5 Things That REALLY Will Put a Serious Dent in Your Energy Bills

Stop sending so much money to your utility company with these simple strategies.

Your Mexican beach vacation was great, but, man, those margaritas sure can put on the pounds. It’s been two months, and you’re still carrying around an extra tenner — despite a new running routine and a lot of #&*&@$ kale. So why isn’t your weight dropping?

It’s like that with energy bills, too. Eighty-nine percent of us believe we’re doing the right things to lower energy costs, and almost half of us think our homes already are energy efficient. Yet, 59% of us say our bills are going up, not down, despite our efforts to economize.

Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group, a marketing agency that specializes in energy efficiency and that did this research, says we’re rationalizing: “I bought these [LEDs] so now I can leave the lights on and not pay more. I ate the salad, so I can have the chocolate cake.” Denial much?

Her research also shows consumers, on average, made fewer than three energy-efficient improvements in 2012 compared with almost five in 2010. It looks like we’re giving in to higher utility bills. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

You just need to know what improvements really will make the biggest difference to lower your bills. There are five, and the good news is that they’re really (seriously) cheap. You can go straight to them here, but there’s also another thing you can do that doesn’t cost a dime — and will drop your costs:

Be Mindful About Your Relationship With Energy

Think about it. Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis without knowing how much it costs until a month later, says Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a research and policy-making nonprofit focused on improving buildings’ energy efficiency.

With other services you get a choice of whether to buy based on price. With energy you don’t get that choice — unless you intentionally decide not to buy. You can take control by making yourself aware that you’re spending money on something you don’t need each time you leave home with the AC on high, lights and ceiling fans on, and your computer wide awake.

That mindfulness is important because your relationship with energy is getting more intense. You (and practically every other person on the planet) are plugging in more and more. Used to be that heating and cooling were the biggest energy hogs, but now appliances, electronics, water heating, and lighting together have that dubious honor, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, based on data from U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the research arm of the Department of Energy (DOE).

Being mindful means it’s also time to banish four assumptions that are sabotaging your energy-efficiency efforts:

  1. Newer homes (less than 30 years old) are already energy efficient because they were built to code. Don’t bank on it. Building codes change pretty regularly, so even newer homes benefit from improvements, says Lee Ann Head, vice president of research and insights with the Shelton Group.
  2. Utilities are out to get us: They’ll jack up prices no matter what we do. It might feel cathartic to blame them (Shelton’s research shows consumers blame utilities above oil companies and the government), but to get any rate changes, utilities must make a formal case to public utility commissions.
  3. Energy improvements should pay for themselves. Nice wish, but it doesn’t work that way. When the Shelton Group asked consumers what they would expect to recoup if they invested $4,000 in energy-efficient home improvements, they said about 75% to 80%.Unless you invest in some kind of renewable energy source like geothermal and solar, you won’t see that kind of savings. (Sorry.) Even if you do all the right things, the most you should expect is a 20% to 30% reduction annually, says Head, which is still significant over the long term.What does 30% translate into? $618 in savings per year or $52 per month, based on the average household energy spend of $2,060 per year, according to Lawrence Berkeley and EIA.
  4. Expensive improvements will have the biggest impact. That’s why homeowners often choose pricey projects like replacing windows, which should probably be fifth or sixth on the list of energy-efficient improvements, Shelton says.There’s nothing wrong with investing in new windows. They feel sturdier; look pretty; can increase the value of your home; feel safer than old, crooked windows; and, yes, offer energy savings you can feel (no more draft).But new windows are the wrong choice if your only reason for the project was reducing energy costs. You could replace double-pane windows with new efficient ones for about $9,000 to $12,000 and save $27 to $111 a year on your energy bill, according to EnergyStar. (The savings are higher if you replace single-pane windows.) Or you could spend around $1,000 for new insulation, caulking, and sealing, and save 11% on your energy bill, or $227.

The 5 Things That Really Work to Cut Energy Costs

  1. Caulk and seal air leaks. Buy a few cans of Great Stuff and knock yourself out over a weekend to seal around:
    • Plumbing lines
    • Electric wires
    • Recessed lighting
    • Windows
    • Crawlspaces
    • Attics

    Savings: Up to $227 a year — even more if you add or upgrade your insulation.

  2.  

    Hire a pro to seal ductwork and give your HVAC a tune-up. Leaky ducts are a common energy-waster.Savings: Up to $412 a year.

