How to Conduct Your Own Energy Audit

Wind energyFall-ish temps have moved into Iowa the last few weeks, which means winter is not all that far behind. What else does it mean?…..It’s time for an energy audit so you can save energy yet still stay warm throughout the colder months.

While some energy companies may perform an energy audit free of charge we recommend a DIY energy audit as a great place to start.

The main reasons to conduct an energy audit yourself is to save money, but also to give you a hands-on experience in your energy usage so even if you do hire a company for an audit you’ll better understand the auditor’s evaluation and recommendations. As well once you’ve conducted your own audit, you’ll be more prepared to talk to a professional so you can ensure your home has a thorough audit.

Things You Must Include in a DIY Home Energy Audit

  • First start with the ENERGY STAR Home Energy Yardstick and compare your home’s energy efficiency to other similar homes and get recommendations from ENERGY STAR.
  • Walk through the home and make a list of potential energy wasting problems (air leaks around windows or doors, insufficient insulation, etc.). Record your findings in a notebook or on a tablet or smartphone. Use this DIY energy audit guide to help you.
  • Evaluate the condition of the home’s furnace. Change the filter, if needed, and make sure it’s cleaned and serviced by a professional once a year. If the furnace is over 15 years old, it may be time to replace it for a newer more energy-efficient model.
  • One of the most important aspects of a DIY energy audit include checking around windows, doors, baseboards, outlets and other areas for air leaks, and verifying that weatherstripping is undamaged. Also don’t skip an inspection of the attic insulation. The Department of Energy has a guide which will help you understand how to inspect it and how to check its depth and R-value.
  • Replace light bulbs, shower heads and old appliances with energy-saving options.

Should You Hire a Professional?

You can pay a professional Home Energy Auditor to conduct an energy audit as well. A professional auditor uses more precise equipment to perform a thorough audit, including using blower doors to measure the extent of leaks or using infrared cameras to better reveal leaks and missing insulation. A professional audit may cost $300 to $500, but contact your local energy utility to see if they offer discounts. To find a certified Home Energy Rater, visit the ENERGY STAR for Homes Partner Locator.

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Is Multigenerational Living Right For Your Family?

for-reading-813666_1280The idea of several generations living in the same home is not a new idea. In fact, in 1900 about 57% of the older population lived with extended family. Historically, it’s actually more unusual for families NOT to live together. The recession, economic hardships and maybe a respect for simpler times has caused a resurgence of multigenerational living. People living in multigenerational housing has doubled since 1980, with a sharper increase after the 2009 recession, according to the Pew Research Center.

A multigenerational home includes several rooms to accommodate sets of adults from different generations living in the same home. Such homes may include an in-law suite or a private apartment. Or the home may contain a converted basement or an attic, or even a separate (often smaller) home – think of a pool house or a carriage house! Some of these spaces may contain their own kitchens or laundry rooms, a separate entrance, yet in other instances the adults may have shared spaces.

While it’s common for elderly parents to move in with their children, it’s just as common for adult children to move back in with their parents. There are financial incentives for all in a multigenerational living situation, but families also benefit by having familial support (i.e. grandparents to help with childcare responsibilities, caring for aging/ill parents, etc.).

Home builders, including J. Thompson Builders, have been increasing the amount of homes they build with multigenerational features. The added cost of additional square footage and rooms is usually less expensive than what one might spend on an assisted living facility or living in another home.

In 2011 we transformed our basement into a mother-in-law suite. You can see more about that project here, including a video showing our work. Parallel to the concept of multigenerational living is accessible living – or aging in place as it’s also called – because it makes it more practical for everyone to live together if the home is accessible to all. We have several custom home plans which offer accessibility features. We’ve also written other blogs on the topic if you’d like to learn more about accessible living. Check out Making Your Home Safer…For Years to Come and Top 5 Home Improvements Your Home Needs to Make It Accessible.

