The Billionaire Whisperer: Meet The Interior Designer Who’s Bewitching The A-List

When interior designer Joan Behnke brought Bob and Audrey Byers to Paris, one of their first stops was the Grand Palais. The petite, silver-haired Californian marched her new clients, self-made health care multimillionaires, through the great hall’s Monet exhibition, using the painter’s work to engage the couple in a larger discussion about fine art. “You have to bring clients along on a journey,” explains Behnke, a soft-spoken 59-year-old. “It’s about teaching people to appreciate what they are paying for.”

Behnke’s work adorns the homes of some of the planet’s wealthiest people. Her clients pay for six-figure furniture by haute designer Herve Van der Straeten, weathered antiques pulled from the rickety tables of the Paris Flea Market, rare strains of Carrara marble selected along the steep edges of a Tuscan stone quarry, black lacquered chairs created by artisans in a remote fishing village in Myanmar. More than anything, though, they pay for the stories that come along with these items.

Every fixture, every finish, every decoration positioned inside a Behnke-detailed home comes with an adventure attached. The designer insists that her clients personally play a role in the narrative, whether as an integral part of the sourcing or as a Behnke-educated font of information on what is in their homes. And every step of the journey, from igniting an appreciation for fine art to enabling a client to choose her own bespoke light fixtures at a glassmaker’s studio, contributes to the Behnke brand. It’s an investigative process that may span years and cost anywhere from hundreds of thousands to tens of millions of dollars.


On a recent day we visited the Byers’ newly finished 23,000-square-foot Richard Landry-designed chateau overlooking Lake Sherwood in tony Thousand Oaks, Calif.

“I don’t want my clients to just own a personalized piece for the home; I want them to experience it,” Behnke stresses, as we stroll through the mansion. Bob Byers eagerly joins the tour, pointing out a restored antique chandelier found at a Paris street market, reclaimed bricks from Boston‘s Big Dig that march along the domed stairwell ceiling, a silky handwoven fabric from Laos that wallpapers the powder room and sliced bottle bottoms that form a gleaming glass collage on the wall of the wine room. The piece de resistance: the lush black-and-gold home theater with a glass-paneled strip embedded in the floor to reveal an exotic-car collection in the showroom below.

Behnke’s network of high-net-worth clients–or, perhaps more aptly, collaborators–love her for putting them through their paces. “She always makes you feel like you are the contributor, that you are manifesting your own mission,” attests Thomas Barrack, the billionaire founder of Colony Capital and a decadelong client.

Despite a college degree that included art history, Behnke first pursued a career in modern dance and put in time working on films. Eventually, she scored a job with design maven Erika Brunson. Her first project: helping design the Saudi royal family’s estates in Riyadh and other locales. The gig exposed her to high-luxury vendors and specialized sources across the world, stoking a passion for uncovering unusual items and, once she began her own firm in 1999, a desire to spread that passion to her clients.

“I don’t view her as a decorator; she is a cultural scientist,” says Barrack. “She will research little, narrow, unknown tunnels of history on a particular project and then start drilling down. She doesn’t just do research of the period; she has contacts all over the world who help her maneuver through identifying objects and materials.”

Behnke first worked on Barrack’s personal residence in Montecito, Calif. When his private equity firm purchased a 36-mile swath of Sardinia’s Costa Smeralda, he enlisted her to help his wife, Laurel, transform the coast’s hotels into bastions of high luxury. It meant identifying local artisans to create opulent textiles and furnishings. Today the private villas at the Pitrizza and Romazzino hotels (recently sold to Qatar) fetch more than $25,000 a night during the high season, luring business moguls, oligarchs and royals from across the world.

With a client roster that reads like the society pages–or, really, a FORBES list–Joan Behnke & Associates keeps a low profile. Even the office flies below the radar, tucked behind unmarked frosted windows on a nondescript block of West Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Still, housing buffs are familiar with her work: It regularly graces the pages of Architectural Digest and Robb Report ‘s Ultimate Home of the Year issue (her work has snagged three of the past four covers).

