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Our phones are smart. Our cars are becoming smarter. It was only a matter of time before our homes followed suit. Of course, smart homes are more than just “cool.” Their security measures can help safeguard your largest asset and your most precious loved ones. 

If you’re not sure how to make your home “smart,” our experts put together this quick go-to guide to get you started!

What you need to consider before starting your smart home journey

One of the first tips to a successful smart home tech journey is deciding if you’re going to DIY the installation or go all in with PSE (“pay someone else” to do it). If you’re not tech- or home-savvy, you may want to consider getting a home security system installed. Many security companies have a team who will install the smart home tech devices for you.

If you’re going the DIY route, then follow these simple tips:

Tip #1 – Create a plan for your smart home journey.

While you no longer have to stick to one company (Google, Amazon, Yale, GE Lighting, etc.), some smart home devices are not compatible with others. This may change as of this year with Matter, a new connectivity standard. Matter may be able to connect individual smart home tech products from more than 50 companies, but only time will tell if its implementation works. Until then, check to see if the devices you want in your home are compatible with each other.

Tip #2 – Set up a second router.

a router on a table in a home
Protect your devices with a second router.

If you’re going to be using Wi-Fi for your devices, then consider setting up a different router from your current home one. This should help to keep your devices running quicker and also keep your devices safe(r). If your home router or your smart home router is hacked, the devices on the opposite router won’t be compromised.

Tip #3 – Or skip the Wi-Fi.

If you don’t trust your Wi-Fi, then consider connecting your smart home devices to a Z-wave mesh network. This type of network uses low power and a different frequency than Wi-Fi, so it won’t interfere with your non-smart home devices. It also uses the same encryption as online banking and is used by nine out of 10 of the leading security companies. With this network, you shouldn’t get your smart thermostat hacked and upped to 90°F.

Tip #4 – Contact your insurance company.

Since some smart home devices double as security devices, many insurance companies offer discounts for homeowners who install them. Just make sure that if you get a discount, you use your smart home devices. If you forget to charge your Ring doorbell and someone happens to break in that night, your theft claim can be denied.

Tip #5 – Explore the possibilities.

a homeowner changing the hue of their smart home device - lights
Even your lights can be smart!

Between smart light bulbs that can turn different shades to refrigerators that can tell if you’re out of milk, the possibilities are (almost) endless when it comes to smart home technology. Make sure you take advantage of all smart home technology has to offer, including the ability to change the thermostat without ever getting out of bed. Welcome to the future!

Starter smart home tech

So where, exactly, do you begin your smart home journey? Here are a few products that are easy to install that can improve the safety and comfort of your home!

Step #1 – Start outside with a video doorbell

Indoors safety starts by protecting the exterior of your home, and a video doorbell is a first easy step into the world of smart home safety. A video doorbell allows you to see and speak with a visitor on your doorstep, even when you’re not home. If a “porch pirate” or burglar walks up to your front door, you’ll have them on camera.

Step #2 – Protect your home’s exterior

a homeowner testing their app and smart camera connection
I spy with my smart home camera eye…

A natural next step is to install motion-activated cameras and lights around your property. These protect your property by illuminating dark areas and potentially catching would-be burglars off guard. They are also a plus if your trash bins usually get ransacked by raccoons or bears, though sometimes the sudden light will not scare off those creatures of the night.

Step #3 – Head indoor with cameras

If you’re looking for safety or to see your children come home from school, then indoor cameras may be next on your list. Just make sure to do your due diligence. Some cameras – even pet cameras – have been hacked, so you may want to consider getting cameras that record locally and don’t use a cloud service.

Step #4 – Warm up to the idea of smart thermostats

a homeowner turning down her thermostat
Turn up your comfort!

While programmable thermostats have been touted for some time as being energy efficient, smart thermostats take your energy-saving efforts up a notch. Forgot to turn down your thermostat before leaving home? You can do it from an app on your phone! If you keep your thermostat low during the day to save energy, then you can turn it up when you’re on your way home and turn it down again when you’re getting into bed – all from an app.

Step #5 – Go all in with the sensors

Whether you have the latest PlayStation, a large screen TV, or Wayne Gretzky’s hockey stick, one of the best ways to protect your home (and stuff!) is with a home security system. Experts say that a home with a security system is 300% less likely to be burglarized than a home without one, and most models not only have central monitoring but also additional safety features. Many come with smoke and carbon monoxide monitoring, water sensing, and even panic buttons. 

Before you decide on your security system, check the different packages and inclusions, so you can choose the system and plan that best protects your home and family.

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The ground thunders. Your world shakes, and your home can crumble around you. What can you do to stay safe during an earthquake?

Preparation is key. That’s why we reached out to Mike Mahoney, Senior Geophysicist, National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program, and Pataya Scott, PhD, Civil Engineer, Earthquake and Wind Programs Branch, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Both offered us important preparedness tips to help lower your risk of injury and home damage during a severe earthquake.

Are you in the danger zone?

While most earthquakes in the U.S. occur in California, a large part of the country is at risk.

