Author Archives: Jean Nayar

About Jean Nayar

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10 Ways to Create Your Own Paradise in the Backyard

Designers Jeff Curren and Julian Calderon share outdoor room design tips enabling you to create a comfortable and great-looking refuge behind your house.

Outdoor Room Design - Backyard

Photo: Smith & Vansant Architects PC

Any outdoor living space, be it a compact apartment terrace or an expansive poolside patio, becomes so much more inviting once it’s been outfitted with a few creature comforts. In search of ideas to make your garden areas as comfortable as possible, we consulted Jeff Curren of Jeff Curren Interior Design and landscape designer Julian Calderon of Julian • Mark Events.

Consider function first. ”If it doesn’t ultimately serve your objectives, it doesn’t matter how great your outdoor space looks,” says interior designer Jeff Curren. “One person may want to sit quietly and read outside; another may want to garden. For those who like to entertain and cook, an outdoor kitchen can make life hospitable for both chef and guests,” he says, adding that with so many new options in appliances and cabinets, outdoor cook zones can be as beautiful as they are functional.

Keep traffic flowing. ”Inviting, well-laid paved paths or stepping stones lead you on a journey or allow you to gracefully get to an outdoor destination,” says Curren, who also recommends carefully planning your outdoor space with seating or dining areas that permit the free flow of foot traffic.

Outdoor Room Design - Trellis Enclosure

Photo: Joel Kelly Design

Go vertical. ”A tiny backyard or limited light on a city terrace needn’t prevent you from having a beautiful garden,” says landscape designer Julian Calderon. “Wall gardens with multicolor plants that need no direct sunlight are available from garden centers or home stores,” he says. Succulents, for example, are easy to grow on vertical surfaces even in arid climates. “You can also create a living fence by planting a row of tall, narrow thuja occidentalis trees,” says Calderon. “Or create ‘walls’ with arbors, trellises, room dividers or fences,” adds Curren.

Cultivate a theme. ”Come up with a style concept… and stick to it,” says Curren. “Ask yourself how you want to feel when in your outdoor space, then create that feeling with texture, pattern, color, shape and scale, using everything from furniture to planters to accessories.”

Stimulate the senses. ”Lavender, geraniums, lemongrass, eucalyptus, catnip, basil, mint and many other plants will not only add a nice touch of color close to paths and circulation areas, but they’ll also freshen the air with appealing fragrance as you and your guests brush past them,” suggests Calderon. “You can also use plants to create artful swaths of color and texture. Play with just a few colors or textures for more effective impact and easy maintenance,” he advises. “A multicolor Victorian or country-style garden may require you to hire an expert to care for it, unless of course you’re willing to be hands on.”

Outdoor Room Design - Lighting

Photo: Pedersen Associates

Bug off. “Most of us work, so we often spend time on our terrace or patio in the evening,” says Calderon. “Lighting is a good way to add interest and beauty to the outdoors, but it also attracts bugs!” To keep the bugs away, Calderon suggests soft yellow illumination concealed within planters or turned towards a wall. “Also, citronella candles and torches add light while chasing bugs away,” he says. Other bug-busting options include dabbing on oil of lemon or donning light-colored clothing, which bugs have a hard time seeing. “Plants like chrysanthemums, basil, and mint also repel bugs,” he adds.

Related: 7 Easy Budget-Friendly Backyard Makeovers

Outdoor Room Design - Rug

Photo: Liora Manne

Accessorize! ”Just as with an outfit, an outdoor living space is not complete until you finish it off with a few accessories,” says Curren. “But don’t overdo it here. Editing is key. Always start with a rug,” advises Curren, who likes the Watercolor Blossom rug from Liora Manne, made from recycled materials. “And don’t forget a shade overhead, especially if your patio is in a sunny spot.”

Lighten up. ”Remember to go for ambiance at night with light,” says Curren. “Use a variety of types of lighting—at least three sources of light is ideal—and keep it soft and out of your eyes. You want to see the glow of light but not the light source. Consider string lights, uplights, table lamps, floor lamps, hanging fixtures, even candles. For a green solution, great solar and LED lights are available.”

Let it flow. ”To enhance the comfort of outdoor living, add a water feature,” suggests Curren. “The bubbling sounds of water calm and sooth. You can even add goldfish.”

Extend the inside out. “Decorate outside in similar ways as you would inside,” recommends Curren. “And at any budget, have some fun and be creative with materials, more so than you might be in the house. To create your own outdoor private paradise, don’t be afraid to step out of your decorating comfort zone.”

Buyer’s Guide: Laminate Countertops

If you're shopping around for products to use in a budget kitchen renovation, consider buying laminate countertops, now available in more style options than ever before.

