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Don't Believe These 5 Myths About Real Estate Agents

Buyers and sellers often enter the market with misconceptions about real estate agents - how they work, how the process works and what the agency relationship is all about.

It’s helpful to point out, without getting too far into the weeds, that in any one real estate transaction, there are most likely two agents: one for the buyer and one for the seller.

Here are five myths (and five truths) about working with both buyer's and seller's agents.

1. Agents get a 6% commission, no matter what

Most people assume that their agent is pocketing the entire commission. That would be nice, but it’s just not accurate.

Truth

First, it's helpful to know that the seller pays the commission, and they split it four ways: between the two brokerages and the two agents.

Finally, the brokerage commission isn't fixed or set in stone, and sellers can sometimes negotiate it.

2. Once you start with an agent, you're stuck with them

If you're a seller, you sign a contract with the real estate agent and their brokerage. That contract includes a term - typically six months to a year. Once you sign the agreement, you could, in fact, be stuck with their agent through the term. But that’s not always the case.

Truth

If things aren't working out, it's possible to ask the agent or the brokerage manager to release you from the agreement early.

Buyers are rarely under a contract. In fact, buyer's agents work for free until their clients find a home. It can be as quick as a month, or it can take up to a year or more. And sometimes a buyer never purchases a house, and the agent doesn't get paid.

Before jumping into an agent's car and asking them to play tour guide, consider a sit-down consultation or a call, and read their online reviews to see if they're the right fit.

Otherwise, start slow, and if you don't feel comfortable, let them know early on - it's more difficult to break up with your agent if too much time passes.

3. It’s OK for buyers to use the home's selling agent

Today's buyers get most things on demand, from food to a ride to the airport. When it comes to real estate, buyers now assume they need only their smartphone to purchase a home, since most property listings live online.

Truth

First-time buyers or buyers new to an area don't know what they don't know, and they need an advocate.

The listing agent represents the seller's interests and has a fiduciary responsibility to negotiate the best price and terms for the seller. So working directly with the selling agent presents a conflict of interest in favor of the seller.

An excellent buyer's agent lives and breathes their local market. They've likely been inside and know the history of dozens of homes nearby. They're connected to the community, and they know the best inspectors, lenders, architects and attorneys.

They've facilitated many transactions, which means they know all the red flags and can tell you when to run away from (or toward) a home.

4. One agent is just as good as the next

Many people think that all agents are created equal.

Truth

A great local agent can make an incredible difference, so never settle. The right agent can save you time and money, keep you out of trouble and protect you.

Consider an agent who has lived and worked in the same town for around ten years. They know the streets like the back of their hand. They have deep relationships with the other local agents. They have the inside track on upcoming deals and past transactions that can't be explained by looking at data online.

Compare that agent to one who's visiting an area for the first time. Some agents aren't forthright and might be more interested in making a sale. Many others care more about building a long-term relationship with you, because their business is based off referrals.

5. You can't buy a for sale by owner (FSBO) home if you have an agent

In a previous generation, sellers who wouldn't deal with any agents tried to sell their home directly to a buyer to save the commission.

Truth

Smart sellers understand that real estate is complicated and that most buyers have separate representation. And many FSBO sellers will offer payment to a buyer's agent as an incentive to bring their buyer clients to the home.

If you see a FSBO home on the market, don't be afraid to ask your agent to step in. Most of the time the seller will compensate them, and you can benefit from their knowledge and experience.

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Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of Zillow.

Originally published June 2018.

This Stylish Treehouse Is Luxury Off-the-Grid Living

Kati O'Toole and her husband, Darin, wanted to create a giant piece of artwork on their private and heavily wooded seven-acre property in Montana. They ended up with what they refer to as the Montana Treehouse Retreat - a two-story, fully finished treehouse nestled among three living trees.

"Everybody thought we were crazy [at] the beginning, like 'What are you guys doing building a treehouse here?' Our parents thought we were crazy," says Kati.

But the hard work and vision paid off, and now visitors from all over the world routinely come to stay at their carefully crafted work of art. The 700-square-foot treehouse features a master suite with a deck that overlooks the forest, a living area with three benches that can double as sleeping quarters, and two bathrooms. Guests can also prepare a meal in the treehouse's downstairs kitchen, complete with a refrigerator, a stove, a sink and a dishwasher.

"There’s even air conditioning in this treehouse, because we wanted to create a very luxury experience here. I have to be honest - the treehouse is nicer inside than the house that I live in, so I like to come back here and just have a little retreat away from it all," says Kati.

Every detail of the treehouse was painstakingly thought out, and most of the materials were either sourced locally or repurposed. The trim and the interior feature wood that Darin himself milled, sanded and finished, and the breakfast table nook was made from the base of a tree located right on their property.

One of Kati's favorite details of the treehouse, however, is the spiraling exterior staircase, which is wrapped around a large tree shipped in from Darin's grandmother's yard, roots and all.

Although Darin handled most of the heavy-duty construction of the structure, Kati's handiwork is all over the interior.

"We wanted it to be kind of funky and modern - but still have some Montana accents and still be a little rustic too. So there were many things coming into play, and we wanted people to feel like it was a very cozy home away from home when they came here, and just like a one-of-a-kind Montana experience," she says.

