Home Based Business – Insurance is Important

Operating a Business from Home: Make Sure You Have the Right Insurance

By Novelda L. Sommers, Marketing Content Manager, The Long & Foster Companies.

It could happen in a heartbeat – a client slips and falls on your property, a hacker figures out how to steal your customers’ data, or any number of other possible hazards – and suddenly your home-based business could be in real trouble if you don’t have the right insurance.

Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover all of the risks associated with doing business from home. There are policies that specifically cover incidents that might come up related to your business.

An insurance agent can help you determine your exact needs. The experts at Long & Foster Insurance recommend that home-based business owners have a commercial insurance policy in place to ensure they are properly covered.

These are among the types of policies an agent might recommend, depending on your business’s situation:

  • Business property coverage: It covers property used in business operations.
  • Business income coverage: This provides coverage for the loss of income a business suffers after direct damage of the covered property.
  • General liability: These are policies for damages that you could become legally obligated to pay due to bodily injury, property damage or personal and advertising injury that occurs on your business’ premises, operations, completed operations and products.
  • Electronic data processing: A policy would cover loss of electronic data processing equipment and media that’s owned, leased or used by the homeowner.
  • Goods in transit: This covers product that is either owned by the insured or the insured’s customer while it is being transported.
  • Valuable papers and records: A policy would cover loss of paper and records which have no duplicates.

Another type of coverage that is becoming more popular is cyber insurance, covering risks having to do with vulnerabilities that come with being online. One example of that is data breach coverage. If a home-business owner stores payment information, social security numbers, etc., and that data is compromised – depending on what type of policy you have – a policy might cover the cost of mailing notifications to customers that were affected, public relations expenses and credit monitoring services, among many other coverages. It might also cover defense and settlement costs if the business is sued by someone who was impacted by the breach.

The U.S. Small Business Administration offers a free online guide to choosing insurance for your business. A Long & Foster Insurance agent can also help evaluate your needs and select a plan that will keep your business safe and sound.

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Home Based Business – Know the Local Rules

Make Sure You Know the Local Rules Before Moving with a Home-Based Business

By Novelda L. Sommers, Marketing Content Manager, The Long & Foster Companies.

If you’re among the many small business owners who operate out of your residence, and you’re looking to relocate, you don’t want to move to your new dream home only to find out your enterprise isn’t allowed to operate there.

More than half of small businesses registered in the United States are home-based, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Entrepreneurs who maintain home offices should research local licensing, homeowner’s association covenants and zoning rules before committing to buy a house.

Often a home business is not permitted if customers are required to come to the home or it involves specialized equipment.

“In most situations, determining the permitted uses of a property is entirely the buyer’s responsibility.  Once you buy the house, it’s likely too late to do anything about a use restriction,” said Tony Boone, deputy general counsel at The Long & Foster Companies.

If the local zoning rules prohibit your type of business, there may be a process for applying for a variance.  However, that is often an expensive and difficult endeavor with no guarantee of success.

Business-owning home shoppers should call the department of planning and zoning in their prospective locality and ask if their at-home business is allowed at the new address, said Callie Dalton, a top producing Long & Foster agent in Roanoke, Virginia. Buyers also need to review any homeowners’ association documents whose covenants, rules and regulations likely to govern the use of the properties in the neighborhood.

“We do suggest that they check with the HOA and local zoning boards to be sure that the property can accommodate a home business prior to writing an offer,” Dalton said. “That way, we aren’t tying up someone’s home, only to find out later it is not suitable for the buyer’s needs.”

Most HOAs prohibit any business that increases foot traffic in the neighborhood, Boone said. Mail-order businesses, on the other hand, might be allowed because they don’t require customers to visit the property. However, there is no standard rule and what is permitted in one neighborhood may not be in another.

Boone recommends speaking with a real estate attorney if the use of a home for business purposes is an important factor for the buyer, “Zoning, covenants of title and HOA rules can be complex and the distinction between permitted and prohibited businesses can be very subtle.”

