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Getting and Staying Organized Through the Summer

Between vacations, BBQs, and pool parties, we can lose track of routines, projects and “stuff.”

Inscription Summer on beach sand

Sometime about now in mid-summer we begin asking ourselves, “Why do things seem to be out of control? I planned on organizing my photos, painting that cute dresser I picked up at the yard sale last fall, and waking up without an alarm clock on Fridays. None of it has happened!”

This scenario is all too common — and yet there is good news. It’s never too late to get and stay organized for the remainder of the summer.

People tend to get busy with outdoor activities and become distracted by vacations, plus household schedules and routines tend to be different than during the school year. The most common areas that seem to spiral out of control are:

  • Summer clutter
  • Project procrastination
  • Sleep routines

Here are my tips for getting and staying organized through the summer.

Summer clutter

We’re conditioned to create traditions and rituals. We buy new outdoor furniture and decorations for our backyard barbecue, and bring friends and family together for camping trips chock full of new-fangled gadgets and equipment. We have family reunions and summer vacations.

We’re used to buying, creating, and preparing for events — yet we don’t really have a method or system to deal with the aftermath.

It may be time to say goodbye to the stuff we buy “on the fly,” like walkie talkies for playful banter on road trips, floaties for the swimming pool,  collapsible picnic tables for the beach, croquet sets for the backyard, and rain ponchos for the fast-moving and sudden rainstorm.

I recommend two steps for handling summer clutter:

  1. Collect all the summer clutter. Empty the souvenir bags, toiletry kits, suitcases, and backpacks. Get it all in one place.
  1. Evaluate it. I do this by using a value-based point system. Rate each item on a scale of 0 to 5. Zero means you have no real use for it in the future and don’t like it at all. Five means you really love the item and can use it, or it brings you great joy to keep it.

Project procrastination

Often we feel more disorganized or confused about our perceived “free time” during the summer months. This can happen because we spend the first half of the year postponing projects until summer vacation.

Each year we stack the projects-in-waiting for summer, and each year we seem to forget that we would really rather enjoy some time off in nature, traveling, or getting together with friends.

If you want to reduce the pressure for yourself, release yourself from too many good intentions, like repainting the powder room; reading the stack of books you’ve collected; and that wishful photo-organizing project.

Instead, pick just one project and focus on it. By making one project the priority, you can do little bits of it from time to time. So, instead of putting off the project and feeling badly that it isn’t getting done, break your priority project down into doing one small step per day.

Sample summer project

Want to paint that dresser? Allow yourself 13 “moments” to complete the project and never miss a bit of summer fun. Use this project breakdown to make any project fit in around your unpredictable summer schedule.

Painting a dresser purchased at a yard sale

  • Take a “before” picture: 30 seconds
  • Make a list of supplies needed: 5 minutes
  • Buy paint and supplies: 1 hour
  • Stage the area where you plan to paint: 15 minutes
  • Pull the drawers out of the dresser: 3 minutes
  • Remove the knobs from the drawers: 10 minutes
  • Sand the dresser and drawers: 35 minutes
  • Wipe down the dresser and drawers: 10 minutes
  • Paint just a drawer or two (repeat): 30 minutes
  • Paint the frame of the dresser: 1 hour
  • Re-attach knobs: 20 minutes
  • Move dresser to preferred location: 20 minutes
  • Take picture and post for friends to see: 3 minutes

Sleep routines

Most of us realize instinctively that sleep is important.

“You know that babies and children need sleep to grow,” says Val Sgro, a professional organizer and author. “You know that an injured body heals itself faster with good sleep. You know that if you don’t get enough sleep, you become sluggish and cranky, and you have trouble thinking straight. That old saying, ‘I’ll sleep on it,’ comes from the realization that the solution to a problem often seems to reveal itself after a good night’s sleep.

“Contrary to common belief, your brain does not rest when you sleep,” she continues. “It is often more active than when you’re awake. It’s busy — busy making sure it stays organized.”

Kid on sleeping bed, happy bedtime in white bedroom

And therein lies the key to getting and staying organized in the summer months. Though our sleep routines will likely be off kilter, it’s worth asking the question, “How will I be able to get seven or eight hours of sleep tonight? How will I fit it in?”

