5 Ways to Create a Beautiful Outdoor Living Space

11175002_10204354166271278_4758310620820574253_nA friend posted a picture on Facebook the other day of a tiny patch of snow with the caption “Some people just don’t know when to leave.”  As of Saturday I had a teeny tiny patch left in a spot that doesn’t get much sun…but with all the rain we have had the past 24 hours (poor Boston marathoners) it is finally gone.  Finally.  For those of us in the Boston area, it has been a brutal winter that made up for its very late start by pounding us with snowstorm after snowstorm for about 5 weeks, then finished out the winter with record-setting low temperatures.  In New England you can never really count on winter being over until May, but I think we are pretty safe at this point.

So now that it seems like spring is here, that must mean summer is just around the corner, right?  Memorial Day, the “unofficial start to summer,” is a mere 34 days away.  My landscapers have already been by to do the spring clean-up and the other day I hauled some of my outdoor furniture onto my deck (a bit of wishful thinking at this point but I like seeing it there).  With that in mind I thought I would focus today on the outdoor living space, which is becoming more and more elaborate.   These spaces are becoming an extension of the house, often providing fire pits or fireplaces, outdoor cooking stations that go far beyond a simple grill, televisions, pools and more.  And while it would be nice to have a space that looks like this…

PCdqgK_C…I am instead going to focus on more practical things you can do to add spark to your outdoor space.

#1…Add a Covered Space

Having some covered outdoor space can be nice in order to keep out of the sun and the heat of the day.  Covered space can be achieved very simply with an umbrella, some of which are quite large and provide wonderful shading for your seating area.


Then there is a canvas gazebo.  I love the transformation this woman did…she started out with a crappy looking cement pad.  She did a LOT of DIY…if you are crafty and have the time, go at it.  But you could easily mimic this look without breaking the bank even if you bought things instead of made them.  The gazebo is only $199 from Home Depot (currently on backorder until mid-June, still plenty of time for summer).  I think it really helps define the space and makes it feel like a cozy room.


Having the covered space also allows you to add some lighting…I LOVE strung lights…

#2…Outdoor Lighting

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is driving around and seeing all the beautiful Christmas lights.  I always wonder why we don’t have outdoor lights like that year round (although admittedly, my lights are still outside although unplugged…time to bring them in until next December).  Just as it is inside your home, lighting can have a huge impact on how things look and the overall mood.  String lights are great and finding ones that are approved for outdoor use is easy (Home Depot has a whole selection of cool outdoor string lights at reasonable prices).  If you have covered space you can also use lamps and overhead fixtures…just make sure they are approved for outdoor use, like this overhead fixture from Ballard Designs that is UL Listed for damp locations.  Here are a few ideas for inspiration.  This looks positively magical…

9-string-lights-diy-ideasAnd this is relatively simple…even I can wrap lights around a tree trunk.


#3…Fireplaces/Fire Pits

Outdoor fireplaces and fire pits seem to have really taken off lately.  Certainly if you are looking at taking on a big outdoor makeover, adding a custom fireplace would be terrific. These can be wood burning…


or gas…


depending on your preference (I am a huge lover of gas fireplaces…I have one of each inside my house and I used the gas one almost every day this winter and never, not once, used the wood burning one…but maybe I am just lazy).  Even if you aren’t doing a big outdoor makeover you can still get the fireplace effect with minimal (or at least a much lower) investment.   You can spend under $200 and buy what essentially amounts to a metal basin in which you build your fire.  Some models also have a mesh top and some are both a fire pit and a statement piece, like this model from Frontgate (for a mere $2300…and you still have to build your own fire).


Or, if you are like me and don’t really enjoy the effort involved in building a fire (I was a Girl Scout, believe it or not), then there are fire pits that are fueled by propane.  I bought this version a few years ago from Frontgate…it has little rocks and fake logs and lights up at the flick of a switch (yes, I have the furniture too, sue me).  The propane tank is hidden underneath.  LOVE IT.


I know Frontgate is pricey, but they do have some beautiful fire pits.  Adding a fireplace or fire pit gives everyone a place to gather round and it adds that level of ambiance that makes people want to stay. (Sidebar…looking at those sofa cushions reminded me of this tip to help spruce them up after the long winter…a little homemade cleaning solution.)


You’re outside, plant some flowers and greenery.  Once again this can be elaborately done with lined beds and meticulous landscaping that requires a crew to maintain, or it can involve simply planting some flowers in a pot or hanging basket.  I thought this was  a cool idea…planting containers within the ground to keep things literally “contained” and neat looking.  I also love the low grassy plant used as edging.


I also like the idea of growing some mosquito repelling plants…lemongrass is one and you can easily root it and grow it in containers (here in New England it will not survive the winter…I would suggest starting it indoors in the spring) ~ you can usually find lemongrass in the fresh herb section of the supermarket.  Here is a great “how-to”  on getting started.  Other plants that are reportedly mosquito repelling are lemon balm, catnip, marigold, basil, lavender, peppermint, rosemary and geranium.

Then of course there is the simple pot with flowers…make sure to add something taller in the back and something that spills over the edge.  Mine never look like this…


Finally, here is a great how-to for hanging baskets that will help you achieve a full, lush look.

#5…Miscellaneous Outdoor Decor

There is so much you can do to add warmth and color to your outdoor space…it isn’t much different from decorating a room inside…you add outdoor rugs, decorative pillows, curtains, wall art, clocks, lanterns and wreaths…be creative.  Make it feel like a room that just happens to be outdoors…


So…there you have it.  I think you have some work to do…better get going, summer will be here before you know it.  3049898_orig

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8 Popular Countertop Materials, the Pros and the Cons

what-do-i-choose-too-many-options.jpgA few weeks ago I posted a two-part series called “8 Tips on Choosing Kitchen Countertops” (see here for Part 1 and Part 2).  Those posts walked through what to do before you look at materials, things to consider when selecting a material and what to do when you have found a material that you like.  Now I want to talk about some of your actual material choices.