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Things to Know When Buying a Vacation Home

boat-house-vacation-homeWith summer in full swing, and for those of you who enjoy the heat, you may be dreading the impending colder, snowy weather and wondering how you can lengthen your days in the sun. A vacation home is one such way, yet it’s also not limited to those who want a warmer place to retreat during the winter months. Some choose to buy a vacation home based on its remote location, as a place to get away, or because the home’s location offers recreational activities such as hunting or golfing.

Whatever your reasons for considering purchasing a vacation home, consider these things before you make your purchase as it’s a big decision and owning a vacation property does not come without issues.

Consider your goals: Why do you want to buy a vacation home? Will it be an investment property, a place to retire or solely a place to vacation? You may want to use if for all three reasons! With your goals in mind decide what features in a vacation home are important to you.

Spend lots of time in the area: You want to ensure it’s a place you want to visit often. Every place has their cons, and the location of your vacation home will too. Research the area thoroughly to understand the crime rate, history, and natural dangers and disasters (i.e. tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, etc.).

Consider accessibility: Is the vacation home a short drive from your main residence, or does it require you to take a lengthy plane ride? If it’s the latter, it’s unlikely you’ll use the home very often.

Formulate an accurate budget: Understand all the costs of owning the home including property taxes, insurance (and if additional insurance is needed if it’s location in an area prone to natural disasters), utilities, maintenance and association fees.

Research resale value: Determine how the value of the vacation home may increase or decrease over time. Research areas where property values are increasing, and find out who is moving there and what the plans are for new construction.

Determine if you have someone available to watch the home: The home will still need to be cared for and checked on when you are away. You will most likely need to hire a property manager unless you have friends of family who live in the area. Keep in mind that you’ll also want to have a security system installed on a home that is left vacant often for any length of time.

Be prepared to work while on vacation: Some of the time spent at your vacation home will be spent doing maintenance. It’s not all fun.

Consider renting out the home: Vacation homeowners can benefit greatly by renting out the home when they are not using it. Offering the home for rent provides a source of income that can offset a great deal of your expenses, and you may be able to pay off the home quicker too.

Lastly, if any of these factors encourage you to reconsider a vacation home purchase, know that there are alternatives. Research on sites like VRBO or AirBnB. It may make more sense to rent from others and have the option to visit various locations as opposed to sticking to one location and being stuck with all the costs of owning the home. Plus when you rent a vacation home vs buy, your time is spent purely on vacationing as opposed to spending time on the upkeep of the home.

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Photo Credit, nathanmac87


First Time Home Buyer? Advice You Need to Know

House in the countrySummer season brings out more and more potential home buyers for various reasons including families who wish to settle into a new home before the school year starts, or due to a relocation, or just because summer is a better time to move than in the midst of winter.

Some buyers may be first time home buyers, satisfying the American dream of homeownership. While many rush into buying a home, excited at the prospect, it’s wise to slow down and consider what you should know as a first time home buyer. These apply whether you are building or purchasing an existing home.

For example, you should check your credit. An inaccurate credit report or low credit score may affect your financing, and it takes two months for the credit score to improve after you’ve corrected a mistake or paid down on an account. Order a report at least three months in advance of applying for a home loan. Through the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you are entitled to receive a free copy of your credit report once a year.

Here are some other things first time home buyers should keep in mind….

Get preapproved: Contact your lender for a preapproval letter. The lender will require you to apply for a loan, and the letter shows the lender has confirmed what type of loan you qualify for, and that they are agreeing to process the loan.

Truly understand what you can afford: Base this on what you earn now, not what you expect to earn at any point in the future, even if a big job offer or a promotion are in the works.

Understand what you have to pay for: While renting requires a flat monthly cost, a mortgage payment includes homeowner’s insurance, property taxes, and sometimes homeowner’s association fees or private mortgage insurance (PMI). Understand these costs because they can raise your monthly payment by hundreds of dollars.

