Slash your utility bills and conserve water by focusing on the thirstiest parts of your home.

Whether you live in a part of the country suffering from drought or just want to lower your next water bill, here are some simple tips to cut down on your water waste. Most of these recommendations cost only a few dollars, require minimal installation, and allow you to maintain your current lifestyle.

Target the toilet

Dual-flush toilets allow you to use only as much water as necessary. Photo from Zillow listing.

Toilets account for nearly 40 percent of all the water used inside the home. If your toilet is more than 20 years old, it’s probably a conventional model that uses 3.5 to 5 or more gallons per flush. Consider replacing your older toilet with a low-flush model that uses 1.6 gallons of water per flush.

If possible, opt for a dual-flush system that allows you to regulate the amount of water depending on your need. You will see a considerable drop in your water use, and you will recover the investment within a few years.

If a new toilet isn’t in your budget, create a water displacement device by filling a plastic container with water or pebbles and dropping it into your toilet tank. Be sure that the device does not interfere with the function of your toilet. With this trick, you can save one gallon of water per flush with minimal cost and installation.

Switch the showerhead

Showers account for 20 percent of the water used in an average home. For less than $10, you can install a low-flow showerhead that halves your water usage during your shower.

As an added bonus, a low-flow showerhead will decrease your electric or gas bill by reducing the amount of hot water you need to heat.

Install aerators for your faucets

Faucet aerators cut the flow of water much like low-flow showerheads. You can install them on kitchen and bathroom sinks to use up to 75 percent less water every time you wash dishes or brush your teeth. Faucet aerators cost only a few dollars and are easy to install.

Get the most from your appliances

Because dishwashers generally use less water than washing by hand, let the machine do the work. Make sure it’s full before starting so you don’t waste your water on just a few plates. The same applies to the washing machine — especially if your appliance lacks a setting for smaller loads.

Front-loading washing machines
Choosing the right appliances can save hundreds of gallons of water annually. Photo from Zillow listing.

When buying your next dishwasher or washing machine, look for Energy Star appliances that use only a fraction of the water used by older models. While an older top-loading washing machine uses up to 40 gallons of water per load, more efficient Energy Star models use as little as 14. Compared to a dishwasher purchased before 1994, an Energy Star model will save an average of 1,600 gallons of water over its lifetime.

Garden intelligently

Find drought-resistant plants such as cacti, flowers, succulents, and even herbs that will bring color to the outside of your home without draining your water supply. Many of these low-maintenance plants will also save you on time and the cost of fertilizer.

If you can’t bear to part with your favorite thirsty plants, consider arranging your garden so that plants with similar water needs are planted together. That way you can concentrate the most water on areas that need it while saving on areas that don’t.

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Growing plants with similar hydration needs together helps make watering more efficient.

Make your irrigation count by watering your garden early in the morning and evening to prevent evaporation. Adding mulch to your garden will slow the evaporation of soil and minimize water runoff. If your soil is particularly parched and hard, using cycle and soak irrigation will maximize the water that is soaked up by the ground.

Skip washing your car at home

Washing your car at home uses anywhere from 40 to 140 gallons of water. Head to a professional car wash that uses up to 65 percent less water thanks to reclamation systems that recycle the water many times over. You’ll save on your water bill and help the environment.

If you must wash your car in the comfort of your driveway, turn off the hose when you don’t need it.

Cover the pool

Pools are not necessarily a waste of water as long as you cover them to prevent evaporation and keep the water level low to avoid splashing.

Cover swimming pools when not in use to prevent water from evaporating.
Cover swimming pools when not in use to prevent water from evaporating. Photo from Zillow listing.

If your pool is heated, lowering the temperature will also help to minimize evaporation. Once you’ve implemented all your new water-saving tricks, nothing will feel more luxurious than swimming in a large pool of precious water.

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About the author

Natalie Saaris

Natalie Saaris is an editor and freelance writer. She lives on a houseboat and enjoys studying how our homes reflect who we are.

Remodeling can seem like a good way to increase your home's value and close the gap between what it's worth and what you owe. But would this strategy work for you?