When thinking about countertop materials the obvious choices are granite and quartz.  But when you really start digging into it there are an almost endless number of options.  Making a choice comes down to the three (or maybe it is 4) “P’s”…Personal Preference, Price and Properties…what do you like, what can you afford, and how are you going to use your kitchen (which will dictate the properties you are looking for in your countertop).  Today I will discuss 8 of the keep-calm-and-love-number-8-7countertop options that are the most common…ones most people have seen or at least heard of.  This post is not meant to be a recommendation of any one material…it really depends on you and the 3(4?) P’s.   When I was looking for my countertops I considered granite, quartz, marble, soapstone, wood, concrete and quartzite, all of which are discussed today.  In a post next week I will cover an additional 8 materials that are less common but certainly worth consideration (don’t you love how everything about these posts is “8”?).

Before we get started, please note that I have tried to provide ballpark cost per square foot for the materials…understand these are rough estimates…costs can vary by region due to availability and labor costs, and there’s almost always an option that is more expensive than the range given.  So, let’s get started…


Granite    $35 a square foot and up

Everyone is familiar with granite and it is getting to the point where people almost expect it, even in a lower price-point kitchen (if you watch House Hunters you will see people reject kitchens out-of-hand if they don’t have granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, even for starter homes).  Growing up no one had granite countertops…we all had formica (which believe it or not is still around).  And we all turned out okay.  🙂  Granite has proliferated in the last 15 years to where it is now almost the defacto choice.  And there is nothing wrong with that…granite has many wonderful properties.  For one, there is a granite for almost any budget.  The very uniform (dare I say “generic”) granites can be had at around $35 a square foot installed and it can go up (and up and up) from there (the granite pictured above is one of my favorites, called Costa Esmeralda…it is a higher price-point granite).  Granite also comes in an endless array of colors and patterns, and can be done in a honed (matte) finish or a leathered (textured) finish for a more unique look.  Granite is very durable, is heat-reistant and low maintenance.  The negatives are that it is everywhere…your granite may look like your neighbors.  There are also some negative environmental aspects of granite, both from the quarrying process and the impacts from shipping these large slabs of stone all over the world (much of the granite comes from Brazil and India).


Marble   $70 – $100 a square foot (or more)

Marble is becoming the new granite…it is showing up in kitchens everywhere.  With the current trend towards white kitchens and gray paint tones, marble works well design-wise.  I think marble is absolutely gorgeous.  But marble comes at a price…and I don’t just mean dollars and cents (it can actually be less expensive than many other countertop materials).  While marble is touted as being great for rolling out doughs and working with pastry (um, how often do you do that?), it is also highly susceptible to scratching, etching and staining and will develop a “patina” that may look worn (which some people like).  Like granite, it is generally considered to be heat-resistant and easy maintenance (outside of constantly having to worry about staining, etc).  When I was looking at the granite warehouse I wandered into the marble section…it is easy to be swayed by it’s beauty and relatively reasonable price point…but I knew I didn’t want to be worried about the staining and scratching…it is a trade-off, one that obviously many people are willing to make.


Soapstone   $80 – $100 a square foot

Soapstone has been around for years…I have read about old soapstone sinks being found and repurposed.  This is another stone that I considered when looking for a countertop material…while it is more limited in color and design (from deep green black to black to gray), some of the stone has very interesting veining and can be quite beautiful.  Soapstone is heat resistant and nonporous (and therefore resists staining).  The main reason I decided against it is that similar to marble, it is subject to scratching, chips & dents.  Soapstone is part talc, hence this susceptibility.  Friends who have soapstone said it can look worn after a time…some people may not mind this, or may actually like this…just be aware.  Soapstone also requires regular oiling (monthly).  Soapstone is generally a matte (non-shiny finish).


Quartzite   $150 a square foot and up

Quartzite is a natural stone, not to be confused with quartz, which generally refers to the manmade material (discussed below).  Quartzite has become very popular of late because one of its variations looks a lot like marble (often referred to as “Super White” or “Fantastic White” as in the photo above).  This is the material I ended up with (as I loved the look of marble but didn’t want the headaches).  My personal experience was that while it is available, if you see a slab you like, tag it…it doesn’t last long in the warehouse.  Also be aware that there is a lot of variation in the slabs…some have a lot more white and less gray (which can actually drive up the price point) and some have more “filler,” which if not done well, can look yellow (quartzite has natural gaps that are filled before being used as a countertop material).  Quartzite is very hard (harder than granite), is heat resistant and low maintenance.  However,  like marble, quartzite is subject to etching from acidic foods…etching is where the acid actually eats away at the surface…this can leave a mark and/or noticeable dull spot in the countertop (essentially etching away the shiny surface).   You need to be conscious of things like citrus and tomato juices sitting on the countertop for too long a period of time.  I have had my countertops for 6 months and haven’t noticed any issues, but I also do most of my prep work on my island which is wood.


Wood   $35 – $200 per square foot

Wood countertops have a warm look to them and come in a variety of options…maple is generally priced at the lower end, walnut and cherry will be more, and some exotic woods will be even more than that.  Many people think of butcher block when they think of wood, but wood countertops have come a long way from butcher block.  While warm in look with relatively inexpensive price points available, wood is not heat resistant and is subject to scratches, swelling and darkening if not properly maintained.  Wood, like soapstone, requires more regular maintenance with frequent oiling recommended to maintain the surface.  Wood allows for some creative variations, like using reclaimed/distressed wood or allowing the countertop to take the natural shape of the wood.  Wood can also be a nice complement to another stone, for example on an island or bar top (which is what I have done).


Concrete   $70 – $150 per square foot

The use of concrete, both in countertops and in flooring, seems to be growing.  Concrete in countertops can be a relatively reasonable option as far as price point, and it can be so much more than gray…in fact it can be made in virtually any color by adding pigments, stains and dyes…although gray still seems to be the most common.  Concrete can also be fashioned into almost any shape by virtue of the forms used.  Concrete’s disadvantages are that it is porous and therefore subject to staining.  It is also subject to cracking.  However polymers are now being added to some concrete products to help resist cracking and some manufacturers are claiming that their sealers make concrete virtually non-staining.  And while concrete countertops can be heavy, again, new technologies are coming up with lighter weight materials.  The popularity of concrete is relatively new, so if this material appeals to you I would ask a lot of questions of the installer.