Have a wish list, but don’t expect perfection: There is no perfect home, whether you are purchasing an existing home or building from scratch. Your budget may determine how much you have to compromise on your wish list, but even if you have “all the money in the world” you still won’t get every single thing you would like to have in a home. Start a wish list with this in mind, and decide what you are willing to give up, and what items are absolutes, yet remain flexible.

Invest in an up and coming area: A home is an investment, and one of the best ways to save money yet benefit in the long run is to build or buy a home in an area less developed that is poised to become a hot spot. Your realtor or builder may be able to offer advice on such areas, or you may have to do some research of your own.

Thing long-term: Are you planning to stay in the house long-term, or care for your aging relatives. If so, you’ll want to consider how the home will suit your needs for all life stages. One of the services J. Thompson Builders provides is accessible living building, including home plans, which allow you to stay in your home for much longer as you age, or as you begin to move in and care for your elderly relatives.

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How to Build a Safe Room (aka Panic Room), and an Update to Our Original 2011 Blog About the Topic

A basement is a good spot to build a safe room

A basement is a good spot to build a safe room

Recent storms in the Central Iowa area brought strong winds, tornado threats and massive rain resulting in massive flooding. It’s time to revisit the issue of safe rooms.

A safe room, sometimes also called a panic room (the terms are interchangeable), is a room installed in a private residence or a business to provide safety and shelter in the event of a break-in, home invasion, severe storm (i.e. tornado or hurricane), terrorist attack, nuclear attack or another threat.

Panic Room, the Movie

The concept of safe rooms were brought to the forefront with the 2002 thriller movie Panic Room. The film stars Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as the mother and daughter who experience a home invasion. The criminal roles are played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Dwight Yoakam. The story, written by David Koepp, was purportedly inspired by 2000 news coverage about safe rooms.[2] The safe room in Panic Room is a super secure, high-tech hidden room with concrete walls, thick steel doors, a ventilation system, a surveillance system covering every corner of the house and a phone line not connected to the house’s main line.

History of Safe Rooms

But safe rooms have been around for much, much longer. Safe rooms are thought to have originated in the Middle Ages when castles had a room located deep within the building so the lord could hide if there was a siege. Safe rooms were used in the Underground Railroad system in the United States in the 1800s to house slaves, and again they were used to hide Prohibition-banned liquor in the 1920s. Fallout shelters, another form of the safe room, were built in the 1950s due to fear of a nuclear attack. [1]

Across the world safe rooms are found in Mexican housing due to the high number of kidnappings. Bullet/fire-resistant safe rooms are mandated in new construction in Israel. And every U.S. embassy has a safe room. [1]

Our Original Blog

We first published a blog about safe rooms in 2011, and we’ve referenced this blog almost every year since. Severe weather season in Iowa and throughout the country causes major damage each year and even devastation, taking lives and ruining homes. There are ways to minimize how your family is impacted during a severe storm, including building a safe room.

Here’s our original blog followed by some additional commentary:

Tornadoes, hail and wind storms: all provide a need for protection for your family and your valuable documents/possessions. While your home is built to code and should remain safe and secure under normal conditions, it is not built to withstand extreme weather conditions. A safe room is constructed to protect anything in the room from high winds and flying debris in spite of the damage caused to the rest of your home.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers safe room plans as well as information on properly building one. Provide the preferred design to your contractor or work with your contractor to design a customized plan.

Consider these areas when building a safe room:
Interior rooms
Exterior rooms, either below the ground or attached to your home

Our Additional Thoughts in 2015

Weather is the #1 reason we suggest building a safe room as it can provide protection for your family or employees during a tornado, hurricane or other dangerous weather conditions. But as you can see there are other reasons to have a safe room including for protection from a burglar or kidnapper, in case of a nuclear or terrorist attack and even for protection from an abusive spouse.

The movie Panic Room is a dramatic account of the need for a safe room, and features an array of high-tech, expensive features, but most homeowners will find a safe room much simpler in construction is sufficient for their needs.

A safe room can simply be constructed in a basement or garage where concrete walls are already present. Basic emergency items to keep in a safe room include a flashlight, first-aid kit, water, blankets, packaged food, gas mask and a portable toilet.