Mike Mavromates, a Long & Foster agent and managing broker in Avalon, New Jersey, said most of his clients who plan to work from home in his state, for example, don’t need special zoning permission because they only maintain small, single-person offices, with the bulk of business conducted elsewhere.  These professionals – such a loan officers or real estate agents – might perform office work at home, but don’t usually bring clients to their personal residences.

But a number of home-based business owners do need to obtain proper approvals with the municipality’s zoning authority, he said.

“They have to provide details, to include how many clients will visit, parking information, how many customers may visit at one time, etc.,” he said. “Depending on their industry or store, there are signage restrictions and strict requirements for lighting and restrooms, to name a few. They must be aware of and have appropriate approvals.”

The SBA offers general guidelines for researching your location and making sure you are correctly registered with state and local authorities. The administration has offices throughout the country where business owners can get advice about complying with state and local regulations.

11 Reasons Fishing Makes You a Healthier, Happier Person

https://outdoorempire.com/11-reasons-fishing-makes-you-healthier-happier/

11 Reasons Fishing Makes You a Healthier, Happier Person

angler holding dolphin fish mahimahiIf you are reading this, I probably don’t have to sell you on the wonders of fishing – you are probably already a fan of heading out to the water, rod in hand, to see what’s biting.

And you aren’t alone: Fishing is one of the most popular recreational activities in the world, and the number of new anglers grows every year.

But few people realize that fishing is not only an enjoyable pastime, it provides a wealth of mental, emotional and physical benefits too.

In fact, many of these benefits endure much longer than a given fishing trip, which means that you’ll not only feel better while you’re on the water, you’ll feel better after you come back home too.

So, while you probably don’t need any additional reasons to go fishing, we’ve given you 11 more below.

 

1. Enjoying nature can help you heal more quickly.

person sitting outdoors

In the early 1980s, researcher Robert S. Ulrich noticed that post-operative patients in a hospital had different views outside their room windows.

Some of the patients could only see another building outside their window, while others had a good view of a natural area, which was full of trees. Ulrich began studying the differences in recovery times between the two groups, and his results were quite interesting: Those patients with a view of trees healed more quickly than those in the other group.

Additionally, the patients who could see trees suffered from less post-operative pain and required less pain medication than the other group.

Subsequent research has shown that there isn’t anything special about a view of trees, per se. Rather, it is the view of natural habitats that helps accelerate the healing process and reduce pain. So, this means you don’t have to go fishing in a forested stream or pond to enjoy these benefits – you simply need to go fish in any natural setting.

 

2. Time spent in nature can help reduce your blood pressure.

person checking blood pressure using monitorAlthough the exact reasons that it happens are not yet clear, time spent hanging out in nature helps to reduce your blood pressure.

High blood pressure (or hypertension, as it is also called) can lead to a host of serious health problems, and put you at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke. And while there are medications doctors can use to help reduce blood pressure, many have negative side effects.

Additionally, research has shown that the benefits provided by spending time in natural surroundings last for some time after you come back to civilization.

And don’t think you have to spend 8 hours on the water to enjoy these benefits – researchers have determined that, while more time spent outdoors is better, it only takes about 30 minutes per week to improve blood pressure and overall health.

 

3. Some types of fishing can help you burn calories in a low-impact manner.

fisherman actively fishingMost of us could stand to lose a few pounds and get more exercise. In fact, a 2013 study found that 80 percent of American adults fail to get the proper amount of exercise each week. But inactivity doesn’t only lead to obesity, it can also cause cardiovascular problems, depression and a host or other illnesses.

Fortunately, fishing can help you prevent these outcomes.

No, you won’t burn many calories while sitting on a dock with a cane pole and doing 12-ounce curls with your favorite beverage. But if you are actively fishing, you can end up burning about 200 calories per hour ( even more when fly fishing in a stream ), which can be significant.