  3. Program your thermostat. Shelton says 40% of consumers in her survey admit they don’t program their thermostat for energy savings. She thinks it’s even higher.
    Savings: Up to $180 a year.
  4. Replace all your light bulbs with LEDs. They’re coming down in price, making them even more cost effective.
    Savings: $75 a year or more by replacing your five most frequently used bulbs with Energy Star-rated models.
  5. Reduce the temperature on your water heater. Set your tank heater to 120 degrees — not the 140 degrees most are set to out of the box. Also wrap an older water heater and the hot water pipes in insulating material to save on heat loss.
    Savings: $12 to $30 a year for each 10-degree reduction in temp.

NOTE: Resist the urge to total these five numbers for annual savings. The estimated savings for each product or activity can’t be summed because of “interactive effects,” says DOE. If you first replace your central AC with a more efficient one, saving, say, 15% on energy consumption, and then seal ducts, you wouldn’t save as much total energy on duct sealing as you would have if you had first sealed them. There’s just less energy to save at that point.

Bonus Tip for More Savings

Your utility may have funds available to help pay for energy improvement. Contact them directly, or visit DSIRE, a database of federal, state, local, and utility rebates searchable by the state of California. Energy Star has a discount and rebate finder, too.

 

By: Christina Hoffmann for Houselogic

Torrance is a Great Family Town

Looking for a great place for a young family? Check out Torrance!

Torrance schools are rated 9 out of 10 by Great! schools!  Torrance has 48 primary and secondary schools, with Richardson Middle School in south Torrance (go Rattlesnakes!), being rated one of the highest.  According to U.S. News, Torrance High School has a 99% graduation rate, followed closely by West High with 98%, and South and North at 97%.  South, West and North have all been awarded Silver Medals.

In addition to have great schools, the city of Torrance has wonderful, broad community programs.  The summer calendar below shows just some of the line up.  Great activities for the family to enjoy together, while enjoying our great weather!

>>> PRINTABLE VERSION <<<  Perfect for your refrigerator so your family doesn’t miss a single fun activity this summer in Torrance!

To learn about all of the many programs, see the City of Torrance Summer 2017 Seasons online PDF booklet here.

Interested in what homes are available for your family?

Please call me, Lucy Garber, at (310) 293-4866 so I can talk to you and help you find the perfect house for your family to call home.

How to Beat the Heat this Summer

10 Easy Steps to Keep Your Air Conditioning Unit Running Smoothly

1. Shut off the power

2. Remove debris

3. Clean the fin

4. Straighten the fins

5. Clean area around the unit

6. Level the unit

7. Clean the evaporator coil

8. Clean a plugged evaporator drain

9. Change the blower filter

10. Turn the power back on

And Don’t Forget…

  • Have a professional HVAC company inspect your unit
  • Check refrigerant levels
  • Check your thermostat

Tip for Step 2
On the exterior condenser/compressor, remove the fan cage. Using a screwdriver or wrench, remove the fasteners and lift the cage or fan grill away from the top of the unit. By hand, or with a wet/dry vacuum, clean leaves and other debris from the interior.

Tip for Step 4
Since any reduction in air-flow through the fins can reduce efficiency, carefully straighten  bent fins using a butter knife or commercially available fin-straightening tool. be gentle so that the tubing embedded within the fins it not damaged.

How to DIY Your Taxes — and Not Miss a Single Deduction

Tips on choosing tax preparation software to help get all the homeowner benefits.

Ready or not, the tax man’s coming. Filing your taxes yourself may not be your idea of a fun night at home, but even so, it doesn’t really have to be that bad. Yes, even if you own a home. Even if you itemize your deductions. Even if you’re scared of making a mistake.

We turned to the tax pros and nailed down their top tips to make DIY tax filing as easy and painless as possible — as well as how to ensure you don’t miss any possible deductions. Here’s what they said:

Pick the Right Software

Unless you qualify for a free version (more about this below), software prices are all over the place. Still, you get what you pay for. TurboTax is pricey at almost $60 for the Deluxe version, but both our tax experts agree: If you’re going the DIY route, it’s their favorite option.

“It’s user-friendly,” says Cathy Derus, founder of Brightwater Accounting, who, despite being a CPA, admits she’s used the program herself in the past. “It offers an online questionnaire. Then, it walks you through exactly what you need to do.” That questionnaire does a good job of helping you identify possible deductions.

