Terrific Broth

The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Category: Our House (Page 2 of 7)

10 Ways to Make a Greener Home

Howdy, family and friends! I hope y’all had a great summer weekend. It was the closing day of Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, aka A-basin, which officially concluded  the 2018 ski season. We were fortunate to have Vail’s Epic Local Pass this past winter, which allowed us to sample a handful of top-notch ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains. Now the wait begins for the next winter!

Colorado is unfortunately going through one of its driest years. The snow packs in the Rocky Mountains, which supply majority of the agriculture, residential, and business water usage in the Greater Denver Area, is at 2/3 of its average capacity. As outdoor enthusiasts and local residents, we are very concerned and are always thinking of ways to conserve water and other natural resources.

The goal of making a greener home has been guiding our daily life and renovations all along. Today, I want to share with you different ways we have been implanting to reduce our energy footprint. While some of these strategies require permanent changes to one’s residence, most of them can be adopted by renters as well.

1. Reduce Heating and Cooling with Insulation

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One of the biggest renovation projects we tackled is adding insulation to the attic. We did it completely ourselves including retrofitting rafter vents under our 4:12 roof,  which was very labor-intensive.

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After bringing the attic insulation from R13 to R60, we have noticed significant decreases in our monthly utility bills (electricity + natural gas). Instead of $120 per winter month, we spent $80 without restricting usage. We still yet to see how our house performs in summer, but in days like today that is 90 degree, it is below 75 degrees inside our house and another few degrees cooler in the basement. Despite neighbors’ air conditioning humming non-stop, we hardly need to turn ours on.

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To be clear, adding insulation does not automatically save us a lot of money. Our attic insulation costed us over $800, while our monthly saving on utility is ~$20. A greener home sometimes require more upfront investments and is not necessarily saving money during the time of home ownership. But for us, it is more important to reduce energy usage than saving a few hundred bucks.

What if you are renting your home? One simple way of adding insulation is to add textile on your windows and doors to reduce thermal loss. Stopping leaks around windows and doors with weather strips or door snakes are also effective ways of insulating a house.

2. Cool the House Naturally

Our house has most of its windows facing east or west. Our bedroom and kitchen get bright sun in the morning, and the living room and Slav’s office get warm in the afternoons. We often have cool breeze from the mountain (northwest) in summer nights. Opening all the windows after sunset to allow cross ventilation effectively cools down the house. It also exchanges the air nicely – we love to sleep with the window open in Spring and early Summer nights to smell all the blooms in our yard. In the morning, we close all the windows to prevent the indoor air from heating up too quickly.

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We also installed blinds on most of our windows. These blinds block fair amount of sunlight while allow air to penetrate. In summer, we close the bedroom blinds in the morning to block the morning sun, and in the afternoon, we lower the blinds facing west. It makes a big difference on how much the rooms heat up.

3. Energy-Star Appliances and LED Lighting

One of the first upgrades we did is replacing all the light bulbs with LED. We found very affordable LED light bulbs from the Habitat for Humanity for only $1.5 per pop, which makes the whole upgrade under $20. We also upgraded the work light in the garage to LED.

The old garage tube lighting:

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The new LED work lights – brighter and consuming less energy:

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In addition to indoor lights, we also replaced the outdoor lighting to motion sensitive LED lights. When we bought the house, all the outdoor lights are 600W stadium lights which project a couple hundred feet far, which is totally bizarre.

The old stadium lighting at the back door:

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The old stadium lighting in front of the garage:

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It was replaced with a motion-sensitive LED lighting:

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On a similar note, we have selected all Energy-star appliances whenever we needed an upgrade, such as the furnace and HVAC system and the washer and dryer combo. More importantly, we replaced our 50 gallon water heater with a tankless model, which offers great performance and saves lots of gas.

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As of today, the only appliance that we yet to upgrade is our electrical stove. Gas stove is significant more efficient to operate than electrical stove, and both Slav and I prefer its performance. We are waiting for the ultimate kitchen overall to pull the trigger.

Some of you might ask: what about electrical dryer? If gas stove is greener than electrical ones, shouldn’t dryer be the same? The answer is: absolutely! We do have an electrical dryer for now, which is too expensive to replace. But we do have a trick to use it less frequently:

4. Smart Laundry Strategies

Slav and I both grew up air-drying our laundry, which means hanging the wet clothes outside to dry in the sun and wind. It is somehow a taboo in the States, but with a private yard (which will soon be completely closed off from the street), we can air-dry our laundry without any neighbor seeing it. Since we moved into the house, I have already been drying blankets, duvet, and sheets outside, even in winter. The strong Colorado sun dries any heavy items within an hour, which is pretty much how long our dryer takes. More importantly, the air-dried clothes and sheets come back smelling like sunshine, bringing back fond memories of a happy childhood.