Laminate Countertops

Wilsonart Smoky Topaz Laminate Countertop

When you’re remodeling a kitchen on a budget, laminate is the best affordable option for countertops.

Nowadays this tried-and-true material comes in a wider array of designs than ever before, from beautiful solid colors to interesting wood looks with embedded texture to lovely stone patterns with a variety of finish options.

Before selecting laminate as a countertop material, it’s helpful to know the plusses and minuses. We asked Kent Brasloff, principal of New York-based design firm Ask Kent and Co., and vice president of programs for the New York chapter of the National Kitchen & Bath Association, to share his insights on buying laminate countertops. Here’s what he had to say:

What is laminate?
A combination of plastic and paper—interestingly, though, generally not recycled—and sometimes board. These materials are formed into a thin layer and colored or manufactured with naturalistic or textured designs. This layer is then laminated to particleboard or chip board.

What makes laminate a good choice for countertops?
It’s flexible and can be used in a variety of ways and in a variety of spaces: a kitchen, bath, work room or laundry room. Laminate can also be used on a shop table or as a furniture surface. Available in a multitude of colors and textures, it’s easy to work with and can be cut into any shape, including forms with sharp corner points or with a smooth radius. It’s quite durable.

Buying Laminate Countertops - WilsonartWhat is the difference between a low-cost laminate and an expensive one?
The key difference between high- and low-end laminates is generally the finish of the material. Higher-end products offer greater variety in luster or sheen and texture. They also come in a broader range of colors. The cost of the laminate will be affected by whether or not there is a built-in backsplash and how high or low the backsplash may be.

What are the maintenance requirements for laminate countertops?
To clean the surface, use a damp cloth or sponge and a mild soap or detergent. To remove difficult stains from coffee or tea, use a mild household cleaner and baking soda mixed into a paste, scrubbing with a stiff nylon bristle brush and being careful not to mar the surface finish.

Slideshow: Trending Now: Laminate Countertops

Stubborn stains may call for gently rubbing the spot with a cotton ball that has been saturated with undiluted household bleach or nail polish remover. Prolonged exposure of the laminate surface to bleach will cause discoloration, so always rinse thoroughly with warm warm water and wipe dry. Do not use steel wool and other abrasive materials or harsh chemicals, such as a rust remover. Also, avoid placing hot pots and pans on the surface, as its level of heat resistance is limited.

What are the pros for choosing laminate?
Its durability, range of color and design options, flexibility to accommodate unique shapes, and ease of installation.

Its cons?
On the downside, laminate shows scratches, which usually be cannot filled or repaired. And to some people it can look “cheap” or “papery”. It hasn’t been popular for quite some time in the US, but it is stilled used extensively in Europe, often in high-end contexts. Also, it gets brittle and chips with age.

How much does it cost?
A fair range would be between $35 and $40 per linear foot at retail. Of course cost may be affected by the intricacy of the design and whether the counter will have a “self” or “beveled” edge. Cost will also be impacted by countertops with a lot of corners, a wide radius, or a built-in backsplash. Laminates with standard finishes are more affordable than those with upgraded finishes.

What are its installation requirements?
After the contractor installs your cabinets (or support structure), the countertop area will be templated and made to fit for installation by a professional.

Pendant Lighting 101

Looking for pendant lighting ideas? Whether hung singly or in multiples, these versatile fixtures offer bright possibilities.

Pendant Lighting Ideas - Rule of Three


Functional and flexible pendant lights are as great for task and general illumination in the kitchen as they are for making a strong statement in the dining room. Styles range from mini pendant lights with a modern vibe to schoolhouse-style glass pendants to sculptural fixtures. Another chic option, pendant track lighting, lends any space the ambience of an upscale boutique. Installing pendants isn’t difficult, particularly if you’re just replacing a fixture. Of course, the first step is to determine how high you wish to hang the pendant. Cutting the cord may be necessary. After turning off power to the room—and confirming that is indeed off—install the new mounting hardware, wire the fixture to the electrical box, and mount the fixture before finally attaching the canopy. Averse to hard-wiring? Consider a plug-in pendant light, one that hangs from a hook, whether on the ceiling or wall, and plugs into an outlet. If you’re in need of outdoor pendant lighting, be sure to select an appropriately rated fixture.

Of all the various forms of light fixtures, pendants may offer the greatest opportunity to make a statement and introduce a pop of personality to a room.

Though functional—in that they provide either overall ambient light or directed “task” lighting—pendant fixtures come in a wide range of styles, shapes, materials and colors that can be combined to form a dramatic sculptural focal point in a room.

