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    Best ways to finance home repairs

    Fixing up your home makes sense from a financial standpoint. That’s because the IRS rewards certain types of loans for home improvements with special tax treatment, making that type of borrowing quite attractive. Joint filers can deduct interest on debt of up to $1 million that’s used to buy, build, or improve a first or second home; single filers can deduct up to $500,000.

    Mari Adam, a certified financial planner in Boca Raton, Fla., says a home equity line of credit (HELOC) can often be the best type of loan to pay for home repairs and improvements. Though the interest rate floats, it is usually lower than for other types of loans. A $50,000 ­HELOC at, say, 4 percent—the average rate in late fall for borrowers with stellar credit, according to Bankrate—would actually cost just 3 percent after factoring in the tax deduction, assuming a marginal tax rate of 25 percent.

    Don't make these home buying and selling mistakes. And find out what bad behaviors real estate agents told us they've seen their peers practice.

    Adam says that although a fixed-rate home equity loan gets the same tax treatment as a HELOC, its interest rate is usually higher. Annual percentage rates were around 6 percent when we checked in late fall. But Bankrate showed one lender—First Trust Bank—that offered a lower rate (3.49 percent annual percentage rate) than that of the average HELOC.

    More on buying or selling a home

    Top 5 ways to boost the value of your home

    4 red flags that can ruin a home sale

    The best ways to finance home repairs

    This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    4 red flags that can ruin a home sale

    Smell is a powerful memory sense, so any funky aromas potential buyers detect in your home will linger for a long time. And remember this: 41 percent of the real estate pros surveyed by the Consumer Reports National Research Center put dirt, smells, and clutter on their list of costliest home-selling mistakes.

    Musty odors are the biggest concern because they could be a sign of mildew or even mold. It’s important to eliminate the source of the smell, be it a damp carpet or wet ceiling tiles. Call in a professional for mold outbreaks that are more than 10 square feet. Smaller outbreaks can be scrubbed with water and detergent. Be sure to don gloves, goggles, and an N95 respirator, available at hardware stores and home centers.

    It’s also a good idea to air out damp parts of the home with a dehumidifier. The $250 Danby DDR60A3GP topped our recommended list of large-capacity dehumidifiers and should handle the toughest situations, including a wet basement. For smaller, less dank areas, consider the $220 Frigidaire FAD504DWD or the $200 Sunpentown SD-31E, both of which aced our tough tests.

    Smelly pets can be another deal breaker. If possible, get them out of the home while it’s on the market. “I had a client who did that with her cats,” says agent Bruce Irving. “They went to summer camp at the neighbor’s.” If that’s not an option, he strongly recommends regular professional cleaning for as long as the home is on the market.

    Certain types of cuisine, including those with heavy spices, leave a lingering smell, so try to keep them off the menu while your house is on the market. And forget the Friday-night fish fry prior to weekend open houses. If your home is showing during nice weather, open the windows beforehand to bring in fresh air. Baking bread or cookies before the open house is an old trick that can be effective, but don’t overdo it with air fresheners and deodorizers because people with allergies could react, plus they might give the impression that you’re trying to hide an underlying problem. Here are some other issues that can kill a sale.

    Cracks in the foundation

    Although hairline cracks in a foundation wall are usually harmless, those wider than 3/16 of an inch can be serious trouble, especially if you notice they’re getting worse over time. Also be on the lookout for bulging or buckling in the wall. Along with expanding cracks, those conditions require the attention of a structural engineer. The longer the problem goes unchecked, the more costly it is likely to be.

    Bouncing bathroom floors

    Hidden water damage is a common problem in bathrooms. Whether the source is a leaky shower pan or a running toilet, excess moisture can cause the floor to become a little spongy over time—something astute buyers, and certainly their home inspector, will pick up on. Even if it costs $1,000 (more if there’s structural damage), correcting the problem can be a smart investment.

    Signs of an infestation

    While you’re inspecting your home’s paint job, take a close look at the baseboards and windows. That’s often where signs of pest infestations can be found. For example, termites often shed wings along windowsills, walls, and other entry points in a home’s exterior. Carpenter ants leave behind piles of sawdust along baseboards. Holes as small as a dime can provide entry for mice.

    More on buying or selling a home

    Top 5 ways to boost the value of your home

    The best ways to finance home repairs

    Real estate agents confess their dirty little secrets

    Home-sale mistakes that cost you money

    This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    4 products on deep discount in February

    You might think that because you faithfully compare prices online before buying, download coupons to your phone, and watch for deep discounts on yesterday's inventory as new models appear in stores, you're getting the best deals you possibly can.

    Still, sales for some products go by the calendar. Consumer Reports' product-research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically discounted most deeply in February. 

    Want to know what's on sale the rest of the year? Check our calendar of deals.

    Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

    The moving hand grips and adjustable resistance on an elliptical machine allow you to turn cardiovascular exercise into a full-body workout.  

    Shopping tips

    Consider your workout intensity The more expensive ellipticals in our Ratings tend to feel more solid, operate more smoothly, and have more features than the under-$1,000 models. You might also get superior ergonomics, a wide range of features, and a more generous warranty.

    Beware of trials A "30-day money-back guarantee" sounds good, but returning the product might not be easy. Some of the machines are heavy or bulky, and you might have to pay for return shipping, which could cost $90 or more. Before signing up for a trial, verify with the company the proper return address and how soon you can expect a refund if you send the device back. A scan of online complaints about home fitness equipment revealed that reported problems with returns, including lack of a valid return address or exorbitant shipping charges, were common.

    Whether you want to shop online or purchase a machine from the store, be sure to try it out in person first. You might notice a problem that you couldn't detect by sight or reviews alone. For more shopping tips and product information, check our elliptical buying guide.

    Furniture is on sale this month because stores need to make way for new lines that will arrive after the spring High Point Market (April 18 to 23 this year).

    Shopping tips

    Where you shop makes a difference. Catalog retailers, for example, have been around for several years, sometimes as an adjunct to a chain of stores. Mass-market retailers, including Ikea, Value City, and Walmart, tend to stress price. Expect a fairly limited fabric selection on upholstered furniture.

    Size up upholstered furniture like an expert. Follow these steps with floor samples and again when the furniture is delivered, to be sure that the piece from the warehouse matches what you saw in the store.

    Find the best furniture stores, and check this interactive guide, which includes details on upholstered furniture, styles, and furniture-care tips. 

    'Tis the season: Find out how you can save on filing your taxes this month.

    A humidifier can relieve itchy eyes, sore throat, and cracked skin by adding moisture to dry, heated air.  

    Shopping tips

    Before you buy, check the features. A humidistat—if it's accurate—can help you maintain relative humidity between the optimal levels of 30 percent to 50 percent.

    Put substance over style. Models resembling a radio can liven up your decor but their output might be too low for the area you need to humidify. Some models with a touch of whimsy, however—like the owl model from Crane (shown)—also delivered on performance.

