Author Archives: Alyson McNutt English

Can’t Sell It? Rent It Out

Becoming a landlord may be your best option.

Photo: Flickr

It was an unsuccessful attempt to downsize for a smaller house payment that led Joseph Cortez, a realtor in Corpus Christi, TX, to become a landlord.

“My wife and I started building a house because we were pregnant with our first child,” he explains. “In an attempt to downgrade our payment, we built a house 300-square-feet smaller than our current one. But in the process, we had several weather delays, and construction took longer than expected. My wife became more pregnant and she and the house were due around the same time.”

When the Cortezes thought of moving with a newborn, they were overwhelmed, so they put their new house on the market. But it wasn’t as easy to sell as they had hoped. After a good deal of interest but no offers, the couple was asked if they would allow someone to rent for a year, then buy the home. “We took it,” he says. “We make approximately $15 a month in profit.”

The circumstances may be different, but the story is the same for homeowners across the nation. As the market continues to sputter, some who had hoped to sell are now finding themselves turning into reluctant landlords.

Deciding to Rent Out Your Home
The decision to rent your home out can be a tough one, both emotionally and financially.

Decide if the loss you would take by selling the home for less than you owe now is more than any loss you’d sustain while renting it out, says Bret Holmes, president of Advanced Management Group , a property management company based in Las Vegas. “You have to calculate if you were going to sell today, what kind of loss you’d take,” he says. “Then consider how much you’re going to lose in the gap between how much rent you’re bringing in and how long you want to rent it out.” For example, if you have a $100 negative cash flow each month you rent out your house and you think you’ll rent it for two years, you’ll lose $2,400 on the house over that period of time. If that’s more than you’ll lose by selling it at a loss, it’s probably best to just get it over with, Holmes explains. Otherwise, he says, renting it makes sense.

Emotionally, of course, there’s an entirely other set of issues. “It creates emotional ties and makes it hard to see someone not take as great care of the property as the owner once did,” Cortez says. You have to step back and look at it objectively to be a better landlord.

Know Your Local Laws
The first thing you should do if you decide to rent is research your local laws. For some areas, you may have to have a business license if you want to rent your home.

“We had to get a business license from the Washington, D.C., government when we leased our property,” explains Bronagh Hanley, who became a landlord when she moved from D.C. to the West Coast with her husband and the couple decided they didn’t want to sell their home they’d worked on so hard for so long. But Hanley didn’t anticipate the difficulties with getting the document. “It took forever,” she said. “They had random repairs they wanted us to make, there was a substantial fee, and they had to schedule an inspector to come to the house.” The whole process took about a month, and Hanley says this is something potential homeowner/landlords need to keep in mind because not only can it disrupt your timetable, it is also emotionally exhausting.

Potential landlords also need to educate themselves about equal housing opportunity laws says Braun Mincher, president and managing broker of Aggie Real Estate LLC and Aggie Commercial LLC   in Fort Collins, CO. “If you do something like charge a larger deposit because a family has a pet, that’s fairly standard practice and wouldn’t be considered discrimination,” he explains. “But you obviously can’t change your practices based on race, sex, creed, culture, religion, or anything else like that. It has to be based on your actual risk.”

Finding the Right Rent Price
Deciding what to charge on rent can be tricky, Mincher says, because often the amount you could rent a property for isn’t really connected to what you should be able to sell the property for.

“That’s hard for a lot of people to understand because they want to make up that mortgage payment,” Holmes says.

And while how much you’re paying the bank will figure in somewhat to what you charge, it’s key to do your research on what similar houses are renting for, much like you’d look at comparative properties when figuring out an asking price for sales.

“Of course you want to take a realistic look at your PITI [principal, interest, taxes and insurance payment costs] if you have a payment on the home, which most people do,” he says. “But you also have to consider what the market will bear in terms of rent.” Mincher says that if you bought a townhouse at the height of the market, you’re probably not going to make up a $1,200 payment if all the other similar houses are renting for $900 a month.

Another factor to consider is insurance. You will pay more for insurance on a home you’re renting out, despite the fact that you’re not insuring the contents, only the structure. Call your homeowners’ insurance company and talk to them about any rate increases that will result from changing your residence status on the house so you can figure that into the price you’ll charge a renter.

And for homeowners who paid a premium for granite countertops, gorgeous hardwoods, or full-stainless-steel kitchen, there’s more bad news. These extra features don’t necessarily translate into higher rent prices. “You may have less vacancy because of these things, but you’re talking to renters, not buyers,” Mincher explains. “They don’t care as much about your beautiful landscaping. So, figuring out what to charge is a challenge.”

How should the average homeowner who’s thinking about renting confront the challenge? “You really just have to check newspapers and online ads and get a feel for what a home in your price range within about a three-mile radius is going for,” Holmes says. Other good sources of information include a trusted broker or realtor; if you have a good relationship with someone in real estate, he or she may be able to offer you useful advice.

Finding the Right Tenants
Once you’ve priced your house and you have interest from a potential renter, it’s critical to perform due diligence in checking out the person or people you’ll be entrusting your home to.

“On their own, people can verify employment by contacting a current employer,” Holmes says. “Get paycheck stubs to make sure they’re making what they say they’re making. Also do a rental history check. Call previous landlords and see what kind of information you can get.”

Also, consider outsourcing some of the rental screening process. “If a person wants to do a full screening, the process is pretty intensive because you basically become a credit reporting agency,” Holmes says. For that reason, homeowners should consider looking at companies that complete the tenant screening process for you, he says. They’ll do credit checks, eviction checks, criminal background checks, and other similar screenings.

A tenant screening company is how Hanley found her first renters. “We hired a rental management company to find the tenants since they had the skills and resources to do the credit and background checks,” she says. “We paid them a percentage of the first month’s rent for their services. It was well worth the money, since we ended up with an accountant couple from Wisconsin who were the best tenants!”

