Ask Hannah Holmes

Hannah Holmes

Home Rx

Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on stainless steel versus “seal tears,” banishing rodents from barns, and more. 

Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams

Have a question for Hannah?

Send your Maine home or garden conundrum to ha[email protected] and we may feature it in an upcoming column.

Our appliance salesman told us our brand-new stainless-steel appliances are rusty because we live so close to the ocean. Really?


I once knew a seal researcher who “tagged” seals by squirting bleach at them from a distance. The resulting pattern on their fur made them easy to identify. But imagine the horror of onlooking tourists who saw him accidentally zap a seal right in the eye! Happily, seals, who have to keep their eyes open in salt water, have evolved thick, gloopy tears that shield them from salt and other irritants.

Stainless steel has not been evolving nearly as long as seals have. It’s pretty good with salt water (and salty air), but it has a ways to go. To remove the rusty spots, apply a baking soda-water paste to a cloth and rub gently with the grain of the steel. To keep the salt from getting right back to work, use a stainless-steel cleaner that advertises a protective or polishing effect. Alternatively, seal tears should do the trick.

Can you provide some tips for keeping mice, squirrels, and other critters out of barns and attics?

home maintenance advice

Squirrels, bats, and rats are easier to manage than mice, for a couple reasons: They’re big enough that pest control experts can locate their entry points; and they leave your hotel regularly to eat their meals.

But because a mouse can come and go through a gap no wider than a pencil, and it isn’t his wont to leave once settled, mouse prevention is challenging in an older structure. Often, it’s simpler to give these guests no reason to stay. Lock up the food. This isn’t simple either, because “food” includes everything from bagel crumbs to bacon fat, dog kibbles, horse grain, and the birdseed under your neighbor’s feeder. For its parasitic persistence, the mouse looms large in the human psyche. We can probably be divided into two tribes according to this age-old conflict: those who strive to build a better mousetrap and those who delegate the problem to a cat.

I have a lakefront property. When I bought the house, the yard was a mass of weeds and overgrown plants. What are some safe products to use to kill the weeds and get grass to grow? How do you take care of your plants when living on a lake?

home maintenance advice

Step one: define “weed.” In the course of writing Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, I learned that lawn grasses are a bunch of European imports — er, weeds. They need a sloppy subsidy of herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer if they hope to dominate a landscape. None of those chemicals has any business near a body of water.

I also learned that I was the unwitting owner of an eco-friendly “freedom lawn.” To create your own, just mow. That’s it. What plants can survive without chemical coddling are free to stay.

Step two: reduce erosion. Observe how water crosses your land, and use plants, berms, and mulch to slow it down. For specific plant, shrub, and tree suggestions, and maintenance tips, check out the Buffer Handbook Plant List available on

If we were to design a tiny home, what type of insulation would be best to use?


Let’s assume your tiny house is sessile, stationary, secured to the earth. Untethered tinies introduce vibration and weight considerations that complicate the question. Because space is at a premium, you want the highest R-value per inch. That means spendy rigid foam.

My favorite DIY option is used polyisocyanurate. A Massachusetts-based outfit called Insulation Depot harvests 4-by-8-foot foam boards from commercial buildings and resells them. They may be a bit dirty or dented, but the R-value per dollar can’t be beat.

Luke Lucier, of Portland- and Biddeford-based Tiny Houses of Maine, warns that insulating foams are such great sealants that they introduce problems with indoor air stagnation and moisture. That, in turn, introduces the need for a professional air exchange plan.

Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Greater Portland and the author of four science titles, including The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari. A veteran renovator of old houses, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at


Maine Homes March/April Cover