Whether positioned over a sink in a kitchen, lined up in a row over a countertop, or suspended over a hall or dining table, pendant fixtures look and function at their best when employed using a few aesthetic and practical rules of thumb.

Read on for answers to the most frequently asked questions about pendant fixtures.

Pendant Lighting Ideas - Colorful Glass1. What should I look for in design?
Before buying a pendant fixture, consider the context. The style of your home and your decor is the best starting point. Are your rooms modern and minimalist or warm and rustic? Is your home classic and traditional, playful and eclectic, rich and glamorous, or understated and simple? Opt for a fixture with materials and shapes that complement your style or that provide an interesting counterpoint to other furnishings.

For a rustic space you might opt for a schoolhouse-style pendant with antique pewter or iron hardware. In a modern space, a sleek linear chrome or brushed nickel fixture would be more suitable. An eclectic room is ideal for a whimsical fixture with a colorful glass shade, while fabric-covered rectangular or drum-shaped fixtures are great transitional lighting elements that can work with most interior looks.

Slideshow: Trending Now: Pendant Lighting

Also, think about where the fixture will be placed. Pendants over dining tables offer the greatest potential for a dramatic statement. Hanging them in a group? Then a subtle, compact fixture might be more appropriate.

When choosing multiple fixtures to place over a bar or countertop, consider what is commonly known as “The Rule of Three,” which calls for three identical fixtures to establish a rhythm and sense of balance (patterns of odd numbered elements being more pleasing to the human eye). And if most of your furniture is boxy in shape, consider choosing a round or cylindrical fixture as a counterpoint, or vice versa.

2. What size and scale should I choose?
Pendant fixtures look best when their size and scale is in harmony with the size and scale of the room and its furnishings. A band of pendants running the length of a kitchen bar or countertop should be at least 10″ smaller in diameter than the width of the counter. Why? To leave headroom for anyone seated beneath.

A massive dining room can handle a massive pendant or chandelier, while a compact breakfast nook needs a smaller-scale fixture in keeping with its size.

In general, however, bigger is better with pendants if your goal is to make a powerful visual statement. Diminutive pendants lose their impact among other room elements. So long as you follow the headroom rule above, opt for the biggest pendant that will work in your context. Just be careful not to produce a barrier effect between one side of the counter or table and the other.

Another approach for choosing the size of a pendant or chandelier in a foyer is to simply add the room’s dimensions together and change the total from feet to inches. For example, if your foyer is 11’ by 14’, add 11 plus 14 to get 25. The proper pendant or chandelier size chandelier would be 25″ in diameter.

Pendant Lighting Ideas - Innerlace3. What is the ideal height for a pendant?
There are two approaches to positioning pendants properly over a dining table. One is to hang the bottom rim of the pendant 60″ to 66″ from the floor. The other is to suspend it about 30″ above the table surface. Either approach will yield the same result by providing ample illumination on the table surface while shielding the glare of the light sources from the eyes of diners around the table.

If your ceilings are more than 8′ high, increase the height of the chandelier or pendant 3″ for each additional foot of ceiling height. If a pendant fixture or a series of fixtures is placed over a bar or raised counter, the bottom of the fixture should (ideally) float 30″ above the counter surface, though this may vary depending on the height of the inhabitants or the function of the table or counter surface (desk surfaces, for example, need light positioned about 16″ from the surface). For a pendant in a foyer, suspend the fixture so that its bottom hangs about 7′ from the floor.

4. When should I use multiple pendants in a row?
This is a great option over a very long dining table, or over a kitchen bar or counter. The key to using a collection of pendants in any space is finding balance among all of the other competing elements in the room. In some cases, such as over a short, wide counter in a small room, it may be worthwhile to break the “Rule of Three” and instead use one or two larger pendants to call attention to the bar while keeping the space from looking too busy. When placing pendants in a row, the space between the bulbs or light sources (not the edges of the fixture themselves) should be about 30″ apart.

5. Should I use a dimmer?
It’s always worthwhile to install a dimmer. Not only does it allow you to control the mood and amount of light shed on any given surface or space, it’s also a great way to limit energy consumption and lower your energy bills.

Author Note: Jean Nayar is the author of Detailing Light (The Whitney Library of Design), a book on lighting designed by the country’s most notable architects and lighting designers.

Buyer’s Guide: Engineered Stone Countertops

Beautiful, hygienic, and low-maintenance, engineered stone makes an ideal eco-friendly countertop surface.

Engineered Stone Countertops

Photo: Sliestone

Many Americans nowadays care about making eco-friendly choices. And when it comes to countertops, engineered stone is one of the most environmentally sensitive choices you can make. But this type of surface offers a host of other benefits, too. It’s durable, beautiful, hygienic and easy to care for. We asked Princeton, NJ-based architect Joshua Zinder for his take on this versatile surface. Read on for his insight.