New Kitchen

Engineered Quartz   $100 – $185 per square foot

Engineered Quartz or engineered stone, commonly referred to as just “quartz” is a manmade product made from crushed quartz and a resin that binds the material together.  It comes in a variety of colors and patterns.  In general it has a more uniform look to it, but manufacturers (such as Caesarstone and Silestone) continue to play around with patterns that mimic real stone…some of the most popular are ones that mimic marble.  Like natural stone, engineered quartz is made in slabs and will require seams if your countertops are longer than the slab size.  Because the material is more uniform the matching at a seam, however, is much easier.  Quartz is basically maintenance free and non-porous, another advantage.  While “heat-tolerable” these countertops are not “heat-resistant” and hot pans should not be placed directly on a quartz countertop.


Solid Surface   $75 – $125

Commonly referred to Corian (although that is just one of the manufacturers), this manmade material was all the rage before everyone wanted granite.  You will still find it in kitchens and bathrooms, and it has it’s advantages. Like engineered quartz, it can be found in a myriad of colors and patterns (many mimicking natural stone) and has a uniform look.  Unlike quartz, corian is seamless (you will often see an integrated seamless sink in a bathroom installation).  It is non-porous (i.e. won’t stain) and is very durable.  It is, however, subject to scratching and is not heat-resistant.

So there you have it, 8 options to consider.  Next week I will discuss stainless steel, glass,  recycled paper (really), recycled glass, sodalite, limestone, lava stone (get out your checkbook!) and zinc as countertop options.  See you then1





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Surviving the Spring Market ~ 6 Tips for Sellers

Real-Estate-Sellers-Market-PictureIn many parts of the country it is a seller’s market…certainly in the greater Boston area we are seeing more buyers than there is inventory.  Some towns are particularly frenzied right now with multiple offers, properties selling before hitting MLS and homes selling above asking price.  But no matter what kind of market you are facing, you always want your home to show at it’s best and spend as little time on the market as possible.  To that end, here are six tips if you are thinking of putting your house up for sale.


I cannot stress this enough.  You are going to be moving, hopefully sooner rather than later…you might as well start the weeding out and packing up before you put your house up for sale.  When I sold my house several years ago I had been living there for 11 years…it is amazing the amount of stuff I had accumulated in the basement, attics & closets.  Take the time to clean out before listing your house…buyers will open closets…if they are crammed with stuff buyers will not think “wow, look how much stuff I can pack in here!” but instead will see the closet as small and an indication of the house not having enough storage space.   As you go through your house think about what you are going to take 5-ways-live-happily-clutter-bug_411d209af86a730270deb7b198d782dc_3x2with you and what you plan to get rid of…anything in the latter category should be removed from the house before listing it.  Then pack up some of the things going with you  that you will not have an immediate need of…remove these things to a storage locker if possible.  Alternatively, store neatly in a basement or attic space (preferably boxed up).  Decluttering also means removing unnecessary knick-knacks (aren’t they all unnecessary?), reducing or eliminating personal photos and clearing off countertops…your countertops should not look like those above.

2.  Clean, clean and then clean again.  

Before listing your house needs a thorough cleaning…this goes beyond the everyday cleaning you do and includes cleaning carpets (it is amazing how much better an old worn out carpet can look with a good professional cleaning) and having windows professionally cleaned inside and out.  I have a personal story about this last item…when I sold my house my real estate agent wanted me to have the windows cleaned…they didn’t look that bad to me and I resisted her a bit.  Finally I windowCleaninggave in…and could not believe the difference…the windows literally sparkled and the house seemed brighter…spend the money and have them cleaned!  Other things to consider included power washing the exterior of the house if needed and cleaning grout in kitchen and bathrooms.

3.  Make small repairs and minor updates

If there are small things that you are aware of that need repair, do it now, before listing your house.  Replace broken or missing outlet covers, replace burnt out light bulbs, make sure all closet doors are on track, have leaky faucets fixed, and fix any broken or cracked windows.  Buyers tend to overestimate the cost of repairs by 2-4 times the actual cost, so it is worth spending the money upfront to fix things.   Also consider making small updates that have little cost but can update the house…easy things include replacing outdated light fixtures, changing cabinet hardware and giving rooms a fresh coat of paint.


4.  Make a Strong First Impression

Potential buyers will begin forming an impression of your house from the moment they pull up to the curb.  If bushes are overgrown, the yard isn’t neat and the house looks tired or unwelcoming they may not even come inside.  Make sure the grass is mowed, bushes are trimmed, beds are mulched and the yard is picked up and neat.  Consider adding some flower pots in front, a seasonal wreath to the door and putting out a fresh welcome mat. Consider painting the front door a fresh new color to give the house some pop.


5.  Work with a Real Estate Agent

Yes, I am biased, but working with an agent gives you many benefits.  90% of home buyers start their search on the internet.  A good agent will have professional photos taken of your house (which look much better than anything you can take with your iPhone), may add video and may even set up a website specifically for your home.  Your home will be listed on MLS (multiple listing service) which will give you access to the greatest number of buyers.  An agent will walk you through the entire home-selling process, making sure you understand things like radon and lead paint testing, passing Titleshutterstock_102143875 V (for private septic in Massachusetts), and what you are required to disclose to buyers.  Having an agent show your house removes you from the showings, which is a good thing.  It allows a buyer to feel comfortable opening closets and asking questions.  A good agent will be able to meet a potential buyer’s schedule to see the house, whatever time of day or day of the week.  And most importantly, a good agent will help you price the house accurately.  Sellers often overestimate the value of their home…pricing too high will discourage potential buyers in those critical first weeks when your home attracts the most attention.     A listing agent will also work on your behalf to negotiate the best price and help you sort out multiple offers if you are so fortunate (the highest price may not always be the best offer).

6.  Have an Exit Strategy

Having your house on the market is not fun.  You will need to keep it picked up at all times as you never know when someone is going to want to see it.  While you will often IMG_0670have a day’s notice, you can just as likely get a call that a buyer would like to see your house in a half hour.  One strategy that can help is to take a laundry basket and walk through the house throwing everything into it that needs picking up/putting away…kid and pet toys, clothing, mail and piles of paper on the counter top, etc.  Throw the laundry basket in the back of your car, along with the kids and any pets, and leave the house during the showing.  Before leaving also consider turning on all lights (your agent can also do this if they arrive in advance of the showing) and open up all shades and drapes…you want your house to look as light as possible.