But it’s not fail-safe, she added. It’s only as good as the information you feed into it.

To really make sure you’re aware of all possible deductions, get a copy of Form 1040, Schedule A, (and Schedule C if you’re a sole proprietor for your own business), says Derus. Then, “scan the forms and take note of any items you think you might be eligible to take.”

If you’re a homeowner, here are some examples of deductions you can take:

Mortgage interest
Property taxes
Some costs of buying a new home
Some costs of selling a home
For a full list of your possible homeowner deductions, go here.

Free Software Can Be Ok, Too

If your adjusted gross income is below a certain threshold — typically $62,000 — you may qualify to use one of about a dozen free software options. TurboTax has a free option, but its income threshold is lower at $31,000. H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and TaxACT also have free versions.

Some companies also impose other restrictions, such as age and state of residence, to qualify for a free version. That’s because for some firms, the free offering is a way to find clients who might be willing to pay for other services.

Watch for extra costs:Some companies will file your federal return for free, but then charge you for the state return, to e-file, or ask questions of a live person.

Filing for an Extension Can Be a Smart Thing to Do

If you find yourself butting up against the tax filing deadline, you can always request an extension, “so you’re not stressed out,” says Derus.

Most people don’t fully understand how extensions work, and often make mistakes that cost a bundle. Here’s what you need to know:

How to file a tax extension:

File an extension anytime before or on April 15. You’ll avoid the late filing penalty, which is a whopping 5% of your outstanding balance, due for every month you’ve failed to file.
If you owe money, pay as much as you can by April 15 to avoid the late payment penalty of 0.05% interest. (A whole lot less than the late filing penalty, though!)
Make arrangements to complete your tax filing by the October 15 deadline to avoid adding extra interest payments.
Get the Benefits of E-Filing

You’ve probably already been e-filing your taxes, but are you aware of the benefits?

Why it’s better to e-file:

24 hours after you e-file, you can start checking on your return via the IRS’s “Where’s My Refund” online tool or IRS2Go app.
You’ll get any refund due to you faster.
You’re also more likely to know if you filed your forms correctly, avoiding a scary encounter with the tax man. Because if you e-file, you’ve got to use software. And these programs “run a check for questions that need to be answered, numbers that don’t add up, and missing Social Security numbers,” says Tai Stewart, accountant and owner of Saidia Financial Solutions in Houston. Those mistakes tend to flag your return for a close-up review.

You’ll also wait up to six weeks for your return if you use snail mail.

So, what are you waiting for? “Fill a pot of coffee, and get to work,” encourages Derus.

 

By: Alaina Tweddale

9 Ways to Save on Your Home That Grandma Never Told You

Classic advice — with a few modern twists for today’s homeowners.

Your grandma and her ma before her knew how to pinch pennies. Bet they knew where every dime of their household income went. Do you? Don’t kick yourself if you don’t. It’s tough in this day and age of automatic billing and apps that tap your debit card.

But we all could still learn a thing or two from grandma. Here are a few money-saving and money-making habits that your grandparents cultivated — some with a few modern twists that your grandparents wish they’d had back in their day.

1. Rent Your Rooms — and More

Your four-bedroom Cape Cod was ready for your future rugrats the day you moved in. But you? Not quite so ready. Your grandparents knew that extra space was a goldmine, and would rent it out. You’ve got it even better today with Airbnb or HomeAway (just make sure to check city regulations first).

Or commit to sharing space long-term: Finding a roommate makes you an honest-to-god landlord (and could score you a new bestie!), complete with tax deductions and blessed additional income.

There are other ways to leverage extra space that are easier today than in your grandparents’ day because it’s so easy to use the internet to advertise. If you’re lucky enough to live near a concert venue or ballpark, let attendees park in your driveway or parking space for some extra cash.

Have a rooftop patio perfect for parties? Check out Splacer, a new online marketplace for event planners, which can turn your home into a money-making event venue.

2. Revisit Your Insurance

The coverage you needed when purchasing the home might not be the coverage you need forever. Perhaps you sold your grandmother’s antique diamond ring, added a security system, or finally ditched the trampoline. Any of those things could actually make your rate go down. Give your agent a call to make sure you’re not over-covered.

You might even find savings on things you didn’t realize come built into your insurance.

“A lot of times, you find you have double insurance,” says Deb Tomaro, a REALTOR® in Bloomington, Ind. When a breach compromised her personal information, she set out to buy identity protection — only to find it was included in her homeowner’s policy.

