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Pet Friendly Home by Homecheck

For many, welcoming a pet into the home is as joyous and significant as bringing home a new baby from the hospital.

For many, welcoming a pet into the home is as joyous and significant as bringing home a new baby from the hospital. Pets easily find their way into our hearts with their playful antics and friendly companionship. When you decide you are ready for the responsibility of caring for a pet, it is imperative that you are willing to make adjustments to your living space. Preparing your home, pantry, and yard for your new pet is important to their well being and your ease of mind. This article offers pointers to those who are considering adopting a companion animal, or those who already have pets. Although the article focuses primarily on cats and dogs, many of the tips will work for most four legged friends. The tips may seem like common sense, but it may slip your mind to check for commonplace hazards when a new pet is underfoot exploring its' new surroundings. Many times we take for granted that things are safe or would be of no interest to animals. However, that adorable puppy running down the hall with toilet paper streaming behind him would beg to differ! Part I: Preparing Your Home Woman with dog on couchWhen bringing a new pet home, the last thing anyone wants to think about is cleaning and proofing their home. However, taking a little time to do so will prevent headaches and possible heartaches. It will keep your pet, your prized possessions, and your sanity intact. This is true whether you are bringing home a new pet or adjusting an older one to a new home. Or, perhaps you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of losing possessions to a pet who has never had boundaries set up in the home. Whatever your reason, these tips will help proof your home for the new, old, and mischievous pets in your life. Think Below the Knees Get down on all fours and look around at the same level as your pet. There is a whole other world down at their viewpoint! Think low! Remove objects on low shelves, coffee tables, and anywhere else that is easy access. Anything destructible, such as paper, books, anything made of cloth (i.e. laundry). It is much easier to 'chew train' a pet if they do not learn a bad habit of "where to look" for destructible goodies when you aren't looking. Also think about food and snacks. Don't leave pop cans, candy wrappers, crumbs or anything else on a low counter. Leaving out these delicious tidbits can easily lead to "counter surfing". Since kittens and ferrets may actually have the ability to walk on your counters, make certain to keep an eye on them when cooking. You may have food on the counter and the stove burners on - both can be dangerous. If you are a messy chef you may have a very happy kitty, but it could be dangerous if you don't keep an eye on them! Speaking of food and snacks, make sure if you have smaller pets, like mice, that they are out of reach to your new puppy or kitten. Don't forget your fish - sometimes the idea that the aquarium is invincible can be tested. Smokers - do not leave cigarette butts where pets may reach them. If eaten it can lead to nicotine poisoning and the filters aren't good on the digestive system. Children's toys can be great fun for pets too! Make sure your kids realize they may loose their toy if it is left out and unattended. Also many toys may have small parts or can be easily broken into small parts by your pet which can be dangerous. Overall keep you place picked up of daily messes. For example: Newspaper whether read or not is still fun to shred and eat. (Same goes for the mail!) Just got home from shopping? Put away the bags! Plastic bags can be either chewed and swallowed (pups) or can suffocate some pets accidentally (kittens & ferrets). Sometimes pets will eat something that will require surgery to remove. Small objects to watch out for include rubber bands, balloons, beads, buttons, Q-tips, sewing needles, thread, staples, string, pantyhose and coins - to name a few! Medication should never be left around the house. Make sure it is secure - just like with children! Keep heating vents covered. Many pets love to snuggle up to these and you don't want your pet falling in. Smaller pets like ferrets should be blocked off from holes and other hideaways - you don't want them to find a comfy spot and not come out! Also be certain to check under recliners before moving them as your pet may find it a nice place to hide out. Plants should be moved to higher ground or blocked. Watch out for vine plants that your pet might grab and bring the whole thing down. * Some household plants are poisonous to pets. Here are a few: aloe verra, amaryllis, caladium, holly berries, lilies, mistletoe, mums, and poinsettias. For a complete listing check out the Poisonous Plants resource links. Playtime Unless they are sleeping, or eating, they are playing!! Some tips to make this non-stop action fun and safe for both of you! Keep an eye on your pet at play with certain toys. Some toys don't hold up to your pets hunting prowess and become shredded in no time. Toys with squeakers are fun but many pets will work hard to remove them if your not watching. Just keep in mind if you are in the other room, you may never see them devour their cut up prey! A solution would be have toys for when you can see them and more durable toys for when they are in the yard, other room, or you are not at home. Also watch older toys. If they don't fall apart they may actually be warn into sharp edges, don't let your pet play with damaged toys, they can cut themselves easily. Look before you step when playing with all our small pets. Try this pattern "Turn, Look, Step" Some small animals such as rabbits are chewers and it normal to give them various chew toys such as: Cardboard boxes, empty oatmeal containers, bird toys, cardboard paper towel rolls, things to shred. Try to keep them away from your wooden furniture - they love wood! Instead wood sticks are available at pet stores. Road Blocks If they can't reach it, they can't eat it, scratch it, or all out destroy it! Don't forget the garbage! Take the garbage outside or make sure you can close it away in a closet/room where pets cannot reach it. Not only will they make a mess rifling through all the goodies they can also hurt themselves if there are any rough objects they rifle through. Keep some rooms closed. It is perfectly reasonable for there to be certain rooms that pets may not visit unless supervised. One obvious choice would be the bathroom (remember that puppy running down the hall with toilet paper - cute - but after the 20th time said pup turns from cutie to lil'-demon). If you don't have a door to a particular area look into getting a child gate or blocking it off with other materials. If you have a mixture of pets you may not want them to be able to access certain areas of each others space. A prime example is keeping kitty litter from dogs, some seem to find the "deposits" tasty snacks. In this instance you can set up a roadblock for the dog that the cat can still easily climb over. If your pet is especially good with its nose or paws you may want to get childproof latches. They will work well to keep them out of lower cabinets in your home. Keep the lid down on the toilet, especially if you use strong cleaners. Small, curious pets may fall in and pets taking a drink can be poisoned by cleaners - some of them even contain anti-freeze! Speaking of cleaners, here are some examples of cleaners that are really dangerous to your pets (to name a few!): ammonia, bleach, disinfectants, drain cleaner, oven cleaner, paint, rat/bug poison. Keep electric cords out of reach or secure them to baseboards. When first home keep an eye on where your pet is at all times. Some may try chewing on the cords. You can deter this with a taste deterrent like "Bitter Apple", a mix of vinegar and water, or hot sauce. Or even better, block access to them altogether. Speaking of cords, watch those drapery cords as well. Tie them up so all your window treatments aren't pulled to the ground. Many animals are attracted to fire. The light of a candle or the heat of a fireplace will peak their interest. Make sure candles are never left unattended. For the fireplace make sure Fluffy knows just how close they are allowed to get for a good snooze - warm is good, singed is bad. Keep the upstairs windows and any cellar doors shut. Young pets are just like children with their curiosity but can easily misstep and fall. Be careful when working in the garage. It is best to keep them out and make sure you clean up thoroughly! Such toxins like anti-freeze are very lethal to pets - a drop the size of a dime can be lethal! (You hear a lot about anti-freeze, not only is a small amount incredibly lethal, anti-freeze is also sweet smelling and tasting to pets - they will seek it out!!) Watch our for open dresser drawers, closets and other nice dark places, kittens are especially curious and many are drawn to these make-shift dens. Have you heard about the kitten jumping in the dryer? Its not a urban legend, be alert and check before you shut the door. Another warm place kittens like to snuggle is on a car engine. If your kitten has access to your car (or the neighborhood cat for that matter) it may help pound on the hood of your car and honk you horn. If you don't want to do this every day