My final piece of advice is this…when your house is on the market, you need to think like a seller, not a homeowner.  To the degree possible you need to detach yourself from the house and do whatever is needed to make it appeal to as many buyers as possible.  Do not take comments and criticisms personally.  Discuss every offer with your agent and don’t dismiss any reasonable offer.  If you are motivated to sell, your house can sell quickly.  Good luck!  (If you are a buyer, see my post Surviving the Spring Market: 6 Tips For Buyers.)


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8 Tips on Choosing Kitchen Countertops, Part 2

So I hope you enjoyed my post, 8 Tips on Choosing Kitchen Countertops, Part 1.  If you didn’t read it, I suggest you go back and start there before continuing on with my tips #5-8.  Onward…

Tip #5:  Think about what kind of look you want

PurchaseProduct_4794_SNOW STORM 2905Some of this is going to happen as you start looking at countertop materials…I think it is okay to do some initial looking without too much in mind.  You probably already know your cabinet color at this point and you may have a general idea about countertop color, but you really need to go look ~ you might even change your mind about what it is you want.

Most granite warehouses will let you look for as long as you like.  Most will even give you a sheet to keep track of the stones you like (but come prepared with a pen and paper in case they don’t)…it is also a good idea to have your phone with you to take photos to go along with what you are writing down…you will never remember what “Snowstorm,” “Andromeda”, “Alaska White” and “Costa Esmeralda” are, at least not at first.  Wander the aisles and try to be open to the choices…get an idea of what kinds of stones command what price points…you will begin to see that in general the more “interesting” or less uniform a stone is, the higher the price (to a point).  Maybe you like generic and that is okay…spend more of you budget on your tropicbrown1cabinets or your backsplash then.  Let me insert my two cents here on “granite is so overdone.”  I have heard this many times from different people.  If you go look at granite you will realize how uninformed this is.  “Granite” is not one thing…granite comes in so many colors and pattern variations…to say granite is overdone, IMO shows how naive someone is.  There are so many reasons granite makes a wonderful countertop…be open and don’t let someone tell you not to choose granite (in an upcoming post I will discuss granite and other options).

Tip #6:  Consider the layout of your kitchen.

This may generate some head-scratching…what does the layout of my kitchen have to do with the countertop material I choose?  A lot.  This, IMO, is the most valuable tip I can give, mostly because it is so often overlooked.  When I first went in search of granite I went to Boston Granite Exchange in Haverhill (if you live in the greater Boston area I highly recommend visiting…they have another showroom in West Bridgewater, but go to Haverhill, it’s much bigger).  I wandered the aisle with my clipboard and paper to write down the slabs I liked…it was fun and exciting and overwhelming.  I probably wrote down a dozen different stones I liked.  Later, when I started understanding that stone with an obvious direction wouldn’t work for my kitchen I went back to BGE and realized almost all of the stones I had picked…had an obvious direction.  My kitchen is a U-Shape…I have two corners to my countertops.  Not in and of itself an issue, but I have one large peninsula that is 9′ long by 3′ wide that turns the corner into another 9′ run.  There was not only an obvious change in direction, but the two runs from the corner were both so long that they  could not be cut without having a seam.  This would necessitate the “direction” of the granite running perpendicular to each other at the seam.  This is kind of hard to explain, so I am 348sgiving you a visual here…and I am not saying this is necessarily bad…if your countertop looks like this and you love it, then that’s great.  But some people aren’t going to like this and if you are one of them, better to understand this now, rather than after the countertops have been installed (when it is too late).

If you have changes in direction in your countertops, talk to your fabricator about it…a small corner can be cut from the slab in one piece…I have a corner that is 2′ on either side of a 90 degree turn, …this was cut as one piece from the stone.  But longer runs from a corner are going to potentially run into issues if the stone has an obvious direction…if you don’t like that look, then you need to find a stone that isn’t directional.  A lot of fabricators will not bring this up, so make sure you do if it is important to you.

Tip #7:  If You Find Something You Love, Tag It and Call Your Fabricator

1419707592013Most warehouses will allow you to “tag” something for a period of a few days.  They basically put your name on it and hold it for you.  Some stones have a lot of variation between slabs…if you love a particular slab, tag it (if you need more than one slab, make sure they have two slabs from the same lot…think of slabs as like slices of bread…slabs from the same “loaf” will look similar and will work well together).  Once you have tagged a slab(s) get the lot number from the warehouse.  Call your fabricator and ask them to call the warehouse for pricing…this will also show the warehouse you are serious…they may be willing to give you an extra day or two to make a decision if your fabricator has called and “reserved” it.

Tip #8:  Go to the Fabricator to See Your Template Laid Out on the Stone

Once you have finally made a decision on a slab(s), your fabricator will transport the stone to their warehouse for fabrication.  Fabrication is the process by which the stone is cut to your kitchen’s dimensions, the desired edge is applied and any necessary cutouts (e.g. for a kitchen sink) are added.  Your fabricator will start the process by sending someone out to your kitchen to make the template…this cannot be done until the cabinets are all installed, level and in the right place.  graniteThe template outlines the dimensions of your countertops, including any overhang.  These templates are then brought back to the warehouse to use in actually cutting your stone.  Your fabricator should make an appointment with you to come see the templates laid out on your actual slabs.  If you are at all picky, you will want to do this ~ the only time this might not be necessary is if the stone is very uniform.  My stone, the super white quartzite, had a fair amount of variation within the slab, with some areas more visually interesting than others.  When I went to the fabricator they brought my actual slabs out, set them up so I could see them, and then taped the templates to the stone.  Note that the templates are open, so when they are placed on the stone you can see what would appear as your countertops.  In my slabs there was one section that had some really cool dark gray stuff going on that I particularly liked.  We decided to make that part of the peninsula, as I deemed the peninsula the “highlight” of my kitchen, the place where people would sit and gather.

