping floors with non-toxic cleaners.
  • Have everyone remove their shoes before entering the home.
  • Routinely replace the HVAC filters in the home.
  • Maintain the air conditioning unit to help lower the amount of pollen that enters the home.
  • Ensure the home is well ventilated while cooking, cleaning with chemicals and using hobby or personal products.

The EPA’s website offers additional, in-depth information on how to lessen the negative health impacts of polluted air in the home (información disponible en español).

Tips to protect your dog when it’s hot outside

Baby, it’s HOT outside! Sadly, no matter how hard the media and public officials try to get the word out about how our heat kills, people either don’t get the message or don’t heed it.

I recently watched a video of a dog with heatstroke. The owner kept it in the backyard in Arizona and, as hard as they tried to cool it down, it eventually died.

Do you know how to recognize heat stroke in your dog and what to do to combat it?

The experts at PetMD claim that heatstroke in dogs is typically associated with air temperatures of 106 degrees Fahrenheit and higher.

​​It doesn’t take long for the heat to affect our pets. If you leave them outdoors, shade isn’t enough. They need lots of water too. But, really, bring them indoors. It’s the only sure way to protect them.

Look for these symptoms of heatstroke:

  • Check your dog’s tongue. If it’s deep purple or red, get help.
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fever
  • Glazed eyes
  • Heavy or difficult breathing
  • Lack of coordination
  • Lethargy
  • Profuse salivation
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Seizure
  • Unconsciousness

How to treat a dog suffering from heatstroke

  • Move the dog to an air-conditioned area.
  • Apply cold, wet towels to the head, neck and chest or pour cool (not cold) water over the dog.
  • Use a syringe or eye dropper to give the dog tiny amounts of water.
  • See a veterinarian a.s.a.p.

How to prevent heatstroke in your dog

If you don’t think the sidewalk is hot when the weather is, bend down and touch it. Better yet, check out this chart from the National Weather Service:

  • Walk the dog early in the morning before the ground has a chance to heat up
  • Consider buying shoes for your dog (Check out the 5-star rated RoyalCare Dog Boots Paw Protectors and the summer-weight HiPaw Summer Breathable Mesh boots, both at Amazon).
  • Provide lots of shade and water when outdoors
  • Use a body vest meant to keep dogs cool (the Expawlorer Cooling Vest gets good reviews at Amazon.com as does the BINGPET Dog Cooling Jacket).
  • Use a dog cooling pad for the outdoor dog. Amazon offers the isYoung Pet Cooling Mat, which requires no electricity.
  • If you must leave the dog in your backyard, consider buying a pet pool (they’re sturdier than kiddie pools and won’t be as easily punctured by the dog’s nails) and placing it in a shady area. Introduce the dog to it so that it knows it can find relief from the heat by jumping in.

Two pools at Amazon are particularly popular PUPTECK Foldable Dog Swimming Pool AND Midlee Dog Pool.

Of course, you know to NEVER, EVER leave your dog in a car on a hot day, right? No, not even with the windows cracked.

Finally, create or buy a dog first aid kit. You never know when your dog may need help.

 

Easy-care plants that bloom all summer long

Think summer blooming plants are high maintenance? Think again; many plants offer up copious and colorful blooms, asking for little in return.

We’ve consulted with the experts to find easy-care plants with dependable summer bloom periods to share with you.

Happy planting!

Blanket Flower

The blanket flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora), a prolific bloomer, is related to the sunflower.

And, if you’re hoping to attract butterflies into the garden this summer, blanket flower is the plant for you.

Flowers resemble daisies and bloom in red, yellow and orange. To keep them coming, deadhead (remove spent flowers) the plant regularly.

You’ll find few pests, other than aphids. Use insecticidal soap spray to defeat the little buggers.

Blanket flower is hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 3 through 9.

Candytuft

Yes, it resembles alyssum, but candytuft (Iberis spp.) is alyssum on steroids. Like alyssum, candytuft hugs the ground and spreads. Unlike its lookalike, however, candytuft bears fragrant flowers. Use it as a border specimen, on slopes or in containers.

