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Memorial Day Travel; Hybrid Cars Cost More, But Drivers Save Long-Term at the Pump; Best Lawn On The Block

Aired May 26, 2007 - 09:30:00   ET


T.J. HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR, CNN SATURDAY MORNING: But we have Gerri Willis coming up with Memorial Day weekend coverage. OPEN HOUSE starts right now.
GERRI WILLIS, CNN PERSONAL FINANCE EDITOR, OPEN HOUSE: Good morning, I'm Gerri Willis. And this is OPEN HOUSE, the show that saves you money.

Coming up, lower your property taxes. Learn how to fight back against unfair assessments.

Then, summer is here. We'll show you how to protect what's outside of your home from the elements.

And how to have the best lawn in the neighborhood.

But first, gas prices set yet another record this week, making it the longest stretch of time that prices have stayed over $3 a gallon. Now, if you depend on a car, which of course, most of us do, there is some fuel-efficient choices out there that can ease the pain at the pump. Jon Linkov is with "Consumer Reports."

Jon, great to see you again.

JON LINKOV, "CONSUMER REPORTS": Thanks, Gerri. Thanks for having me here.

WILLIS: We wanted to take a look at some of the numbers. Devil's in the details here when it comes to really high fuel-efficiency cars. It's very confusing. Let's start out with small sedans. Everybody knows about the Toyota Prius, but these days you can't even get the tax benefit anymore. And of course, this is not an inexpensive car.

LINKOV: No, it's not. It's about $24,000, or so. What Toyota has done to compensate for the tax benefits -- going away, particularly at September 1, they're gone for the Toyota products -- they've had incentive on the Prius to get them to move. They do want to increase market share, they want get that car out there, and get more people seeing it for the next and the next generation, so.

WILLIS: You've got great numbers on fuel cost per year. You're assuming people drive 15,000 miles a year.

LINKOV: Roughly, right, right.

WILLIS: And we're assuming $3 a gallon at the pump, which is a little lower than now, but sort of the average that we've been seeing.


WILLIS: So using that formulation, the Prius is best on fuel cost, right?

LINKOV: Right. It gets 44 miles per gallon overall in our testing. So that's a combination of highway and city driving. But if you're paying $3 a gallon, you could spend about $1,000 a year on fuel, doing average driving, combination of city and highway.

WILLIS: The better deal, actually, if you only cared with money, might be the Honda Fit or maybe the Toyota Yaris.

LINKOV: Right, with the vehicles that are less expensive, and particularly those that aren't hybrids, you're not paying that premium to get into a hybrid, for example. So it's a $10,000 difference in price, for example, for the Honda Fit. And then you spend maybe a little more, $1,300 in fuel a year, because it doesn't get the exact same mileage, about 34 miles per gallon.

WILLIS: OK, we see some small sedans that aren't so great, starting with the Subaru Impreza -- am I saying that right?

LINKOV: Yes, the Subaru Impreza.


We have a Chevy there, the Cobalt. You see those right there. Not so great.

LINKOV: Yeah, they're good. I mean, they're 23, 24 miles per gallon, but you can do much better, and it's a trade-off between price. You spend about $1800 a year in gas versus $1,000 or $1300.

WILLIS: Let's talk about the family sedan. Now on this list, we have like the world's most popular cars. We've got the Camry, the Accord, particularly with the good performers here. And you can see they do pretty well with the gas mileage here.

LINKOV: They do; 34 miles per gallon for the Camry hybrid, which is a really nice car to drive, 25 with the Accord hybrid. It's a little more of a performance car than a fuel sipper. But you can also get non-hybrids, the Nissan Altima and Chevy Malibu, 24 miles per gallon, overall.

WILLIS: OK, the ones that aren't so great? I'm surprised to see the Mazda 6, here.

LINKOV: Yes, the Mazda 6 is a big sedan, has a V-6 engine in there. It's just not getting great mileage. You pay in the premium for the V-6, but you also pay in fuel.

WILLIS: All right, small SUVs?

LINKOV: Well, you're looking at the Ford Escape Hybrid, the Saturn Vue Greenline, both good mileage, you pay about $1700 to $1800 a year.

