Creating a Home(work) Station That Gets Top Marks

When was the last time your home workspace or study station inspired you? For most people, the answer is, “Not recently.”

Whether you’re prepping an area for your work-from-home days or setting up a spot for young scholars to study , you can kick inspiration into high gear with home office solutions that will get your creative juices flowing again.

Window wonder

It’s no secret that sunshine does the body good. Fix up a space near the window so you can soak up plenty of vitamin D while pumping out price lists or writing that term paper.

Greenery looks great near a bright area, so a potted plant or two might help naturally bring your space to life.

Arts and crafts

The age of DIY is upon us. Embrace the casual-cool vibes and create your very own home desk area.

Need a semipermanent to-do list? Try using chalkboard paint to make yourself a giant notepad on a nearby cabinet or a framed chalkboard. Tired of the overdone corkboard for your sticky notes? Framed chicken wire with clothespins makes a more shabby-chic memo board.

The possibilities really are endless for this type of style. Just don’t let your DIYing get in the way of the tasks you originally sat down to do!

Photo from Zillow listing.

Collaboration is key

For those less focus-intensive projects, investigate a collaborative workstation with several small spaces or a giant community table. This type of work environment has been popular among small companies and creative agencies for the purpose of bouncing around ideas.

If you still want your own personal space, put a divider between you and the other desks for some extra privacy, and take it down when it’s time to meet and discuss. You know what they say: Teamwork makes the dream work.

collab sm
Photo from Zillow listing.

A clear mind

While many of us would like to think we have complete control of our habit of logging onto Facebook or checking what else our calendar has in store for us, most of us really don’t. And the greatest enabler of this sidetracked behavior is a cluttered workspace.

Set the stage for a clean slate with a bright white desk and matching chair, a simple light fixture and an inspiring element. Keeping your workstation simple and clutter-free ensures you have a productive day – even if your homework is less than exhilarating.

Whether you’re up all night cramming for exams or prepping for a work presentation due first thing in the morning, you’ll feel more focused and productive by incorporating any of these tips into your workstation.


Originally published September 7, 2016.

This Couple Got a $600K Mortgage for Their 1st Home — Despite Unconventional Finances

This Couple Got a $600K Mortgage for Their 1st Home — Despite Unconventional Finances

Tyler and Courtney Varnell just bought their first home in Huntington Beach, Calif., upgrading from renting a 500-square foot apartment to owning a 1240-square foot house that they bought with the help of Better Mortgage


Tyler and Courtney Varnell just bought their first home in Huntington Beach, Calif., upgrading from renting a 500-square-foot space to owning a 1240-square-foot house with the help of Better Mortgage. Melissa Lyttle for The Penny Hoarder
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Armed with a degree in finance, Tyler Varnell was dutifully building his career. He spent five years working in corporate real estate until he had what he calls “kind of a mid-20s life crisis.”

At 27, he jumped out of the corporate world to pursue his dream: performing music. He’s spent the past two years playing saxophone and piano for weddings and events around the Los Angeles area. And he’s making it work.

“I’m not making as much as I was in my fancy corporate job,” he says, “but I’m definitely making a normal, sustainable amount.”

That’s good, because when he and his wife, Courtney, decided to buy a house, Tyler knew he’d need to demonstrate a steady income to qualify for a mortgage.

Then Courtney — who’s a registered nurse — found a $656,000 house for sale. Tyler’s reaction was, “Oh my gosh; there’s no way we can afford this. We’re gonna go broke.”

After lots of soul-searching and number-crunching, they ended up getting the loan they needed. And after entering talks with three different lenders, they went with Better Mortgage.

An Online Mortgage Lender Built Like a Tech Company

Tyler Varnell, 29, looks out the window into his new backyard from one of the four bedrooms, imagining what it will someday be. Melissa Lyttle for The Penny Hoarder

The couple chose Better because of how much money they’d save.

“With me being self-employed, underwriting my income was going to be tricky,” Tyler says. “Better did a great job helping us navigate the process and getting us approved, despite my unconventional finances. Better, by far, offered the most competitive combination of interest rate, lender incentives and zero lender fees.”

Better Mortgage bills itself as an online mortgage lender that’s built like a tech company — fast and innovative.

Its founder, financial entrepreneur Vishal Garg, launched the company after he got frustrated with the slow, inefficient, difficult process of getting a mortgage. His mission: Make the process faster, simpler and more transparent.

Buying a House in a Super Expensive City

Courtney Varnell, 28, sweeps up some dust and debris that’s accumulated in the living room from their ongoing home renovations. Melissa Lyttle for The Penny Hoarder

Before buying their own place, the Varnells were renting a small house — 500 square feet, one bedroom, one bathroom, tiny kitchen, tiny living room.

Their dream was to own a four-bedroom home — space enough for a master bedroom, guest room, future kid’s room and a music studio.

Unfortunately, their home state of California is known for its astronomically high housing prices— especially in areas including Orange County, where they live.

“This is one of the most expensive markets in the nation, so finding something we could afford was the biggest challenge,” says Tyler.