Behnke’s lack of popular exposure is part of her allure. She caters to an echelon of wealth that values discretion. And she has earned these clients’ trust in part by charging fixed fees (rather than commissions attached to purchased items, like most designers).

Maybe the rarest gift of all: As many clients attest, Behnke seems to be refreshingly free of ego.

“Many designers have a specific style, and that’s not Joan,” says Richard Manion, a luxury-home architect currently collaborating with Behnke on a 50,000-square-foot “beach house” in Abu Dhabi. “There is no formula. The common thread is that she will give her most personal interpretation of a client’s dreams for a house.” The Abu Dhabi compound, which will blend Eastern and Western aesthetics, is being constructed for a diplomat from an Arab country. Like so many of Behnke’s clients, the ambassador is a return customer, having hired her to renovate a Washington, D.C. abode after experiencing her decor at the ultraexclusive MGM Grand Mansion’s villas in Las Vegas.

“I have worked with a lot of people who tell you what they think you should have, and you must push back,” admits the diplomat. “She caters to what the client wants, which is why she has a lot of happy, satisfied clients with some very different stuff.”

Behnke typically juggles about ten projects at a time–she is also currently at work on the 22,000-square-foot interior of quarterback Tom Brady and supermodel Giselle Bundchen’s Brentwood mansion, in L.A. Ground-up projects like this can take two to three years on average. And a client had better be ready to learn.

“Everybody travels with Joan, and it’s really wonderful because she has this network of people in various places to source exotic materials and furniture,” says Robert Veloz, an aerospace-equipment entrepreneur who enlisted Behnke to remodel his Montecito home after he sold his nearby estate to Oprah Winfrey for $50 million. “You present concept boards,” says Behnke, “and sometimes people glaze over. Then you go through the educational process, and they come to that concept themselves. It becomes so rewarding.”

When Behnke whisks me through the front door of Alec Gores’ 40,000-square-foot estate inside the gates of an exclusive Beverly Hills community, the private equity billionaire bounds out to hug her, singing her praises (her projects for the Gores family have included vacation retreats, office buildings, even a private jet). The home spans three floors, with rooms that range from a poker den to a series of masculine home offices to a vast gourmet kitchen made homey by plush couches and warm accents. Between the breadth of the property and the endless stories that accompany every decoration, the tour takes more than two hours–not at all an unusual time span for a Behnke-designed house. After all, she and her clients have already arrived at the end of a rich journey.


Source: Forbes /



Energy-Efficient Homes Less Likely to Default, Study Says


The risk of defaulting on a mortgage is 32% lower for homeowners who live in energy-efficient properties, according to a new study by the University of North Carolina – Center for Community Capital, and funded by the Institute for Market Transformation.

The study, “Home Energy Efficiency and Mortgage Risks,” is the first to try to quantify the connection between a home’s energy efficiency and its default risk, and was reported by The Atlantic Cities.

The study looked at a national sample of about 71,000 Energy Star and non-Energy Star-rated single-family home mortgages and examined loan performance data obtained from CoreLogic, a financial data provider. It controlled for the size and age of the house, neighborhood income, house value relative to the area’s median value, local unemployment rate, borrower credit score, loan-to-value ratio, loan type and price of electricity. The findings were consistent across several home model specifications.

Interestingly, the report also found that the more efficient the house, the lower the default risk. Each point decrease on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) index of efficiency, was associated with a decrease in the risk of default by 4%, according to the research. (A HERS score is a tool used to measure a home’s relative energy efficiency.)

The two groups of houses analyzed were comparable: The average sale price of the non-Energy Star homes in the study was $218,461 (for 2,183 square feet), and $221,919 for the Energy Star homes (for 2,283 square feet). The homes were also located in areas with an average income of about $73,000 and 6.4% unemployment rate.

About 35% of the houses in the sample were Energy Star-rated for efficiency, with the rest constituting a control group. Controlling for other factors, the study found the odds of a mortgage default on an energy efficient home are one-third lower than those of a home in the control group. A mortgage holder on an Energy Star house is also one-quarter less likely to prepay (lenders consider prepayment a risk, because they’re not realizing the full expected stream of payments and interest rate return).