How much energy are we actually saving by air-drying our cloth? An average dryer uses 3.3 kilowatt hours electricity, and the average time of a drying cycle on our machine is about an hour. If we do two loads of laundry a week, air-drying clothes will save us 6.6 kilowatt a week and 343.2 kilowatt a year. It might not be a big money saver (keep in mind that if you do more than two loads of laundry a week, this number multiplies), but since the sun does the job directly and just as fast, it just does not make sense to use the energy from sun indirectly (fossil fuel) with an additional carbon footprint of average 2400 pounds a year.

Washer and dryer rank the second- and third-most energy-hungry appliance in average households, right after the refrigerator. Therefore, in addition to using our dryer less, we also make sure that we use our washer more efficiently. We have the habit of airing out clothes, which means most of our clothes do not get washed after just one wear. This practice not only saves on energy consumption, but also saves the clothes themselves. On a typical week, we have only one load of laundry including all the towels. These smart laundry strategies not only reduce our carbon footprint, but also cut down the time of laundry to almost nothing.

5. Reducing Irrigation with Shade, Mulch, and Drip Irrigation:

With 5~10″ of annual participation here in Colorado, we certainly pay a lot of attention to our irrigation water usage. For one, I do not plant annuals at all. And all the perennials I planted are drought resistant.

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We plant trees to introduce more shade to our yard. A thick layer of wood chip mulch reduces evaporation from the ground.

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When we have to irrigate, drip lines and soaking hose greatly reduced water waste and surface evaporation:

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6. Eating Local

What if one lives in an apartment, has to use laundry facilities, and has no yard? Believe or not, eat local produce is one of the most important ways to reduce personal energy consumption. Average fresh food item travels ~1,500 miles from production to final purchase, results in 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Even wonder why all the tomatoes are the same size and in perfect shape in your grocery store? It is reported that 40% veggies were discarded during production solely for their appearances. And all the lost were factored into food prices we pay everyday. Buying from local farm or farmers market cuts down the middle man and significant increases the farmer’s profit while cutting down our food cost. A win-win in my book.

But what do we gain as a consumer by eating local? Absolutely. Without the requirement for transportation and long-term storage, locally harvested food is allowed to grow to its full maturity and therefore is fresher and more nutritious. Local farmers usually use less or not at all synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and they often practice permaculture which is much cleaner and more sustainable for the environment. Because of all these reasons, locally grown food tastes better, and are almost definitely healthier for us.

We are lucky to be surrounded by several CSA (community supported agriculture) sites. We get weekly veggie share from these CSAs for ~20 weeks each summer, and during the rest 32 weeks, we shop from the local produce stores. We also get mushrooms, farm-raised eggs, and fresh fruit from local farms throughout the year. In addition, we have been growing our own salad garden and a few kitchen staples.

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An additional advantage for us to have vegetable gardens is water conservation. Believe or not, 50% of household water is used for landscape irrigation. And turf is particularly thirsty. In comparison, vegetable gardens with drip irrigation saves 60% of the irrigation water on the same square footage. Who does not want better tasting food and less water usage?

7. Waste Management

Not only we do only one load of laundry per week, we also produce only one 10-gallon bag of trash per week.

Where does the rest go? To our compost bins!

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We have two 18 Cu Ft compost bins for kitchen waste. They are layered with household “brown” materials such as dryer lint, paper towels, egg cartons, shredded cardboard boxes, and even ash from our fire pit. Majority of our household waste, if not recycled, are composted here. These bins close tightly to prevent small animals from coming into our yard.

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We also compost all the yard waste right here in the ranch. There are multiple ways to do open compost, and the way we chose is the simplest – called “Chop and Drop“. Fall leaves and grass clippings are pilled up along the back fence, as you can see from the picture above. Our climate is cool and dry, so it takes a bit longer than average (~a year) before we get usable compost (without any watering or care). Leaves from last fall will be added into our fall garden beds.

We always cut tree trunks and big branches into firewood, which eventually end up in our compost bin as ash. Small branches are shredded into wood chips and used as mulch. Together with compost, these practices completely eliminate yard waste from our yard.

