Hail Damage is Bad but Better than Owing Money to the IRS

Dear Mary: I was wondering how you feel about depending on homeowners insurance for getting a roof replacement. I have had State Farm homeowners insurance since 1995 and have never made a claim. But now, the 20-year old roof on my house has suffered hail damage. Should I pay for the roof or should I file again insurance to have it fixed? I’m concerned about the risk of having my premium increased or the insurance canceled? Any advice would be very helpful. Thanks and keep up the great work. Mark


Dear Mark: First, make absolutely sure that the damage is more than cosmetic. If you determine that in fact the hail damage is significant enough to require repair or replacement to preclude further harm, I suggest you file a claim. Find out how much the insurance company will cover for repair and or replacement.

If they base the claim on depreciating the value of the 20-year old roof (most likely) you may decide against going through with a claim because the damage amount they will pay is lower than your deductible. If, on the other hand, you have full replacement coverage (not likely, but possible) and this will preclude you from having to cover the cost out-of-pocket once the deductible is met, I’m pretty sure I would go for it, all things considered.

You can file a claim, receive the insurance company’s offer and at that time decide which way to go.

Questions About Down Comforters and Inexpensive Vacuums

Dear Mary: I love your articles, and I have learned so much from you about which products to purchase. I don’t know if you have ever written anything about down comforters, but I am looking for one that is machine washable, not too expensive, can be used year round and has a lot of loft. Jackie


Dear Jackie: I’m humbled by your trust in me to make a recommendation for an excellent down comforter. The first thing you need to know is how to rate “down.” Down is the layer of fine feathers found under the tougher exterior feathers of ducks or geese. It’s the good stuff! A down-filled comforter is, not surprisingly, filled with down and quite luxurious. Down is a very lightweight insulator against cold and also against heat. It is a natural wonder and makes for a fantastic blanket, year round.

Some “down” comforters are filled with a combination of down and feathers, while others are only feathers, which can be stiff and “pokey,” albeit less expensive because they are of a lower quality.

Then comes a new version known as “down alternative” comforters. These are filled with polyester and have no down or feathers in them at all. And as you would expect, the price of these alternative models are considerably less. Make sure you keep your eyes open for that word “alternative.”

How to Bring Back Applebee’s® Crispy Orange Skillet

Not long ago I got a desperate message from C. J. Coffman who lives in Michigan. It seems that he and his family are crazy about a certain item that mysteriously disappeared from the Applebee’s® menu a couple of years ago—Crispy Orange Skillet.


Coffman is not the first reader I’ve heard from about this turn of events. Early on, readers wanted to know how to make this entree themselves, as it could become pricey to eat out as often as their cravings dictated. But then a couple of years ago, this hugely popular dish just up and disappeared from the menu! Applebee’s response continues to be that they appreciate customers’ feedback, but that they make changes to their menus from time to time and we never know when favorites will make a come back.

Coffman closed his letter by telling me what a big fan he is of this column, which was a good move on his part. I’m not above a little flattery from time to time.

Forget the Dry Cleaner: How to Wash a Down Comforter

If you’ve ever wondered if it’s okay to wash your down comforter without taking it to the dry cleaners, the answer is yes. You can absolutely wash your down comforter without spending upwards of $60 (depending on the size, where you live and how dirty it is) to have it dry cleaned professionally. All you need is a mild detergent, wool dryer balls (or tennis balls), a few hours to spend at a laundromat and patience. And if yours is a king-size comforter, a lot of patience.

A row of industrial washing machines in a public laundromat.

A row of industrial washing machines in a public laundromat.

To do this, you’ll need mild detergent (our homemade detergent is ideal, or Woolite), wool dryer balls (or tennis balls work well), an extra-large front loading washing machine (most home models are too small for this task) and an extra-large dryer. Here are step-by-step instructions:

Step 1. Load your down comforter into the largest extra large front-loading washing machine at your local laundromat. The less crowded the comforter is in the washer and dryer, the better the results.

Step 2. Add a small amount of mild detergent. Be careful here as too much detergent will strip the down or feathers of their natural coating that makes down or feathers such a wonderful thermal insulator.