WILLIS: Oh, my goodness, and SUV? How is an SUV like really fuel-efficient?

LINKOV: Well what they do is the Ford Escape has all-wheel drive. If you don't need that, you can go with the VUE, which is just front-wheel drive, less weight. But its a small SUV. So, you can get the utility, but you don't have a big vehicle that has three rows, has all the stuff in it, and that's going to weigh down the vehicle in mileage.

WILLIS: So the small SUVs are not so great? OK, we have the Jeep Wrangler, which I know everybody loves.

LINKOV: It's a fun car. But it's designed for off-road, it's not designed for commuting.

WILLIS: OK, and so, not so great, Dodge Nitro, you're seeing that there. And then the Toyota, which surprised me.

LINKOV: Well, the Toyota FJ Cruiser is like Toyota's version of the Jeep Wrangler, not an open-top car, but it's a big V-6 engine, it's very heavy. It's an off-road vehicle and you'll pay $26,000 a year in fuel costs with that, because it gets 17 miles per gallon.

WILLIS: Jon, great information.

LINKOV: Oh, my pleasure.

WILLIS: Thank you so much. We appreciate your time.

LINKOV: Thank you.

WILLIS: Gas prices are spiking. I don't have to tell you. That and of course, carpooling. People are talking about that now. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, three-quarters of trips made to, and from, work are in a single-passenger vehicle. But before you go the carpool way, there are some rules. That's right, rules to keep in mind. Lauren Young is from "Business Week" magazine. She's going to talk to us about rules.

You know, Lauren --

LAUREN YOUNG, "BUSINESSWEEK": The rules of the road, Gerri, the rules of the road.

WILLIS: You know, Lauren, does this mean I have to talk to people in the morning? That's what I'm really worried about. If I car pool, are people going to talk to me, and expect an intelligent exchange?

YOUNG: Well, that's a good question and you have to set those ground rules ahead of time. Because if you like rap and the person likes Rachmaninov, or you want to chat about your child's soccer game, and the other person could care less. You definitely need to kind of get to know each. That's why I actually recommend before setting up a carpool partnership, meet first. Have coffee or lunch, or something. WILLIS: It's like a date. Come on, we're talking about a carpool and it's the eHarmony of commuting, right?

YOUNG: It is, because you're spending a very concrete amount of time in a small, contained area with some potentially one, two, maybe even five other people if you're doing a van.

WILLIS: Well, you know, I use public transportation, so I'm acting like this is a horrible thing. But I'm with strangers every morning during my commute, but nobody talks. And it's all very civilized. So, you know, how do you make that work with such a small group of people? I mean, you say set ground rules, but do we write them down?


WILLIS: Is there a real rule book to follow?

YOUNG: You actually should write them down. Meet beforehand and kind of discuss what it is that you're trying to achieve here. Do you want to meet and carpool? And I actually recommend doing it -- easing your way into, it maybe one or two days a week at first, and then ramping it up a little bit as you're getting --

I know, it sounds really funny, but it's important, because you just want to have some flexibility, because there are inevitably going to be days, too, when you need to use the car at the end of work, or do some errands.

WILLIS: Well, that's a big deal for people. Especially moms are very worried that they're going to get stranded at work that, something's going to happen. And I've read that companies will actually step in, particularly if you're carpooling and saving the environment, and help you out in that situation.

YOUNG: They will. They have an emergency taxi service, for example. That's why you actually want to tell your employer, too, that you're thinking about doing this. Don't do it in a vacuum. A lot of companies will offer incentives, even give you up to $1,000 a year to help you kick back, but definitely get something in writing ahead of time.

WILLIS: It's like a pre-nup -- like a pre-nup for --

YOUNG: It's a pre-nup for driving. And you want to check out their insurance, too, and their driving record. I mean, you're going to trust yourself behind the wheel of somebody else, potentially.

WILLIS: And there are some websites that you'll definitely want to check out. and

Lauren, thanks so much for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

YOUNG: Gerri, it was my pleasure.

