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Is Your Smart Fridge Talking to Your Home Insurance Provider?

There was a time when a “smart” refrigerator was one that automatically made ice cubes. Today, smart fridges can let you know when you’re out of milk and place an order for you. Thermostats like Nest learn what temperature you like the house to be when you wake up in the morning and automatically deliver it. While smart light bulbs like Sengled connect directly to your Wi-Fi network so you can turn off the lights at home while sitting at your desk at work.

Smart home devices are allowing homeowners to enjoy a level of convenience unlike any generation before us. Statistica reports that in 2018, 24 million smart home devices were purchased in the United States – and predicts that number will easily surpass 29 million by the end of 2019. Being able to yell, “Alexa, can I substitute butter for oil in my brownie recipe” when your hands are full is something our grandparents only read about in sci-fi novels, but it’s commonplace today.

“It’s important for homeowners to understand that their smart devices are communicating via the ‘Internet of Things’ because they aren’t just using it to order milk.”

Most smart devices are connected via something called The Internet of Things or IoT. The IoT is essentially a network used by physical devices, like your smart appliances, that have the capacity to communicate because of embedded technology. Think of the IoT as an exclusive internet channel that your smart devices use to share information. You or I can’t hop on the IoT to send an email, but it’s what your refrigerator uses when they’re ordering the milk for you.

It’s important for homeowners to understand that their smart devices are communicating via the IoT because they aren’t just using it to order milk. For example, the IoT also sends data back to device manufacturers. This lets them know which features are most used and troubleshoot common mechanical failures.

Home insurance companies are also interested in utilizing the data that’s acquired from your smart home devices. At first read, this statement can sound unsettling and indeed there are always risks when you have interconnectivity – but it’s a risk that manufacturers are taking very seriously. It’s the reason IoT World reports that, “IoT security spending is currently estimated at $703 million for 2017 and the fast growing market is forecast to become almost a $4.4 billion (dollar) opportunity by 2022.”

Right now, the home insurance industry is experiencing what many refer to as a disruption because of the data smart devices can provide them. Disruption is just another way to say “big changes” and these changes have the potential to work for homeowners’ benefit. So how do we know that home insurers will use the data they acquire to help, rather than take advantage of homeowners?

The Forbes article, “Here’s How IOT Will Impact The Insurance Claims Process” gives us one reason that insurers are motivated to use the IoT to improve service. “The traditional insurance claims process has stayed the same for decades, and it doesn’t sit well with customers.” Insurance companies have been losing customers due to their frustration over the claims process – and every time a customer switches their insurer, it hurts brand reputation and bottom line. This means home insurance providers are taking a good look at how they can use the information IoT linked smart devices are providing to improve claims and regain customer loyalty.

“Home insurance companies are also interested in utilizing the data that’s acquired from your smart home devices.”

Here’s a good example. The Insurance Information Institute’s (III) blog post, “Water Damage is Costing Homeowners Billions. Could IoT Help?” reports that water damage claims are the most common. “Maybe that’s not surprising – it rains a lot in many places. But what may surprise you is that things like pipe bursts and broken appliances are increasingly the main causes of water damage in homes.”

Water damage due to things like sump pump failures have doubled over the past three years and are costing insurance companies billions of dollars in losses. Because big claims usually mean bigger insurance premiums, homeowners are also taking a hit. Smart devices like Phyn Plus, a device that alerts you to leaks and shuts off your main water supply in the event of an emergency, dramatically reduce the potential for water damage.

Reducing the number one source of home damage claims saves insurers money, and fewer claims mean lower premiums for homeowners. Smart devices also allow insurers to offer better customer experience incentives, such as reduced policy costs to homeowners who own devices like Phyn. The claims process just got easier too, because smart devices like Phyn can provide data on the leak to your insurer – potentially eliminating the need for lengthy and frustrating claim investigations.

Homeowners can take a look at this list to see which insurance providers are currently offering incentives for smart appliances. If you don’t see your provider, proactively ask them which benefits they are currently offering and expect to see more as the popularity of IoT linked smart devices grows.

Veterans Are Finding a Second Career in House Flipping

Veterans are discovering that real estate investing, or “house flipping” is a career path that is well matched with the skill sets they learned in the military. The article, 5 Reasons Veterans Make Great House Flippers, explains “Flipping a house can be a very stressful experience for the average person, but for our men and women in uniform, it’s a perfect fit of skill and temperament.”