Are You Ready to Be a Landlord?
Once your tenants are in place, your main duty as landlord is to maintain the property. But if you’re living in a different city, state, or even country, how do you handle it when a pipe breaks or the air conditioning dies mid-August?

“I advise people to get a home warranty program in place,” says Holmes. “Things are going to go wrong — they always do. A home warranty program prevents a huge out-of-pocket expense when it happens.”

Most home warranty programs have a premium you pay once a year. Then, whenever something goes wrong that your homeowner’s insurance won’t cover ­— like a dishwasher that leaks or a refrigerator that won’t cool — you call the home warranty company. You’ll pay a “co-pay,” usually $50 to $60, and the home warranty company picks up the rest of the repair tab.

If you don’t want to pay the initial premium of the home warranty, however, employ a handyman. “Going outside your comfort zone can cost more money than repairmen,” Cortez says. “It’s many times worth it to hire an expert. Find a good all-around handyman that is trustworthy.”


Money Management
While the process of getting a property rented and managing it can be all-encompassing for novice landlords, dealing with the dollars and cents is a critically important factor.

Insurance: Talk to your insurance company about renting out your property, Mincher says. “You’re going to transfer your coverage from a homeowner’s policy to an investment property policy, which will cover the actual structure but not the contents,” he says, adding that it is critical that landlords make it clear to their renters that their coverage does not protect the renter’s possessions or liability. “Renters’ policies are so cheap,” he says. “We pretty much make our tenants get them. We practically walk them down to the insurance office.”

Taxes: This can be complicated for owner/landlords. If you plan on selling the property in the next few years, you probably just want to deduct your property taxes as you normally would. But if you’re transferring it to a true investment property and don’t plan to sell for a while, there can be other tax benefits. You can depreciate rental property, says Mincher, which is a real tax benefit because home prices actually should appreciate. “If a property is held for investment purposes and you generate rental income, you can depreciate the property,” he explains. While it’s best to consult an accountant, he explains that residential properties are depreciable for 27-1/2 years. “So, if I owned 50 rental properties, I can depreciate an average of $10,000 a year for each one; that’s $500,000 a year in tax deductions I get that I never had to write a check for.”

Collecting deposits and rent: Take your renter’s security deposit and open a separate bank account for it, Mincher says. “Note on the account that it is a ‘trust’ account, which signifies that it’s someone else’s money you’re holding,” he says, explaining that since it’s a deposit and the renter should get all or most of it back if they uphold their agreement, it’s really their money, not yours. Mincher says setting up another account for rent is also a good idea. “I used to have 20 tenants at my door the first of every month waiting to pay their rent,” he says. “But I came up with a system where I send them an invoice and a deposit slip now, and they can just deposit their rent at any branch of my bank each month instead of trying to come to my house to do it.” He also suggests setting up automatic draft so tenants can elect to just have their rent drafted out of their account each month. “Almost any bank can set that up,” he says.

Returning deposits: You can’t just collect a $2,000 deposit and then only decide to return $1,500 of it when the renter moves out, Mincher says. “You have to send them a detailed itemization,” he says. Once your tenant moves out, make sure to call all the utility companies your tenant had service with to see if there are any outstanding bills. If so, deduct that from the deposit, says Mincher, along with a detailed, itemized list of any repairs you’ll have to make.

Legal Matters: Protecting Your Interests
No matter how much you may trust your renter, never do business based on a handshake and a spoken agreement.

“Getting a good lease is very, very important for both novice and experienced landlords,” says Mincher, who recommends making an appointment with a real estate lawyer to go over your documents before you have anyone sign. It may cost a little more, but it’s a price worth paying when you consider the consequences of a lease gone bad. A local real estate lawyer should know the rental laws, which can vary from municipality to municipality. You can also check with property management companies, your area housing department or your local board of realtors for less formal advice.

“This way you can find out if there are any forms or attachments that need to be part of a lease, because if you don’t know about these, there can be some pretty dire consequences,” Mincher says, adding that in the college town of Fort Collins where he lives and rents property, landlords also have to have an occupancy disclosure form. “This came from people cramming multiple college kids into one house,” he says. “Now tenants have to sign a form that acknowledges the city has a rule that no more than three unrelated people can live in one house.” If this form is missing, says Mincher, the landlord can be fined $1,000 a day .

Besides hefty fines, Mincher says there are some forms that are required to actually make a lease valid. “For example, if a house has a building permit from before 1979, you have to have one of the EPA lead-based paint disclosures as part of the lease, or it’s totally void ,” he explains.

And while you hope for the best with your tenants, Holmes says it’s wise to prepare for the worst. “Make sure all state laws are addressed, so that if you do have to evict somebody, you have the law on your side,” he says, adding that a consultation with a real estate lawyer is the best way to handle this. “If you don’t and you go to an eviction proceeding and there’s a loophole you missed in the lease, someone could end up living in your house rent-free.

Property Management
Hiring a property management company can take a lot of the headaches out of renting your home if you choose the right one. Management companies will usually take a portion of each month’s rent in exchange for handling the screening, rent collection, repairs and other day-to-day landlord management aspects.

Property managers will likely either take a percentage of the monthly rent — anywhere from 10 to 15 percent is common — or they’ll take charges upfront, sometimes as much as the first month’s rent. “As your novice owners go, that 10 percent of their monthly rent is probably a big part of that nut,” Mincher says. “Say their payment [PITI] is $950.00 a month and they’re renting [the home] for $1,000.00. If they manage it themselves they can probably make those numbers work, but if they put a property manager in the mix, they are now only getting $900 in rent.”

Management companies will handle tenant screening, credit reports, and other checks before the tenant moves in. But you have to choose the right company or person. “Pick someone who is more geared toward management than sales,” Holmes says. “Especially if you’re just looking to recoup as much money as you can until the market comes back around. If you don’t have someone who has experience getting a house rented, it could sit on the rental market longer than it should.”