    Check our humidifer buying guide for more tips on finding the right model in our Ratings. To learn how we test humidifiers in our labs, watch the video below.

    A piece of home exercise equipment can be a big purchase, as our tests of treadmills show. Our top-rated nonfolding treadmill costs a cool $3,800. Spending that much can get you sturdier construction, better hardware, and more features. But you can get a decent machine that provides a great workout for less than a third of that price.

    Shopping tips

    Consider the size. Most treadmills are about 6.5 feet by 3 feet. Folding treadmills are about half the length when folded. Don't assume that because you buy a folding treadmill you'll actually fold and stow it. If that feature is important, try folding the machine before buying to see how easy it is to do and whether folding makes it easier to store. You'll also need adequate space--about two feet on each side and the back--to get on and off safely.

    Think about assembly. A treadmill can weigh up to 400 pounds, so ask about delivery and check whether assembly is included or available at an additional cost. It might be worth it if you're not particularly good with a toolbox. It generally takes our experienced engineers about 1 to 2 hours to put together a treadmill, depending on the number of steps. Lifting heavy parts, adding applying grease, and working on your knees are part of the process. Some of the steps require two people.

    Our treadmill Ratings include dozens of models that we evaluated on construction, ease of use, ergonomics, exercise range, and safety. Our treadmill buying guide has information on different types and brands, features to look for, and other shopping tips.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 top home remodeling trends to watch for in 2015

    The improving housing market made for a robust and energetic 2015 Design and Construction Week, as 125,000 builders, designers, media professionals, and more gathered at the Las Vegas Convention Center for the industry’s largest trade show. Consumer Reports’ team of editors, market analysts, and video producers were on hand to record the hottest trends and coolest products. If you’re thinking about remodeling, about to break ground on a new home, or just curious about the latest and greatest in home design, here’s what you need to know.

    Kitchens go handle-less

    The clean, contemporary look that’s all the rage right now has given rise to what we’re calling the handle-less kitchen. Manufacturers are using various innovations to eliminate handles and pulls from appliances, cabinetry, fixtures, and more, for some of the sleekest, most streamlined designs we’ve seen.

    Miele’s Generation 6000 line of dishwashers, available in April, uses a patented “Knock2Open” technology. Instead of reaching for a lever, you simply knock twice and the dishwasher door swings open. You still have to close the appliance by hand, but the innovation makes for an ultra-clean dishwasher design, especially since all the buttons and controls sit just inside the door. You can also program the door to partially open on its own at the end of the wash cycle to help your dishes dry.

    Elmwood Fine Custom Cabinetry also had several handle-less products on display, including “touch-to-open” coplanar doors that are perfect for a kitchen pantry. The motorized side-by-side doors open and close when you tap gently or use the handheld remote control. This same handle-less technology was found on a set of handsome horizontal glass cabinets from Elmwood. And the manufacturer was pushing its latest channel cabinets, which you open and close by pulling on the recessed opening at the top of the unit.

    German manufacturer Bauformat’s contribution to the handle-less kitchen is called the “Climber” glass cabinet. The custom upper cabinet, available in widths ranging from 24 to 48 inches, opens and closes when you wave your hand across a senor located under the unit. The louvers themselves are controlled by a hardwired mechanism housed in the side of the cabinet. One wave of the hand opens the louvers all the way, while two quick waves open them halfway.    

    Though kitchen faucets still have handles, we’re seeing more models with optional hands-free operation. Moen has expanded its MotionSense line in 2015 to its STō and Align pulldown kitchen faucets, both of which offer sleek, contemporary styling and an advanced ready sensor, which identifies when an object, like a pot or your hand, is under the spout, and runs water for as long as it's there.

    Besides their sleekness and obvious cool factor, these handle-less kitchen products are easier to operate for people of all ages and abilities. Given the aging population—there will be about 72 million elederly people in 2030, more than twice their number in 2000—we expect this trend to only get bigger.      

    Commercial kitchen features coming home

    Appliance manufacturers have always looked to restaurants for inspiration (think steam ovens and pro-style ranges). One of the buzziest adaptations for 2015 is GE’s new Sous Vide Accessory, available on its latest GE Profile, GE Café, and GE Monogram induction cooktops ($1,600 to $2,600).   

    Pronounced “soo-vee,” this cooking method means “under vacuum” in French, basically cooking food in a vacuum-sealed bag in a temperature-controlled bath. GE’s version includes a thermometer that gauges the water bath’s temperature, holding even conditions over a long time. That means your steaks, chicken, salmon, and the like should maintain a velvety texture without overcooking, even if the food is sitting in the water bath for hours.

    Other commercial adaptations seen at the show include blast chillers from Electrolux and Irinox, which restaurants often use to rapidly cool and freeze foods and maintain quality, fragrance, color, and aroma; the True Clear Ice Machine from True Refrigeration that cranks out crystal-clear ice cubes worthy of the finest cocktail lounge; and the Viking Professional TurboChef Double Oven, which claims to brown, sear, roast, and caramelize 15 times faster than conventional ovens.

    Companies answer call for customization

    Personalization and customization were among the show’s biggest buzzwords. Case in point: Thermador’s Freedom Collection of built-in fresh food, freezer, and wine columns that let you “place appliances around the home based on an individual's specific wants and needs,” notes the news release. The tall, narrow appliances are definitely high-end, ranging in price from $4,200 to $8,800. Other premium priced appliances with personalization include pro-style ranges from Dacor and Blue Star, both of which can be finished in the color of your choice.       

    Among entry-level appliances, we liked Frigidaire’s new Gallery top freezer, the first of its kind that lets you choose from 100 different organization systems depending on your needs. It also comes with features not common on top-freezers, including LED lighting and smudgeproof stainless steel.

    Beyond appliances, Wellborn Cabinet Inc. debuted a butcher block island countertop with an electronic lift that provides multiple height workspaces ranging from lower than a standard table up to 42 inches. If your spouse stands a foot taller than you, you can both be comfortable chopping vegetables during meal prep.

    We also saw a lot of personalization in bathrooms, including digital showers from several manufacturers. Kohler’s spa-inspired DTV+ system was perhaps the most customizable, with a touchscreen interface that lets you control every aspect of your showering experience, including water temperature and intensity, steam treatment, lighting, and even sound.

    Growth in outdoor living

    Homeowners continue to see their outdoor living space as an extension of the home. An example of this is the rise of the open fire features, which nearly half of all millennials have in their outdoor space, according to new data unveiled at the show by Better Homes & Gardens. We saw countless freestanding fire pits and built-in fireplaces at the show. One favorite: the Wave Fire Pit from the Outdoor GreatRoom Company, with an inrteresting undulating design.   