“According to the U.S. Geological Survey, about half the states in our country can experience a damaging earthquake,” says Mike, who has been with FEMA for more than 38 years and was deployed after the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles.

What causes earthquakes? Most earthquakes center around fault lines or the boundaries between two plates. The famous San Andreas Fault in California is the boundary between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate, and is responsible for the severe 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and the 2014 South Napa earthquake. However, the North American plate has triggered severe earthquakes outside of California as well.

“Probably the most famous ones were the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes,” says Mike. “We had three magnitude 8.0-plus earthquakes in that area, which is on the border between Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.”

There are other faults throughout the country, including the Wasatch Fault in Salt Lake City, the Seattle Fault, and Piedmont Fault System outside of Charleston, South Carolina. There’s even a fault up in Boston.

map of the U.S. earthquake haazard
Source: FEMA P-530, Earthquake Safety at Home

Are you in an area where a strong earthquake can occur? Check the map above to find out!

What to do before an earthquake occurs

“You can never be too prepared,” says Mike, “and we do put out some publications to help in that regard.”

FEMA’s Earthquake Safety at Home, Earthquake Safety Checklist, and Earthquake Home Hazard Hunt all offer earthquake preparedness tips with step-by-step guidance to home safety and risk mitigation.  

“[The Earthquake Home Hazard Hunt] shows a graphic of a house and several different items that could fall over and cause damage or injury during an earthquake,” explains Mike. “We highlight those things and on the back of that chart, describes how to actually do them.”

There are a number of steps you can take to prepare your home for an earthquake; however, Mike always recommends starting with your hot water heater.

a damaged hot water heater after an earthquake
Source: FEMA P-530, Earthquake Safety at Home

“Water heaters are very tall, very narrow, very heavy, and almost always fall over in an earthquake,” says Mike. “When they do, they can rupture the water line and cause flooding in your basement. If they’re natural gas fired, they can rupture the natural gas line and create a fire hazard.”

Damaged exhaust flues for gas-fired heaters can also allow carbon monoxide to build up in the home, which can be deadly.

how to bracket a hot water heater so it won't be damaged in an earthquake
Source: FEMA P-530, Earthquake Safety at Home

The best way to prevent your hot water heater from becoming a hazard is to wrap metal straps around the body and top, and attach it to the wall studs with lag bolts. This can be easily and rather inexpensively done with the help of premanufactured seismic strapping kits, which you can find at your local hardware store. Gas and water appliances also require flexible connections to prevent leaks and fires during an earthquake, but a licensed plumber is recommended for this task.

Also, check to make your home is bolted to the foundation. Mike remembers the Northridge earthquake, where he saw “older homes that weren’t properly bolted literally slide off their foundations.” If your home isn’t bolted to its foundation or you can’t tell, speak with contractor who can help to properly anchor your home to its foundation.    

Other parts of your home also need to be anchored, such as elevated decks, porches, trellises, and carports, as these can collapse and cause injury. Chimneys, too, can be a safety hazard during moderate or large earthquakes.  

a broken chimney on the ground
Is your chimney up to modern bracing requirements?

“I’ve seen chimneys where they collapse into the house and cause injury,” says Mike. “That was one of the most severe injuries in the Napa earthquake about eight years ago.”

If your chimney does not meet modern earthquake bracing requirements or you don’t know if it does, consult an experienced contractor to help safeguard your home from damage and your family from injury.

Quick earthquake preparedness tips

Make sure to complete these additional earthquake preparedness tips to safeguard your family and help to reduce the risk of damage to your home:

a diagram of a home with earthquake preparedness tips
Source: FEMA 528, Earthquake Home Hazard Hunt

FEMA’s Earthquake Home Hazard Hunt also provides more information regarding these safety measures, including what you need to know before turning off your gas valve.

What to do during an earthquake

There are two common reactions to an earthquake – freezing and trying to run out of a building. The latter is one of the worst things you can do.

“Things will fall off the building as the earthquake’s happening,” says Mike. “People have been killed by that.”

That’s why you need to “Drop, Cover, and Hold.”

how to drop, cover, and hold on during an earthquake
Source: Earthquake Country Alliance and Southern California Earthquake Center, shakeout.org

“Drop to the ground and cover your head in case something falls on it,” says Mike. “If you can get under a desk or table to protect yourself, then do that.”

These few actions can help to protect your head from falling objects. Just make sure to stay there until the shaking stops.

What to do after an earthquake

Once the shaking stops, FEMA recommends vacating the building in case it’s been damaged and could possibly collapse. Once you’re out, look at the building. If it appears to still be on its foundation and not damaged or leaning, then it may be safe to re-enter. However, don’t unless you know it’s safe.

You should also be wary of nearby structures, which may have been damaged by the intense shaking.

“Don’t just look at your immediate surroundings,” says Pataya, who has been with FEMA for more than four years. “Look at the whole area just to see if you’re safe. Even if your building performed well, a building next to you might be about to fall over onto your building.”

Once you are back inside, make sure to check your utilities and their connections.

a broken gas connector line after an earthquake
Install flexible connections.