My fabricator also talked to me about the seam at my templating appointment…ah, the seam…a bad seam can ruin your countertops…seriously.  While super white quartzitebad_color_match_at_seam-resized-600.jpg does not have an obvious direction, it was important to still discuss which two pieces would connect at the seam.  We played around with a piece on the slabs that made it seem like it “went” with the peninsula piece…you really shouldn’t notice the seam ~ in the picture above the seam is very, very obvious.  I would not be happy with this countertop.  You shouldn’t look at the seam and see a huge change in the stone.  Understand there is a trade-off between stone uniformity and how invisible the seam can be…the less uniform the stone, the more difficult it is to make the seam disappear (the stone above is called “snowstorm”…I actually really like it and considered using it myself but it has huge variations in pattern and can be difficult to “match”).  Here is my kitchen countertop seam (those white circles of glare are from my under cabinet lights).



So there are my tips…do they help?  Do you have anything to add?  What was your own countertop selection process like?  Would you do it again?

Coming up I will talk about 8 different countertop choices and the pros and cons of each…stay tuned.


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8 Tips on Choosing Kitchen Countertops, Part 1

6ecb770e5ff31f579415306837c57b50A friend of mine is redoing her kitchen and recently posted on Facebook that she was looking for countertop ideas.  The post generated a ton of responses…so many people have redone kitchens and everyone had some input ~ marble, black granite, leathered granite, honed granite, quartz, quartzite, concrete…so many choices.  Having myself just gutted a kitchen, I had some input, especially since I am a huge researcher.  I ended up with quartzite (which is a natural stone, not to be confused with quartz, sometimes referred to as engineered quartz), but it wasn’t without a lot of reading and driving all around greater Boston to come to a conclusion.  I learned a LOT over the 4-5 weeks I spent making a decision on my countertops, and thought it might be worth sharing some of what I learned so that others may start out ahead of where I did.  I broke my advice down into 8 tips, the first four of which are presented here.

Tip #1:  It’s Not All Fun & Games

While I do not want to start off by complaining about redoing my kitchen, I think it is good to start with a realistic picture of what you are in for.  I love my new kitchen and feel very fortunate that I could afford to redo it…especially given that when I bought the house a kitchen renovation wasn’t part of my plan.  The kitchen had brown cabinets, ISp986echsi7lb1000000000stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.  On the surface it appeared updated and while not my first choice in finishes, certainly tolerable.  I had thought maybe I would have the cabinets professionally painted white and then call it a wrap.  Until I realized how cheap the cabinets were…original to the house, they had taken a beating over 25+years, were thin and flimsy and outdated in style ~ they weren’t worth spending the money to have them painted ~ the whole “putting lipstick on a pig” kind of thing.  And once I decided to replace the cabinets, the countertops and backsplash quickly followed.  Suddenly I had a project on my hands.  And admittedly I got excited…but just prepare yourself.  Yes, it is fun to choose your cabinets, countertops & backsplash but be aware that unless you have an unlimited budget, what you want and what you can have may not always be the same thing.  And you will run around like a crazy person looking at cabinets (there are a ton of cabinet makers), granite warehouses, tile stores for the backsplash, faucets, sinks, cabinet hardware, lighting, appliance stores…again, I love my kitchen, but brace yourself because it is a lot of work and there are a lot of decisions to make, not all of them tremendously exciting (e.g. placement of canned recessed lights in my kitchen).  Towards the end I was tired of making decisions and just wanted it done.  Now more specifically to countertops…

Tip #2:  Have a Countertop Budget Before You Start to Look

I say this, yet at the same time having a budget may not always help you weed out choices.  There is so much variation in the pricing of many of the countertop products (e.g. granite can start as low as about $35 a square foot and can easily exceed $100 a square foot) and it can be easy to fall in love with something, only to learn later that it is granite-slabsvery expensive.  Some showrooms will actually price the slabs.  This still doesn’t tell you how much it will be to fabricate and install; you also need to know how many slabs you will need (it doesn’t take much countertop to necessitate 2 slabs).  Some showrooms don’t even price the slabs, but instead use some kind of color system to mark the slabs…this tells you their cost relative to other slabs, but you can feel like you are really shopping in the dark…so orange is less than silver, but how much is orange to begin with?  And how much more is silver than orange?  Which leads me to my next tip…

Tip #3: Talk to a fabricator early in the process…in fact, talk to two or three

In many cases the only way you will be able to get a price on a particular countertop material is to talk to the fabricator, who can then call the warehouse  and quote you a price for everything…stone, fabrication and installation.  In my case I had absolutely fallen in love with “super white” quartzite…it had a silver sticker on it (only topped by super_white_quartzite_prairie_perch_taking_shape_new_house__super_white_quartzite_homegold in the pricing hierarchy) and so I kept looking for something else…but I finally got a quote for it and it fell within my budget.  Get quotes from more than one fabricator!!  I had quotes that differed by $2400 for the same stone (the exact slabs I had tagged at the warehouse), same kitchen.  That’s because I needed two slabs and fabricators differ in how they price this.  Two fabricators were charging me for both slabs, plus the fabrication and installation.  I barely needed two slabs and there was going to be a lot of leftover stone…in theory it would belong to me, but what was I supposed to do with it?  Unless you are remodeling other parts of your house and think you can use the leftover product somewhere else, having extra stone just results in more expense for you.  The fabricator I ended up working with actually charged me just for the stone I was going to use…the balance of the stone they kept to sell as a remnant (another tip…if you are looking to just do a bathroom vanity you should always ask about remnants).  This can work well, especially if you have a stone that is popular, like super white quartzite.  This is what accounted for the $2400 differential…it made the stone I loved fall within my budget.  And I had no other use for more quartzite.  Just something to understand, as I didn’t when I first got started.

Tip #4:  Before you start looking, think about how you will use your kitchen

Are you an avid cook who spends a lot of time preparing meals?  Are you quick to wipe up spills?  Do you like to be able to set hot pots & pans directly on the countertop?  Are you okay with having to periodically seal, oil and otherwise maintain your countertops or do you want something that is maintenance free?  You need to be realistic about this…I knew that I wanted something relatively maintenance free…I do wipe up spills pretty wine_spillquickly but I didn’t want to have to run down in the middle of the night because I wanted to make sure that wine glass I left on the counter wasn’t creating a circular stain on my marble countertop.  All countertops have their pros and cons…they may be porous or not, heat-resistant or not, susceptible to scratching or super hard, they may require periodic oiling or sealing or require no maintenance at all and they may be inexpensive…or not.  Be smart about the different options, preferably before you go look at stone.  I am going to tell you right now, it is (IMO) very, very easy to fall in love with the look of marble and believe it or not, many marbles do not break the bank…but marble is high-maintenance, and unless you know you will be fastidious about wiping things up and you won’t mind scratches, then just shield your eyes as you walk past the marble section of the showroom.  You can thank me later.