Maybe you need to grab a mid-day nap or put yourself (not just the kids) to bed an hour earlier. Getting more sleep will help you make better decisions when you pack (and thus have fewer items to “buy on the fly” while traveling).

More sleep means being more alert driving on road trips; consuming less sugar or caffeine for a mid-day boost; and showing up with an overall better outlook for the day. And in the middle of summer travel or hosting guests who are visiting for a week, that couldn’t be a more welcome benefit.

Credit to DorothyTheOrganizer

DorothyTheOrganizer (Dorothy Breininger) is America’s most innovative organizer and can be seen weekly on the critically acclaimed, Emmy-nominated show “Hoarders” on A&E. She also appears on The Doctors, The Dr. Phil Show and The View. Creating organization solutions that change people’s lives is her passion. DorothytheOrganizer.com features tips and home organization solutions that will finally let you rid yourself of the clutter that holds you back from success.

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5 Ways Landlords can Maximize Profit from Rentals

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Recent developments in the real estate industry are proving to be a mixed bag for landlords.

Vacancy rates are increasing for the first time since 2009 as the number of empty properties grows. Although they only rose by 0.1 percent in the last quarter, it’s concerning because empty units are one of the largest drains on profit that landlords face.

The good news is that increased supply isn’t putting a damper on rent amounts, which continue to rise as newly built homes and apartments tend to command a premium.

But savvy landlords know that they need to act now to future-proof their profits against the potential for losses from higher vacancy and home-ownership rates as the economy recovers.

Here are five ways that landlords can maximize profit from their rental properties:

1. Increase the Rent, but be Competitive

If you price your unit too low, you’ll fill it quickly, but might miss out on thousands of dollars in rent. You need to ensure that you’re correctly calculating the cost vs. revenue on each property.

Location is the greatest influencer of price, but an excellent condition and updated decor also helps to maximize rental income.

In summary, start advertising 4-6 weeks out from lease end, and try to get the most you can for the rental. Check Craigslist and Zillow and New Star Realty for current market rent rates.

2. Work Smarter, Not Harder

Technology offers modern landlords opportunities to significantly reduce their property management overhead. One particularly useful platform is Cozy, which provides simple end-to-end rental management software for landlords and tenants.

Cozy reduces the amount of time you need to spend collecting applications, screening tenants, and collecting rent. Not only are tools like Cozy a better overall experience, it allows both the landlord and tenant to “set it, and forget it,” thereby making rent collection automatic.

You could also try uploading videos of your properties to YouTube or Vimeo and having your application link to those videos, year after year.

Tax concept

3. Take Advantage of All Tax Breaks

This is a no-brainer, as writing down every possible allowable expense reduces taxable profits and therefore your tax bill.

Landlords can claim all the maintenance and repair costs on their properties. Keeping your properties in excellent condition makes it much easier to find tenants and allows you to charge higher rents, too, making this a win-win situation.

You can also deduct mortgage interest as well as the costs you incurred buying your properties. You can’t deduct the latter all in one year, so you need to do it through annual depreciation, as property is classed as an asset like vehicles or machinery. Unlike other assets though, provided you did your homework when buying, your rental units should increase in value over time.

Other deductible expenses include insurance, business-related travel, contractors and the expenses of a home office, if you have one.

4. Target Your Ideal Tenant

Getting the perfect tenants for your property is a triple financial bonus; you’ll be able to set a higher rent and if they’re suitable they are less likely to leave, saving you costs associated with vacant units and tenant turnover.

Find out what your ideal tenant is likely to want, in terms of fixtures and fittings and décor, and give it to them.

This sounds simple but just make sure you do you research first: if your best tenant is a professional twenty-something then they’re likely to want different facilities and interior design than retirees or a family with young children.

Location is key too. Someone renting a luxury apartment in Los Angeles is quite likely to have different needs, expectations and tastes from someone renting a modest family home in Philadelphia.

Be realistic about how attractive your apartment is to potential tenants. Unless the neighborhood is rapidly improving, a rental property in a low-income area is unlikely to attract affluent tenants, no matter how well it’s decorated.

