In the market for a gas fireplace? Here's all the info you need to choose the right model for your home.

By Merv Kaufman

Fireplaces have always been among the top amenities for homeowners looking to buy a new house. In fact, they rank second just behind outdoor patios, decks and porches, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

While the cost of adding a fireplace to an existing home used to be prohibitively expensive — requiring the creation of an exterior stone chimney, flue, firebox and, in many cases, floor supports to accommodate the weight of the hearth — today’s options are not only affordable, but a relatively easy home improvement.

What has made them more accessible is the technology and installation flexibility of gas-fueled models. Since no actual combustion occurs in gas fireplaces, zero-clearance installation is possible, which, according to Monessen Hearth Systems, means “these fireplaces can be installed in direct contact with combustible walls and floors. Their inner and outer shell construction allows for maximum heat insulation.”

As long as you have a natural gas connection or propane availability, you can install a gas fireplace almost anywhere in your home — under a window, in either an outside or inside wall, at wainscot or floor level, in a corner or even in the center of a room. Shielded by tempered or ceramic glass, gas fireplaces can be exposed on three sides (a peninsula of glassed-in warmth) or four sides (a virtual see-through island).

Combine that flexibility with a wide array of styles—from traditional to ultra-contemporary, a fire that looks and performs like real wood, and the benefit of improved energy efficiency, and it’s clear why gas fireplaces are one of the hottest hearth products on the market today, outselling wood and pellet varieties by more than half, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), the trade association representing makers of heating and outdoor cooking equipment.

Benefits of gas over wood

Comparing price lists from various manufacturers, you’ll find little significant difference between factory-made gas and wood units (from under $1,000 to nearly $3,000), and installation costs are about equal, no matter where you live. The main difference between gas and wood lies in venting and long-term performance.

“The nice thing about gas is that you have immediate ignition and complete control over the heat output of the appliance,” says Mike Ruppa, a veteran fireplace retailer and now president of Empire Distributing in upstate New York. “With wood, a certain amount of time is required to light the fire, turn that energy into heat and then get that heat into a room.”

Ruppa points out that in contrast to a gas fireplace, whose warmth is thermostatically controlled, a wood-burning unit comes with only an air control: the damper. That, he says “allows you to control the amount of air going in, which consequently controls the combustion process and the heat output.”

As a bonus, high-end gas fireplaces are available with comfort control systems. “These are anticipators,” Ruppa explains. “They monitor the temperature of a room and start ramping the burner down as the room approaches a desired temperature.”

What about the environment? “Wood is a renewable resource, gas isn’t,” he points out. But, he adds, “in a gas appliance there are very few by-products of combustion entering the atmosphere. So, environmentally, I do think gas appliances are healthier for the environment than a polluting wood-burning appliance.”

Venting options

Three venting options are available for gas fireplace installations:

  • Natural vent, often called B vent, utilizes an existing masonry chimney or a factory-built metal chimney. Room air exhausts combustion by-products to the outside via a flexible liner or single pipe installed within the chimney.
  • Direct-vent fireplaces draw in outdoor air for combustion, then expel spent air to the outside through a dual (co-linear) venting system, eliminating the heat loss associated with conventional chimneys, according to technicians at Majestic Fireplaces. They can be vented up through the roof or out to the side or back of a house — a perfect solution for homes without an existing chimney. Direct-vent units must, however, have a sealed glass door to maintain proper combustion and ensure efficiency and indoor air quality.
  • Vent-free technology, once considered controversial, has now won wide acceptance. Robert Dischner, director of product development at Lennox Hearth Products, states that “the fireplaces use catalytic-converter technology [similar to exhaust systems on new cars sold in the U.S.], which cleans hot air as it leaves the combustion chamber. Because of this technology, no chimney or venting is required.” Further, he says, “their sleek look is much like a plasma television.”

The insert alternative

Perhaps the least efficient, most energy-wasteful way to heat a room is with an open fireplace, because so much warmth goes up the chimney. To continue using that chimney but improve the energy efficiency of your masonry fireplace, you can install an insert, available in various sizes and shapes, and generally priced from just under $500 to about $2,500.

“If you never even light this unit, you’re going to save money just by eliminating that cold-air expulsion through the fireplace chimney,” says Ruppa. “By sealing off the fireplace at the damper area and installing a gas or even a wood insert with a chimney liner, you’ll be plugging up that hole and becoming more energy-efficient.”