It was Courtney who found the house while looking for deals on Zillow.

A fixer-upper in Huntington Beach. Priced in the mid-$600s.

“I know it’s really expensive,” Tyler recalls Courtney saying. “But this is a good deal for a single-family home in a good neighborhood. It needs some work. This is probably the best price we’re going to get.”

Tyler says after he finished freaking out, he sat down and ran the numbers. He wound up being swayed by the financial benefits of home ownership.

“I’m a finance guy, so I did a bunch of number-crunching, and it actually made sense for us, long-term, to buy the house,” he says. “Even though it makes us kind of ‘house poor,’ with a large percentage of our income going toward housing.”

“When you factor in home appreciation, the tax benefits and the fact that we’re paying down our principal — our net worth will increase faster than if we kept renting.”

An Online Process — With Human Help

The couple checks the current interest rates from Better Mortgage from Tyler’s iPhone. Melissa Lyttle for The Penny Hoarder

Like any tech company, Better Mortgage emphasizes speed and efficiency. It can quote you an interest rate in seconds, once you type in your ZIP code, credit score range, down payment amount and the price of the house you want to buy.

It can get you an initial pre-approval for a loan within minutes, without affecting your credit score.

Although you apply for a loan online, you can also talk to an actual human being when you need to. You can book a phone call with a real, live loan officer who’s assigned to you.

“Better was quick to respond to our inquiries, both via email and telephone,” says Courtney. “Their representatives were knowledgeable and made the process relaxed and unpressured.”

That came in handy for Tyler, the self-employed musician. It’s easier for someone with a 9-to-5 office job to prove what their salary is. Tyler had to be able to show he had a steady income.

“If you’re self-employed, you have to be self-employed for two years,” he said, “and then they average your two years of net profit, and that’s how they determine your income.”

The couple had been in talks with two other lenders that couldn’t match Better’s terms.

“They had the best rate at 4.5%, while everyone else was at 4.75% or 4.825%,” says Tyler.

“The other two places had lender fees ranging from $400 to $1,500, and Better’s was zero. Then Better offered us $2,500 off of our closing costs.”

Better Mortgage requires a minimum credit score of 620 and a minimum down payment of 3%.

It operates in Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, D.C. and Washington.

‘A Dedicated Space for My Work’

Tyler and Courtney Varnell are gutting and redoing the home themselves, with the help of a few handy contractor friends. They are currently in the process of patching walls, rewiring and installing lights. Melissa Lyttle for The Penny Hoarder

The Varnells got the keys to their new house in September 2018.

“It feels so good to finally own a home!” says Courtney. “It’s an awesome accomplishment after years of financial sacrifices — eating out less, modest vacations and avoiding the mall.”

Before moving in, they started the “demo phase” of renovations — ripping out old carpet, removing old tile, scraping away popcorn ceilings.

Tyler’s sure it’ll be worth it — especially in the bedroom that’s destined to become his music studio.

Since he ditched the corporate life to follow his dream, he’s never really had a place to work on his music.

“Sometimes, I would take over half of our living room or half of our bedroom,” he says. “Now, I’m really excited to have a dedicated space for my work. And I think that’ll help with my business overall.”

The Varnells stand in front of their new home in Huntington Beach, Calif. on October 8, 2018. The couple never imagined home ownership was possible, but recently bought a fixer-upper in a great neighborhood. Melissa Lyttle for The Penny Hoarder

Mike Brassfield ( is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He believes in the American Dream.

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With This DIY Sporting Goods Catch-All, Game Day Is No Sweat

This project will help you organize your garage and become the MVP of DIY projects. With all your sporting gear in the same place, you’ll always be prepared when someone yells, “Where’s my basketball?” (Or volleyball, hockey stick, tennis racket, etc.)

See how it’s done, then follow the step-by-step instructions to build one of your own.

1. Find a bookcase

Choose a bookcase with at least three wide shelves so you can store gear in a variety of sizes.

2. Add locking wheels

Attach locking wheels to the bottom of the bookcase so you can easily move it around the mudroom or the garage.

3. Drill holes

Drill evenly spaced holes (about four or five, depending on the width of the bookcase) along the top surface of one of the shelves. Keep the holes fairly close to the edge – about one-half inch away or less.

On the underside of the shelf below, drill holes to match up exactly with the holes on the shelf above.

4. Attach bungee cords

Place the bungee cord hooks in the drilled holes, and arrange the cords vertically so they create a net. You want the cords to be pretty taut, so get the right size for your bookcase.

5. Mount peg boards

Frame the sides of your bookcase with 1-by-2-inch boards to support peg boards that have been cut to size. Secure the peg boards with a few nails on the top and bottom.

6. Customize with hooks and holders

Place hooks and holders on the peg board so you can hang your tennis rackets, baseball gloves, jerseys, helmets and more.

7. Load up your catch-all, MVP!

Grab your gear and organize the bins however you see fit. Now all you have to worry about is scoring the winning goal.


Originally published September 2017.