“Do you smell gas? If so, shut off the gas supply,” says Mike. “The electricity’s probably going to be off already anyway, but if you detect damage, then shut the electric off as well. Then just take care of yourself. Be safe.”

How long do earthquakes last?

“Generally, they’re seconds,” says Mike, “but they can, in some cases, especially with what we call subduction earthquakes that happen off the Pacific Northwest – those can go for minutes.”

Protect yourself until you feel that the shaking has stopped and be mindful of aftershocks, which are usually not as severe as the main shock.  

“But they can still be severe enough to cause additional damage and injury,” warns Mike.

Make sure to not put yourself in a position where if an aftershock happens, you’re going to get injured.

Beware of secondary hazards – fire, landslides, electrocution

a fire in the middle of a road following the Northridge earthquake
Source: U.S. Geological Survey, usgs.gov

One of the most frequent hazards after an earthquake is fire. Natural gas lines can break and cause significant fires. Small fires may also occur inside your home. 

“The first responders and the fire department are going to be overstretched immediately,” says Mike. “If you have a small fire, it might be up to you to put it out because the fire department may not be able to respond right away.”

Landslides are another common occurrence, especially in wet environments.

“With climate change causing rain in some areas, that can actually increase the probability of a landslide happening,” says Mike.

Electrocution, too, is always a concern, so avoid down wires or broken appliances.  

How to survive a disaster financially

Earthquake preparedness also includes preparing financially, so naturally, you may be wondering, “Do I need earthquake insurance?”

Since your home is one of your largest investments, you need to protect it. If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, you should consider getting this specific type of home insurance policy.

“Generally everything’s covered, as long as it’s attributable to the earthquake,” says Mike. “It’s not part of your normal homeowner’s policy and has to be a separate policy, much like flood.”

a house on a hill with parts of it tumbling off the side
Source: U.S. Geological Survey, usgs.gov

This includes dwelling coverage and additional living expenses. It may even give you the money you need to rebuild your home.

Earthquake insurance doesn’t cover fire damage, which is usually part of a standard homeowners insurance policy; floods, even those caused by an earthquake; vehicle damage, which requires comprehensive auto insurance; and sinkhole damage.

Unfortunately, many homeowners forgo this insurance. According to FEMA, only 10% of California’s residents, 11.3% of Washington residents, and only 12.7% residents in Missouri have this insurance. These low numbers are attributed to skyrocketing premium as 60% of Missouri residents had earthquake insurance in 2000.

“Earthquake insurance can sometimes have a pretty high deductible,” says Mike.

In the event of a federal disaster declaration, homeowners may be able to receive “disaster loans,” which are low interest loans. The maximum disaster loan amount is $250,000, and average FEMA individual assistance payout is $5,000.

“That could be part of your plan as well,” says Mike. “You cover that deductible with a low interest loan and then the insurance covers the rest of it.”

There are different options, so you need to see which policies and coverages work best for your family.

Prepare and be patient  

“After a large earthquake, first responders are going to be inundated, and you’re going to be on your own for days,” says Mike. “We say three days, but if it’s a large earthquake, it’s going to be longer than that.”

That’s why you need to take earthquake preparedness steps now because you’re not going to be able to do normal activities, such as running to the store for groceries. You may not even have power or communication.

a family in a living room discussing their emergency plans
Prepare your family and home for an earthquake.

“Have a plan and have an earthquake kit that’s ready,” says Mike. “Make sure it has water, food, medicine, whatever you need to survive.”

Adds Pataya, “I often hear people in California say they have tennis shoes in their cars, just in case.”

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Homeownership simplified with vipHomeLink
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Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHomeLink home management app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

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Rising utility bills, rolling summer blackouts, and the drastic effects of climate change have led many to wonder, “What can I do to help lower my energy consumption at home?” You may be surprised to learn a home energy assessment can provide the answer.

A home energy assessment, AKA home energy audit or home efficiency assessment, is a comprehensive evaluation of the energy use of a home and provides recommendations to improve the home’s comfort, health, and safety.

“The assessment really helps you understand how your home is working and where its deficiencies are, as well as opportunities to save energy and money, says Steve Dunn, technology manager, Home Performance with ENERGY STAR.

We spoke with Steve and his colleague Scott Minos, who leads the Department of Energy’s Energy Saver Program. He shared what you need to know about a home energy assessment, why now is a great time to get one, and quick efficiency tips to help you jump-start your energy saving efforts at home.   

When to schedule your home energy assessment

Home energy assessments are informative for homeowners of both existing homes and new construction, including ENERGY STAR certified new homes and apartments, which are independently inspected by a third-party energy rater to verify their energy performance

“For a new home, it provides you a baseline such as a Home Energy Score,” Scott said. “In existing homes, the assessments can be useful, particularly for older homes.”

“If you’re noticing rooms that are either too warm or too cold, high-energy bills, or indoor air quality issues such as high levels of dust in the home, those are all good indications that there are some issues that need to be addressed,” says Steve, who led national efforts to advance state clean energy and climate change policies and initiatives for the Environmental Protection Agency before joining DOE.