How much heat?

Depending on how well insulated your house is, Ruppa says a 40,000-BTU fireplace would be more than enough to heat a large living or family room.

He also points out that “a lot of high-efficiency gas fireplaces have a large turn-down ratio — meaning, they can go from 40,000 BTU down to 12,000 BTU, enough to heat the average bedroom or dining room.”

He adds that if you had a 40,000-BTU fireplace and only needed to use 50 percent of its capacity, you’d pay less than $1 an hour to operate.

The log look

You no longer need to burn wood to achieve the warmth or pleasing glow of logs crackling in a hearth. Gas fireplace manufacturers nationally market and sell ceramic or refractory cement log sets molded from real wood logs and produced in various sizes. Prices, based on size and quality, range from about $400 to $1,000.

These models further boost realism not only through an authentic-looking flame but also by a coal bed of sand and bits of lava rock and rock wool that add to the fireplace glow. Another touch of available realism is the aroma of burning wood.

Keeping it clean

Routine maintenance plus proper installation and use is essential to fireplace safety, as well as the ability to burn clean and green. To ensure top performance, a gas fireplace needs servicing once a year by a pro who inspects the burner, fan, venting, pilot light and thermostat, and even cleans the glass.

To locate a certified installer in your area, contact the National Fireplace Institute. In addition, the HPBA recommends that all vents for vented gas fireplaces be inspected annually by a chimney sweep certified by the Chimney Safety Institute of America, and that homeowners install a carbon monoxide detector with all hearth products.

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

About the author

BobVila.com

Bob Vila is the home improvement expert widely known as host of TV’s This Old House, Bob Vila's Home Again, and Bob Vila. Today, Bob continues his mission to help people upgrade their homes and improve their lives with advice online at BobVila.com. His video-rich site offers a full range of fresh, authoritative content – practical tips, inspirational ideas, and more than 1,000 videos from Bob Vila television.
 
 

Modern-day Pittsburgh may surprise you.

Did you know a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist invented the smiley emoticon? Or that the Steel City is a leader in green building? If you answered no to either of these questions, you may be in for a surprise. We asked a few locals to share what it’s really like to live in Pittsburgh. Here’s 10 fun facts yinz might not know.

1. Many know Pittsburgh as the “Steel City.” What else is it known for?

While the steel mills are a huge part of our history, they’re just that: history. The last of them shut down in the ’80s, and with them went all the smog and pollution. Today, Pittsburgh is a beautiful city. We’re actual one of the greenest in the country.   Femme of Femme Frugality

Filming "Brain Game." Source: Nicole Gagliardi
Filming “Game Brain.” Source: Nicole Gagliardi

Pittsburgh is a popular place to film movies. A few recently released movies that show off the city are “The Next Three Days,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “Jack Reacher.” Movies to be released in 2015 are Vin Diesel’s “The Last Witch Hunter” and Will Smith’s “Game Brain,” which is currently being filmed downtown.  Nicole Gagliardi of A Green Routine

Andy Warhol Museum. Source: Wally Gobetz via Flickr Creative Commons
Andy Warhol Museum. Source: Wally Gobetz via Flickr Creative Commons

Carnegie, Heinz and Warhol called Pittsburgh home and we have some amazing museums bearing their names.   Terri Roper of Simple Treasures 2 U

2. Can you be a true Pittsburgher if you don’t bleed black and gold?

I really don’t think so. We are very rooted in our sports, especially those Steelers. You must bleed black and gold to claim the true status of a Pittsburgher.  Alex of Duffy Dossier

Steelers fans. Source: Drew Allen via Flickr Creative Commons
Steelers fans. Source: Drew Allen via Flickr Creative Commons

Yeah, but people are going to give you a hard time. God forbid you are a Philly or Baltimore or Cleveland fan! EW! Eventually it will rub off on you.  Janine Bonilla of The PGH Look

3. Favorite Pittsburghese phrase?

Has be “Yinz want to go dahntahn?” There is definitely a learning curve in some of the language around here!  Kelly Hughes of Pgh Momtourage

My grandmother often used the phrase “redd,” meaning to pick up or straighten a mess. Her favorite phrase was “When are you going to redd up this room?”  Cheralee Stover of The Stover Homestead

4. Good place to live if you’re a young professional?

About 4 miles from downtown, a 2-bedroom apartment in this building is asking $1,650 per month.
A 2-bedroom in this Shadyside apartment building is available for $1,650 per month.