Go Beyond Blinds and Curtains

Window Treatments

For a long time, it seemed there was nothing new under the sun as far as window coverings were concerned. But in the last 15 years, innovation has taken hold of the industry, and now consumers have a bevy of choices to look at when deciding how to dress their home’s glass.

“Take down the PVC vertical blinds, take down the heavy drapes and the miniblinds, because there’s so much more out there now than there was 15 years ago,” says Sandra Saft, founder and president of Window Interiors , a window covering subcontractor in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

Want to go greener with your window coverings? Environmentally friendly products abound, says Saft. “Energy-efficiency is a big buzzword right now, and manufacturers are even moving toward using sustainable and biodegradable materials.

The nature of the industry, however, is very cyclical, says Jared Grodnitzky, vice president of sales and marketing at Crown Shade Company , a window covering fabricator in Baltimore, Md. “The industry is a roller coaster ride,” he says. “What’s here today will be gone tomorrow and then will come back in a generation but with new twists, like motorization.”

Horizontal Blinds
The traditional horizontal wood blind is a perennial favorite of consumers. “If you’re a customer who has no really strong preference about your window covering, you’re probably going to go with the traditional two-inch wood or faux wood blind,” says Grodnitzky.

He says faux wood shutters are big, thanks to the improved design of medium density fiberboard (MDF). “It really simulates wood,” he says. “If you look at an MDF shutter and a normal real wood shutter, you can’t tell the difference from the outside.”

He cautions, however, that the same is not true for faux blinds made of vinyl. “The quality of the vinyl is lackluster,” he says.

One reason people go with the faux wood over the real wood is, of course, price; the faux is considerably less expensive than the real wood option. Another advantage is durability. “People sometimes go with the faux because they don’t want their shades to warp in the kitchen or bathroom environment,” he says.

But don’t assume two-inch blinds don’t offer many choices. From ribbon-adorned center strings to different wood and paint choices, you still have a lot to decide on when choosing this shade staple. Grodnitzky says if you’re interested in having a stained wood look, it’s best to go with the real wood rather than faux because there are no stains in faux — only paint to look like stain, which isn’t really a realistic substitute.

Finally, if you’re installing shades in a child’s room, consider new cordless options, says Michael Cienian, vice president of quality assurance for Hunter Douglas and past president of the Window Covering Safety Council (WCSC) . “Cordless solutions are available in many types of shades, and they’re really the best option for a child’s room,” he says.

Shutters are back, and they’re growing in popularity. “Interior shutters are huge right now,’ says Grodnitzky. “Some people want the richness of the real wood, but others go for the composite wood, which is cheaper and can go into a bathroom with steam or other areas with moisture and temperature issues.”

Because they are another very traditional option, Grodnitzky says, shutters really never go out of style. As with blinds, he recommends that if you’re not going with white, choose real wood for the most natural look.

Traditional Window Shades
Remember the old roller blinds you probably had in your classroom as a kid? The kind you had to pull just right to make them retract or else you’d end up with the white vinyl shade at your feet? Forget that image, says Grodnitzky, and open your mind to today’s roller shades.

“Roller shades are really on the upswing right now,” he says. “Believe it or not, they’re in their prime again. But it’s not exactly what you remember — they’re not on springs anymore.”

Grodnitzky says now the roller shades are on clutches or are motorized. And the stark white vinyl is also gone; now rollers come in fabrics like “sheerweave,” which filters light without completely shutting out the sun.

Another type of shade that’s big right now are woven solar shades, which block UV light without obstructing the view out the window. “These used to be mainly in commercial applications, but now we’re really seeing this trend of solar shades move into residential design,” says Saft. “The fabrics are becoming more residentially oriented, with designs and weaves that can be incorporated into a residential plan.”

Another option that’s gaining in popularity is Roman shades, which have the aesthetics of curtains because they’re backed with material but incorporate the functionality of blinds in the way they’re raised and lowered. They come in many fabrics and options and are great for windows that aren’t huge, like windows in doors. “We’re really seeing market growth for Roman shades,” says Grodnitzky. “People like them because they’re sort of a cross between drapes and blinds.’

Another hot item is natural woven fabrics. Saft mentions reeds, bamboo and grass-cloth as some popular items. “These can be on Roman shades or flat roll shades with a valance,” she says. “And many of these are not just energy-efficient, but they’re biodegradable, too.”

Wide Windows Options
If you have a patio or other large sliding door in your home, you may think the old PVC vertical blinds are your only option. Not so, says Grodnitzky. “Sliding panels are an alternative to the vertical blinds, and they’re making their way over from Europe and are being sold here now,” he says. “They’re not always as functional as the vertical blinds, but they give a nice airy look — very sleek and simplistic.”

The panels fit into separate sliders on a valance, and they can be opened or closed with a wood baton that’s attached to the panels. The added benefit of these panels is that many are made of natural materials, an improvement over the environmentally unfriendly PVC option.

Window Films
For hard-to-fit windows or when you’re just feeling a little more minimalist, window films can suit your window covering needs. Dan Birkenmeier, brand manager for Martinsville, Va.-based Gila Film Products , says the main reasons people choose window films are heat control, glare control and privacy.

“Bedrooms and bathrooms are two primary areas people use the films, but we also see it a lot in living rooms and family rooms,” he says.

The films come in a variety of designs, from crackled glass to mosaic, as well as traditional window tints meant to increase a room’s energy-efficiency.

In fact, energy savings are a driving force for many people who choose films because they can be used by themselves or in conjunction with blinds, draperies, or other window covering options. “The films can block up to 99 percent of UV rays and have been known to cut cooling costs up to 50 percent,” Birkenmeier says. “We have a real relevance with consumers looking to save energy and lower their utility bills.”