Andy and Ashley Williams are veterans, home flippers and hosts of the show Flip or Flop Fort Worth on HGTV. After being discharged, both struggled to find a career that felt like a good fit. In the article, How Flipping Houses Helps Veterans Transition to Civilian Life Ashley recalls, “I got a new job and immediately my job said, ‘You’re great, you do your job awesome, but you’re too intense,’ She said I didn’t fit the culture because I was too direct.”

But the directness Ashley learned in the military was a trait that served her well when she and her husband began flipping houses. “Being direct has been a very effective tool because everyone knows exactly what is expected of one another,” Ashley says. “Since construction work has many areas of expertise, it is important to be able to describe exactly what you’re looking for to not confuse the contractor while and clearly defining your vision.”

For veterans interested in pursuing a career in house flipping, the following three tips can help you get started.

1. Find A Mentor

Andy of Flip or Flop Fort Worth shares that he often works with fellow vets who reach out for advice. “Oftentimes a veteran would call me, and I would mentor [them] then invite them to see what I do and how,” Andy says. “Other times I would go to an organization and select a veteran that I would see needing a mission, then empower them. The intent is that if I were to teach one, they would teach one to teach one.”

While Andy might be hard to reach, his philosophy of veterans helping veterans is not unique. The website Meetup.com is a good place to find local meetings where you can share ideas with like-minded military investors. The Meetup category VA Loan Groups lists gatherings across the United States, like The Military Real Estate Investing Network in OH and NYC/NJ Veterans in Real Estate Investing.

2. Learn About VA Financing

Investing in real estate using VA loans can be complicated, but it’s worth learning what you can and can’t do. The benefits VA loans offer, like no down payments and low interest rates, can translate into big earnings for veteran house flippers.

VA loans do come with requirements that make the real estate investment process quite different from civilian investing. To give you an idea, here are a couple of their requirements, as well as ways veteran house flippers can work within them.

Requirement: VA loans must be used to acquire your primary residence.

As a veteran you can use a VA loan to acquire a property that you intend to flip – if you use it as your primary residence during the renovations. That property can then be either flipped for profit or kept as a rental property.

There is currently no limit to how many times you can use the entitlement provided by your VA loan to purchase properties. VA loans can also be used to purchase multi-family units that you can rent for profit – provided you will be living in one of the units.

Requirement: VA loans are only given for property in good repair.

As an investor shopping with a VA loan, you won’t be able to buy a dilapidated property to overhaul. But you can buy properties whose value can be significantly improved with renovations that update the appearance of the home. Things like a new kitchen and new siding can go a long way in providing a return on your investment.

There is also something called an FHA 203K Rehab Loan that VA Home Loan Centers can help you acquire. Their website explains that an FHA 203K loan is government insured and allows deep renovations. It can be used to renovate foreclosures, unfinished construction, condemned buildings, abandoned properties and property flips.

The requirements for VA loans are frequently changing, so it’s important to be aware of the latest developments if you plan to use them for house flipping. Which brings us to our third and final tip.

3. Work with a REALTOR® that holds an MRP certification.

An MRP, or Military Relocation Professional certification, is given to real estate professionals that have completed training on how to work with veterans. This training includes a thorough understanding of the VA loan process, and all its current regulations.

REALTORS® with an MRP designation are going to be able to steer you towards investment homes that fulfill VA requirements. They’re also trained on how to negotiate with sellers who might be reluctant to work with a buyer using a VA loan.

House flipping is just one of many careers that discharged veterans are suited for. But the flexibility and the opportunity to build an independent business it provides, make it an especially good match for many.

The 3 Questions Veterans and Active Service Persons Should Be Asking Their REALTOR®

Working with a REALTOR® that’s a good match for you as a veteran or an active service member is key. Buying a home is no small feat, and it’s important that there is an advocate on your side who understands the unique needs of military home buyers and the ins-and-outs of the VA funding and appraisal process.

So how do you find out if your REALTOR® is armed with the knowledge you want behind you during the homebuying process? Below, are three questions you can ask during your search to help you find out.

Are You Certified to Work with Veterans and/or Active Service Members?

If you are only going to ask your REALTOR® one question, it should be “Are you certified to work with me?” A REALTOR® that can answer yes to that question is one that has spent time learning how to best serve you and your family.