Even a relatively relaxing day of bank fishing will require you to walk up and down a shoreline, while casting and retrieving for hours at a time – all of which burn calories. And if you are fortunate to hook up a true giant, you’ll expend a ton of energy battling it to the shore, boat or kayak.

 

4. Fishing gives us a chance to enjoy some peace and quiet.

fisherman fishing in a peaceful forested area

In the modern world, we are increasingly assaulted from all directions by noise and commotion, and it is causing many people to suffer from anxiety.

Think about your daily routine: You get up in the morning and watch the news over coffee, you ride to work with the radio blaring, you get to work and deal with ringing phones and blinking inboxes, you head home later while sitting in traffic and then you spend your night watching digital screens and listening to ear buds. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

But fishing gives you a chance to unplug from all of that, and let your brain enjoy some peace and quiet. Mind you, fishing is rarely a silent activity, but the sounds you’ll most commonly enjoy are of the relaxing variety.

After all, who could be stressed by listening to the sounds of the waves rhythmically rapping against the hull of the boat or the birds and frogs calling off in the distance. Alternatively, some anglers like to listen to relaxing music while they are fishing, and this can have positive health effects too.

 

5. Fish are a healthy protein source.

While the majority of recreational anglers probably release most of the fish they catch, there’s nothing wrong with taking a few home for the dinner table from time to time.

Fish is a low-fat, healthy protein that can help you shrink your waistline, and several species are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Additionally, some species of fish are among the best dietary sources vitamin D.

You’ll obviously want to follow all your local laws and regulations regarding the harvest of fish, and you’ll want to concentrate on consuming ecologically sustainable species, rather than those that are rare or at the top of the food chain.

For example, a healthy lake will not miss a stringer full of bluegill; in fact, removing a reasonable number of bluegill from a lake can help ensure the population stays balanced. But on the other hand, you don’t want to take home too many wild trout, as many of their populations are in decline.

 

6. Fishing can be a great way to spend time with your family and friends.

family fishing from a bridge

Perhaps nothing is more meaningful than spending time with loved ones, and fishing provides a great opportunity to do so. Whether that means bringing along a good fishing buddy, your spouse or your kids, you’ll often have a great time fishing with those close to you.

Of course, you’ll have to make adjustments when fishing with others – particularly when fishing with those who are not avid anglers. You may want to target more easily caught species and fish in less demanding environments, for starters.

You can learn more about taking children on their first fishing trip here.

Also, be sure to consider the types of creature comforts that will make your companions have a better time, and do your best to make sure they catch fish too. You may not have the type of fishing success to which you are accustomed, but the smiles, love and companionship will help make up for it.

 

7. Fishing gives you a reason to stand up.

angler casting fly rig

Many of us spend too much time sitting down according to healthcare researchers. In fact, it is thought that more than one-half of an average American’s day is spent sitting down, and this isn’t good for your health.

Excessive sitting (defined as more than about 8 hours per day) is linked with an 18 percent increase in the likelihood of dying from cardiovascular problems and a 17 percent increase in the likelihood of dying from cancer.

But fishing often forces you to stand – particularly if you are fly fishing or wading out into the water to access deeper pools. And if you are fishing from the bank, you may end up walking for a mile or two in search of productive waters. So, get up from your chair, head to the water and start fishing (while standing).

 

8. The intellectual side of fishing can help keep your brain sharp as you age.

fish inside a brain

Unfortunately, memory problems and a generalized cognitive decline often occur as we age. However, one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy and operating at light-speed is by challenging it with mentally stimulating activities.

And as we know, fishing often presents myriad mental challenges that require innovative and creative solutions.

Harvard Health Publications provides an overview of some of the best ways to fight off cognitive decline, which is worth reviewing. Spoiler alert: Their recommendations align nearly perfectly with fishing.