5. Install Solar Panels, Rent Storage Space, or Sell Ads

Take advantage of “green” tax incentives and rebates by installing solar panels on residential properties while they’re still available. Although at first glance it might seem that these benefit homeowners more than landlords, this is not necessarily the case. Once you’ve installed the solar panels, you can sell back excess energy to the grid, opening up another income stream from your property.

Your tenants will benefit from lower energy bills and as prices are predicted to keep rising, this is an advantage that could become even more attractive over time. This can be factored into the rent, allowing you to make a bigger rental income even as your tenant pays less overall.

If you have extra storage space, you could increase your profits by renting it to non-tenants. Further, there may be local businesses willing to buy advertising space. A simple banner hung on an exterior wall or side fence might bring in hundreds of dollars a month.

Credit to Guest Author – Ella Jameson

After graduating from university with a degree in English Literature, Ella worked as an editor and copywriter for several years before becoming a journalist.

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Landlord Liability When a Tenant’s Dog Bites Someone

Military Working Dogs

There’s an old saying in journalism: When a dog bites a man, that is nothing new, but when a man bites a dog, that is certainly news!

If you’re a landlord, however, and your tenant’s dog bit someone, it’s newsworthy to you. You need to know whether you’ll be held responsible.

Like most landlord-tenant issues, the answer to what happens when your tenant’s dog bites someone is that it depends, and the answer can vary by state as well.

This post will go through some scenarios to help you determine what could happen if your tenant’s dog bit someone. Please know that these are just hypothetical situations and should not be taken as legal advice. But first …

The Importance of Renter’s Insurance

If you require your tenants to carry renter’s insurance, you most likely won’t need to worry about being sued if your tenant’s dog bites someone. The tenant’s renter’s insurance will cover that.

Renter’s insurance protects you if your tenant’s dog bites someone.

The exception is if the injuries to the bite victim are so extensive that they go beyond what the renter’s insurance covers, and that doesn’t happen too often. Even if you are sued for the balance, there needs to be a case against you.

The rest of the scenarios we’ll cover will be focused on tenants who do not have renter’s insurance.

Sample Lease Clause

Dog Bites: The Good News

In most cases, you are not responsible if your tenant’s dog bit someone. So breathe a huge sigh of relief.

In most cases, you are not responsible if your tenant’s dog bit someone.

You are also not responsible if you know there’s a dangerous dog on the property, but you can’t do anything about it. This could happen if you buy investment property that’s already occupied by a tenant who has a lease. As soon as the lease comes under your control, however, you need to correct the situation.

Dog Bites: The Bad News

There are some other instances where you could be held responsible if your tenant’s dog bit someone.

Scenario 1: You knew the dog was dangerous

Let’s say that when you interviewed a potential tenant, they had their dog with them. The dog was big, bared its teeth at you, and lunged at you. When you asked the potential tenant what’s up with the dog, they were honest and let you know that the dog had bitten someone before. They then explained that this is their guard dog.

You consider the story, and you like the tenant (who passed your background check). So you decide to rent to this person and allow the dog, even knowing the dog is dangerous.

In this case, if the dog bites a visitor to the property or bites someone in the common area, you could be held responsible for the injuries. Why? Because you knew the dog was dangerous and let the dog live on your property anyway. Some courts consider landlords who knowingly rent to people with dangerous dogs irresponsible and negligent.

Scenario 2: You didn’t enforce your own lease

You might not allow dogs in your rental unit, and you have a provision in the lease that states this policy. That is not enough to protect you if you don’t enforce your no-dog policy.

Let’s say that you know that your tenant is keeping a dangerous dog on the property — a direct lease violation. You’ve seen the dog when you stopped by for a maintenance call. The dog was chained outside and barked ferociously at you. Yet, you did nothing. You might be held responsible if that dog were to bite someone.

Scenario 3: You take care of the dog

You live on one side of a duplex and rent out the other side. You struck an arrangement with your tenant that you’ll take care of their dog when they need to go out of town for work. The dog bites someone while it was under your care. In this case, you would be considered an owner and would probably be held responsible.

Dog

Scenario 4: You didn’t fix the gate

Let’s say that you rented your property to a dog owner.

You have a fenced-in yard that you use as a selling point in your rental ad, even. But now the gate is broken and no longer latches.