Watch the trailer for Panic Room:

To get started building your safe room use these resources:
FEMA’s Safe Room Plans »
More about building safe rooms from The Natural Handyman »

1. Safe Rooms (Panic Rooms) by Nick Gromicko, International Association of Certified Home Inspectors,
2. Panic Room, Wikipedia,

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Photo Credit: flickr/slgckgc


Should You Hire a Surveyor?

Land surveyorIn our last post Should You Hire An Architect we explained the pros and cons of doing so. In this post, we’re going to employ the same method with the question Should You Hire a Surveyor?

While we can’t ever discourage someone from hiring all the help they need, not everyone has the financial resources to hire everything out.

So here is an explanation of what a surveyor does, and why one may or may not be beneficial to hire.

What a Surveyor Does

A surveyor in terms of construction is also called a land surveyor. A surveyor uses professional tools to make precise measurements in determining a property’s boundaries. These measurements allow the surveyor to provide you with data about the shape and contour of the land.

Why You Should Hire a Surveyor

The measurements a surveyor takes have a high degree of accuracy. Surveyors accurately measure and mark out the property boundaries on your site to produce markers which determine where your home will sit on the property. The surveyor will ensure the boundaries are accurate so that your house is built exactly where it should sit. Accurate measurements are vital in the construction process so as to avoid building or legal issues that could arise after construction begins. Surveying is a critical part of the construction process.

A land survey is required by the vast majority of mortgage lenders in order for you to secure funds to purchase the property. A survey is required not only when buying or selling land, but may also be necessary in the following circumstances:

  • When dividing land
  • When building a fence, septic system or anything close to property lines
  • When there is a dispute with a neighbor over where the property line is

When building a home the builder can begin the process of “site staking” the property once the survey is completed. This involves marking out the house boundaries based on the data provided by the land surveyor. All areas, including easements, are also marked out during site staking. This ensures that everything built complies with the original building plan.

Why You Should Not Hire a Surveyor

There are really few reasons not to hire a surveyor. While you can DIY this service because you can rent, borrow or even buy the necessary equipment for a do-it-yourself survey, most instances require a professional surveyor, unless you are only completing the survey for your own basic knowledge. Survey results are only legal and usable if the work is performed by a licensed surveyor. In fact, some states have laws which prevent you from doing your own surveying work, and a licensed surveyor is required to complete the job.

The Consensus?

Hire a surveyor, but find a way to do it cheaper, if possible. For instance, not all surveys may need a map. You may only need to have the property lines flagged and the corners marked. In this case you can save on the cost of the map if you only require field work. Also, if you can do your own work and provide the surveyor with the deed and a past plat (if available) you may reduce the time required to complete the survey, and thus reduce your cost.

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Photo Credit: Shelly


Should You Hire an Architect?

architect-569361_1280As a home building/remodeling company every spring we watch home building burst into full bloom, and we also watch current homeowners invest in home remodeling projects, particularly those concentrated outdoors, such as adding a new deck or a screened-in porch. It makes us consider all the decisions, and even frustrations, these homeowners faced in starting and completing their projects. Did they consult with an architect first? Or are they doing most of the work and research themselves? Do they fully understand the limitations imposed by state and local codes, and are they facing any compliance issues? Is their completed project functional, specifically in relation to what their family needs?

In this article we’re going to address the topic of hiring an architect. Is it necessary?

First off architects are trained in design, engineering, and project management. An architect can not only design your project and provide a set of code-compliant plans, but they can manage the project including soliciting bids, working with contracts/subcontractors and overseeing the work. Architects are skilled in problem solving. They produce designs which not only are functional but address the needs of the homeowners, and their designs are also aesthetically pleasing. Their strong logical thinking based on mathematics ensures the homeowner has a stable, sound structure.

When building a new home, home builders such as us at J. Thompson Builders, have plans homeowners can choose from. The advantage is that the homeowner doesn’t have to make many choices, the plans are complete and the plans are suited for most typical homeowners. Additionally the plan can be customized to accommodate an individual’s lifestyle.