try to limit access to your car. One of my favorite words of advice when watching out for the sleeping kitten: "Locate your kitten before you sit down on the sofa or use the recliner." (Of course, depending on your house rules, that may go for your other pets too!) Holiday Playground The holidays are fun for everyone - including your pets! Decorations should be up high or in rooms that pets have limited access. Any holiday lights should be treated the same as other electrical cords. Get it out of the way or secured so your pets don't accidentally trip over them. Also keep a lookout and make sure they do not chew on them; again a taste deterrent like "Bitter Apple" will work. Other holiday items to keep from you pets include: metal ornament hooks, popcorn strands, tinsel, angel hair (it is spun glass), and decorative artificial snow or tree flocking - to name a few. Don't forget that holiday plants like holly berries, mistletoe, and poinsettias are poisonous! Fourth of July fireworks are fun for us but many pets find all the racket frightening. One suggestion is to have treats nearby and give them treats whenever there is "Boom!" so they associate the noise with happier things (mostly used for dogs). Another thing to keep in mind if you are leaving for the festivities, don't leave pets alone out in the backyard. They may panic and do things they normally wouldn't do like digging their way out! Many holidays include house guests that are not familiar with your pet or household rules. After introducing your guest to your pet, make certain you let your guests know not to leave doors open, feed table scraps or any other important household rules. If there are a lot of guests you may want to arrange a quiet place for your pet to retreat. Home Alone What do they do when you leave the home? Preferably it doesn't involve eating the couch! Before you leave for a long day at work it is important your pet is calm. For dogs a good walk in the morning may be necessary. For cats a little play time will help with bonus energy. Teach your pet tricks and have them perform for you before you head out. Our pets sleep more then we do and getting rid of morning energy will help them settle for a nap while your out earning money to spend on them. If you have a really active breed you may want to look into a dog daycare or walking service for a couple days out of the week. Taking your dog to a pet daycare is like taking them to camp. They get to romp with other dogs and usually come home tired and ready for a good night sleep. Many find that a few days out of the week is enough to hold them over on the days in-between. Crates can be lifesaver when you are gone. If you have pet that is still undergoing training and is not sure of all the rules, a crate or restricted room is a must. Cautionary tale on the restricted room - we placed one of our pups in a room in our house as we went out to get a bite to eat. There was no furniture in the room except for her crate with her toys. When we came back she had climbed the crate and chewed the metal blinds on the window and also proceeded to dig up part of the carpet! Part II: Preparing Your Pantry Your kitchen is not only the place where you prepare your family's meals and sometimes serve them, but it is also the most widely used area in the home chosen by pet owners to feed their pets. U.S. consumers spend more than $11 billion a year on cat and dog food, according to the Pet Food Institute. And pet food manufacturers compete for these dollars by trying to make their products stand out among the many types of dry, moist, and semi-moist foods available. Pet food packaging carries such descriptive words as "senior," "premium," "super-premium," "gourmet," and "natural." These terms, however, have no standard definition or regulatory meaning. But other terms do have specific meanings, and pet foods, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), must carry certain information on their labels. Consumers can be confident that their pets are eating a nutritionally sound food if they understand the full significance of these labels. Pet Food Safety When determining your pets diet, be sure to verify that all foods have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine. Food & Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine http://www.fda.gov/cvm/default.html Menu Foods Pet Food Recall http://www.menufoods.com/recall/ Pet Food Recall Frequently Asked Questions http://www.fda.gov/cvm/MenuFoodRecallFAQ.htm Table Manners Don't feed table scraps to your pets. Many times people don't realize that some foods okay for us can be toxic or hard on the system for animals. Some foods to be aware of: Alcohol Chicken & Turkey Bones Nutmeg Apples (stems & seeds) Chocolate Onion Apricots (seeds) Coffee (grinds & beans) Peaches (seeds) Avocados Dairy Products (large amounts) Pears Baking Powder Fatty Foods Plums Baking Soda Garlic Potatoes (peelings & green) Broccoli (large amounts) Grapes Raisins Cherries (stems & seeds) Macadamia Nuts Yeast **Tobacco, although not a food, ingestion can be poisonous Part III: Preparing Your Yard Kitten on wagon wheel in garden Your yard should be a fun and safe place for your pet to enjoy the outdoors, and maintaining it to prevent hazards is relatively easy. Although the outdoors may not be suitable for some pets, such as birds, mice, and rabbits, and those who stay in pens or restricted kennels/runs may not be able to enjoy your yard to its fullest extent, the tips below will address pets that have more freedom. These pets roam a fenced backyard or prowl around the perimeter of your house (i.e. small dogs & cats). Read on for a checklist of ways to make your yard safe and entertaining for your pets. Yard Maintenance When maintaining your yard you want to keep your pets in mind. When working on the yard keep pets indoors. Our dogs like to chase the lawnmower - bad idea - so they now watch from inside. Some pets may be just the opposite and try either to attack the mower or try to escape in a panic - equally bad idea. Besides the lawnmowers, trimmers, leaf blowers, chainsaws, and other loud tools should not be used when pets are around. Be careful with other tools such as shovels, rakes, spades, etc. Some pets may try to "help" you do the yard work and can inadvertently be struck by these items. Review the chemicals you use on your yard. Weed killers, bug killers/bait and other chemicals can be poisonous to your pets as well. Some you may still be able to use, however, you may need to let the yard sit for x amount of hours before letting your pets back out. Symptoms of poisoning usually include: vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes convulsions or unconsciousness. Keep your yard clean of waste. Especially with puppies, they can get in the habit of eating their waste. Besides, you will both enjoy your yard much better if it is not covered in poo mines! For cats you should have an outdoor litter box. This will be easier to clean and prevent the cat from laying waste to your (or your neighbor's) flowerbeds. Remove any ladders, tools or stacked piles (i.e. wood), etc. that young pets may try to climb or knock over. If you do keep the stacks in your yard, check that they are secure and cannot roll onto your pet. Consider carefully what you plant in your yard. Plants that can cause complications include: Rhododendron, Japanese Yew, Lilly of the Valley, Peach and Cherry Trees (pits) to name a few. See our links to Poisonous Plants for more details. You may want to try to keep your yard clear of the bee family by getting rid of nests on your property. Your dog cannot escape bees flying through the yard, but cutting down their numbers may help. All dogs are naturally allergic to bee stings. Depending on the location of the sting they may have to visit the vet for medication. If it is on the mouth/head it can lead to swelling and difficulty breathing. The Kingdom Your pets will make your yard into their own domain. Make sure their kingdom is safe and enjoyable. Check the fence of the yard for holes or gaps that may be an easy escape. Make sure your gates are locked and secured and guests and children know to do so as well. It is best not to have any young pets around water unattended. If you have a pool or pond make sure to watch them around this area carefully. Some trainers even suggest teaching pets how to get out of the pool or pond early on, sort of a "Swimming 101" for the pet in case they get into trouble when your back is turned. If your pet does get into a pool, make sure they get a bath so none of the harsh chemicals can effect their skin and coat. Most pets are sun lovers. If your pet likes to "sunbathe" keep an eye that they don't get too hot. Signs of heat exhaustion include: restlessness, panting excessively and drooling. The worst case scenario is the pet collapsing and eventually falling into a coma. To counter it, wrap them in a damp cool (not cold) towel and go to your vet or animal hospital. In hot weather keep plenty of water. Refresh and refill it often. If you keep food outside as well make sure it does not sit too long. The heat may cause it to spoil and flies may contaminate it. Make sure you have shade in your yard. You may even want to add a structure such as a doghouse for your pup to rest Ask your vet to recommend a flea & tick prevention plan right for your pet. Depending on how much your pet is outside, where it goes, etc. you may need