Thursday, December 17, 2009

What Your Remodeling Contract Should Say

Review your remodeling contract carefully and adjust it to make sure it protects you in terms of payments, work schedules, and project specifications.

Even if you never intend to pick up a hammer for your remodeling project, there's one tool that's absolutely essential-a solid contract. But just having one often isn't enough. That's because the document a contractor gives you is designed to protect him. It's up to you to add in some basic protections for yourself. Here's what you need to know to make sure the remodeling contract you sign includes solid legal protection for you and your home.

Hiring a lawyer to review and make changes to a contract is a safe bet, especially since each state has its own construction-contract statutes. But not many homeowners are willing to shell out $500 for an attorney review, plus $1,000 to $1,500 additional fees to make wholesale revisions to a flawed contract. However, you can hand-write changes and additions in plain English and make sure both you and the contractor initial each change to the document, says Tampa, Fla., attorney George Meyer, who is chair-elect of the American Bar Association's Forum on the Construction Industry. Here's what you want to add (and subtract).

Project specs

Start by reviewing your contract, a process that should take several hours. The most important element of a contract is a thorough and complete description of the project, and the materials and the products that will be used. "It should say that the contractor will secure all necessary permits and approvals as well as what walls are being moved where, what type of countertops are going in, what type of sink, what type of faucet, and so forth," says Meyer. "You can't rely on everyone's memory because if there's a problem later, people may remember different things." The contract needn't contain these specs on its pages, it can simply refer to the contractor's attached itemized bid. Avoid allowances, which are pools of money set aside for work to be determined later, and which often lead to cost overruns.

Payment schedule

The contract should also state the total price for the job, and that it's a fixed price-not an estimate. It should provide a schedule of how the payments will be made by linking them to milestones in the work-such as when the foundation, rough plumbing, and electricity will be completed-so you're paying for work only after it's done. "You should always have enough money left to hire someone else to finish the work if need be," says Meyer. In general, the first payment should be no more than 10% of the total job and the final payment should be at least a few thousand dollars to ensure that it's a big enough incentive to get the contractor back for the final niggling details. If you're unsure whether the payment schedule is proportional to the milestones your contractor suggests, ask a friend who's familiar with construction process or consult a construction attorney.

Start and end dates

A contractor's boilerplate contract rarely includes dates for when he will begin work and when he will complete the job, so make sure those details are included. It's not that he'll be penalized if it runs late, only that if you ever have a major problem and need to sue him-or defend yourself from a suit he brings-showing that the contractor is, say, two months behind schedule will help you make your case. The dates needn't be too exacting. If he says it's a six to eight week job, eight or even nine weeks is fine for the contract, says Meyer.

Statement about change orders

Make sure the contract contains a line stating that any changes that will affect the cost of the job must be priced in writing and countersigned by both the contractor and homeowner before that work commences. That ensures that an offhand discussion about a possible change to the project won't result in a huge unforeseen additional cost. It also helps you, as the homeowner, keep track of exactly how much you've added to the bottom line, so you can avoid the very common urge to keep expanding the job.

Binding arbitration

Many contractors include a line that says that rather than going through the courts, disputes will be resolved by an arbitrator. Some legal experts feel that this is a quicker and lower-cost solution to problems, so a binding arbitration clause isn't necessarily a problem. What can be trouble is if the contract requires a specific arbitrator. "There are some big, national, well-respected arbitrators, like the American Arbitration Association," says Meyer. "And there are other questionable arbitrators that always side with the contractor. If a particular arbitrator is specified, I'd do some internet research about the agency to make sure it's legit."


Having the contractor's warranty in the contract seems like a good thing, right? Well including it is often actually a technique for limiting how much liability the contractor has. "It's usually loaded up with exclusions and time limits," says Meyer, "and you're actually better off with no mention of warranty at all because then the only limits on his warranty are what's in the state statutes." In other words, keeping the contractor's warranty language in the contract will likely mean you're agreeing to less than what state law provides. For example, state law may specify a longer warranty term than what the contractor's warranty offers. So, unless you're having a lawyer review the contract, strike the warranty clause.


There are numerous state-by-state requirements for construction contracts. He may have to include his contractor's license number, for example, and he may have to include a clause saying you have the right to rescind the contract within a certain time period after signing. And unless you and the contractor sign the document, it doesn't matter what it says-it's not a valid contract.

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.

When It Pays to Do It Yourself

Doing home-improvement jobs yourself can be a smart way to save money, but choose the right DIY projects or you'll end up paying dearly.

Why pay someone big bucks to do something you can just as easily do yourself? That's the thinking that has gotten more Americans than ever swinging their own hammers. In a recent Time magazine poll, nearly a quarter of people said they were taking on more home-improvement projects themselves-understandably so, when you consider that it usually means a 50% to 75% discount, since all you pay for is materials.

But sometimes doing it yourself costs more than it saves, like when you decide to replace the toilet, end up flooding the basement, and have to pay a pro to fix your mistakes. Or, worse, if you become one of the more than 100,000 people injured each year doing home-improvement jobs. Here are some guidelines for deciding when DIY can save you money and when it could cost you.

