These common sense steps can help you cut your winter utility bills down to size

While much of eastern Colorado has only recently began to experience winter in its most well-known form – snow – the cold has been here a while, and that means the furnace is kicking on and the utility bills are climbing. offers these common sense and affordable – if not free – steps to keeping those bills from climbing too high (though they may not have the impact new windows would have):

1. Bundle up! OK, so Coloradans are used to the cold, but we don’t have to run around in shorts, a tank top and sandals in the middle of winter to prove it. Instead of turning the heat up to accommodate summer wear, don on a sweater or sweatshirt, sweats, socks and fuzzy slippers. Keep a fuzzy blanket nearby to cuddle up in while watching TV, reading or chatting with friends, and lay down throw rugs on hardwood and tile floors to eliminate the shock of the ice cold surfaces. Then turn down the heat!

2. Cover up the windows and doors with plastic that aren’t used during the winter months. Window kits sell for about $5 per window and can help eliminate drafts to keep in the heat. If kits or plastic sheeting aren’t in the budget, hang blankets to help insulate.

3. Turning the heat down to a reasonable 60 degrees at night and when no one is home can make a big difference on your bill. Adjust the thermostat manually for free, or spend a few bucks on a programmable thermostat, in case you’re liable to forget adjusting the thermostat.

4. After baking cookies or making dinner in the oven, leave the door open a crack. There’s a lot of heat in that oven, so letting it escape puts the heat to good use by warming up the kitchen and surrounding rooms, and the furnace won't have to run quite as much.

5. Use a space heater only in the current room you are hanging out in. This will take the nip out of the air to make you feel more comfortable without heating all of the other rooms in the house and wasting energy.

6. Use silicone to fill any cracks in doors, windows, etc., including the basement floor and walls. You would be surprised at how much heat is lost through cracks that seem insignificant. A tube of caulk or silicone will only run you a few dollars and it’s an easy weekend project.

7. Close any doors and vents to rooms that are not used regularly, such as the guest room that sits empty most of the time. Doing so can easily cut 100 to 200 square feet off of your energy footprint.

8. Put weather stripping around windows and doors, especially in an older home, as the seals around doors and windows can deteriorate over time.

9. Cover up the attic entry with plastic, pieces of insulation, old blankets, weather stripping, saran wrap, painter drop cloth or even a few old shirts. Any of those materials will help to slow – if not, stop – the drafts and warm air from floating away through the roof. Heat rises and may get sucked up through the attic, so you may not notice a cold draft even though your expensive hot air is floating away.

Don’t be deceived by sales stats; 2010 ended on a positive note

Comparing Boulder County communities’ real estate sales statistics for November with the numbers from a year ago or even October might send some into a panic.

But if compared with a year with similar circumstances – 2008, specifically – 2010 actually had strong end, according to Ken Hotard, Boulder Area Realtor Association senior vice president of public affairs.

Only 195 single-family homes and 66 condos/townhomes sold in Boulder communities in November, compared with the 252 single-family homes and 84 townhomes that sold in November 2009.

However, Hotard points out that at this time last year, people were under the impression that the homebuyer tax credit was set to expire at the end of the year. It’s a much more accurate comparison to look at November 2008, when homebuyers had no tax credit to take advantage of by a certain time. Then, like now, the bottom fell out of the housing market.

In November 2008, 149 single-family homes sold and 50 condos/townhomes sold. In comparison, this November’s sales are an improvement, he says.

Another positive fact is the fact that all but two Boulder-area markets – Boulder and the plains – saw increases in average home sales prices ranging between 1.1 percent and 15.3 percent, and all but three – Boulder, the plains and Lafayette – saw increases in the median sales price.

“Prices are holding up extremely well,” Hotard says. “We’re still working on balanced inventories of homes for sale, resulting in healthy absorption rates in most market areas.

Prices and the increasing number of home sales compared with November 2008 paint a picture of an improving market, he adds. The area has a balanced absorption rate, it isn’t over-supplied with inventory and more jobs are coming, he says.

Some of the recent announcements regarding potential job growth include:

• Loveland-based Abound Solar, which has a 200-person manufacturing plant near Longmont, closed on a $400 million federal loan, which will allow the maker of thin-film solar panels to ramp up production and hire 200 more employees in Colorado within the next two years, according to the Boulder Daily Camera. The majority of those new hires will work at the Longmont photovoltaic array manufacturing facility. Abound currently has 350 employees in Colorado.