more preventive tools. It is imperative you ask your vet as many medicinal solutions are measured by your pets size, weight, age, etc. Your pet may like to make or find a burrow to rest in. Block off crawl spaces under sheds or decks. You don't want them to get trapped or hurt by any debris you cannot see underneath. Ideas for your Pet Friendly Yard Below are just a few ideas of things you may do to improve your yard for your pet. Placing markers around your yard for your dog to potty on or for your cat to scratch on can help save some of your other trees. Start by blocking the trees you want to save and place toys or treats by the markers you want them to use. Eventually you can train you pet to have a habitual like for that particular log(s)! Prepare digging spots for your pets. For your dog it can be a small area of dirt and sand where you keep toys to encourage him to be there. For cats you can have one container/pot with catnip or another enticement. By keeping them interested in their designated digging spot they will learn to have fun there and leave the rest of your yard alone (most of the time!). If you don't want your dog in your flower bed try a wooden or stone fence. Some dogs will learn to stay out of the area due to the road block, however you may need to supplement the roadblocks with additional training. Dogs are going to do their rounds around "their" territory. This will leave worn paths in the grass. You may want to lay a nice stone path on their route to beautify it. Continuing with a dogs tendency to make paths, for smaller yards you can make a maze path for them. Using placing flowerbeds and other structures you can create a winding route for them for their territorial routine. Conclusion Pets are a wonderful addition to the family and home. Taking time to prepare your home, pantry, and yard will make both of your lives a lot easier. It may seem like a daunting task at first, however, your pet will soon learn the house rules. You may even be able to reclaim certain areas of the house as your own once your pet matures and understands not to destroy your possessions. You, too, will learn a thing or two and will begin to naturally watch out for potential pet hazards. Eventually you won't even realize your new habits. It is simply part of the lifestyle change that happens when you adjust your life to accommodate animals in your home. Just remember to be pro-active, and you'll have far fewer headaches in the long run, with great company and lots of fun! Useful Links! | Adopt a Pet | Animal Care | Dangerous Foods | Find a Vet | | Pet Insurance | Poisonous Plants | Selecting Food | | Just for Fun | Adopt a Pet AdoptAPet.com www.adoptapet.com Millions of young, healthy, beautiful companion animals are euthanized needlessly each year because there are too many pets and not enough homes or people interested in providing food, water, shelter, medical care and LOVE to these animals. Use these resources to unite animals with loving homes. American Kennel Club www.akc.org The American Kennel Club, a not-for-profit organization established in 1884, maintains a purebred dog registry, sanctions dog events and promotes responsible dog ownership. Petfinder.com www.petfinder.org Search 193,550+ adoptable pets with our advanced search or our Quick Search. Locate shelters and rescue groups currently caring for adoptable pets. Browse our resource library and learn more about how to care for your pet. Post classified ads for lost or found pets, pets wanted, and pets needing homes. Sign up to be a volunteer to help your local shelter or rescue group. Animal Care Doctors Foster & Smith Pet Care www.drsfostersmith.com At Drs. Foster & Smith we care about the health & safety of your pet. That's why we've developed this resource for pet owners like you. Healthy Pet www.healthypet.com The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) is an international association of more than 33,000 veterinary care providers who treat companion animals. Established in 1933, AAHA is well known among veterinarians and pet owners for its standards for hospitals and pet health care. PetEducation.com www.peteducation.com Fulfilling their commitment to provide pet owners with trustworthy pet care information, every Drs. Foster & Smith catalog contains up to 30 articles written by the doctors about the health and care of pets. Veterinary Partner www.veterinarypartner.com VeterinaryPartner.com is here to support your veterinarian and you in the care of your companion animals by providing reliable, up-to-date animal health information from the veterinarians and experts of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), the world's first and largest online veterinary database and community. Dangerous Foods PetEducation.com www.peteducation.com - Dogs, Cats Some foods which are edible for humans, and even other species of animals, can pose hazards for dogs because of their different metabolism. PetPlace.com http://petplace.netscape.com/ Americans spend over $10 billion dollars on pet food for our pets. Despite buying the best food available, some pets would rather eat what we eat. However, certain foods can be dangerous to your pet causing varying degrees of illness. Some food is toxic due to ingredients and some by improper cooking, storage or poor hygiene. Find a Vet Healthy Pet www.healthypet.com Use Healthypet's Hospital Locator to find a veterinary hospital near you or nearly anywhere you want to go! VetLocater http://vetlocator.petplace.com/ Access to over 26,000 veterinary clinics in the United States and 2,400 veterinary clinics in Canada. Pet Insurance Pet Assure www.petassure.com Pet Assure, headquartered in Lakewood, New Jersey, is the nation's premier pet health care organization with thousands of veterinarians in 46 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Conceived in 1996, the company mandate is to enable pet owners to obtain quality care for their extended family members, at an affordable price. PetCare Pet Insurance www.petcareinsurance.com PetCare Pet Insurance Programs start at under $10/month. It's a small investment that will help you prepare for a secure and happy life for both you and your pet VPI Pet Insurance www.petinsurance.com From unexpected illnesses and accidents to routine care for your dog or cat, we recommend the VPI Superior Plan and Vaccination & Routine Care Coverage. For those who want minimum coverage we also offer the VPI Standard Plan. Poisonous Plants American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) http://www.aspca.org Please note that the information contained in our plant lists is not meant to be all-inclusive, but rather a compilation of the most frequently encountered plants. For general information on plants not included on either list, please feel free to contact us at napcc@aspca.org. Cornell University www.ansci.cornell.edu/plants/ This is a growing reference that includes plant images, pictures of affected animals and presentations concerning the botany, chemistry, toxicology, diagnosis and prevention of poisoning of animals by plants and other natural flora (fungi, etc.). Cyber Canine www.cybercanine.com/toxicplants.htm Here are some of the toxic plants you should keep away from your pets. If you suspect that your dog might have eaten any plant that might be toxic, contact his/her vet immediately. Many common house and garden plants can be toxic to animals if swallowed. The symptoms can be diarrhea, nausea, or skin allergies. Veterinary Medicine Library www.library.uiuc.edu/vex/toxic/intro.htm This database was created by Mitsuko Williams (Veterinary Medicine Librarian, 1983-2003) in order to assist the University of Illinois veterinary students in identifying common plants that are toxic to animals. This database brings together information available in library books, plants grown in the Poisonous Plant Garden, mounted specimens of plants, and the reference notes for a toxicology course (VB320) which is taught during the fall semester each year. Selecting Food Animal Protection Institute www.api4animals.org/689.htm Commercial pet food is a great convenience for busy caregivers. You want the best for your companion animals, but with a bewildering array of foods and claims to choose from, how do you decide what's best for your animals? US Drug & Food Administration www.fda.gov U.S. consumers spend more than $11 billion a year on cat and dog food, according to the Pet Food Institute. And pet food manufacturers compete for these dollars by trying to make their products stand out among the many types of dry, moist, and semi-moist foods available. Pet food packaging carries such descriptive words as "senior," "premium," "super-premium," "gourmet," and "natural." These terms, however, have no standard definition or regulatory meaning. But other terms do have specific meanings, and pet foods, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), must carry certain information on their labels. Consumers can be confident that their pets are eating a nutritionally sound food if they understand the full significance of these labels. Just for Fun Neopets www.neopets.com Neopets® is the greatest Virtual Pet Site on the Internet. With your help, we have built a community of over 70 million virtual pet owners across the world! Neopets has many things to offer including over 160 games, trading, auctions, greetings, messaging, and much much more. Best of all, it's completely FREE!