Stick to routine maintenance for savings and safety

Seasonal home maintenance is ideal work for the DIY weekend warrior, since you can plan tasks in advance and get to them when your schedule allows. Because these are repeat projects, your savings will add up to big bucks over the years. Just by mowing your own lawn, for example, you can save $55 to $65 a week for a half-acre lawn during the growing season. The bigger the lot, the bigger the savings: with two acres, you'll pocket around $150 per week.

When It Pays: Look for maintenance jobs that are relatively easy and need to be done regularly, so you can hone your skills over time. In addition to mowing, other good ones are snow removal, pruning shrubs, washing windows, sealing the deck, painting fences, fertilizing the lawn, and replacing air conditioner filters.

When It Doesn't: Unless you have skill and experience on your side, stay off of any ladder taller than six feet; according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 164,000 people end up in emergency rooms every year because of ladder injuries. The same goes for operating power saws or attempting any major electrical work-it's simply too risky if you don't have the experience.

Act as your own GC on small jobs

If you're more comfortable operating an iPhone than a circular saw, you may be able to act as your own general contractor on a home-improvement project and hire the carpenters, plumbers, and other tradesmen yourself. You'll save 10% to 20% of the job cost, which is the contractor's typical fee.

When it Pays: If it's a small job that requires only two or three different tradesmen, and you have good existing relationships with top-quality professionals in those fields, consider DIY contracting.

When It Doesn't: Unless you have an established network of contacts who will show up as promised, the time to spend on oversight, enough construction experience to spot potential problems, and the skill to negotiate disputes between the various subcontractors, trying to manage your own project can quickly send the schedule and budget off the rails.

Pitch in with sweat equity on big jobs

Contributing your own labor on a big job being handled by a professional crew can cut hundreds or even thousands of dollars off the contractor's bill. Tear the cabinets and appliances out of your old kitchen before the contractor gets started, say, and you might knock $800 off the cost of your remodel, says Dean Bennett, a design/build contractor in Castle Rock, Colorado.

When it Pays: Grunt work-jobs that are labor intensive but require relatively little skill-makes the best homeowner contribution. Offer to do minor interior demolition like removing cabinets and pulling up old flooring, daily jobsite cleanup, product assembly, and simple landscaping like planting foundation shrubs and grass seed around your new addition.

When It Doesn't: If you get in the crew's way, you may slow them down far more than you help. Make your contributions when the workers aren't around, such as in the morning before they arrive, or on nights and weekends after they've left.

Put on some of the finishing touches

Unlike the early phases of a construction job, which require skilled labor to frame walls, install plumbing pipes, and run wiring, many of the finishing touches on a project are comparatively simple and DIY-friendly. If you do the painting yourself for a new basement rec room, for instance, you can easily save $1,800, Bennett says.

When it Pays: If you have the skill-or a patient temperament and an experienced friend to teach you-finish work like setting tile, laying flooring, painting walls, and installing trim are all good DIY jobs.

When It Doesn't: The downside to attempting your own finish work is that the results are very visible. Hammer dents in woodwork, for example, or sander ruts in your hardwood floors may cause you aggravation every time you see them. So unless you have a sure eye and a steady hand, it may not pay to embark on these tasks.

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

CENTURY 21 JRS Realty Christmas Party

CENTURY 21 JRS Realty had a great Holiday Party last night at Bistro 1051 in Clark NJ. CENTURY 21 JRS Realty agents had a great time eating Sushi and other sea food dishes prepared by the wonderful chief at the Bistro. Congratulations to Joe Piizzi and Eddie Kefalas for the awards they earned as the number 1 and #2 agents in CENTURY 21 JRS Realty for 2009.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

7 Smart Strategies for Remodeling Your Kitchen

When planning a kitchen remodeling project, keep the same footprint, add storage, and design adequate lighting to preserve value and keep costs on track.

If you're contemplating a kitchen remodel, you're also weighing a considerable investment. But a significant portion of the upfront costs may be recovered by the value the project brings to your home. Kitchen remodels in the $50,000 range recouped 76% of the initial project cost at the home's resale, according to recent data from Remodeling magazine's Cost vs. Value Report. To make sure you maximize your return, consider these seven smart kitchen remodeling strategies.

1. Establish your priorities

Simple enough? Not so fast. The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) recommends spending at least six months planning before beginning the work. That way, you can thoroughly evaluate your priorities and won't be tempted to change your mind during construction. Contractors often have clauses in their contracts that specify additional costs for amendments to original plans. Planning points to consider include:

Avoid traffic jams. A walkway through the kitchen should be at least 36 inches wide, according to the NKBA. Work aisles for one cook should be a minimum of 42 inches wide and at least 48 inches wide for households with multiple cooks.
Consider children. Avoid sharp, square corners on countertops, and make sure microwave ovens are installed at the heights recommended by the NKBA-3 inches below the shoulder of the principle user but not more than 54 inches from the floor.
Access to the outside. If you want to easily reach entertaining areas, such as a deck or a patio, factor a new exterior door into your plans.
Because planning a kitchen is complex, consider hiring a professional designer. A pro can help make style decisions and foresee potential problems, so you can avoid costly mistakes. In addition, a pro makes sure contractors and installers are sequenced properly so that workflow is cost-effective. Expect fees around $50 to $150 per hour, or 5% to 15% of the total cost of the project.