WILLIS: All right, up ahead, you don't have to accept your real estate taxes. We'll tell you how to fight back.

Then, prepare and protect your home from the elements this summer.

And how to have the best lawn in the neighborhood from the man who keeps Tiger Woods happy on the golf course.

But first, your "Tip Of The Day."


WILLIS (voice over): Selling your home this summer? Keep potential buyers in your home longer by beating the dreaded heat.

MICHAEL CORBETT, AUTHOR, "READY, SET, SOLD": It's the summer. It's hot out. Make sure when your house is being viewed that you get in there an hour ahead and make sure the air conditioning's on, the doors and windows are open, if you can.

WILLIS: Make sure your grass is green and your outdoor deck is clutter-free. And a bit of common courtesy can go a long way.

CORBETT: Have a picture of water with some beautiful lemon slices and a beautiful ice pitcher and glasses sitting there in the kitchen for them. They're hot, they're tired. Because the longer a buyer stays in your house, the more they become emotionally bonded to it.

WILLIS: And that's your "Tip Of The Day."



WILLIS: Home prices may be dropping, but property taxes are still climbing higher. But as a homeowner, you can fight back. Sean Callebs explains.


JON WITTLIN, HOMEOWNER: I'm not going to pay more than I need to.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It has become a rallying cry for homeowners who believe tax assessors are sticking it to them. And it's put local government on the defensive.

BERT NASUTI, GWINNETT COUNTY COMMISSIONER: I hear from people when they get reassessed. I mean, sometimes I don't like it.

CALLEBS: John Wittlin has watched his family grow since settling into this home in suburban north Atlanta several years ago. Even as the housing market cooled, Wittlin expected he would still receive a modest jump in his property value, but he was shocked when the county raised his assessed value of his home from about $250,000 to $350,000. He fought back. WITTLIN: I think a lot of people just sit back and don't do anything. They don't know how to, or they just don't do it.

CALLEBS: Wittlin wasn't alone, so he started a grassroots effort to help his neighbors fight back. It starts with a letter-writing campaign and can progress to legal action. So how exactly does a county determine the assessed value?

NASUTI: I think one of the most effective things to look at is how you are rated compared to a neighbor.

CALLEBS: But Wittlin's house was being compared to a home more than a mile out of his subdivision, where homes are newer, larger, and admittedly nicer.

Here's what homeowners should look at if they want to fight back -- quality of public schools, street traffic, proximity to an airport, and in Wittlin's case, power lines right next to his house, which weren't there when he moved in.

WITTLIN: Here's where we are. We're right here on this corner.

CALLEBS (on camera): OK.

WITTLIN: Here's a sewage treatment plant. Here's a field with radio towers.

CALLEBS: This is the Wittlin's home. These are the tension lines that went up after he went in. It's important to note that not everyone who goes up against the tax assessment office wins, but Wittlin did. Pairing back the proposed assessed value of his home from $350,000 to nearly $250,000, saving him about $1,000 a year. Sean Callebs, CNN, in Gwinnett County, Georgia.


WILLIS: Now, you might not believe this, but 70 percent of homeowners who fight for lower taxes are successful. Here are some ways you can become part of that 70 percent.

First off, you'll have to prove your home is worthless than city hall thinks it is. That means exposing your home's warts. Start with getting your home's assessment record at the local assessor's office and combing the reports for errors. Remember, many assessors do their job from the sidewalk, or maybe use a computer program to determine values. Now, if you find a mistake, document it with photographs and inspection reports.

The other way to fight your taxes is to prove your house was assessed the at a higher rate than comparable homes in your area. Find out the assessment figures on five to 10 homes that are the same size, age, and in the same area as your own home. These numbers are a matter of public record.

And finally, keep a written log of everything you do. It can always come in handy during the process. Straight ahead on OPEN HOUSE, more and more of you are putting money into the outside of your home. We'll show you how to protect that investment and how to have the absolute best lawn in the neighborhood. You're going to learn from the best when we come right back. But first, your mortgage numbers.