A home energy assessment can help to identify and prioritize functions that are costing you more money or creating safety issues.

The home functions as a system, so there’s interaction between components,” says Steve. “When systems are updated or replaced or the home envelope is sealed and insulated, that could cause changes to things like moisture movement and indoor air quality.”

While a home energy assessment is not an annual need, homeowners may want to consider one if there’s a major improvement or change that could impact the performance of the home’s systems. Even homes built just a few years ago may not have the latest technology or meet the latest energy efficiency guidelines.

How to prepare for an energy assessment

utility bills, a pen, and a calculator
Have your utility bills handy!

Prior to your appointment, homeowners should complete the following tasks:

Depending on the complexity of the home and the number of systems installed, a home energy assessment typically takes one to three hours. A larger home or a home with multiple systems will take more time.

What to expect during a home energy assessment

“The assessment starts with an interview with the homeowner, and that’ll include a discussion to identify any specific issues in the home, such as comfort or drafts, and as well as the living patterns,” says Steve.

The assessor will then review the energy bills and the fuel consumption of the home before moving onto a visual inspection. This part will include the home’s exterior, interior, insulation levels, the condition of mechanical systems, drainage and ventilation, as well as any ceiling fans and kitchen or bathroom exhaust fans, and any whole house ventilation systems that may exist.

Potential diagnostic tests

a blower in a door during a home energy audit
Your home will be put to the test!

The assessor may also conduct a number of diagnostic tests, including:

Energy assessments can also identify potentially any safety issues in the home, such as carbon monoxide from combustion appliances, electrical hazards, and minor or major natural gas leaks in the home.

Get energy-saving tips from your accessor

a homeowner turning down her thermostat
Adjust your habits.

A home energy assessor not only analyzes your home systems and their functions, but also learns about the homeowners’ behaviors related to energy usage.

“The assessor will want to observe how the owners use the home, how they wash their clothes or whether they close blinds or use other window coverings, things of that nature,” says Scott. “They might have different kinds of input and advice based on just behavior.”

Some behavior-based recommendations may include washing clothes in cold water as opposed to hot or even warm water; adding window coverings to a certain part of the home; setting the thermostat at a certain degree, etc.

“This way, homeowners can understand their own energy conservation efforts and how their behavior can result in savings,” says Scott.

As a final step in a home energy audit, the assessor will use modeling software, including the DOE’s Home Energy Score tool or a third-party commercial energy software, to develop a prioritized list of recommendations for improvements. This will include any recommendations related to health, safety, and comfort, and prioritize the improvements based on the cost benefit to the homeowner.

Home energy audit cost and options

Home energy assessments generally range between $200 to $600, depending upon the specific tests completed. However, the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy has a system that provides a home energy audit for less.

“The DOE Home Energy Score tool is on the lower end of that range,” says Steve. “It provides recommendations and typically takes less than an hour.”

EERE also recommends homeowners contact their utility companies. Some offer free home energy audits or energy assessments at a discounted rate for their customers. The recent Inflation Reduction Act provides up to $150 in tax credits for your home energy assessment. (More on that in a moment!)

Another option for homeowners is a virtual energy assessment. This type of audit is conducted remotely and in some cases with a smartphone or other device. (vipHomeLink offers a Virtual Home Checkup, which provides energy-saving tips!) In this case, the homeowner will walk around the home and highlight certain systems and areas for the assessor. 

“That’s obviously not as detailed as an on-site assessment,” says Steve, “but it can help identify if there are opportunities for making energy improvements that might be supported by doing further on-site testing diagnostics.”

Take advantage of rebates and tax credits

Homeowners should look into rebates that may be available through their utility companies and the government for installations. Low-income households may qualify for assistance through the weatherization assistance program, income-qualified programs offered by their local utility, or from state and local housing agencies.

a homeowner applying weather stripping to a window
Keep your home warm and cozy.

“Some utility companies offer what’s called a direct install where they will install improvements at no cost to the homeowner,” says Steve. “This might include things like weather stripping around windows and doors, possibly installing a smart thermostat.”

The Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law both included rebates and other types of incentives. Additional tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements will be available in early 2023.

“There was an existing tax credit that had a lifetime limit of $500 for home energy efficiency improvements,” explains Steve. “That’s now becoming a $1,200 annual tax credit with $150 allotted for home energy audits.”

Some homeowners can receive a 30% tax credit on eligible home improvements, including exterior doors that meet ENERGY STAR requirements; exterior windows and skylights that meet ENERGY STAR’s most efficient certification requirements; and other qualified energy equipment, such as central air conditioners, electrical panels, certain water heaters and furnaces.  

a heat pump next to a home
Homeowners can receive tax credits for installing heat pumps!

Homeowners who install heat pumps, heat pump water heaters, biomass stoves and/or boilers, can receive up to $2,000 in tax credits, which are separate from the $1,200 annual credit.