    Outdoor pizza ovens are another hot product, especially if you have money to burn. Consumer Reports market analyst Michael DiLauro, our in-house pizza pro, liked the Artisan Fire Pizza Oven by Kalamazoo. He explains why in this video.

    We also saw a lot of building products that provide a seamless transition between indoors and out. NanaWall, a leader in the field of operable walls, is joined by major window manufacturers, including Marvin. Check out its Ultimate Clad Multi‐Slide Door, which can be up to 50-feet wide and 12-feet tall. The door comes either with pocket door panels that disappear into the wall or a stacked‐panel configuration. California-based manufacturer LaCantina also unveiled its line of contemporary clad doors, whose narrow stile and rail profile and concealed locks maximize glass and light.

    Cool stuff to take or leave 

    No trade show would be complete without lots of gizmos and gadgets that toe the line between novelty item and game changer. Take the PureFresh Toilet from Kohler, with a built-in carbon filter that neutralizes odors, plus an integrated fan that directs the filtered air over a scent pack located within the system.

    We also liked the TechTop countertop from LG Hausys, which is basically a wireless charger embedded in countertop material. No more tangled wires taking up space on the kitchen countertop.

    The SnapRays Guidelight, awarded the Overall Best in Show award by the National Association of Home Builders, looks like a standard electrical outlet cover plate, but in fact is an LED nightlight with built-in sensors that turn it on in the dark and off in the light.

    The Haiku with SenseME Technology from Big Ass Fans is the first smart ceiling fan we’ve seen. It turns on and off automatically when you enter and leave the room, adjusts fan speeds according to the room’s temperature, and even learns your comfort preferences, tailoring fan speeds accordingly.

    Lastly, we’d be remiss not to mention the $11,000 coffeemaker seen at the show, called the Top Brewer. The fully connected machine fits under your countertop and is controlled by your smart phone or tablet. All you see is the patented stainless steel tap, which includes, among other things, the smallest milk foamer in the world. The machine even cleans itself automatically after every brew. For that price, it darn well better.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Don't let caked-on ice slow your snow blower

    Unless you’re a skier, poet, or school-age kid, snow is a downright nuisance—especially with back-to-back storms like certain regions of the country are getting this winter. But even if you’re keeping up with your snow blower’s maintenance, there’s an extra chore that, if ignored, could affect how ready you are for the next onslaught. It’s as simple as cleaning your machine after clearing your driveway.

    A little bit of snow left around the auger and snow-blower chute might not be a concern even if you store your snow blower in an unheated garage or shed. But if packed-in snow freezes into a block, you’ll need to chip it out before you can run the snow blower again.

    Your better bet:
    Remove the excess before it freezes. First, run the auger out of snow for several seconds to shake off what you can. Then shut it off. You can use a windshield scraper for breaking off anything caked on though the chute-clearance tool that comes with many models works just as well. If you happen to have one, an air compressor with an air-gun attachment works wonders for this purpose. Be sure to clear excess snow from the chute as well as the auger and, with a two-stage model, the impeller in back.

    Another piece of advice relates to salt from the snow municipal plows leave at the end of driveways. Once temperatures rise enough that ice is less of a concern, turn on your outside water, connect a hose and water down the chute and auger box. (Be sure to let it dry before stowing.) If you store your snow blower without rinsing it off, the salt can promote rust.

    Need a new snow blower?

    You might have to look hard for a new model now, but calling ahead and also trying small outdoor power equipment dealers might do the trick. Our top-scoring gas models include the two-stage, 30-inch Cub Cadet 31AH57S, $1,500, and Ariens 921032, $1,300, the compact, 24-inch two-stage Craftsman 88173, $680, and the single-stage, 21-inch Toro Power Clear 721E, $570. Be sure to check out our snow blower buying guide before checking our snow blower Ratings of more than 110 models.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    The right vacuum for carpets, pets, and bare floors

    No vacuum excels at all types of cleaning— your home’s layout and even décor dictate the type you might need. That will become clear as you get ready for a thorough spring cleaning. Do you have lots of carpet or just bare floors? Drapes or shutters? And it will be especially apparent if you have pets that are leaving little reminders of their winter coats everywhere you look.

    Take carpets. They’re a vacuum’s toughest job and rank highest on many people’s priority lists. Dirt tends to collect and hide in the carpet, and our feet can grind it in. The better bagged uprights, with beefy motors and wide brush rolls, clean the most deeply. But you want them to be maneuverable as well. In our tests, no bagged vacuum that was superb at deep-cleaning carpets was especially easy to handle, but five of the top bagged-upright models we recommend weigh less than 20 pounds. One of the lower-cost picks in our Ratings worth a look: the $150 Hoover WindTunnel T-Series Pet UH30310. It gets superb marks for pet-hair pickup and has a manual adjustment for carpet height. At 17 pounds, it’s also light enough to maneuver easily.  

    If you have few carpets and lots of tile, bare wood, or vinyl flooring, you can get a bagless upright—say, the $260 Shark Rotator Professional Lift-Away NV501—and enjoy easy handling in a lighter-weight vacuum. Other full-sized vacuums might do almost as well for carpets while excelling at bare floors, a relatively easy task.

    A heavy vacuum can be a true liability if you have stairs. The better canisters, led by the bagged Miele S 8590 Marin, $1,000, are heavier than most uprights—but you’re mostly moving just the hose and power head, not the entire machine.

    In addition to our vacuum cleaner Ratings, our brand-repair history lists the percentage of upright and canister vacuums that failed or had a problem that was unresolved. Sometimes you need just a light cleaning before guests show up. For that, see our recommended handheld and stick vacuums. None of them can handle carpet deep cleaning, but they do a decent job.  

      Price range Best for Drawbacks Care tips
    Upright $50-$800 On average, these are the lowest-cost way to deep-clean carpets. Bagged models in particular can deep-clean carpets and rugs, and all offer a wide cleaning swath. Pulling, pushing, and carrying them can be hard, especially on stairs. For maximum airflow with both full-sized types, replace the bag or empty the bin before it’s completely filled.
    Canister $600-$3,000 They’re superior for cleaning curtains, upholstery, and spots beneath furniture. Canisters are also easier on stairs because you move just the hose and powerhead. The top canisters are pricier than comparable uprights. When retracting the cord, routinely letting it snap can weaken the plug. Slow down the motion during the last few feet.
    Stick $30-$200 Quickly picking up dry surface litter anytime you don’t want to or cannot bend. Most don’t pick up as well as hand vacuums, their dirt bin is usually small, and most are noisy. Frequently clean or replace filters, and clean out dirt cup to prevent bacterial growth when using both hand and stick vacs.
    Hand $35-$60 Light, quick surface cleaning on carpets and bare floors, especially in tight spots that you can’t reach with a stick vac. Some can handle pet hair on upholstery. Like stick vacuums, they don’t have much power compared with a full-sized vacuum. With cordless hand and stick vacs, charge the battery according to the owner’s manual for maximum product life.