The tenant let you know immediately and is concerned because the dog keeps getting out, and this dog is a pit bull who has a history of attacking other dogs. You plan to get around to fixing the gate, but the dog bit someone before you fixed it. You could be held responsible.

Scenario 5: Some people sue even when they have no case

People can and do try to sue for anything and everything, but that doesn’t mean they have a case. For example, if your tenant’s dog bites someone while your tenant is away from the property with their dog, you would almost never be responsible. However, if you know that your tenant keeps a dangerous dog on your property, and you know that the dog roams the neighborhood all the time, a court might find you responsible if that dog injures someone.

Take Precautions

If you allow dogs at your rental property, take the necessary steps to help ensure guests to the property and neighbors are safe. If you know the dog is dangerous, don’t let your tenant keep it if you have control of the situation.

Nolo has a fantastic list of historical cases regarding landlord liability for dog bites. If you want to see how judges have ruled in the past, check them out.

You may also want to suggest or require that your tenant carry renter’s insurance, and make sure that you have adequate liability coverage from your landlord insurance policy … just in case.

credit to Laura Agadoni

Laura Agadoni is a landlord and journalist whose articles appear in various publications such as Trulia, The Houston Chronicle, The Motley Fool, SFGate, Zacks, The Penny Hoarder and azcentral.

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Solar Power: 9 Crucial Steps To Prepare Your Home

Solar power is a booming industry in the United States.  Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are still expensive, trends in production efficiency and cost of materials point to a continued drop in the price of PV units that could make the technology accessible to middle-class incomes within a decade.

9 Crucial Steps to Prepare For Solar Power

Whether you’re chomping at the bit to add some solar units to your roof or simply investigating the scope of the process, there’s plenty to be done in preparation for the shift to solar.  Here are 9 crucial steps to prepare for solar power at your home.

Step 1: Consider Your Options

solar

Solar energy is rising in popularity as prices continue to drop, leading to greater competition among solar contractors, installers, and manufacturers alike. Because of this, there have never been more opportunities available to consumers when it comes to solar energy.

The list of solar panel manufacturers continues to grow as parts and materials become cheaper, but speaking with a solar energy contractor about the specific goals for your solar energy plan can help determine the scope and costs of your project going forward.

Because you’ll need help from building inspectors and the power company in your community, it is advised that you consult with your local resources and find a solar installer that has experience in permitting and project management to ensure the process goes smoothly. Homeowners looking to implement solar power should order a cost/benefit analysis survey from a certified solar installer. This survey will identify roof slope, property orientation, shading, optimal placement sites, power distribution and storage (if applicable), and finally, aesthetic considerations.

Step 2: Find Rebates and Incentives

Depending on your geographic location, your local public works department or utility company may offer impressive rebates on the purchase costs or installation of solar panels on your property. A full list is available here, complete with breakdowns of individual solar energy rebate programs by state.

In some instances, such as in Texas, some utility companies will pay as much as 45% of the initial cost of installation – a huge motivating factor for homeowners, especially taking into account the additional 30% write-off at the end of tax season.

Step 3: Secure Financing

Under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of December 2015, the federal government will provide a 30% tax credit to homeowners for qualified expenditures toward a PV system. In order to secure the full credit, systems must be placed into service by 12/31/2019. The same rebates are available to businesses operating within the United States.

The U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and various other federal agencies offer loan programs for both homeowners and businesses seeking to invest in solar power. Compared to a conventional mortgage or residential energy efficiency improvement loan from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, securing a loan for energy improvements through the SBA can more than double the maximum loan amount available – up to $750,000.

As far as the costs of the panels themselves, the average cost per watt generated reached less than $0.74 in 2013, but in areas such as Massachusetts, Louisiana, and California, the payback period (or the return on investment) is fewer than 10 years.

Step 4: Make the Necessary Repairs and Upgrades

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In order to prepare your property for solar panel installation, you’ll need to consult with a building inspector to ensure your roof is structurally sound and capable of housing heavy solar arrays.

Due to the weight and surface area utilized when installing solar arrays on a residential rooftop, it’s important to first check the condition of your roofing materials before committing to a solar solution. Because any repairs made to the roof after installation will require complete removal of the solar panels, it’s wise to order roofing repairs or replacement in advance of adopting solar energy systems into your home’s energy profile. While these upgrades may not be as invasive as an indoor home remodel project, the scope and technical nature of the project may require additional prep work before contractors can get started.