Shadyside is really trendy. It comes with a relatively high price tag, but if you’re coming in from another city, you’ll probably be surprised at how affordable even our trendy neighborhoods are.  Femme of Femme Frugality

Young professionals moving to Pittsburgh are flocking to new trendy downtown revitalized areas like Lawrenceville, The Strip and Bakery Square! Beautiful new condos have been built to supply the demand such as The Cork Factory and the gorgeous Butler Street housing.  Terri Dowd of Parmesan Princess

5. Popular neighborhoods for families?

Located on a cul-de-sac in Squirrel Hill North, this 4-bedroom, 4-bath home is on the market for $499,000.
Located on a cul-de-sac in Squirrel Hill North, this 4-bedroom, 4-bath home is on the market for $499,000.

Squirrel Hill and Regent Square. Both are walkable and offer easy access to Frick Park which has trails, playgrounds, tennis courts, a dog park and an environment center that offers summer camps and family-friendly activities.  Nicole Gagliardi of A Green Routine

My favorite neighborhood for a family is definitely where I grew up, in the South Hills — Mt. Lebanon, PA. I’m obviously biased though. 🙂  Alex of Duffy Dossier

6. What would an outsider be surprised to learn about modern-day Pittsburgh?

How modern, young, and clean it is. I think people seem to have an old-time view of the city, and think of it as a dirty steel city. That couldn’t be farther from the truth! The city is young, has incredible opportunities and is full of such LIFE. The pride of Pittsburgh shows through all around the city.  Sarah Hartley of Sarah Hartley Blog

Pittsburgh is the home of the emoticon. 🙂  Louis Kroeck of Pittsburgh Happy Hour

7. Favorite hoagie joint?

Primanti Brothers. Source: Chip Smith via Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Chip Smith via Flickr Creative Commons

Primanti’s, of course. Our famous fries and coleslaw on your sandwich!  Kelly Hughes of Pgh Momtourage

Hands down, Triangle Bar & Grill. Get the Battleship!  Cheralee Stover of The Stover Homestead

8. If you only have one day to spend in Pittsburgh, what are the must-dos?

Pittsburgh's century-old cable car, the Duquesne Incline. Source: bobistraveling via Flickr Creative Commons
Pittsburgh’s century-old cable car, the Duquesne Incline. Source: bobistraveling via Flickr Creative Commons

The perfect Pittsburgh day would be to start at Station Square for brunch at the Grand Concourse, ride the incline to the top of Mount Washington and take in the view. Walk to the other end of Grandview Avenue and grab a drink at one of the restaurants overlooking the city. Then head back down and go to the Point and the Strip District. If there’s time to head over to Oakland. You can go to the Cathedral of Learning to see the nationality rooms and another great view from the top.  Terri Roper of Simple Treasures 2 U

Go to Primanti Bros., visit the Andy Warhol museum, and check out the Point.  S.A. Deveraux of S.A. The Writer

9. What’s better: Pirates or Penguins games?

PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Source: Terri Dowd
PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Source: Terri Dowd

There isn’t much better than a Pirates game with that incredible view of the city on a warm summer night. That view cannot be beat.  Sarah Hartley of Sarah Hartley Blog

PENS!!!!!!!!  Janine Bonilla of The PGH Look

Pittsburgh Penguins. Source: Slidingsideways via Flickr Creative Commons
Pittsburgh Penguins. Source: Slidingsideways via Flickr Creative Commons

10. Pittsburgh’s best kept secret?

The Pittsburgh Marathon. Source: Brook Ward via Flickr Creative Commons
The Pittsburgh Marathon. Source: delayedneutron via Flickr Creative Commons

Our Marathon. Although it’s not really a secret, this course is a perfect physical challenge and gives people a great chance to learn about the diversity of our city. Becky Willis of ‘lil Burghers

The dramatically low cost of living Louis Kroeck of Pittsburgh Happy Hour

Pittsburgh’s best kept secret is definitely our cuisine! Many of our newest eateries are quickly gaining national popularity. Meat and Potatoes, Bar Marco and Luke Wholey’s Wild Alaskan Grille to name a few. The best chefs are coming to Pittsburgh and we are so happy they are here!  Terri Dowd of Parmesan Princess

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About the author

Catherine Sherman

Catherine Sherman covers the people, places and trends that shape our idea of home.