The Future Is Now: Healing Window Treatments
As homes become more and more energy-efficient, they’re also trapping harmful toxins and allergens in the air you breathe each day. While there are lots of options for treating indoor air problems, one window covering company has a solution you probably haven’t seen before: The German window covering company Ado has developed fabrics that actually improve indoor air quality.

The ADO SmartFabrics include two main proprietary fabric-improving technologies: ADO ActiBreeze, which actively improves indoor air quality, and ADO BioProtect, which prevents bacteria from collecting in curtain fibers.

“These are so forward-thinking,” says Saft. “They’re great for removing allergens and aromas out of the air, actually improving the air quality in the room, and they’re beautiful, as well.”

Green Machines: Eco-Friendly Electronics

Eco-friendly thinking when buying for the home is not just for environmental activists anymore. You can also save money by shifting to energy-efficient appliances.

Eco Friendly Electronics, Energy Efficient Electronics


The green movement is in full swing: from organic foods to energy-efficient appliances to greener cleaning products, eco-minded thinking when buying for the home is not just for environmental activists anymore.

So what makes a “green electronic”? According to, these machines are progressively designed to minimize energy use and have less of an impact on the environment. This doesn’t just mean they suck less juice out of electrical sockets, though. Truly green electronics also feature materials and use manufacturing processes that are less energy-intensive than traditional methods and even use renewable and natural materials when possible.

“The good news for those of us who are concerned with the green issues is that electronics are getting much more environmentally friendly,” says Jim Barry, spokesperson for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) . And if you think consumer electronics aren’t that big of a deal because you don’t use that many, Barry says, you’re probably underestimating the number of these electric-powered products you have in your home.

“A typical household, according to CEA research, has 24 consumer electronics devices,” Barry says. “That’s not appliances like refrigerators or microwave ovens — that’s just stereos, clock radios, flat-screen TVs, DVD players, and other things like that.”

Energy Efficiency Saves Money
When consumers add up the cost savings they can reap when they buy more energy-efficient, greener consumer electronics, they realize it can be easier on the wallet to be green.

“One of the great catalysts of consumer interest in green electronics is that they are becoming synonymous with cost savings,” says Jeremy Arditi, co-founder of the green shopping website Greenzer. “Naturally, this means they appeal to a wider range of people, which in turn gets manufacturers motivated to produce greener products.”

Some of the energy efficiency of new products isn’t just in how many kilowatts they need for power but also how they manage their energy use, which is especially true for computers.

“Windows Vista actually implemented a pretty advanced system to reduce energy consumption for idle computers,” Arditi says. In fact, one independent study from UK-based PC Pro Labs found that power management features in Windows Vista could save as much as $80 a year for each desktop PC.

One way to judge any electronics you may be considering is to look for the Energy Star label, which ensures that electronics are 10 to 25 percent more energy-efficient than government standards. Another label you can trust is the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool, or EPEAT . EPEAT-certified products meet standards set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in eight areas:

  • Reduction or Elimination of Environmentally Sensitive Materials
  • Materials Selection
  • Design for End of Life
  • Life Cycle Extension
  • Energy Conservation
  • End of Life Management
  • Corporate Performance
  • Packaging

Beyond buying energy-efficient products, consumers also need to follow green energy-usage practices at home. “There are simple things people can do that can have a really significant impact, like unplugging devices when they’re not in use,” Arditi says. “Given how much electricity idle electronics consume, this is a really important step.”

Arditi says another option is to buy a solar-powered charger to juice items with rechargeable batteries, like iPods and cell phones. You can even buy rechargeable batteries for other household items and power them back up with a solar charger. “Another important recommendation is to simply take good care of your equipment,” he says. “That will prolong its useful life and reduce the purchase of new products, which is positive for both the environment and your wallet.”

You can find more ideas for greening your current setup at websites like My Green Electronics.

Green Technologies
The selection of green technology is growing fast. LCD televisions, for instance, are significantly more energy-efficient than the old cathode-ray tube technology and still marginally more efficient than plasma televisions, Barry says. “Plasma has historically been less efficient, but they’re getting better all the time,” he says. “They’re using less energy with every new generation of plasma displays.”

But Barry is most enthusiastic about two major benefits of OLEDs, or organic light-emitting diodes, a technology becoming popular in mobile devices and being used to develop the next generation of flat-panel televisions. “One is the energy efficiency, and the other is that they’re much thinner than plasma or LCD,” he says, noting that OLEDs are sometimes as thin as two credit cards.

Companies are also moving to use LED backlighting for LCD televisions, which will make these more energy-efficient, as well, says David Berman, director of training and public relations for the Home Theater Specialists of America . Some home theater components are looking beyond basic energy efficiency into other ways to be more environmentally responsible. A home theater system from Panasonic includes rapidly renewable bamboo material in the center speaker rather than petroleum-based plastics.

More companies are cutting waste in both the manufacturing process and on the consumer side, as well. “The Sharp factories produce higher-yield glass panels for their LCD TVs with less waste, and they recycle almost all of the water used to cut and transport the panels,” Berman explains. And for consumers, a single, rechargeable home audio control system like this one from Philips will keep many disposable batteries out of the landfill over its lifetime.

It can be tough for the average consumer to tell if they’re buying something that’s actually more eco-friendly than average. Retailers and manufacturers are good at “greenwashing,” or presenting items as more environmentally sensitive than they actually are.

That’s where web sites like Greenzer come in, says Arditi. Look up most electronic items on the site, and you’ll see its “Greenzer Score.”

“The Greenzer Score is an algorithm we’ve developed at Greenzer that leverages ratings and certifications from third-party groups we believe to be the most thorough and relevant sources of environmental information in their respective fields,” such as EPEAT, Energy Star, and Climate Counts. Arditi says the 1 to 10 score is active on most computer and electronic products on the site. “Our mission is to make shipping for green products a no-brainer,” he says.