    Upright vacuum

    Canister vacuum

    Stick vacuum

    Hand vacuum

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

     

    This article also appeared in the February 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    How to take photos that will sell your house

    With nine out of 10 home buyers now using the Internet at some point during their search, it’s no wonder that “Web appeal” has been called the new curb appeal. That puts a premium on the photos that you (or your real estate professional) use in your online property listing. Here are three ways to guarantee the best shots:

    Use the right camera

    You might think your smart phone takes great pictures, but online home buyers aren’t likely to agree. An advanced camera is best for real estate photography because its larger sensor takes clear pictures even in low-light home interiors. That can pay big dividends. In a December 2013 study by online real estate brokerage Redfin, homes listed between $200,000 and $1 million that were shot with DSLR cameras sold for $3,400 to $11,200 more than those photographed with basic point-and-shoot cameras.

    Tip. Consumer Reports’ top-rated SLR camera, the Canon EOS Rebel T5i, $750, takes great photos with crisp detail, even in dimly lit rooms.

    Tell the whole story

    Buyers pay more attention to photos than the actual property description in the listing, so it’s important to provide every visual detail. Include photos of each room, as well as the exterior and yard. And take close-ups of interesting features, such as a stone fireplace or high-end appliance. Natural light is always best, so you may need several days to capture every shot.

    Time it right

    It’s best to debut a listing on Thursday or Friday, ahead of the weekend open houses. Make sure you have all of the pieces in place before going live because listings get 4.5 times more traffic in the first week than they do a month later. Some sellers (and agents, too) make the mistake of debuting a listing without the photos, thinking they’ll upload them later. By that time, many would-be buyers will have moved on.

    More on selling or buying a home

    Top 5 ways to boost the value of your home

    4 red flags that can ruin a home sale

    The best ways to finance home repairs

    Real estate agents confess their dirty little secrets

    Home-sale mistakes that cost you money

    Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Early February is a good time to buy flood insurance

    Punxsutawney Phil made it official on Groundhog Day 2015: We're in for 6 more weeks of winter. But while it might be hard to look beyond the shoveling and snow blowing—and buying snow tires—it won't be long before the thaw arrives. And with that thaw can come flooding. 

    That makes early February an ideal time to purchase national flood insurance. The coverage requires a 30-day waiting period before it's activated. 

    In fact, floods don't always wait for spring. As FloodSmart.gov, the Federal Emergency Management Agency website promoting national flood insurance, notes, floods can occur because the ground is frozen and snow melt or rain has nowhere to go but inside your home (in particular the basement). It can happen in newly developed areas, where new roads reduce water absorption into the soil. 

    FloodSmart.gov estimates that nearly 20 percent of flood claims originate in areas deemed "moderate" or "low" risk. So regardless of your living situation, flood insurance is often worth buying.

    Our Insurance Center has advice on saving money on homeowners insurance and details on other types of coverage.

    You can purchase flood insurance from a private insurance company or from the National Flood Insurance Program. Not too many private insurers offer their own flood insurance. However, you can buy national flood insurance, backed by the federal government, through most agents that sell homeowners insurance.

    Flood coverage is capped at $250,000 per dwelling and $100,000 for contents. The insurance also pays for debris removal. There are eligibility requirements, however, and numerous exclusions. You can get an estimate of your premium at FloodSmart.gov; just fill out the red box on the right-hand side.

    For more on homeowners insurance issues, check our homeowners insurance page, which includes a buying guide and Ratings of major insurers.

    Tobie Stanger (@TobieStanger on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Washers and dryers that save effort and energy

    Do you know any laundry enthusiasts? Unlike cooking, washing and folding laundry isn’t fun—no matter how you spin it—but when your washer breaks and dirty laundry piles up, you quickly appreciate a machine that gets the job done.

    Front-loaders and high-efficiency top-loaders clean best, while using less water, yet agitator washers remain the best sellers because they’re usually cheaper and faster. Tougher federal standards requiring all washers to use even less water and energy kick in in March 2015. Consmer Reports is starting to test those models and will soon report on performance and any changes in wash times. The first Energy Star-qualified dryers are in stores now. You can see our take on them below.

    As for prices, the best washers and dryers we’ve tested are often the most expensive, though we’ve found impressive pairs for less. You don’t have to buy them as a set. If you want to, you’ll know they’re a couple when some of the same numbers pop up in the model name.

    Get the most from your washer

    Here’s how to improve the performance of your high-­efficiency top- or front-loader.

    Sort. Washer capacities have gotten much bigger, and some can hold 25 pounds or more, but you still have to sort. Mixing fabrics, colors, and really dirty items with the not-so-dirty can mean mediocre or even disastrous results—using the delicate setting to wash delicates with heavier fabrics can damage fine items and do a poor job cleaning heavier fabrics. So fully load the washer with similar items, but don’t pack tightly.

    Load handfuls at a time. Minimize tangling by washing similar items together. Rather than dumping everything into the machine at once, add a few items at a time, making sure to un-bunch sleeves, pants legs, and socks.

    Adjust soil setting. Some washers aren’t so gentle on fabrics, so use the normal wash on the light-soil setting when possible and the delicate cycle when necessary.

    Change the spin speed. High- efficiency (HE) top-loaders and front-loaders spin much faster than agitator top-loaders, so more water is extracted and dryer time is cut. If wrinkling is a problem, be sure to untangle and shake out items before you put them in the dryer. For dress shirts and other items where wrinkling is a no-no, reduce the washer’s spin speed or pick a cycle such as permanent press, which usually uses lower speeds. Add a slightly dampened cloth for good measure.

    Check the manual. If you need to wash a shower curtain or other waterproof item, first read your manual. Some HE top-loaders can’t handle those items because they increase the chance of loads becoming unbalanced, which can cause excessive shaking and damage the machine.

    Top washer picks

    Dryers get more energy efficient

    You may have seen the Energy Star label on dryers—for the first time—and wondered what it means. Many washers we test are Energy Star qualified; some dryers are earning that mark, too. Manufacturers can manipulate wash time, hot water usage, and spin speeds for better extraction and still deliver impressive cleaning—with better energy use and water efficiency. But with dryers there are fewer variables to play with—mostly it’s drying time and the amount of heat.

    We tested seven electric Energy Star dryers, from LG, Maytag, and Whirlpool. All were excellent at drying and quiet or at least relatively quiet. But they didn’t make our list of top dryer picks. Our tests found that you’ll save some energy using the energy-saving option, but you’ll extend the drying time, in some cases doubling it. The $950 Whirlpool Duet WED87HEDW, for example, took about 2 hours to dry our 12-pound load of cottons using EcoBoost. Energy Star says you can expect to save about $20 per year in electricity with an Energy Star dryer.