Ready for more?  8 Tips on Choosing Kitchen Countertops ~ Part 2.







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Surviving the Spring Market: 6 Tips for Buyers

EHS-Journal-Exploding-Star-1-by-Carsten-HuelsThe spring real estate market is about to explode.  While spring historically attracts a lot of buyers and sellers, this spring may be even a bit nuttier.  With record-breaking snow in February here in the Boston area, things slowed down substantially…sellers have been reluctant to put a house fronting serious ice-dams on the market, and the prospect of keeping walkways and driveways clear can be daunting.  Likewise, the snow has kept some buyers indoors…it is not nearly as much fun to go look at houses as you schlep through the snow, take your boots off, put them back on, etc. Which means, as the days get longer and the snow begins to melt, the market is going to get crazy.  Interest rates are at ridiculous lows and buyers want to buy.  If you are a buyer, expect to have LOTS of company in the coming weeks.   Pent up buyer demand, low interest rates and continued low housing inventory are going to combine for a hurricane of activity, so fasten your seat belts and read on for my six tips on how to put yourself in the best position to obtain the house of your dreams.

Pre-Approved1. Get Pre-Approved

This may be the single most important item on the list.  If you don’t have a pre-approval, you aren’t really in the game.  No seller will look at an offer today without a buyer pre-approval.  It’s just the way it’s done.

  • Note that a pre-approval and  a pre-qualification are not the same thing.  A pre-approval is what you need, and it will require talking to your lender and providing some actual documents to support your financial position ~ it is more than a conversation with a lender about what you might be able to afford.  The pre-approval will give you an idea of what the bank will be willing to lend you (although a pre-approval does not guarantee you will get a loan) and will show the seller that you are a qualified buyer.
  • Just because you are pre-approved for a certain amount doesn’t mean you have to buy a house up to your limit.  Make sure you think about what you are comfortable spending, not just what the bank is comfortable loaning to you…they may not be the same thing.   Also, before extending an offer on a property, make sure you understand all the costs associated with it beyond your mortgage payment.  What are the property taxes like (this information is readily available on the listing sheet)?  Are there HOA fees (this is not just for condos, some detached homes come with HOA fees)?  And while you may love the pool, make sure you understand what a pool costs to run and maintain.
  • Refrain from making big purchases, changing jobs, moving money around, etc. prior to buying a home.  Banks like to see stability and no big changes leading up to your purchase.

2. Understand What You Are Looking For in a House

This may not be 100% apparent at first, which is why you want to initially try to see as many houses as you can to help narrow down what it is you want.

  • Spend some time thinking about your priorities and your deal breakers. Commercial%20Real%20Estate%20Deal%20Breaker Have these discussions with a partner/spouse who is purchasing with you…you will not agree on everything, but understand where each of you are willing to compromise and what the most important things are to each of you.  Are you willing to do work on a house? Do you need to be close to commuting options?  Do you want a big yard or a small yard?  How many bedrooms do you need?  What towns are you interested in?  Is there a particular school district you want to be in?  Have some conversations up front so you know where you both stand…but be flexible too.  You will never, ever find a house that checks off every single box, no matter what your budget (the more budget we have, the more we tend to want).  Be ready to compromise…with each other and with the available inventory.  
  • imagesWhile open houses can be a great way to get started, once you become more familiar with the market and the inventory, you really should hook up with an agent.  A good agent will watch the market for you…agents have access to MLS listings before they appear on some of the popular websites like realtor.com and Zillow.  An agent in a busy office will also have information about listings before they hit MLS, sometimes weeks in advance.  Sometimes listings sell before even making it to MLS.  In a competitive market, you want to have all the advantages possible ~ you want to be the first person to hear of a new listing ~ it may make the difference between getting the house and not.  Besides helping you to see homes, an agent will help you to negotiate an offer when the time comes, being aware of comparable sales and what is happening in the market.  They will also help you through the process from offer and acceptance to closing.  In today’s market sellers still generally pay the real estate agent’s commission…why not take advantage of their services?
  • Make sure any decision makers are prepared to see a house ASAP.  Houses are going to go quickly…it’s happening already.  Do not assume that if you see a house on Wednesday that you can wait until the weekend for your spouse to see it.  Do not even assume you can wait until Thursday for them to see it.  Be prepared to do what it takes to see a house that you think is a contender.  Consider whether a spouse can see the house via FaceTime if necessary (thanks to MJ for this suggestion).  Be prepared!

3.  Have Your Deposits Ready.  

In Massachusetts this is a two-step affair.  images

  • When you make an offer be prepared to write a check for $1,000 to $2,000 (this can be more, but basically it is a nominal deposit).  This is money that shows the seller you are serious.  This can be a personal check.
  • In Massachusetts, after you have an offer and acceptance and the inspection has been completed, you will sign a purchase and sale…at this time you need to be prepared to hand over an additional deposit bringing the total deposit to (generally) around 5% of the purchase price.  This too can be a personal check.

Things-to-Not-to-Forget-for-a-Beach-Vacation4.  Be Ready For the Next Steps.  

Most of us don’t buy a house every day, so even if we are not first-time home buyers, we may not remember all the things that need to happen between offer & acceptance and closing.   Tip:  Don’t make an offer on a house and then head out of town for a two week vacation…

  • As soon as you have an agreement you will need to set up a home inspection for the property.  While this is optional, it is highly recommended, even with new construction.  The inspector will look at the exterior of the house, the major systems, they can test for radon, pests, etc.  The cost varies, and is the responsibility of the buyer.  You can talk to friends or family for a referral; your agent can also give you some recommendations.  Expect to have about 7 days to get the inspection completed.  You should plan to attend the inspection.
  • Once the inspection is completed and any issues have been resolved/negotiated, it is time to sign the P&S.  This is drawn up by the buyer’s attorney (if you don’t have one, your agent can usually recommend someone).  The P&S is usually signed within a few weeks of the offer, sometimes less (remember, this is when the additional deposit is due).  Signing can be done electronically.
  • Once the P&S is signed the buyer is expected to turn in their loan application…usually the next day.  Before the P&S you should already be talking to your lender to get the (loan application) ball rolling.
  • Closing…timeframe for this can vary, but anywhere from 45 to 60 days, sometimesKeys to Home Ownership more, depending on the wants and needs of both buyer and seller (this should be negotiated as part of the offer).  There is a lot to sign and initial at closing and this is easiest done if you are present, as opposed to being done remotely.  You will need to bring a bank check for the balance of the money you are putting down on the house.  And yes, this is when you get the keys!!