A combination of white shiplap and multicolored wood paneling covers the interior walls, giving the home an eclectic yet polished farmhouse look, and expansive windows create an open, airy feeling in the small living spaces. Modern elements that are dotted throughout the house, like the industrial chandelier in the kitchen and the black hexagon and subway tiles in the bathrooms, are more reminiscent of a boutique hotel than a remote treehouse located near Glacier National Park.

Close to Kati's heart are the pieces by local artists that don the walls, with some of the pieces coming from guests who created the artwork while staying at the treehouse.

"It’s been really cool to see [how] this place inspires people," she says.

But the defining characteristic of this home - and what guests travel miles for - is the unique experience of living out your childhood dreams of sleeping in a treehouse.

"It’s a very unique feeling that most people have never experienced, to be lying in bed and seeing a tree - or you’re actually moving. And people have told me that they love the experience, and it’s - yeah, it’s a treehouse. That’s the beauty. It’s a real treehouse," says Kati.

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5 Myths (and 5 Truths) About Selling Your Home

Everyone has advice about the real estate market, but not all of that unsolicited information is true. So when it comes time to list your home, you'll need to separate fact from fiction.

Below we’ve identified the top five real estate myths - and debunked them so you can hop on the fast track to selling your property.

1. I need to redo my kitchen and bathroom before selling

Truth: While kitchens and bathrooms can increase the value of a home, you won't get a large return on investment if you do a major renovation just before selling.

Minor renovations, on the other hand, may help you sell your home for a higher price. New countertops or new appliances may be just the kind of bait you need to reel in a buyer. Check out comparable listings in your neighborhood, and see what work you need to do to compete in the market.

2. My home’s exterior isn't as important as the interior

Truth: Home buyers often make snap judgments based simply on a home's exterior, so curb appeal is very important.

"A lot of buyers search online or drive by properties before they even enlist my services," says Bic DeCaro, a real estate agent at Westgate Realty Group in Falls Church, Virginia. "If the yard is cluttered or the driveway is all broken up, there's a chance they won't ever enter the house - they'll just keep driving."

The good news is that it doesn't cost a bundle to improve your home's exterior. Start by cutting the grass, trimming the hedges and clearing away any clutter. Then, for less than $50, you could put up new house numbers, paint the front door, plant some flowers or install a new, more stylish porch light.

3. If my house is clean, I don't need to stage it

Truth: Tidy is a good first step, but professional home stagers have raised the bar. Tossing dirty laundry in the closet and sweeping the front steps just aren’t enough anymore.

Stagers make homes appeal to a broad range of tastes. They can skillfully identify ways to highlight your home’s best features and compensate for its shortcomings. For example, they might recommend removing blinds from a window with a great view or replacing a double bed with a twin to make a bedroom look bigger.

Of course, you don't have to hire a professional stager. But if you don't, be ready to use some of their tactics to get your home ready for sale - especially if staging is a trend where you live. An unstaged house will pale when compared to others on the market.

4. Granite and stainless steel appliances are old news

Truth: The majority of home shoppers still want granite counters and stainless steel appliances. Quartz, marble and concrete counters also have wide appeal.

"Most shoppers just want to steer away from anything that looks dated," says Dru Bloomfield, a real estate agent with Platinum Living Realty in Scottsdale, Arizona. "When you a design a space, you need to decide if you’re doing it for yourself or for resale potential.”

She suggests that if you're not planning to move anytime soon, decorate how you’d like. But if you’re planning to put your home on the market within the next couple of years, stick to elements with mass appeal.

"I recently sold a house where the kitchen had been remodeled 12 years ago, and everybody thought it had just been done because the owners had chosen timeless elements: dark maple cabinets, granite counters and stainless steel appliances."

5. Home shoppers can ignore paint colors they don't like

Truth: Moving is a lot of work, and while many home buyers realize they could take on the task of painting walls, they simply don't want to.

That's why one of the most important things you can do to update your home is apply a fresh coat of neutral paint. Neutral colors also help a property stand out in online photographs, which is where most potential buyers will get their first impression of your property.

Hiring a professional to paint the interior of a 2,000-square-foot house will cost about $3,000 to $6,000, depending on labor costs in your region. You could buy the paint and do the job yourself for $300 to $500. Either way, if a fresh coat of paint helps your home stand out in a crowded market, it's probably a worthwhile investment.

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Originally published April 1, 2014.

This School Bus Is a Tiny Home ... to a Family of 6!

The wheels on the bus go round and round - and then might stop for family dinner, if you're Gabriel and Debbie Mayes.

It may not be the dream for every family, but it's the one Debbie envisioned after seeing a video on Facebook a few years ago. It featured a couple who had converted a school bus and spent all their time on the open road, exploring the country.

"I immediately thought, 'Hey, we can totally do this with our kids. Why not?'" she recalled. "And so I brought the idea to Gabriel. It took a while to convince him."

"Definitely took a while," Gabriel chimed in.

But the more the duo thought about the idea, the more it made sense. They felt disconnected as a family in a 5,000-square-foot home; downsizing would bring the family closer.

4,752 square feet closer, to be precise. 

"We were talking about that disconnection in our marriage, in our family as a whole, and just thought if we’re gonna do anything adventurous, now would be the time," Gabriel said. "We were looking to reconnect, to do something crazy exciting with our kids, and just to take life and flip it upside down."

So they bought a school bus to live in.

The family of six - two adults, four kids - sought the help of an outside company when it came to finding the bus and designing the features.

Photo by Marcus Ricci.
Photo by The Mayes Team.