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8. Saying No to Single-Use Plastic

Most of us recycle. It is part of the daily life now and we are all feeling better putting a plastic bottle into a recycle bin, as if it does not impact the environment. But in fact, lots of plastic we consume, including soda and water bottles, are single use and cannot be or are very hard to recycle. So even though we put a bottle into the recycle bin, more often than not, it will be picked out, by hand, at the recycle center and thrown into trash. In fact, the single-use plastic list is fairly extensive: straws, plastic cutlery, coffee stirrers, fountain soda containers, plastic bags, and most food packaging are single-use plastic. Before we can implant more advanced technology to recycle these plastic product more effectively, the only way to reduce our environmental impact is to use less plastic.

We are lucky to live in an encouraging environment for reducing plastic use. Most of the grocery stores here sell bulked items so we can save on food packaging. Lots of people use fabric shopping bags and their own water bottles. We have stopped buying bottled water for years and always bring our own container for hot and cold drinks. When dining out, I pass on straws and plastic utensils. At home, we try to consume less plastic wraps and ziplock bags with silicone lids, Glasslock product, mason jars, and silicone storage bags. Cutting down plastic use is tricky but we are doing our best.

9. Riding Local

One major strategy for cutting down our carbon footprint is public transportation. It is not restricted to our household, but it makes a big impact to our day-to-day routine. My work is a 30 mile away from my home, which takes 50 minutes to commute back and forth with traffic. I choose to ride bus to work every day, which saves me over $2000 on gas alone and probably another a few thousand dollars on car maintenance. On top of that, I avoid emitting 14,848 pounds of green gas every year according to this calculator.

I also use public transportation whenever I can. My bus pass is only $27 per month  and grants me unlimited ride to airport, sport games, and downtown Denver where good restaurants accumulate. Not driving in traffic and paying for parking makes life a lot less stressful on the days I need to relax. And no designated driver is ever needed!

1o. Switching the Household Energy to Solar and Wind

There are many ways to reduce our energy usage, but we still use some. The good news is, the energy we use does not need to come from fossil fuels. Being in the highlands with little rain, our home has great solar potential. We cannot cash a solar system just yet, but we can still switch our household energy source to wind and solar thanks for the options our utility provider gives. If you are renting, you can also switch to renewable using community based solar energy or wind equivalent. It costs just a little more monthly in our area, but grants that our energy is 100% renewable.

Simple Life, Less Consumption

This is a very long post. If you stick to the end, you probably have already making an effort to reduce your carbon footprint and conserve natural resources. So thank you! It does take some effort to start, but everything we do actually made our life simpler and easier. I have little trash and laundry to deal with. Our home is very quiet without the noise from laundry, dishwasher (we do not have one), or TV (again, do not have one). We eat fresher, healthier, and tastier. And we breathe fresher air by keeping the window open and gardening outside. Little things like sweeping the floor instead of using a vacuum, or hanging laundry outside by hand, are in fact very soothing in their own ways.

What do you do to reduce carbon footprint? Do you have any suggestions for us? If you have not taken the #PlasticFreeChallenge, please join us for a month of effort of using as little single-use plastic as possible. We appreciate it, and these sea turtles do too!

What’s in Store for the Ranch House in 2018

Hi, family and friends! I hope your holiday break is treating you well. We are soaking up the peaceful winter nights at home with music, hot pot dinner, and sparkling drinks. Last night, we baked dozens of cookies for our close neighbors, hoping to deliver some holiday joy and catch up with them.

Looking back, 2017 is undoubtedly our best year yet. Leaving our jobs and moving to Colorado was scary, but everything worked out better than we expected. Living in our mountain rental for a few months while searching for a nest made us realize how much we love mountain living. And after buying our first house together, we dived into non-stop renovations and learned a lot about construction and ourselves. We are grateful to celebrate the first holiday season in our ranch house – it feels so good to be exactly where you want to be.

But we think it is safe to say that the best is yet to come. We have so much planned for the ranch house in 2018, and these projects are incredibly fun! What we did in 2017 focused mostly on essential fixes – roof, patio, foundation, drainageelectrical, HVAC, water heater, washer and dryer. We also got our garden shed and garage in working order. In 2018, we plan to shift gear to make the living space truly ours. That means changing floor plans, assigning function to each room, furniture DIY, new paint and adding lighting and new accessories. We hope to optimize our ranch for the exact needs of our two people + two dogs family, and bring our style into it.