If you’re not shopping through Greenzer, looking for labels is an effective way to shop more easily since these third-party certifications are widely accepted as reputable measures of a product’s environmental or energy-efficiency merits.

And if you’re worried that a greener product means higher costs when you’re buying, Arditi says, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. “It’s actually quite interesting to see that the cost of green products has been coming down significantly and the overall quality is on par with conventional products,” he says.

Consumers are realizing the benefits, as well. “I think consumers are becoming much savvier and demanding when it comes to green products and electronics in particular,” Arditi says.

Recycling is another area where the consumer can play a role. Many people just set their old television or computer monitor out by the curb, destined for the county landfill. But this decision isn’t just bad for the environment — it can be bad for human health as well, experts say.

“Only about 12 percent of the 126 million discarded televisions were recycled in 2006,” says Bruce Nofsinger, owner of Charlotte, NC.-based Topics Communication and an electronics-recycling education advocate. “TV sets contain toxic substances like lead, mercury, cadmium, and chromium. When discarded improperly, these toxins end up in our landfills and eventually seep into our land, rivers and oceans.”

If your old electronics are still in decent working order or could be easily repaired, consider finding them a new home by posting their description and availability on sites like Craigslist or Freecycle, or by taking out an ad in your local paper.

If you need to dispose of the electronics, find a reputable recycler on sites like Earth911 and My Green Electronics . Also, many big-box retailers like Best Buy and Sears have been making it easier for consumers to dispose of their old electronic equipment. Check with your area stores to find out if they offer recycling programs for old electronics.

Creating Your Ideal Home Theater

Here are some expert tips for your dream media room.

Photo: Flickr

Just a few years ago, a home theater was only for the lucky few who could spare an extra room and tens of thousands of dollars on furnishings, equipment, and accessories. But today, as high-definition has become mainstream and more people integrate wide-screen televisions and souped-up audio systems into their homes, a true media room is within reach of more people. If you’re thinking about adding one of these high-tech spaces, these tips will have you headed in the right direction.

Choose the Right Space
If you want to go all-out, experts say the best way to integrate a home theater is to start from scratch. “It’s always ideal to either work with a client on a new construction, or be able to have the budget to take a room down to the studs and start from there,” says Stuart J. Allyn, president of Irvington, NY-based A.D.R. Studios, a high-end home theater design company.

The sheer amount of wiring labor, as well as the benefit of being able to design the room for the singular effect of creating a home theater cocoon, makes a blank slate room most attractive. Starting from scratch allows the client to thoughtfully consider factors like the area required for seating, viewing distances and angles, room acoustics and so on, says Bobby Bala, CEO and founder of Elite Home Theater Seating in Vancouver, BC.

But not everyone has that luxury, of course. If you can’t do a new room, the best choices are square or rectangular rooms that are enclosed, have standard-height ceilings, and have few windows or controllable light, says Paul Diggin, managing director of Advanced Communication Technologies, a custom electronics integrator in Hingham, MA. “Many people think about putting a home theater in their ‘great room’ or a large room with high ceilings, lots of windows and architectural angles, but this is the worst type of room for a home theater.”

Pick the Right Video System
One of the most intimidating parts of buying for a home theater can be choosing the right television or projection choice. With the many options available, figuring out what’s best for your room can be difficult if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Knowing your needs is important, so you neither overspend nor underspend, says Bala. “We use this analogy: Just because someone can afford a Ferrari doesn’t mean they’ll be happy with it,” he says. “On the other hand, if he buys a Volvo and wants a Ferrari, then he’s also going to be dissatisfied.”

If you’re buying a television, there are a couple of rules of thumb that can help, says David Meneely, co-founder of Pro-AV, a home theater company in Gonic, NH. “If you’re looking for a screen under 42 inches, an LCD, or liquid crystal display, is the way to go. On the other hand, plasma screens are the most affordable choice when looking for a set over 42 inches,” he says.

Meneely says LCD sets tend to have a longer lifespan, consume less power and don’t have problems with burn-in, which can occur on plasma televisions when an image is left on the screen too long. But he notes that manufacturers are making great strides in correcting burn-in and other problems.

For really huge screens, however, projection is hands-down the best choice, says Allyn, who has designed luxury home theaters for Hollywood luminaries. “When you want a really crisp, large image, projection theaters are the only option,” he says. “And when you’re going with projection, it’s important to consider not only the quality of the projector but also the quality of the screen, which is incredibly important in itself.”

Consider Your Components
Once the exclusive domain of men, the home theater now has to serve the needs of everyone in the household. “These days, home theater products cater to entire families and their friends,” says Bala. “Everything from wall décor to seating design, to user-friendliness of controls and integration of gaming systems for everyone’s enjoyment, is available to create an experience that is fun and flexible.”

Since different members of a household often have different uses for the home theater, choosing the right components is an important factor in having a room everyone can enjoy.

Some components, however, are more important than others when it comes to making sure your room has that “wow” factor, says William Fried, vice president of operations for Anthony Gallo Acoustics in Chatsworth, CA.

“The two most important components in a home theater are speakers and the A/V [audio/video] receiver,” Fried says. “Without the proper power and features you get in a good A/V receiver, you won’t be able to bring out the best qualities in the speaker system.” This, in turn, will affect the overall experience in the room.

Don’t Forget Sound
Experts say people almost always underestimate the importance of sound quality in the design of the home theater. Good sound is about more than great speakers, though having quality products is important. “The goal in any home theater is to re-create a movie theater setting, where you are positioned to watch video or listen to audio in a cozy social environment,” says Fried. “You can have a big plasma, a high-performance audio surround sound system, and powerful A/V equipment, but if the setting is designed for looks, not sound, you will be disappointed in the result.”

Fried says one problem is that good acoustics aren’t always compatible with the decorating style of the homeowner. “In a home theater room, there will always be a compromise on sound quality versus interior design,” he says. The best solution? “It’s always good to have the interior designer and the home theater installation company collaborate on the room design so everybody is happy with the result,” he says.