What kind of engineered stone can be used as a countertop?
Most engineered stones are fantastic for high-wear uses such as kitchen countertops. There are a variety of products on the market, including Silestone, Caesarstone, IceStone and many more. The products should be acid-resistant and non-absorptive. The size and types of materials used to make the engineered stone will determine its best uses. For example, an engineered surface with large chunks of marble will be limited in performance to the pieces of marble it contains.

What makes engineered stone good as a countertop surface?
Unlike solid surfacing or plastic laminate, which are temperature-sensitive and can catch fire, engineered stone resists heat well. And unlike some other surfaces—even natural stones—engineered ones resist stains from liquids like wine or coffee.

Engineered StoneWhat are its primary characteristics?
Strong, durable, and attractive, engineered stone is very consistent in look and pattern. It is also heat-resistant and does not accumulate bacteria or mold. The surfaces are easy to maintain, too. They can be specified with bacteria-resistant surfaces, but since they are non-absorptive and resistant to heat anyway, they should not be collecting bacteria in the first place.

What are its pros?
Pros include brute strength and heat resistance, as well as varied colors and styles. Some engineered stone products are made to look like limestone or marble, enabling you to get the look you want but with better performance. If you like using recycled materials or protecting natural resources like real marble, engineered stone counters will do the trick. The products may have natural colors or added colors with various textures. Many contractors are familiar with the products and will install them properly.

Slideshow: 12 Top Names in Engineered Stone

Its cons?
It’s hard to create curves with engineered stone, but as far as typical countertop designs go, there’s nothing you can’t do with these products that you can accomplish with conventional stone. In fact, we’ve pushed the limits with edge and corner details and other shapes in engineered stone materials.

How much does it cost?
Generally about $60-$100/square foot installed.

Why is it so expensive?
With engineered stone, you pay for good performance and a long lifetime. Some colors and patterns are more expensive than others. But some can be quite affordable (I even put one of these in my own house). So it’s expensive but no more so than many natural stone slabs and solid surface materials. It’s definitely more expensive than plastic laminates. But consider this: For years we were specifying white marble with no veins, which looks great but is very expensive. Now to get that white look, we can use engineered stones, which look exactly the same as marble side by side but don’t cost as much. There are lots of suppliers, and the product delivers a consistent look.

What are its installation requirements?
Work with people who know the material, and look for those who are recommended or certified by the material manufacturers.

To see architect Joshua Zinder’s work, click here.

Buyer’s Guide: Granite Countertops

Are granite countertops right for you? Here is some expert advice.

Granite Countertops

Photo: Sophisticated Edge>

Granite. It’s the most popular natural countertop surface for kitchens and baths in America. And for good reason—it’s durable, easy to maintain, and beautiful. It’s also a relatively simple upgrade in an old kitchen that will add value to your home should you choose to sell it. For more insight on this appealing material, we turned to contractor Gencer Hepozden, owner of Perspective Construction in New York City. Read on for his insights on this favored product.

What is granite?
It is a natural, sturdy stone that is more durable than marble.

What makes it so popular? The fact that it is more durable than marble makes it a good choice for kitchen counters. And because granite comes in a wide range of colors, it appeals to most people. In fact, granite is the most sought-after choice of countertop material. The color choices of black pearl and absolute black are widely popular among consumers for use in the bathroom and kitchen, on floors and walls and counters as well.

Modular Granite Countertops Granite Colors What are its primary characteristics?  It comes in a wide range of colors, and a wide range of edge treatments are also available. Compared to marble, it offers a more uniform pattern is more sturdy.

What are its pros?  It is durable, acid-resistant, moisture-resistant and scratch-resistant. Also, it comes in a wide range of colors.

Its cons? It absorbs oils fast, and the lighter colors show stains more than darker ones.

Why is it so expensive? That is a common misconception. Granite is actually inexpensive compared to many other alternatives. Marble, for example, is higher in price, especially due to certain kinds (like White Thassos) not being available. Since marble prices have increased, customers have come to prefer granite. Blue granite is the most expensive.

How much does it cost? The cost of granite can range anywhere from $10 to $170 per square foot. Fabrication and installation costs vary between $40 and $100 per square foot. Elements that reflect on the price include the thickness of the slab, the type of edge treatment, whether or not a backsplash of the same material will be included, and the color of granite (blue being the most expensive).

What are its installation requirements? First the cabinets have to be installed in order for a granite countertop to be templated for a proper fit pre-installation. Once the template is made, the granite is cut to fit and should be installed by a pro to ensure it is level. After installation, granite needs to be sealed. We prefer to use Miracle sealer. The right sealer can make granite oil resistant, too.