Their priorities: separate sleeping areas for the kids and the adults (the master bedroom has a door that closes), space to entertain guests, and a kitchen with ample countertops. (They pulled that off by installing an under-the-counter fridge. It holds enough food for a week!)

Photo by Marcus Ricci.

"We even went and taped out the design on the floor so we could walk through and see," Debbie said. "We did things like reduce the depth of the couch, reduce the depth of the [kids'] bunk beds. We knew aisle space would be way more important than them having that extra bed space. I was very intentional in designing all of the little areas to be functional. It’s down to the inches."

Gabriel's only ask: a rooftop deck.

"I just had this vision of taking the bus, backing it up against the lake, opening up the skylight out of my bedroom, going up to the roof deck, and then sitting in my chair and just chilling," he said. "I just wanted this place where I’m secluded from the rest of the world and I’m overlooking just beautiful scenery."

Photo by Marcus Ricci.

Buying and renovating the bus cost about $38,000 and took about five months. During that time, the family sold or donated much of what they owned and put the rest in storage. They hit the road in August 2017.

Photo by The Mayes Team.

On their first trip, the road hit back.

"I remember the day that I got in the bus. We had spent the whole day packing. Last thing goes on, the kids get on, we close the door, and I put it in drive and our home starts moving. I can’t fully explain how exhilarating that feeling was," Gabriel said.

"It was amazing but also did not go exactly how we had planned," Debbie added. "We got 300 miles into the journey, and the bus broke down on the side of the road. It was like, 'Wah-wah.'"

Photo by Marcus Ricci.

The school bus - which they affectionately call "the Skoolie" - picked a patch of desert land in Oklahoma to break down.

Turns out it was also a piece of private land.

"We fed the kids lunch and tried to figure out what the heck we were gonna do, and a random stranger pulls up after we’d been there for a few hours, and he was like, 'You’re actually on my land.'" Debbie said. "But he had been a diesel mechanic."

The stranger ended up building a part to get the bus moving. It's been pretty much smooth sailing ever since, from the mountains of Wyoming to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah.

Photo by Jen Hammer.

Their biggest advice for others considering a home on wheels: Do the research. Find a builder or designer you can trust. In retrospect, they probably would've chosen a washer and dryer over installing a shower, but they have few other regrets.

And yes, of course, there are seat belts for all. The family designed the living space to hide the seat belts under the couch cushions when the bus is parked. The baby rides in a car seat. “They are able to buckle up safely,” Debbie said, about her kids. Anything that’s breakable gets packed away for when the bus moves.

Photo by Marcus Ricci.

"To be able to have everything that you own as a family of six inside 248 square feet, knowing everything that you own is where it’s supposed to be - the amount of stress and anxiety really goes out the window," Gabriel said.

"Whenever you rid yourself of this desire to have things, it’s not that the desire goes away, it’s just that you just don’t have the space for it anymore,” he continued. “It causes you to start thinking on different levels. Now I just want to be intentional with my wife and be intentional with my kids. This massive weight is just gone."

Photo by Marcus Ricci.

Eventually, the Mayes plan to park the bus and turn it into a short-term rental. They hope to find a forever home and allow others to explore their tiny home on wheels.

"The kids feel like they’re on this massive adventure. Whenever you pull up to a location that’s surrounded by mountains or there’s a new waterfall to go explore or some trail just to go run down, you put the bus in park, and you open the door," Gabriel said. "Just to see their excitement … I’ve never experienced anything like that."

Photo by Marcus Ricci.

Top featured image by Jen Hammer.

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Originally published July 2018.

6 Yurts That Will Have You Dreaming of Your Next Adventure

Contemporary yurts are popping up everywhere - from Los Angeles to Zion National Park - as airy homes, backcountry destinations or even weekend glamping getaways. 

Below are some of our favorites.

Marfa, Texas

Photo by Nick Simonite.

Sleep under a swath of stars in this brightly colored Marfa, Texas, yurt. Located about three hours southeast of El Paso, the yurt sits on a 21-acre artists’ retreat with a hammock grove, bike rentals and wood-fired hot tubs. Bringing friends? The yurt is perched alongside safari tents and renovated vintage trailers.

This home is currently available as a short-term rental.

Orderville, Utah

Photo by Robert Ranney.

Just beyond the terra-cotta backdrop of Zion National Park, this Utah yurt is off-grid and on point. Cell service and technology are nonexistent, making for the perfect environment to enjoy this bucolic setting. An outdoor fire pit serves as a spot to warm up underneath the night sky, and the yurt’s interior can sleep up to 11 people tuckered out from exploring Utah’s natural bliss.

This home is currently available for short-term stays.

Elgin, Texas

Photo by Sean Mathis.

About 30 minutes outside of artsy Austin, Texas, sit five yurts for the glamping fan in all of us. Each space is artfully decorated, from the Southwestern decor to the hand-picked vintage furniture. The rustic surroundings provide the perfect escape from the hubbub of big city life. There’s a classic writer’s desk inside each yurt, relaxing hammocks outside and walking trails nearby.

These homes are currently available as short-term rentals.

Fairplay, Colorado

Photo by Joe Holmes.

If the mountains are calling and so you must go, this might be the yurt for you. Nestled in the wilderness about 30 minutes from Denver, this home serves as a Rocky Mountain retreat for explorers of all ages. Enjoy stunning stargazing at night, fresh powder all winter long and 360-degree views from the wraparound deck.