Standard home insurance doesn't handle these situations, so be sure to upgrade your policy.

By Samantha Alexander

If you’re like many homeowners, you bought your home insurance policy, got standard coverage and haven’t given it another thought. Unfortunately, that type of thinking could lead to gaps in your coverage.

standard homeowners policy offers coverage for a wide variety of perils — theft, vandalism, fire, wind, lightning and ice, among others — but not for everything. Here are six situations where you need to bolster your policy to get help.

Mold

Mold in your home is bad news. It can cause major health problems for you and your family, and can even make your house uninhabitable. Insurance providers handle mold in a variety of ways. Some limit coverage for damage caused by mold, while others don’t cover mold at all.

Every state except Arkansas, New York, North Carolina and Virginia has adopted an ISO mold limitation for homeowners insurance coverage, which allows insurers to exclude coverage unless the condition results from a covered peril. For example, if the water from a burst pipe in your home causes mold, your insurer might cover it.

The solution: If you find out that you aren’t sufficiently covered for mold, you can purchase a separate rider to cover mold in your home.

Pests

From mice and rats to termites and bed bugs, standard home insurance policies do not cover damage from pests. That means if a rat chews through your electrical wiring or termites destroy the wood support for your roof, you’re on your own.

The best way to tackle this issue is through prevention. Keep an eye out for signs of pests around your property. If you see something suspicious, call an exterminator before the problem gets out of control.

The solution: Schedule annual termite inspections. By the time you see damage, it could be too late.

Sewage back-up

Backed-up sewers can wreak havoc on a home, causing thousands of dollars in damage. Most agents will ask you about this coverage when you’re buying a home insurance policy, but many consumers ignore the topic.

The solution: Add this coverage to your policy — it generally only tacks $40-$50 onto your premium, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III).

Floods

That’s right, standard home insurance policies do not provide coverage for flood damage. For flood coverage, homeowners must purchase a flood insurance policy through the National Flood Insurance Program.

While many mortgage lenders require flood coverage as a loan condition, homeowners in moderate- to low-risk flood zones have the option to forgo it altogether.

Before you decide to take a chance, you should know that 25 percent of all NFIP claims come from people outside of mapped high-risk flood areas.

The solution: Purchase a flood insurance policy; they start at as little as $129 a year in low-risk areas.

Earthquakes

When the earth shakes, don’t expect your home insurance provider to pick up the tab on damage to your home. Earth movement or earthquakes are not covered by standard home insurance. Homeowners who live in shaky parts of the country should see if their insurer offers a rider on their current homeowners policy, or search for a separate policy all together.

The solution: Add earthquake insurance — the cost varies widely according to the risk in your region.

Sinkholes

Common in states like Florida, Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, sinkholes can cause cracks in walls, floors and even in your home’s foundation. However, sinkholes are not covered by standard home insurance. Sinkholes are defined as earth movement and, therefore, would fall under earthquake coverage.

The solution: Add earthquake coverage. In some states, insurers offer specific coverage for sinkholes, but you should talk to your insurer to see if it’s an option.

If you aren’t sure what’s covered by your specific home insurance policy, call your provider and review your coverage with a licensed agent. An agent can not only help you better understand your policy, but also assist you in adding coverage if necessary.

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

About the author

HomeInsurance.com

HomeInsurance.com is an online resource for homeowners and drivers across the country. Offering comparative automobile and home insurance quotes, consumers rely on HomeInsurance.com for the most competitive rates from the top-rated insurance carriers in the country. The HomeInsurance.com blog provides fresh tips and advice on a range of financial topics to help homeowners and home buyers make educated decisions about their insurance purchases. 

When it comes to properties where murder and mayhem -- or even less dramatic crimes -- occurred, disclosure and due diligence are key.

Every home has a history. Many homeowners ask, “Who lived in my house before me?” Today’s home buyers, with access to so much information and technology, want to know as much as they can about a home’s history before they even sign a contract.

Sellers of homes with notorious histories should disclose to buyers what they know — particularly if the events occurred recently. Not unlike a window leak or work done without a permit, a notorious past will put downward pressure on the home’s price.

I once showed a home in San Francisco that appeared to have water damage and mold in some of the bedrooms. The seller happened to be present and told us point blank that he used to grow marijuana in each of the bedrooms, and that was the reason for the stains. It was a bizarre showing, but we couldn’t help feeling grateful for his upfront disclosure. That is not always the case, however.