    Top dryer picks

    —Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Pick the right toilet and toilet paper

    You can spend $100 for a new toilet or several times that. Consumer Reports’ latest tests of more than 30 toilets included single-flush models, which use the same amount of water with each flush, and dual-flush toilets, which let you use less water for liquid waste. Here are the details.

    Inexpensive and effective

    The  Glacier Bay N2428E, $100, is a Home Depot exclusive that performs as well as far pricier models. Available at Lowe’s, the Aquasource AT1203-00, $100 and a CR Best Buy, uses 1.28 gallons per flush, and the use of less water doesn’t result in drainline clogs. Choose the Glacier Bay Dual Flush N2316, $100, exclusive to Home Depot, if you seek water efficiency and think it will appeal to potential home buyers; the dual-flush model uses just 1.1 gallons per flush in its liquid-flush mode.

    Best for long-term value

    The American Standard Champion 4 Max 2586.128ST.020, $240, and Delta Riosa C43906, $270, are both comfort-height toilets that handle solid waste despite using just 1.28 gallons per flush. The American Standard is better at resisting clogs and odor. Paying more for the Kohler Highline Classic K-3493, $425, gets you a pressure-assisted toilet whose powerful (but very loud) flush can be helpful in large households.

    Top toilet paper

    Combine a top-performing toilet with one of our top toilet papers and you’ll likely lessen your chance of clogging the pipes. Our best toilets clear the drain line on one flush and the top toilet papers in our tests disintegrate more quickly than others.  Our top-scoring toilet paper is Walmart’s White Cloud 3-Ply Ultra, 25 cents for 100 sheets. In our tests, it got excellent marks for both strength and softness and was also excellent at disintegrating. It’s a CR Best Buy. Joining White Cloud on the recommended list is Charmin Ultra Strong, 41 cents for 100 sheets. It was very good in our tests for strength, softness, and disintegration.

    —Ed Perratore (@edperratore on Twitter)

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    Is it time to buy a robotic vacuum?

    In Consumer Reports' tests of robotic vacuums, none of the $400-$800 models has ever cleaned much better than a stick vacuum that costs hundreds less. But the notion of going about other tasks—or even napping on the couch—while vacuuming the floor has a cachet even for those of us who'd never buy one. Here’s an early rundown of a few models currently being tested in our labs:

    iRobot Roomba 880

    The iRobot Roomba 760 was the top performer in our last tests of robotic vacuums, and the manufacturer has made a number of changes since then. Along with a claimed five times more suction than previous generations of the Roomba, the iRobot Roomba 880, $700, uses no brushes for its primary pickup. Instead, it uses dual “extractors”—essentially ridged rollers that turn in opposing directions—to draw dust and debris upward toward the sealed, HEPA-filtered bin. We’ll see how well it works against clinging pet hair along with other materials we distribute across the bare floor and carpet we use in our tests.

    Ecovacs Deebot D77

    The Ecovacs Deebot D77, $700, has a few features we found unique to the batch we’re currently testing. For one, its base hosts a removable canister that acts as a repository for what the Deebot vacuums up. (The manufacturer claims it empties itself upon returning to the base.) The lightweight canister is a vacuum unto itself and can be used wherever the Deebot can’t go—and comes with 12 attachments, including an extendible wand. Ecovacs also says that its side brushes are longer than those of other robotic vacuums for more effective edge cleaning, but stay tuned.

    iClebo Arte YCR-M05

    The iClebo Arte YCR-M05, $450 from Yujin Robot, is the only robotic vauum in our test batch that can wet-mop a bare floor as well as vacuum—without the need to remove the vacuum’s brush before installing the microfiber pad. It isn’t Wi-Fi enabled like its sibling iClebo Smart, but so far we like this model. Among claims are that it has the shortest charging time at less than two hours. But as with all such statements, we'll let you know what measures up in testing.

    Need a new vacuum?

    There are other robotic vacuums on the horizon, including models from Dyson, Samsung, and LG, and we plan to buy them for testing as well. Need another type of vacuum? For routine deep-cleaning of carpets, no robotic, regardless of price, can serve as a replacement for a full-sized upright or canister. Stick and hand-held vacuums have their place as well. For more details, read our vacuum buying guide and check our Ratings of more than 140 vacuums.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    What to know when buying a cooktop and wall oven

    Swapping a range for a cooktop and wall oven can be appealing. The look is sleek and modern and you have some flexibility where you install the appliances. You can place the wall oven at a height that works for you making it easier to reach in and eliminating bending. But the cooktop-wall oven combination is more expensive than most ranges, so here’s what you’ll want to consider.  

    Fuel

    What are your options? Consumer Reports tests electric wall ovens as they’re the most popular. Our cooktop tests found that both electric and gas are capable of delivering fine performance, but the highest scores go to induction and smoothop cooktops.
    Electric: Electric elements tend to heat faster and maintain low heat better than gas burners. Smoothtop models are more common than induction. Induction uses an electromagnetic field to heat pans directly, offering precise simmering and control and, in our tests, heated a large pot of water 20 to 25 percent faster than smoothtops.
    Gas: If you prefer gas, we get it. The gas flame makes it easier to judge the heat, to get a feel for it, and you can quickly move from a high setting to low. And with most burners you can strike a match to light them when your power is out.

    Size

    The size of your kitchen and layout come into play.
    Cooktops: Electric cooktops are typically 30 inches, while gas cooktops are often 36 inches wide. But you’ll find models 21 to 48 inches wide. Some cooktops have five or even six burners but that doesn’t mean you can fit all those pans at once. Put your cookware in reach by adding storage below the cooktop.
    Wall ovens: Most are 30 inches wide—that’s what you’ll see in our Ratings—but you’ll see 24, 27, and for higher-end models, 36 inch wall ovens. And while older wall ovens had smaller capacities, new models have usable space that’s comparable to a range.

    Cost

    Induction cooktops are usually the most expensive and of course the wider the cooktop the more it costs. Double wall ovens increase the price; they’re not twice as much as a single oven, but expensive enough that you have to ask if you’ll put them to full use.
    Electric cooktops: The 30-inch smoothtops in our tests cost $640 to $1,500, while 36-inch are $830 to $2,200. Induction models 30-inches wide are $1,200 to $2,300, and the 36-inch are $2,100 to $5,000. Yes, $5,000. But check it out for its cool factor. It’s the Thermador CIT36XKB and a top pick.
    Gas cooktops: The 30-inch are around $1,200 and the 36-inch are $560 to $2,200.
    Single wall oven: We tested models that cost $1,000 to $4,000.
    Double wall oven: $1,700 to $6,300 (for example, the Wolf DO30-SF/S).

