Nov
15

Smart Homes: Convenient AND Safe?

15011004968_41d2d3e632_zIn our technology obsessed culture, smart homes are all the rage. And why wouldn’t they be? They offer conveniences unheard of just a few years go. Want to lock your doors, close your garage, turn off all the lights AND set the alarm with just the push of a button? Or how about have your home set to do all of that automatically at a certain time of day? Smart homes make it all possible! But with the breaches experienced by big name retailers Target and Home Depot, you have to wonder if smart homes are safe? If a retailer operation employing some of the best technology experts can be taken down by hackers, how easy would it be for the right person to hack into your home?

Smart home hacking is already happening, according to an article published by U.S. News. In the article, Could Your Smart Home Be Hacked?, author Geoff Williams explains situations where hacking is already occurring including incidents where hackers infiltrated a baby monitor and a webcam. In another example, a security company released a public statement about a smart toilet manufacturer, warning a hacker could download an application and cause the toilet to perform any of its function including repeatedly flushing, which would waste water and increase operating costs for the owner.

It’s unnerving to think security vulnerabilities could give the bad guys access to our televisions, toilets, thermostats, refrigerators, lighting systems and other smart home products. Smart home hacking can be as simple as someone hacking into your home and constantly flushing your toilet, or it may cause more serious issues such as someone shutting off your security alarm so he can rob your house. “The real risks are the hackers who gain access to your devices, because if they can get into your thermostat, refrigerator and smart TV and begin listening on your network, then they can begin finding your usernames and passwords, and they can get to your financial information,” says Jerry Irvine, a member of the National Cyber Security Task Force and chief information officer of IT outsourcer Prescient Solutions.

What are some things you can do to minimize the chances your home automation system will be hacked?

First, avoid over-automating. An important principle of home automation should be simplicity. Automation is about people, not technology. It should seek to highlight experiences, not over complicate them. Too much automation IS a bad thing, and offers more opportunities for hackers to find a way in.

U.S. News also offers these other suggestions:
1. Hire only professionals to install your smart home products. Professional installers have the knowledge to ensure your smart home system is protected with a firewall. To that point, change all your passwords after the install so the installer does not have access to your smart devices.
2. Update software. When a device asks you to download an update or a patch, don’t ignore it. The update may protect your equipment from malware or other vulnerabilities.
3. Secure your phone. Smart homes are often controlled by smart phones. Be careful not to lose your phone, but also keep it locked so others can’t access your applications and smart devices.
4. Wait. If you don’t feel confident in the technology, give it some time. As more companies create more smart home products, the expectation is manufacturers will create better software to prevent hacking.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, CODE_n

Nov
1

Top 10 Remodeling Mistakes

3633253847_0b79b95e7b_zOften homeowners are ill-prepared to take on a home remodeling project, but many homeowners will face a remodeling project at some point.

Here are 10 of the biggest remodeling mistakes homeowners make:

1. Failing to research: Whether hiring someone or undertaking the project yourself, research. When hiring someone else you need to know what questions to ask and how to monitor the project so you understand if the contractor is handling the project properly.
2. Going cheap! You know the saying “you get what you pay for?” That’s just as true in the home remodeling world as in any other industry. If you can’t afford to buy quality materials and services, wait until you can.
3. Setting too small of a budget: The largest cost of a remodeling project is often the labor. Many people underestimate what it costs to take on a remodeling project, and they also don’t pad their budget enough to account for any problems they may encounter.
4. Overbuilding: If you put too many upgrades into your home, you may end up with an expensive home in a less expensive neighborhood. You’ll never recoup the costs when it comes time to sell.
5. Improper priorities: A new bathroom or pool may look like a more attractive (ie. fun and appealing) remodeling project, but it shouldn’t come before such projects as your leaking, rotting windows.
6. Choosing projects which do not increase the home’s value: While a home remodeling project can and should aim to enrich the homeowner’s life, resale value is also an important consideration. Some of the projects which may not increase the value of a home include pools, high-maintenance landscapes and high-end upgrades.
7. Choosing products/designs which are too trendy: You want your house to look new and hip, but make it too much so, and its design will only appeal in the short term, again potentially affecting resale.
8. Not making a “living” plan: How will you live while the project is going on? Where will you stay if some of the work requires you to leave the home? How will you handle sharing one bathroom if the other bathroom is unusable for a period of time? Very few homeowners address these issues before going into a project, and instead face them (and much frustration) while they are undergoing a renovation.
9. Doing all, or most of the work themselves (DIYers): DIY is fine for some homeowners, but very few homeowners can do everything. And home improvement books can only instruct you so much. Know your limitations and contract out what you don’t have the expertise to handle.
10. Failing to hire a qualified contractor: Choose a contractor over a handyman, particularly one who is certified, trained and qualified for the work you need completed. And check references, making sure to ask to see a portfolio of work the contractor has done, as well as request to see a list of their affiliations and certifications.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, Brock Builders

Oct
15

First 3D Castle Printed…in the Midwest!