So is saved money on energy costs the sole factor explaining these homes’ lower default risk?

“It stands to reason that energy-efficient homes should have a lower default rate, because the owners of these homes save money on their utility bills, and they can put that money toward their mortgage payments,” Cliff Majersik, executive director of IMT, was quoted saying on UNC’s site. “We long believed this to be the case, and now this study proves it. Successful housing market reforms will require reconsidering the risk factors in mortgage default, including energy costs.”

Of course, we should note that the IMT is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting energy efficiency. Naturally, it has an agenda; one of the policies recommended by the researchers is to have lenders take the energy efficiency of a home into account in their mortgage decisions. For instance, they write, “they may allow for a higher debt-to-income ratio and a higher appraisal value to offset the modest increase in cost-of-energy improvements.”

A fact sheet associated with the report notes that while the study controlled for neighborhood income and loan-to-value ratio, some degree of self-selection can be a factor. “Buyers of energy-efficient homes may be more financially astute than other borrowers,” the IMT says, and identifies this as a question for future research.


Source: Yahoo Finance /

The Man Who Would Be Done


On a recent rainy morning, there was no easy way to reach the entrance of Scott Omelianuk’s house. Since well before Hurricane Sandy, he had been trying to get the sidewalk in front of the 19th-century brownstone repaired, after it was cracked by the roots of a tree. And lately it had become even more of an obstacle course, after a contractor tore up the pavement to fix the problem and left it covered with a patchwork of plywood.

But Mr. Omelianuk, a bald, broad-chested man of 48, seemed to be taking it in stride as he welcomed visitors and disposed of dripping coats and umbrellas. It was merely the latest in a series of home-improvement mishaps, the kind of situation that will be familiar to any average homeowner.

Except that Mr. Omelianuk is no average homeowner. He is the editor of This Old House, the magazine associated with the popular PBS show, which has turned home improvement into an art form, its knowledgeable contractors guiding homeowners through seemingly flawless renovations for the last 34 years.

To many, Mr. Omelianuk seems an unlikely figure to fill that post, which he has held since 2004. Fourteen years after buying the three-story house, his renovation still isn’t complete: the master bathroom hasn’t been updated, there are stacks of abandoned doors sitting in the mudroom downstairs, and so many other unfinished projects that he has refused requests to include his house on tours.

Worse yet, he has developed a reputation as a sort of lovable curmudgeon, using his editor’s notes in the magazine as an opportunity to rail against the images of perfection promoted on home-renovation shows. It’s an attitude that baffles some of his colleagues.

“I don’t understand how one homeowner can have that many problems,” said Tom Silva, a general contractor and one of the hosts of “This Old House.” “He hasn’t been doing his homework to find the right contractor to do the job.”

To be fair, part of the problem may be Mr. Omelianuk’s own desire for perfection. When pressed, he’ll admit that he repainted his living room a half-dozen times before finding exactly the right shade of purple. And that elaborate crown molding? He built it himself. He also worked closely with a contractor to make sure that the grain on the European brown oak cabinets in the kitchen would wrap continuously around the room.

Then, too, he has been preoccupied with other things. Since he bought the house in 1999, he has persuaded Cara Dubroff, who is now 43 and studying to become a nurse practitioner, to be part of his life and his renovation plans. He has been struggling to hold on to the readers of his magazine, which has a circulation of 966,312, in what has been a punishing publishing climate. And his time and finances have been consumed by what he described as the “emotionally disorienting” task of dealing with a diagnosis of unexplained infertility.

“The things that happen to us actually happen to lots of people,” he said, sitting with Ms. Dubroff in their television room, where they once had a narrow escape when the ceiling collapsed. “I’m in a unique position to let people know that happens, and that’s O.K.”

In fact, it may be those experiences that have made it possible for Mr. Omelianuk to create a magazine that acknowledges just how much time and love renovation requires — and how transformative it can be.