“I would have paid for double coverage,” she says. “I didn’t know that until I asked.”

3. Research the Problem Before You Pay Someone

Your grandparents would have raged about paying someone for something they could do (or learn to do) themselves. Google DIY options before calling a pro — you might find your irritating issue super easy to fix on your own (and way, way cheaper).

Hiring a plumber to fix your leaky fill valve might cost $45 per hour (or much more). Handy homeowners might spend $25 or less on materials, saving you enough cash for a decent bottle of wine. And don’t bring out the handyman to fix cracking caulk — a $4 tube from the hardware store will do the job nicely.

4. Stock Up That Fridge

File this under strange-but-true: A full fridge regulates temperature better than an empty one. Open space in your refrigerator fills with warm air whenever you peek inside, making your poor appliance work overtime. Your grandparents’ fridges were smaller and easier to fill, so it wasn’t an issue for them. But today’s larger fridge/freezers can waste significant energy.

So go ahead, stock up on veggies, meat, and milk — just don’t let your grocery costs run amuck in the process. If you can’t fill it with usable food, place pitchers of water in your fridge to take up the space. And set your fridge between 36 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit for max efficiency.

5. Get FREE Stuff From Your Utility Company

Now this is a new one on your grandparents. Energy efficiency wasn’t quite the thing that is today. So, believe it or not, unlike a couple of decades ago, your utility company is working to save you money. Their methods might even be a little Oprah-inspired:

You get a free LED bulb!
You get a free energy audit!
You get an HVAC coil cleaning!
That’s right. Some utilities give away free stuff, like usage assessments, efficient bulbs, water-saving shower heads, faucet aerators, and more. And they may offer rebates for upgraded appliances. Bet your grandparents would have snapped those up if they had the chance.

“There are tons of ways to save,” says Steven Hughes, founder of Know Money, a financial literacy advocacy organization. “Some [utilities] are even sending out solar-powered panels to different houses, depending on the neighborhood, for no cost.”

6. Watch Your PMI

What’s PMI? Private mortgage insurance. If you put less than 20% down on your home, you’re probably paying for PMI, which protects your lender if you default on the loan. But once your loan-to-value ratio hits that blessed 20% mark, call your lender to cancel it.

Lenders aren’t required to remove it until you’re at 22% — meaning an eagle eye can save you a good bit of cash. You’ll save between $600 and $1,200 for each year’s worth of premiums you can avoid (for a typical homeowner).

You might reach the goal post earlier than you think.

“PMI usually ends seven or eight years down the road, but if you’ve made big changes to the home, you might reach that 20% value much quicker,” Tomaro says. Most lenders will require an appraisal to determine if you’ve passed the magic number.

7. Resist the Urge to File an Insurance Claim

Your homeowner’s insurance company doesn’t need to know about every bump, scrape, and petty theft. Think about how much you’re willing to pay out-of-pocket before an incident occurs. Frequent claims can increase your insurance score. That’s right, your insurance company gives you a score, which can affect your premium, so carefully assess your budget and deductible before filing.

“Have a conversation with all the decision-makers,” Tomaro says. You might decide you’ll skip any claim that would cost less than $1,000 to fix. In that situation, increasing your deductible might make sense — and it will save you on your monthly premiums.

8. Negotiate for the Best Price (You Can Do It!)

Accepting the first price you see can cost you — even when it comes to things like insurance premiums and handyman quotes. And you can put those haggling anxieties to rest: You don’t need to be a hard-nosed negotiator to save money on your monthly payments.

Often, asking politely for another rate is enough. Some home insurance companies offer discounts or extended coverage for teachers, long-term customers, and other groups. And when it comes to your cable bill, mentioning you need to check out a competitor before committing might net you another year’s worth of free HBO.

9. Reap the Power of Rags

Although paper towels did exist back in your grandparents day, they didn’t spend money on them when an old rag would do. Disposable to them meant throwing money away. Follow their lead, and skip the one-use roll for washable rags, available in cheap multipacks. Or use the rags you already have: old T-shirts, cut-up beach towels — even socks work.

Even if you calculate the energy cost to run a load of laundry just for rags, you’ll still come out ahead by replacing your paper towels, unless you’re tossing your rags in the wash after every tiny wipe.

By: Jamie Wiebe @ House Logic