Most PV panels are mounted on south-facing roofs, but roofs with east-west orientations or flat-roofs are acceptable, as installers can position the arrays at optimal angles to maximize exposure to sunlight.

In preparation for installation, consider building a separate utility nook or storage cabinet to house a battery, electrical inverters, and Balance of System (BOS) equipment to integrate the solar modules for use with the home’s existing electrical system. Because solar energy is becoming increasingly affordable, more and more companies are expected to enter the market, bringing new and exciting products and solutions for energy-conscious homeowners. The frontrunner in this department is Tesla’s Powerwall, which will provide 6.4 kWh of home energy storage capacity when consumer models ship in 2017. Designed for use with solar panels, the Powerwall allows homeowners to actively capture solar energy for later use or sell the excess energy back to the grid.

Step 5: Permitting and Rebate Process

Most city utility companies require the following documentation before installation can begin:

  • Level 1 Interconnection Application and Agreement for inverter-based generating systems
  • Electrical diagram of proposed generating system
  • Specifications of inverter
  • Application for electrical service (required for use with meters and various state/local production incentive programs)

A qualified solar installer or contractor should have these documents prepared or available to you upon request.

Furthermore, the solar contractor must obtain an electrical permit prior to installation. Your local building or planning department will require an electrical inspection before replacing your old meter with a reverse-power meter.

After installing and implementing a solar energy solution in your home, you should be eligible to receive as much as a 30% credit on your federal income tax bill. Through December 2016, homeowners who invest in an energy efficiency solution will be able to complete IRS Form 5695 – Residential Energy Credits. According to the instructions for the form, qualified applications of the tax credit are for costs related to the following:

“Qualified solar electric property costs are costs for property that uses solar energy to generate electricity for use in your home located in the United States. No costs relating to a solar panel or other property installed as a roof (or portion thereof) will fail to qualify solely because the property constitutes a structural component of the structure on which it is installed. The home does not have to be your main home.”

Your state and local governments, utility companies, and energy efficiency coalitions may offer additional grants, credits, and rebates toward the adoption of solar power in your home. For a complete list of the possible benefits, check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

Step 6: Investigate Buyback/Energy Storage Solutions

If you plan to help offset the cost of your solar energy system by selling excess generated power back to the grid, you’ll need a production meter installed and configured by your local electric company.

A production meter measures the amount of electricity generated by an energy source, operating essentially opposite of your standard utility metering system. Production meters connect to your system via the AC disconnect on your solar inverter before passing through the main interconnection breaker on your property.

Utility companies commonly read production meters at the same rate by which they monitor standard meters, sending the homeowner an annual report with information pertaining to the kilowatt-hours produced by your solar energy system. Using that data, you’ll need to complete a yearly application for compensation for excess energy your system provided for the grid. Incentives arrive either in the form of service credits or check by mail.

Among the first consumer-grade electrical storage system was Tesla Motor’s Powerwall, which actively captures and stores solar-generated energy for backup use or daily electrical needs. While other companies are following suit and producing low-cost, high-capacity batteries for solar-powered buildings, Tesla is considered the leader in the still gestating industry. The company estimates each unit will perform at 92% round-trip DC efficiency and initial models will store 7 kWh (about 1/3 the average daily energy used per American household as of 2014). Because residential electrical systems operate on AC power, a converter will be necessary in order to utilize the energy stored by the Powerwall.

Step 7: Finalize Power Efficiency Solutions

As with most energy-efficiency upgrades, adding solar power to your home will only work to maximum efficiency if other aspects of your home are working in concert with your new system.

Some low-impact, DIY projects to put on your list:

  • Check each door and window for broken or cracked seals.
  • Add a layer of protective window film to further improve energy efficiency indoors.
  • Replace your old bulbs with high-efficiency CFL or LEDs.
  • Install energy-saving smart thermostats.
  • Order a rain barrel to collect excess rainwater for later use.
  • Replace air filters in air conditioning and heating systems, vents, and appliances.
  • Invest in energy-smart power strips and timers for electronics.
  • Add additional insulation to problem or leaky rooms.
  • Check your roof and attic for leaks or install ventilation systems to prevent capturing hot air.