Longtime friends like Eliot Kaplan, a former boss at GQ, have observed how much Mr. Omelianuk’s own renovation has changed him. When Mr. Kaplan first met him, he was a “25-year-old know-it-all fact checker” filled with “youthful hubris,” Mr. Kaplan recalled. “It’s been a pleasure to see him grow up.”

In Mr. Omelianuk’s first year of homeownership, his ego took a beating when he discovered what a money pit he had bought. One of the central beams, it turned out, was being devoured by termites. The windows were so old that one of them fell on top of him while he was napping in a second-floor bedroom. And water poured out of a radiator like a garden hose, damaging the hardwood flooring throughout the house.

Ms. Dubroff, who grew up in a doorman building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, did not initially share Mr. Omelianuk’s enthusiasm for renovation. But in 2005, after they had dated for three years, she agreed to embark on three major ventures with him: getting married, starting a family and renovating the Hoboken house.

Among other things, they intended to install a new heating system, replace the termite-riddled structural beam and fix the floors, which were not only water-damaged but sloping. Like many people, they had their share of bad luck with contractors, and the renovations stretched on for years. Mr. Omelianuk and Ms. Dubroff offer stories of one contractor who was charged with restoring the fireplaces but had a heart attack before he could finish the job, and another suffering from hepatitis C.

And while trouble with contractors makes great fodder for magazine articles, it doesn’t make for a comfortable home life. As Mr. Omelianuk put it, “It’s more like serial torture.”

He added: “I don’t know what it was that kept us sort of stumbling forward. Stubbornness, maybe stupidity.”

It didn’t help that fertility treatments were becoming so costly that they had to postpone renovation projects. They painted their bedroom in earth tones, in an effort to create what Mr. Omelianuk called a cocoon, and Ms. Dubroff contemplated whether the house was haunted or cursed.

“We thought we would be pregnant by the end of the renovation,” she said. “Sometimes, I think, the house — you did this to me.”

MR. OMELIANUK TRIED to share these frustrations with readers without divulging too much information. In his editor’s notes, he griped about how he felt when his in-laws bought a home and he suspected that they would want their “handy son-in-law” to work on it, although he hadn’t even finished his own renovation. And in one column, he admitted defeat, advising readers not to try to do it all themselves. Go ahead and hire a plumber, he told them, “everyone needs a break from the DIY grind.”

This sort of sentiment was not well received by some. In response to one of Mr. Omelianuk’s columns, a reader named William wrote in to complain: “How did you ever become the ‘editor’ of the wonderful world of This Old House, which has been going on for over 30 years with RESPECTED people?” He went on to add, “I think it is time for your retirement party!”

Nevertheless, the column developed quite a following. One month, when it was conspicuously absent, concerned readers wrote in asking whether he was still editor in chief, or if he had been injured doing home repairs.

Leave it to a nosy neighbor to sort things out. Beverly Savage, who lives down the street, was walking her Scottish terriers by Mr. Omelianuk’s house one morning when she peered in the front window. Inside, she saw Mr. Omelianuk holding up a newborn and laughing.

“I just felt so viscerally his happiness — you could just see it on the street,” Ms. Savage said later. “Just seeing him and Cara, they were happy in a way that they were sad before this. They were carrying something around that was a really big burden.”

She urged him to share the story of how he and his wife had spent nearly four years trying to get pregnant, just as he did his travails with home renovations. Several months later, Mr. Omelianuk came clean in his editor’s note.

“Maybe some of you understand,” he wrote. “The toddler-height rod in the hall closet sort of mocks you with no hope of tiny coats in it. The microwave you cleverly placed in the island — the better to give wee ones easy access — just becomes a bother to your grown-up back. And the mudroom you were excited about doesn’t hold the same interest when you’re told you’ll never have little feet bringing in the mud.”

Now, as the couple showed a visitor around the top floor, Luca, 22 months, somersaulted through the home office, tapped his fingers on an antique typewriter and offered his mother a pre-nap kiss. Any fears that the home was cursed, Ms. Dubroff said, have disappeared.