• Colorado high-tech firms are getting a boost from NASA to speed up manufacturing in hopes of providing 10,000 new jobs over the next five years. The new program will promote manufacturing of new products like thin film solar cells developed in Colorado. An agreement with the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology will help build a technology park somewhere between Loveland and Boulder.

Hotard called the announcements “very positive” and “a great fit for this area in terms of the University of Colorado, all the federal laboratories and the new energy economy.”

He adds, “This is the kind of news that has the ability to trigger consistent market expansion and growth we have been waiting for. People should be feeling relatively good, looking to celebrate a joyful holiday season and launch very positively into the New Year.”

While it’s not clear exactly what steps Congress will take to help the economy over the next year or two other than not raise taxes, Hotard says, consumers should have a bit more money to spend and may be more willing to make longer term investments such as buying a home.

“We’re starting to see more positive economic news setting up for a good end to 2010 and we should be in relatively good shape going into 2011, with the expectation of a healthy market going forward,” he says.

Boulder scores highest out of 200 U.S. metros on’s brain-o-meter

Need Boulder residents be reminded of just how smart they are? Probably not. But in case the world didn’t know, ranked Boulder the smartest metro in the U.S. after analyzing the nation’s 200 largest markets.

Boulder is the home of the University of Colorado and is a “burgeoning hub for high-technology, electronics and aerospace companies,” and is therefore blessed with an economic mix that places a premium on education, according to the online magazine.

The result is a broadly educated workforce: five of every six adults in the Boulder area (82.5 percent) have attended college – the strongest concentration in the study group –  while26 percent of Boulder’s residents hold master’s, doctoral or professional degrees – also the highest figure in the country, reports.

The online magazine says that the U.S. Census Bureau data shows a worker with an advanced degree will earn 31 percent more than a colleague with a bachelor’s degree and 128 percent more than somebody who never went beyond high school. determined the rankings based on point values assigned to five rungs of an educational ladder, from high-school dropouts to holders of advanced degrees The score for a given market depended on the percentage of residents age 25 or older on each rung. The higher the score, the stronger a market’s collective brainpower.

Fort Collins (with Loveland included), home to Colorado State University, also joined Boulder on the list, coming in at No. 5 and making Colorado the only state with two cities among the top 10.

At the opposite end of the rankings are several Texas and California markets where college graduates are outnumbered by high-school dropouts, according to Last place belongs to Merced, California, with a score of -2.558. Thirty-four percent of Merced’s adult residents left high school without receiving diplomas, and only 11.3 percent hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

The study encompassed the 200 metropolitan areas with populations greater than 207,000. If the rankings are confined to markets with at least 1 million residents, the five areas with the strongest brainpower are Washington (third in the overall standings), San Jose (seventh), Boston (eighth), San Francisco-Oakland (10th), and Raleigh (12th).

The top 10 brainiest metros in the top 10 are:

Boulder follows Pueblo among Colorado and metros nationwide for home-price appreciation

It’s been a while since Colorado didn't make an appearance among the top 20 states for home-price appreciation on the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s Quarterly House Price Index. But it happened in the third quarter of 2010 despite most of the state's metros improving their ranking.

With a drop in home prices of 2.88 percent from the third quarter of 2009 and a 2.08 percent drop from the previous quarter, Colorado ranked 28th among 51 on the index. It came in at No. 14 in the second quarter with prices dropping 0.25 percent from the second quarter of 2009 and falling 0.98 percent from the previous quarter.

Although Colorado’s home prices as a whole didn’t perform as well on a national level, its cities’ prices held their own among the 299 metros surveyed. Boulder’s ranking jumped from 74th in the second quarter to 53rd in the third quarter and Denver-Aurora-Broomfield’s climbed an impressive 48 steps from 122nd in the second quarter to 74th in the third quarter.

But perhaps the most impressive improvement in home prices came from Pueblo, which jumped from the 242nd slot in the second quarter to the 47th rank in the third, making it the top-performing city in Colorado - even beating out Boulder, which has held that honor in more recent quarters.

Except for the top 11 states ranked, all states experienced declines in home prices for the year and most for the quarter. The District of Columbia ranked No. 1 aong metros with an appreciation rate of 5.29 percent for the year and 6.79 percent for the quarter.

Here’s a look at how Colorado and its cities ranked for home-price appreciation in the third quarter compared with the nation and the second quarter of 2010: