Saturday, November 28, 2009

5 Essential Questions to ask before hiring a Contractor

You're ready to remodel but you want to make sure you get the best contractor for the job. Here's what to ask the candidates before you decide.

For all of the excitement of choosing plumbing fixtures, cabinets, and tiles for a remodeling project, the most important decision you make won't involve color swatches or glossy brochures. It's the contractor you pick that makes or breaks the job. That choice will determine the quality of the craftsmanship, the timeliness of the work, and the amount of emotional and financial stress the process puts on you. To make sure you're getting the best contractor for the job, here are five questions to ask the candidates.

1. Would you please itemize your bid?

Many contractors prefer to give you a single, bottom-line price for your project, but this puts you in the dark about what they're charging for each aspect of the job. For example, let's say the original plan calls for beadboard wainscot in your bathroom, but you decide not to install it after all. How much should you be credited for eliminating that work? With a single bottom-line price, you have no way to know.

On the other hand, if you get an itemized bid, it'll show the costs for all of the various elements of the job-demolition, framing, plumbing, electrical, tile, fixtures, and so forth. That makes it easier to compare different contractors' prices and see where the discrepancies are. If you need to cut the project costs, you can easily assess your options. Plus, an itemized bid becomes valuable documentation about the exact scope of the project, which may eliminate disputes later.

The contractor shouldn't give you a hard time about itemizing his bid. He has to figure out his total price line by line anyway, so you're not asking him to do more work, only to share the details. If he resists, it means he wants to withhold important information about his bid-a red flag for sure.

2. Is your bid an estimate or a fixed price?

Homeowners generally assume that the bid they're seeing is a fixed price, but some contractors treat their proposals as estimates, meaning bills could wind up being higher in the end. If he calls it an estimate, request a fixed price bid instead. If he says he can't offer a fixed price because there are too many unknowns about the job, then eliminate the unknowns.

"Have him open up a wall to check the structure he's unsure about or go back to your architect and solidify the design plans," says Tampa, Fla., attorney George Meyer, who is chair-elect of the American Bar Association's Forum on the Construction Industry. If you simply cannot resolve the unknowns he's concerned about, have the project specs describe what he expects to do-and if he needs to do additional work later, you can do a change order (a written mini-bid for new work).

3. How long have you been doing business in this town?

A contractor who's been plying his trade locally for 5 or 10 years has an established network of subcontractors and suppliers in the area and a local reputation to uphold. That makes him a safer bet than a contractor who's either new to the business or new to the area-or who's planning to commute to your job from 50 miles away.

You want to see a nearby address (not a PO box) on his business card-and should ask him to include one or two of his earliest clients on your list of references. This will help you verify that he hasn't just recently hung his shingle-and will give you perspective from a homeowner who has lived with the contractor's work for years. After all, the test of a quality job, whether it's a bluestone patio or a family room addition, is how well it stands the test of time.

4. Who are your main suppliers?

You've found a few potential contractors, you've talked to the happy former clients on each of their reference lists, now it's time for one additional bit of homework: talking to their primary suppliers. There's no better reference for a tile setter, for example, than his preferred tile shop; for a general contractor than his favorite lumberyard or home center pro desk; for a plumber than the kitchen and bath showroom where he's on a first name basis.

The proprietors of these shops know a contractor's professional reputation, whether he has left a trail of unhappy customers in his wake, if he's reliable about paying his bills-and whether he's someone you'll want to hire. The contractor should have absolutely no qualms about telling you where he gets his materials, as long as he's an upstanding customer.

5. I'd like to meet the job foreman-can you take me to a project he's running?

Many contractors don't actually swing hammers. They spend their days bidding new work and managing their various jobs and workers. In some cases, the contractor you hire may not visit the jobsite every day-or may not even show himself again after you've signed the contract. So the job foreman-the one who's working on your project every day-is actually the most important member of your team.

Meeting him in person and seeing a job that he's running should give you a feel for whether he's someone you want managing your project. Plus, it gives the general contractor an incentive to assign you one of his better crews since you're more likely to hire him if you see his A Team. If the contractor says he'll be running the job himself, ask whether he'll be there every day. Again, he'll want to give you a positive response-something you can hold him to later on.

It's not only the answers to these questions that will help you judge potential contractors-it's the way they answer them. Were they easy to talk to and forthcoming with details or did they hem and haw and make you ask more than once? Difficulty communicating now means difficulty communicating on the job later. But clear, timely and thoughtful responses-combined with terrific references, great completed work that you've seen, and a smart take on your project-may mean you've found the right pro for your job.

A former carpenter and newspaper reporter, Oliver Marks has been writing about home improvements for 16 years. He's currently restoring his second fixer-upper with a mix of big hired projects and small do-it-himself jobs.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Remodeling a Bathroom the Green Way

If you want to make sure your bathroom remodeling project is as green as possible, here's how to save energy, conserve resources, and protect your budget.