For example, the first three tips recommend that you keep learning, use all your senses and have confidence in yourself – all three of which you’ll have to do to have success while fishing.

 

9. Sunshine helps boost your mood.

sun shining on angler

Unless you are fortunate enough to work outdoors for a living, you probably spend most of your time indoors. And that’s unfortunate, as sunlight provides a number of important health benefits.

For example, exposure to sunlight triggers your brain to release serotonin – an important hormone that is thought to help improve your mood and encourage happy thoughts. Fail to get enough sunshine in your life, and you may become depressed.

But don’t forget to practice good sun-safety. Be sure to cover up with lightweight fabrics during the hottest part of the day and coat yourself in sunscreen before opening your tackle box and getting to work. And don’t forget to protect your eyes too, by investing in a pair of high-quality, polarized, UV-blocking shades.

 

10. Sun exposure helps boost your immune system.

Sun light doesn’t just provide mood-enhancing benefits, it also helps to bolster your immune system.

Most of the immune-system boosting effects sunlight provides precipitate from the production of Vitamin D, which our bodies synthesize when exposed to sunlight. Among other things, vitamin D plays an important role in bone formation and allows the body to use the calcium present in the blood stream.

But recent research suggests that Vitamin D synthesis is not the only way in which sunlight helps prop up the immune system.

It appears that exposure to the some of the wavelengths present in sunlight (remember that sunlight is actually composed of many different colors of light) causes some of the body’s infection-fighting cells to begin moving more rapidly.

 

11. Fresh Air Is Better for Your Lungs

fishing a calm river in the morning on a dock

Although you may come home stinking of fish and bait worms, you’ll breathe easier while out on the lake or in a secluded mountain stream. Here, you’ll spend the day breathing relatively clean air, which will give your lungs a break from the polluted urban air many of us breathe of a daily basis.

This constant exposure to things like ground-level ozone, smoke and dust particles can lead to a number of health problems, including chronic respiratory conditions (such as asthma), heart disease and lung cancer.

While healthy adults can and do suffer from the effects of polluted air, children and seniors usually suffer the most. So be sure to grab your kids and your parents and bring them along the next time you head out to fish.

***

Understand that there are undoubtedly dozens of other reasons fishing will help you be a healthier, happier person. Being a moderately-active, outdoor-oriented, fun activity, this should come as no surprise.

But we’d love to hear about the ones we may have missed, so let us know in the comments. Each of us enjoy fishing in our own unique way, so share your experiences and outlook on this fantastic hobby with us.

What kinds of mental, emotional and physical benefits do you derive from fishing?

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Things to Consider Before Buying A Home

For many people, buying a home may be the biggest purchase they will make in their lifetime, and the right time to buy is different for everyone.  Before making the decision to buy a home, consider the following questions:

How do lenders determine who qualifies for a mortgage?

Lenders take many things into consideration: credit score, the cash you have available for a down payment and closing costs, your income, and your existing debt and financial obligations are just a few.  Two housing ratios are used:

  • The housing expense-to-income ratio compares your anticipated monthly mortgage payment (principal, interest, taxes and insurance), to the total gross monthly income (pre-tax) for your household.
  • The debt-to-income ratio compares total monthly expense, including the anticipated monthly mortgage payment to the total gross (pre-tax) monthly income for your household.

How do I know how much money I can borrow to buy a home?

Your mortgage consultant will help you get a preliminary approval that lets you know the maximum loan amount you might be able to borrow.1  With that information in hand, you can then determine a price range with which you are comfortable.

What is a credit score?