There are a number of certification programs created to educate REALTORS® on how to work effectively with military home buyers, but the Military Relocation Professional certification (MRP) that’s taught by The National Association of REALTORS® (NAR) is one of the most well-known.

If your REALTOR® has completed MRP training they’ll be coming to you with a thorough understanding of the VA loan process. The Military Times article, Do your homework on military-friendly real estate agents, explains that in the MRP certification course “Attendees are walked through the with an eye toward helping their customers, but also toward educating fellow agents who may steer clients away from VA-related deals based on outdated information or speculation.”

MRP certified REALTORS® have been shown how to deftly handle the needs of active duty service members, like last-minute home relocations. Additionally, they are well prepared to provide resources and find homes for veterans that might need accommodations due to physical injuries or PTSD.

Before NAR grants an MRP designation to a REALTOR®, they must demonstrate that they are proficient and fully prepared to help you by scoring 80% or higher on the final exam. To make it easier for military home buyers NAR provides a searchable directory of REALTORS® that have completed their MRP certification.

Do You Know the Latest VA Home Loan and Appraisal Requirements?

Asking the first question about certification ensures that your REALTOR® has received solid, initial instruction around VA home loans. However, because there are always ongoing changes being made to the VA home loan and appraisal process – you’ll want to work with a REALTOR® that is making it their priority to stay current.

For example, the website Military.com explains that a new law called the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Act of 2019 is expanding VA disability benefits for veterans who were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange. However, because of the way the law is structured it will actually benefit all future VA loan applicants.

At the time this article was written, there is a VA loan limit of $484,350 when no down payment is being made. (This figure is set by the FHA and varies yearly and may be higher in Alaska and Hawaii.) But once the Blue Water Law is put into place that limit will be lifted entirely.

“Starting Jan.1, 2020, when the new law takes effect, the VA will not cap the size of a loan a veteran can get with no money down, paving the way for veterans to buy higher-value homes.” A REALTOR® who is aware of changes like this one will be able to present you with a bigger range of homes.

Areas with low housing inventories can pose a big challenge for veterans and service families trying to purchase homes with VA loans. Kelly Hendrickson, a real estate broker and President of the Veterans Association of Real Estate Professionals (VAREP), gives an example, “Because the Seattle-Tacoma area is a sellers’ market, many home listings have requirements like ‘conventional loans and cash offers only’, making finding a home feel like an impossible task for military families and veterans working with a VA loan.”

Kelly explains that “One of the reasons sellers prefer cash offers and conventional loans over VA loans is because of how long it has been taking VA approved appraisers to come out.” To combat this, the Seattle-Tacoma VAREP office has been conducting Lunch and Learn sessions that bring real estate professionals up-to-date on the latest VA loan updates.

“One of the exciting changes we are able to convey is that VA appraisers were given a pay increase that puts them on par with what conventional appraisers make. A more desirable income has increased the number of available VA appraisers and incentivized the existing ones, speeding up the appraisal process.” REALTORS® armed with this knowledge are now better equipped to fight objections to VA loans.

Are You A Good Communicator?

There are several reasons that you should consider putting this question forward. The most obvious is that you want to work with someone that understands the importance of being available to you.

Veterans that have been displaced or disabled may need their REALTOR® to be available to multiple support sources. For newly discharged veterans, there may be potential career opportunities they want to discuss with their REALTOR®. Quite a few recently discharged veterans are finding that house flipping is a career path that aligns with the skill sets they learned in the military.

The article, 5 Reasons Veterans Make Great House Flippers, states “Flipping a house can be a very stressful experience for the average person, but for our men and women in uniform, it’s a perfect fit of skill and temperament.” Veterans choosing this path need a REALTOR® who will be responsive about quickly sharing new property listings.

Active service persons value communication because of the uncertainty of their timelines. The article, 9 Things a Military Family Wants Their Realtor to Know, sums up the situation well, “We have no control over anything with a military PCS. No control over dates, or the timeline, or how long we’re going to be there. None whatsoever.” Military families need to be able to get in touch with their REALTOR® and launch the home buying or selling process at a moment’s notice.

Military home buyers also shared that they value honest, straightforward communication because they may need to buy a home without ever having set foot in it. “We need the truth, up front, all of it.”