Although it’s an easy-care plant, ensure that the soil it’s planted in drains well and, if you live in a dry climate, provide shade in the afternoon and keep an eye on the soil’s moisture content. Candytuft is hardy to USDA zones 3 through 9.

Canna

You’ll often hear the canna (Canna spp.) described as a “canna lily,” despite the plant not being related to lilies. Canna is a genus that includes 10 species of spectacularly flowering plants. Although its large leaves and colorful flowers evoke the tropics, cannas are perfectly suited to more temperate zones.

Speaking of foliage, some varieties have leaves as colorful as the flowers, in hues of red, purple and even variegated.

Plant your canna rhizomes in early summer in an area that receives lots of sunshine and has well-draining soil.

To get them to remain in bloom all summer, give them at least one inch of water per week – more if the weather is particularly warm. Deadhead by cutting the tall flower stalk down to the foliage to encourage the canna to rebloom.

Canna is hardy to USDA zones 8 through 11.

 Daylily

If you’re a beginning gardener, you can’t go wrong with the daylily (Hemerocallis spp.) They require little care and the payoff is an abundance of gorgeous flowers, all summer long.

In fact, “some will even give 800 flowers in a single summer!” according to American Meadows, an online plant nursery.

Depending on variety, daylilies bloom in shades of red, yellow, orange, pink, purple and even variegated flowers.

Plant your daylily in an area that receives at least 6 hours of sun per day and plan on keeping the soil somewhat moist. Add compost to the soil when planting and you won’t need to fertilize the plant at all.

Daylilies are hardy to USDA zones 3 through 9.

Pelargonium

Like the aforementioned canna, when you grow pelargonium (Pelargonium spp.) you have the added bonus of attractive foliage.

Two of the most popular include Pelargonium x hortorum (which may be labeled at the nursery as a “zonal geranium”) and P. peltatum, also known as ivy geranium for its cascading habit.

Despite the nicknames, neither of these plants is a true geranium, although they do look similar.

Pelargonium look amazing in containers or in beds and require little care as long as you incorporate lots of organic matter into the soil at planting time and protect them from high summer heat by providing shade in the afternoon.

Water when the soil is dry to about an inch deep and deadhead throughout the season to ensure continuous bloom.

Shasta Daisy

If you’re looking for a summer bloomer that will provide flowers to cut, consider growing the Shasta daisy (Leucanthemum × superbum). Known as “the classic summer flower,” it’s a low-maintenance bloomer through fall.

If you are looking for something for the cut-flower garden, this is it. Grow in full sun and provide an inch of water a week.

 

A Baby Boomer’s Guide to Aging in Place

As real estate agents, it’s only natural that we’d rather you sell your home than remain in it, “aging in place.”

The fact is, however, almost 90 percent of baby boomers older than 65 want to remain in their current homes for as long as possible, according to an AARP survey.

We completely understand the desire. After all, we, too, have homes that we carefully chose, have been paying off for years, in which we’ve built memories and to which we hold a strong emotional attachment.

Yes, we get why folks would want to remain in their homes. So, we turned to the experts to learn some tips on what’s required to make a home safe and comfortable for those of us with aging bodies.

You may need a contractor

And, not just any contractor. Today, there are contractors trained specifically in how to modify homes for folks who wish to age in place.

These Certified Aging in Place Specialists (CAPS), trained by the National Association of Homebuilders, will help you come up with a plan and determine the cost of the required renovations.

Costs, by the way, can “… range from a couple hundred dollars for widening a doorway to several thousand dollars or more, for remodeling a bathroom,” according to Stan Gornicz, cited at Forbes.com. Gornicz also offers suggestions on what to look for when hiring a CAPS contractor:

  • Interview and get written bids from at least three contractors.
  • Ask for references from former clients and do call them to find out how the contractor did.
  • Check the Better Business Bureau’s file on the contractors and look for reviews at Yelp.com.
  • Don’t automatically choose the lowest bidder.
  • Ask to see each contractor’s license and insurance information. You’ll want to verify that the contractor carries worker’s compensation insurance and has personal liability coverage.

Learn what to insist on when it comes to the contract. You can find that information in Gornicz’s article at Forbes.com.