Lighting It Right
Light is another factor that too often takes a backseat to other more technical concerns when designing a home theater, but it is also a make-or-break factor in a real quality design. “Lighting control can turn it into a real cinema-like experience,” says Diggin.

The key, says Michael Berman, lighting designer for national retailer LAMPS Plus, is to layer the illumination and have full control over all the different layers. “A home theater needs to have a special environment, different from the rest of the house,” he says. “For a home theater, the most important factor is lighting control for both natural and artificial light. All layers of room lighting need independent level control to maximize the viewing experience and comfort of the room.”

Using controllable combinations of recessed and track lights, as well as other indirect lighting sources, can transform any room, he says. And for daytime viewing, adjustable shades or heavy drapes are essential so you don’t have to deal with glare.

Practical considerations are important, as well. “Don’t forget small task lights to accommodate activities while viewing a movie, like eating, drinking and viewing guides, and use night lights as path lights,” Berman says.

Home Theater


Control Your Systems
Whenever you install a high-tech system like a home theater, having controls that work for you is incredibly important. “A good control system is important for maximum homeowner enjoyment,” says Diggin. “Whether it’s a basic universal remote or a touch screen interface, it needs to be easy to use and offer good functionality.”

Universal remotes you buy off the shelf can work for less-complicated systems, but Meneely says homeowners should consider choosing a radio-frequency (RF) remote, rather than infrared (IR) remotes. “With RF, you don’t have to worry about someone standing in front of you, blocking the signal. Or, if your components are behind doors, you don’t have to worry about opening those doors up because the RF control won’t be blocked like infrared will,” he says.

For a true custom experience, however, Allyn says nothing is better than a control made specifically for each client. “When each component has its own remote, it can be a real problem,” he says. “Unless you like having 10 remotes or a remote the size of a 3-ring binder, most [off-the-shelf] controls just don’t have the physical real estate to control all the functions most people want.”

His company makes touch-screen controls to fit the needs of each user. These remotes can control anything the client wants, including lighting, HVAC, media components, and even clocks. “It’s all a matter of what they want because it’s designed specifically for each user,” he says. “Technology should serve you.”

“Future-Proof” Your Theater
One aspect you shouldn’t neglect when deciding on your home theater design and components is what professionals call “future-proofing.”

“Although you should keep long-term use in mind when choosing your initial equipment, there are now a host of upgrades that can be made in the future as technology develops,” Bala says. “I suggest to my clients to take the time and effort and minimal expense to future-proof their theaters, like running extra wires and cable,” for technologies that may come in the future, such as seats that can be programmed for individual users or peripherals for future technologies.

One technology facing change is the high-definition DVD system, says Nathan Adams, the digital technology sales manager for DR Group, a Los Angeles-based home theater specialist. While Adams currently recommends that consumers shell out for a Blu-Ray player, he believes the “old school distribution model” of hard-copy DVDs is headed for extinction.

“I think digital distribution over high-speed Internet will eventually be the delivery method of choice for Americans that have high-speed Internet and a computer,” he says. “Once the studios embrace the immense opportunities presented by Internet distribution and stop clinging to the dying business model of DVD distribution, the consumer and the studios will be much happier.”

Don’t Neglect Creature Comforts
When putting together a home theater, the electronics get the most attention. But all the technology in the world won’t make a room great if you can’t get comfortable in the space.

“Seating’s significance in a home theater is often underestimated,” Bala says. “In a good home theater, a client should expect to spend hundreds of hours of enjoyment in that room. No amount of audio or video technology will compensate for an uncomfortable or improperly designed chair.”

Make sure you leave room in your budget for seating that you’ll want to spend time in. “We recommend that 20 to 30 percent of the theater budget be dedicated to seating and seating-related accessories,” says Bala.

Think Professional for Best Results
If this all sounds complicated and a little overwhelming, the experts say that’s because designing and installing a home theater is a detail-oriented, technical process that is best handled by a professional.

“To get the most out of a home theater, homeowners should hire a professional, industry-certified installer,” says Diggin. “A pro can recommend the best products for the homeowner’s budget and help design the theater room for maximum performance and enjoyment.”

You wouldn’t sit down to design and build a home without an architect and a contractor, says Allyn, and you shouldn’t drop big bucks on a home theater without a specialist, either. “We are the advocate for the client,” he says.

Protecting Your Investment
A home theater is a major investment in your dwelling, and too many times homeowners fail to consider the insurance implications of this type of improvement. Tim Bowen, director of claims for MetLife Auto & Home, offers a few tips on making sure your investment is protected:

  1. Reconsider the basement theater. Bowen says basement rooms are risky because of their propensity for flooding. He says events like sewer backups or flood damage are excluded from many policies and can leave homeowners uncomfortably exposed. He says if you plan on adding a home theater in your basement, modify your risk by getting sump pump or sewer “endorsements” on your policy or choose “all perils” coverage for the contents of the room.
  2. Think about contents. Even in the event of a “named peril,” like a tornado or fire, homeowner’s policies have a cap on the amount of contents they cover. “If you go out and buy a $10,000 television and only have $100,000 worth of contents coverage on your house, well, you only have $90,000 for everything else in your dwelling,” he says. Again, scheduling an item like this by purchasing a rider for your policy can be a good investment.
  3. Consider your electric system. Investing in a whole-house surge protector and making sure you hire a licensed technician may cost a little more, but it is well worth it when you consider how much you’re spending on the room.
  4. Look at your total budget. It’s time to call your agent to double-check your coverage when you spend more than $10,000 on any type of home improvement, including a home theater, Bowen says.

Creating Your Ideal Outdoor Room

A home’s outdoor space is no longer just a grassy backyard for kids and pets. From luxury pool patios to sprawling gardens to designer kitchens, outdoor rooms can be both fun and functional.

