Holiday Lighting Tips

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Holiday Lighting Safety Checklist

By: Pat Curry

Published: November 18, 2009

Before you plug in and light up for the holidays, run your decorations through this quick safety check.

Inspect light strings. Discard any that are damaged. Frayed or cracked electrical cords or broken sockets are leading fire hazards.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for connecting multiple strings. The general limit is three strings. Light strings with stacked plugs can usually accommodate greater lengths than end-to-end connections.

Replace burned-out bulbs promptly. Empty sockets can cause the entire string to overheat.

Make sure outdoor lighting is UL-rated for exterior use. Exterior lights, unlike those used inside the house, need to be weather-resistant. The same goes for any extension cords used outdoors.

Don’t use outdoor lights indoors. They’re too hot for interior use. For the coolest bulbs and greatest energy efficiency, try LED lights, which come in a wide range of styles and colors.

Don’t attach light strings with nails or staples. They can cut through the wire insulation and create a fire hazard. Only use UL-approved hangers.

Take exterior lights down within 90 days. The longer they stay up, the more likely they are to suffer damage from weather and critters chewing on them.

Store lights safely. Tangled lights can lead to damaged cords and broken sockets. After the holidays, coil each string loosely around a stiff piece of cardboard, wrap it in paper or fabric to protect the bulbs, and store in a sturdy container until next year.

Pat Curry is a former senior editor at BUILDER, the official magazine of the National Association of Home Builders, and a frequent contributor to real estate and home-building publications.

Must-Have Landscape Tools

In the world of landscape tools, these are the basics you must have to improve and maintain your property.

Round point shovel: Arguably the most versatile landscape tool, this shovel has a rounded and beveled steel blade that ends in a point. It digs, scoops, and slices dirt, manure, and gravel. Cost: $20 to $30.

Rakes: There’s a whole world of long-handled tools that dig, spread, and gather. Buy a metal-toothed landscaping rake to move dirt, separate rock from soil, and spread mulch. Buy a plastic leaf rake that gathers leaves, grass clippings, and other debris on the surface of your lawn. Cost: $30 to $50 (landscaping rake); $10 to $20 (leaf rake).

Hoe: This digging and spreading landscape tool has the blade at a right angle to a long handle. The shape and sharpness of blades vary, making some hoes better for slicing weed roots (gooseneck hoe), and others for breaking up soil (garden hoe). Cost: $10 to $40 (specialty hoe).

Flat border spade: The blade is parallel to the handle. This is often used to edge beds and uproot grass. Cost: $60 to $70.

Chainsaw: These gas or electric saws have sharp teeth that revolve on a chain. They’re good for cutting wood, downed tree limbs, big branches, and trees. It takes practice to use one safely, so get some pointers before revving up. A 40 cc saw with a 16-inch blade is good for most yard work. Cost: $130 to $200.

Shears: There’s a wide variety of hand-held landscape tools that cut and trim. You’ll need small bypass shears for roses, hedge shears for boxwoods, and looping shears for small tree limbs. Cost: $20 to $30.

Lawn mower: Manual, battery, electric, or gas-powered lawn cutters are pushed or ridden, self-propelled, or hand-propelled. Most can bag clippings. Get a 21-inch gas-powered mower for the average yard. Yards bigger than ¼-acre may need a riding mower to save time and muscle. A push-type reel mower is a good green choice. Cost: $100 (reel); $300 (gas); $1,500 (riding mower).

Wheelbarrow: Made of metal or plastic, wheelbarrows are movers of soil, plants, hay, and basically anything that fits. Most have one wheel and two handles for balancing and steering; some have two wheels for added stability. Cost: $30 to $60.

Edger: This is a manual or automatic landscape tool that creates a neat and clear separation between the lawn and adjacent surfaces (such as driveways) and around trees or flowerbeds. $30 (foot powered); $90 (electric); $190 (gas).

Hand trowel: This is used for digging small holes to plant seedlings and bulbs for borders and gardens. Cost: $5 to $10.

Must-Have Electrical Tools

Basic electrical tools will save you money on simple repairs and should be in every home owner’s toolbox.

Electrical tools fall into two categories: test and repair.

Test the power
Electrical testers are useful to determine if, where, and how much electricity is flowing–good and easy information to collect before you call an electrician.

