Increase the odds of a happy homestay

Homestays -- rooms, apartments or homes rented directly from the owner, typically for vacation accommodations -- are certainly nothing new. But a handful of websites, including Airbnb (the largest, with more than 3 million global listings), HomeAway, VRBO and FlipKey, have made them easier than ever to find, vet and book, creating a robust new home-sharing marketplace, providing alternatives to hotel accommodations.

Fans say they make vacations more authentic and affordable. But do the rewards outweigh the risks? Consumer Reports offers these five ways to increase the odds of a happy homestay.

1. Compare prices carefully. The per-night or per-week price you see in search results is only part of the total cost. Check the listing for the service fee, which can add up to 14.5 percent to the cost, as well as an additional cleaning fee, which can vary as much as the properties themselves, depending on the size of the rental and the length of your stay. After you've narrowed down your choices to a few favorite properties, compare their total cost.

2. Read between the lines of the reviews. Because the average Airbnb rating is 4.7 out of 5 stars, it's essential to read reviews with a critical eye. "Everybody feels socially pressured to write positive reviews, so if something is the slightest bit negative, pay attention to that," says Leigh Gallagher, author of "The Airbnb Story." If someone says an apartment is "on the small side," it could well be tiny; if they say that it's "a little run-down," it could be a dump.

3. Choose a property that has many reviews. Airbnb's "Superhosts" have hosted at least 10 times in a year and received a 5-star review for at least 80 percent of stays, so listings with that status are a good bet. In general, look for a property that has at least eight to 10 reviews, Gallagher says. Consumer Reports points out that you'll glean more helpful information from a reviewer with similar tastes and preferences to yours, which you can determine from other properties they've reviewed.

4. Leave nothing to chance. Manage your own expectations by double-checking everything from how many people can shower before the hot water runs out to whether the kitchen has a microwave and a coffee maker. Available amenities such as WiFi will be shown on the listing, but if you don't see something, don't assume it will be there. When in doubt, ask the host -- before making a reservation.

5. Negotiate a discount. If your favorite option is a bit rich for your budget, Consumer Reports suggests trying your luck at asking for a discount. "As a host, I'll often negotiate on price if I'm not booked solid," says an Airbnb host in Las Vegas who goes by the username Anand. She's particularly persuadable if the guests write a nice note explaining who they are and why they like her house. "Yes, sucking up can work," she says.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

Can your lawn be saved

Brown grass? The first thing you need to do is find out if it's really dead.

Here's a test: Pull a patch of grass with roots attached, and put it in a coffee cup. Place it on a windowsill inside your house, add water and watch to see whether the grass grows. If the grass is alive, it will start to green up at the base within a couple of days, according to Frank Rossi, a turf scientist and an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell University.

Here's some advice on how to save your lawn from Consumer Reports.

-- If it's alive: Give brown grass (not dead grass) just enough water for survival. About 0.1 to 0.2 inches every two to three weeks should be enough water to keep the grass "crown" -- the roots and blades at the soil line from which grass grows -- alive. But it won't green up until later in the season, when temperatures are cooler or water conditions improve.

-- Or give up: If the same spot goes brown season after season, it may not be because of the grass. Chronic lawn problems are often caused by the soil or a lack of light. Heavily compacted soil denies a lawn much-needed oxygen. Aerating the soil with a core aerator will help it breathe and promote growth, no matter what you decide to plant, whether it's a lawn or native plants and ground cover. Fall is the best time to aerate because spring is when weeds usually sprout. (Aerating then can spread weed seeds.)

Giving up on Grass

Transitioning to a yard with little or no grass doesn't mean giving up greenery. Consumer Reports offers these water-saving options.

1. Start with the design. Sketch your property as it is, noting its orientation to the sun and wind. Create zones based on watering needs: high, moderate, low and very low, suggests Peter Estournes, co-owner of Gardenworks in Healdsburg, California, which specializes in sustainable landscaping.

2. Till the soil. Turning over the soil in low-water zones exposes it to moisture and air. Adding organic matter, such as compost or manure, can also help soil hold in moisture, which is important to help establish new plants while using less water.

3. Go native. Local plants can often thrive with less water and may cool the air around your home as well as the lawn, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Established plants, shrubs and trees use less water than most common turf grasses. Consumer Reports recommends going to epa.gov/watersense and clicking "outdoor" and "landscaping tips" for low-water and native plants for your region.

4. Don't crowd new plants. Leave enough room between plants to allow them to grow to their full size without being overcrowded, even if they look sparse at first.

5. Don't forget mulch. Two to 3 inches of organic material per season will reduce evaporation, keeping soil moist and controlling water-thirsty weeds. It also helps fill in the spaces between new plants.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org

5 Causes of back pain

Not all back injuries are created equal. Here are some of the most prevalent conditions and symptoms from Consumer Reports.

1. Muscle injuries. Overstretched or injured muscles, tendons or ligaments can result in strains, sprains or spasms. Poor posture, prolonged sitting, strenuous work and repetitive action, such as throwing a ball or weeding a garden, can stress so-called "soft tissues" in your back.

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2. Degenerative changes. As you age, the gellike disks cushioning the bones of your spine and the cartilage lining the joints can begin to wear. Consumer Reports explains that that allows the bones to rub against one another, causing osteoarthritis. Some degeneration of this kind is harmless and unavoidable.

3. Herniated, or slipped, disks. Lifting, pulling, bending or twisting puts pressure on the disks. That pressure can cause them to bulge or slip. When a bulging disk in the lower spine irritates the sciatic nerve, the sharp pain, called sciatica, is often excruciating and can radiate down a leg even when there's no back pain.

4. Spinal stenosis. The spine responds to degenerative changes by growing new bone in the joints and thickening the ligaments to provide better support. But over time, those bone spurs and thickened ligaments narrow the space around the spinal cord and can irritate nerves. Symptoms include numbness, weakness or cramping in the back, buttocks, arms or legs.

5. Spinal instability. When disks and joints wear, they don't do as good a job supporting the spine. As a result, vertebrae move more than they should. In some cases, a bone slides forward, causing a condition called spondylolisthesis. Symptoms often come and go suddenly, sometimes shifting from one side of the body to the other, and can include a feeling of weakness in the legs with prolonged standing or walking.

When Pain Strikes

Call your doctor if it's accompanied by symptoms that can indicate a serious problem, including unrelenting pain, especially after a hard fall or an accident; weak or numb legs; loss of bladder or bowel control; fever, chills or infection; unexplained weight loss; and a history of cancer. If none of those apply to you, Consumer Reports suggests these steps to provide quick relief:

-- Apply heat. Try a warm shower, a hot-water bottle or a heating pad or wrap. There's less evidence for icing, though some people say it feels good.

-- Get comfortable. Try lying on your back with your legs up on a chair or on your side with a pillow between your bent knees, sitting with a pillow behind your back, or standing with one foot on a stool.

-- Stretch. Do slow, gentle moves, such as pulling your knees to your chest while lying down or bending slightly backward while standing.

-- Don't stay down. Walk every few hours.

-- Consider an OTC pain reliever. While new advice emphasizes nondrug measures, anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (Advil or generic) or naproxen (Aleve and generic) are OK for a week or so and work better for back pain than acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic).

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.

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