Below is a list for our 2018 renovation goals. We will be picking projects from the list to do, depending on weather, material availability, and our mood and priority. It will be fun to see how much we complete off this list 365 days from now!

1. The Insulation

Colorado winter is cold. We only have R-19 insulation in our attic, which is far from the suggested R49 value. We’ve been working on preparing our attic for blow-in insulation, which will happen during the first week of 2018.

While we are beefing up the attic insulation, we will be insulating the shared wall between our unheated garage and the house as well. Our garage has only R13 insulation on the two exterior walls, but nothing on the ceiling or the door. It results in a great deal of heat loss from the house. Because the roof trusses are framed with 2″ x 4″ lumber, there is really no good way of insulating the garage ceiling. So we decided to insulate the shared wall instead. We will be tackling this huge insulation effort in a few days, DIY-style!

2. Slav’s Office

This house offers a big upgrade from our past rentals – Slav has his own office now! However, except removing the carpet and moving in his desk, we have not done anything more to this room. Even worse, this office has been used as a dump ground for books, small electronics, and off-season clothes. As our first interior project of 2018, we will freshen up the office with wall-to-wall library shelves and a new corner desk for Slav. This guy deserves a room to call his own!

3. The Basement Guest Suite

Many of you may know that we are using only half of our house’s square footage right now. It is our intention to live small and simple. However, we do have plan to use the hidden half of our house – as a guest suite! Our basement is exactly the same size as the main floor and almost the same floor plan. We plan to remove the stingy carpet, add a kitchenette, and completely finish it as a two-bedroom apartment with its own entrance. We will use it as a guest suite for our friends and family, maybe short-term rental in between. It gives us a great opportunity to create as well as to experiment with new styles which we hesitate to try in our own living space. It will expose us to new tasks such as plumbing, windows and doors, and kitchen building. We will be applying these skills to main floor remodeling down the road.

4. The Fence

The last thing we’d like to complete in 2018 is to replace the chain link fencing with wood fences. This task has been on our mind since we moved in. However, with many more urgent and essential fixes in the way, replacing fully functional fencing does not rise to the top of our priority list. We’d like to tackle the fence project when next spring comes around, which will dramatically improve our curb appeal and add privacy.

Here you have it, our renovation wishlist for 2018. Every subject on this list will take considerable amount of effort, money and time. We hope to cross three, if not all four of them off our list – starting from insulation! We retrofitted rafter vents into our attic today, which rocks a 4:12 pitch roof and is filled with loose fiberglass insulation. Let me tell you, not my favorite renovation task. But it means that we can finally blow all these cellulose into the attic that has been sitting in our garage!

First Christmas at Ranch and the Six-Month Tour!

Hi friends! In a couple days, we would have moved into our ranch for six months! I would not say “time flies” because we really packed these six months with renovations and DIYs. But I am so glad we did what we have done for the house. I recently talked to a neighbor who has been watching our renovation from her windows. When our roofer put down the first row of roof shingles, she was so happy with the color we picked out and let out a big sigh of relief! Haha, I did not know that we are running a real-time renovation show here! Although we were not renovating for anyone else but ourselves, getting thumbs-up from our neighbors is surely a nice thing and very encouraging.

I made a really quick tour to show you what the ranch looks like at its six-month mark, including our humble Christmas decor. I am beyond excited about the first holiday season in our ranch, and it is just as exciting to look back at how much we have accomplished since June. So if you are free the next 8 minutes, click on the tour and let me walk (and talk) you through our little ranch!

For those of you who could not watch the videos, you can get a pretty good idea of our journey from the before-and-after photos below.

The curb appeal and front entry

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Lots has happened since the first week after we moved in. We have since –

Replaced our leaky, 20 year-old roof (here, here, here, and here)
Installed new gutter
Painted the trims, soffit and fascia
Demo-ed the front porch and patio
Replaced the front storm door, painted the front door, and dressed up the front entries with decorative quarter round
Corrected the drainage issues by demoing the flower bed and laying down drainage rocks
Replaced rusty window wells
Cleaned up exterior wires and patched all the cracks and nail holes

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This is our front door today, a far cry from the front entry we inherited.

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The living room did not change much after we ripped off the wall-to-wall carpet and set up a dining table under the big picture window. We have been slowly adding plants to our home, and hung a cow art collection which really brings color into the living space.

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We still do not have a sofa (oops), but we are content with just two armchairs and do not feel the need for anything bigger yet. You can usually find Roxie on one of the arm chairs and Charlie on the dog bed in front of Slav’s vinyl collection.