For-Sale-Sign5. If You Have a House to Sell, Get it on the Market Before You Buy.  

This is a big concern for many sellers in today’s market as they don’t want to sell their house without having a house to go to…however…

  • Do you really want to run the risk of carrying two houses?  While you may think that if you put your house on the market it will sell tomorrow, you never really know.  Better to list it now, and then negotiate for a longer closing date if you sell quickly.
  • Selling your house will help light a fire to make a decision on a new house.  Sometimes buyers just cannot get off the fence.  Yes, it is an important decision, not to be made lightly, yet at the same time do you really want to be looking at houses for the next three years?
  • The market is hot right now for sellers…why not take advantage of it and get the best price for your house?

6. Keep it All in Perspective.  

Despite all the previous urging to “be ready,” to list your 12009current house, to make a decision…in the end, you also need to keep it all in perspective.  It is very easy to get caught up in the mania of the spring market (trust me, I bought last April).  In the end, you also have to trust that it will all work out.  Sometimes a house you lose out on maybe just wasn’t meant to be…not to get all “new-agey” on you, but sometimes the right house might still be waiting for you.  I found a house last year that I thought was perfect but before I acted it was gone.  I beat myself up about it for weeks…and then the house I ultimately bought came up for sale.  And it is a much better house for me than the house that I thought was “meant” to be mine.  So trust a bit…it will happen.  Just do your part to be ready when it does.

If you have any questions about buying or selling a home, if you are interested in learning what your home is worth, or if you have any questions about real estate in general, please give me a call (508-308-4436) or send me an email (lisa.vandore@commonmoves.com).  I would love to help you!

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7 Oscar Worthy Home Theaters

I have seen 5 of the Best Picture nominations…Boyhood, Grand Budapest Hotel, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper & most recently, Whiplash.  I found Boyhood to be very real and an interesting concept, to film over a period of 12 years.  American Sniper was very powerful, but I think my favorite of the films I have seen is Whiplash.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.   It stars the guy from the Farmer’s Insurance commercials, J.K. Simmons…and he isn’t so nice in the movie as he is in the commercials.

While most of us will be watching the Oscars in more humble setups, some of the following home theaters are pretty creative…although I am not sure I would want them in my home necessarily.

Here is a very “over-the-top” home theater.


Californian-Man-Home-Theater-GarageThis one is cool…except for the ND all over everything…change it to U of M and I would like it much better.

enhanced-buzz-29077-1366406296-18This one is very futuristic.

010And this one has a pirate theme…interesting.

enhanced-buzz-26469-1366640532-20We also have a Batman theme…

enhanced-buzz-32429-1366401191-10And this one feels very “Indiana Jones” to me.

enhanced-buzz-12160-1366403361-10And finally, something a bit more “normal.”  Enjoy the Oscars!


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The Who, What & Why of the Tiny House Movement


For starters…what is the “tiny house movement?” A “tiny house” is generally anything between 100 and 400 square feet.  As in the entire “house.”  Bedrooms in a “normal” house are often bigger than 100 square feet and master bedroom suites can easily run to 400 square feet.   In fact, most building codes require that no room be smaller than 70 square feet and at least one room be at least 120 square feet…which is why the tiny house movement resorted to trailer beds.  In order to circumvent building codes many tiny houses are built on trailer beds, making them mobile…and therefore, in theory anyway, not subject to building codes.  But a trailer bed (and mobility) restricts the size of any such house to no wider than 8 ½ feet, no longer than 18 feet and no higher than about 13 ½ feet (think bridge overpasses).  If you do the math, the footprint is just over 150 square feet (although some tiny houses gain some additional square footage via the use of sleeping lofts).


Since 1973 the average size of new construction in the US has gone from 1660 square feet to just shy of 2700 square feet in 2013…at the same time the average family size has gone from 3.01 people to 2.54 people…fewer people with more space.  In fact, where I live the new construction I see is well above 2700 square feet, instead generally in the range of 4500 to 5500 square feet.  Some of this is driven by economics…land is so scarce in greater Boston that builders have to put up as much house as possible to recognize a return.  But it is also driven by consumer demand…people seem to want bigger and bigger spaces.  But like everything in the US, while some people want more, there is a growing movement towards less, towards simplification.

So if the average home size is getting bigger, who is behind the tiny house movement?  Well, for starters, recognize that the tiny house movement still represents a very small piece of the pie…only 1% of the homes purchased in the US today are less than 1,000 square feet.  The actual number of tiny homes is a bit hard to quantify…many are built discreetly, and many that are mobile don’t require the same kind of permits, making numbers more difficult to determine.  Generally the tiny house concept is embraced by the 18-34 demographic looking to own their first home without going into enormous debt.  debt quadrupled[1]There is also a component made up by the 55+ crowd looking to downsize.  And ironically, Jay Shafer, owner of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, estimates about two-thirds of the tiny house plans he sells are being used to build “backyard retreats.”  Ah yes, because with our living and family rooms, media rooms, finished basements, home offices and huge master suites we don’t have quite enough room.  Interesting that people feel a need to “retreat” to something small and compact.