You’ll find a list of CAPS contractors at NAHB.org.

Ew, stairs

There comes a time in our lives, even for the most fit among us, when something as simple as climbing a flight of stairs is downright painful. It’s the knees and ankles that have the roughest time of it.

While there’s nothing you can do to magically transform a multi-story home into a single level, there are ways to make climbing the stairs easier on your body and avoid the slips and falls so common when trying to navigate stairs.

If you have a big budget, installing an elevator is the ideal solution. Other solutions include a wheelchair lift or finding space on the main floor for a master suite, keeping stair-climbing to a minimum.

Speaking of wheelchairs

Although you may be fit right now, the day may come when you find yourself wheelchair bound. The statistics prove this:

10.7 million people age 65 and older have mobility problems, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey.

Navigating the hallways in the typical home is one of the biggest problems for the wheelchair bound. Most hallways in homes are 36 inches in width, which is far too narrow for someone in a wheelchair. The ideal width is 48 inches, but 42 inches will work.

You may also need to install a ramp to the main entrance to the home.

In the bathroom

The Centers for Disease Control finds that more than 153,000 Americans are injured each year as the result of an accident in the shower. As we age, our balance isn’t what it used to be, so slips and falls happen.

Non-skid strips on the bottom of the tub are a good start to making the bathroom safer as you age. But a grab bar inside the shower or tub surround makes it even safer. Other ways to make the bathroom older-adult friendly include:

  • Widening the shower so that you can roll into it in a wheelchair
  • Raising the toilet
  • Lowering the sink

Making cooking and cleanup easier

Imagine being in a wheelchair, trying to make a meal or do the dishes or clean the countertops or, heaven forbid, reach for a plate in the cupboard.

Kitchens are challenging for the adult hoping to age in place, but there are tricks to modify the room to conform to your needs. The National Aging in Place Council shares ideas at NAIPC.org.

Working from home? 5 tips to make your home office more efficient

Call it what you will — working from home, remote work or telecommuting – it wasn’t that long ago that it was considered a novelty. In the past month or two, however, working from home has gone mainstream, and not by choice.

Gallup has been tracking the remote-work situation since March and as of April 3, they found that 62 percent of “… employed Americans currently say they have worked from home during the crisis.” That number represents a doubling of the number taken in mid-March.

Surprisingly, 60 percent of those surveyed hope to continue working from home after the current restrictions are lifted.

If you are among them, you’ll need to take a look at your current home office and do some tweaking to ensure you remain as productive as you were when you had to show up at your employer’s office.

Find the perfect space

Lucky is the remote worker who has the space to take over a room and convert it to an office. For those not so fortunate, you’ll need to get creative when scouting the home for office space.

Here are the priorities you should consider:

  • The space should have good lighting and preferably contain a window or skylight to provide natural lighting as well.
  • A location away from the areas of the home where the kids tend to congregate.
  • An area that offers the least amount of distractions (no TV in the space, no view of the housework that needs to be done, etc.).
  • A spot that is large enough to accommodate a desk and chair, at the very least.

Furnish it

The basics, as mentioned above, are a desk and a chair. Of the two, the chair is the most important.

If you’re thinking of an ergonomic chair (you’ll love it!) check out these tips at Spine-Health.com and get 10 tips to choosing the best office chair at TheSpruce.com.

Furnishing your office doesn’t have to eat up your entire stimulus check. Check out OfferUp.com, Facebook Marketplace, NextDoor.com and Craigslist.org.

Light it up

Now that your bum, spine and shoulders are all set, it’s time to ensure your eyes are as well. This means determining if you need additional lighting and which types are the best. Check out these tips at Remodelista.com, ApartmentTherapy.com and SouthernLiving.com.

Then, learn how to choose the best light bulbs for your new lighting at Lifehacker.com.

Commit to using it

It’s important to make a schedule that you know you can stick to. If you won’t be using a stand-up desk, schedule breaks at least once every hour.

The current recommendation from medical professionals is that we should stand and move around for 15 minutes for every 30 that we spend sitting.

These breaks not only help your body but your mind as well – especially if you use them to take a walk or chat with a friend on the phone.