“Does the house feel like a burden?” she said. “It has, many times. But it doesn’t anymore.”


Source: NYTimes /



As housing, job markets improve, homeowners spend on remodeling



Afew years ago, Stephen Feldman and his wife came close to undertaking a major renovation of their growing family’s three-bedroom home in Medfield. But still recovering from the hit their savings took in the 2008 stock market plunge, the Feldmans decided to put off their plans.

“We wanted to pull the trigger on the project, but financially we weren’t ready,” said Feldman, who owns a commercial printing company in Needham.

They’re ready now. Feeling more confident about their finances and the economy, the Feldmans have brushed off their plans to remodel the kitchen, add 1,000 square feet to their home, and make other changes. They’re seeking bids for their long-postponed project, which they expect to get underway this spring.

Area contractors, architects, interior designers, and others tied to the home construction industry are getting a lot of inquiries these days from people like the Feldmans as an improving economy and housing market lift the confidence of homeowners. Just a few years ago, contractors said, the few homeowners undertaking improvements limited work to small, maintenance-oriented projects that couldn’t be put off, such as fixing roofs, replacing drafty windows, or installing new heating systems.

But today, not only are more people fixing up homes, they are launching ambitious projects, tearing down walls, expanding living spaces, and remodeling kitchens and bathrooms. “My phone has been ringing off the hook,” said Gary Gallagher, owner of Gallagher Home Builders Concord. “I’ve gotten more phone calls in the past month than I did in the past year.”

The rebound in remodeling is another indication that confidence is growing and the economic recovery is gaining traction, analysts said. Last week, the Dow Jones industrial average surged to record highs while the Labor Department reported that US employers added 236,000 jobs in February and the unemployment rate declined to its lowest level in more than four years.

Spending on home improvement began to recover last year, when it jumped about 10 percent to some $126 billion nationally, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. The center projects that spending on home remodeling could surge by as much as 20 percent this year.

In Boston, permits for residential remodeling projects rose last year by 20 percent to about 6,300 permits, the most since of 2004, when housing was still booming, according to BuildFax, a home data tracking unit of Builderadius Inc. of North Carolina.

“There’s a sense of momentum,” said Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders. “There’s still a lot of caution out there, but we’re definitely seeing more activity.”

Padraig O’Beirne, owner of Sudbury Home Improvement LLC, doesn’t need data to tell him that the home remodeling sector is recovering — at least for his firm. O’Beirne, who has hired five employees over the past year, has remodeling projects under way in Boxborough, Lunenburg, Marlborough, and Newton. He has two other projects in the pipeline in Sudbury.

“We were busy right through December and January, which are normally our slow months,” said O’Beirne. “After the November election, we started getting lots of calls. People finally seemed to realize, ‘Well, OK, we now know what we have for the next four years. Let’s get it done.’ ”

Underpinning this rebound are improving job and housing markets. Employers added more than 2 million jobs nationally last year and about 50,000 in Massachusetts, according to the Labor Department. Home sales in Massachusetts last year hit their highest level since 2006, according to Warren Group, a Boston real estate tracking firm.

As a result, homeowners are growing more confident about taking on big home-improvement projects. They aren’t investing at the frenzied pace seen during the last housing boom, but they’re more willing to spend money on their homes now that they know values are stabilizing, industry officials said.

Among those feeling more confident is Neil Murphy.

A vice president of finance at a local software company, Murphy was considering renovating his four-bedroom brick Tudor home in Arlington, but couldn’t pull the trigger as he worried about uncertain job and housing markets in the years that followed the Wall Street fiasco of 2008. He decided to put any major renovations until things settled down.

Last year, sensing a better economy and a more stable housing market, he hired Conneely Contracting Inc. of Arlington to remodel his kitchen and bathrooms, add a 360-foot addition, and re-side the exterior, among other things.

“It just made sense,” he said. “To us, it was the perfect time to do it.”