Once again, a home energy audit from an energy-efficiency professional will be the best way to analyze and assess the strengths and weaknesses in your home’s energy efficiency standards.

Step 8: Installation and Implementation

Man installing alternative energy photovoltaic solar panels on r

Before installation, your solar energy contractor will assess the following:

  • Viability of available solar resources.
  • Size of system necessary to meet your home’s average electrical requirements.
  • Ideal placement of control system and electrical infrastructure
  • Potential for connection to grid or potential for off-the-grid use.
  • Safety and reliability standards.

While it’s not unheard of homeowners installing solar electric systems on their own, it’s highly recommended (and sometimes, depending on your location and system of choice, required) that you hire a professional solar installer to oversee the entire project.

When choosing a contractor for your solar power system, consider the following:

  • Request separate bids for roof-mounted systems and ground-installed PV solutions.
  • Inquire as to the level of experience of the contractor in question. How many solar energy systems have they installed? How often?
  • Ask for proof of certification or licensing. Your state’s licensing board should have information regarding each licensed contractor in the industry.
  • Check for disciplinary actions or pending complaints against the contractor. The Better Business Bureau and your city government should have information regarding any pending liens or judgments against a company.
  • Ask for energy/cost estimates based on the solar resource of each prospective installation site, size/scale of the system, type of PV panels intended for use, and the current conditions of your home’s existing energy efficiency solutions.

Unless your solar electric solution is part of a new, energy-efficient home construction project, chances are you’ll also need a licensed electrician to install and verify a few secondary but critical aspects of your new energy system. Both stand-alone and grid-connected solar energy systems require power conditioning equipment that must be implemented within your home alongside your new PV panels and batteries. For reasons that should be clear, it’s never a good idea to leave electrical work to a handyman or a DIY project. The current requirements for grid-interactive power inverters, known as UL 1741, should serve as a reference point for solar contractors moving forward.

Safety Considerations

Every electrical system is at risk of failure, damage, and deadly surges that must be addressed on a system-by-system basis. According to the National Fire Protection Association and its updated National Electrical Code, renewable solar energy systems should implement the following to ensure safe and continued operation:

  • Safety disconnects to protect internal system wiring, allow for safe repairs, and ensure isolation from the grid.
  • Grounding equipment that provides a safe, low-resistance path for errand surges, lightning strikes, and equipment malfunctions to discharge into the ground.
  • Surge protection equipment to protect electrical gear against lightning strikes and electrical storms.

Step 9: Testing and Analysis

There are several ways to evaluate the efficacy and reliability of your system. First, built-in meters and instruments on your solar control or energy monitoring panels should provide enough information about energy usage, current storage levels, rate of energy generation, and amount of converted energy to date.

Some solar energy systems provide connectivity to third-party smartphone monitoring apps and provide better visual representations of data collected within your home over longer periods of time. Other gadgets such as Nest work seamlessly with modern energy systems, helping to better use and conserve energy, reducing the amount of maintenance required by the homeowner in order to reach maximum efficiency.

Finally, in order to fully understand and appreciate the effectiveness of your solar energy system, you’ll want to keep your old utility bills from the previous year and measure year-to-year comparisons once you’ve had your system operational for a full year. Ordering a home energy audit after installation of your solar energy system will also provide valuable feedback on methods to further improve your home’s efficiency capabilities headed into the next several decades.

The benefits of solar power are clear and costs continue to fall. Is your home prepared for the future of energy? Find a solar installer in your area by visiting the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and begin your journey to true energy independence today.

A Long Term Investment

One final note — choosing solar power for your home is a long term investment.  Review.com, a website dedicated to conducting unbiased and in-depth research about products and services, spent six weeks researching 188 contenders, consulting engineers and solar energy experts, and scouring user reviews and publications. They analyzed and compared the following;

  • Watts of power
  • Efficiency ratings
  • Customer service
  • Age of the companies

Ultimately, their research culminated in the recommendation of five solar panel companies.  In addition to those recommendations there is also a tremendous amount of information to soak up.

 

Credit to Drew Hendricks
Drew Hendricks is a tech, social media, and environmental addict. He’s written for many major publications, such as Forbes and Entrepreneur.
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