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Christmas Decor and new LED lights

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We got our Christmas decor up this past week. Like the past years, we celebrate Christmas with a humble pre-lit tree in our living room, an artificial wreath on the front door, and minimal decor dotted in each room.

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The cute salt and pepper shaker:

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For the exterior, we ordered all brand-new LED string lights and wrapped them around the two trees in the front yard (this one) and our holiday wreath (this one). They do cost more, but I expect them to last longer. Since this LED string light can switch from the christmassy tri-colors to warm white color, we also plan to use them between the holiday seasons.

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The pine tree in the front yard

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The tree outside of Slav’s office

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From 5pm to midnight, our house looks like this from the street:

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Our view from the dinner table:

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The bed, bath, and beyond

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Our bedroom has not changed since we ripped off the carpet and first set it up. The main floor bath got a good scrub with all new caulking, but the total overhaul is still yet to happen. We are over-analyzers and it usually takes us a long time to commit to a final design. So the master suite plan will be simmering for months to come. However, we did develop a solid plan for Slav’s office, the second (and bigger) bedroom on the main floor. We plan to tackle the office as soon as the new year ball drops – so stay toned, friends!

The kitchen

The room in which we did start making changes is the kitchen. We removed the cabinets over the fridge soon after we moved in, replaced all the old caulking, and recently relocated and modified the sideboard.

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The old cabinets are still rocking on the other side of the kitchen, and believe or not, we are currently using half of these cabinet (some of them are just too gross to us). Since these cabinets will not be reused in the new kitchen, we will be play with them to get some ideas for the best layout for the future kitchen. It will be a fun project to fiddle with with some eggnog latte this Christmas.

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The garage

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Our garage is easily my favorite place in the house – the other close contender is the garden shed we completed overhauled (links below). I found myself visiting the garage for no obvious reason, but to admire how organized and clean it is. Can you blame me when this is the before? Does anyone else do it? Please let me know that I am not the only one crazy about a garage.

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In the garage, we have –

Added more outlets to the workbench wall
Resurfaced the end wall
Created a paint storage
DIY-ed a ski rack and adding a mud-area
Replaced the weather stripping on garage door and dressed it up with decorative quarter rounds
Put up pegboards and tool organization 
Decided to demo the old garage ceiling

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The yard

Here are two short videos showing you the side and back yard. They are a couple minutes each.

This yard is certainly a big factor that sold us on the house. And we are glad that we made the right decision. Roxie and Charlie spent most of their awaking hours in the yard, running, playing, chasing squirrels, and sunbathing. Slav replaced the old storm door with a new one and added a doggy door, and I set up an automatic water station for the pups at the back. Keeping our pups content is an important priority for us. Do you know that up to 30% of millennials purchase proprieties for their pets? I can totally relate.

When it is too hot outside, you can find Roxie and Charlie lounging behind the shed. Oh the shed, it is probably the most finished in the house, because it is rebuilt with 99% new material. We demo-ed it to the studs, rebuilt the walls back up, painted it, trimmed around, organized garden tools inside, and added finishing touches to it after the roof replacement and extension. We also added compost bins to the back of the shed (here and here).

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The biggest project we have done to the backyard is replacing the old back patio (here, here, here, and here). Along with the back patio build, we replaced the old window wells and laid down drainage rocks. We also updated backyard lighting here and there.

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The utility

Before we bought the ranch, I did not know how much the hidden cost of a property can be – utility upgrades, insulation, landscaping, all costs lots of $$ that we were not really prepared for. The reason that you have not seem many new furniture and finished on the main floor, is that we have spent every single penny on the new electrical panel, more outlets, a brand new furnace and central cooling system, the tankless water heater, a set of washer and dryer, which led to the expansion of our utility room in the basement. Along with the back patio and a new roof, we have pumped over $20000 into the ranch house in cash. But we knew it is well worth the warmth, comfort, and security we are enjoying in our little ranch. And the effort we put in to this house will be rewarded. When money is tight, we balance these big expenses with small upgrades here and there. But our love and attention for the ranch has never worn off a bit.

Here you have it, our six-month house tour and our first Christmas season in the ranch. We’ve been sipping eggnog under the tree and talk about our plans for the ranch house in 2018, which we will share with you on the blog soon. I hope you enjoy a peaceful and happy holiday at the comfort of your own home.  And thank you so much for supporting us during 2017!

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