Marty Conneely, owner and president of Conneely Contracting, said he’s getting a lot more clients like Murphy — enough that he recently hired four additional employees. “There’s definitely more activity out there,” said Conneely.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said the increase in remodeling work will help give a much-needed boost to the economy and construction industry, which was the hardest hit sector in the last recession. While remodeling has nowhere near the economic impact as new home construction, Zandi said, there’s “a lot of pent-up demand” by homeowners to undertake renovations beyond fixing roofs and replacing windows.

“There’s still a lot of room to run here,” he said of continued growth within the home improvement sector.

In Massachusetts, remodeling activity could be helping to stabilize construction employment, which has fallen about 30 percent from its prerecession peak, said Alan Clayton-Matthews, an economist at Northeastern University. The Massachusetts construction industry experienced a small bounce in employment from the federal government’s stimulus spending a few years ago, but those dollars have since dried up. The surge in remodeling may be creating new jobs to offset those lost after the demise of stimulus spending, he said.

It’s not just construction firms benefiting from the uptick in the remodeling and renovation business. The world’s largest home improvement company, Home Depot Inc., recently reported that sales at stores open at least a year jumped by about 7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Its competitor, Lowe’s Cos., reported a 2 percent increase in sales during the same period, and industry officials expect that growth to accelerate as the housing market improves.

Jeff Swanson, owner of Renovation Planning LLC in Boston’s South End, said his residential design and construction-oversight firm experienced a more than 50 percent increase in business from remodeling last year — and he expects a further 20 percent increase this year.

“People were holding back on projects, and you can only hold back for so long,” he said.

Since late last fall, Paul Apkarian, owner of Paul Apkarian Architects Inc. in Westborough, said he has landed about 20 new design contracts for home renovations, double the assignments the year before.

Buoyed by the increase, Apkarian said he recently began advertising to hire a new architect drafter in order to meet growing demand for design work. “There’s really been a surprising amount of work coming in,” said Apkarian. “It’s almost hard keeping up.”

It’s not just construction firms benefiting from the uptick in the remodeling and renovation business. The world’s largest home improvement company, Home Depot Inc., recently reported that sales at stores open at least a year jumped by about 7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

Its competitor, Lowe’s Cos., reported a 2 percent increase in sales during the same period, and industry officials expect that growth to accelerate as the housing market improves.

Jeff Swanson, owner of Renovation Planning LLC in Boston’s South End, said his residential design and construction-oversight firm experienced a more than 50 percent increase in business from remodeling last year — and he expects a further 20 percent increase this year.

“People were holding back on projects, and you can only hold back for so long,” he said.

Since late last fall, Paul Apkarian, owner of Paul Apkarian Architects Inc. in Westborough, said he has landed about 20 new design contracts for home renovations, double the assignments the year before.

Buoyed by the increase, Apkarian said he recently began advertising to hire a new architect drafter in order to meet growing demand for design work. “There’s really been a surprising amount of work coming in,” said Apkarian. “It’s almost hard keeping up.”


Source: Boston Globe /

Five tips to take your home from ‘for sale’ to ‘sold’

If you’ve been thinking about selling your home, there’s no time like the present. House hunters come out of the woodwork in warm weather months and “for sale” signs pop up everywhere. Your job is to set your home apart from all the others. In most areas around the country, it’s a buyers’ market. So how do you get a leg-up on the competition?

Deborah Rossler, Interior Design instructor at The Art Institute of Dallas, a campus of South University, and Maryse Jospitre, Interior Design program coordinator at The Art Institute of Phoenix share the top five tips you can really use to turn that “for sale” sign into “sold.”

1. Detach

You may love the outdated recliner that was passed down from grandpa. You may also think that lime green and fuchsia are the foundation for a great color scheme. But others may not. “Before you put it on the market, emotionally detach from your home,” advises Rossler. Look at it from the buyer’s point of view. Figure out what needs an update, a touch-up or an overhaul and then do it.

2. De-clutter

You want to open up the space to make it feel larger. While it’s fine if your home has the “lived in” look, all the extra knick-knacks should be put away. Jospitre suggests renting a storage unit if your place is small. If you’ve got a garage or an attic, store your items there in plastic bins.