Mold and mildew in older HVAC systems

Air conditioning systems should keep us comfortable and mildew free.

In South Carolina where the summers are hot and humid, We rely on our air conditioning systems to keep us comfortable and keep the inside of our houses dry and mildew free. A great many homes in this area have what is commonly known as a Gas Pack system with an air conditioning condenser unit on the outside of the house, and a gas furnace and air conditioning evaporator coil in the crawl space under the house. The evaporator coil becomes very cold, and air that passes over it is cooled and looses its moisture in the form of condensation. This process cools and dries the air in your home so that you feel comfortable. In a very humid climate, the amount of condensation can be considerable. This moisture typically drains into a pan under the coil and is then either pumped or drained by gravity out of the crawl space and away from the structure. If the drain line becomes clogged, or the pump fails, or a pipe fitting comes loose, water backs up in the tray and/or drains onto the crawl space floor. Standing water in a dark, hot and humid crawl space is an invitation for mold and mildew to form. Many older HVAC systems are not airtight and allow crawl space air to enter the system, and where the condensation drainage is interrupted, mold and mildew can be pulled into your HVAC system. If, during an inspection, I find a broken, leaking or obstructed drain line, I report it to the home owner with a recommendation to have it repaired. It’s not a bad idea to have an annual heating and air conditioning check up, and to ask the technician to pay careful attention to the drain pan and pipes, and to make sure that the ductwork is in good condition with no splits, holes or gaps. If you suspect mold, contact a certified mold inspector.

Landscape Your Paradise

How to Select a Landscape Designer

Both the front and back yards of our house offer a buffer between our home and the outside world. Often, especially in the case of backyards, they may be manipulated into a sanctuary outside, giving us a place to relax and enjoy the outdoors at home. Many weekend warriors find outdoor projects fun and rewarding challenges for their spring through fall months. However, sometimes an idea may be too grand or a space too oddly shaped for us to visualize how to put it all together. This is where a landscape designer** may be helpful. These professionals are the "exterior decorators" of the outdoors. They can help in a wide range of outdoor projects whether it be redesigning a whole yard or helping incorporate one feature into your greater masterpiece. They also have an extensive knowledge of plants that will help you find the right color and texture for your yard with a plant that will be happy in that area's light and soil conditions. Before hiring a landscape designer, you should first consider what you want to get out of your yard/project. After this you can begin interviewing different landscape designers to find one that will work with your ideas. **Frequently today the terms landscaper, landscape designer, landscape architect, landscape contractor are used synonymously. For ease we have chosen to use landscape designer as a "Jack/Jill of all trades" in this article. Keep in mind that these professionals may use the different titles. Also, keep in mind that sometimes your project will require a team of landscape professionals as they may be more specialized. For example, you may hire one landscaper who does only pre-design of the project and hires out the labor to another contractor. Contents: Introduction Part I: Determining Your Yard Project Part II: What to Look for in a Landscape Designer Conclusion Extra! Follow Up: How to Hire for Landscape Maintenance Part I: Determining Your Yard Project Worker with wheelbarrow full of toolsOne of the major hurdles to your landscape design or redesign will be deciding on what you want to change. Many times the change options can be overwhelming. However, if you concentrate on limitations and functionality of your living space, you will be better prepared to meet with a landscape designer. Here is a basic checklist of things to consider before contacting a landscape designer: The most important first step you can take is to determine your budget. Be honest with yourself and set your limit in advance. Once you get started with a landscape designer it can be tempting to stretch your budget. Your landscape designer will appreciate knowing in advance what budget to work in, and your wallet will too! **To save money, some do-it-yourself warriors may hire a landscape designer for only a plan and do all the physical work themselves. Many landscape designers will do this and include a list of plants and types of building materials for your reference. Knowing your budget in advance may help determine if this is the best option for you. Next you will want to consider your time frame. How quickly do you want things done? Do you need things done by a certain time for an event such as a wedding? Or are you interested in a tackling one area at a time and can spread it out over months or even years? The latter may be considered by those who are interested in purchasing plans but may do most of the physical labor themselves. Consider what will be the function of the landscaped space. Are you interested in a gathering place for entertaining guests; a play area for kids and pets; a private hideaway; or a garden for growing flowers and/or edibles? You may even be interested in a combination of more than one of these uses. Also, if you don't use your back or front yard much now, it may help to consider how a change to the space will make you use it more. Or if you are not interested in using it more, perhaps how a change to the design will help with self-maintenance. After you have considered the function of your new space(s), you will want to consider any of the hardscapes. These are areas such as patios, decks, paths or anything else that may mean putting down cement, wood, pavers, etc. Knowing what you would like to use for some of these areas will help the landscape designer determine cost and possible layouts. There may also be the chance that the landscape designer will need to contract out some of this work and this effect the price and/or the timeline. Think about any particular plants you want to either keep or incorporate into your yard. If you have a tree you want to protect or transplant this can effect design and cost. Or if you want more privacy you may want to consider the growth rate, height and coverage of a particular plant or plant type. Part II: What to Look for in a Landscape Designer After you have considered your budget, timeline, function, etc., you will be prepared to contact landscape designers and start to collect estimates. Like working with any other contractor, you should get at least three or more estimates and compare the landscapers available. Do research, review contracts and credentials and make certain you get all your questions answered. Many landscape design projects will not come cheap, so doing your homework will be worth your time and money. Here are a few things to look for when hiring a landscape designer: You may want to start in locating a landscape designer by asking friends, family and neighbors who may have first hand knowledge of their work. You may also search the phone book or an online database. More and more you may find examples of their work posted on online websites which may help in your initial selection process as well. Finally, check with local nurseries in your area as they will more than likely know quite a few landscape designers (and they might be able to give some "reference" input as to their reputation as well)! When you contact the landscape designer, ask them to come out to your home and view your yard first hand. This way they can get a good idea of the layout of your land and give a more accurate estimate. It is also helpful if you have a list of criteria, gathered during your pre-planning, to give them as a guide to follow. It will also be beneficial to look at a couple of the projects they have done in the past. Preferably they will be projects similar to your project's size and style. Many landscape designers will have pictures available, however, if possible try to see a couple sights in person. Like with any other contractor, you will want to get a bid before moving forward. Again, having a rough outline of what you want to see accomplished will help the bidding process. Ask for references and call them! One of the common errors people make is that they ask for references but then never follow up. Granted, references are rarely dissatisfied customers. But their insight on how the whole project and process worked for them can be invaluable when working out any details for the contract. Review licensing and insurance information. If the landscape designer and their crew will be working on your property, you want to make certain they are covered by their insurance. Also make certain they are going to apply for or help you apply for any needed permits. Any contractor that says, "You don't really need that." should be quickly shown the door! Once you have decided on a landscape designer, get a written contract for the project. This should detail cost, payment agreement (never pay all in advance!), timeline, materials included, labor included and any warranties. Also, consider any changes to the timeline or cost in advance. How much of a delay is acceptable if the weather turns bad? Is there any leeway on material costs? Know the details of any warranty - make sure to determine what is covered under warranty and for how long. What happens if plants die, the fountain breaks, etc.? Who do you contact if your fountain stops working after two years? Detail any sub-contracted areas on your project. Who will be sub-contracted, what will they be expected to do and who will be in charge of resolving any questions if the work is not 100% satisfactory. Consider the size of plants that will be included in the project. Many nursery plants will not see their potential size until later - sometimes years later. Consider if you want to pay more for a more mature sized plant or change the plant chosen due to its size and growth rate. Go over this carefully in advance with your landscape designer! So your yard is perfect. You don't need anyone to change a thing or add anything new. But there is that little task of maintenance. Do you have the time to keep your eden in tip top shape? If not, you may want to consider hiring landscape maintenance. Here are some things to look for when hiring for landscape maintenance: Before you call, make sure to consider exactly what you want to see done. Is it just weeding, mowing and raking? Or do you also need special maintenance for your pond or pool? Also consider a schedule. What tasks should be done on a weekly, monthly or seasonally basis? Ask friends, family and neighbors for references. Check to see if there are already landscapers who come to your neighborhood. Also check with local nurseries. Check the yellow pages or online directories. Get estimates! Have the landscaper come out and see your yard. Give them a list of the exact tasks you want to see done. This way they can better see the size and scope of the projects and give you a better estimate. Ask for references and call them! Check on to see if they are punctual, neat, thorough and easy to work with. Find out if there is anything you should be more specific on in the contract to avoid any miscommunication. Check for business licence and insurance. They will be working on your property, make sure they have their own insurance to cover any accidents. Make sure they are aware of and respect local laws. Are they aware of watering restrictions, burn bans, etc. If this will be a long term agreement, then make certain to get a written contract. Even for a one weekend job you may want to get a contract to make sure there are no questions about what is expected. As with any contract, the more details the better. Specify cost, payment, timelines, warranties and delays in service. Discuss if there is any warranty on their work. If they are taking care of your coy pond and all the fish die, who is responsible? Discuss the types of chemicals they may use on your yard. If you have children and pets playing in the yard there may be certain products you do not want used! Discuss the type of equipment they will use. Do they expect to use any of your equipment? Do they have equipment that is safe and properly running? Keep in mind that working with a landscape maintenance crew can be a dynamic rather than static relationship. Make sure you continue to get good service and communication is open and easy. If at any time you feel you are not getting your moneys worth or being understood, it is time to end the contract. Don't just accept that this is "just how it is" or "they know better than I do." It is a business deal like any other and you should feel comfortable that you are getting the services you pay for. Conclusion It can be fun being the week-end warrior and master of your outdoor domain. However, sometimes the projects you have in mind for your front and/or back yard can be a bit overwhelming. Consider hiring a landscape designer for part or all of the project. You will learn some great design and technique ideas from them and save your back a bit too!