How To: Tile a Backsplash

Looking to liven up a dreary kitchen? Consider re-tiling the backsplash—and doing the job yourself.

How to Tile a Backsplash


A tile backsplash adds color, personality, and function to a kitchen. Here’s how to install this relatively easy upgrade yourself:

Decorative tiles
Tape measure
Graph paper
1×2 ledger board
Drill with drill and screwdriver bits
Drywall screws
Sandpaper or pumice stone
Wall tile mastic
Notched trowel
Wide putty knife
Tile spacers
Dry tile cutter
Squeegee or tile float
Joint compound

1. Measure the width and height of the area to be covered with your tiles. Next, determine your tile pattern using graph paper to draw a to-scale outline.

2. Remove the stove and range hood and shut off the power to any outlets or switches and remove the cover plates. Use a level and pencil to mark the baseline of your backsplash. Align the temporary 1×2 ledger board, which will help hold tiles in place during installation, along the baseline. Use a drill to create starter holes for the screws in the board and drive in three or four screws to attach the board to the wall.

3. Measure and mark the visual center point of your layout and use a level to draw a plumb starting line for aligning the tiles vertically. Lay out the tiles on the graph paper pattern on a countertop.

How to Tile a Backsplash - Formattoca


4. Starting at the center of the wall along the ledger board or counter, begin the bottom row of tile by applying tile mastic to a small section of the wall using a grooved trowel. Center the first tile over the vertical line leaving a gap of about 1/8″ at the bottom for a bead of caulk to be applied at the end of the process. Wiggle and press the first tile into place, inserting a temporary 1/8″ spacer vertically next to the tile on either side. Install the second tile in the same manner. Continue installing tiles working away from the centerline.

How to Tile a Backsplash - Switch


5. When you need to cut or trim a tile at the end of a row or around an electrical outlet, cut the tile as you go along using a scoring cutter. Mark the tile where you want to cut it, then place the tile in the tool and score a mark in the tile surface. Then, sharply move the cutter handle to break the tile along the scored line.

6. After all the tiles are installed, let the mastic set up overnight. Mix the grout according to manufacturer’s directions. Then apply the grout over the tiles and press into the gaps using a rubber float and holding it at a 45 degree angle. Wipe off the excess with a wet cloth.

7. Allow the grout to set up for about an hour, then clean off the hazy surface on the tiles with wet sponges, rinsing them regularly as you go. Buff the tiles with a clean dry cloth.

8. Reattach the cover plates over outlets. Apply a bead of caulk (the same color as the grout) along the bottom seam where the backsplash meets counter adjacent to the ledger board. Replace stove and hood. Remove the ledger board, fill in screw holes with joint compound, sand smooth when dry, and touch up wall with paint.

Consider sealing the grout: Grout can stain, particularly in the kitchen, so you might want to consider sealing it. Wait until the grout has totally cured (about a week) and then apply a silicone grout sealer to keep your backsplash looking fresh for years.

Rent rather than buy a tile cutter: You can rent a tile cutter for about $15 or $20 a day or buy one for less than $50.

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How To: Care for Your Grill

Follow these simple steps to keep your grill in tip-top performance shape for the summer.

How to Care for Your Grill


Summertime! The living is easy and—more often than not—the food is grilled. From burgers, dogs, and steaks to chicken, shrimp, and skewered vegetables, grilled and barbecued fare is a summer season essential.

One key to ensuring your foods are grilled to perfection is keeping the grill itself in tip-top shape. A well-maintained grill, whether gas or charcoal, will not only keep your food safe (as well as your home and patio), but will also bring out the best flavors in your favorite marinades and rubs.

Here are seven top expert tips to keep your grill in good form:

1. Start with a good foundation. Place a spatter mat or grill pad beneath your grill before you start cooking. According to Leslie Wheeler, director of communications for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), these naturally heat-resistant pads will protect your deck or patio from drips of grease that miss the drip pan.

2. Observe safety essentials for gas grills. Never force an excess of propane into a liquid propane cylinder. Wheeler notes that, by law, a 20-lb. cylinder may be filled only to 80 percent capacity, leaving room for the liquid to expand. Check for gas leaks every time you disconnect or reconnect the regulator to the cylinder. Inspect hoses for abrasion and leaks before each use, using a soap and water solution (as shown right below), never a flame, to test for leaks. Replace any faulty hoses with a parts replacement kit before operating your grill. Always keep the grill lid open when lighting a gas grill to prevent a flash-off from gas buildup. Do not attach or disconnect an LP cylinder or alter the fittings when the grill is operating or hot.