This home is currently available as a short-term rental.

Los Angeles, California

Photo by Ryan Schude.

This urban yurt proves the circular structures aren’t just for outdoor explorers. Smack dab in cosmopolitan Los Angeles, this yurt sits under a canopy of orange, lemon and avocado trees, just a few miles from the famous Hollywood sign. The space boasts hardwood floors, modern amenities and a fire pit (for the few weeks each year that LA braves chilly weather).

This home is currently available as a short-term rental.

Saratoga, Wyoming

Photo courtesy of The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch.

About two hours outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, sits this 700-square-foot mountain yurt. An overnight stay in this luxury space comes with custom gourmet meals, along with an expert guide to lead you to your digs via horseback. There are luxe glamping amenities on the inside (leather couches and a giant bed) and all that rural Wyoming has to offer on the outside (trout fishing, wildlife viewing and even yoga au naturel).

This home is currently available as a short-term rental.

Top featured image by Sean Mathis.

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Van? RV? School Bus? 6 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Home on Wheels

We've all seen photos of the perfectly manicured home on wheels: the reclaimed wood-lined walls, the occupants dreamily sipping coffee and watching a sunrise. People of all ages (including me) are asking themselves, "Can I do that too?" 

When I first saw the van that would one day be mine, I thought it was perfect for me. The 1986 GMC Vandura had a comfy bed, turquoise cabinets and twinkle lights that made me weak in the knees.

But a mobile life can involve just as much work as a stationary one - sometimes even more. You won't have to pay a mortgage, but you might need new brakes. You won't have to rely on neighbors to water your plants when you travel, but you will have to keep a tiny space organized and livable on the road.

If those things don’t scare you off, the rewards can far outweigh the work. Here are some important questions to consider first.

Which home is right for you?

There are various names for homes on wheels and recreational vehicles.

The RV is a self-contained, manufactured home on wheels. It typically contains a bathroom and a kitchen, and depending on the version you choose, it can be driven or towed. If you own a vehicle with towing capacity, a towable RV allows you to park and move around more freely.

Camper vans are more compact but offer fewer amenities. They might have a small kitchenette but rarely contain a bathroom. If you're willing to rough it on the road, the camper van can be a more affordable option.

Then there are the more creative approaches to mobile living. People have converted school buses and vintage Airstreams into living quarters. Choosing the vessel for your life on wheels is an important decision, so weigh your options carefully.

How will you use it?

Previously, people bought mobile homes when they retired. These days, the options for remote work allow more people to embrace a mobile lifestyle, with many variations. Some people want to travel regularly, while others park their homes and only occasionally switch locations.

My motivation for buying a van was the freedom to spend month-long stints on the road and rent out my house whenever I left. As a freelance writer, I often travel in search of stories, and this seemed like a perfect way to do so. I could have the comforts of home and the freedom of wheels.

However, since dropping $5,500 on the initial purchase and about $1,000 in repairs, I've landed a full-time job. It's now more of a weekend camping vehicle than a home. The extra headspace that once seemed luxurious now feels cumbersome, especially when I'm driving over windy mountain passes and spending $60 to fill up my tank. Also, the $80-per-month insurance feels extra expensive, now that I'm paying for something I don't often use.

I'll travel regularly in my van someday, but my experience illustrates the importance of knowing how your van will facilitate the life you wish to lead. Where will you go, how often will you go and what will you do? Looking back, I would have gone for something a little smaller and lower maintenance.

Freedom can become debilitating if you don't know how you'll use it.

Where will you park?

Campgrounds, RV parks, Walmart parking lots and city streets have all become temporary homes for people who live on the road. But you must consider parking laws, safety and cost - every single night.

RV parks and many campgrounds offer hookups for electricity and water. If your home is designed to accommodate those amenities, they're nice to have. It helps to research campground details before you hit the road. 

If you're freeing yourself from rent or a mortgage, you might not want to dump that money back into parking each night. National forests offer free camping, as long as you're 100-200 feet away from any road, trail or water source. Ask local ranger stations about access to dispersed camping and local regulations. 

While mobile life is often celebrated with a backdrop of ocean beaches or beloved national parks, cities are something to consider too. They just require a little extra consideration.

Vans have a leg up on bigger, flashier RVs when it comes to cities, especially if your van doesn't look like someone lives in it. 

The most important piece of advice when considering where to park: Do your research. Reserve a spot when heading to popular parks, call ranger stations for information about parking in the area, join local forums, and always collect information ahead of time so you you're not searching for a place to sleep in the middle of the night with no service.

How much does it cost?

Paring down your belongings can be a great way to save money. But mobile living isn’t always cheap.

First, there's the cost of your vehicle, which can vary considerably. Conversions - van, Airstream, school bus, etc. - can be expensive, even if you’re doing the work yourself. For example, this stylish Sprinter van conversion cost $54,120You'll see a huge range on RV prices as well, from several thousand to millions of dollars.

Once you find a home that’s right for your budget, you'll need to consider living costs too.

Camping fees are about $20 per night, which can be alleviated by free parking. But you won't get water and electrical hookups unless you pay for them.

Vehicle insurance will add a few hundred to several thousand dollars in yearly costs. Comprehensive auto insurance, while more expensive than bare-boned liability plans, will protect your home and belongings from vandalism and theft.