The three credit reporting agencies — Experian, TransUnion and Equifax — serve as a clearinghouse for credit information.  “Credit score” is a term often used to refer to credit bureau risk scores. It broadly refers to a number generated by a statistical model which is used to objectively evaluate information that pertains to making a credit decision (i.e. credit cards, car loans, student loans, etc) that includes:

  • Your payment history
  • The total amount you owe
  • The amount of time you’ve had available credit
  • Whether you have any judgments entered against you
  • Whether you filed bankruptcy
  • The number of times potential lenders have reviewed your credit

Information in the agencies’ reports is evaluated and interpreted into a “credit score,” which help lenders make loan decisions. Credit scores range from 300 to 850, and yours may determine whether you are approved for a loan, the terms of the loan, and the interest rate.

Note: Making large purchases with a consumer loan or credit card just before applying for a mortgage may impact your ability to qualify. So consider your needs and priorities carefully.

If you still have questions about the home buying process, don’t worry.  We are committed to providing information that will help you make well-informed decisions about the financing process.  Our mortgage consultants will pay attention to your goals, help you understand your options, and clearly explain how different loan programs work.  So, you can take an informed, hands-on approach to achieving your goal of owning a home.

Contact your local mortgage consultant for today!

 

 

 

 

1. A preliminary approval is based on our preliminary review of credit information only and is not a commitment to lend. We will be able to offer a loan commitment upon verification of application information, satisfying all underwriting requirements and conditions, and providing an acceptable property, appraisal, and title report. Preliminary approvals are subject to change or cancellation if a requested loan no longer meets applicable regulatory requirements. Preliminary approvals are not available on all products. See a mortgage consultant for details.

Aging in Place & Bathroom Remodeling

Bathroom Remodeling Tips for Aging in Place

Even though baby boomers are aging, they’re still setting trends. Case in point, the aging-in-place movement. Opting for remaining in the homes they’ve lived in for decades as opposed to heading to warm-weather retirement communities, a growing contingent of older homeowners are staying put.

Aging in place, however, means adapting your home to make living easier and safer as we get older. And the bathroom is a smart place to start. New Jersey-based Gold Medal Service, a heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical service company, recommends the following bathroom remodeling tips that will accommodate limited mobility or physical impairments.

Remodel the bathroom on the main floor. If you have a house with multiple levels, focus on the first-floor bathroom, which is hopefully adjacent to a first-floor bedroom. This will allow aging homeowners to avoid stairs altogether.

Provide extra space in the bathroom. Make sure there’s enough room in the bathroom to move a wheelchair around, should one be needed down the road. Have doorways set to at least 32 inches wide, and ensure that there’s enough space to position a wheelchair next to the toilet, bath or shower, to enable a safe and easy transfer.

Stick with non-slip floors. Non-slip tiles are a must to prevent slipping and tripping on the bathroom floor. Loose rugs can be hazardous, so stick with non-slip materials.

Make tubs and showers more accessible. Older bathtubs can easily be replaced with a walk-in bathtub. Consider having a seating area in the shower so an individual doesn’t have to remain standing the entire time while showering. And be sure tub and shower surfaces are non-slip.

Add grab bars. Using towel rails as grab bars is a major safety risk as they will not support a person. Instead, install grab bars following manufacturer’s instructions carefully. Place them next to the bath, shower and toilet.

Mind the lighting. Make sure you have ample lighting in the bathroom with a minimal amount of glare.

Have an elevated toilet seat. Standing up from a low-set toilet can be difficult as we get older.

Consider extra accessories. Properly locating things like soap dishes, shaving stands and shower caddies will make using the bathroom more convenient and safer.

Use low-maintenance materials. When you remodel your bathroom, consider using modern materials that are easy to clean, mildew-resistant, and have a lifetime guarantee.

If you’d like more information about homeownership, please contact me.

Source: Gold Medal Service

‘Hot Spots’ in your Home = positive or negative emotions

Why You Should Pay Attention to Your Home’s ‘Hot Spots’

We all know there’s no place like home, but did you know that certain rooms in your home are responsible for the majority of your home’s…well, homeyness? A recent study examined the connection we have to certain rooms in our home and how the design of these hubs—or hot spots—have a direct correlation to our emotions.