To take advantage of rebates and tax credits, homeowners can:

Top tips to jump-start your energy-efficiency efforts at home

EERE stresses the importance of a professional home energy audit, but there are some things homeowners can do to increase the energy efficiency and safety of the home. Scott shared with us quick ways to jump-start your energy-saving efforts!

Start with lighting

a homeowner changing a light bulb
Hello, LEDs!

“The first and a very easy thing to do is look at your lighting,” says Scott. “Lighting accounts for about 10% of the average home’s electric bills.”

Homeowners should make sure to use ENERGY STAR Certified LED bulbs, which use up to 90% less energy and last up to 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs. Also, select ENERGY STAR Certified light fixtures, especially for outdoor fixtures with features such as automatic daylight shut-off and motion sensors. Also, make sure the home’s lighting is up to the modern electrical code and local standards.

Check insulation levels

If you have easy access to your attic, see if you have adequate levels of insulation and if the home is well insulated and sealed. (If you’re not sure about your home’s specific type or insulation levels, check out Energy Saver’s page on insulation!)

You should also check for air leaks around the usual suspects – windows, doors, and your roof.

“There’s some low-tech ways to definitely check for air leaks,” says Scott. “This can even help reduce your energy bill by 10 to even 20%.”

EERE recommends completing simple tests using a dollar bill, an incense stick, and a flashlight – not all at the same time, of course. Learn the three simple tests to detecting drafts on the Energy Saver website!

Monitor plug loads

Two cellphones charge a counter
Unplug your chargers.

Plugged-in items use 30 to 40% of the total energy consumption in the home. Even when they’re not in use, they still consume energy.

“Using power strips or other smart home devices can have a big impact on the energy bill,” says Steve.

Smart home devices and smart strips can help to resolve these standby modes,” and if homeowners forget to turn off a device, they can do so from an app on their phone.

Homeowners may also want to invest in whole home energy monitoring systems.

“The whole home energy monitors are designed to connect to the electrical panel and can help identify appliances that may be operating inefficiently or help to find where the most intensive energy uses are occurring,” says Steve.

Complete proper appliance maintenance

Check your appliances and make sure they’re running well. Also, complete home maintenance tasks, such as cleaning your refrigerator coils, vacuuming your dryer exhaust vent, and changing your HVAC filters regularly. (The vipHomeLink home management app can remind you to do these energy- and money-saving tasks!)

This also includes completing your annual or bi-annual heating and cooling system maintenance as well as hot water heater maintenance.

“Both extend the life of the equipment and ensure its operating efficiently,” says Scott.

As we know here at vipHomeLink, the importance of home maintenance cannot be understated.

“Doing regular maintenance is always important as it makes sure that the house is working well,” says Steve. “This is really about home performance, and before it can perform well, it needs to be maintained.”

Join the neighborhood!

Homeownership simplified with vipHomeLink
Download the app now!

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHomeLink home management app can help. In less than four minutes, enjoy a new way to manage your home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Get it today!

It’s fall, which means it’s officially Halloween season! Between sipping pumpkin spice lattes and going leaf peeping, you may also like to transform your house into a spooky spectacle. Of course, safety should also be top of mind when it comes to decorating and celebrating any holiday, so we reached out to our friends at Franklin Mutual Insurance (FMI) for top tips to help you enjoy a safe Halloween at home!

Tip #1 – Make your property and yard safe for trick or treaters

“The first thing that comes to mind for a safe Halloween is property and yard safety,” says Chelsea VanderGroef, Vice President, Marketing, for FMI. “You need to make sure your home is safe for guests.”

While you may want to make your home a scary sight, remember to follow these Halloween safety tips when decorating:

Unleveled walkways and driveways can create hazardous situations. If you have unsafe areas, call a professional to address these issues before someone gets hurt. Also, cordon off any unsafe areas of your yard and if need be, send guests to another doorway that’s safer, such as a side door. You may also want to consider sitting at the edge of your property to hand out candy.

Tip #2 – Decorate safely

electric tea candle a table - safe halloween
Save your jack-o-lantern and home with safe lighting options.

When decorating, always err on the side of caution for a safe Halloween.

“Avoid the urge to use real flames,” says Chelsea. “Real candles can create hazardous situations in jack-o-lanterns and windows, and near curtains, costumes or flammable decorations. Instead, opt for electrical candles or glow sticks.”

Also, don’t overload outlets or extension cords as this, too, can start a fire. Of course, avoid stringing too many lights together. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions, but the general rule of the thumb is to connect no more than three strings together. 

“While this may seem like a no-brainer, it’s important to note that if you’re using an extension cord or decorations outdoors, make sure everything’s rated for outdoor use,” says Chelsea. “Also, avoid a shock by plugging any electrical decorations into a GFCI outlet.”

Tip #3 – Don’t petrify your pets

a dog in a witches hat for a safe Halloween
Safeguard your pets and trick-or-treaters!

“Pets, especially dogs, can be scared by children in costumes and the constant ringing of doorbells,” says Emily Notaro, Marketing & Communications Specialist at FMI. “Make sure to secure them before answering the door.”

