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Top 5 Preventive Maintenance Tasks for Landlords

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A landlord needs to stay abreast of many maintenance issues to keep a unit comfortable and running efficiently. Common preventive maintenance tasks include:

  • Servicing the heating/cooling system
  • Plumbing and drain maintenance / fixing leaks
  • Painting
  • Appliance repair/replacement
  • Maintaining landscape structures
  • Water management
  • Fireplace and chimney cleaning

In the interests of discretion and efficiency, you may try to limit the number of visits to an occupied rental unit and to get as much done as possible while you’re there. This may mean that some jobs don’t get done. When you can’t get to everything on your maintenance checklist, here are five tasks you shouldn’t ignore.

1. Gutter Maintenance

Water runoff around the foundation of your house can cause serious problems. It can undermine the foundation and cause settling, and it can create the moist soil conditions that attract termites. A well-designed gutter system directs runoff from the roof safely away from the foundation, but not if the gutters are blocked with debris.

A single day devoted to gutter maintenance is worth your time and money.

You can do the job yourself, or hire the job out.

You’ll prevent snow and heavy winter rains from backing up and forming dangerous ice dams or icicles, and you’ll avoid damage to the siding and foundation from overflow from the gutters.

Gutter Guards Help

Most gutter guards can keep leaves and large twigs out of your gutters. Depending on the type you have, you still have to inspect the gutters for silt, conifer needles, and other smaller debris. Pay special attention to the downspout openings where silt and debris tend to accumulate.

2. Check the Dryer

Dryers cause approximately 2,900 residential fires each year, and 34% of them are due to poor maintenance. The main culprit is lint buildup, and that most often occurs in the vent ducts.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Turn on the dryer.
  2. Feel for a steady stream of warm air coming from the outdoor vent opening.
  3. Note whether the flap is moving. It should be.

If the flap isn’t moving, take the following steps:

  1. Remove the vent cap.
  2. Vacuum out the vent.
  3. Disconnect the vent from the dryer.
  4. Clean out the lint you find there.

Community Association Underwriters of America recommends getting the dryer vents cleaned professionally every two or three years.

Proper dryer maintenance helps prevents fires and ensures efficient operation. Clothes dry more quickly, and that saves money for whoever pays the utility bill.

3. Service the Septic System

A midnight call from a distressed tenant may be annoying, but that’s the least of your problems in a septic crisis. Visualize the cleanup necessitated by an overflowing toilet. Septic experts recommend pumping the tank every five years, but many homeowners let it go for longer than that. As a landlord with limited knowledge and control of what goes into the toilets and drains, you shouldn’t.

It isn’t just a buildup of sludge at the bottom of the tank that you have to worry about. The scum layer at the top can clog your drain field if it’s full of grease and other insoluble materials. Regular pumping helps control this layer by reestablishing a healthy digestive balance in the tank.

Don’t Forget the Pump Alarm

If your tank has a transfer pump, instruct your tenants to keep a watchful eye on the visual alarm. Prompt response to a signal can also avert a backup and expensive cleanup. The pump may need servicing, but the problem is often something as simple as a tripped breaker.

4. HVAC Maintenance

HVAC service experts recommend changing heating and cooling filters every 6 to 12 months. This is important for air quality and for the performance of the heating/cooling unit. Energy.gov says that filter maintenance can lower the energy bill by 5% to 15%.

It’s better to replace filters than it is to clean them, and filters aren’t very expensive. A furnace filter costs from $4 to $20, depending on model and size, and a general purpose air filter costs about the same. It’s an extra expense, but you’ll probably realize the savings in improved efficiency.

5. Inspect and Clean the Chimney and Fireplace

If your tenants use the fireplace, you should have the chimney inspected once a year. Soot deposits should be removed if they are thicker than 1/8 inch.

Fireplace maintenance is a safety issue; creosote buildup increases the likelihood that hot embers will fly from the chimney during a fire. It’s also an energy issue because a clean chimney produces a hotter fire. Finally, it’s a maintenance issue. Sooty air blackens the stones around the hearth and dulls the walls in the fireplace room, and there is less blowback if the chimney is clean.

Now that you know the five basic preventive maintenance tasks, you have a game plan that’s easy to carry out. And you can feel confident that you’re maintaining your property.

 

Credit to  Chris Deziel

Chris has owned and managed 4 rental properties in Santa Cruz, CA, and Salida, CO. He is a DIY handyman expert for popular sites like Pro Referral.