Kitchen Remodel

Hints and Tips

Remodeling your kitchen is a major event. You may be without the room entirely for most of the remodel process. There will be many different contractors and specialists coming in and out of your home. And changes in timelines may happen due to product availability or other unforeseen circumstances. All said, it is a major project that takes careful planning and attention to detail for a satisfactory outcome. Take your time to plan carefully and enlist professional help if you hit a brick wall and don't know how to make certain items or features work. We have given you the short list of some things you will need to consider before and during a kitchen remodel. The Kitchen Remodel List Sink with money going down drainThe Dreaming Stage: Evaluate your needs. What do you want to change about the existing layout, appliances, utility, storage, lighting, flooring, ascetics, etc. Consider how you use your kitchen - where do you prepare meals, cook meals and clean up. How can these used spaces be improved. What will make your ideal kitchen in the space you have available? Do you want to go as far as to restructure walls? Review the three basic layouts for kitchens: U-Shaped, L-Shaped and Galley. Which of these works with your kitchen use? You may also consider the "work triangle" which places the refrigerator, sink and stove in an easily accessible triangle to help optimize your kitchen tasks. Of course with the inclusion of other useful appliances and innovative cabinetry/counter space, you may think outside the triangle. Picture your ideal kitchen and write down the elements it includes. The Reality Stage: Figure out your budget. How much can you afford to spend/finance to make your dream kitchen happen. Do this before any purchases are made or contracts signed. Knowing your budget limitations is a must so you don't get in over your head! Your Timeline: Consider how much time you can be without a kitchen. You may want to plan ahead and have the remodel done when the kids are at college or you are certain not to have house guests, etc. Because of the scope of the remodel, knowing a timeline is essential to preventing some of the headaches involved with not having access to part of your home for weeks or even a month or two! The Design: Now that you have your ideas, budget and timeline, you can contact an interior designer (some are now specialized as kitchen designers) to begin hacking out the reality. Now is when you determine which of these formats will best fit your ideal use of the space. The designer can help you determine how to make all your ideas work with the products available to you at your budget. The Material Breakdown - There are many different types of materials for you cabinets, countertops, floors, etc. Types of Cabinets: Cabinets either come with a framed or frameless design. You can get 'Flat Pack' or the do-it-yourself assembly-required variety, 'Stock' which are limited in size but are fully assembled, 'Built-to-Order' which are made at the factory and shipped and finally 'Custom' that usually include some factory pre-build and more fine tuning on installation. The cabinets can be stained, painted, laminated, and sometimes even made of material other than wood like metal. There are plenty of options to get carried away with. Review the options for the drawers, slide outs and other extras for the interior of you cabinets as well. Determine your style and use of your cabinets and you will still be overwhelmed by the choices! Types of Countertops: Countertops can be natural stone such as granite or marble, sealed surfaces such as laminate or ceramic tiling, or manufactured surface material such as Corian. Laminate and ceramic tiles may offer a project for the do-it-yourselfer, but any of the other products will have to made to order and usually need professional installation to keep the warranty valid. Types of Flooring: Just like any other room in your home, flooring options are endless. However this would not be a room for carpeting! Installing hardwood floors, Pergo flooring, vinyl, or tiles can be a do-it-yourself project or another one you hire out. The Appliance Breakdown - The choices for appliances are abundant. When designing your new kitchen you will want to consider the size and layout of these major items. The layout of everything else in the room will be effected by the appliances you choose. You may decide to include appliances built into the cabinetry or countertop or keep them freestanding. Overall, you are considering your refrigerator, freezer, dish washer, microwave, stove top and oven. The Kitchen Sink - The kitchen sink stands alone as a major item to consider. You may have a double sink, typical for hand washing dishes. You may have more than one sink including one on a workspace island or countertop. You may get a deep sink, shallow sink or a combination of both. Permits: It is very likely a major kitchen remodel will need permits from your city or county government. Research these to get a good idea of what permits you will need. Your interior designer may be able to help with this. More likely, the contractor(s) that you work with will either do the permits themselves or be able to help you determine what permits you may need. Steer clear of a contractor who tells you that you can "get by" without getting a permit; it may sound like they are saving you money but in the long run they could cost you much more! Timer next to stove top Hiring your Contractor(s): With a major kitchen remodel you may be using several different professionals. You may start with a general contractor, however, they may hire or you may need to hire specialists such as plumbers, electricians or tilers. Talk to several contractors and get estimates and references from each. Call the references and make sure to ask questions about estimate variations - some may substitute materials to cut costs. Discuss the timeline in detail with the contractor you choose. Determine how they will work with any sub-contractors. For example, when does the electrician and plumber need to come in or when will you be ready for the tiler? What time of day will they begin work and what days of the week? What will the contractor do if there is a delay due to materials or labor? For even more information about hiring and making a contract with a contractor, please see our previous article How to Hire a Contractor: Working as a Team on Your Next Home Project. Demolition: Once you have removed all the dishes and other small items, the big demolition will begin. Even if you are just replacing a small section or part, there may be demolition involved. Usually appliances are removed first, then sinks, then fixtures, then countertops, then cabinets and finally flooring. The Remodel: After everything is taken out the first couple items that will be done will be any reframing, plumbing changes and electrical wiring. Any plumbing and electrical work will need to be inspected before they can be sealed back up. You may only have portions of wall removed for this type of work. Once the inspection is done and the walls are in place, the cabinets will usually be the first item installed. After the cabinets are in place, your new countertops will be installed. After the countertop and any backsplash is done, the flooring will be installed. The final items to be done will be all the finishing work such as installing light switches and fixtures, installing the sink and faucet, and finally, installing the appliances from the garbage disposal to the refrigerator. Keep in mind, if any of the appliances are built-in, they may be installed earlier. Extra care should be taken to make sure they are not damaged while other work continues! If Things Go Wrong: Stay calm! Delays may happen. The worst case scenario is if there are any miscommunications between you and any of the professionals working on your home. This can be anything from timing to cost. Make sure to get all details in writing before any work begins! You should have a section in your contract that states what is expected if there is a delay due to material delays, staffing delays, etc. Stay involved in the process and don't be shy - get progress reports daily! If a problem does arise, contact the contractor immediately, a good contractor will respond quickly and appreciate you speaking with them directly. If there is any question about the quality of work, you may consider having an inspection done early to ensure everything is on track. Never pay for the job fully in advance. Many contracts work out a payment plan that will include paying a certain portion as various stages of the project are completed. If there are disputes, make sure to write your concerns down and keep records that you have communicated all of these concerns with the contractor. You will save yourself from a headache if you make sure to: Get it in writing, get the work described in detail and leave no questions unanswered. Again see our article How to Hire a Contractor: Working as a Team on Your Next Home Project for more details about hiring contractors and sample contracts. Finally - It's Done!: With a major remodel there may be another building inspection of the site on completion. Once that is done you are ready to clean up and move back in! Enjoy your new kitchen. Take pictures and keep a record of all your new appliance, cabinet and other big item warranties. Conclusion One of the most major remodels of the home is the kitchen. Take time to plan it out carefully, store a lot of patience, and get ready for one of the most intense but rewarding remodels to your home! It can be done, there are many people out there to help you get it all organized. We hope you find the above short list of things to consider for a kitchen remodel helpful. To the right of the article are some additional sites that will help get your creative ideas going. Enjoy! Other Useful Sites Do It Yourself.com www.doityourself.com/scat/kitchenc Kitchen remodeling will increase the design, function and resale value of a home. This section provides information about building kitchen cabinets, re-facing kitchen cabinets, selecting a kitchen cabinet style, selecting a kitchen countertop style, and planning a kitchen design that will look great and maximize the amount of available storage space. HGTV http://design.hgtv.com/kitchen/ HGTV KitchenDesign is your ultimate online destination for all things related to kitchens: design and decor, renovation and remodeling, appliances and products. Utilizing original video content as well as the rich television libraries of HGTV, Food Network, DIY and Fine Living, we show you everything you'll ever want to know about your kitchen. Improve.net www.improvenet.com Welcome to ImproveNet's Kitchen Remodeling Center. In these and supporting pages, you'll find information and ideas for kitchen remodeling, from kitchen cabinets to kitchen countertops and everything in-between. Our goal is to inform you, give you kitchen remodeling ideas and direction and show you some examples of kitchen designs to get you started. For their kitchen cost estimator click here. Kitchen Remodel Ideas www.kitchenremodelideas.com KitchenRemodelideas.com is a guide to new products for your kitchen. Kitchens.com www.kitchens.com Kitchens.com is the Web’s most comprehensive consumer resource on kitchen design. We invite you to: Be inspired by our Featured Kitchens and Photo Gallery. Learn the basics of Design and Products & Materials. Check out the latest New Product News and Trends. Follow the Kitchen Diaries for the homeowner perspective of the remodeling experience. Get started on your own kitchen project at Budget & Planning or our Professional Locator National Kitchen & Bath Association www.nkba.org National Kitchen & Bath Association has created the NKBA Kitchen & Bath Workbook. This workbook will take you through every stage of creating that perfect space, whether it's new construction or a remodeling project. From selecting a designer, to collecting ideas and establishing a budget, this workbook will help turn your dreams into a reality. Renovation Experts www.renovationexperts.com/green-kitchen.asp Whatever the reasons and goals are, there are more options available today for Greening your kitchen. Green kitchen design can be eco-friendly with out losing luxury and style. This Old House www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/knowhow/kitchens/pk Kitchen Know How - Cabinetry, Countertops, Kitchen Sinks, Backsplash, Appliances, Wet Bars, Design and Outdoor Kitchens.

Online Insurance

Is online insurance right for you?