6817c69c61702ea1cc2e4634424fd741Late this summer, articles appeared on the Internet about a Midwestern man who has built the first castle with a 3D printer. Our blog content isn’t new to the discussion of 3D printing. We’ve talked about it previously in our blogs Affordable Housing in Under 24 Hours and The World’s First Commercial House 3D Printer For Sale.

Imagine our excitement to see someone right here in the Midwest, only hours from where we’re located, using this new technology. It’s something we hope to use in our business in the future when the technology becomes more accessible, affordable, and in general once they just have all the kinks worked out.

According to several articles about this project, Minnesota-based engineer Andrey Rudenko built a 12-foot-tall castle using one of the first 3-D concrete printers in the world. Rudenko has a background in engineering and architecture. The children’s play castle was constructed in his backyard, where he built it layer by layer using a 3D concrete printer. Most 3D printers have only produced smaller items such as parts. As of Fall 2014 it was the first concrete 3D castle printed in the world, and the first 3D printed concrete structure in the United States.

Rudenko’s future building plans, according to reports? A 2-story house!

In April 2014 when Rudenko first announced his plans to build a structure using 3D printing (before he’d constructed the castle), he told 3DPrint.com: “A cheap house built in 24 hours is not my goal. My current focus is building well-insulated small or medium-sized homes of a contemporary design, definitely onsite. As an experienced builder, I know that to avoid problems in the future, it is more important to produce homes of a good quality, which may take longer to build than cheaper homes made quickly. It would be more beneficial to print a complete home, including the foundation for the staircase, fireplace, certain furniture (kitchen island etc), columns, interior walls, and any wiring or plumbing that would fit inside the printed walls.”

While Rudenko started with a castle as his first building project, Rudenko’s passion and vision really seems to focus on minimizing the labor involved in home building, as he explained to 3DPrint.com: “3D printing in construction will not wholly replace previous techniques, and materials such as brick will continue to be utilized. Rather, 3D printing will significantly supplement the manual work. The technology aims to considerably lower production cost, provide a safer and more comfortable building process, and allow for much more architectural flexibility. In place of an entire group of construction workers, two people will facilitate the 3D printing process: one with appropriate computer skills in charge of the programming, and one working with the materials (e.g. sand and cement), placing reinforcing steel bars inside the forms, maintaining the machine at the end of the day, and so forth.”

See more photos and information about the project here.

And watch a video about the project here.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, Andrey Rudenko

Oct
1

New Trend: Home Flipper for Hire

1118377655_9c4121204c_zBy now you’ve probably heard of a “home stager.” A professional home stager prepares a house for sale by making it appealing in appearance to attract the highest number of buyers so it sells more quickly and at top dollar. Read more about home staging, and our tips for how to do it yourself in our blog Home Staging: Tips, Do’s and Don’ts.

Now, have you heard of a home flipper for hire? Similar to a home stager, a professional flipper, usually a real estate firm/contractor, renovates the home for sale to make it more appealing to a larger audience of buyers, again ensuring the home attracts more potential buyers and sells for as high of a profit as possible.

With a professional home flipper as part of the real estate sale, the funds for the renovation project typically come out of the home sale.

SF Gate recently reported on this trend explaining move-in-ready homes are more attractive to buyers than ones they have to invest time and money repairing. The problem: most sellers don’t have the cash to finance a renovation. Sellers are often equity rich but cash poor. Additionally many homeowners are unprepared to tackle a complete renovation on their own.

Renovation Realty in San Diego is one such company acting as both a general contractor and a real estate agent, undertaking major improvements to homes before marketing and selling the properties. The company is licensed in both real estate and contracting. “We do everything from $500 in electrical repairs to $1 million in renovations, if it makes sense,” says Cannon Christian, the firm’s president. Median renovation costs around $42,000. Renovation Realty charges a 5.5% commission in addition to construction costs, 2.5% of which goes to the buyer’s agent.