WILLIS: If your neighbor's lawn is leaving you green with envy, listen up. Today's "Weekend Project" gives you all the ingredients you need to grow the best turf on the block. We went straight to the pros, the folks at Winged Foot Golf Club, host of five U.S. Open Championships.


WILLIS (on camera): So, Eric, let's start with mowing. I've got to tell you, how often do you mow? How much do you mow? How high should that grass be?

ERIC GREYTOK, SUPERINTENDENT, WINGED FOOT GOLF CLUB: It really depends on a lot of things. I mean, if you have warm, wet weather, the grass is going to be growing tremendously. You might have to mow it twice a week. You should really just mow it about two to three inches. Anything higher than that, you're going to be bagging a lot of clippings. Anything lower than that, you might kill the grass.

You only want to remove one-third of the plant at any time. Then that way, the plant can continue on with its photosynthesis and food production.

WILLIS (voice over): Another key ingredient for a healthy lawn is the right amount of water.

(On camera): Generally when watering, it is what? Only two to three minutes, five to 10 minutes, 10 to 20? How long should it go on for?

GREYTOK: I would say anywhere from five to 10 minutes. If you're doing it every day, less.

WILLIS: Hey, I don't have time for every day.

GREYTOK: If you're watering every day, then I would only recommend four to five minutes. And if that's not enough, then you increase it from there.

WILLIS (voice over): Proper maintenance is also the best defense against weeds. What is the worst weed here at Winged Foot?

GREYTOK: You know, we're -- every spring we go around and we take the time and treat for clover and dandelions, like the average homeowner.

WILLIS: Just like me, right?

GREYTOK: Right. Every -- the problems that we have here are, you know, all over.

WILLIS: And so what do you do, though? Because I'm having no success against dandelions.

GREYTOK: We generally go out and spot treat with herbicides.

WILLIS: OK, so if there is one thing you could tell homeowners, what would that be?

GREYTOK: One thing? I think it's a two-part question, proper fertility and proper water management, you'll have a great lawn.

WILLIS: But despite the best care, you may end up with so-called thin spots, areas where grass is scarce or non-existent.

GREYTOK: What you can do is, Ben is taking this rake here and he's raking up the ground, and he's distributing the seed in the thin spot.

WILLIS: Well, I've done this myself before, and I don't necessarily get grass after you put this seed down.

GREYTOK: Right, right. The key to this is good seed-to-soil contact. So if you have small areas like this, Ben's going to show you a real scientific method for getting seed-to-soil method. He's going to work it in with his hands.

WILLIS: With his hands, OK.

GREYTOK: And then he's going to step on it.

WILLIS: And step on it?

GREYTOK: Right. That's what we're talking

WILLIS: Mix it up --

GREYTOK: Yeah, the seed needs to be in contact with the soil to germinate.

WILLIS (voice over): If you're looking for a quick fix, try this.

GREYTOK: You can go to any home lawn center and you can buy sod by the piece. You can buy one piece or 20 pieces.

WILLIS (on camera): It probably costs a ton of dough, though, right?

GREYTOK: It is a lot more expensive. Seed is the more economical route to go. If you really desire an instant lawn, then sod's the --

WILLIS: Nothing beats this, right? GREYTOK: Nothing beats sod.

WILLIS: And it's not that hard to do, right? I mean, how tough can this be? You just roll it out, right?

GREYTOK: Basically. I mean, coming in, you can see we've stripped the existing grass away from here. And the guys have hand- raked it out, applied lime and starter fertilizer, come in, laid the sod. And now, really, all you have to do is water it.

WILLIS: So there's just one more thing to do. It looks so easy when Tiger does it.


WILLIS: OK, the cheering was not for me.

As always, if you have an idea for a "Weekend Project" send us an e-mail to And if you want to check out this "Weekend Project" again, check out our

Still ahead, protect your biggest investment, your home. It's next after a trip to a barbecue haven on this Memorial Day weekend edition of "Local Lowdown."


WILLIS (voice over): Kansas City, smack dab in the heart of America. It's within 250 miles of both the geographic and population centers of the U.S., but it's barbecue bull's eye with more than 90 restaurants to choose from.