Homeowners should place pets in a locked area, where they can’t escape while you’re giving out candy. Also, if doorbells frighten your fur-babies, then turn on soothing music or place your pet in a thundershirt, if that helps.

(“My bichon frise loved the ‘I Want It That Way!’ by the Backstreet Boys.” – vipHomeLink Content Writer Susie)

Tip #4 – Keep your friends close and your smart devices on

a homeowner pressing a video doorbell
Protect your home with smart tech!

Of course, what would Halloween be without Goosey Night, also known as Mischief Night, Cabbage Night, and other favorite terms? Today, many homeowners have at least one smart home security device, and on this night – and on Halloween night – it’s important to use them.

“If you have a security system, make sure to turn it on,” urges Emily. “Also, check that any smart home security devices, such as video doorbells and cameras, are functioning properly.”

Adds Chelsea, “It may seem simple, but make sure to turn on your lights and lock your doors.”

Tip #5 – Eat (and buy) store packaged candy 

trick or treaters on porch - safe Halloween
Always check your candy!

One of the most important safety tips for Halloween is – mind your candy.

“Buy and eat only the store packaged candy,” reminds Emily. “Forgo any candy apples or other homemade treats given out by strangers.”

Also, keep your candy on a high shelf or in a locked cabinet to keep your pets from finding your delicious treats.

With guests on your property, should you be worried about your liability?

Most of the common perils, including theft and liability (trips, slips, and falls) are generally covered by the typical homeowners’ insurance policy. Of course, homeowners should review their liability limits at least once a year.

“It’s always a good idea to talk to your insurance agent and see if any holiday activities pose more risk than you have coverage,” reminds Chelsea.

Happy Halloween!

Join the neighborhood!

Homeownership simplified with vipHomeLink
Download the app now!

Homeownership can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be. The vipHomeLink home management app can help. In less than four minutes, you can be introduced to a new way to home. Simply download the app, register your home, and enjoy a simplified homeownership experience.

Join the neighborhood today, and we hope you enjoy a happy and safe Halloween!

Fall Home Maintenance Checklist – Heating Tips

You’re burning daylight. With the usual suspects—Jack Frost, snow, and higher utility bills—arriving sooner rather than later, you need to prepare your home for those long, cold winter nights. We have a list of affordable home heating systems maintenance that is so quick and easy, you might be able to complete it during that extra hour you… Continue reading Fall Home Maintenance Checklist – Heating Tips

September 28 is National Good Neighbor Day, but how many of us can say we’re good neighbors? Does your dog bark at 11 p.m. when your neighbors are trying to sleep (or is that just Pippa next door to Content Writer Susie)? Do you hold loud parties every week or leave your grass clipping on your neighbor’s driveway? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you may not be your street’s favorite neighbor. Build relationships with your neighbors by learning how to be a good one – or at least, how not to be “that” neighbor. Here are five awesome ways! 

Be kind – Keep your noise off everyone’s mind

Did you know that in some communities, you’re not allowed to mow your lawn before 7 a.m.? Even then, you might annoy your neighbors if every Saturday, you’re up early to cut your grass. The best thing you can do is know the rules and abide by them. 

Exhibit A: The State of New Jersey has a noise ordinance with a limit of 65 decibels during the daytime and from 10 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., a limit of 50 decibels. To give you some perspective, a household refrigerator is 55 decibels. A vacuum cleaner is 75, and a power mower is generally between 60 and 90 decibels. (How does anyone cut their grass in New Jersey?!) 

While we all need to do everyday household chores, just don’t be “that” neighbor – the one who parties every week with booming music, has loud solar appliances, or cuts their front yard at the crack of dawn. (Of course, everyone loves good curb appeal.)

Yes, there is such of thing as light trespass 

outdoor light shining at night
Do you “light” trespass on your neighbors?

Does your next-door neighbor have a motion-detection light that flashes on at all hours of night and right into your bedroom? No? Just Content Writer Susie? 

This is a classic case of “light trespass,” which occurs when exterior light illuminates a nearby property and may be unwanted. (“It’s unwanted. Trust me.” – Susie) This can cause issues with your neighbors and depending upon your municipality, might even be against the law. 

You may also want to check if your town has the ominous sounding “dark sky ordinance.” This just means your lights cannot add to the light pollution in your area by shining toward the night sky. Instead, you’ll need to buy a “dark sky” exterior lighting fixture or bulb, which will direct light toward the ground. (Your neighbors will also thank you for purchasing these!)

Dirty garbage cans and other areas attract unwanted guests 

a homeowner wearing gloves to wash a garbage can - good neighor day
Even your trash cans need a shower.

Most municipalities require you to wash your trash cans, but if you’ve been slacking or you place your trash cans just a little too close to your neighbor’s home, you may be inviting unwanted guests. Mice, racoons, and other critters may think of your home as a smorgasbord and return night after night for the dinner you serve them. Even worse, you might be encouraging these critters to take up residence in your home or your neighbor’s.

(We can neither confirm nor deny that Content Writer Susie may need to clean out her trash cans.)  