Circuit tester: This plugs into an electrical outlet to test the presence of electricity, aka whether an outlet is “hot.” It’s a good tool to help you determine whether the lamp is broken or the outlet isn’t working. Make sure you test the tester on an outlet you know is hot, so you can trust its accuracy on others. Cost: $4.

Multimeter: One meter checks several electrical properties–AC or DC voltage, current, resistance–to help diagnose malfunctions. They’re digital or analog, and can test switches, batteries, and power sources. Cost: $15 digital; $10 analog.

Battery tester: Digital or analog meters are great for testing that drawer full of loose batteries. Cost depends on the types and sizes of batteries it tests. Cost: $15 for a household battery tester with an LCD display; $7 analog.

Repair the problem
Linemen’s pliers: These pliers grip, twist, and cut heavy wire and cable; they also can do double-duty to hammer nails or wire staples. Cost: $30 for 9″ pliers.

Long nose (needle-nosed) pliers: These skinny and grooved pliers have snipping blades that reach into small places to snip and bend the end of wire. Cost: $20 for 5″ pliers.

Wire stripper: This plier-like tool cuts through and strips plastic or rubber insulation around cable and wire. Cost: $12 for a 6″ stripper.

Insulated screwdrivers: Flathead and Phillips head screwdrivers come with insulated tops that protect against electrical shocks up to 1,000 volts. Cost: $40 (2-piece set; 4″ Phillips and flat).

Electrical tape: This plastic vinyl, ultra-sticky tape covers and insulates wire. Cost: $4 (3/4-inch, 66 ft.)

Cleaning House: Secrets of a Truly Deep Clean

Deep clean your house and you’ll brighten rooms and maintain your home’s value.

De-bug the light fixtures
See that bug burial ground within your overhead fixtures? Turn off the lights and carefully remove fixture covers, dump out flies and wash with hot soapy water. While you’re up there, dust bulbs. Dry everything thoroughly before replacing the cover.

Vacuum heat vents and registers
Dirt and dust build up in heat vents and along register blades. Vents also are great receptacles for coins and missing buttons. Unscrew vent covers from walls or pluck them from floors, remove foreign objects, and vacuum inside the vent. Clean grates with a damp cloth and screw back tightly.

Polish hardware
To deep clean brass door hinges, handles, and cabinet knobs, thoroughly wipe with a damp microfiber cloth, then polish with Wright’s or Weiman brass cleaner ($4). Dish soap shines up glass or stainless steel knobs. Use a Q-tip to detail the ornamental filigree on knobs and handles.

Replace grungy switch plates
Any amateur can wipe a few fingerprints off cover plates that hide light switches, electric outlets, phone jacks, and cable outlets. But only deep cleaners happily remove plates to vacuum and swipe the gunk behind. (OK, we’re a little OCD when it comes to dirt!) Make sure cover plates are straight when you replace them. And pitch plates that are beyond the help of even deep cleaning. New ones cost less than $2 each.

Neaten weather stripping
Peeling, drooping weather stripping on doors and windows makes rooms look old. If the strip still has some life, nail or glue it back. If it’s hopeless, cut out and replace sections, or just pull the whole thing off and start new. A 10-ft. roll of foam weather stripping costs $8; 16-ft. vinyl costs about $15.

Replace stove drip pans
Some drip pans are beyond the scrub brush. Replacing them costs about $3 each and instantly freshens your stove.

Must-Have Painting Tools

Sooner or later you’re going to paint something; you might as well have the correct tools. Here are the tools that should be in your painting toolbox.

A brush with painting tools
Paintbrushes are like shoes–you’ve got 50 pairs, but you always wear the same two. The go-to paintbrushes are a 3-inch flat brush for cutting in trim and a 1 1/2-inch angled brush for details. Brush handles are a matter of comfort–wood, plastic, wood-plastic–but brush filaments should match the job.

Natural bristle: Made of hog or ox hair, these are good for applying oil-based paints, primers, stains, and polyurethane varnishes and shellacs. Cost: $11 for a 3-inch flat brush; $7.50 for a 1 1/2-inch angled.

Synthetic bristle: These are good for applying latex and acrylic primer and paint, and water-based wood finishes and stains. Cost: $8 for a 3-inch flat brush; $6 for a 1 1/2-inch angled.

Paint roller derby
Paint rollers cover walls and ceilings quickly and seamlessly, and are essential painting tools.