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The Safety Benefit of Smart Homes

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The latest technology doesn’t just make properties more marketable. Learn how to use these smart devices to thwart danger when you’re out in the field.

Sure, smart-home devices can make a property more desirable, but have you considered how they can keep you safe as a listing agent or when showing homes to buyers? Open houses and vacant properties are the top places where real estate professionals report encountering threatening situations, according to the National Association of REALTORS®’ 2016 Member Safety Report. Tara Christianson, technology and training director at Century 21 Redwood Realty in Arlington, Va., recently hosted a webinar and offered tips on how smart devices can protect your client’s property and yourself.

  • Smart door locks and keyless entry systems can help keep a vacant property more secure. Products such as Schlage’s Bluetooth-enabled locks not only allow you to control access to the property but also can record traffic in the home. You can create e-keys for contractors, assistants, and your real estate team members.
  • Video doorbells, such as SkyBell, contain video cameras so you can talk to whoever is on the other side of the door without even being on the premises. The video streams to your phone, and some products even allow you to take a photo of the person at the door to send to authorities if you become alarmed.
  • Motion sensors are helpful for both vacant homes and new construction — both properties squatters tend to target. Fibaro, for example, sends activity alerts to your phone when there is movement in the home. You can set alerts to the times you expect the home to be empty. “Maybe someone’s in the home that you need to be aware of so you know to bring someone with you when you arrive,” Christianson says.
  • Use devices that monitor doors and windows so you can tell when they’ve been left open. This will likewise alert you to suspicious activity at a listing, and these devices are useful for sellers as well so they can monitor their homes on days when they’re being shown.
  • Smart lighting and entertainment systems don’t just help you set the ambiance for a showing. Systems like Hue and Lifx allow you to set on and off times for lighting systems, making it look like a listing is continually occupied.

Do Smart Homes Invite Threats?

Such technology can make a home more vulnerable to hackers, Christianson admits, but there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk. You should never use open Wi-Fi networks when operating smart devices. If your client’s network is less secure, you can protect your own device with a virtual private network, which creates an encrypted connection when using your client’s Wi-Fi. But if you’re going to use a device in a seller’s home, you should always ask them how protected their network is. Do they have a password that’s hard to guess, or are they using a simple code like “123” or “password”?

Give Clients Smart Advice

Steer clients interested in smart devices toward well-known vendors such as Nest, which is backed by Google. “Sometimes, products or companies sound great, but then the vendor stops updating their devices or shuts down without notice,” Christianson says. “You don’t want your client to be stuck with something that suddenly stops working.”

Tell your sellers to disclose what smart devices they have in their homes to buyers up front. That will absolve them of any responsibility in case a buyer has a complaint about being monitored during a showing. “You don’t want conversations with buyers caught on tape without their knowledge,” Christianson says. Let informed buyers make their own decisions about whether they want to even enter rooms that have active recording devices.

 

Credit to Graham Wood
Senior editor

Graham Wood is a senior editor for REALTOR® Magazine.

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How to Deal with a Deadbeat Landlord

What do used car salesmen, lawyers, and landlords all have in common? … People in all three professions are often the butt of jokes about—shall we say—low ethics.

Here are some jokes I’ve heard recently:

  1. What’s the difference between a good lawyer and a bad lawyer? … A bad lawyer makes your case drag on for years. A good lawyer makes it last even longer.
  2. I saw the most beautiful cars in the window of a dealership. A salesman came out and said, “Come on in. They’re bigger than ever, and they last a lifetime!” … Later I discovered he was talking about the payments.
  3. What do landlords do for fun? … How would I know? I haven’t seen mine in the past eight months.

Those jokes you hear are often unfair, but what makes them funny is the kernel of truth associated with them. And unfortunately for all the great, honest, just-trying-to-make-a-living landlords out there, the deadbeat landlord gives all of us a bad name.

So, just to show that all landlords are not untrustworthy villains, I would like to do my part by helping all the tenants out there who are stuck with a deadbeat landlord, meaning a landlord who is good at collecting the rent check and nothing much else.

There’s a Problem, and Your Deadbeat Landlord Has Disappeared

You won’t know you have a deadbeat landlord until a problem arises. The most common problem tenants have are maintenance ones. So what should you do when you notify your landlord that:

  • The heat went out during the winter (or the AC in the summer),
  • A window won’t lock,
  • Bugs are running around your kitchen,
  • Or any one of a number of possible problems

…and your landlord is M.I.A.?