The best thing you can do in this scenario is to get your trash in order. Clean out your trash cans and other food debris in a timely fashion. Do not leave trash bags overnight outside of a bin. Also, keep your trash cans away from any doors or openings in your home and keep them away from your neighbors’ home, too. 

If bears or racoons routinely get into your trash, then purchase critter-proof trash cans or straps that will keep your critter diner closed. 

Quick note: Trash cans in many towns must adhere to certain size requirements, so when buying critter-proof cans, make sure to adhere to those rules.) 

Keep your friends close and the fire department far away 

a man peaking into oven that's on fire - kitchen safety tips
Maybe buy your next set of cookies.

If you own a home in the town where you grew up, then you may have gone to school with the fire chief and like to say hi every so often. However, your neighbors probably don’t feel the same way. And I’m sure Fire Chief Jason wants to eat his dinner in peace. That’s why it’s important not to bring the fire department or other emergency responders to your home every five minutes. 

Quick note: We are not advocating that you do not call the emergency responders when you need them. You should always do that. We’re saying there are ways to prevent the fire department from coming to your house every five minutes, which include completing routine home maintenance tasks, such as: 

If you miss seeing Fire Chief Jason every so often, you can stop by the firehouse with a pumpkin spice latte and some cookies.

If a tree falls on your neighbor’s property and it came from your yard, you’re going to hear about it  

a palm tree fell onto a home - good neighbor day
Take care of any hazards.

Some neighbors live so close to one another that tree branches hang in each other’s yard and fences are constructed on property lines. When it comes to these situations, take care of any potential issues or hazards. 

If your tree looks like it might fall, take it down. If your fence is missing a few planks, replace them. If you’re having a loud party, maybe invite your neighbors, so they’re not mad at the noise. 

Your neighbor also has rights. In some towns, they can cut branches in their yard up to their property line. (If the tree dies from their maintenance, they have to pay for it.) They can also call the town and file a complaint if your fence falls on their property. 

The point is – don’t be “that” neighbor when it comes to your property and the potential dangers you can create. We all live here together. 

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Fall is prime time for completing home improvement projects. Homeowners want to get their homes ready for holiday entertaining, and fall provides mild, dry weather for home design and construction experts. 

“The fall is, overall, my favorite time to build,” says Matt Kustusch of MKA Architectural Design Group. “You’re doing the foundation work and building your shell when the weather is much more predictable. So, if you plan your work schedule accordingly, things tend to go a bit smoother.”

How can you plan your project schedule to coincide with the best conditions? Matt took us step-by-step through the fall home improvement project process!

Best projects to tackle in the fall

Surprisingly, fall is the best time to complete almost every particular home improvement project.

“The most important thing to remember is that the fall is the last opportunity to secure protection from harsher weather ahead,” says Matt, who has owned MKA with his wife, Kelly, since 2013, but has been designing home remodels and additions for more than 24 years.

As mentioned earlier, the weather is more predictable in the fall and usually drier than other times of the year. Coupled with the cooler temperatures in September through November, fall is a contractor’s dream season.

“It’s a great time to do rough framing; it’s a great time to pour foundations,” says Matt. “As long as the concrete is cured before a deep freeze moves into the area, you should be just fine. That’s really your only concern as far as far as the integrity of the construction is concerned.”

What projects to avoid in the fall

painting the exterior of a home in fall
Beware of cold temperatures in fall!

There’s really only one project you should avoid in the fall.

“The only thing that I would consider off limits based on temperature is exterior painting,” says Matt. “You really don’t want to paint the outside of a house when it’s less than 40 degrees at night.”

The colder temperatures prevent the paint from drying properly and can lead to flaking, cracking, and peeling. In Chicago, where MKA Architectural Design Group is located, the temperatures can dip that low by late September/early October.

Certain admixtures can be blended with standard concrete which allows a pour in temperatures below freezing, but it isn’t recommended.

“If you’re concerned about any significant load coming down on a foundation, which you should be, you should fully understand the effects of those admixtures before approving a pour in mid-January,” says Matt.

Since summer seems to extend year after year, you don’t necessarily need to get your foundation poured or your house painted by a certain date.

“It’s really just dependent on how cold it really is,” says Matt.

What you need to know about planning your next home improvement project

“The timeframe has definitely changed over the course of the last few years,” says Matt.

Only a few years ago, three months was a good amount of preparation time. Unfortunately, projects could now take four to five months due to delays associated with the permit application process and high demand for design and construction services.

“Based on the recent demand, I’m seeing projects where the design process may start as early as March, for example, and those projects are just now (late August/early September) being approved for permit.”

Not sure how to start your home improvement project? Matt walked us through his four-phased design construction preparation process. 

Phase 1: Meet the clients

Matt starts by meeting with the clients to get a general idea of their goals. He visits the site with the potential client and tries to define “needs” and “wants.”

a small kitchen with dated appliances
Original Kitchen, Courtesy of MKA Architectural Design Group

“If it’s a proposed new construction, I want to understand the site and learn as much as I can about the future occupants…how they live and, more importantly, how the house can make their lives easier,” says Matt. “If it’s a remodeling project, I want to understand how the existing home was built, so I can find the most efficient way to achieve the same goals.”