But do not shove all the extra stuff in your closets. People look in there, warns Rossler, and a messy closet tells potential buyers that there won’t be enough room for their things either. The same goes for drawers and cabinets. Tidy them up and organize them neatly. Make sure your belongings aren’t packed tightly because it will make the cabinet look smaller.

Free up the space on your kitchen countertop. A coffee maker and toaster are fine. But put away the blender, stand-mixer and popcorn maker. You might as well tidy up the bathroom counter while you’re at it.

3. Go neutral

Neutral colors allow house hunters to visualize what the space will look like with their belongings. “Heavily saturated colors are overwhelming and don’t go over well with prospective home owners,” says Jospitre. If they dislike the colors, they will be put off by the space.

Rossler agrees that sellers should paint neutral colors that blend room-to-room. But she does make room for an exception: “If you’re living in a trendy area where something out of the norm is expected, then a bright wall could be a welcome feature.”

4. A little rehab and some heavy lifting

Does the carpet need to be replaced? Better yet, is there hardwood under the carpet you can refinish? Go for the latter, if that’s an option. Buyers love a good hardwood floor. Get the fresh coat of paint on the walls if they’re chipping or peeling.

Move furniture away from walls. A big couch against a wall looks frumpy and is not aesthetically pleasing. And remove extra furniture (this could also be filed under “de-clutter”). It’s good to see baseboards and corners, which gives the room a more open and spacious feel.

5. Before the doorbell rings

Clean. Then clean some more. A dirty, dusty house is a huge turn-off. Don’t forget to clean the light fixtures on the ceiling. And after you’ve done all that, do a quick 15-minute spruce-up before potential buyers walk through the door.

Open the curtains and blinds. Let natural light in. It makes the home seem cheery and bright. Of course, make sure the windows are clean too. Keep fresh flowers in a vase.

And don’t forget the smell. A fresh smelling home is a big plus. Open windows to air the home out. Don’t cook potentially pungent foods – like fish or garlic – before a showing. Instead bake some cookies or use an air freshener that smells like baked goods.


Source: News Miner /


Cleaning up house after years of smoking

Q: My husband and I have owned a two-bedroom, one-bath rental house in San Leandro for 20 years. Despite the market’s ups and downs it’s been a good investment. We have been even more fortunate to have the same quiet, responsible tenant for the past 15 years.

But last month our tenant, who is in her late ’70s, decided she needed some help and moved into an assisted living home. We’re going to miss her. What we won’t miss is that she was a dedicated two-pack-a-day smoker.

We want to get the place back on the market but it reeks of tobacco. I think the odor is even coming out of the walls. What can we do to get our little rental smelling clean and fresh again?

A: Fifteen years of on-time rent checks must have been pretty nice. Now it’s time to pay the piper. With that much smoke over that amount of time we’re fairly certain you’ll have to take extreme measures. New paint and carpet won’t be enough. Here’s how we would go about returning the place to pristine condition:

First, throw out anything that has a porous surface and could trap odors. That means all curtains and drapes, all carpets and carpet padding. If you have venetian blinds you might as well get rid of them, too. They’re nearly impossible to clean.

We would then have all the ductwork in the house professionally cleaned.

Now the fun begins. Thoroughly clean every inch of all walls and ceilings, doors and any wood trim with trisodium phosphate (TSP). This inexpensive workhorse cleaner comes in powder form, dilutes with water and is available at any hardware store or home center.

Make sure to follow the instructions. The solution is caustic so you should cover up any exposed skin. Because of the tobacco odor and years of nicotine we would also wear a surgical mask. Also, TSP should not be used on metal, glass or tile surfaces.

Your next step is to paint the entire interior with a stain-blocking primer. We’ve tried a number of these over the years and have found the best to be B-I-N, a shellac-based primer from Zinsser and Co. This stuff will cost you upward of $40 per gallon at paint stores or home centers but given the scope of your job, this is not the place to cut corners.