A “hot spot” is a room or space associated with positive emotions and memories. The most beloved rooms are designed to accommodate a balance of functionality, relaxation, and socialization. When designed right—by overlapping key room dynamics—a hot spot can increase your overall satisfaction with your home. The Hot Spots Research Study, commissioned by fireplace and grill manufacturer Napoleon, uncovered findings that can help homeowners create a more comfortable and welcoming home.

In the study, rooms qualified as a hot spot when at least 50 percent of respondents checked at least two of the following emotional categories to describe that room: welcoming/social, cozy/warm, relaxed/peaceful, or fun/enjoyable. The more the emotional categories overlapped—the hotter the hot spot.

The top hot spots turned out to be the living room, bedroom and kitchen, with the living room ranking at more than 60 percent in all four categories. Focusing on design in these three rooms will enhance their appeal even more for both you and your family, and potential buyers when you list your home for sale. Enhancing design in these areas can be as simple as rearranging the furniture, incorporating different patterns and textures, adding seating that’s more conducive to socializing, and playing with lighting to add more warmth.

The study also found that hot spots other than the top three can be created by adding amenities associated with positive emotions. For example, think about adding gathering spots, access to the outdoors with a balcony or French doors, smart home features or fireplaces to other rooms in your house to dial up their emotional appeal.

If you’d like more homeowner information, please contact me.

Source: Napoleon Fireplaces

Buying vs Renting: which is better for YOU?

Study: Buying Is Still Better Than Renting in Most States

RISMEDIA, Tuesday, August 08, 2017— Affordability challenges are weighing on the housing market, as many home buyers and sellers contend with either being unable to compete or to find a new home within reach.

Buying a home, however, is still better than renting one in most states—35, to be exact, according to a recent study by GOBankingRates.

Analysts for GOBankingRates factored in recent median monthly home price and rent data by state, as well as mortgage rates—gathered by Zillow—to determine levels of affordability. The study assumed a 20 percent down payment on a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage, and took into account homeowners insurance costs and property taxes.

Buying is significantly more affordable than renting in Alaska, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, the study reveals, with New Jersey residents saving $566 a month by owning—the highest yield of all states.

In six states, the gap between buying and renting is so slim that neither is substantially more affordable than the other, the study shows: Alabama, California, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

The 35 states where buying is more affordable than renting are (in alphabetical order): Alaska; Arkansas; Connecticut; Delaware; Florida; Georgia; Illinois; Indiana; Iowa; Kansas; Kentucky; Louisiana; Maine; Maryland; Massachusetts; Michigan; Minnesota; Mississippi; Missouri; Nebraska; New Hampshire; New Jersey; New Mexico; New York; North Dakota; Ohio; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; Rhode Island; South Dakota; Tennessee; Texas; Vermont; West Virginia; and Wisconsin.

View owning and renting costs by state.

Source: GOBankingRates

Quick Ways to Make Some Shade, But Don’t Forget: Trees Are the Best

Shade Trees.

National Asssn of Realtors/HouseLogic  By: Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Published: May 24, 2011

If you prefer a drier cool, as opposed to the misters we mentioned yesterday, read on to find some quick ways to make some shade. Plus, get some tips on getting shade with some quick-growing trees.

For immediate relief: Umbrellas, awnings, and quick-assembly patio tents are quick, although sometimes costly, methods of creating shade instantly.

The ubiquitous patio umbrella—found even in grocery stores for $30—can either stand alone upright or offset, or slip into a hole in your patio table.

Choose an umbrella that tilts, so you can block the sun at any angle. Or get one that’s fabulous, like Frontgate’s Rimbou Lotus Shade, which looks like a giant palm frond. (Cost: $1,795.)

Retractable awnings, a permanent feature of older southern homes, are traditional shade makers for outdoor areas up to 12 feet from your house. Motorized awnings take the fuss out of opening and closing. Depending on size and what kind of bells and whistles they come with, awnings typically cost from $400 to $3,000.