Despite all that, there is a small but growing movement to build smaller and smarter…totiny-house-plans-www.ProjeHouse.com-50 make rooms function for multiple purposes as opposed to having a room for every purpose…to make use of every square inch of space.  For some, the tiny house concept offers a chance to own a home for a fraction of the cost of an average home…tiny houses can start as low as $23,000 (if you build it yourself…ready-made begin at closer to $60,000)…this at a time when the average price for a new home in the US now exceeds $300,000.  For others the tiny house movement is about mobility…while “large” in the sense of a mobile home, tiny houses can still be pulled on the road and moved from location to location.  On the television show “Tiny House Nation” I have seen tiny houses embraced by people whose jobs require them to work in different locations for periods of time.  I have also seen a home perched on a mountain top in summer and moved to a valley in winter.  The tiny house movement also appeals to those looking to reduce their carbon footprint…tiny houses use fewer resources to construct and fewer resources to heat, cool and run.  And the tiny house movement appeals to those looking to simplify, those who decide their lives are ruled by too much stuff.

tiny-house5While the tiny house movement may not take over the world, and it may not be for everyone, there is a certain appeal to less space, living more simply.  And maybe that doesn’t mean we all have to downsize to 400 square feet…but it sure is making me rethink my 3,000 square feet.

What are your thoughts?  Could you see yourself living in 400 square feet or less?  How big is your current home?  Can you see yourself doing with less?

Resources and further reading:

The Tiny House Movement by Michael Salguero

The Tiny House Movement by Jame Siebrase

Let’s Get Small by Alec Wilkinson

Escape Homes and Tumbleweed Tiny House Company

“Tiny House Nation” and “Tiny House Hunters” both of which are carried on FYI network on Monday evenings

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Happy Valentine’s Day

A simple post filled with hearts.

Spider love.



A cute little craft that even a non-crafty mom or dad could pull off with the kids.  Full instructions here.


Do you have any hearts?  Go fish.


The obvious heart in the window, but also note the smaller upside-down hearts above it.


Simple but beautiful…


Who doesn’t heart kittens?



And my favorite, because I love inspirational quotes.  Happy Valentines Day!



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6 Christmas Treats to Try & My Favorite Gingerbread Recipe

Xmas timeSo I have made some progress on my Christmas shopping…thank you internet.  I love having an idea, finding it online, typing in my address and credit card information and then sitting back waiting for it to show up at my door.  How did we ever get through the holidays without the internet?  Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t hit the mall too.  I still like to wander some of my favorite stores looking for cool stocking stuffers and gift ideas.  But online shopping sure takes some of the pressure off.

With the gift shopping seemingly under control I am beginning to think of holiday baking.  I am a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas.  I think it is fun to have traditions, especially when you take traditions you grew up with and then add your own.  One of the traditions I have with my kids is decorating sugar cookies.  Over the years this has evolved and has often included various friends and/or family members.  IMG_0987The tradition is the decorating, who is involved changes from year to year.  I have tried various sugar cookie recipes and now have a “go-to” one that I use every year (or I had a go-to recipe…I am searching frantically for it, hoping I will find it before this weekend!).  I make traditional icing from powdered sugar and butter in at least six colors.  And I have a wide array of decorations and decorating tools, some from the supermarket, some from King Arthur Flour (a favorite source) and some from Williams-Sonoma.  Let me say right 181803_10200257997322005_746518064_nnow…our cookie decorating is much more about fun than perfection ~ there are no Martha Stewart creations here.  In fact, over the years we have had some incredibly silly cookies.  And let’s just say that sometimes the word “creative,” when used to describe the results, is used very (very) loosely (the cookie to the left started off as a snowflake but one of the arms of it broke off, leaving way for the evolution of some kind of Christmas monster…hey, I didn’t make it).  But we have a lot of fun and our cookies always taste good, which is what it is all about.

In addition to our sugar cookies, I usually make a few other favorites.  In our house we love my gingerbread cookies (and they are often a part of our decorating efforts).  I am not a huge fan of molasses and some of the strong spice flavors that find themselves in the list of gingerbread ingredients.  In fact, until I tried a friend’s gingerbread when I lived in London, I didn’t think I liked gingerbread.  But her’s was different…no molasses, fresh ginger and ground ginger, along with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg…very easy dough to work with and a subtle taste.  If you didn’t think you liked gingerbread, give this one a try (thank you Meryl!).

Over the years I have tried different holiday cookies and candies…some I might make for years, others just once.  But I think it is fun to try something new with the hope that I will find that terrific recipe that will become part of my holiday tradition.  In that vein, here is a selection of some recipes that are on my short-list this year to give a try.

Turtle Cookies

Turtle Cookies_Top View 2

Not only do these sound delicious (chocolate cookie dough, nuts, caramel, chocolate…) but they look really pretty too.  And while there are multiple steps involved, they still fall into what I call a “doable” category.  It’s the holidays, a little extra effort is expected.

Red Velvet Cream Cheese Thumbprints


A version of thumbprint cookies almost always get made in my house…the recipe I use is one my mother made when I was growing up…how is that for tradition?  But I have to say that this version is not only pretty & festive, but sounds super yummy.  Might be the year to try something new.

Christmas Bark


These bark ideas are so easy.  This one adds red and green M&Ms, mint oreos, white chocolate chips and crushed peppermint.  The author has you crush candy canes in a ziploc bag…I like to buy the already crushed candy canes…much easier and you end up with nice, uniform pieces…call me lazy or call me a perfectionist…here are a couple of resources: Wilton for a small amount (6 oz) and Andes for 10 oz).

Gingerbread Christmas Trees

gingerbread cookie trees

If you want to try my gingerbread recipe but you don’t have a gingerbread man cookie cutter, why not try these Christmas trees instead?  I think they look really pretty and would be easy peasy to make ~ sometimes I don’t want to have to think too much about being creative.  Plus who doesn’t like a cookie with nonpareils on it?

Peppermint Kiss Cookies

Peppermint-Kiss-Cookies-3Because really, can you get too much peppermint at the holidays?  I think not.  And if you order that bigger bag of crushed peppermint, you can use it in this recipe too.  I love things that are easy and look pretty all at the same time.  

Salted Caramel Pretzel Pecan Bon Bons


This is another take on turtles (who doesn’t love turtles?).  I am totally making these.  Of all the recipes, this one couldn’t be simpler ~ I think the hardest part will be unwrapping all the caramels.  I have all the ingredients…I will let you know how they turn out.

What are your baking traditions?  Do you stick with the tried and true every year or do you like to experiment with something new?  What are your opinions on gingerbread?  Do you know where my sugar cookie recipe is?  🙂

Happy baking.

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