Normally, we wouldn’t be too concerned about the floor but considering 15 years of heavy smoking it’s possible that the odor has permeated the subfloor. So we would also wash down the subfloor with TSP and roll on a coat of B-I-N. If your house has hardwood floors a professional sanding and finishing would be our choice.

Once the primer has thoroughly dried, your work becomes pretty straightforward. Use a quality acrylic paint for the ceilings, walls and woodwork. We like to use a flat or eggshell finish for the walls and ceilings and a semi-gloss finish for woodwork. Also, semi-gloss works best in kitchens and bathrooms.

Then it’s time for new padding, carpeting and window coverings.

We think the last thing you should do is put an ironclad no-smoking clause in your lease.


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When is it time to replace your roof?

For a homeowner, a brown spot on the ceiling is very bad news. It means you have a leak in your roof and the possibility exists that, by the time you see the evidence, you’ve already suffered some damage.

To protect the structural integrity of your home, you want to take care of your roof before it develops a leak.

Most residential roofs are covered with asphalt or fiberglass shingles. This flexible roofing material is relatively easy to install and contains granules that help the material repel water. These shingles come in different grades with guarantees often lasting 20, 25 or 30 years, depending on the grade.

That means your roof has a limited lifespan, depending on the type of roofing material that was used. For that reason, it’s important for you to know the grade of shingle that was used and when it was installed.
Ask a home inspector

If you are purchasing a home, the seller will usually tell you when the roof was installed. A good home inspector will give you an assessment of the roof’s condition and how many years it has left before you have to start thinking about replacing it.

There are also ways for you to keep up with your roof’s condition so that you don’t get blindsided by that brown spot on the ceiling. Most can be done with a visual inspection from the ground.

Walk around the house looking for missing shingles. That’s an obvious sign that there is a problem.

Other signs include a dull, flat appearance. The granules should give the shingles a shiny surface. When the granules wear off, the shingles lose a lot of their water-shedding ability.

When the edges of the shingles begin to curl that’s also a bad sign. Curling is usually the result of poor ventilation or a dried-out asphalt shingle base. When you see curling, it’s usually time to replace the roof because once this process begins, there really isn’t a way to reverse it.

Cracked or bubbled shingles

Another sign that the roof must be replaced is when you find cracked or bubbled shingles. Many home repair experts recommend staying off a roof with shingles damaged to this extent. They are likely to break or come loose, not only furthern damaging the roof but possibly causing you to lose your footing.

PhotoMoss growing on your shingles is another bad sign that could means it’s time for a new roof. Moss needs moisture to grow, and if your roof has moisture it means the shingles are no longer doing their job. However, before deciding on a course of action it may be wise to first remove the moss and determine the condition of the shingles beneath it.

Sometimes you may find one or two missing or damaged shingles. That poses a problem for the integrity of your roof but doesn’t necessarily mean the entire roof needs replacing. It will depend on the condition of the remaining shingles. Temporary tar sealing will work in the short term but is not guaranteed to fix the problem permanently.

To replace a shingle, slip a flat bar under the damaged shingle and pry out the nails that hold it in place. Next, pull out the old shingle and slip in a new one. This isn’t always easy. To nail down the new shingle you must lift the shingle that’s directly above it. That can be a problem when the old shingle is so brittle that it doesn’t bend, giving you no room to nail the new one into place.

Replacement costs

If you decide it’s time to replace your roof, get several estimates. Make sure the estimate includes removing the old shingles and disposing of the debris.

In past years, it was common practice to simply nail the new shingles over the old ones. The industry has changed and reputable roofers won’t even offer this as an option. In fact, doing so will void many manufacturers’ warranties.

What should you expect to pay for a new shingle roof? There are a lot of variables, including where you live, how many layers of shingles are currently on your roof, the square footage of the roof and the pitch.

According to real estate site, a complete roofing system with tear off and disposal of all job-related debris could range from $6,500 to $15,000 on a 1,600-square-foot home.


Source: Consumer Affairs /