Those who enjoy DIY and can’t afford an architect can also use software that allows them to do the planning themselves. Homeowners can craft the detailed plans for an entire house, including everything down to the furniture and landscaping. Such programs cost only a fraction of what an architect does.

As another option, a draftsman is someone who can draw up a plan, has basic structural knowledge, but does not have as much training as an architect. Yet a draftsman costs less than an architect. However, sometimes you may still need to consult a structural engineer to review the plan in order to meet codes.

In these cases hiring an architect may be unnecessary.

The consensus? In choosing whether or whether not to hire an architect it really comes down to the scope of the project. Are you undergoing a major renovation or custom building your home from scratch? Then yes, it might be wise to involve a skilled architect. But if you only need to work from an existing plan or have the skills or the ambition to use your DIY skills, an architect may be an expense you can spare. The idea behind hiring an architect is to have access to the education, techniques and skills the average person does not have.

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2015 Trends in Construction and Building

construction-646914_1280According to Dodge Data & Analytics – a leading provider of data and analytics serving the North American construction industry – the U.S. Construction industry will rise by 9% in 2015 to $612 billion (2014 saw a gain of 5% to $564 billion). This year will bring some changes in the construction industry and some defining trends will greatly impact those changes.

We picked our 5 top trends based on insight from both ASME (The American Society of Mechanical Engineers) and Capterra, a business software provider.

1. Materials: Mike Miller, the Mid-Atlantic Division leader for Southland Industries, a mechanical engineering building firm, told ASME we can expect to see more prefabrication materials. Imagine instead of joining each individual piece of duct together on the jobsite you join several feet together before you ever reach the field. More work is being moving into the shop instead of it being completed in the field. Prefabricated materials improve the on-field schedule.
2. Energy Consumption: Finding ways to save energy in the construction field is a constant goal. Any time you can use tools or systems which recover energy it’s a win-win.
3. Green Building: It’s not just a trend, but it’s here to stay. Every one in the construction field is finding ways to be green, whether it’s by using sustainable materials or using products in projects such as energy-efficient windows or appliances, dual-flush toilets or low-flow faucets.
4. Technology: Paper is out! Most companies, if they haven’t already, will start to strictly use construction management software. It will be commonplace to see tablets and laptops used on jobsites.
5. 3-D Printing: We started talking about 3-D printing in 2014 when the world’s first commercial 3-D printer became for sale. Then we wrote a blog about the first 3-D printed castle. 3-D printing is still a new technology and may not be immediately embraced by the industry, but what many believe (us included) is it’s a trend which will greatly impact the construction industry. Particularly because of the focus on green construction, 3-D printing is one trend which can save a great deal of energy.

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What Home Design Experts Predicted the Home of 2015 Would Look Like. Were They Right?

4329020981_aa6810cfc6We’re only a few months into 2015, but back in 2011 the people at Zillow – a site about all things home-related founded by former Microsoft executives – were already making predictions about what the home of 2015 would look like. Were they right?

Here’s some of their predictions:

-Smaller homes. Stephen Melman, Director of Economic Services at the National Association of Home Builders, said, “Homes will get smaller.” According to a survey of home builders, they expected single-family homes to be around 2,150 square feet in 2015; in 2011 homes were around 2,400 square feet.

-No more living room. The prediction was the living room would merge with other spaces or maybe even vanish completely.

-More upsized laundry rooms, master bedroom walk-in closets, porches, eat-in kitchens, two-car garages and ceiling fans.

-Less mudrooms, dining rooms, 4+ bedrooms, media rooms and skylights.

-More “aging in place” amenities such as walk-in showers, grab bars and ground-floor master bedrooms.

What does the home of 2015 really look like?

Zillow wasn’t very far off the mark.

Homes are as distinct as their homeowners, and we still see a wide range of home styles and preferences.