“To keep your brain in the right mode, avoid doing nonwork tasks during your work time,” recommend Kim Mock and Gabriel Manga at ThinkWithGoogle.com. This means no washing the dishes, throwing in a load of laundry or wiping down kitchen counters.

They also offer up these tips:

  • Make a daily to-do list to help you stay focused on what needs to be done. Don’t try to keep it in your head, but make an actual list.
  • Hold yourself accountable to keeping the schedule you created.
  • If your work is collaborative, consider setting up a video conferencing system.

One of the best tips we’ve seen is to ensure you have snacks in your office. This keeps you from refrigerator raids during your non-break time.

Finally, don’t neglect to personalize your office with all the things you wouldn’t dream of bringing to the “other” office.

Stay healthy!

Avoid planting these trees

Aside from autumn, early spring—before bud-break—is the ideal time to plant trees. And, if you’re thinking of selling your home, trees, placed strategically around the home, can help increase the home’s value.

Not all trees are alike, however, and some should be avoided. Let’s take a look at some of these trees that you should think twice about planting.

Trees with weak wood

Because of its fast growth rate, the Bradford pear tree was the darling of the new home construction industry in the 70s and 80s, making it the most prolific tree in neighborhoods across the country.

The tree can grow quite tall and, with age, the wood weakens. “Anything, and anyone, under a Bradford pear is at increased risk as the tree ages and its steep V crotch structure is strained,” according to Donna Isbell Walker at USAToday.com.

Other popular but weak trees include:

  • Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera)
  • Box elder (Acer negundo)
  • Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
  • Empress tree (Paulownia tomentosa)
  • Freeman Maple (Acer x freemanii)
  • Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’)
  • Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera)
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  • Red mulberry (Morus rubra)
  • Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)

Weedy trees

That weak-wooded Bradford pear has additional strikes against it. Not only is it brittle and terribly messy but it’s weedy as well. If you’ve ever grown one, you know this only too well as you’re continually hacking away at the sprouts around the soil beneath the tree.

The Bradford pear, however, is a novice at the weedy game compared to the Golden Rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata).  Homeowners grow them for the incredible flower show they put on each summer, but then have to tend with the seeds that sprout wherever they touch soil.

Other popular tree varieties that seem determined to take over the entire landscape include:

  • Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)
  • Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)
  • Norway maple (Acer platanoides)
  • Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
  • Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila)
  • White mulberry (Morus alba)

Trees with invasive roots

Ever trip over a lifted sidewalk? Most likely, it lifted because of the roots of a nearby tree. Shallow roots damage driveways and foundations and, in the case of the silver maple especially, invade pipes and sewers.

  • Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate)
  • Black locust (Robinia psuedoacacia)
  • Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)
  • Poplars (Populus)
  • Russian olive (Elaeaganus angustifolia)
  • Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
  • White mulberry (Morus alba)

So, which trees are best for the home landscape?

Choosing a tree for the home landscape involves more than finding one you feel is pleasing to the eye. It must be hardy to your growing zone and you must have the proper location (the one that provides the appropriate growing conditions) in the yard in which to plant it.

Then, you’ll need to decide if you want an evergreen tree (one that maintains its foliage all year) or deciduous (one that loses its leaves in winter). Do you want a tree that remains small or medium or do you want a huge tree?

Research your choices online and then visit a local nursery and speak with the experts there. Nobody knows local growing conditions better than these pros, so you can feel confident in the advice they give.

The 3 most popular vegetables to grow in a pandemic garden

“Sow the Seeds of Victory” was a phrase familiar to all Americans in early spring of 1917. We hadn’t yet entered “The Great War” that was ravaging our allies’ food supplies.

All across Europe, “. . . agricultural workers were recruited into military service and farms were transformed into battlefields. As a result, the burden of feeding millions of starving people fell to the United States.”

And, as we are wont to do, we rose to the occasion, planting food crops in backyards, vacant lots school grounds and parks.

“As a result of these combined efforts, 3 million new garden plots were planted in 1917 and more than 5.2 million were cultivated in 1918, which generated an estimated 1.45 million quarts of canned fruits and vegetables,” according to Laura Schumm at History.com.