Outdoor Room

Photo: Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

No matter what climate you live in, chances are outdoor rooms are hot in your area — and with good reason. Outdoor rooms have become extensions of the home and are living areas, recreation areas, and more. They bridge a design divide between the interior and exterior of the home. They also allow for self-expression. Often a developer has taken the liberty of choosing the exterior style of the home, but each homeowner can evoke his or her own style in the interior. Here are some tips for bridging the design divide and creating your ideal outdoor room.

Take a Holistic View of the Space
One problem with some outdoor rooms is that the space has evolved casually over time without a real master plan, which can create a cluttered area that doesn’t work well for any of the functions it’s supposed to serve. Experts say making the outdoor area an overall creation, as one would with the interior, is a must.

Another mistake people make when conceiving their outdoor space is thinking only about what they want and not how they’re going to accomplish it, says master gardener Roger Boike, a garden design specialist for the Susan Fredman Design Group in Chicago. “One way to make sure you accomplish your goals for the space and still maintain good design is by breaking the area into smaller ‘rooms,’” he says. “We try and get clients to define how they’ll use the outdoor space, then we create the areas to fit their unique needs.”

Don’t forget Mother Nature, since she’ll have a role in how inviting your outdoor space turns out to be. “Think about the sun and check it at different times of day,” says Deidra Darsa, media relations manager for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. “See how the wind blows in different areas of the yard. Just get a feel for your backyard climate and arrange the space around that.”

Consider Your Entertainment Style
“People want to be able to entertain in their outdoor spaces, and it’s important to really consider how they’ll use that space while entertaining,” Boike says. For example, anyone wanting to have a gazebo or pergola in the yard should consider issues like the distance from the cooking area to the eating area. Otherwise, you may end up with a beautiful entertaining space that’s rarely used.

It can also put a kink in your party plans if your guests can’t move around the outdoor and indoor areas in a logical way. “People will get really excited about this wonderful room they have but then discover when it’s being used that it just doesn’t flow,” Darsa says. “Think about flow and access to and from your home.”

While the idea of backyard entertaining may bring up images of iced tea and finger cakes, that’s far from the new reality. “There are so many different kinds of products out there now,” Darsa says. “Just about anything you could have indoors now has an outdoor version.” TVs and stereos, for instance, are becoming more popular for outdoor entertaining areas. Boike says the price is still high for these all-weather electronics, but the quality is excellent. “These televisions can withstand the elements,” he says. “The only thing you need to worry about is placing them to minimize glare from the sunlight.”

Cook Up Great Outdoor Kitchen Design
The other major movement in deluxe outdoor spaces is outdoor kitchens. Why are these masculine culinary spaces so in vogue? “My theory is that men — who are usually the driving force behind these projects — are becoming more open and demanding about the space and equipment they cook with,” says Bruce Frankel, former restaurateur and founder of the outdoor cooking website SpitJack. “Since men have been traditionally relegated to the backyard, this is the domain they’re expanding.”

It’s important to look at an outdoor kitchen the same way you would an indoor kitchen to make sure you create a functional space. “I urge people to consider the same things they’d think about when planning any kitchen, like what kind of food they’ll be cooking, how often, and for how many people,” Frankel says. “Think through how you want to express yourself as a cook in that space.”

And you won’t be limited by what you can and can’t take outside. “Every year it seems there’s another appliance that’s been altered to withstand being outdoors,” Boike says. “It used to just be a grill, but now it’s sinks and wine coolers and refrigerators and dishwashers and storage areas. But they last year after year.”

Grow Your Garden
Focusing on outdoor kitchens and luxury entertaining areas is exciting since they don’t naturally belong outdoors. But while these items often get most of the attention, it’s critical to remember the importance of gardens and greenery in your outdoor area. Boike gets many requests for custom gardens, and people aren’t just asking for vine-ripe tomatoes and blooming hydrangeas. “I like to make the space functional, and that goes beyond pretty flowers,” he says. “I’ve designed gardens with outdoor showers, stone pathways, and fountains as part of the design.”

But flowers are important, and Boike says that for those who enjoy digging into the earth, creating a custom growing space can be a fun experience. “We still use the ‘room’ concept with the garden,” he says. “We can create a cottage garden, a kitchen garden, an area for perennials, and even a laboratory where people who love to garden can ‘play,’ testing out where different plants do best.”

When deciding about gardening and planting, however, Boike cautions against just going out to a garden megastore and grabbing whatever catches your eye. “People need to educate themselves on planting and know their USDA zone,” he says, referring to the standard map that gardeners use to determine which plants will grow well in different geographical areas. “You can waste a lot of money on materials if you don’t do some research. Take drives around to see what grows naturally. Ask at local garden centers to find out what’s indigenous to the area — things that are natural are beautiful.

Delight in the Details
While it’s important to take a big-picture view of your outdoor space, don’t forget to consider details like landscaping, lighting, and materials. Experts say that great lighting and landscaping are often overlooked in place of a great pool or barbecue. While these are not expensive upgrades, and they show off the home very well,  people often forget the value and the longevity they provide.

Lighting entertaining areas is key, Darsa says. “There are lamps now made for outdoors that are just like what you’d have in your living area except they’re weatherproof,” she says.

Boike says that choosing the ground cover for your areas is another detail that deserves some serious thought. “Think about how the space will be used and if you want a wood deck, a stone patio, or even limestone and pea gravel,” he says. “Of course, budget is a consideration here as well, but it’s an important decision that will affect how the space is used.”

Use Water Your Way
Water is the centerpiece of many successful outdoor spaces. But even if you want an aquatic atmosphere, that doesn’t mean you have to splurge for a pool. “Many clients ask about water features, and we first decide what it is exactly they’re looking for,” Boike says. “Do they want a pond or just the sound of the water?” For clients who just want a sense of water, a fountain that just recirculates water can be a more conservative option. But pools, hot tubs, and spas are still popular outdoor features, particularly in hot-weather areas. They create a mood and atmosphere that are vital to the overall use of the space.