How to Care for Your Grill - Maintenance


3. Place it properly. Set up your grill in an open, well-ventilated space at least 10 feet from your house. Keep it away from overhead combustible surfaces or dry leaves, and as Wheeler advises, be sure all parts of the grill, including the legs, are firmly in place and stable.

4. Prep the kettle. Before adding the coals to a charcoal grill, Wheeler suggests lining the kettle basin with aluminum foil. Once you’re finished grilling and the coals have cooled, simply wrap up the coals and ash and toss. Then wash the bowl and line it with foil for the next time you cook.

5. Keep the grate spiffed and brushed. Pre-heat your grill to 500-550 degrees to burn any leftover debris into ash, then use a stainless steel bristle brush to remove the ash and debris. A hot grill is always the best for cleaning. (Do not clean the grates right after you grill; food debris and sauces clog up the grill brush.) For a deeper clean, remove the grates when the grill is cool and squirt on a little dishwashing liquid (or place the grates in warm soapy water to cut the grease), then scrub with a wire brush or abrasive pad.

6. Regularly clear away grease and ash. After each use, remove the bottom tray from under a gas grill, place it carefully over a trashcan, and use a plastic scraper to remove excess grease, recommends Weber grilling expert Kevin Koleman. For charcoal grills, remember to empty the ash pans after each, since ashes can absorb moisture and may cause premature rusting of parts.

7. Keep it clean, inside and out. Wipe the outside of a gas grill lid with a paper towel and cleaner (glass cleaner for porcelain-coated lids and stainless steel cleaner for stainless steel lids), advises Kolman. If your grill is stainless steel, you’ll get the best results by buffing with the grain using a microfiber towel. If you notice any grease stains on the outside end caps of the lid or cookbox, clean with warm soapy water, rinse, and dry thoroughly as soon as possible. Never use harsh chemicals or scouring pads—they will damage the stainless steel surfaces of your grill. Koleman also recommends cleaning the outside of your grill every two weeks with a non-toxic, non-abrasive cleaner formulated for use on stainless steel.

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10 Things to Consider Before Buying a Foreclosed Home

A foreclosed home may be a great way to get a sweet deal on a house—but buyer beware!

Buying a Foreclosed Home

Photo: Flickr

With almost a third of the home sales in this country consisting of properties in some stage of foreclosure last quarter, purchasing a foreclosed home is a great way to pick up a terrific deal on a house. But foreclosed homes that have been abandoned or neglected for months—or even years—often come with hidden costs that can turn that bargain into a money pit. Here, a group of experts offer their top tips on steps to take if you’re in the market for a foreclosed home.

1. Invest in a home inspection. “For about $300-$400 dollars, a home inspector can provide a complete report on the structure, mechanical and major components of the home and property,” says Greg Herb, a licensed realtor and owner of Herb Real Estate in Boyertown, Pennsylvania. Charles Gifford, a licensed home inspector and owner of Amerispec in Jacksonville, Florida, agrees, adding that a home inspection by a properly credentialed home inspector will give you “a better picture of what you are buying and provide you with the framework to prioritize your repairs—or to walk away if it’s too much to handle.”

2. Seek out information on the house’s history. Many states require sellers of real property to complete a Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement (SPDS) as a part of any transaction. “The SPDS typically reveals any known material defects related to the property and provides the buyer with a historical perspective of the home, its maintenance, as well as any repairs or additions performed under the previous ownership,” says Herb. Often, however, these statements have certain exclusions, such as when a home is transferred between a husband and wife or between siblings. Another common exclusion is when a third-party seller, such as a bank or lending institution, owns the property as a result of a foreclosure. “When you purchase a foreclosure property from a bank that’s never been in the home, you lose the historical perspective as a buyer,” says Herb, who adds that a home inspection can help you learn about changes that may have occurred over the life of the property.

3. De-winterize the home. According to Gifford, who is also a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), if you plan to purchase a home that’s been unoccupied for several months, “the first thing you should ask is, ‘Are the utilities turned on?’” In foreclosed homes in many parts of the country, “the water is off, traps are filled with environmentally friendly anti-freeze, and water lines may be pressurized with air or blown out and fully drained,” to keep pipes from freezing and breaking, explains Gifford. Prior to a home inspection, the lines will need to be pressure-checked and energized. And, according to Gifford, you may need a licensed electrician to conduct a safety check on the property’s electricity before power is restored. “Each municipality has its own rules,” he says, “and out-of-town buyers may be required to pay a fee to turn on power and things can get complicated if there are three or four utilities to call before you can get everything operating. A good real estate agent should be able to provide you with referrals.”