You care about the environment. You also happen to have a bathroom badly in need of remodeling. How do you get the job done with minimal impact on both our fragile planet and your precious budget? Thankfully, the growth of the green building movement has given rise to many eco-responsible products and resources that allow you to create the water-conserving, healthy, energy-wise bath you've always wanted-all without busting your bottom line. Here's what you need to know.

It's all about the water

Thinking about greening your bathroom means considering how you use water in terms of consumption and energy. According to the American Water Works Association, your humble toilets are the thirstiest water users in the house, accounting for 27% of consumption. This fact inspired conservation schemes like placing something hefty in the toilet tank to reduce flushing capacity, and those low-flow toilets that too often didn't flush what needed flushing.

A more successful approach is the dual-flush toilet. It has two flush buttons, one for light work, one for heavy. Long a mainstay in Europe, dual-flush toilets are available in the U.S. for $250-$400, a price in line with top-quality conventional toilets. A dual flush toilet can save 17,000 gallons of water a year-about $50 off your water bill. If you wish to keep your old toilet (a very green decision), you can retrofit it with a dual flush mechanism costing only $70.

The shower is another squanderer of water. Showers use 16% to 20% of a home's water, most of it heated. The flow rate of a typical shower head is 2.5 gallons per minute. Switching it out with a low-flow head of 1.5 to 2 gallons per minute still offers adequate cleansing power with a substantial savings in water usage. (If you cherish a really forceful blast of hot water, consider a full-flow shower head with a lever that lets you shut it off while you lather.)

In addition to conserving water, you'll want to take a close look at the way your water is heated. Second only to the kitchen, the bathroom is your home's most intensive energy user, with most of that energy going towards those nice hot showers and baths. Curbing wasted energy can be as simple as adding an insulating blanket to your tank-type heater (reducing energy use by 4% to 9%) and insulating all accessible hot water pipes. In addition, most water heaters are set to 140 degrees; you can turn down the water heater temperature setting to a still-toasty 120 degrees and save up to $60 per year on energy costs.

If your old water heater is nearing the end of its 15-year life cycle and you're considering investing in a new water heater, you can achieve some handsome energy savings. One smart option is a condensing storage water heater. Using technology similar to that of high-efficiency furnaces, the condensing heater puts nearly every possible BTU into the water instead of sending it up the flue. Currently, a 50-gallon gas unit costs $1,700 (versus $380 for a standard tank-type heater), a price that is expected to drop as demand takes hold. Installation costs are around $400, slightly higher than that of standard units. Those higher costs are offset by a $300 tax credit and an EPA estimated annual fuel savings of more than $100.

A tankless water heater heats water only as it is needed, avoiding the heat loss that occurs with a conventional tank. A unit costs about $2,000 installed, and your annual energy savings will be $70 a year. Be aware that these units take some getting used to; expect a shot of cold water before the hot kicks in.

Move that air

A bathroom remodel is an excellent time to consider installing a new exhaust ventilator fan to remove odors, moisture, and mold spores. Many bathroom fans only vent to the space between ceiling joists, creating an environment for mold and dampness that can damage walls and ceilings. Make sure your new fan vents completely to the outside of your house.

Unfortunately, even properly installed fans that push the moist outdoors can carry away a lot of heated air as well. A clever solution to this problem is a heat-exchange ventilator that uses outgoing air to warm the cold incoming air. Such units cost about $250 uninstalled, twice the price of a standard fan. Whatever fan you have, avoid an on-off switch; it's too easy to forget to turn it off. Replace it with a timer switch or, better yet, buy a new fan unit with a motion- or humidity-sensing switch.

Selecting green materials

A green bathroom remodel need not stint on style. Classic ceramic tile comes in limitless colors and patterns, and is a green choice due to its low maintenance, durability, and low toxicological impact. Some tiles have high recycled content; recycled glass tiles are a lovely way to do the right ecological thing. Not buying something new can be good green idea too. Consider refinishing your old tub or sink. Use the pros for the best results. Expect to pay $500 for a tub, $300 for a sink. You'll save as much on installation costs.

LED illumination now produces pleasing light quality in fixtures that sip only 2 to 15 watts, emit little heat, and have a life span of 15-20 years. They cost about three times as much as conventional fixtures but use so little electricity that the payback can be as short as a year.

Paint and vinyl coverings often come loaded with VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that threaten indoor air quality. Look for building materials with Green Seal certification. Green Seal is a non-profit, independent organization that certifies products claiming to be environmentally friendly. Low-VOC options in paints and adhesives can be found at your local home center.

Waste not

Much of our landfill (estimates range from 22% to 40%) comes from construction debris. Any steps that reduce landfill potentially reduce the chance of ground water pollution, the odor and unsightliness of a local landfill, and in some cases the high cost of shipping waste elsewhere. Much of the debris that comes from a remodeling tear-out is not salvageable, but old toilets, sinks, light fixtures, medicine cabinets, and vanities can be donated to an organization like Habitat for Humanity's ReStore. In fact, it may be just what someone is seeking for their own green remodeling.

Dave Toht has written or edited more than 60 books on home repair and remodeling, including titles for The Home Depot, Lowe's, Better Homes & Gardens, Sunset, and Reader's Digest. A former contractor with decades of hands-on experience, Dave was editor of Remodeling Ideas magazine and continues to contribute to numerous how-to publications. He is currently putting the finishing touches on a green addition to his Olympia, Wash., home.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Congrats to Jessie Hoff-Agent fo the MONTH

Congratulations to Jessie Hoff for earning the CENTURY 21 JRS Realty Agent of the Month for October 2009. Jessie has worked hard all your and finally put the right pieces together in the same month. In October Jessie had multiple listings and a sale as well. This is the second time Jessie has earned the Agent of the Month Trophy. CENTURY 21 JRS Realty is very proud to have and agent of Jessies caliber working in the company. Jessie has been a top agent for many years and will continue to help buyers and sellers reach their goals. Congratulations again to Jessie Hoff.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bergen Catholic rolls over St. Joseph (Mont.)

Bergen Catholic
(5 - 2 - 0) November 7th, 2009
2 p.m.

St. Joseph (Mont.)
Montvale, NJ
St. Joseph (Mont.)
(6 - 2 - 0)
28 7

Bergen Catholic 28, St. Joseph (Mont.) 7 (High school Football scores and results)
The Star Ledger, November 07, 2009 7:36 p.m.

There were many outstanding performers on defense for Bergen Catholic yesterday, but none better than senior linebackers Brendan McGovern and Sam Shirak.

McGovern scored the first touchdown and Shirak was all over the field, especially in the opponent's backfield, when Bergen Catholic, No. 6 in The Star-Ledger top 20, scored early and then coasted to a 28-7 victory over its rival, ninth-ranked St. Joseph, in Montvale.

Both powers will now prepare for the state playoffs that open this coming weekend. Bergen Catholic has qualified in Non-Public, Group 4 and St. Joseph will play in the Non-Public, Group 3 field.

St. Joseph quarterback Devin O'Connor was harassed and hurried all afternoon and sacked seven times. Shirak collected two and a half sacks and eight tackles, McGovern collected eight tackles and a sack, linebacker Doug Rigg and end Chris Bush collected one and a half sacks and lineman Hunter Kiselick recorded a sack and an interception.

``They have a great team. And every time we play St. Joe's we have to prepare for a battle,'' McGovern said. ``We had to shut down their skilled players (runner Kamal) Hogan and O'Connor. We did a lot of blitzing and didn't let O'Connor get comfortable in the backfield.''

O'Connor was sacked for minus 51 yards and passed for 130 yards and Hogan rushed for 103 of his team's 113 yards. He also had a touchdown.

On St. Joseph's first drive, it moved to the Bergen Catholic 31 but fumbled and McGovern scooped it up in stride and dashed 65 yards for the touchdown with 6:33 left in the first period. Mike Halligan kicked the extra point.

On Bergen Catholic's first drive, it moved 80 yards in just six plays. Spencer Kulcsar caught a 25-yard pass from Mike Halligan before Rigg raced for a 44-yard score.

The defenses dominated in the second period. The team from Oradell grabbed a 21-0 advantage on its initial push in the second half as it marched 63 yards in eight maneuvers. Three passes by Halligan totaling 25 yards helped advance the ball to the 36. From there, Kulcsar motored around the left side for a score.

But St. Joseph responded with a touchdown after Hogan returned the kickoff to the 34 and a 15-yard horse collar penalty brought the ball to the 49. Hogan churned out all the yardage on four carries including the final 15 to the end zone. Jason Checke followed with the kick.

The Montvale team made things interesting in the fourth quarter as it went 45 yards to the 13. But Shirak sacked O'Connor for a 9-yard loss and Rigg and Chris Bush combined to bring down the quarterback for a 5-yard loss on fourth down.

St. Joseph got the ball back but not for long as Kiselick intercepted a pass at the middle of the field and brought it back 22 yards for a score.

``We have a lot of quickness on defense and didn't let them get to the outside,'' Shirak said. ``We worked hard to prepare for this game and this put us back in the big three (with Don Bosco Prep and St. Peter's Prep). I can't wait for the state playoffs to start.''

1st 2nd 3rd 4th Final
St. Joseph (Mont.) (6-2) 0 0 7 0 7
Bergen Catholic (7-2) 14 0 7 7 28First Quarter

Bergen Catholic: Brendan McGovern 65 fumble return (Mike Halligan kick)

Bergen Catholic: Doug Rigg 44 run (Mike Halligan kick)

Third Quarter

Bergen Catholic: Spencer Kulcsar 36 run (Mike Halligan kick)

St. Joseph (Mont.): Kamal Hogan 15 run (Jason Checke kick)

Fourth Quarter

Bergen Catholic: Hunter Kiselick 22 interception return (Mike Halligan kick)