I learned the hard way that an RV insurance plan is required of any vehicle that's been converted into a living space. Even though my van isn't technically an RV, AAA initially refused to tow me when I broke down in Seattle because I didn't have RV insurance. I've since upgraded, which has been worth it for the peace of mind. 

Depending on the age and condition of your vehicle, you'll also need to factor in regular repairs. And don't forget gas money! You'll spend a lot more on gas for your mobile home than you will on filling up your regular car. And the more toys you carry with your mobile home, the more your gas bills will climb.

Where will you go to the bathroom?

Unless you're able to find a mobile home with a built-in shower and toilet, personal hygiene can be a challenge on the road. But there are plenty of creative ways to make it work.

A membership to a gym chain with locations across the country, like Planet Fitness or L.A. Fitness, will allow you to access showers and bathrooms - not to mention a workout, which can be vital when your living space only allows you to walk a few feet in either direction.

Campgrounds and truck stops also provide facilities to the traveler looking to freshen up.

If you don't have a toilet, you'll likely find yourself using truck-stop and cafe bathrooms. But a late-night bathroom break could mean toilets aren't available, and you'll have to settle for whatever is around.

Can you work on the road?

Remote work opportunities have freed many people from the constraints of a typical office job. But working from a mobile home is much different than a home office.

First, consider how often you'll need to work and where you'll be able to do so. It might be helpful to stay close to developed areas where there are plenty of establishments offering free Wi-Fi.

If you can work comfortably inside of your mobile home, you can use your mobile device as a Wi-Fi hotspot or purchase a dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot for $100-150. Whichever option you go with, you’ll need to sign up for a service plan with data. Check on the coverage area of service providers before you pick one - they're no use when you're in a dead zone!

Working from the road also means you'll need electricity, which is nice to have for other uses, too, like charging your cell phone or running a fan to stay cool when your engine is off.

Solar panels are a convenient, rechargeable and environmentally friendly energy source. 

I can see my van parked on the street from the window of my house right now. I'm still not entirely sure what a mobile life will look like, but figuring it out is half the fun.

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Originally published September 2017.

Prepare for the Ultimate Staycation

You don't need to stay in a hotel and play tourist to have a proper staycation. Look no further than your own home for a staycaytion dreams are made of.

Make no mistake, an at-home staycation doesn’t just mean a lazy weekend on the couch. Turn your humble abode into a resort made for relaxation with a few days of planning and prep work.

Here’s your guide to creating the ultimate staycation.

Tackle chores in advance

Make a list of chores you want to tackle a few days before your staycation begins. At the very least, cover the basics like washing linens, dusting and vacuuming.

For an added level of sparkle, schedule time to clean your windows. That way when you're staring out to your backyard garden or pool (aka your staycaytion resort spa), your windows will be as spick-and-span as those at a five-star bed and breakfast.

Better yet, for a totally chore-free staycaytion, consider setting aside extra cash for a housecleaning service to do the work for you beforehand.

Maximize your comfort

Maybe your home is already perfectly comfy and cozy. But for maximum staycation relaxation, why not add a few extra elements to make your home feel like a luxury resort?

  • Adjust your lighting. Look for soft ambient lighting options to create a calming environment. New lamps for bedroom and living areas and candles for the master bath can completely change the mood of a space.
  • Add new rugs. Soft, plush area rugs boost the comfort level of a room and make a cozy reading spot if you add a few floor pillows.
  • Buy new bedding. Not only will it feel like you're truly on a vacation somewhere else, but new sheets are an added perk after your leisure time comes to a close.

Create designated spaces

Think about what kind of environment will help you reach peak relaxation. You can do a quick makeover of your bathroom to create a calming home spa or carve out a quiet corner for a meditation or reading nook.

If a spa setting is more your style, look at bath pillows, aromatherapy candles and bath oils. Or if you simply crave a reading corner, pick up some new reads that have been sitting on your wish list for too long.

If you have kids, create a designated craft or board-game corner, or come up with a few activities they can enjoy while you relax.

Look outside for added comfort ideas too. Whether it’s a hammock, a porch swing or patio furniture, look for ways to blend your staycaytion lounging with the great outdoors.

On that note, consider setting up your camping gear in the backyard for part of your staycaytion, or try out a DIY fire pit for late-night chats and s’mores.

Manage meals ahead of time

Don't waste precious relaxation time planning menus. Pick your favorite family recipes, plan which meals you’ll have delivered and knock out grocery shopping before your staycaytion begins.

If you enjoy cooking, consider using some of your staycation time to make more intricate meals than you typically have time for - or bring in a local chef for a cooking lesson.

Plan ahead to make it count

With a few preparatory tasks on your to-do list, you can turn your house into a staycaytion sanctuary. Map out what you want your staycation to be like, and delegate tasks. Soon you'll be ready for a few days of ultimate relaxation - without ever leaving your home.

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Originally published July 5, 2016.

Say What? Home-Buying Lingo You Should Know

DTI, PMI, LTV … TBH, it can be hard to keep all this stuff straight. This lexicon of real estate terms and acronyms will help you speak the language like a pro.

Appraisal management company (AMC): An institution operated independently of a lender that, once notified by a lender, orders a home appraisal.

Appraisal: An informed, impartial and well-documented opinion of the value of a home, prepared by a licensed and certified appraiser and based on data about comparable homes in the area, as well as the appraiser's own walkthrough.

Approved for short sale: A term that indicates that a homeowner’s bank has approved a reduced listing price on a home, and the home is ready for resale.