4. Check for plumbing problems. The most catastrophic problems in abandoned or foreclosed homes are often caused by broken plumbing pipes or leaks. “Sometimes when you dig beneath the surface of a leaky toilet bowl that’s been shoddily repaired you’ll find that you not only have to replace the lead bend, but also whole floors, floor joists, and drywall that’s rotted or contains mold,” says Matthew Barnett, a licensed home inspector and owner of Brooklyn, New York-based Accurate Building Inspectors. An ASHI member, Barnett says controlling a mold problem can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to $20,000-$30,000 or more to repair and replace whole floors and walls made of plaster or drywall.

5. Investigate mechanical, water-heating, and electrical systems. “In abandoned houses with forced-air systems, dirt and debris and even small animals accumulate in the duct work,” says Barnett, “and if humidity has been around boilers or furnaces for long periods of time, the heat exchangers can corrode and you’ll need to replace them altogether.” This can cost between $3,000-$5,000, he says, depending on the type of system you’ll need. “Some utilities won’t light the pilot light of gas systems if the filters are dirty for fire safety,” adds Andrea Johnson, a Portland, Oregon-based licensed real estate broker and founding member and partner of U.S. REO Partners. This means you’ll need to assume the cleaning expense to test whether they’re operable.

Buying a Foreclosed Home - Signage

Photo: Flickr

6. Look for signs of deferred maintenance. “When owners simply give up and stop taking care of their home, there will be lots of maintenance issues, like the need to clean the gutters, clear debris off the roof, cut back overgrown vegetation, and caulk/seal tile in showers and tubs,” says Gifford, who adds that in certain distressed areas it isn’t uncommon to find that appliances, condensing units, and ceiling fixtures have been removed altogether. According to Barnett, “cheap repairs, like using duct tape or plumber’s putty over a leaking pipe or unprofessional wiring of a fan” can also lead to deeper problems, like mold or fire hazards, which may require costly fixes down the line.

7. Check for foundation cracks, roof, leaks and other exterior damage. “We tend to see it all—bad roofs, structural issues, water damage, and other big-ticket repair items,” says Gifford. “In arid climates, like Texas, the foundations of houses need to be watered or they can crack and ruin the house,” adds Johnson. For a home with a pool, Barnett recommends contacting a pool service to be sure the underground piping and equipment isn’t cracked or clogged. “A normal house inspection will cover the general condition of the pumping and filtering, the patio area, coping stones, and skimmers, but a pool service can try to get the system up and running to see if there’s any significant equipment damage,” he says. If there’s a problem, the owner may give you credit to get it running properly again.

8. Conduct a sewer scope. Especially for homes more than 20 years old, Johnson suggests investing in a sewer inspection. “Lines can be broken by tree roots,” she says, “or they may not be properly connected to public systems.” The lines may also be rotted, clogged, or damaged. A plumbing company can snake a video camera through the line to determine its condition.

9. Resolve any liens. “Many municipalities have regulations regarding the maintenance of properties,” says Herb. “If a bank owns a property, it will generally keep a lawn cutting schedule, but if it fails to do so, the municipality can place a lien on the property if it has to come in and maintain the lawn itself,” he says. “Any number of other liens may have been placed on the property by unpaid contractors, utilities, homeowners associations, and the like,” says Johnson. Prior to closing on a property, you’ll need to make sure all liens are thoroughly investigated by you and a title officer and remedied before title can be conveyed from the previous owner to you.

10. Re-key all the locks. “A lot of houses are on a master key system,” says Johson. “That means countless brokers, contractors, appraisers, and other people could have that key.” If you purchase a foreclosed home, she advises protecting yourself and your property by immediately installing new locks with new keys throughout before you move in.

About the author: Jean Nayar is a licensed real estate agent with Bond New York and the author of several books on decorating and design, including The Happy Home Project (Filipacchi Publishing), which was released this June.

Buyer’s Guide: Wood Countertops

Unsure whether wood countertops are a good fit for your home? An expert weighs in.

Wood Countertops

Photo: Texas Treads

When it comes to naturally beautiful countertops, it’s hard to beat the warmth and character of wood. Before you opt for wood as a counter surface, though, it’s helpful to know its benefits and drawbacks. To gain a deeper understanding of the material’s pros and cons, we reached out to New York architect Andrew Franz for his insight. Read on to find out if wood countertops are the right choice for you.

What woods can be used for countertops?
While maple and bamboo may be the most popular species on account of their availability and sustainability, many hardwoods are equally well-suited for countertops. A lot has to do with the look and use or regional preferences. Local woods, such as mesquite in the Southwest, can perform just as well as black walnut or cherry. Many FSC-certified or reclaimed woods are also good choices and meet LEED certification guidelines for sustainability. Softwoods like pine are generally not appropriate or high-performing.

