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What Home Experts Know That You Don't

Insider secrets from a realtor, decorator, plumber and more

cop stopping a robber at a door

Illustration Michael Byers; Photo Matthew Mahon

 “A burglar’s goal is your bedroom.”

— The police officer

Chris Bianez, 56, is an officer with the Plano, Texas, police department. 

  • Strengthen your front-door dead bolt. Many builders don’t drill the hole for the bolt deep enough. And most strike plates — that metal square on the door frame — are secured with only half-inch screws. Burglars can just kick them open. Use 4-inch screws to secure your dead bolt, or get someone to do it and specify that this is what you want.
  • Don’t open the door to strangers. Widows especially are old school and want to be hospitable. Act as if someone else is home with you: Say, “Honey, I've got it,” and speak through the door.  If friends routinely come over, tell them to call when they arrive.
  • There’s no burden of proof in calling 911. Say someone asks, through the door, for directions. In the age of Google Maps and GPS? They should know where they are. Call 911. It is not your job to be 100 percent correct. If your intuition keys in on something, make the call.
  • Install a peephole on any door leading to the garage. Don’t just have one in your front door. Lots of bad guys try to get in this way.
  • The ultimate goal of a burglar is the master bedroom. They want your cash, your jewelry and your firearms. Put junk jewelry in a jewelry box, and hide the good stuff in another room.


 “Your home is worth less than you think.” 

— The real estate agent 

June Cosgrove-Hays, 57, Sells real estate with Green Team Home Selling System in Warwick, N.Y. 

  • The first offer is often the best. Serious buyers tend to move quickly when they find the right house. They’ll often make a fair offer right away. If a good offer comes in right after you list, don’t hold out for a bigger offer that may not come. 
  • Your home is probably worth less than you think. It’s human nature to overvalue a home you have lived happily in for many years. You might be a bit disappointed when your agent shows you what comparable houses have sold for, but price your home based on the market comps. If your house sits for a long time, potential buyers will begin to wonder what’s wrong with it.
  • Brightness sells. Buyers love a sunny, well-lit house. When you have an appointment to show the house, turn on all the lights — even if it’s a sunny day — and pull up all the blinds.
  • Have a clutter basket. Getting that last-minute call for a showing is always a hassle. To make it easier, get a nice woven basket that you can gather clutter into. Cover the basket with an attractive throw blanket and place it near the sofa or put it in the bathroom covered with a couple of crisp clean towels. 
  • Get the dirt on your new community before buying. Subscribe to the local weekly newspaper. You’ll get a sense of what it’s like to live there. More important, you’ll avoid buying two blocks away from a planned shopping mall or fracking operation.

 “Use real paint to pick wall colors.”

— The color expert 

Andrea Magno, 40, is A Benjamin Moore Color and Design Expert.

  •  Experiment with bold colors in small areas that are easily repainted. For example, paint the back of built-in shelves a deep color to accentuate items on display, or try a bold color on a small piece of furniture.
  • Painting kitchen cabinets is the most economical way to revitalize a kitchen. Just pick a color that works with existing elements like countertops or tile.
  • Don’t rely on paint chips to pick a color. Buy a sample container of your chosen color and paint a big piece of poster board. Move it around the room at different times to see how it looks in different light.
  • Sunlight from the south looks and feels warm. If a room gets lots of southern light, just about any color will look fine. Light from the north is cooler. Greens and blues add to a cool feel in a room, while a soft, warm color will balance the cooler light.

“Install blinds, not curtains.”

— The contractor

 Thom Woglom, 64, owns Thom Woglom Construction in Warwick, N.Y. 

  • Raise your outlets. Electrical outlets are typically about 16 inches from the floor — because that’s the length of the hammer electricians use to measure outlet height. If you are remodeling, have the outlets set at 24 inches. They’ll be easier to reach.
  • Interior doors are typically only 30 or 32 inches wide. That’s too narrow for a wheelchair or walker. When building new, it costs only a little more to install a doorway that is 36 inches wide or wider. 
  • Your attic hatch with drop-down stairs is likely not insulated. That’s a major heat loss! A lightweight movable insulated box over the opening pays for itself in no time.
  • Install blinds to lower heating costs. Curtains hang away from the wall, and that space actually increases heat loss through the window. Blinds keep the heat inside.
  • Pick a tall toilet. They’re sold as “comfort height” — about 17 inches instead of the standard 15 inches. The extra height is easier on the knees and back as we age.
a contractor installs a door

Illustration Michael Byers; Photo Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

plumber fixes a giant pipe

Illustration Michael Byers; Photo Louise Johns

“A simple plunger works best.”

—The plumber

Weston Barnes, 56, works at 3 Brothers Plumbing in Clancy, Mont.

  • Don’t put grease down the kitchen sink. Scrape your dishes off in the garbage instead. Minimize what you put down the sink, especially if you're on a septic system. 
  • Products like Liquid-Plumr or Drano are not our friend. When they don’t work  and you call us up, it makes our job harder.
  • If you want to avoid a service call for a clog, a simple plunger works best, or a basic closet auger or snake. But most people don’t want to spend money on an auger.
  • Only use a toilet for what it’s designed to do. I’ve seen where a little kid flushed a whole bedsheet down a toilet once. But one of the worst was a pair of athletic tights.
  • The best way to keep a toilet bowl clean is to use a brush on a regular basis. I never put a cleaner in a toilet tank. They don’t work as well, and they can cause clogs.

 “On a leash, keep your dog within 6 feet of you.”

—The veterinarian 

Krista Magnifico, 48, owns a small-animal veterinary hospital in Jarrettsville, MD., and developed, a pet health website.

  •  I hate retractable leashes. They’re dangerous. I’ve seen them do terrible damage to my clients — lacerating their hands, wrapping around their legs, making them trip and fall. They’re not safe for dogs, either — I’ve seen dogs on them who’ve been hit by cars. Your dog belongs within 6 feet of you at all times when outside. 
  • Yes, you really should brush your dog’s teeth. Relying on teeth-cleaning dog treats would be like chewing gum as your only dental health strategy. Each day wrap a piece of gauze around your finger and gently rub tooth surfaces down to the gumline. You don’t need a special brush, or even toothpaste. 
  • It’s not just chocolate. Don’t give your dog grapes, raisins, avocado, macadamia nuts, the artificial sweetener xylitol or onions and garlic. If your dog eats one chocolate chip off the floor, he’s most likely just fine. If he just ate a candy bar, use one of the chocolate-consumption calculators online to determine if it is an emergency. All those other foods vets warn about? You shouldn’t give them to your dog, either. Garlic and onions affect red blood cells and can cause anemia, for example.
vet cares for pets

Illustration Michael Byers; Photo John Loomis

 “You can insure your identity.”

—   The insurance expert

 Charles Robinson, 64, is an agent in Warrenton, VA.

  • Notify your agent when you retire and stop driving 20 miles to and from work. There’s a discount for driving fewer miles.
  • Did you know you can insure your identity? It’s available as a rider on many homeowner policies for as little as $25 a year. If your identity is stolen, the insurer will work with police and credit bureaus to restore your good name, and reimburse costs related to repairing your credit. 
  • You can save about $100 a year with some insurance companies by installing a tracking device to monitor your driving habits. I saved $98 last year doing so.
  • Before you file a claim, talk with your agent to make sure it’s valid. If mold is caused by a roof leak, or a pinprick in a pipe, for instance, it generally is not covered. A bad claim in the database could make it tougher to file a later claim.