Current low mortgage rates mean buyers can pay more for a move-in-ready home. Most renovation contractors are dealing with homeowners who plan to stay in the home. What they often desire for renovations is not attractive to most buyers. This is where a professional flipper steps in when a homeowner is renovating to sell. They know exactly what appeals to most buyers, which allows them to invest work and money into only what’s required to sell the home quickly and gain the greatest profits.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, Mats Hagwall

Sep
15

Top 8 Gadgets and Products for Your At-Home Spa

3877954043_31c6cc7441_zAn at-home spa wouldn’t be complete without some cool, luxurious products and gadgets. Some of our Top 8 products are for those with higher budgets, but most satisfy even the most budget-conscious shoppers.

  1. Massage Chair: A pricey investment, but a massage chair is worth it if you’re spending a great deal on professional massages. Chair maker Inada offers some of the most stylish designs with all the newest technologies included, such as calf and foot massage, and body scanning technology to customize the massage to each user.
  2. Hot Steam Shower and Sauna: A combo steam shower and sauna offers the ultimate at-home spa experience. Di Vapor is one of the manufacturer behind such products. Their models feature a mix of wet and dry heat, a programmable steam generator and a hot rock sauna stove.
  3. Skin Care Devices: Products such as Pretika’s OxySonic offers the experience of a facial at home. OxySonic has a microdermabrasion facial brush with a hydrating oxygenated mist. It hydrates skin while removing debris and resurfacing skin. The product manufacturer claims it minimizes lines, wrinkles and pores, while also preparing the skin so it can better absorb other skin care products.
  4. Towel Warmer: Ever experienced the sensation of a warm towel on your face or body after a shower? Especially when it’s chilly outside? With a towel warmer, you’ll achieve an extra level of relaxation after every bath or shower. Big box home retailers such as Lowe’s are among the many retailers who offer towel warmers.
  5. Aromatherapy Diffuser: Such products release an ultrafine mist into the air, with smells which create an calming effect. Some models include other features such as a MP3 player, and most models cover an entire room and run for several hours. Retailers including Puritan’s Pride and Sharper Image offer full lines of diffusers.
  6. Sound machine: Sound machine products such as these from Homedics play calming background noises. Sound options include thunder, ocean rain and white noise. They are guaranteed to offer relaxation, at a level causing most to enter a deep state of relaxation or you may even drift off to sleep.
  7. Bath Towels: An at-home spa wouldn’t be complete without soft, plush bath towels. Good Housekeeping rates Macy’s Hotel Collection as the best in super luxurious bath towel options. They are absorbent, quick-drying and look good even after multiple washes.
  8. Walk-in Tub: And last but not least, we wouldn’t leave out a large segment of our population. For the aging population or those with mobility issues, walk-in tubs have been around for awhile, but more manufacturers are including additional features in their models suited to the user’s needs. One such feature is the air bath system (included on these models from American Standard), which helps increase circulation for those with diabetes or others with poor circulation.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, Dennis Wong

Sep
1

How Apple’s HomeKit Will Change Home Automation

homekit-logo1In early June 2014 Apple announced one of the company’s newest, groundbreaking products “HomeKit” during Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference. Held every year since 1990, the World Wide Developer’s Conference has become an important conference in the technology industry, giving Apple a way to showcase their newest products. Attendees are able to participate in in-depth sessions and work directly with Apple engineers.

Why Apple (and others) see HomeKit as revolutionary to the home automation industry is because it offers a central hub for all your lights, cameras, door locks, switches, thermostats, plugs and other connected devices.

Every room, setting, device and function is named in the HomeKit system. HomeKit uses Siri, the company’s intelligent voice assistant system to help you control everything within your home. HomeKit works in conjunction with automated smart appliances giving users a centralized way to control all of the devices.

“There are a lot of great home automation devices coming on the market these days,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior VP of software engineering, while unveiling details about the new product at the conference. He also also pointed out that all of the automation devices come with apps with their own network protocol. What Apple offers is a way to make it easier for app developers to integrate app functionality with iOS devices. Using a common network protocol also ensures only your iPhone can open your garage or unlock your door. In addition, Federighi explains, with HomeKit you have the ability to group devices into “scenes.” By using Siri integration, you can use a simple phrase such as “get ready for bed” and your garage will close, your doors lock, your lights dim and your thermostat lowers.

Intelligent homes are a growing trend, as you may have noticed by the various blogs we’ve published. Check out our past blogs on the subject including Home Efficiency: Smart Home Ideas, Smart Home Regrets and Top 10 Design Trends in New Homes.

We knew it wouldn’t be long before big name technology companies like Apple would jump into the game. Apple, in particular, prides itself on providing high-quality, reliable products with intuitive features. Their home automation products are sure to bring something extra to the table.