First of all, here’s what you shouldn’t do: You should not withhold rent. Doing so could get you evicted.

Some tenants think that if the rental unit has a problem that means they don’t have to pay rent. If you stop paying rent, you will probably hear from the landlord—but not to fix the problem. It will be to evict you.

You do not have to live with a problem, either. There’s a concept in the law called the “implied warranty of habitability,” meaning that your landlord has to keep the place livable. Note that livable pertains to necessities, such as running water, not because you can’t bear the olive green walls.

The Appropriate Steps

Here’s what you should do if there’s a problem that needs fixing:

1. Make Contact (and document it)

Contact your landlord as soon as you notice the problem. A good landlord will respond right away, and will take care of the issue. But, since you have read this far, you probably have a deadbeat landlord, and you are being ignored. So go to step 2.

2. Send a Certified Letter

Send your landlord a certified letter if they don’t respond to your first request. State the nature of the problem, and the date it started happening. You’ll need to have this documented in case you need to take further action, so make a copy for yourself as well.

3. Wait

Wait to see whether your landlord responds. Tenants typically need to give their landlord 30 days to fix a problem that is not an emergency. But emergencies need to be addressed immediately.

4. Allow Access

If your landlord responds, let them (or their representative) in to make the repair.

5. Try to “Repair and Deduct”

If your deadbeat landlord still ignores the situation, there’s more you can do. Try the repair-and-deduct method if your jurisdiction allows this. You would arrange for a repairman to fix the problem, and you would then deduct the cost from the rent. Provide your landlord with a receipt.

6. Call the Authorities

Call your local health or building inspector. Someone will inspect, and that could force your deadbeat landlord to act.

7. Withhold Rent

I know I said not to withhold rent earlier. But there might be an instance where you can. Find out whether your state allows this, and if so, under what conditions. What you’d typically need to do would be to set up an escrow account, and put the rent in it. Let your landlord know that you’re putting the rent payment in an escrow account and will release the funds after the repair is made.

8. Break the Lease

If your rental is truly uninhabitable, and your deadbeat landlord won’t do anything to fix it, you might be able to break the lease. But first check with an attorney or legal aid for your area to see whether you have a case.

You Might Not Have a Deadbeat Landlord

Although you are entitled to have your landlord fix major problems, such as no heat, no running water, and a pest infestation, you are not necessarily entitled to have nonessential problems fixed, such as a leaky sink. Read your lease to see whether it addresses minor repairs, how those are handled, and whose responsibility they are. You might need to change out that lightbulb yourself.

Also consider that if you caused the problem, you need to fix it. If your hair clogged up the sink, you need to fix that since you caused the problem. If the landlord fixes a problem you created, they can deduct the cost from your security deposit.

Conclusion

You don’t need to put up with a deadbeat landlord. Try the steps listed here. If you have a deadbeat landlord story of your own, share it in the comments section, along with what you did to solve the problem!

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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Stone Exteriors: Asset or Nightmare?

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Traditional vinyl siding, long the go-to material for home builders, is increasingly being snubbed in favor of trendier manufactured stone products that may or may not contain any actual stone. The appeal of faux stone to builders and home owners is easy to understand: Fabricated stone or stone veneer exteriors are lighter weight and less expensive than natural stone and are offered in a wide array of colors and styles. Manufacturers have reported double-digit sales increases in recent years. But home inspectors are sounding off about the need for caution: Reports of water damage due to poor installation techniques have become widespread.

Home inspector Scott Patterson with Trace Inspections in Nashville, Tenn., says that in nine out of 10 homes he inspects with stone veneer siding, the product has been applied incorrectly. And home owners are reporting that water seepage behind the siding is leading to rotting walls and mold problems. Sometimes the problems don’t become evident for years after installation.

These damage reports related to manufactured stone sound eerily similar to those from the 1990s when synthetic stucco (also known as exterior insulation finish systems or EIFS) generated a lot of public attention. Like artificial stone, synthetic stucco was initially touted as a more affordable, versatile alternative to the genuine product. EIFS were also more crack-resistant than traditional stucco. Years later, home owners discovered water penetrating small openings around windows and doors, leading to costly repairs. Home owners filed lawsuits against manufacturers, and class action settlements resulted in affected home owners receiving generous payouts.