Each fall, American Royal hosts what it claims to be the world's biggest barbecue contest, as well as livestock and rodeo shows. And to quench your thirst after all that sweet and spicy finger-licking food, the city's tap water was recently rated the cleanest among the 50 largest cities in the U.S. That's your "Local Lowdown."


WILLIS: Chances are, this Memorial Day weekend you're going to spend some extra time outside. More and more Americans are spending time, and money, beefing up their backyard. That's why it's more important than ever to know how to protect that investment. CNN's Bonnie Schneider explains.


BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST (voice over): On this street of fully decorated, open houses, potential buyers gaze at the homes' impressive exteriors, but it's the comfy, outdoor patios that makes them stop and linger.

WALLY KELLEMAN, SNELLVILLE, GEORGIA: And here we have the cross breezes, and you can spend as much time outside as inside. SCHNEIDER: A home's outdoor space has now become a full extension of the living area, often complete with fireplaces, fountains, and barbecues, according to homebuilder Skip Faye.

SKIP FAY, SUMMIT HOMES PARTNER: They like to eat outside, they like to grill outside. Most people are grilling at least two or three times and week. And they will sit outside to eat dinner.

SCHNEIDER: Sitting areas are much more comfortable than they used to be. The furniture is plush and cozy.

FAY: They're soft cushions. It's like a chair that's in your family room.

SCHNEIDER: Curtains around this patio make it look like a resort, but they're actually weather-proof, to block bright sunshine or incoming rain.

Sprucing up your outdoor space doesn't have to be expensive. At COSTCO, one of the biggest trends is fire pits.

GARY MOSSNER, GENERAL MANAGER, COSTCO: People want to entertain. They want the ambiance of having an indoor fireplace. They can get it on the outside with a fire pit.

SCHNEIDER: For shelter from sun and rain, day beds and large umbrellas are top sellers. They're made with Sunbrella fabric for weather protection.

MOSSNER: It won't fade to the sunlight. It blocks the UV rays. And it just protects the elements, waterproof.

SCHNEIDER: Water would definitely leak through this enclosure, but it's the hot buy for this season. It's called a pergola.

(On camera): What's the advantage of having this in your backyard?

MOSSNER: Well, as for aesthetics, but it also does block out some of the elements and the sunlight.

SCHNEIDER (voice over): The cost?

MOSSNER: Anywheres from around $500 up, and they could go up to almost $2,000.

SCHNEIDER: At Home Depot, you'll also find the trend of plush but weather-resistant furniture, day beds, and lights that look like they belong inside your home. But these solar lights will only work if they're outside.

PATRICK OWENS, DEPARTMENT HEAD, IN-STORE GARDENING: They charge on sunshine during the day with rechargeable batteries, and they, basically, at dusk, they come on.

SCHNEIDER: The outdoors are no longer for roughing it. In any weather, you can enjoy one extra room of your home, where the walls and ceiling are Mother Nature.


WILLIS: Bonnie Schneider is at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

And Bonnie, great stuff you showed us. It looks like temperatures, though, are already summer-like out there. How can we stay cool?

SCHNEIDER: Well, you're right, temperatures are skyrocketing. We had some record highs this week, and we're looking at hot weather for the weekend, too.

If you've ever been to a hotel or restaurant in Phoenix or Las Vegas in the summertime, they have a cool device that you can actually now buy for your home. It's called a misting fan, and they cost a lot less than you think, for under $100.

What they do is they blow about the air outside, but they also blow a very fine mist of water. It may not seem like a lot, but it certainly can make you feel more cool and comfortable outside.

WILLIS: Wow. Sounds nice. Bonnie, thank you so much.


WILLIS: Forecasters are predicting a busy 2007 hurricane season. Next week, OPEN HOUSE will be coming to you from Florida to tell you everything you need to know about protecting your home this hurricane season.

That's OPEN HOUSE: "Prepare and Protect" next week on CNN Saturday 9:30 a.m. Eastern time and 5:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday on "Headline News".

As always, we thank you for spending part of your Saturday with us. Don't go anywhere. Your top stories are next in the CNN "Newsroom." Have a great weekend.


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