The Internet is a powerful tool for the savvy online consumer. You can review products, compare prices, research companies and purchase almost anything. Following this trend is the increase availability of insurance online. Insurance companies are providing coverage information, quotes and even contracts online. This includes automobile, homeowners, life, medical and even pet insurance. Insurance has traditionally been a high customer service field with direct human contact with your insurance agent. Because of the change in customer contact, the migration towards providing insurance online has not always been a smooth one. Instead companies are finding some tools work and others only cause frustration or confusion. Indeed, the availability of insurance online is still fluctuating and developing. Below we have compiled a few of the ways you can utilize online insurance options and determine if it is the right tool for you. Researching and obtaining insurance online is much easier today. Many websites now offer comparison tools that will provide quotes and coverage information (some of these sites are listed below). Keep in mind if you choose a carrier from these searches, you will then be contracting with that carrier for your insurance, not the original site. This will either be done by forwarding you to the carrier's website or the comparison site will forward your information to the insurance company and they will then contact you. Many insurers still prefer to have a representative call you and discuss your coverage over the phone. Although not the same as meeting with a personal insurance agent, it allows them to make certain you understand the coverage provided. Also, because buying insurance online is new, many companies believe that individualized customer care is still the best way to get your business and a follow up call still provides some of this customer service. The Pros There are many benefits for utilizing online insurance: Easy comparison shopping: Using insurance comparison websites you can compare coverage and prices on almost any type of insurance. You can also browse the individual insurance carrier websites once you have narrowed your search. Almost all companies now have libraries and tools for you to learn more about their services online. Your time is money: Shopping for insurance online can be done at any time of day. It is hard to get time away from your daily schedule to sit down and comparison shop with insurance brokers, or indeed, individual agents. Low pressure: Let's face it, many people find it easier to stand firm without the person-to-person contact. Users feel they can be more savvy and better informed when every option is at their fingertips rather then relying on an agent's account. Save money: Due to the time needed to comparison shop, the pressure to stay loyal with one company, and the uncertainty about other companies, some may lose money by staying blindly loyal to one insurance carrier. The online market allows for easy comparison shopping, less pressure, and research tools to learn more about other companies. By becoming well informed, you can either work out a better rate with your current provider or move to a new provider who offers better coverage for your dollar. Buying Auto Insurance? Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Click hereThe Cons Be aware of these complications when purchasing insurance online: Understanding coverage options: Without an agent to explain 'insurance speak' you may not know all the coverage you may need. This is especially the case for those getting insurance for the first time. However, if you have discussed options with an agent before and have a generally good idea of the type of coverage you will need, this may be something that is manageable with a little extra research. Is that quote really a deal: All quotes may not be equal. Take care to examine all the coverage included with quotes. The online quotes may help you narrow your search, but should not be taken at face value as not all companies offer the same 'comprehensive' coverage. Buying insurance coverage in your state: Not all states will allow you to purchase insurance online. Some allow you to get quotes but still require you to meet with an agent before signing any contracts. Also, because the internet clouds locality, you will need to make sure the insurance carrier is licensed in your state. Individual customer care: Do you really want to push 1, then 2, then 4 to talk to someone about your insurance coverage? Working with a local agent still offers the advantages of individualized customer service. This agent can offer coverage that speaks to your locality as it is more likely they live in your community. They will also have a better knowledge of the coverage their carrier provides and can help you understand all of your options. They may also be aware of more discounts available to you that you may not know to ask for online. In this way they can offer better individualized care. Whether you choose to shop for insurance online or not, you should look at your insurance carrier websites. Insurance carriers now offer detailed information about coverage online. In fact, once you have settled on a carrier you can often answer coverage questions, pay bills, get updates on claims and find useful tip sheets and information on how to better protect yourself and your property. A primary example of this is your health coverage. Most health insurance carriers still prefer you to sign up through your employer or an agent. However, once you have your coverage, they offer information about doctors, medical options, prescriptions, and claims. Considering health care is one of the most complex types of insurance used, their increasing online presence is an invaluable tool. To explore online insurance options more, please see the links below. More Information Online Insurance Comparison Sites Insurance.com http://www.insurance.com/ Quicken https://secure1.insweb.com/cgi-bin/gic.exe?id=UzB94xbaYQ-wpGWHlZbh8l8ZtxL&page=/gic/Quicken.htj InsWeb http://www.insweb.com/ Insure.com http://www.insure.com/ Insurance Company Rankings AM Best Company - Insurance Reports http://www.ambest.com/homepage.asp Consumer Reports (requires membership for ratings) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/money/insurance/index.htm Standard & Poor's Ratings http://www2.standardandpoors.com/portal/site/sp/en/us/page.topic/ratings_fs_ins/2,1,5,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0,0.html?lid=us_fo_ratings_insurance US News & World Report - Top Health Insurance Companies http://health.usnews.com/sections/health/health-plans/index.html State Insurance Regulators http://www.consumeraction.gov/insurance.shtml Online Insurance articles. http://www.onlineinsurance.com/ When purchasing any product online you always want to make certain it is an authentic website representing a verifiable company with a good reputation. Here are some tips for a safe and rewarding online shopping experience: Be assertive in getting answers about an online company you have not worked with before. Learn as much as you can about them and ask tough questions. Check reviews online, in magazines, with your Secretary of State/Attorney General, the Better Business Bureau, or by word of mouth. Call them up and talk to their customer service. If they don't list a contact number be careful. Review posted company information, policies and the privacy policy. If they do not provide this online, you can move on or call them up to ask why. Make sure any payments are made in a website with https or other secured system. Keep a printed copy of every online transaction. Consider using one credit card for your online purchases/payments. This way you know which to cancel in case of fraud. Also, make sure the card is not linked to any bank account. Some prefer getting a pay as you go credit card for any online transactions. These can be found at any grocery store and can be refilled as needed. Keep your computer updated with anti-virus software, browser updates and spyware programs. NEVER provide personal information from an email they supposedly sent to you. This is a common phishing scam. Everything in the email will look legit but lead to a false site collecting your information. Instead call the company with the number on your contract - not the number given to you in that email! Initiate contact yourself. Go to their website yourself from the address they gave you on your contract. To be on the safe side, never go to their website from an email. Don't give account information to anyone. Your online providers have this information and if anything will be emailing you a forgotten password - never vice versa! Change your account passwords often; every six months to once a year. Use strong passwords with numbers, symbols, changes in case and at least 6 characters.