    Features

    Think about how you cook and how often you host parties.
    Cooktops: You’ll want at least one high-power element or burner on your cooktop. They’re good for searing, stir-frying, and quickly bringing water to a boil.
    Wall ovens: All of the wall ovens in our tests are self-cleaning, some much better than others. More wall ovens have a large window. It lets you keep an eye on the food without opening the door. Convection cuts oven time for some foods, such as roasts, but you’ll pay more for this feature. Temperature probes and remote control also add to the price.

    Reliability

    Cooktops: Jenn-Air is among the less reliable brands of electric cooktops. For gas cooktops Bosch is one of the more reliable brands while KitchenAid is the least reliable brand. That’s what we found when we asked more than 6,000 readers who bought an electric or gas cooktop between 2011 and 2014 about their experiences. See our brand reliability to find out more.
    Wall ovens: GE is among the more reliable brands of electric wall ovens. That's what we found when we asked more than 9,600 readers who bought an electric wall oven between 2010 and 2014 about their experiences. Check out the brand reliability graph.

    Top cooktops and wall ovens

    30-inch smoothtops
    KitchenAid KECC604BBL, $900
    Maytag MEC7430WS, $700
    Kenmore 44273, $1,150
    Frigidaire Professional FPEC3085KS, $950
    GE Café CP350STSS, $1,200

    36-inch gas cooktop
    Thermador SGSX365FS, $1,900
    GE Monogram ZGU385NSMSS, $1,400
    Viking VGC5366BSS, $2,200
    LG LSCG366ST, $1,300
    Bosch NGM8654UC, $1,200

    Single wall ovens
    Whirlpool WOS92EC0AH, $1,500
    Maytag MEW9530AW, $1,400
    GE PT9050SFSS, $2,600
    Bosch HBL5450UC, $1,900

    Our Ratings of cooktops and wall ovens, single and double oven, give you all the details and let you compare models. Be sure to check the brand reliability and user reviews too, and if you still have questions e-mail me at kjaneway@consumer.org.

    Kimberly Janeway

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 ways to achieve your fitness goals

    Whether you’re just starting an exercise program or you want to switch up your routine, you need to be smart about it. And we don’t just mean picking the best activity, choosing the right home exercise equipment, or taking precautions to prevent injuries. An organized and comprehensive strategy is required. The acronym SMART—Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-based—was created to define the steps needed for successful goal setting. Though originally developed for use in business, the SMART approach can help you reach any objective. Here’s how to be SMART about your fitness goals. 

    Be specific

    Saying “I want to get in better shape” is way too general. You need to dig deeper to find your true motivation. Are you trying to address an underlying health issue, such as diabetes or lower-back pain? Maybe you’re preparing for the company softball season so that you can run faster down the first base line. Whatever it may be, a clearly stated goal will help you establish the steps necessary for success.     

    Measure up

    Assigning a number to your goal is the best way to make it measurable. For example, select a specific amount of weight you’d like to lose or a distance you want to walk or run. Technology makes this easier than ever. Many treadmills and ellipticals from Consumer Reports' tests work with apps that let you create specific training programs and track your progress. Activity monitors and pedometers can also be helpful.  

    Make it achievable

    Create interim goals so that you’ll be able to celebrate small successes along the way to the big prize. If you’re trying to lose 20 pounds for a wedding that’s a few months out, dropping a couple pounds a week is reasonable. Dreaming about running a marathon is nice, but if you’ve been a couch potato for a long time, think more modestly, say first running a 5K, then a 10K, then a half marathon, and so on.  

    Keep the goals relevant

    Exercise can take many forms, and they don’t all deliver the same results. To use the marathon example above, completing a 5K is clearly relevant to this endurance-based objective, but explosive or power-based activities, like power lifting or plyometrics, would be off track. Ensuring that each step you take is relevant to the next will eliminate distractions and keep you focused on your ultimate goal. 

    Time it

    Giving yourself two months to lose ten pounds or four weeks to jog non-stop for a mile sets a firm deadline, so that the pursuit of your goal does not become an endless endeavor. Your success can be celebrated at the end of your timeline, or if you’ve fallen short, you can learn from the experience, adjust your plan, and establish a new, more realistic goal.

    Bonus tip

    Keep going! Goals are a great way to initiate healthy lifestyle changes. But you don’t want revert to old ways once you’ve reached them. Use the successful completion of each goal as inspiration to create a new one. Keep the goals intrinsically rewarding. Sure, it’s nice to get compliments on your healthy appearance from family and friends, but knowing that you’re taking care of your body and mind is the best motivator for sustaining healthy habits.

    Top exercise gear in Consumer Reports’ tests

    Our fitness experts test treadmills, ellipticals, rowing machines, and stationary bikes. Here are the top models from our latest tests. Read "Find a workout regimen that works for you" for advice on determining the best equipment for your needs.

    Non-folding treadmill: Landice L7 Cardio Trainer, $3,800
    Folding treadmill: ProForm Pro 2000, $1,250
    Budget treadmill: NordicTrack C970 Pro, $1,000
    Elliptical with heart-rate program: Diamondback 1260 Ef, $2,200
    Elliptical without heart-rate program: Landice E7 Pro Sport, $3,600
    Rowing machine: Concept2 Model D, $900
    Spin bike: Diamondback 510ic, $800
    Step-count pedometer: Mio TRACE ACC-TEK, $30
    GPS watch pedometer: Nike +SportWatch GPS, $200

    —Peter Anzalone, Senior Project Leader, Fitness

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    5 little problems that can stop a snow blower

    Watching from inside as snow piles up doesn’t instill dread for anyone with a snow blower that’s up to the task. Such confidence, though, could quickly turn to misery. All it takes is for one of several little things to go wrong. You can’t keep them from happening. Still, you can improve the odds of a mishap putting your snow blower out of commission just when you need it.

    Check the pull cord

    Gas-powered models with electric start have a pull cord only as a backup. But if your model lacks the easy starting, your pull cord will get much more use and might snap at a critical point—say, when you’re about to clear snow after a blizzard. Replacing it isn’t easy, but doing so can prevent hours of shoveling. When no snow is forecast, pull the cord out slowly and look for signs of fraying. If you see any, take the machine in to be serviced and with luck you'll have it back from the shop before the next storm.

    Keep a spare belt on hand

    Any gas-powered snow blower uses at least one belt. They can be hard to replace when your hands are cold, but the greater challenge is having the foresight to order an extra or two before you need them. If one breaks while you’re clearing snow and you don’t have a spare, you’re out of business until you either buy a new one or take your snow blower to the shop.

    Avoid a cable outage

    Snow blowers use numerous cables that run between the control panel and the chute, the transmission, or another component. While these don’t typically break, one could go slack from tight maneuvering near shrubs or something else that catches on the cable. You’ll know it when the control no longer works: A chute won’t adjust as intended or a dual-stage model’s speed control won’t change speeds or direction. The fix? Locate the cable, which is sometimes located within a cover you’d need to unbolt, and adjust it until the control works.