If you’re underwater and need to sell your home, you may be thinking about sprucing up your kitchen or adding a bathroom to raise its value in hopes of closing the gap between what your home is worth and what you owe on your mortgage.

Is it crazy to pump money into a home when you owe more on it than it’s worth? Does this strategy ever make sense?

While upgrading the kitchen or dated bathroom could make the difference between a home that sells and one that doesn’t, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to deciding whether to renovate under these circumstances.

If you’re wondering whether to renovate your underwater home, take the following factors into consideration.

Your situation

What is the current value of your home? How much are the renovations going to cost? And what is the home’s expected value after you make these improvements?

Keep in mind that while some home improvements can result in a dollar-for-dollar increase in a home’s value, most do not. If, however, there are certain problems or minor issues that are causing your home’s value to appear lower than it should — like large overgrown trees in the front yard or chipped paint in the bedrooms — then making improvements may increase the chance of a sale at a more attractive price.

But be careful — you may not get as much value from renovations as you expect. For example, kitchen remodels offer among the lowest return on investments. “Every dollar you spend on a new kitchen only increases the value of your home by 50 cents — regardless of how much the renovation costs,” write Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff and Chief Economist Stan Humphries in Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate.

If you’re planning a kitchen renovation, make sure it functions well for you, and you will enjoy it. Don’t fixate on the value you are trying to create when it comes time to sell.

Your market

If you live in a market where prices have plunged to such depths that even a renovation that increases your home’s value by 20 percent won’t cut it, you need to think twice about remodeling.

If, however, you live in a market where buyers have high expectations (and renovations are therefore valued), then you may want to consider doing it.

Your financial condition

If you’re taking out a loan to pay for renovations — and yes, there are loan options available despite your situation — that means you will be taking on debt. How much debt do you already have? And are you comfortable assuming more?

Renovating an underwater home can be risky, so be sure to thoroughly research your options before you make any decisions.

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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

Vera Gibbons

Vera Gibbons is a financial journalist based in New York City and is a contributor to Zillow Blog. Connect with her at VeraGibbons.com/.

When it comes to potted plants, "the more the merrier" makes a great rule of (green) thumb.

If you aren’t already making your own container combinations with houseplants, you’re really missing out. They bring a bit of the outdoors to even the smallest spaces,  and are a lot easier to water than plants grown on their own.

Here are nine reasons you should be combining your houseplants, and how to do it in nine easy steps.

small-world9 reasons to combine houseplants

  • Less watering. Watering an assortment of potted plants can be a pain. With a combo, however, you just water once.
  • Living flower arrangements. Flower arrangements are great, but there’s just something so captivating about a living ecosystem in your home. In addition, living arrangements are more economical than cut flowers over time, because they last a lot longer.
  • Fits your decor. Going for a traditional look? Use cast iron plant, parlor palm, and ferns in an urn or terra-cotta pot. More modern? Plant snake plant, Haworthia and Gasteria in a sleek container. Primitive tropical? Fill a rattan basket with an exuberant pot of rainforest plants.
  • Stays alive. Even if a plant or two dies, the others will quickly fill in the gap. If you’re impatient, all you have to do is tuck another one in its place.
  • It’s therapeutic. Successfully cultivating life just feels good. You’d be amazed by how relaxing and rewarding an occasional trim or topdressing of soil can be.
  • It’s a garden, indoors. A well-planted arrangement truly feels like a little piece of garden in the middle of your home — minus the creepy-crawlies and hard work.
  • Ideal for small spaces. Everyone has room for an indoor garden. These arrangements can range from just a few inches wide to taking up as much space as a dining chair. No matter the size, the impact is huge.
  • A creative outlet. If you get your kicks from cooking, crafting, drawing or writing, then just look at an indoor arrangement as an extension of your craft. It’s a recipe of plants; a craft that hot-glues itself in place; a masterpiece in four dimensions; an adventure in your mind’s eye.
  • Year-round gardening. Throughout most of the country, winter puts the garden on hold for a few months. In the Deep South and Southwest, summer keeps you in the air-conditioned comfort of your home. Your indoor garden will keep you company until nicer weather.

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How to combine houseplants

Now that you’re ready to plant your own indoor living arrangement of plants, here’s how you do it. Note that it’s almost exactly like planting an outdoor container combo.