3 Ways to Protect Home Exteriors

Most siding materials require little to no upkeep. Brick, engineered wood, stone (both natural and manufactured), and fiber cement are thought to last for the life of a home, according to a report released by the National Association of Home Builders and Bank of America, “Study of Life Expectancy of Home Components.” But Frank Lesh, executive director of the American Society of Home Inspectors, offers some pointers you can share with home owners to help them protect their siding from damage, including:

  • Keep foliage away. Make sure no plants are growing on the siding. “Plants can trap moisture and allow insects and animals to infiltrate,” Lesh says. “You want the siding to be exposed to the elements.”
  • Watch where water may be getting in. Check areas around windows and doors to see if water is getting in. Moisture can linger and eventually cause rotting or fungal growth. Make sure those areas have been properly caulked or tuckpointed to prevent seepage.
  • Keep the gutters cleaned. Many home owners think they only need to check for clogged gutters in autumn when leaves are falling. A neighbor’s stray tennis ball, a bird’s nest, or even squirrels stocking up for winter can quickly become a serious problem. If water gets backed up in your gutter, it could damage your siding too, Lesh notes. Have gutters checked at least twice a year. Or better yet, clean them four times a year to prevent back-ups.

To avoid a case of history repeating itself, the American Society of Home Inspectors has urged members to become familiar with manufactured stone siding and to inspect it vigilantly for budding problems given its porous nature compared to actual stone. ASHI has offered seminars about how to spot problems resulting from improper installation. Home inspectors nationwide are also posting articles on their websites warning home owners to have their manufactured stone inspected.

That said, not all homes with these exteriors are doomed, says Frank Lesh, executive director at ASHI. Home owners typically experience no problems when faux stone is installed correctly and appreciate it as an affordable, lightweight alternative to natural stone exteriors. The artificial product, running about $3 to $8 per square foot before installation, is one-third to one-half the cost of genuine stone, though still about double the cost of vinyl siding. “It’s a durable, long-lasting product, but there are still things to watch out for,” says Lesh. “It has to be installed the correct way, and among subcontractors—of even some big builders—unfortunately this isn’t always the case.”

Consumers purchasing a home featuring manufactured stone veneer might consider hiring a home inspector with specialized training. Real estate pros can direct clients to ASHI’s homeinspector.org website and recommend that they search for inspectors who list an expertise in these materials in their profiles.

So how do home owners know if they have a problem? There may be visible signs; Patterson recalls one recent incident where home owners noticed the trim boards inside their home were starting to separate and found a slight discoloration on a section of their hardwood flooring. Patterson discovered the exterior’s artificial stone was not installed with sealants or the needed backer rods around a huge window frame, which led to water pouring into the walls and eventually damaging the interior wall.

Another test for potential problems is to simply tap on the stone to see if anything feels loose. “If there’s water behind it, the glue starts to come off and you may get some movement,” Lesh says. Also, look for water damage around the siding. However, inspectors warn that the problems are often hidden behind the stonework and difficult to detect until the damage has become extensive.

That’s where specialized equipment can come in handy. Patterson uses a moisture meter and an infrared camera if he suspects a problem. He also looks to make sure the artificial stone comes up to the window or door frame, with only about a half-inch buffer between the two. That space should be filled with a foam rod and a flexible sealant that seals the entire area on top. He also checks to make sure the artificial stone isn’t buried underground. There should be about six inches between the ground and the base of the stone to prevent water from seeping in.

If damage is found, recommend that your clients consider hiring a structural engineer to complete a more invasive moisture testing procedure to learn the extent of the damage to the walls behind the stonework. Many of the same contractors who fixed EIFS in the 1990s and early 2000s are working on repairing stone veneers too. Home owners may find that builders can help resolve an installation issue as well.

Repairing the damage is no small job. The cost of replacing improperly installed manufactured stone runs from about $30 to $38 per square foot of wall. And that doesn’t include repairing any damaged landscape or the replacement of the product itself.

Meanwhile, home owners’ interest in manufactured stone veneer remains strong. The vast selection of colors and textures are a draw, and when it’s installed correctly, home owners find it worth every penny. Indeed, Remodeling magazine’s 2016 Cost vs. Value Report highlighted manufactured stone veneer as having the second highest ROI out of 27 home projects, with nearly 93 percent of the cost recouped at resale. (Only attic insulation, with an ROI of nearly 117 percent, came in higher.) But don’t leave any stone unturned when doing research about the benefits and pitfalls of this emerging product category.