    Adjust the tire pressure

    When you first buy a two-stage, gas-powered, snow blower, the tires sometimes come overinflated to reduce shipping damage. (The manual will specify the proper pounds per square inch.) But if they’re underinflated, which can occur over time, you’ll work harder to maneuver the machine and notice less traction. And if just one tire is deflated, the snow blower may lean a bit to one side. More obvious, though, are both the scraping of one bottom corner of the auger box, on the side with the deflated tire, and the corresponding line of uncleared snow that slips beneath the auger box on the other side.

    Stock up on shear pins

    The telltale sign of a broken shear pin is when one half of a gas-powered, dual-stage machine’s auger suddenly isn’t turning; it’s pushing snow instead. What's happened? Such models have a transmission to drive the auger. To protect it from overworking (say, when up against a dense, compacted plow pile), the shaft of the auger has shear pins, little bolts that are weak enough to break instead, usually halting one half of the auger’s rotation. They’ll also corrode on their own over time. Again, keep extras around that are meant for your model. It’s a quick task to tap out the snapped one and push a new one through before you secure it. But whatever you do, don’t permanently install a bolt and nut—you’ll be putting your transmission at risk since the bolts are not meant to break.

    Need a new snow blower?

    Snow blowers are being cleared out of home centers and most other sellers as mowers and grills increasingly take up floor space. So call ahead about a model you’re looking for; first check out our snow blower buying guide and our Ratings of more than 110 snow blowers. Top-scoring gas models include the two-stage, 30-inch Cub Cadet 31AH57S, $1,500, and Ariens 921032, $1,300, the compact, 24-inch two-stage Craftsman 88173, $680, and the single-stage, 21-inch Toro Power Clear 721E, $570.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

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    As LED prices drop, it's time to make the switch

    New Englanders can brag about their fall foliage. New Yorkers have plenty to boast about too, and we will, given a chance—same for Californians. And is there anything not to like about Hawaii? The one thing they all have in common, along with Alaska and a few other states, is their electricity is more expensive than other parts of the country, according to the Department of Energy. LED lightbulbs are one way to trim your electric bills. Here’s a look at some of the best from Consumer Reports’ tests.

    LEDs use about 80 to 85 percent less electricity than the incandescent bulbs they replace. Even so, when LEDs were $50 a bulb not long ago it took years to earn back the money you spent on an LED. But now you’ll find LEDs for $10 and less, and as more LEDs earn the Energy Star it becomes easier to snag utility rebates. The lower the LED price, the faster you earn back the money you spent by saving on electricity. And since LEDs are claimed to last around 23 years and longer, you won’t be buying bulbs as frequently.

    Let’s say you’re lucky enough to live where electricity costs around 12 cents per kilowatt, the national average. Replace a 60-watt incandescent, the kind you put in lamps, with an LED and over its claimed life of 23 years you could save about $156 in energy and lightbulbs. That’s based on using it 3 hours a day. If you paid $9 for the LED you’ll earn back that money in 15 months. After that, you’re saving money. A BR30 LED, the type you use in recessed fixtures, that replaces a 65-watt incandescent would save you about $180 over its 23 year claimed life, and at $10 takes about 13 months to pay for. After that, you’re in the black.

    LEDs usually don’t burn out; they dim over time. The claimed life you see on the box is an estimate of when brightness will decrease by 30 percent. Some LEDs are supposed to be bright enough to be useful for almost 23 years when on 3 hours per day. But save your receipts. Energy Star LEDs must have at least a three-year warranty, and we’ve seen five- and 10-year warranties.

    Some top-pick LEDs to consider

    60-watt A19 replacements (used in lamps and other general purpose fixtures)
    Feit Electric A19/OM/800/LED, $9
    Philips A19 11W 60W Soft White 424382, $12
    Great Value (Walmart) 60W Soft White A19 Dimmable LED, $10
    Cree 9.5-Watt (60W) A19 Warm White Dimmable LED, $8.50

    65-75-watt BR30 replacements (ideal for recessed and track lighting)
    Great Value (Walmart) 65W BR30 Soft White Dimmable LED, $11
    Utilitech 13-Watt (75W) BR30 Soft White Outdoor Flood (Lowe’s), $12
    Feit Electric BR30 Dimmable LED, $9
    MaxLite 10 Watt BR30, $11

    For more choices, check our lightbulb Ratings. They tell you how bright a bulb is and what color light it casts. You’ll see what the claimed life is and whether the bulb is good at casting light in all directions, if that’s what it’s supposed to do. We tell you if the LED is dimmable and more. You’ll also see CFLs in the Ratings. For more information, read, "How to find an LED lightbulb that fits your fixture."

    Kimberly Janeway  

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    What causes nosebleeds in winter?

    Q. Why do I keep getting nosebleeds during the winter?

    A. In parts of the country where wintertime means alternately braving frigid winds and then huddling inside for warmth, nosebleeds are a common seasonal annoyance.

    The biggest cause of winter nosebleeds is low humidity, both in cold outdoor air and heated indoor air, which can cause the delicate membrane lining nasal passages to become dry and cracked. Then all it takes is a cough, a sneeze, a sharp fingernail, or blowing your nose to rupture tiny blood vessels just below the surface. If you're using a steroid nasal spray or taking a blood thinner those may raise the risk even more.

    To stop a nosebleed, first blow your nose gently, then lightly pinch the nostrils together for 10 to 15 minutes. Sit or stand bent slightly forward, so you don’t swallow blood, and breathe through the mouth. Applying a cold compress or an ice pack across the bridge of the nose may help slow the bleeding. Do not lie down or tip the head back and do not stuff the nostrils with gauze. If the bleeding doesn't stop after 20 minutes, seek emergency care.

    To prevent frequent gushers, you can try placing a humidifier in your bedroom. Using a nasal saline spray or water-soluble gel to moisturize the inside of the nose may also help. If you have a cold, wiping the nose gently with a tissue instead of forcibly blowing out may keep blood vessels from bursting.

    Get advice on buying a humidifer and view our Ratings.

    A version of this article also appeared in the February 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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    Is there an LED bulb that works like a 3-way incandescent?

    Q. Every lamp in my house uses a 3-way incandescent bulb; sometimes you just don’t need more light. I’d like to convert to LED/CFL bulbs, but there don’t seem to be any that will fit a standard lamp with a 3-way switch. Anything on the horizon?—Vicki Christensen, Apollo Beach, FL

    A. Early last year we tested three versions of 3-way LED bulbs (one manufactured by Switch, and two from Lowe’s sold under the Utilitech PRO store brand). Our conclusion is that it’s best to continue using incandescent versions of 3-ways until the LED prices come down. Each LED bulb costs $20 to $55; the incandescent 3-way bulbs were $2.60 to $4. That said, you could try 3-way CFL bulbs for $10 to $12, which have been available for many years.

    For more on lightbulbs, check our buying guide and Ratings.  