A majority of escrows fall apart due to disclosure or lack thereof. If you have a home with a past, you should know the disclosure laws in your state. If you are buying a home and want to know about its past, review the disclosures clearly and do research on your own. Here are some tips for both buyers and sellers who find themselves in this unusual situation.

Death on the property

If there was a death on the property, it’s smartest for a seller to err on the side of caution by putting it out there at the time of listing. Obviously, homes where a natural death occurred carry less of a stigma than homes where there was a murder or suicide.

In California, Civil Code Section 1710.2 requires that the seller must disclose knowledge of any death within the past three years. But buyers in states without this type of law still have access to tons of information, and savvy home shoppers will do their research.

If a seller chooses not to disclose, it will likely come back to bite them, either in the form of a lawsuit after the fact, or by losing a buyer who discovers the death during the escrow.

Criminal activity

Previous criminal activity — particularly burglary or theft — can impact the home’s value. From the theft of a bicycle to illegal drug activity, sellers should disclose what they know. In some states, disclosure statements require that they reveal not only their knowledge of criminal activity on the property, but anywhere in the neighborhood.

Tips for sellers

If the home must be sold soon after a death on the property or with knowledge of criminal activity, the buyers will likely know about it. Bring the home to the market in its best possible light.

If an elderly person died peacefully in the home, it is prudent to do some work to the home so the buyer is not reminded of the death. Cleaning, painting and finishing the floors or replacing the carpet will give the home a fresh look and feel.

Also, first impressions are lasting. A buyer may be so impressed with the location and condition that, when they learn of the death, they aren’t bothered.

Buyers: do your due diligence

Buyers should always check and recheck what they are told by sellers. In addition to reviewing building and property tax records, every buyer should be on the lookout for the “unknown.”

Start by Googling the address. It is amazing to see what comes up. Past police reports, neighborhood association meeting minutes, local blogs and news stories tend to live forever on the Internet.

Additionally, go to the home at different times of day and ask the neighbors what they know about the home’s history. Whether or not you have reason to believe the home had a questionable past, it’s imperative that you research as much as you can.

For obvious reasons, homes with a notorious past tend to be less valuable. For a buyer who wants a certain size home or location, a stigmatized home may be their best way to get it.

The good news is, the more time passes, the less the stigma — and the depressed value — lingers.

Unlike the presence of a leaky roof, or a furnace that is near the end of its life, it is difficult to put a dollar value on a home with a sullied history. If you are in it for the long haul and not too afraid of the stigma, an infamous home might be a great way to build some equity.

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

About the author

Brendon DeSimone

Brendon DeSimone is the author of Next Generation Real Estate: New Rules for Smarter Home Buying & Faster Selling. A 15-year veteran of the residential real estate industry and a nationally recognized real estate expert, Brendon has completed hundreds of transactions totaling more than $250M. His expert advice is often sought out by reporters and journalists in both local and national press. Brendon is a regularly featured guest on major television networks and programs including CNBC, FOX News, Bloomberg, Good Morning America, ABC’s 20/20 and HGTV. Brendon is the manager of the Bedford and Pound Ridge offices of Houlihan Lawrence, the leading real estate brokerage north of New York City.

Despite appearing in a better position to repay their home loan, self-employed borrowers receive 40 percent fewer loan quotes, primarily because of their typically lower credit scores.

When it comes to getting a home loan, self-employed borrowers are less likely to get quotes than other borrowers — even though they say they make more and have more cash on hand for down payments, according to a Zillow analysis.

The likely reason? Self-employed borrowers typically have lower credit scores. They are twice as likely as other borrowers to report a score of less than 680.

Zillow was able to analyze millions of loan requests and found that self-employed borrowers got 40 percent fewer loan quotes from lenders than other borrowers.

“Self-employed borrowers will no doubt face headwinds when trying to get a loan,” said Zillow Vice President of Mortgages Erin Lantz.  “Low credit scores, coupled with a mountain of paperwork lenders must complete specifically for self-employed borrowers, make them unattractive.”

Self-employed borrowers report that they make 81 percent more money than other potential borrowers, and their incomes are on the rise. Income for self-employed borrowers is up 28 percent since mid-2012, while other borrowers’ incomes are down an average of 17 percent.  Self-employed borrowers seek 12 percent higher home loans with larger-then-average down payments.