Open spaces, as mentioned, where the kitchen, dining and living areas are combined have been popular for quite awhile.

Technology has taken over much of the 2015 home, with smart home products used throughout many of the newer homes. Although the development of such products is at a bit of a standstill. For more about that, you can check out our blog What’s Next for Smart Homes?

Some homeowners are downsizing, and some are upsizing. We can’t seem to come to a consensus on the small home vs the larger size issue. While there has been some growing popularity in the tiny home market, many others have found it impractical in having enough space for storage or to entertain, or just to house a growing family and all their needs.

Universal design and aging in place plans and products are commonplace requests of homeowners thanks to the growing elderly population. More homeowners are building “mother-in-law” suites for their aging parents. And we’ve seen an increase in requests for improving homes for accessibility. You can check out some of our home improvement suggestions for accessibility here.

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Photo Credit, Sam Howzit


Why Stay At Stoney Creek Independence, MO?

Note: This is the second week we welcome guest writer Sommer Sharon. She has written a 2- part blog series for us. In this series Sommer will talk about the new Stoney Creek hotel in Independence, MO. The first blog was about J. Thompson Builders’ involvement in the building of the hotel. This second blog is about her experience staying at the hotel.

Now for the run-down of my stay at Stoney Creek Independence…

Location, Location, Location!

The new Stoney Creek Hotel in Independence, MO is located next door to Bass Pro. What a perfect partnership! Both brands appeal to the outdoor enthusiast and families.

The area offers several nearby restaurants, and a family fun center is being built right by the hotel. Stoney Creek is also located right across from a park and walking trails.IMG_2050

How You’ll Feel At Stoney Creek

You’re in the middle of metropolitan Missouri, yet feel as though you’ve been transported to a rustic, yet contemporary urban lodge.

Who Should Stay Here

It’s well suited for anyone, but definitely appeals to families or business travelers. My hotel tour guide also told me lots of sports teams tend to stay here because many tournaments are held at the nearby Independence Center.

The Place to Be at Night

The indoor/outdoor pool is the place to be! Especially if you have kids. You can see the steam rise from the water when it’s cold outside. One of my kids’ favorite past experiences at a Stoney Creek hotel (the indoor/outdoor pool is a feature at many of their properties) was swimming outside while it was snowing; they could float on their backs and feel the snowflakes fall and melt on their faces.

IMG_2065The place to be if you don’t have kids (or can sneak away) is McCoy’s Bar. The wine is “on nitro” (a nitrogen preservation system), which means every glass poured from an opened bottle tastes as fresh as the first. They offer a selection of whiskey (inside sources say they’ll soon carry a KC variety). And of course, a bar isn’t complete without several big screen TVs, one of which covers an entire wall.

The Place to Be in the Morning

These ladies play basketball for Concordia College.

We met these ladies at breakfast! They play basketball for Concordia College.

The breakfast room, of course. This isn’t your usual continental breakfast, but instead they offer a complimentary hot breakfast. The breakfast room was especially packed with a women’s basketball team staying at the hotel. Those girls need fuel to play their best.


My Favorite AmenityIMG_2234

The comfy bed, all to myself! So often when traveling with children you all end up in a bed together, but not when your room has bunk beds for the kids. My kids were snuggled each into their own bed, and I got a much needed night of rest after a long week of traveling.

My restful night's sleep was interrupted by this.

My restful night’s sleep was interrupted by this.


Stoney Creek Independence is a great weekend visit. You won’t have to mess with the busyness of downtown Kansas City or leave Independence or even the Stoney Creek hotel, if you don’t wish to, but you’re still close enough to KC if you want to visit for the day.

My daughter summed up our stay well with this note she left….

Thank you Stoney Creek!

Thank you Stoney Creek!

Sommer Sharon is a freelance writer. Her writing has been seen in USA Today, Iowa Living, and various other national and regional, print and online, publications. She is a seasoned traveler who specializes in solo travel and solo family travel (i.e. traveling alone with kids). You can find out more about her at

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