Today, we find ourselves at war again only this time our enemy is a virus. The rush to stock up left supermarket shelves bare for a time and now, months into the battle, there are still many items that are in short supply.

Again, we rose to the occasion, with Americans across the country planting their own version of yesterday’s Victory Garden (originally called War Gardens). The smart ones bought their seeds way ahead of the planting season (seeds are one of the items in very short supply right now).

If you’re a member of the country’s budding new vegetable gardener crowd, read on. We’ve put together some tips for growing the three most popular crops.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are by far the most popular crop for home gardeners. Nurseries run out of starter plants quickly.

Tomatoes are easy to grow (they can even be grown in containers), provide a large yield and can be used in lots of different ways.

The time it takes to grow a tomato depends on the cultivar, but typically ranges from 60 to more than 80 days.

Tomato plants are susceptible to several disorders, diseases and pests. The one that stymies new growers the most is blossom-end rot. Caused by a lack of calcium in the plant, new growers automatically assume that supplementing the soil with calcium will cure the disorder.

More often than not, the cause is inconsistent watering. Once the gardener begins watering the tomato plant consistently, the disorder typically clears up.

Need more tips on becoming a world-class tomato grower? Visit Sunset.com.

Cucumbers

The two things that cucumbers require above all else is heat and consistent moisture in the soil. Get that right and you’ll be successful.

One of our favorite things about growing cucumbers is that if you buy the bush type you can grow them in small gardens or even in containers.

Grow cucumbers in rich soil, in full sun. When you’re preparing the soil, add about two inches of well-rotted manure or compost and mix it into the top 6 inches of soil.

For more tips on growing cucumbers, from planting to harvest, watch this video at YouTube.com.

Bell Peppers

If you’re a new gardener, you can’t go wrong growing bell peppers – a definite confidence booster!

You’ll want to plant bell peppers in full sun – the longer they get sunshine every day, the larger your peppers will be.

Follow the soil advice for cucumbers, above, and ensure the soil drains well. The soil temperature should be at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit before planting your peppers into the garden.

A good rule of thumb is to provide the bell pepper plants with an inch or two of water a week. During periods of intense heat, or if you’re a desert gardener, you may need to water daily.

Like tomatoes, bell peppers are also susceptible to blossom-end rot so create a watering schedule and stick to it.

Get more tips on growing peppers and advice on how to spot problems at Almanac.com.

Summer is on the way: Is your home ready?

Isn’t the internet amazing? The answer to just about any question you may have can be found with just a few key strokes. When we turned to the experts for advice on summer home maintenance, we were inundated with information – some of it downright silly.

We agree with the contractor who reminded us that the heavy home maintenance comes in fall and that pre-summer tasks should deal only with those systems and areas in and around the home that get the most use during the warmer months.

So, let’s dive in and do a quick tour around your house.

Start with the air conditioning system

If it’s been awhile since you’ve changed your HVAC system filters, do that first. You’ll find an easy-to-follow walk-through at YouTube.com.

While you’re at the hardware store buying the filter, why not stock up and buy several? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests changing the HVAC filter once a month during periods of heavy use. Check out this information on how to choose the right filter for your needs at Gardenologist.org.

Finally, consider having the system tuned up by a professional. Fancy yourself more of a hands-on type? The EPA offers a list of tasks to help you do it yourself.

Ceiling fans and fuzz

All that fuzz that gathers on the blades of a ceiling fan is a lot more than ugly. It can actually slow down the blades’ rotation speed, “… cause the blades to wobble, and put some strain on the fan’s motor,” according to Alan J. Heavens at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Since fans are located in the ceiling, keep safety in mind during the cleaning process. You’ll find lots of tips and advice in videos at YouTube.com

If you hope to throw open those windows

Do a tour of the home, checking the windows for cracked glass and to ensure that the screens don’t contain rips.

Winter and spring can be brutal on the home’s exterior components. Windy days can hurl all manner of projectiles at the home and it doesn’t take much to tear a hole in a window screen.