New Legislation Means Lower Insurance Premiums For Florida Homeowners

Homeowners in Florida have been paying higher home insurance premiums than anyone else in the United States. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners reports that an average, annual home insurance premium for a Florida resident is $1,918. And that rate has been increasing rapidly, having climbed 25% or $384 since 2007.

The obvious culprit behind the increases are national disasters like Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Michael. However, the unscrupulous actions of a group of contractors doing the repair work have played a large part in the rising costs.

Homeowners trying to recover from natural disasters or weather damage are usually asked by their contractors to sign something called an Assignment of Benefits or AOB. Contractors have explained to homeowners that by signing an AOB they would be able to complete repairs faster – because it gave them permission to work directly with the homeowner’s insurance company.

“Homeowners may finally be seeing premiums start to drop since an AOB reform bill was passed in July of 2019.”

Ideally, an AOB would benefit homeowners who are already overwhelmed by the to-do list they’re managing as a result of home damage. However, there were quite a few contractors in Florida who took advantage of AOBs to inflate repair costs and overbill insurance companies — oftentimes, bringing insurers who refuted questionable charges to court. All of which, ultimately left homeowners with much higher insurance premiums.

Insurance Business Magazine spoke with James Lynch, Chief Actuary and Vice President of Research and Education at The Insurance Information Institute (III), about the issue. “Most typical homeowners’ insurance companies will cover water damage claims. If the piping in your home suddenly springs a leak, you, as an insured, have an obligation to get that leak fixed as quickly as possible. You call up a contractor who asks you to sign an AOB. Some contractors might then be abusing that AOB by doing a poor job or an overly expensive job and then billing the insurance company an excessive amount.”

Homeowners may finally be seeing those premiums start to drop since an AOB reform bill was passed in July of 2019. The bill was backed by many concerned parties, including Florida REALTORS®, who wanted to give relief to homeowners who were becoming overwhelmed by the constant premium increases.

The passing of this bill was necessary, as the abuse of AOB’s reached critical levels in Florida. The Insurance Information Institute shared that AOB misconduct in Florida has risen 70% in the past 15 years. The number of lawsuits involving AOBs went from 1,300 in 2000 to 79,000 in 2018. The cost of these lawsuits ultimately being passed on to homeowners in the form of inflated insurance premiums.

Tom Butler, Public Policy Communications Director for the state’s REALTORS® shared why Florida REALTORS® backed the bill in a Florida Record interview. “AOBs are an important policyholder resource that allows them to streamline the claims process and make needed repairs to their homes quickly,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the past 15 years or so, some contractors and attorneys have found a way to abuse the AOB process by overcharging for repairs and suing when insurance carriers refuse to pay. With the rise in AOB abuse comes higher premiums, as insurers seek to recoup their losses.”

The new reform bill gives homeowners greater flexibility when purchasing home insurance. They now have the option of selecting a less expensive policy that doesn’t allow AOBs. The bill also lessens the severity of the cost insurance companies take on when contractors sue them over disputed charges. All of which, will ultimately translate to lower premiums for overburdened Florida homeowners.

Your Pet Can Increase Your Home’s Value

Imagine your dream home for a moment. Does it have a fireplace, eco-friendly bamboo flooring or maybe a spa-like master bathroom? What about a catio? A custom-built space for your felines to frolic and lounge. Sounds a bit silly, but pet customizations are becoming a standard wish-list item for many prospective homeowners.

The Houzz.com article, How to Design Your House Around Your Pets, mentions that in an American Institute of Architects Home Design Trends Survey, “architecture firms reported that client interest in built-in rooms or kennels devoted to pets spiked in the past year, with 30% of respondents reporting interest in comparison to 20% last year.” The stereotype of a doghouse in the backyard no longer holds true as Americans want their pet’s needs and comfort to be integrated into their home’s interiors.

Much of the demand has to do with the fact that the newest wave of homeowners own more pets than their predecessors. The CNBC article Millennials put pets first when buying a home reports the following statistics;

  • A full 73% of millennials currently own a pet, according to the American Pet Products Association.
  • A whopping 89% of millennials who bought a home so far this year own a pet, according to Realtor.com.

However, the trend isn’t just about the quantity of pets that come with millennial homeowners. The article also shared that of the demographic mentioned above, “79% of pet-owning homebuyers who closed on a property this year said they would pass up an otherwise perfect home if it didn’t meet the needs of their pets, according to a Realtor.com survey.”