Cerdit to Melissa Dittmann Tracey
Contributing Editor

Melissa Dittmann Tracey is a contributing editor for REALTOR® magazine.

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Top 8 Most Effective Leasing Incentives for Renters

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Understanding the Mind of a Renter

There are four factors that all renters consider before signing or renewing a lease; Location, Price, Condition, and You. That’s right, I said you!

Since you can’t change the location but still obviously want to command a higher price, you have to provide incentives that improve the condition, convenience, or the level of customer service.

If the location and property condition are not ideal, and you’re not willing to do anything about it, you’ll then have to provide financial incentives to spark interest. Realistically, most people would live almost anywhere, and in less-than-favorable conditions, if the rent were low enough.

Types of Incentives

…No one should get a prize for doing what is expected of them in the lease.

Whether you are trying to convince an applicant to sign a lease, or encourage a great renter to renew, incentives act as the carrot at the end of the proverbial stick.

With that said, I believe that no one should get a prize for doing the bare minimum or fulfilling what is expected of them in the lease.

1. Early Payment Discount

I believe that a landlord should never discount the rent if a renter pays it on-time – which usually means the absolutely last possible day. However, a small discount might be in order if the renter pays rent 10, or even 15 days early.

2. Rent Decrease

Rent decreases are a great way to convince excellent renters to sign another long-term lease. For this to be profitable, you really need to run the numbers. A $50 discount for 12 months would cost $600/year. Considering vacancy and upkeep, you must ask yourself “will keeping these renters for another year save me $600?”

3. Property Upgrades

Benefiting both the landlord and renter, anything that is a permanent change to the dwelling would be considered an upgrade. Renters who view the property as their “home”, will often ask for an upgrade.

If an appliance is near the end of its life, I’ll usually entertain the request – especially if it gets the renter to renew. Other simple upgrades can include painting, new carpet, additional parking, or even a bathroom/kitchen remodel.

4. Flexible Lease Terms

Sometimes, the ability to break a lease with 30 day notice, or the approval to have pets, is valuable to a renter. Again, you have to weigh the risk vs. reward, but sometimes it’s worth it.

Further, allowing other flexible terms, such as the ability to sublet, will entice a new renter or keep a current one. Student renters often travel home for the summer and want the ability to sublet their room.

5. Online Rent Payments

For many people, their rent payment is the only check they write all month. They would jump at the opportunity to pay their rent online, and finally ditch their checkbook. This added convenience can make a huge difference when marketing to new renters and instantly makes your property more appealing.

Every time I tell a potential applicant that they can pay their rent online, they get really excited. It’s obvious that they are tired of writing rent checks. It’s no secret that I use Cozy to self-manage all my properties, and my tenants love it. I haven’t had a single late payment since switching to online rent collection with Cozy.

6. First Month Free

Larger apartment complexes have the additional cash flow to cushion a free month worth of rent. However, often times, the 11 other months are increased by 1/11th the price to make up for it. Without realizing it, this incentive allows a renter to spread the first month’s payment over the term or the lease, but gives the impression that they are getting something for free. For better or worse, this incentive appeals to renters with little or no cash liquidity.

7. Zero or Partial Security Deposit

Waiving the deposit requirement is popular with large apartment complexes as a means to reduce vacancies, but it’s not feasible for an independent landlord. A landlord needs the deposit as security against unpaid rent and physical damages to the unit. Without it, the landlord has no leverage or protection.

Alternatively, spreading the deposit payments over the first three months will lighten the financial blow to the renter who often cannot afford to pay for first month’s rent and the deposit at the same time. However, it might not be wise to rent to someone who can’t pay the deposit in full.

8. Anything They Want (within reason)

Last but not least, perhaps it’s best to let the renter request the incentive. You just never know what they are thinking. For example, if they don’t have transportation, perhaps you could let them borrow your bike for the year. Or, maybe providing a partially furnished unit, or an early move-in date, would convince them to sign a lease.

At the end of the day, every landlord needs to market creatively to attract the best possible renters, and to keep the ones who care for the property and pay rent on time.

Many times, it’s the incentives that provide the extra push needed to seal the deal.

Credit to Lucas Hall

Lucas is the Chief Landlordologist at Cozy. He has been a successful landlord for over 10 years, with dozens of happy tenants and a profitable income property portfolio.

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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

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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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