You’ll want to throw open the windows on that first gloriously warm summer day, so fix windows and screens to ensure they let the fresh air in and keep the pests out.

Ensure safe summer entertaining

According to the U.S. Consumer Product and Safety Commission, nearly 225,000 injuries occur each year as the result of either a structural failure or collapse of a deck.

It’s not enough to check the deck’s surface; you will need to investigate the condition of the underneath as well. Find tips on what to look for and how to fix, here.

Prevent water waste

Landscape irrigation systems get quite the workout over the summer months so ensure yours is up to the task.

Check in-ground systems by following these tips provided by Region of Peel. Drip irrigation system leaks are a bit easier to detect and you can learn how on YouTube.com (excellent video).

Next, check all the faucets to ensure that there are no leaks there and then check your hoses for holes and other problems that may cause them to malfunction.

Summer pool care

Swimming pool maintenance is often left to professionals, but it doesn’t have to be. Check and perform the following tasks (we’ve linked to some handy information and tips for each one).

The wise homeowner will call out a professional at least once a year for a thorough check of the swimming pool. Summer is the ideal time to do this.

Gardens need maintenance too

Get rid of plants that didn’t make it through winter and spring. Then, deadhead spring annuals. Deadheading is the process of snipping off dead flowers, prompting the plant to bloom again.

Seek out garden pests and get rid of them. Then, turn your attention to weeds and get rid of those as well.

Give your lawn a late-spring fertilization and aerate and dethatch if necessary.

Finally, clean up all debris and install a fresh layer of mulch. This helps discourage weed growth, insulates the soil from hot summer sun and helps it retain moisture.

Kick off grilling season

Deep clean your outdoor grill so that it’s ready for grilling season. Whether it’s a gas or charcoal grill, you’ll find tips on giving it a thorough cleaning from Home Depot. They offer advice for cleaning a gas grill, here and charcoal grill owners are covered here.

Happy summer!

Behind on your bills? Here’s what you need to do

It’s terrifying to suddenly find out that you’ll not be receiving another paycheck. It’s easy to go into panic mode, especially if you have others depending on you to keep the lights on and stomachs full.

Across the country, utility companies are responding to the government shutdown by promising not to turn off their services when bills are overdue. Unemployment insurance checks can then go toward more important items, such as food.

Once the initial shock wears off, there are things you can do to mitigate your situation and, hopefully, save your credit score.

Start by speaking with your lender

If you can’t make your house payment and haven’t yet contacted your lender, put this one at the top of the list of things to do.

Many lenders have online options to fill out the required paperwork for requesting forbearance, making it a lot easier than sitting on hold for lengthy periods of time if you call.

Some lenders are offering forbearance only, and the details vary, depending on lender. Forbearance allows the borrower to miss payments, often penalty-free, and make them up at a later date.

While this option offers immediate relief from one of our biggest payments each month, many borrowers don’t understand that forbearance isn’t forgiveness. The missed payments will need to be paid and many lenders will be demanding a lump sum.

Maura McDermott at Newsday.com tells the story of one couple in Long Island, NY whose lender is allowing them to skip their house payments for three months, without penalty, “… but then all the missed payments would be due in a lump sum in four months.”

Few Americans are able to come up with thousands of dollars in a lump sum after several months of unemployment.

With the passage of The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (aka CARES Act), if your loan is backed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Veterans Administration, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, you may be offered additional options.

First, the CARES Act “… provides several levels of relief to home-loan borrowers, including the right to request two periods of mortgage-payment forbearance or suspensions totaling up to 360 days,” according to Russ Wiles with the Arizona Republic.

The National Association of REALTORS released an analysis of the act and says that while “… regular interest can still accrue,” additional fees, such as penalties and interest, won’t “… be assessed for the forbearance.”

Visit the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s website for additional information on the various options available to help you with your mortgage.

Your other monthly bills

We mentioned earlier that many utility companies have agreed to keep their services running, despite non-payment.

Typically, this doesn’t mean they won’t be tacking on late fees and it doesn’t mean you won’t be faced with a huge bill at the end of the crisis.

It’s challenging right now to avoid the former, but the latter can be handled by whittling away at your bills. Pay what you can, even if it’s just a small amount.