The success of pet-centric businesses like Chewy.com, an online pet retailer with a $14 billion IPO, is a great indicator that investing in home upgrades that would appeal to future buyers with pets may be advantageous.

Despite some market fluctuations after the initial IPO, Nomura analysts are still advising tech investors to look to Chewy.com because “the demand for pet products has shown to be resilient during recessions.” In fact, the pet industry generally has a reputation for standing strong during market slumps. Perhaps another reason, adding a catio or integrating a pup bed into your kitchen island might be a savvy move for homeowners who want to add value to their home.

The Technology That’s Making Buying and Selling Your Home Easier

It doesn’t come as a surprise to most that technology has become a standard part of the home buying and selling process. It would be hard to imagine a house hunt that didn’t involve combing through online listings that contained virtual tours, or at least photographic slideshows.

But did you know that according to a Redfin survey 35% of homebuyers in 2017 purchased their house without even setting foot in it beforehand? That number jumped up to 45% when they looked exclusively at millennials, the most recent generation of homeowners.

“5% of homebuyers in 2017 purchased their house without even setting foot in it beforehand.”

In the Realtor.com article, I Bought My House ‘Sight Unseen,’ and Here’s What Happened, buyer Audrey Ference writes about her experience, “This is it,” I said, and turned the key in the lock, praying we hadn’t made a very expensive mistake. The door opened. We walked inside to find … exactly what we’d expected. Our new home was cavernous compared with our Brooklyn apartment. In fact, everything looked even better than in the few photos and video footage we’d seen.”

The advances in real estate technology are a big reason why homebuyers like Audrey are getting more comfortable making one of the largest and most expensive decisions of their lives from their laptops. REALTORS® are now able to do things like using drones to take aerial photographs – giving prospective homeowners a virtual birdseye view of potential properties and neighborhoods.

Below, are three innovations that are making virtual home shopping a reality for buyers and the process of putting a home on the market easier for sellers.

AI, Artificial Intelligence

While you won’t have to give your real estate agent a Turing test anytime soon, AI actually has been used in real estate for a while now. Some of the websites you may have visited in your home research, or let’s be honest, just for fun, like Redfin and Trulia have automated their property recommendations using AI.

According to readwrite’s article, Where Will AI Take the Real Estate Market in 10 Years? Redfin’s matchmaking AI knows what you want more than you do since users “click on the matchmaker’s suggestions more often than on properties that fit their own search criteria.”

The company Zenplace is working to make it even easier to buy your home sight unseen. “The startup developed a bot that comes with a tablet attached to a pole on wheels. It streams a live feed of a real estate agent who conducts the tour and steers the robot.”

VR, Virtual Reality

Up until recently, an online real estate listing would typically have either a photographic slide show or a 360 degree virtual tour. If you aren’t familiar with what a 360 degree tour would look like, imagine standing in the center of the room and turning in a circle to get the full scope.

Listings that use VR allow you to leave the center of the room and actually “walk” around rooms, providing a more immersive experience. Opendoor’s article, 5 technology trends that make buying and selling a home easier states that VR tours “can feel almost as real as being physically present in the space. Users can virtually look up and down, zoom in and out, spin around, climb stairs or walk from one room to the next.”

The article mentions that the San Francisco based Matterport is one of the leaders in the VR real estate field. If you own a pair of VR glasses, or want to DIY a cardboard pair for yourself, you can take a tour on Matterport’s website of a luxury home in southern California or a loft in Chicago’s west loop.

AR, Augmented Reality

Trying to sell an unfurnished home can be tricky as you are completely dependent upon the potential buyer’s imagination. Some prospects will be able to mentally fill the space up with their furniture, while others are more likely to buy if the house is staged with furniture and accessories.

But staging does not come cheap. According to Realtor.com homeowners can expect to spend $300 to $600 just to meet with a professional home stager – and then an additional $500 to $600 per room for staging. The budget for staging a room using AR is much less expensive, averaging $40 to $50 per photograph.

There are quite a few virtual staging companies out there, some will only work with your REALTOR® and others like Virtual Staging Solutions will work directly with homeowners. The type of services that companies like Virtual Staging Solutions provide can also be useful for buyers who want to visualize what a house for sale would look like with renovations before deciding to extend an offer. They can virtually knock down a wall or switch out the kitchen cabinets to glimpse at future possibilities.