Back to School Basics

Tips and Tricks to Save $$

In our area, the made-up snow days at the end of the school year made this past year seem long. Therefore, it's a bit jarring to be thinking about back to school supplies already. However, planning ahead can help prevent a lot of the headache in back to school shopping. Many times the quest for new supplies and clothes can seem like an endless scavenger hunt that quickly eats through money in the bank! Below we have compiled a few tips on how to keep the costs low, as well as things to consider when deciding on which supplies will best fit your student's needs. We have also taken a look at a few of the activities you can still be doing the final days of summer to keep your child's mind sharp and ready to jump into the next grade. Students on average lose a month of learning during summer vacation and can lose over two months of learning for harder subjects.* Luckily, there are ways to battle the summer brain drain while still having fun! *"Summer Vacation Slide" by Barbara Pytel Back to School Supplies Armed with a supply list provided by the school, it is time to begin the scavenger hunt. As you look for supplies for your children, below are a couple items to keep in mind. Waste Not, Want Not Take a look through left over supplies from last school year. Did older children leave something the younger ones can use? Where certain supplies never used or still have some life left in them? Do some supplies just need new batteries, lead, erases or other refills? Also, check older items that may be spruced up a bit with stickers, photos, etc. - it makes for a fun project for the younger kids and can help get them excited about going back for the next year. School Supply Closet If you don't already have one, set up a supply closet/space where you can keep old and new supplies all year round. Here you can keep packets of pencils and stacks of paper or notebooks that you know will be used throughout the year. Buy commonly used items in bulk and you will save in the long run. Collect Year Round Now that you have a School Supply Closet set up in your home, you can more easily take advantage of deals as they arise during the year. With a place to neatly keep school items you will have a better idea of what you need more of as you shop. Although Back to School sales can be good, you may find even greater bargains at the end of the season or during clearance sales. "Ouch! My back!" Backpacks are often overloaded with school supplies and can cause back pain and muscle soreness for students of all ages. A backpack should only be 10-20% of the student's weight. If a smaller student is expected to carry a lot, then you may consider getting a rolling backpack. "But everyone else has one..." The plaintive cry of so many children around the country. But be strong - get only what your child really needs for school. Get supplies that are basic and therefore timeless. Fancy cartoon or pop-icon covered supplies are short lived. If you do get them, only get a few that you are certain your child will use before they become "unfashionable." Quality is still #1 You can shop cheap without going so generic all you get is poor quality. You don't want to buy supplies that will break, leak, rip, or fall apart before the end of the first week. (I still remember a black glued notebook I had in high school that literally just fell apart at the seems with paper scattered about the floor - not fun!) Make sure there is some quality in the products you buy. Keep in mind how roughly binders may be handled, how pens may be shoved at the bottom of a backpack and how that same backpack will be tossed, dropped, kicked, lugged, shoved and zipped/unzipped more times than worth counting. Batteries not Included Avoid gimmicky and flashy supplies that twirl and light up. Teachers find these are very distracting in the classroom. If you do get a fun item like this, keep it at home where it can make the homework blahs a bit more fun. Accounting 101 As your children get older, include them in the budget planning. Working together on budgeting for supplies will teach your students how to prepare and why all the flashy supplies may not be worth it. You will soon find your child will learn to appreciate the cheaper supplies so they may budget for one or two more fancy items. Organization 101 Along the same lines as Accounting 101, sit down with your older children and take the time to recall what worked or didn't work last year for their learning. Did they find note cards useful and need more this year? Did color coding subjects help or would an all in one binder be more useful? Are they still struggling and need to try something new? Munch a Lunch Increasingly, online access allows parents not only to review the menu but to check their child's account and upload more funds when necessary. Many schools are also adopting healthier menus. If you don't have a picky eater, this may be the most convenient option. However, if you do have a picky eater in the house or if your child has any food allergies or dietary restrictions, then packing a lunch is the better way to go. Buying food and snacks in bulk has decreased the grocery bills of many households. With a bit of pre-planning, you may actually save money if packing lunches with items you know your children will eat. For growing teenagers with insatiable appetites, giving them as many snacks as possible can help curb the fast food purchases and the extra expense of impulse hunger-buys. Packing Get a good, strong lunch bag. Brown paper bags don't hold up well and are not environmentally friendly. A good lunch bag will protect other items from spills and with a small ice pack can keep food at a safe temperature until eaten. Free Tupperware is good (i.e. sandwich meat containers) however they only have so long to live after being tossed around in a lunch bag. Good containers is a worthwhile investment as they will be used 5 days a week to pack a healthy and full meal! Munchies Include your children in planning lunches for the week. Do this on a regular basis as they may have been all about bananas the last two weeks but are now sick and want a different fruit or veggie. Find out if lunches are satisfying - are they still hungry or brining extra home? If they are brining a lot home, find out if they are preferring a food/snack served in the cafeteria. If you are trying to save money by buying in bulk, you may be able to buy this favorite to pack in their lunch or find a healthier alternative