If you’re a once-in-a-blue-moon painter, pick a disposable roller set. You’ll get a 9-inch plastic frame, synthetic cover, and plastic paint tray for about $5. If you plan to be the touch-up artist in your home, invest in a good roller set. Here’s what you’ll need.

Frame: For walls and ceilings, select a 9-inch metal cage with a plastic or wood handle, threaded to accommodate extension poles. Cost: $2.50.

Paint bucket and grid: Instead of tripping over gallon paint cans and upturning metal trays, fill a 5-gallon paint bucket halfway and slip in a 9-inch metal or plastic grid, which loads rollers with the proper amount of paint. Cost: $6 for a bucket; $2 for the grid.

Cover (sleeve): Lambskin or mohair covers are long-lasting and perfect for oil-based paints. Synthetic covers are better for acrylics. Covers with ½-inch naps are the most versatile. Cost: $7 for lambskin 9-inch ½-inch nap; $1.75 for synthetic.

Extension poles: Buy 2 ft.-4 ft. or 4 ft.-8 ft. aluminum extension poles that screw and lock into the frame handle. Cost: $18 for 2-4 ft.; $22 for 4-8 ft.

Must-Have Drywall Tools

Drywall ToolsThe correct drywall tools will easily repair the cracks and holes that inevitably appear in your walls. Here’s a look at the drywall tools that will do the job.

A smear of joint compound can cover faint cracks and subtle dimples in drywall, but you’ll have to perform some cut-and-patch surgery on holes and larger drywall problems. Here are the tools you’ll need.

Utility knife: Your main drywall cutting and scoring tool, this razor blade-in-a-handle also is good for straightening edges of damaged drywall for easier repair. Cost: $1 to $15.

Keyhole saw: This long and thin drywall saw looks like a barracuda, with interchangeable blades for precision and tight radius cutting. Cost: $6 (includes 2 blades).

Mesh or paper tape and patches: These hole cover-ups provide a flat surface for joint compound. Purists use mesh; others prefer paper tape, which they claim provides a smoother surface. Cost: $7/300 ft. for mesh tape; $4/150 ft. for paper tape. $5 per 6″ patch.

Try square: This L-shaped instrument is good for marking and measuring drywall cuts. Cost: $9 (hardwood) to $25 (rosewood).

Putty knife: This flat knife, usually 2 to 6 inches long, is used for applying joint compound or putty for small repairs and nail pops. Cost: $2 (plastic); $6 for 6-inch steel.

Drywall knives and trowels: These are flat tools–4″, 6″, 8″, and up–for taping drywall and applying, spreading, and feathering joint compound. Cost: The larger the knife–say, 12 inches–the more compound it will hold and the better it will feather the edges of joint compound patches. Cost: $4 (plastic set 6″, 8″, 10″); $40 (13″ steel trowel).

Mud pan: This mini-trough holds joint compound, aka “mud.” Pros like a stainless steel mud pan because it’s durable and won’t rust; plastic pans are cheap enough to throw out for easy clean-up. Cost: $4 (plastic); $14 (stainless steel).

Sanding block: This rubber block holds the sandpaper that smoothes and blends drywall patches. Cost: $5.

Foreclosure Counselors: What They Can and Can’t Do

Foreclosure counselors can make the difference between losing your home and keeping it. Here’s how they work and how to choose one.

What a foreclosure counselor does

  • Reviews your finances
  • Helps you establish a budget
  • Explains your non-foreclosure options, such as loan modification, short sale, or deed in lieu of foreclosure; helps you navigate the process with any chosen option
  • Advocates on your behalf with lenders and loan servicers.

Counselors should also be up front about discussing their own track records as well as the track records of the agency they work for.

Expect to spend two to 24 hours with a counselor, depending on the complexity of your foreclosure situation, including how many lenders you have to provide documentation to and negotiate with.

Be sure the counselor is looking at your situation holistically—not just at your foreclosure. When counselors focus only on your mortgage, they’re not seeing the whole problem, says Martha Viramontes, director of housing at ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions in Los Angeles. Expect an action plan containing the tasks you’ll perform to change your financial situation.

You can get some concrete results by listening to your counselor: The study also showed that home owners who received loan modifications in 2008 and 2009 reduced their monthly payments by $267 more than those who didn’t get counseling.

Study bottom line: Odds of bringing loans current were 53% higher if you received pre-modification counseling than if you didn’t.