  1. Gather materials. Choose a pot with a drainage hole and potting mix. The drainage hole is important because it keeps the water from stagnating and rotting the plants’ roots.
  2. Pick your plants. Select a few plants that tolerate the same conditions. For example, don’t put a sun-loving cactus in a pot with a shade- and moisture-loving fern.
  3. Add potting mix. Fill the pot almost all the way, leaving enough room for the plants.
  4. Add plants. Slip the plants out of their pots and place in the big pot.
  5. Arrange plants. Situate plants so that the tall ones are in the rear. This ensures that each plant gets light. Put trailing plants like pothos along the edge so they can cascade over the rim.
  6. Add more potting mix. Add enough potting mix to sit level with the tops of the plants’ root balls (the pot-shaped mass of dirt and roots).
  7. Water. Water thoroughly to level out the potting mix and eliminate any air gaps. Where the potting mix has sunk, add more.
  8. Fertilize. Feed the plants according to your product’s label instructions. Authentic Haven Compost Tea is a good choice, since it’s organic and effective, and the nutrients stay in the potting mix.
  9. Properly place. Place your container combo where it gets bright indirect light, meaning that it’s bright enough to read comfortably without flipping a light switch. Some plants, such as cacti, succulents and some plants grown for flowers, prefer direct light. This means that your plants get a clear view of the sun for at least a few hours a day.

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If you’d like to know more about combining houseplants, check out my book Plant by Numbers. It offers comprehensive plant listings to help you choose and combine your own designs, 50 sample combos, and everything you need to know about keeping your houseplants happy and healthy.

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If your soon-to-be home takes a hit during this in-between stage, be sure you know who is responsible for repairs.

Occasionally, a home that’s under contract will be damaged by fire, natural disaster, or some other issue. Significant damage can derail a real estate purchase and add a remarkable amount of stress for both buyer and seller. Though it happens rarely, all parties need to react quickly and understand how to move forward.

Check the contract

Most contracts provide a process to deal with damage when and if it happens. Typically if there is damage, and it is less than five percent of the total value of the contract, both parties agree to move forward with the transaction. But the seller will need to remedy the damage prior to closing.

If your contract doesn’t include a provision that covers this, you need to consider having one added before you sign. Such a clause typically provides coverage for things like appliances, boilers or central air conditioning systems that might break.

For damage over five percent, most buyers will have the opportunity to cancel the agreement and move on, without losing any of their deposit money.

Get the bank involved

If the buyer has arranged to take out a mortgage, most lenders will approve a credit up to three percent without incident. Anything more than that and the bank will want to know about the damage, have a new appraisal, and may even cancel the loan.

What’s most common is for the lender to want to re-do the loan, adjust the purchase price and put it back through underwriting. Going back to the beginning takes time and may require another appraisal. Both parties will have to extend the contract’s time frames.

It’s smart practice to keep your lender in the loop — and remember, it’s fraudulent to hide credits or serious damage.

Get the property inspected

It’s so important to have a property inspection before closing. It would be very easy for a seller to argue that the damage was pre-existing, and if the buyer did not inspect, there is no way of proving otherwise.

After the inspection, if there are any problems, either negotiate a credit or require that the seller repair prior to closing. No matter how much pressure you feel or how long you’ve been in the market, waiving a property inspection to be competitive can get you into deep trouble.

Leverage the walk-through

As a buyer, you will have the opportunity to walk through the home prior to the closing. Do this. If something is not working or there is damage, you should delay the closing. A buyer has leverage because the seller wants to close, get their money and move on. It’s in their best interest to cooperate and remedy any issues.

Be sure to schedule the walk-through the day before or the day of the closing. A lot can happen, even in just a few hours.

Most real estate transactions go smoothly. Buyers and sellers make a deal, sign a contract, inspect, get a loan and close. While every purchase or sale can cause stress and anxiety, encountering damage during escrow will really up the ante.

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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.

Weighing your kitchen cabinet options? This guide will walk you through it.

Choosing kitchen cabinets is an important decision that marries form and function. Yes, they have to hold your plates, cereal and spices, but they’re also one of the first things people notice about a kitchen.