    Send your questions to ConsumerReports.org/askourexperts.

    This article also appeared in the March 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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    Paints that cover in one coat and last for years

    A fresh coat of paint is the quickest way to transform a room. If you’re selling your home, you need an inexpensive paint that freshens up a room in one coat. Buyers, and homeowners sprucing up for the longer haul, need paint that can also withstand stains, scrubbing, mildew, and the test of time. Here are some paint picks for each situation  from the experts at Consumer Reports.

    Cheap but effective

    You’ll save by buying 5-gallon containers. Use flat paint on badly damaged surfaces because it’s best at hiding imperfections, and its no-sheen finish serves as a blank canvas for buyers. We like Valspar Ultra, $29, sold at Lowe’s; Behr Premium Plus Enamel, $28, sold at Home Depot; Ace Royal Interiors, $27, and Glidden High Endurance Plus, $24, sold at Walmart. All but Ace Royal Interiors are self-priming and impressive at hiding old paint in one coat. Behr Premium Plus Enamel left the smoothest finish; Glidden High Endurance Plus, the roughest.

    Best for long-term value

    Use satin or eggshell finish for most walls and trim because they’re best at fighting stains and withstanding scrubbing. Flat paints are the least stain resistant, so they aren’t great for kitchens, hallways, or kids’ bedrooms. Behr Premium Plus Ultra, $34, sold at Home Depot; Clark+Kensington Enamel, $32, sold at Ace; and Valspar Signature, $34, from Lowe’s are all self-priming and better than most at resisting mildew, sticking, and fading, making them ideal for sunny rooms. Behr Premium Plus Ultra was the best at hiding old paint and maintained its sheen after cleaning. And Behr Premium Plus Ultra  and Clark+Kensington Enamel left smoother finishes than Valspar Signature.

    —Kimberly Janeway

    More on buying or selling a home

    Top 5 ways to boost the value of your home

    4 red flags that can ruin a home sale

    The best ways to finance home repairs

    Real estate agents confess their dirty little secrets

    Home-sale mistakes that cost you money

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    Have the new tankless water heaters improved?

    Tankless water heaters have always been full of promise. By heating water only when you need it, the suitcase-sized units could potentially save homeowners lots of energy and a bit of storage space, plus the endless hot water supply meant no more cold showers. But our first tests of tankless water heaters back in 2008 found that they didn’t always deliver, especially when they were replacing an existing conventional water heater. Between their steep upfront costs, complicated installations, and inconsistent water temperatures, thankless water heaters was more like it.   

    Manufacturers haven't given up on the technology, however. And their commitment might just be starting to pay off. Many of the tankless water heaters on display at the recent Design & Construction Week trade show claim to address those early growing pains. Here are the most common past problems, and how this latest generation of tankless water heaters is addressing them. We'll find out if the promises are for real when we get the units into our labs for testing.  

    Problem: Installation was often complicated—and costly

    Solution: Improved designs promise to make it easier to switch from a conventional tanked unit to a tankless one. The manufacturer Noritz, for example, is positioning the input and output waterlines at the top of its units, instead of at the bottom, which used to be the norm. That mirrors the location of the lines on tanked units, simplifying the retrofit. Noritz also has a flexible exhaust pipe with a proprietary adaptor that allows it to be connected to existing ductwork more easily than the standard PVC piping.

    Several manufacturers are also saying that their new tankless water heaters will work with existing 1/2-inch gas lines. That wasn't common when we last tested the units, and it should make retrofit installations easier and less expensive    

    Problem: Inconsistent water temperatures 

    Solution: Manufacturers have also tackled this issue. Rinnai, for example, has added a recirculation pump to its units to ensure that water comes out hot from the start and stays that way for as long as it's running. Korean manufacturer Navien goes one step further by including a buffer tank on certain models that stores a ready supply of hot water. That eliminates the cold-water sandwich and ensures consistent temperatures. 

    Problem: Constant maintenance was required

    Solution: During our last long-term testing, scale buildup was a big concern, since it could decrease efficiency, restrict water flow, and eventually damage tankless models. In homes with hard water, installing a water softener was recommended, which added to the upfront costs. Rinnai has addressed this issue by developing isolation valves that make routine maintenance and descaling the unit easier.

    Possible drawbacks

    Even with these innovations, tankless water heaters aren’t for everyone. For example, if your current water heater is electric and you don’t have natural gas or propane capability, a tankless model might not make sense because you’d almost need to double the capacity of your electrical system to power the electric tankless unit. Also, if you live in an area with extremely cold incoming ground water, you’d need a very large capacity tankless unit, and maybe even multiple units, to get the water hot enough—and that might not be practical.

    Otherwise, today’s tankless water heaters could be worth a look. We’ll find out for sure when we buy some of the newest units and bring them into our labs for testing.

    —Daniel DiClerico (@dandiclerico on Twitter) 

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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    When buying a mattress, check the return policy

    At Consumer Reports we have traditionally advised you to try any mattress you’re considering buying by lying on it for at least 10 minutes on each side, your back, and your stomach if that’s how you sleep. And when we asked subscribers if they had taken our advice, more than 80 percent said they had and that they were satisfied with their purchase. But then they told us that there was something that trumped trying the mattress in the store and that was the return policy.

    While trying out a mattress is key, more and more of the to-go places to buy a mattress aren’t a local department store or national chain. Warehouse clubs such as Costco, which sells the Novaform Memory Foam Collection Serafina 14", a top-scoring mattress in our mattress tests, tend to display mattresses standing up—not on a frame with a foundation. If you buy a mattress online, the very notion of trying it out is moot. And even with a store where mattresses are arranged to allow for sampling, how you feel after a tryout might not match how you feel after a full night’s sleep.

    That’s why the return policy is paramount. Retailers tend to agree that it takes about 30 days for your body to adjust to a new mattress, which is why you often get at least that period to decide on a return or exchange. But some policies are more generous than others. Here are the details you need to know before you settle on the purchase itself:

    • How long can you keep the bed before notifying the seller if you’re dissatisfied?
    • How long after that do you have to arrange a return or exchange?
    • Can return the mattress for a refund, or just an exchange (or store credit)?
    • Do you need to repackage the mattress in the case of a return or exchange (many foam beds, for instance, are machine-folded into a box)?
    • Who pays shipping for a returned mattress—and can you return it yourself?
    • How much is any “restocking” or similar fee (often a percentage of the price)?

    In past Consumer Reports surveys, almost 40 percent of our subscribers with regrets wished they had done more research. So consider yourself warned. We’ll soon be adding more models to our mattress Ratings, which should help in pre-selecting a mattress that is tops in back and side support, among other factors. And be sure to see our mattress buying guide before narrowing down your choices.

    —Ed Perratore (@EdPerratore on Twitter)

    Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this website. Copyright © 2006-2015 Consumers Union of U.S.

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