What a foreclosure counselor doesn’t do

  • Give tax advice
  • Give legal advice
  • Give guarantees regarding a particular outcome
  • Create miracles.

For additional advice, add a tax adviser and attorney to your team.

Finally, “don’t expect a counselor to be a genie,” says Douglas Robinson, a spokesperson for NeighborWorks America, a nonprofit community development corporation in Washington, D.C., that provides foreclosure counseling and administers the NFMC. “If you’re in a home that under the most aggressive scenario you can’t afford, but maybe you got into it because of some toxic loan that should never have been available in the first place, you’re probably going to have to move. It’s best you get out smoothly.”

How to choose an agency

Seek only HUD-approved agencies. HUD makes it easy:

  • Type in your state or ZIP code at
  • Call HUD’s foreclosure counseling hotline at 800-569-4287.
  • Call HUD’s foreclosure prevention hotline at 888-995-HOPE (4673).

HUD-approved agencies are all nonprofit, community-based organizations that have administered a housing counseling program for at least a year.

HUD-approved agencies also are required to:

  • Employ counselors who are knowledgeable about federal housing programs.
  • Have a staff of counselors of which at least half must have two or more years of counseling experience. At least half must also have received housing counseling training in the past two years.
  • Provide you with certain documents, such as a privacy agreement explaining how your personal information will be handled.

In addition, at the agency you work with, see if you can find a foreclosure counselor who has certification through the NeighborWorks Center for Homeownership Education and Counseling (NCHEC), which has a Foreclosure Intervention and Default Certification Program. Certified counselors must follow NeighborWorks counseling standards and code of ethics and conduct. They also are required to:

  • Have at least one year of experience in foreclosure counseling
  • Attend three foreclosure prevention courses.

Under-Cabinet Lighting: Your Kitchen Task Masters

Chop, dice, prep, and clean without eyestrain—or nicking your thumb with a knife. Under-cabinet lighting eases kitchen chores and shows off your style.

Under-cabinet lighting fixtures
Hard-wired under-cabinet lighting systems connect directly to your home’s 120-volt electrical system. The advantage is that the lighting is reliable, wires are completely concealed, and the lighting turns off and on with a convenient wall-mounted switch.

Although costs depend on the type of lighting you choose and the complexity of your project, expect to pay about $300 to $400 for a six-light system, professionally installed in an average 10-by-12-foot kitchen.

A low-voltage system uses a transformer to reduce current to 12 or 24 volts. (Some fixtures feature a built-in transformer.) A low-voltage system uses less electricity than line-voltage fixtures and you may be able to save on labor costs by installing a low-voltage system yourself.

A four-light low-voltage kit with transformer will cost about $35.

Plug-in under-cabinet lighting features DIY fixtures that you mount with screws and plug into a nearby wall outlet. The cord will be visible from the bottom of the cabinet to the outlet and the fixtures must be turned on individually. Cost, however, is modest–about $8 per light.

Battery-operated under-cabinet lighting skips wiring altogether. The fixtures are inexpensive and easy to install with screws or adhesive backing. The drawback is that you turn them on one at a time and change batteries periodically.

Expect to pay about $20 for one multi-light bar or $30 for a set of 10 individual fixtures.

Bars or pucks?
You’ll find two basic formats for under-cabinet fixtures—light bars and pucks. Light bars are rectangular and stretch light over a wider area. Pucks are small, round, and concentrate light in a smaller area.

What type of light?
Fluorescent bulbs produce energy-efficient light with a cool or bluish cast. The bulbs last from 5,000 to 20,000 hours and save money over the long run. Under-cabinet fluorescents cannot be dimmed.

To mimic the warmth of incandescent light, select a warm white fluorescent or one with a color temperature rating of 3200K or lower.

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, provide more than 50,000 hours of illumination and are exceptionally energy-efficient.

Zenon is an incandescent light source with a hint of zenon gas for longer life. A zenon bulb lasts about 8,000 to 10,000 hours and emits a pleasing, warm light.

Halogen bulbs provide a very intense, directed light but burn especially hot, causing their popularity to wane in recent years.

With four home renovations to her credit, Jan Soults Walker is a devotee of improvements, products, and trends for the home and garden. For 25 years she’s written for a number of national home shelter publications, and has authored 18 books on home improvement and decorating.

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