Portable awnings are my favorite, because they make shade wherever, not just areas close to the house. SunSetter’s Large Oasis Freestanding Awning, measuring 16 ft. by 10 ft., can provide 160 sq. ft. of shade. (Cost: $1,549 manual; $2,099 motorized.)

A cloth gazebo (aka patio tent or canopy) is another option that’s great for entertaining. You can go simple and inexpensive ($50 for Target’s Outdoor Patio Pariesienne Gazebo Canopy, though online reviews indicate you get what you pay for). Or you can step it up with the Garden Oasis Lighted Gazebo, complete with lights and netting for $700 at Sears.

Long-Term Re-Leaf

Growing shade trees is the greenest — and slowest — way to block the sun on patios and decks. There’s nothing as cool as sitting under the shade of an old oak tree.

If you can’t wait 20 years for a little shade, plant a quick-growing variety which, in tree language, means it grows a couple of feet or more each year. You can rush the process by paying more and buying big trees, and you’ll see a return on your investment. Here are some species to consider.

  • American Elm: (Zones 2-9) Grows rapidly up to 100 feet tall and 120 feet wide. Adapts to varied climates and soil conditions.
  • October Glory Red Maple: (Zones 4-9) Provides a 35-foot spread and grows to 40 feet high.
  • Sawtooth Oak: (Zones 4-9) Dark green summer foliage turns yellow to brown in fall. Wildlife will love its acorns.
  • Chinese Pistache: (Zones 6-9) Wonderful wide canopy and grows in all but the coldest zones.
  • Natchez Crape Myrtle: (Zones 7-10) Lots of long-blooming white flowers and cinnamon-colored bark.

5 Things That REALLY Will Put a Serious Dent in Your Energy Bills

National Assn of Realtors

By: Christina Hoffmann

Published: August 17, 2016

Stop sending so much money to your utility company with these simple strategies.

Your Mexican beach vacation was great, but, man, those margaritas sure can put on the pounds. It’s been two months, and you’re still carrying around an extra tenner — despite a new running routine and a lot of #&*&@$ kale. So why isn’t your weight dropping?

It’s like that with energy bills, too.  Eighty-nine percent of us believe we’re doing the right things to lower energy costs, and almost half of us think our homes already are energy efficient. Yet, 59% of us say our bills are going up, not down, despite our efforts to economize.

Suzanne Shelton, CEO of the Shelton Group, a marketing agency that specializes in energy efficiency and that did this research, says we’re rationalizing: “I bought these [LEDs] so now I can leave the lights on and not pay more. I ate the salad, so I can have the chocolate cake.” Denial much?

Her research also shows consumers, on average, made fewer than three energy-efficient improvements in 2012 compared with almost five in 2010. It looks like we’re giving in to higher utility bills. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

You just need to know what improvements really will make the biggest difference to lower your bills. There are five, and the good news is that they’re really (seriously) cheap. You can go straight to them here, but there’s also another thing you can do that doesn’t cost a dime — and will drop your costs:

Be Mindful About Your Relationship With Energy

Think about it. Energy is the only product we buy on a daily basis without knowing how much it costs until a month later, says Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, a research and policy-making nonprofit focused on improving buildings’ energy efficiency.

With other services you get a choice of whether to buy based on price. With energy you don’t get that choice — unless you intentionally decide not to buy. You can take control by making yourself aware that you’re spending money on something you don’t need each time you leave home with the AC on high, lights and ceiling fans on, and your computer wide awake.

Related: Did You Know You Should Never Leave a Ceiling Fan on When You Leave a Room? 

That mindfulness is important because your relationship with energy is getting more intense. You (and practically every other person on the planet) are plugging in more and more. Used to be that heating and cooling were the biggest energy hogs, but now appliances, electronics, water heating, and lighting together have that dubious honor, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, based on data from U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the research arm of the Department of Energy (DOE).