Enjoy Your Relaxing Retreat
Above all, make sure you invest in good design to create the space you really want because it can be your vacation even at home. At a time when many people are cutting back on travel,  enjoying your home both indoors and outdoors has become very important. Outdoor spaces have become an extension of the home and are now living areas, recreation areas, and more.

Kids’ and Pets’ Safety in Outdoor Rooms
Fire pits, swimming pools, and poisonous plants are just a few of the hazards that children and pets may face in outdoor rooms. Yet while parents tend to think cautiously indoors, they may not be as stringent with safety outdoors. That’s a mistake. “Parents need to safety-proof the outside of the home just like they would the indoors,” Darsa says. The Consumer Products Safety Commission offers these tips for making your outdoor area safe:

  • If you have playground equipment, be sure the ground has at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand, or pea gravel or has mats made of safety-tested rubber or a rubberlike material.
  • Check outdoor surfacing regularly to ensure it’s in good condition to avoid trips and falls.
  • Carefully supervise children to make sure they’re safe, particularly around water or fire features.
  • Never leave children unattended around water features.
  • Be aware of the dangers of drains in hot tubs, pools, and spas.

Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, stresses that while safety precautions are always important, there’s no substitute for the watchful eye of an adult, particularly in areas with major hazards like pools or fires.

Childproofing the Home Office

Create a safe environment for your family and eliminate potential home office hazards.

Photo: Flickr

Statistics show that almost 75 percent of Americans have some sort of home office. And as these dedicated work areas have become more common, so have injuries associated with them. Most adults have endured the occasional stapled finger or nasty paper cut, of course, but the dangers for children inside the home office are often overlooked.

Parents who have offices at home need to be more aware of these potential problems, since an office can be a fun place for children to try and explore, says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, based in Washington, DC.

“Parents and grandparents who have children around their home office really need to look at the room from the child’s level,” Appy explains. “Getting down and seeing the area from a child’s perspective can help adults better identify the potential problems in the room.”

Shredder Danger
While it sounds obvious that shredders can be extremely dangerous for children to be around, many people still don’t take proper precautions with these strong slicing machines. “Shredders really need to be off the floor and out of a child’s reach at all times or even kept in a locked bookcase when not in use,” says Claudia Romo, program manager for the injury prevention department at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas.

Keeping shredders turned off and unplugged when not in use is another step toward preventing the horrific injuries they can cause, says Appy, but she says never to underestimate a child’s determination when they want to try something. “I wouldn’t even use a shredder in front of a child,” says Appy. “They do look really cool, and an industrious child might become really determined to give it a try. I recommend only using the shredder away from children and keeping it out of their reach entirely when not in use.”

Appy says households with children should also consider investing in a shredder, like Fellowes’ “SafeSense” sensor, that allow it to determine when the sensor is being touched by a human or animal.

Careful of Cords and Wires
Wires are part of the plugged-in lifestyle: from printers, scanners and monitors and the CPU to computer essentials like speakers, a mouse, and other USB devices, a home office can quickly become a wiry mess.

“Loose cords and wires are a hazard to people of any age,” Romo says. She recommends taping or tacking down wires near the perimeter of the room whenever possible and securing the rest with wire covers like the Cable Turtle or other conduit-type covers.

Electrical Hazards
Once your cords and wires are secure, consider the timeless child appeal of electrical outlets. Just because most of the outlets in a home office area are likely to be in use doesn’t mean they don’t present a danger to children.

Children can easily unplug devices and still harm themselves with the outlets, Appy says. “Any persistent child can get those little plastic covers off, and once they’re off, they’re actually a choking hazard because of their size and shape,” she explains. She recommends outlet plate covers that are affixed to the wall like a regular cover, but that slide closed as soon as an appliance is removed. For power strips, try outlet covers that hide the plug and the strip and are tough for even the most curious little ones to crack.

Mind the Small Stuff
The big items may grab your attention first when you begin to childproof your office, but this is one place you really should sweat the small stuff. Paperclips, thumbtacks, staplers and staple removers, letter openers, and scissors can all be tragically attractive to a small child. Place these items out of reach and sight of children who might sit at your desk, says Romo. Or, even better, store them in a locked cabinet when a child is present.

Another set of small-sized items that can cause big problems are the inks and toners in most home offices. For people with color printers who store inks, the cyan, magenta, and yellow ink cases can look yummy to a toddler but contain toxic chemicals that should obviously never be ingested. Correction fluid, laser printer toner, and even permanent markers (with their noxious fumes) can be hazardous, as well. Store these items out of sight and reach of little ones. If you suspect a child has ingested any of these substances, call the poison control hotline at 1-800-222-1222.

Careful of Bookcases
Fall hazards are one of the most common, and most deadly, dangers for children inside the home. “It’s critical that parents secure tall bookcases and furniture — anything a child could climb — to the wall,” says Appy. “Too many tragedies have occurred because a child tried to climb a bookcase or dresser to reach a forbidden item.” When you’re storing so many appealing dangers out of reach in your office, consider the eventuality that your child might try to scale a bookcase or table to reach them, she says, and secure each piece of furniture accordingly.

And while you’re securing items, be sure to firmly affix any television or computer monitor to wherever it is located, be it a shelf, the wall or even a desktop. “Kids can grab onto a desktop and pull a monitor over on themselves and cause serious injury,” says Romo. “These new flat screen monitors, with their lighter weight, are easier to pull off and can still cause injury to a child.”

Control Entrances and Exits
One of the most effective child safety devices in a home office isn’t actually inside the room, says Appy. “An outdoor-quality lock on the outside of the door is a great investment for a home office,” she says. “No one can possibly watch a child for every single moment of the day, but having to use a key to unbolt that door will keep children out more effectively.”