Before you make a decision about cabinets, you’ll need to make decisions about quality, color and style.

Quality

Kitchen cabinets come in three different quality levels: stock, semi-custom and custom.

Stock cabinets
Stock cabinets are a great option if you have a limited budget. Stock cabinets are off-the-shelf cabinets that you can walk into a store and purchase or order online. Just be aware that a limited budget means a limited range of colors, sizes and styles.

Most are built well enough to last a couple decades in your kitchen, but many contain lower quality materials, which won’t hold up as well as their higher-priced counterparts.

One thing to consider is that many stock cabinets tend to have particleboard box parts with some hardwood components, and particleboard will break down if exposed to moisture.

Semi-custom
The next step up in terms of quality is semi-custom cabinets. Semi-custom cabinets are usually constructed with plywood instead of particleboard for the box parts, which means they will hold up better over time, especially when exposed to moisture.

While they are more expensive than stock cabinets, they come in a wide range of styles, sizes and colors. They can also be configured with additional moldings, hardware, drawer slides, dovetail drawers and unique shelving configurations, all of which allow for a more custom look for your kitchen.

Most kitchen cabinet showrooms and building suppliers have cabinet displays showcasing semi-custom cabinets. Although not quite as budget-friendly as stock cabinets, semi-custom is a great option for many kitchen remodel budgets and styles.

kitchen with navy blue cabinets and stainless steel appliances
Photo from Zillow listing.

Custom cabinets
Custom cabinets, on the other hand, are high-end in both appearance and price. They have superior construction quality and offer nearly unlimited color, size and customization options.

If you look at the kitchens on many design or kitchen magazines, chances are you’re looking at custom cabinets. Custom cabinets are made to look like they were created just for that specific kitchen. They often stretch to the ceiling or are built around refrigerators, ranges and stoves.

Custom cabinets will also offer even more options: moldings, hardware, inset doors or unique materials will all be readily available in custom cabinetry.

If you have a large renovation budget and a specific style or look you are chasing, then custom cabinets might be your best option.

Aesthetics

Now that we’ve discussed the different quality levels you can expect to find, we can turn our attention to aesthetics.

Frame styles
There are two different cabinet frame styles: cabinets with face frames and cabinets without face frames. So what’s the difference? In terms of quality, there is no real difference — it simply comes down to looks.

A face frame is literally a frame of wood that sits on the front of the cabinet box. Cabinets with face frames have doors and drawer fronts that sit either flush with the face frame or on top of the face frame.

Most American cabinets have face frames. Cabinets with face frames tend to look better in more traditional or country kitchens.

If you’re buying a cabinet with a face frame, you’ll need to determine how the door is positioned on the cabinet. Most cabinet doors sit over the face frame. Inset doors, which sit flush with the surface of the face frame, give a cabinet a custom, high-end look.

Photo from Zillow listing.

Cabinets that are frameless don’t have a face frame, so the front of the cabinet is all doors and drawer fronts.

Frameless cabinets are often referred to as European-style cabinets. For example, IKEA cabinets are frameless. These cabinets tend to look better in more modern or urban kitchen settings, due to their sleeker look.

modern kitchen with frameless cabinets
Photo from Zillow listing.

Door styles
The most commonly available door styles are shaker, raised panel or variations of those two. These two styles aren’t likely to go out of style anytime soon.

Raised panel and shaker doors are perfect if you prefer a more traditional look, and both of these options can be dressed up with more a more detailed profile.

Color
As far as color goes, it’s hard to go wrong with a dark stain or a white-painted cabinet. Both options are classic choices.

kitchen with white Shaker style cabinets
Photo from Zillow listing.

Generally, a dark-stained wood is better suited for a well-lit space. Poorly lit rooms with dark cabinets will feel even darker, while white cabinets can make a room feel clean and bright.

Top photo from Zillow listing.

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About the author

John Gerard

John Gerard is a full-time engineer who writes about home improvement and DIY projects at his blog, Our Home from Scratch. He focuses on teaching people how to add value to their houses through various projects including custom cabinets and built-ins. He lives in South Jersey with his wife and kids. You can read more of his writing at www.ourhomefromscratch.com