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Being mindful means it’s also time to banish four assumptions that are sabotaging your energy-efficiency efforts:

1. Newer homes (less than 30 years old) are already energy efficient because they were built to code. Don’t bank on it. Building codes change pretty regularly, so even newer homes benefit from improvements, says Lee Ann Head, vice president of research and insights with the Shelton Group.

2. Utilities are out to get us: They’ll jack up prices no matter what we do. It might feel cathartic to blame them (Shelton’s research shows consumers blame utilities above oil companies and the government), but to get any rate changes, utilities must make a formal case to public utility commissions.

3. Energy improvements should pay for themselves. Nice wish, but it doesn’t work that way. When the Shelton Group asked consumers what they would expect to recoup if they invested $4,000 in energy-efficient home improvements, they said about 75% to 80%.

Unless you invest in some kind of renewable energy source like geothermal and solar, you won’t see that kind of savings. (Sorry.) Even if you do all the right things, the most you should expect is a 20% to 30% reduction annually, says Head, which is still significant over the long term.

What does 30% translate into? $618 in savings per year or $52 per month, based on the average household energy spend of $2,060 per year, according to Lawrence Berkeley and EIA.

4. Expensive improvements will have the biggest impact. That’s why homeowners often choose pricey projects like replacing windows, which should probably be fifth or sixth on the list of energy-efficient improvements, Shelton says.

There’s nothing wrong with investing in new windows. They feel sturdier; look pretty; can increase the value of your home; feel safer than old, crooked windows; and, yes, offer energy savings you can feel (no more draft).

But new windows are the wrong choice if your only reason for the project was reducing energy costs. You could replace double-pane windows with new efficient ones for about $9,000 to $12,000 and save $27 to $111 a year on your energy bill, according to EnergyStar. (The savings are higher if you replace single-pane windows.)  Or you could spend around $1,000 for new insulation, caulking, and sealing, and save 11% on your energy bill, or $227.

The 5 Things That Really Work to Cut Energy Costs

1. Caulk and seal air leaks. Buy a few cans of Great Stuff and knock yourself out over a weekend to seal around:

  • Plumbing lines
  • Electric wires
  • Recessed lighting
  • Windows
  • Crawlspaces
  • Attics

Savings: Up to $227 a year — even more if you add or upgrade your insulation.

Related: Lots of Homes Also Have This HUGE Air Leak 

2. Hire a pro to seal ductwork and give your HVAC a tune-up. Leaky ducts are a common energy-waster.

Savings: Up to $412 a year.

3. Program your thermostat. Shelton says 40% of consumers in her survey admit they don’t program their thermostat for energy savings. She thinks it’s even higher.

Savings: Up to $180 a year.

4. Replace all your light bulbs with LEDs. They’re coming down in price, making them even more cost effective.

Savings: $75 a year or more by replacing your five most frequently used bulbs with Energy Star-rated models.

Related: LED Bulbs Are Confusing, But Here’s a Guide to Help

5. Reduce the temperature on your water heater. Set your tank heater to 120 degrees — not the 140 degrees most are set to out of the box. Also wrap an older water heater and the hot water pipes in insulating material to save on heat loss.

Savings: $12 to $30 a year for each 10-degree reduction in temp.

NOTE: Resist the urge to total these five numbers for annual savings. The estimated savings for each product or activity can’t be summed because of “interactive effects,” says DOE. If you first replace your central AC with a more efficient one, saving, say, 15% on energy consumption, and then seal ducts, you wouldn’t save as much total energy on duct sealing as you would have if you had first sealed them. There’s just less energy to save at that point.

Bonus Tip for More Savings

Your utility may have funds available to help pay for energy improvement. Contact them directly, or visit DSIRE, a database of federal, state, local, and utility rebates searchable by state. Energy Star has a discount and rebate finder, too.

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