instead. Free Shipping Shopping for school supplies online is not out of the ordinary anymore. Many office supply stores and their competitors are allowing parents to shop from the computer. Compare shipping rates - you might even get free shipping with purchases at a specified total. Back to School Clothes Most kids grow out of their clothes and shoes at an amazing rate. Keep their closets full with basics and not the trendy fashion of the day. Keep clothes practical and you won't break the bank! Basics, Basics, Basics Keep the clothes to the basics as much as possible. Going for trends and fads will only hurt the checkbook when your child refuses to wear them again. This doesn't mean you can't get trendy clothes if it fits your budget. One way to make this easier is to get your child involved in the budget process. Let them know how much is budgeted for the season and then shop together for some basic items while saving for a few "gotta have" fun items. Playground Attire (At Every Age) Can you run, jump, play and have fun in those clothes? Make sure your kids try moving around in the clothes they want to buy. Oddly cut pants are no fun for young kids to play in and skinny jeans will not be as appealing to that middle school student once they try to sit in a chair hour after hour of class. Make sure your children on aware of the functionality of their clothing choices. Finally, make sure you check out what is allowed at the school. Funky, trendy, or skimpy may not be practical and they may get your child sent home too! Take care to read slogans on t-shirts, ambiguous language or even blatant references to questionable or illegal subjects (i.e. drugs/alcohol) may not be allowed as well. Hand-Me-Downs (Even with the Neighbors!) If you have more then one kid, hand-me-downs can be great. Especially if you stay with the basic and timeless classics, it will be easier for the younger kids to use what their older siblings can no longer wear. With how quickly they grow through clothes, most of the clothes will be in great condition and you can't beat the price! If you don't have older siblings, consider roving the local garage sales. Or talk with parents at the school, some parents plan exchange nights where they all bring clothes their kids can no longer wear and exchange with each other - again, you can't beat the price of a good barter in kind! Consignment & Charitable Stores Both consignment and charitable stores can offer a great way to fill your kids closet. Get your children involved. At the consignment store they can make their "own" money by turning in old clothes for cash or store credit. Going to charitable stores, children can learn early how to stretch their dollar. Especially when shopping for items they know they will not be using often - so they need a white dress shirt for choir but will only wear it one season - a charitable or consignment store is a great fit. For the really creative kids, this can be a great way to mix and match and create their own style for cheap. Shop In and Out of Season Without a doubt the department stores and outlet stores will run great deals and back to school sales. But also keep a look out for seasonal closeouts. Items you may not use this year might be used the next - just be aware you may have to do some good guessing on future sizes! Again, when shopping seasonal or end of the year sales, make certain to go for basic and timeless styles - the trendy may be a good bargain, but may not be worn by a stubborn teen next year. Back to School Learning As mentioned in the intro above, research has shown that children lose about a months worth of knowledge over a 3 month summer vacation. For more difficult subjects this loss may be even more. There are ways to keep your kids mind sharp and even learn new things over the summer while keeping it fun and relaxed. Homework Hour Okay, I know we just said to keep it fun and relaxed...it still can be with a scheduled time at night for quiet "study" time. Try to leave an hour open twice a week (or more) for a homework hour where you and your kids play a challenging game, watch a documentary, quietly read, or they can play an educational computer game - there are many online covering everything from dinosaurs to foreign languages. It will help keep you child's mind sharp and attuned to concentrating on one task like they will have to when real homework starts again in the fall. Of course this is generally for the older student, younger kids wouldn't need to do a whole hour - something more comparable to what they do in a school activity. The idea is not to sit them down with a chart to fill in or tables to review. Instead, get them to apply some of their learned knowledge in an activity. Summer Reading If not done during homework hour, summer reading can be done daily. Read to the younger kids, read along with the older ones and read quietly next to the tweens and teens. The idea is to again make the environment conducive to some reading time. Take a trip to the library once every two weeks to stock up on books. Perhaps an older kid might be interested in entering one of the many reading contests that happen every summer. Read the same book as a family and compare opinions. Read books related to an upcoming summer vacation. Read books with a movie fast approaching and compare them to each other. Read non-fiction books as well. Simply put - read! Inquiring Minds Want to Know Consider making national pastimes a chance to learn - How do fireworks work? What creates a thunderstorm? Why do we celebrate July 4th? Which constellation is that? How does a camera work - perhaps put it on manual and figure what different apertures and shutter speeds can do. Or turn a family road trip into a chance to learn a bit more - stop at a national park or try a different cuisine from what you get around home. Challenge yourself to look at items we take for granted as possibilities for learning and experimenting. Did we say Experiments? What better time then summer to make a mess in the backyard. Make a homemade volcano, your own play dough, or put together a model car/airplane/ship/dollhouse. Get your kids involved in projects - perhaps you are doing a home improvement, although you child may be too young to help with the tools, they might be able to help you figure the square footage as you plan your project. Need help in the garden? Don't make them the "weed puller" - instead let them help you tend soil, plants, discover bugs, create a sculpture or taste some ripe berries off the vine.