American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI): A not-for-profit professional association that sets and promotes standards for property inspections and provides educational opportunities to its members. (i.e., Look for this accreditation or something similar when shopping for a home inspector.)

Attorney state: A state in which a real estate attorney is responsible for closing.

Back-end ratio: One of two debt-to-income ratios that a lender analyzes to determine a borrower's eligibility for a home loan. The ratio compares the borrower’s monthly debt payments (proposed housing expenses, plus student loan, car payment, credit card debt, maintenance or child support and installment loans) to gross income.

Buyers market: Market conditions that exist when homes for sale outnumber buyers. Homes sit on the market a long time, and prices drop.

Cancellation of escrow: A situation in which a buyer backs out of a home purchase.

Capacity: The amount of money a home buyer can afford to borrow.

Cash-value policy: A homeowners insurance policy that pays the replacement cost of a home, minus depreciation, should damage occur.

Closing: A one- to two-hour meeting during which ownership of a home is transferred from seller to buyer. A closing is usually attended by the buyer, the seller, both real estate agents and the lender.

Closing costs: Fees associated with the purchase of a home that are due at the end of the sales transaction. Fees may include the appraisal, the home inspection, a title search, a pest inspection and more. Buyers should budget for an amount that is 1% to 3% of the home's purchase price.

Closing disclosure (CD): A five-page document sent to the buyer three days before closing. This document spells out all the terms of the loan: the amount, the interest rate, the monthly payment, mortgage insurance, the monthly escrow amount and all closing costs.

Closing escrow: The final and official transfer of property from seller to buyer and delivery of appropriate paperwork to each party. Closing of escrow is the responsibility of the escrow agent.

Comparative market analysis (CMA): An in-depth analysis, prepared by a real estate agent, that determines the estimated value of a home based on recently sold homes of similar condition, size, features and age that are located in the same area.

Compliance agreement: A document signed by the buyer at closing, in which they agree to cooperate if the lender needs to fix any mistakes in the loan documents.

Comps: Or comparable sales, are homes in a given area that have sold within the past six months that a real estate agent uses to determine a home's value.

Condo insurance: Homeowners insurance that covers personal property and the interior of a condo unit should damage occur.

Contingencies: Conditions written into a home purchase contract that protect the buyer should issues arise with financing, the home inspection, etc.

Conventional 97: A home loan that requires a down payment equivalent to 3% of the home's purchase price. Private mortgage insurance, which is required, can be canceled when the owner reaches 80% equity.

Conventional loan: A home loan not guaranteed by a government agency, such as the FHA or the VA.

Days on market (DOM): The number of days a property listing is considered active.

Depository institutions: Banks, savings and loans, and credit unions. These institutions underwrite as well as set home loan pricing in-house.

Down payment: A certain portion of the home's purchase price that a buyer must pay. A minimum requirement is often dictated by the loan type.

Debt-to-income ratio (DTI): A ratio that compares a home buyer's expenses to gross income.

Earnest money: A security deposit made by the buyer to assure the seller of his or her intent to purchase.

Equity: A percentage of the home's value owned by the homeowner.

Escrow account: An account required by a lender and funded by a buyer's mortgage payment to pay the buyer's homeowners insurance and property taxes.

Escrow agent: A neutral third-party officer who holds all paperwork and funding in trust until all parties in the transaction fulfill their obligations as part of the transfer of property ownership.

Escrow state: A state in which an escrow agent is responsible for closing.

Fannie Mae: A government-sponsored enterprise chartered in 1938 to help ensure a reliable and affordable supply of mortgage funds throughout the country.

Federal Reserve: The central bank of the United States, established in 1913 to provide the nation with a safer, more flexible and more stable monetary and financial system.

Federal Housing Administration (FHA): A government agency created by the National Housing Act of 1934 that insures loans made by private lenders.

FHA 203(k): A rehabilitation loan backed by the federal government that permits home buyers to finance money into a mortgage to repair, improve or upgrade a home.

Foreclosure: A property repossessed by a bank when the owner fails to make mortgage payments.

Freddie Mac: A government agency chartered by Congress in 1970 to provide a constant source of mortgage funding for the nation's housing markets.

Funding fee: A fee that protects the lender from loss and also funds the loan program itself. Examples include the VA funding fee and the FHA funding fee.

Gentrification: The process of rehabilitation and renewal that occurs in an urban area as the demographic changes. Rents and property values increase, culture changes and lower-income residents are often displaced.

Guaranteed replacement coverage: Homeowners insurance that covers what it would cost to replace property based on today’s prices, not original purchase price, should damage occur.

Homeowners association (HOA): The governing body of a housing development, condo or townhome complex that sets rules and regulations and charges dues and special assessments used to maintain common areas and cover unexpected expenses respectively.

Home equity line of credit (HELOC): A revolving line of credit with an adjustable interest rate. Like a credit card, this line of credit has a limit. There is a specified time during which money can be drawn. Payment in full is due at the end of the draw period.

Home equity loan: A lump-sum loan that allows the homeowner to use the equity in their home as collateral. The loan places a lien against the property and reduces home equity.

Home inspection: A nondestructive visual look at the systems in a building. Inspection occurs when the home is under contract or in escrow.

Homeowners insurance: A policy that protects the structure of the home, its contents, injury to others and living expenses should damage occur.