Watch this video for more about HomeKit

Next Steps

Photo Credit, Automated Home

Aug
15

Are Pets Affecting Your Home Sale?

8343720704_57c482d1bd_zIn the last J. Thompson Builder’s blog we discussed home staging, and our tips, do’s and don’ts. We briefly touched on the issue of smells in your home and how they affect a showing. Pets are a major cause of odors in a home, and while Fido may rule as your best friend, those looking at your home won’t have as much affection for the odorous situation he causes. Additionally, even the presence of pets (smells or not) is a turn-off to some buyers.

In an interview with Fox Business, Coldwell Banker realtor Cara Ameer says, “The pet issue needs to be given some thought and consideration when you’re putting your home on the market; it’s an important piece of showing your home.” In the article Ameer brings up the issue of how pets can affect the selling price, saying, “Think whether having your pet in the home will take away from your ability to command getting top dollar for your property. Do you want buyers focusing on your home or worrying about your pets?”

Here are a few tips to lessen the affect your pets could have on the sale of your home:

Before a showing, remove any evidence you have a pet, including toys, bedding, litter boxes, food bowls AND the actual pet. You may have the nicest, cutest dog, but your potential buyer may have no interest in your pet. Some sellers think a simple solution is to keep their pet out of the way by placing the pet in a kennel or in a room, but most times a locked up pet is unhappy, and will make noise, distracting buyers.

Vacuum and sweep twice a day, every day, making sure not to skip corners and edges where hair often builds up. If your carpets are extremely dirty, or your pets have had accidents on them, hire a professional carpet cleaner. Use lint rollers to clean cloth furniture and other areas difficult to vacuum.

Keep smells under control. No matter how clean your pet is, they still carry odors. Use air fresheners throughout the home to mask the smell. Before a showing burn scented oils or a simple trick is to place a cinnamon stick in a pot of water on the stove and simmer it for awhile.

Establish a pre-showing cleaning routine. Sweep and vacuum. Spray your carpets and each room with an odor eliminator. Keep a blanket on the furniture your pets lay on so you can easily remove it and throw it in the washing machine, eliminating the presence of pet hair and odors.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, Les Chatfield

Aug
1

Home Staging: Tips, Do’s and Don’ts

2631355188_bbbf51bf8b_zHome staging: the act of preparing a private residence for sale in the real estate marketplace. The goal of staging is to make a home appealing to the highest number of potential buyers, thereby selling a property more swiftly and for more money. Staging techniques focus on improving a property’s appeal by transforming it into a welcoming, attractive product that anyone might want. ~ Wikipedia

Home staging is not a new concept, and it’s been known for some time staged homes routinely sell faster and for more money. But until recent years staging was largely left up to the homeowners, who were often clueless about the importance of staging or how to do it well. Enter the professional home stager. While professional staging is a great investment – first impressions are everything! – we believe many homeowners are STILL capable of their own staging if given the right guidance. Such guidance often starts with a consultation (usually free) with a professional stager, as well as utilizing a few tips we’ve offered below.

Clean: Dust EVERYTHING (think fan blades, appliances, etc.) and wash windows. Hire a cleaning service, if necessary, to clean every week.

Declutter: Clear out all clutter, including closets. Clutter distracts from the beauty of a home. And with storage space such a huge selling point, it’s critical to keep closets clear so buyers can envision the amount of space they’ll have.

Simplify: If an area typically just gathers junk, make it look more appealing by transforming it into a useable space (area under a stairwell becomes a reading nook with the addition of a table, chair and lamp). Group furniture so pieces are away from the walls grouped into conversational areas. Keep décor simple and eliminate personal items and bulky furniture. Experiment with moving your current furniture and accessories around to different rooms until it looks right.

Neutralize: Paint walls a neutral color. Bold wall colors typically turn off potential buyers. Traditionally you decorate your home to customize it to your tastes and preferences, personalizing, but the goal in staging is to depersonalize it by using neutral furnishings and décor pieces, which again are more appealing to buyers.

Light It Up: Staged homes look warm and inviting most often because they use great amounts of lighting. Open up all the window shades for natural light. Use a higher wattage bulb in your fixtures. Use different types of lighting including accent, task and ambient.

Don’t forget about curb appeal. Make sure the work you’ve put into the inside matches the appearance of the outside. Trim shrubs, weed flower beds and fix cosmetic problems such as peeling paint.