Meet the Clutter Scale: One Pro’s Secret to a More Intentional Home

Although I have always been organized, there were two significant moments in my life that taught me how to manage clutter.

The first was when I returned from a backpacking trip around the world. Having visited homes in many developing nations, I no longer wanted to have such excess in my own home. My possessions were organized, but I had too many of them for my taste.

After I unpacked from my journey, I began a thorough review of my stuff. I started upstairs, removing unnecessary items floor by floor. By the time I reached the basement, I had enough stuff to set up a second apartment.

My second decluttering lesson was right after my divorce. Just months after the split, I was facing bankruptcy. I began my climb out of sudden and severe financial debt while simultaneously making a name for myself in the organizing industry. I hired a top-tier PR agent, but I knew I had to come up with some big bucks to cover his fee and all the expenses that go along with creating a brand. I decided to sell my home and everything I owned to make it happen.

As I sorted my belongings for a second time, I created the ranking system below to help me decide what to keep and what to toss. It worked beautifully for me, and I think it can work for you too.

The clutter scale

5 – Important items whose place in your home is non-negotiable. For me, this included my green-stained Depression glass, photos, business files, office equipment and car.

4 – Items that are difficult to replace and items you use every day. This pile included most of my clothes, some furniture, a favorite sheet set, towels and jewelry.

3 – Items you use occasionally but haven’t used within the last six months.

2 – Items you rarely use but feel hesitant to toss.

1 – Items you never use, like seasonal items, specialized tools or kitchen gadgets. I got rid of stationery, extra wrapping paper, old boxes and my printer.

You know what I found as I used the clutter scale? There were rarely items that rated a 2 or 3. And once I established some criteria, I sorted and purged the 2s and 3s like never before. As you sort your less important items, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I love it?
  • What’s the special story behind it?
  • Do I have the space for it?
  • Can I replace it?
  • Can I easily borrow it or rent it if I need it again?
  • Does it support my goals and values?
  • Does it compare to the items I ranked as a 5?

The clutter scale is a great way to get back in touch with your priorities. My priority at the time was starting my business, so I kept the bigger goal in sight and let go of anything that didn’t support it.

What I didn’t know then was that I was already practicing what I was going to preach in my business. I learned to organize my life and stuff based on my values. I chose to collect experiences – not things.

As you declutter and rank your possessions, don’t forget to take a few minutes to think about your goals and values. You’ll find your home to be much more intentional and peaceful if you do!


Originally published January 2017.

3 Must-Do’s Before Listing Your House for Sale

Planning to sell your house this year? Now’s the perfect time to prep it for listing!

Set aside a couple of weekends to do the work, and follow these three steps. Then, get ready to make a great impression on potential buyers and cinch the deal.

Step 1: Clean and declutter

It may sound obvious, but the importance of cleaning and decluttering cannot be overstated. Here are some ideas to make this process nearly painless.

  • Eliminate clutter before cleaning: This is the time to purge your house of unwanted and unnecessary items. In addition to donating items to charity, consider giving them away through Craigslist or neighborhood sharing groups. Recyclers are often willing to pick up and haul away large metal items for free.
  • Deep clean your house: This step will probably involve the biggest time investment. Get the whole family involved if you can! Think of this as a pumped-up spring cleaning. Pay special attention to kitchens and bathrooms, and clean the inside and outside of your windows – this makes a striking improvement in the overall appearance of your house.
  • Organize closets, cabinets and drawers: In this case, out of sight is not out of mind. Many potential buyers will open cabinets and closets, because they are thinking about storage space. Clean and organized storage areas signal to buyers that you take care of the house.

Step 2: Make small repairs

Take care of these problems before you show the house for the first time. These are all fixes that you can do yourself.

  • Fix any leaking faucets and running toilets.
  • Replace caulking around tubs, showers and sinks.
  • Freshen up or repair grout as needed.
  • Repair walls and repaint them in a neutral, generally pleasing color that complements your home.
  • Fix cracked or broken windows.
  • Replace or repair damaged window screens.
  • Replace burned-out lightbulbs.

Step 3: Go for curb appeal

You want potential buyers to be charmed by the outside of your house so they look forward to coming inside. Extend your pumped-up spring cleaning to the outside of your house too.

  • Trim bushes, shrubs and trees. Make sure vegetation isn’t touching your roof or siding.
  • Repair broken downspouts and gutters.
  • If it’s appropriate for your yard, apply new mulch, river rock and/or pea gravel. This can do wonders for your landscaping and provide immediate curb appeal.
  • Clean and repair concrete areas, such as driveways and walkways. Eliminate any oil or grease stains, and clean out any weeds coming up through the cracks.
  • If it’s seasonally appropriate, put out some pots of annuals, which will maintain their color for the season. Freshen up your doorstep with a new welcome mat and make sure the house numbers are easy to see.

With just a moderate amount of effort, you can make your house beautiful and welcoming, both inside and out.

Ready to put your home on the market? Check out our Home Sellers Guide for more tips and resources.


Originally published March 2017.