Housing ratio: One of two debt-to-income ratios that a lender analyzes to determine a borrower's eligibility for a home loan. The ratio compares total housing cost (principal, homeowners insurance, taxes and private mortgage insurance) to gross income.

In escrow: A period of time (30 days or longer) after a buyer has made an offer on a home and a seller has accepted. During this time, the home is inspected and appraised, and the title searched for liens, etc.

Jumbo loan: A loan amount that exceeds the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac limit, which is generally $425,100 in most parts of the U.S.

Listing price: The price of a home, as set by the seller.

Loan estimate: A three-page document sent to an applicant three days after they apply for a home loan. The document includes loan terms, monthly payment and closing costs.

Loan-to-value ratio (LTV): The amount of the loan divided by the price of the house. Lenders reward lower LTV ratios.

Market value coverage: Homeowners insurance that covers the amount the home would go for on the market, not the cost to repair, should damage occur.

Mechanic’s lien: A hold against a property, filed in the county recorder’s office by someone who's done work on a home and not been paid. If the homeowner refuses to pay, the lien allows a foreclosure action.

Mortgage broker: A licensed professional who works on behalf of the buyer to secure financing through a bank or other lending institution.

Mortgage companies: Lenders who underwrite loans in-house and fund loans from a line of credit before selling them off to a loan buyer.

Mortgage interest deduction: Mortgage interest paid in a year subtracted from annual gross salary.

Mortgage interest rate: The price of borrowing money. The base rate is set by the Federal Reserve and then customized per borrower, based on credit score, down payment, property type and points the buyer pays to lower the rate.

Multiple listing service (MLS): A database where real estate agents list properties for sale.

Origination fee: A fee, charged by a broker or lender, to initiate and complete the home loan application process.

Piggyback loan: A combination of loans bundled to avoid private mortgage Insurance. One loan covers 80% of the home's value, another loan covers 10% to 15% of the home's value, and the buyer contributes the remainder.

Principal, interest, property taxes and homeowners insurance (PITI): The components of a monthly mortgage payment.

Private mortgage insurance (PMI): A fee charged to borrowers who make a down payment that is less than 20% of the home's value. The fee, 0.3% to 1.5% of the yearly loan amount, can be canceled in certain circumstances when the borrower reaches 20% equity.

Points: Prepaid interest owed at closing, with one point representing 1% of the loan. Paying points, which are tax deductible, will lower the monthly mortgage payment.

Pre-approval: A thorough assessment of a borrower's income, assets and other data to determine a loan amount they would qualify for. A real estate agent will request a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter before showing a buyer a home.

Pre-qualification: A basic assessment of income, assets and credit score to determine what, if any, loan programs a borrower might qualify for. A real estate agent will request a pre-approval or pre-qualification letter before showing a buyer a home.

Property tax exemption: A reduction in taxes based on specific criteria, such as installation of a renewable energy system or rehabilitation of a historic home.

Round table closing: All parties (the buyer, the seller, the real estate agents and maybe the lender) meet at a specified time to sign paperwork, pay fees and finalize the transfer of homeownership.

Sellers market: Market conditions that exist when buyers outnumber homes for sale. Bidding wars are common.

Short sale: The sale of a home by an owner who owes more on the home than it's worth (i.e., "underwater" or "upside down"). The owner's bank must approve a lower listing price before the home can be sold.

Special assessment: A fee charged by a condo complex HOA when cash on reserve is not enough to cover unexpected expenses.

Tax lien: The government's legal claim against property when the homeowner neglects or fails to pay a tax debt.

Third-party review required: Verbiage included in a home listing to indicate that the lender has not yet approved the home for short sale. The seller must submit the buyer's offer to the lender for approval.

Title insurance: Insurance that protects the buyer and lender should an individual or entity step forward with a claim that was attached to the property before the seller transferred legal ownership of the property or "title" to the buyer.

Transfer stamps: The form in which transfer taxes are paid by the home buyer. Stamps can also serve as proof of transfer tax payment.

Transfer taxes: Fees imposed by the state, county or municipality on transfer of title.

Under contract: A period of time (30 days or longer) after a buyer has made an offer on a home and a seller has accepted. During this time, the home is inspected and appraised, and the title is searched for liens, etc.

Underwater or upside down: A situation in which a homeowner owes more for a property than it's worth.

Underwriting: A process a lender follows to assess a home loan applicant's income, assets and credit, and the risk involved in offering the applicant a mortgage.

VA home loan: A home loan partially guaranteed by the United States Department of Veteran Affairs and offered by private lenders, such as banks and mortgage companies.

VantageScore: A credit scoring model lenders use to make lending decisions. A borrower's score is based on bill-paying habits, debt balances, age, variety of credit accounts and number of inquiries on credit reports.

Walkthrough: A buyer's final inspection of a home before closing.

Water certificate: A document that certifies that a water account has been paid in full. The seller must produce this certificate at closing.

Related:

8 Budget-Friendly Staycation Ideas for Families

Disneyland, the beach, camping … just a few of the many places your kids would nominate as a vacation destination this summer. But staying home?

B-O-R-I-N-G.

So how do you sell a staycation to your little ones? And not spend a ton of money? Fill it with fun and adventure.

Check out these eight kid- and budget-friendly ideas that will make your summer staycation just as lively and memorable as any trip.

Camp out in your backyard

Pitch a tent, grab the camp chairs and roll out those sleeping bags. It’s time to go camping - in your backyard!