Don’t use old, ugly furnishings. Budget-minded homeowners sometimes use their own worn furnishings or even worse choose to buy unappealing used furniture from Craigslist. Instead it’s best to rent new furniture from a staging company, if your current furnishings appear worn or out of style, or if you’re unable to invest in new furniture or high-quality used furnishings.

Don’t skip rooms. If a few rooms look as though they are staged, but others don’t (including garages or closets), the momentum and excitement over your property may be lost when a buyer is viewing it.

Do look for gaps. If your home looks beautiful, but smells bad, is too hot or cold, or too loud, a potential buyer may be turned off. Make sure to address such issues before you start showing the property.

Do bring bring aspects of nature inside. Potted plants can help fill an area, or fresh flowers breathe energy into a space.

Do take care of any small repairs/cosmetic issues such as leaking faucets, old fixtures, scuffs on the walls, creaky doors and so forth.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, Real Estaging

Jul
15

What You Should Know Before Buying a Vacation Home

It’s summer, and the appeal of warm weather, the sand between your toes, or just the fresh air, makes you want to capture these days permanently. Some people choose to purchase vacation homes as a way to escape from the midwest’s cold weather, or others want vacation homes in more remote locations, or places that hold the recreational activities they enjoy (think fishing, hunting, golfing, etc.).

While vacation homes are no doubt a great way to hold a residence in an area you want to visit often while keeping your main home, it’s a big decision and owning a vacation property does not come without some issues.

One of the best, insightful articles we’ve seen on what to consider when buying a vacation home is from Forbes.com. We’d like to share some of their tips (along with our own thoughts) to help you if you’re pondering a vacation home purchase.

Spend time in the area: Personally, we recommend spending lots of time there. Without a doubt you need to know this is an area you would want to visit often. Once you purchase a home, you’re committed to spending lots of time there.

Know what the costs are: Don’t get in over your head on a vacation home purchase. You’ll want to understand all costs associated with owning the home including utilities, maintenance, association fees, property taxes, insurance, etc.

Plan for someone to watch the home while you’re away: Because you won’t spend much time at the home, it’s best to hire a property manager to keep an eye on the home.

Know that time spent at the home is not always going to feel like vacation: With a vacation home comes the upkeep. You’ll likely spend some of your vacation time working on the home before you can actually enjoy it.

Consider renting the property: While it’s nice to keep the home all to yourself, it’s usually a wise financial decision to rent the home out when you’re not using it. Renting the home provides a source of income which can offset your costs and the extra funds may allow you to pay the home off quicker. Keep in mind that tourists will likely want to rent the home during high seasons, which means you may have to stay flexible on when you use the house.

Take safety into consideration: Research the crime rate for the area. In areas of high crimes you may not want to leave a home unattended for long periods. Regardless of the crime rate, you should always have a security system in operation on a home which is left unattended for days, weeks or months at a time.

Is the vacation spot accessible?: Ideally a vacation home won’t take hours to reach or the likelihood that you’ll use it very often becomes less.

Read the full article at Forbes.com

Next Steps

Photo Credit, nathanmac87

Jul
1

The World’s First Commercial House 3D Printer For Sale

Earlier this year we told you about 3D printing, and it’s remarkable capability to build a home within one day. The technology is also called contour crafting and can build a 2,500 sq. ft. home in about 20 hours. In our blog, we highlighted Behrokh Khoshnevis, the professor of the Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Southern California, and his layered fabrication technology which uses 3D printing. A computer program guides a robot to apply layers of concrete, and construct walls. It even has the ability to construct straight or curved walls, and allow for gaps for plumbing and windows.

One important facet of this technology is its ability to quickly build homes after natural disasters or even to provide adequate shelter to those throughout the world who are homeless for various other reasons. The construction process in 3D printing reduces waste and offers less noise, dust and emissions.

The technology is versatile as all you have to change is the computer program if you want to make a modification to the plan.

At the time our post was published the technology had not arrived on the commercial market.

But at the end of May 2014 an article in International Business Times announced soon you can buy the world’s first commercial house 3d printer. A Slovenian firm BetAbram has designed a 3D printer for printing houses which they plan to release in August 2014. It will retail for approximately $16,000 and roll out under the name BetAbram P3.

However, the first 3D printer the company plans to roll out can only print buildings measuring 12 square meters; the company has thus far only produced miniature houses and sculptures using the printer. BetAbram plans to follow up by releasing other 3D printers in September which will print structures up to 144 square meters.

This is a technology we plan to keep our eye on. As it develops and becomes more widely available, we expect it could change how J. Thompson Builders builds homes.

Next Steps

Photo Credit, BetAbram