Once Matt’s proposal is accepted, he meets with a client to discuss any rules that govern what’s possible. There could be limitations based on zoning restrictions, budget, or existing conditions that must remain intact.

Once the boundaries are set, the program is further examined to determine more specific objectives. Explains Matt, “I’ll look at the project goals more closely. How much space can we add? Where do we add it? If you want a bedroom, what do you want in it? What size bed? Do you need a desk area?”

This phase helps Matt get a better understanding of a client’s expectations which drives initial conceptualization and cost analysis.

“Sometimes a client’s expectations are unrealistic, so I like to get the sticker shock out of the way as early as possible,” says Matt. “Things cost up to 20% more than they did a few years ago.”

Phase 2: Choose the right path

Once the assessment phase is complete, Matt and the clients move into the schematic design phase where multiple ideas can be considered without significant investment.

“We may come up with multiple concepts and discuss their advantages or disadvantages.  It’s important to show a homeowner a number of options to choose from to find the right path,” says Matt.

The path, however, doesn’t have to be perfectly defined.

“When you’re on a hike in the middle of a forest, you can vary from the defined path but still be going in the right direction to reach your destination. You never know, you may discover a perfect view that you wouldn’t have even known was there,” says Matt.

Phase 3: Design development

drawing of proposed drawing
Courtesy of MKA Architectural Design Group

Once the clients choose their path, the architectural process moves into design development. Here, Matt takes the preliminary sketches and refines them using computer aided drafting (CAD).

“We really look at the specifics associated with square footage, structure, construction methods and how we’re going to be integrating various systems like plumbing, electric, and HVAC,” says Matt. “That really gives us a much clearer picture of what it’s going to take to do what we want to do.”

This is also the phase where Matt determines a more accurate project cost. If the homeowner is comfortable with the design and the cost, then the process moves forward into the final phase, construction document preparation.

Phrase 4: Construction document preparation and permit application

a updated, open concept kitchen with new appliances
Courtesy of MKA Architectural Design Group

Now, Matt completes the actual drawings that will be submitted for permit(s).

“The municipality has to review the drawings we prepare and approve the application for the permit before we can start construction,” says Matt.

As you can tell just from this section, the entire planning process takes time.

“Managing a client’s expectations of time required for design is something we try to do upfront as well,” says Matt.

a dining room looking into an open kitchen
Courtesy of MKA Architectural Design Group

Tips for choosing a home professional from a home professional

Matt always recommends that potential clients speak to a number of design professionals.

“I want them to understand that everyone has varied opinions, different backgrounds and preferences based on past experiences or exposure to another’s work,” says Matt. “Home construction is such a massive investment.  In some cases, the largest in a client’s life.  Well, maybe not as much as college these days.”

It’s also important to find someone you trust and align with from a design perspective.

“Look at current examples of what they’ve done, and picture yourself in those spaces,” says Matt. “If you feel like you would be comfortable – well, that’s a good thing…keep exploring.”

A key aspect to look for in any design specialist is professionalism.

“A client shouldn’t be sold on an idea or told what to do,” says Matt. “I won’t just tell a client what they want to hear. I’ll tell them the truth and give them my opinion based on years of experience and my interpretation of the issue at hand.”

Hiring a design professional who agrees with everything you say may not lead to a successful project.

Explains Matt, “It’s my job to show a client what’s possible. It’s my job to accomplish their goals and satisfy their needs in a way that they may not have already seen in some magazine.”

Finally, understand the reason there’s a cost differences between design professionals.

“Finding a design professional is the same as finding any service provider – you get what you pay for,” says Matt.

It’s imperative to understand costs upfront, including what’s included in the proposal and how you’re being charged – by the hour, by square foot or is it a flat fee?

Does your home improvement project need an architect? 

While not every project may need an architect, there are a few situations where you absolutely do.

Explains Matt, “I would say, from a legal perspective, whenever any structural condition is altered or a type of electrical device, plumbing fixture or heating and air conditioning element is modified – that’s the moment you really should contact an architect.”

Matt continued, “If those elements aren’t moving, you could probably visit a Kitchen and Bath Design Shop and replace the cabinets, sinks and countertops yourself if you want to.”

“In most cases,” Matt added, “It shouldn’t cost anything, so you might as well have an initial conversation with an architect.”

What fall home improvement projects are hot right now

Matt has seen an increase in outdoor living space projects.

“I have seen an increased demand to extend the use of outdoor spaces,” says Matt. “I’ll get inquiries regarding screen porches and three-season rooms every week.”

Three-season rooms typically lack insulation for windows and can be used in spring, summer, and fall.

“With the new technology such as infrared or the hydronic in-floor heat, you can keep those spaces relatively warm,” says Matt, “so you can use them as early as March and all the way through the end of November, maybe even December.”

Join the neighborhood!

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