There is no “right way” to buy or sell a home. If you’re not comfortable using technology in your home search or sale, your REALTOR® will work with you in whichever manner you prefer. But if you’re too busy to physically view every home you’re considering, or need to decorate an empty house without a furniture budget, the options to do so virtually are there for you.

The McMansions Are Empty

An article written about the McMansion housing style used the phrase, “crown-moldings-of-death.” While this word choice is a bit dramatic, it does reflect a very real trend – the death of the suburban architecture style known as the McMansion.

If you’re not familiar with the term “McMansion”, Business Insider defines a McMansion as “a cookie-cutter suburban home of between 3,000 and 5,000 square feet, the McMansion was considered the ultimate sign of affluence in the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, before the crash of the housing market in 2008.”

McMansions have been around since the 1980’s but it was in the 2000’s, when banks were readily handing out low interest home loans that they really saw an uptick. Couples who coveted the McCallister family property when they took their small children to see the movie Home Alone – suddenly had access to those same sprawling closets and granite countertops. Retirees who envisioned a full house of visiting grandchildren moved into multiple bedroom homes instead of downsizing.

Unfortunately, the difficulty in maintaining a large home and the housing crash translated into an inordinately large number of McMansions being put onto the market. The Sunbelt states, a favorite of retirees, currently has the largest number of empty homes.

The Wall Street Journal writes, “The area around Scottsdale, Ariz., also popular with wealthy retirees, had 349 homes on the market at or above $3 million as of February 1—an all-time high, according to a Walt Danley Realty report. Homes built before 2012 are selling at steep discounts—sometimes almost 50%, and many owners end up selling for less than they paid to build their homes, said Walt Danley’s Dub Dellis”.

While lower energy costs are encouraging the new generation of home buyers to look at the suburbs where these McMansions are located, the price is still too high. Business Insider stated that “Millennials buying their first home today are likely to pay 39% more than baby boomers who bought their first home in the 1980s.” Millennials also hold more student debt than the baby boom generation did, and contend with a stricter lending environment. All of which means that there will be an echo in many McMansions for a long time.

Top Halloween Safety Tips to Make Your Home Less Scary

Every year my husband and I assemble a fake graveyard on the front lawn as part of our Halloween display. We use those Styrofoam tombstones they sell at big box stores and have plastic skeletons emerging from the grass beside them. The problem is the tombstones are lightweight and the plastic spikes they sell with them are just not strong enough to keep them anchored. So before Halloween even arrives most of the display is knocked over.

I asked my husband to try and come up with a better solution this year. He’s an architect and I figured he would be better equipped to figure out how to stabilize everything. Once he was finished, he called me out to take a look at the final results. “Check it out! Go ahead and give the tombstones a kick!” he said, “They won’t tip over!”

So I looked, and I kicked. And then I realized the reason they wouldn’t be tipping over is because he had used rebar poles to secure them. If you aren’t familiar with rebar, it’s a twisted steel bar that’s usually used to reinforce masonry projects. He had hammered one end into the ground and had about 6 inches of the pole spiking up from the ground and into the bottom of the tombstone.

I had to wait until I was able to get the image of trick-or-treaters impaling themselves on our front lawn out of my head before I could explain that although the tombstones were indeed more stable, this wasn’t a safe solution. Now my husband is a very intelligent man who did exactly what I asked – made the display secure. However, he forgot to take into consideration that if there is a way for children to hurt themselves, they will find it. Especially if they are all fired up on miniature candy bars.

In the end, we took our display down and opted to regroup next Halloween with a new decorating idea. We also questioned what else we needed to make safer – and what would our homeowners insurance cover if someone got hurt despite these precautions. Here’s what we learned.

How to Make Your Home Safer for Trick-or-Treaters
  1. Look for sharp edges and trip hazards. Obviously, avoid using rebar. But also, make sure that your decorative display doesn’t have anything that might snag a costume. Or if it could, be certain there is a soft landing beside it and no nearby sharp edges. Assume that excited kids will be cutting through your yard when you’re giving everything a once over too.
  2. Switch out live candles for battery operated ones. Doing this eliminates fire risk, and because the battery-operated candles don’t blow out – you won’t have to put your hand inside a cold, slimy pumpkin more than once. Also, there are some really fun LED lights out there that can change colors and are operated via remote control.
  3. Put your pets away. Even if your dog is gentle and your cat is mellow – they need to be put in their crate or locked in another room before trick-or-treaters start arriving. Halloween can be a stressful time for even the best-behaved animals. The constant doorbell ringing and all these new and exciting small people coming over to play can make pets unpredictable.
  4. Make sure stairs and pathways are cleared and well lit. You don’t have to make your lighting so bright that Halloween visitors feel like they are walking into an alien abduction, but the path to your door should be easy to see. Putting temporary, solar stairway lighting on the steps makes things safer and keeps the spooky mood. Be sure to put them out a few days before so they have time to charge in the daylight.
If There is a Halloween Mishap, Will My Homeowners Insurance Cover it?