Step 3. Select the gentle or delicate setting on the washer and two rinse cycles. It is very important that the last bit of detergent to be rinsed out.

Make Your Kitchen Look Like New for $300 and Some Sweat

Recently I walked into Amy and Justin’s kitchen and my jaw dropped. It was like I’d stumbled into the wrong house. The gorgeous new cabinets and countertops made it look brand new. You could have knocked me over with a feather when these friends told us they weren’t new cabinets and counters at all. They’d refinished them themselves—all for about $300.

photo credit: Critter-Cozies

photo credit: Critter-Cozies

You may think that kitchen projects need to be left to the professionals, which of course is fine provided you’ve got thousands of dollars to work with. But if your budget is slightly under that—and you’re willing to contribute some sweat to the project—new products and methods now available can bring do-it-yourself options to any kitchen.

CABINETS. Our friends refinished their existing cabinets (the doors and face frames) with Rust-Oleum Cabinet Transformations Kit about $75 that covers 100 square feet.

The thing that gave Amy and Justin the courage and confidence to tackle this project themselves was the Rust-Oleum promise of no stripping, no sanding, no priming and no special skills required. While their cabinets are made of wood, this product will also transform melamine, melt and laminate cabinetry.

Have You Given Yourself That $1,400 After-Tax Raise Yet?

If there’s one thing that I love about my loyal readers, it’s how responsive you are. Sometimes you like what you read, other times not so much. Now and then you simply need more information. But no matter what, I can always count on hearing from you. Which brings me to a previous column I wrote on pulling the plug on subscription pay TV. It brought a huge response.

According to NPD Group, the average pay-TV bill is $123 per month—more than $1,400 a year. For many, that’s money that could be better used to build an emergency fund or pay off debt. No wonder that column struck a chord with so many readers.


The most-asked question had to do with the need for an antenna to receive free, local HD broadcasting. Which kind? Which one works best?

As I was fielding your messages, my husband and I were in the process of relocating. We did it! In April, we moved from California to northern Colorado, about 20 miles north of Denver. What a change from big city life in Orange County to living in the country. Our little village boasts a population of just 18,000. And what a perfect opportunity to test antennas to find the best way to enjoy free TV and quality programming in our new location.

Strollers, Rust Stains, Green ‘Dawn’ and … Soilove UPDATE!

Children learn by asking questions. Students learn by asking questions. New recruits learn by asking questions. I learn by asking questions! It is the simplest and most effective way to learn.

Brilliant thinkers (aka EC readers) never stop asking questions because they know that this is the best way to learning practical ways to improve their lives.


Dear Mary: I’ve been looking to buy the inexpensive The First Years Ignite Stroller you so highly recommend, only to discover that it has been discontinued. Any suggestions on a replacement model that you can also recommend? Janet

Dear Janet: While The First Years Co. is no longer in business, as I write I see that Amazon has a few of this terrific stroller left in inventory. If you are unable to grab one of them, an excellent alternative is the Summer Infant 2015 3D Lite Convenience Stroller—priced at about half the current price of the Ignites. I like Summer Infant 2015 3D Lite Convenience Stroller a lot because it folds up so easily, it’s lightweight and quite comfy for the little ones. This stroller is very close  to the Ignite in every way and it’s getting lots of great reviews!

Movie Night: A Poppin’ Good Time!

If you love popcorn (who doesn’t?) you might be interested to know that the typical American consumes 68 quarts of the stuff every year.


If you mostly eat concession stand movie popcorn, those 68 quarts are costing a bundle. To get a handle on that cost without giving up the joy, why not have more at-home movie nights (your local public library is likely to have all kinds of movies on DVD you can borrow for cheap or even free) when you make your own popcorn? Add a little variety to your popcorn and you might find it not only cheaper, but better to stay home now and then.

Kettle Corn

  • 1/2 cup un-popped popcorn kernels
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Place the popcorn, sugar and salt in a large pot with vegetable oil. Cover then place over medium heat. When you hear the first pop, shake the pot and continue shaking back and forth to ensure that the popcorn kernels and oil do not burn. Once the popping has slowed, remove the pot from heat. Servings: 5.