Once we’re back to business-as-usual, folks will be facing huge bills and those disconnect notices will go out. You’ll be glad you paid at least part of what you owe.

Your credit

With everything else going on right now, it seems almost petty to think about what all this is doing to our credit scores. It will be interesting to compare the average American’s score pre- and post-pandemic.

In the meantime, order your credit reports from the big three reporting agencies. Normally, every American is entitled to one free credit report every 12 months from AnnualCreditReport.com.

That has changed, however. Starting April 20, 2020, the “Big 3” (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax ) will be providing a free credit report every week for the next year.

While there isn’t much we can do to prevent negative entries right now, we can protect our scores by combing through each report to ensure accuracy.

The folks at Equifax recommend that you also add a consumer statement to your credit reports. “You can add a brief 100-word statement to your credit reports to explain your situation.”

Four in 10 American adults lack the funds to cover a $400 expense, according to a 2018 Federal Reserve report. Undoubtedly, it’s even worse than that now.

Don’t hide from your financial problems. Be proactive, keep track of where what little income you have right now is going. Communicate with lenders and others and keep an eye on your credit score.

The COVID-19 scammers are out in full force: How to avoid becoming a victim

While the government shutdown has brought out the best in millions of Americans, there will always be those who seek to take advantage of any situation.

Unfortunately, because government agencies charged with rooting out the scammers are closed, they’re finding it much easier to get away with their illegal hoaxes.

Thanks to the folks at Equifax, the credit reporting agency, many of the more common scams have been exposed. Be on the lookout and don’t get taken in.

“I’m calling from the [government agency name]”

Be wary of an email or phone call purported to be from a government agency. The person or email will tell you that the agency needs your banking information and, if they don’t receive it, your Medicaid or Social Security will be terminated.

Don’t fall for it and never follow a link in an email from someone you don’t know. “It could download a virus onto your computer or device. Make sure the antimalware and anti-virus software on your computer is up to date,” warns officials with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

According to the experts at Equifax, “… government agencies will not contact you unless you request it, and they will never request personal information over phone or email.”

The same goes for any communication regarding your government stimulus check. “The government will not ask you to pay anything up front to get this money. The government will not call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account, or credit card number. Anyone who does is a scammer,” according to the FTC website.

Learn more about the stimulus payment scams, later in this post.

Have you applied for a government grant or loan?

You may receive a letter, email or phone call telling you that you’re pre-approved for the loan or grant but they need your banking information so that they can deposit the funds.

The letters may appear to be on official letterhead and the emails may look equally authentic.

Again, never click on a link in these emails.

Instead, use the search bar in your web browser to navigate to the agency’s site to check your status, or call the number on the agency’s website.

Looking for a job?

Use caution when replying to job offers that arrive via email, especially if it’s for a job to which you didn’t apply.

Again, don’t follow any links within the email. Use your favorite search engine to research the company. Look for an “employment opportunities” or jobs section of the website and learn if the job is listed there.

Never give your email address or phone number to anyone you don’t know who calls or texts you.

Ignore potential employers who ask for a fee for training materials, an application fee or fees for anything else. “Employers and employment firms shouldn’t ask you to pay for the promise of a job,” according to the experts at the FTC.

Stimulus payment scams

Where there’s money, there are scammers trying to get their hands on it. The latest involves the stimulus checks that Americans are receiving in their bank accounts or in the mail.

Ignore phone calls and emails stating that you must pay a fee to get your payment or anyone who claims that you need to supply your social security number, bank account information or debit card account numbers to receive your stimulus payment.

The folks at the FTC urge you to follow these tips to avoid a COVID-19 stimulus payment scam:

  • The IRS won’t contact you about your payment. Anyone who emails, texts or calls you claiming to be with the IRS is lying.
  • There is no fee to claim your stimulus payment.
  • A common scam right now is a communication purported to be from the IRS saying that you were overpaid and need to send back some of the money.

If you suspect a scam, report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint

Remember:

  • Don’t click on any links or download any attachments in emails from anyone you don’t know personally.
  • Never give out personal information to strangers, regardless of who they say they are.