Study the local flora and fauna, practice wilderness skills, roast marshmallows over a fire pit, tell scary stories and spot constellations in the night sky.

Get your chef on

Let your little chefs put their skills to the test with a “Top Chef” competition. Introduce a mystery ingredient, work in teams and see what you can come up with.

If competition isn’t your style, simply head to the farmer’s market or grocery store and pick out a unique ingredient and see what your family can come up with to put in a dish.

Have a sweet tooth? Throw a bake-off and create your favorite cookies, cupcakes or cake. Share the snacks with friends and neighbors too.

Family carnival

Create your very own town fair, and bring your friends and family members in on the fun. Serve up classic carnival food like corn dogs, french fries, funnel cake and cotton candy.

Set up DIY games like ring toss, cake walk, corn hole, balloon darts, a fishing hole and more.

Finish off the night with an outdoor movie by stringing up a sheet and using a projector.

Learn something new

Take an online course to learn a new skill or craft, or figure out how to play an outdoor game like bocce ball or croquet. Practice a different language with books from the library, or hit the zoo to learn about a new animal.

Build a fort

Wrangle all the cardboard boxes, blankets, chairs and pillows you can find and build the ultimate playhouse or fort.

Construct tunnels with boxes (bonus if you can snag a large refrigerator box), create rooms with blankets and chairs, and arm your fortress by building a pillow moat. Play castle or just snuggle up in your cozy den and watch a movie - don’t forget the popcorn.

Keep the fun going into the night: Add twinkle lights and have a sleepover in your new castle.

Cool down with water play

Hot summer day? Cool down by making your own backyard into a mini water park.

Break out the sprinkler and burn off some energy by splashing around. Fill the kiddie pool and hop in with your little ones, or wage a water balloon or squirt-gun fight for an afternoon that’s guaranteed to cool you off and make you feel like a kid again.

Live in an apartment or don’t have the water gear? Head to your local splash pad or community pool. To save money, look for free or discount promotions at the pool or water park.

Find your inner artist

Arts and crafts are a great way to get those creative juices flowing, make fun memories and create cool pieces to treasure for years to come.

Tie-dye some plain T-shirts, create your own modeling clay using flour and salt, make beaded bracelets, or try your hand at loom weaving.

Keep things even simpler by drawing with some sidewalk chalk, building a birdhouse out of Popsicle sticks, or simply getting messy with some finger paint.

Plan a treasure or scavenger hunt

Set up a string of clues for your kids to follow that lead them all around the house, yard and even the neighborhood. Make up your own clues or check online for clever rhymes or location ideas.

End the hunt with a fun prize, which can be anything from a chest full of faux gold coins, a long-desired toy or trinket, or a plate of fresh cookies or cupcakes. Add a dash of extra fun by dressing up as pirates or explorers.

Whether you have a lot of free time or a little, a chunk of change to spend or a limited budget, there are plenty of fun staycation ideas to make your summer special.

Related:

Originally published May 2016.

Buyer, Beware: Is Your Future House Haunted?

We've all heard home-buying horror stories. Sellers backing out or financing falling through can quickly kill a deal. But these snags don't hold a candle to buying a "stigmatized" home.

A home where paranormal activity, suicide, murder, cult activity or other misfortunes and crimes took place could be categorized as a stigmatized property.

In real estate terms, a stigma refers to an intangible attribute of a property that may prompt a psychological or emotional response on the part of a potential buyer. In addition to physical defects, a house may have unusual features or a history that negatively impacts its value.

Get to know your state's disclosure laws

Here's a scary fact: A listing agent may not be required to disclose a stigma to buyers.

Ever heard the phrase "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware)? In the past, sellers were not required to disclose anything about homes they were selling. Over the years, most states have made changes to this rule and now require that buyers be made aware of certain issues.

The law urges buyers, sellers and their agents to engage in fair and honest dealing with all principals in the real estate transaction. However, the laws that regulate disclosure of sketchy events vary from state to state. Some state laws explicitly relieve the salesperson or broker of the obligation to disclose certain property stigmas.

For instance, what if a house is haunted? Massachusetts is particularly lax when it comes to stigmas. In the witch city of Salem, a seller's agent does not necessarily need to volunteer information about paranormal activity or even a felony, suicide or homicide that has occurred in a home.

But if you or your agent asks a seller's agent directly, they must answer truthfully. This differs from California's stringent laws, which, in addition to other disclosures, mandate that buyers be informed of any deaths that occurred at a property in the last three years.

While it's certainly ethical for sellers to be upfront about any defects that may impact the value of a property, it may not be a legal requirement.

Research before you fall in love

Since you're unlikely to find the descriptors "haunted" or "former crime scene" in a property listing, how should you go about digging up some dirt?

  • Check with a real estate attorney in your state to see what disclosures are required.
  • Ask the seller's representative if criminal or paranormal activity has been reported. Again, sellers and their agents are legally obligated to reveal problems they're aware of when asked.
  • Carefully review the seller's disclosures, if one is included with the listing. In many states, property owners are forced to put their real estate disclosures in writing.
  • Get the inside scoop from the neighbors.
  • Always Google the address of your future home. You may uncover a headline that sways your decision.

You may learn that a former owner passed away in the house. In areas with older properties, this is likely going to be the case, though it may not be cause for concern. Someone peacefully passing away in the comfort of their home is a lot different from a situation that involved foul play.

Related:

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