Related: 12 Wow-Worthy Woods for Kitchen Countertops

What makes wood a good countertop material? 
It is readily available and sustainable and comes in an endless variety of colors, species, shapes and finishes. It’s warmer to the touch than any other counter surface. It can be cut, fabricated, and installed easily by a carpenter, so it may be less expensive and faster to procure and install than stone and solid surface alternatives. The color and character improve with age. And it can be sanded, refinished, and touched up with relative ease.

What are its pros?
You can cut and eat and do almost anything on it. It’s also quieter; you won’t hear banging or clinking sounds when pans or glasses are placed on it (and breakage is less likely should glasses or other items fall). Wood is not vulnerable to citrus, as some stones are, and many species are naturally heat-resistant.  When properly sealed, it also offers natural, anti-bacterial benefits.  Lastly, with so many looks—striped, end-grain cubes, solid tops with “live edge” detailing—wood countertops are as comfortable in modern kitchens as they are in traditional ones.

Its cons?
The best finishes are the natural ones that require oiling 2-3 times a year—or more. Some people don’t like so-called live finishes. Wood must also be kept dry around sink areas and after spills.

What about cost?
Well-fabricated solid butcher block or wood countertops are made to order and use high-grade woods that have been dried and sorted for long wear. All surfaces must be carefully finished with multiple coats of oil or sealer prior to installation to prevent damage from water or heat. Cost of materials is in the range of $50-$100 per square foot, but this price varies depending on location and species.  Talk to a reputable installer to get more detailed information.

Click here to see a dozen examples of wood species appropriate for countertop applications.

Want more? Check out our buyer’s guide to Granite Countertops.

Free-Standing Tubs: Pros and Cons

Cast iron tub with claw feet. Photo:

To take the edge off the pressures of daily life, many Americans are cultivating ways to relax and de-stress in their own homes by turning their bathrooms into spa-like sanctuaries. New bathroom technologies—from steam showers, body sprays, and hydro-massage shower heads to towel warmers, chromatherapy components, and radiant-heat floors—have emerged in recent years to soothe tired muscles, relax the body, and calm the mind.

Related: Free-Standing Tubs: Soaking Up the Luxury

Central to many of today’s spa-inspired baths are freestanding soaking tubs, which have replaced the Jacuzzis and sunken garden bathtubs that were ubiquitous in design a few years ago. These old-style soaking tubs forego the noise and vigor of bubbling jets in favor of a deep, quiet soak. The tubs also come in a wide range of materials and finishes, such as wood, copper, and enamel, and often feature accents like old-fashioned claw feet or organic, modern shapes.


Kaya free-standing resin tub at Signature Hardware

According to New York designer Kent Brasloff, vice president of programs for the New York chapter of the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA), free-standing tubs have largely been a high-ticket item but are now appearing more and more in the middle market. “For those with the additional space, they make a nice change by adding a sculptural element,” says Brasloff, who notes that these tubs are generally better in a non-urban environment due to space and weight restrictions. “This type of tub is a tricky fit in apartments, but in larger condos and single-family homes they can add a feeling of luxury and the sophistication of ‘spa,’” he says.

Brasloff suggests choosing a tub made of a material suitable for your space. Cast iron tubs are extremely heavy, for example, while those made of resin and fiberglass can be light by comparison. “Cast iron, however, retains heat better than any other product on the market and is available in a wide range of colors—it is also among the best at resisting scratching, fading, and chipping,” Brasloff notes. “Fiberglass, on the other hand, is the least expensive option with regard to price and is very easy to install,” although fiberglass products have a “higher risk of scratching and fading, as well as cracking.”

Herbeau Medicis tub in weathered copper and satin nickel. Photo:

Acrylic tends to crack and discolor over time but does provide a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, pleasing to many tastes and wallet-friendly, Brasloff adds. “Wood and stone are both bold choices that make a distinctive style statement, yet both reflect top-of-the-market pricing and require a high level of maintenance to retain their beauty.”

Relatively new to the market are solid surface materials that retain heat well; come in an endless variety of shapes, sizes, and colors; and can be easily repaired. “Prices for these tend toward the high end,” says Brasloff. “And you can also expect fairly long lead times with this product.”

Old-fashioned copper and brass tubs conduct heat at extremely high temperatures, are high-maintenance and extremely expensive, but they can offer either vintage or contemporary decorative impact and provide a stunning focal point.

Browse ten top bathtub models in our gallery Free-standing Tubs: Soaking up the Luxury

For more on bathroom remodeling, consider:

Spa-Oritize Your Home Bath
Bob Vila Radio: Bathtubs
Bathroom Essentials: Tubs, Showers, and Sinks