I reached out to our insurance agent Jack Buoscio, of State Farm, to find out what kind of protection most homeowners have. Jack explained that how much coverage people have depends on whether they have an umbrella policy. “Most, standard homeowner’s insurance will cover accidents, and the liability that might come with them – but only up to a certain dollar amount. Typically, that coverage is around $300,000 but homeowners should check with their personal agents to be certain.”

In short, if an accident happens on your property or in your home, the property damage, associated medical costs and potential liability is covered to a large degree even without an umbrella policy. Here are a few scenarios that would be covered by typical home insurance.

  1. A trick-or-treater is injured. If a small witch or superhero is hurt, whether it is your fault or theirs, the costs associated with it are covered, up to your limit, by your homeowner’s insurance.
  2. Your property is damaged. If overzealous Halloween revelers hurt your property by accidentally breaking a window or dinging your siding during a friendly egg bombing – it’s covered. Acts of intentional vandalism and damage are also covered.
  3. There is a fire or water damage. If fire or water damage occurs because of things like a Halloween candle, decorative lighting or a zombie fountain – your standard home insurance policy has you covered.

If you do have an umbrella policy, you will be covered for all of the above – plus any damage and associated medical and liability costs that occur outside of your property. Your coverage limit will also be considerably higher than it is with a standard policy alone.

Jack urges homeowners to consider umbrella policies if they host Halloween gatherings, especially if they involve teenagers. “A local family had a backyard bonfire that went out of control after someone poured gasoline on it. Several teenage party goers were injured, and their parents sued the homeowner. The medical and court costs quickly exceed the homeowners $300,000 standard coverage limit.”

More than likely, your Halloween will be uneventful and the only regret you’ll have is how much extra candy you bought. But do strongly consider taking the time to do a quick property safety check. It may also be a good idea to give your insurance agent a call to confirm your coverage if you plan to host a party or just want extra protection.

California Is Making Net-Zero Homes The New Standard

The term, “Net-Zero Home” sounds as if it came straight out of a sci-fi novel – but it’s actually an energy efficient building concept that may soon become the standard. California is leading the way with legislation created to help the state become as energy efficient as possible. The California Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan requires all new homes be constructed in a way that makes them net-zero by 2020. According to CNBC, “The U.S. has an estimated 5,000 net-zero energy single-family homes today; California could add 100,000 a year.”

So what exactly is a “net-zero” home? The Zero Energy Project explains that net-zero, or zero energy, homes “are regular grid-tied homes that are so air-tight, well insulated, and energy efficient that they produce as much renewable energy as they consume over the course of a year, leaving the occupants with a net zero energy bill, and a carbon-free home.”

An average non net-zero home, in the United States uses about 10,399 kilowatt hours (kWh) a year. Because a typical home doesn’t have solar panels that generate energy, those 10,399 kilowatt hours are considered wasted. EnergySavvy, puts that data in perspective. “The energy contained in the biggest oil spill in U.S. history is equal to the energy that just 75,000 homes waste in a single year.

Energy Waste

California may be setting the standard, but other states are following suit. A CleanTechnica article reported that, “According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Vermont, Rhode Island, Oregon, Washington, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts have incorporated net zero-energy construction into long-range plans.”

You don’t actually have to live in California, or construct a new home to live in a net-zero house. The Zero Energy Project is a great resource for homeowners who can’t afford to outsource a net-zero renovation, or just prefer to do it themselves. They also have a list of home builders who specialize in new construction as well as retrofitting older homes for zero energy consumption.

Harvard University retrofitted a pre-1940’s house on their campus to make an experimental, converted zero energy home. They did so with the understanding that the construction of new, net-zero homes alone isn’t the singular answer to our energy problems. The goal of this “living laboratory” is to learn how to efficiently retrofit a home so that it can produce more energy than it consumes.