2. Keep the same footprint

No matter the size and scope of your planned kitchen, you can save major expense by not rearranging walls, and by locating any new plumbing fixtures near existing plumbing pipes. Not only will you save on demolition and reconstruction, you'll greatly reduce the amount of dust and debris your project generates.

3. Match appliances to your skill level

A six-burner commercial-grade range and luxury-brand refrigerator might make eye-catching centerpieces, but be sure they fit your lifestyle, says Molly Erin McCabe, owner of A Kitchen That Works design firm in Bainbridge Island, Wash. "It's probably the part of a kitchen project where people tend to overspend the most."

The high price is only worth the investment if you're an exceptional cook. Otherwise, save thousands with trusted brands that receive high marks at consumer review websites, like and, and resources such as Consumer Reports.

4. Create a well-designed lighting scheme

Some guidelines:

· Install task lighting, such as recessed or track lights, over sinks and food prep areas; assign at least two fixtures per task to eliminate shadows. Under-cabinet lights illuminate clean-up and are great for reading cookbooks. Pendant lights over counters bring the light source close to work surfaces.

• Ambient lighting includes flush-mounted ceiling fixtures, wall sconces, and track lights. Consider dimmer switches with ambient lighting to control intensity and mood.

5. Focus on durability

"People are putting more emphasis on functionality and durability in the kitchen," says McCabe. That may mean resisting bargain prices and focusing on products that combine low-maintenance with long warranty periods. "Solid-surface countertops [Corian, Silestone] are a perfect example," adds McCabe. "They may cost a little more, but they're going to look as good in 10 years as they did the day they were installed."

If you're not planning to stay in your house that long, products with substantial warranties can become a selling point. "Individual upgrades don't necessarily give you a 100% return," says Frank Gregoire, a real estate appraiser in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But they can give you an edge when it comes time to market your home for sale" if other for-sale homes have similar features.

6. Add storage, not space

To add storage without bumping out walls:

· Specify upper cabinets that reach the ceiling. They may cost a bit more, but you'll gain valuable storage space. In addition, you won't have to worry about dusting the tops.

• Hang it up. Install small shelving units on unused wall areas, and add narrow spice racks and shelves on the insides of cabinet doors. Use a ceiling-mounted pot rack to keep bulkier pots and pans from cluttering cabinets. Add hooks to the backs of closet doors for aprons, brooms, and mops.

7. Communicate effectively-and often

Having a good rapport with your project manager or construction team is essential for staying on budget. "Poor communication is a leading cause of kitchen projects going sour," says McCabe. To keep the sweetness in your project:

Drop by the project during work hours as often as possible. Your presence assures subcontractors and other workers of your commitment to getting good results.
Establish a communication routine. Hang a message board on-site where you and the project manager can leave each other daily communiques. Give your email address and cell phone number to subs and team leaders.
Set house rules. Be clear about smoking, boom box noise levels, which bathroom is available, and where workers should park their vehicles.
Consumers spend more money on kitchen remodeling than any other home improvement project, according to the Home Improvement Research Institute, and with good reason. They're the hub of home life, and a source of pride. With a little strategizing, you can ensure your new kitchen gives you years of satisfaction.

John Riha has written six books on home improvement and hundreds of articles on home-related topics. He's been a residential builder, the editorial director of the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library, and the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. His standard 1968 suburban house has been an ongoing source of maintenance experience.

Should You Convert from Oil to Gas Heat?

If you're replacing your old oil-burning heating equipment, you may want to crunch the numbers on switching to cheaper, cleaner gas.

Last winter, heating a house with oil cost an average of $1,700, while natural gas averaged less than $900, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The year before, when oil prices peaked, oil heat cost an average of $2,000; natural gas was again around $900. Since 2002, oil heat has averaged 30% to 50% more than gas every year. So, if it's time to replace your old oil-burning system, you might be wondering if it makes sense to switch. Here's how to crunch the numbers.

What fuel types are available in your area?

About half of the country uses natural gas already, and only about 8% uses oil. Most of the rest use costlier heating-electricity accounts for 34%, propane 6%-typically because that's what is available locally. The vast majority of oil-burners are concentrated in the Northeast, where they account for 31% of residential heating systems. That's largely because of the region's proximity to the ports where oil barges deliver their loads and the fact that oil was a cheaper option back when these houses were built.

Unlike oil, which gets delivered by truck, natural gas gets piped right into your house by a utility company. So making the switch requires having a gas main under your street. Even in oil-dominated neighborhoods of the Northeast, most urban and suburban areas have gas lines. If yours doesn't, you may be able to convince the local utility to install a gas main if enough neighbors band together to make the request.

How much will the equipment cost?

Gas-fired equipment costs less than oil-fired gear. For a basic furnace (for a forced air heating system) or boiler (for hot-water heat), you'll pay around $1,500 to $3,000 for gas and $2,000 to as much as $8,000 for oil, says Ellis Guiles of TAG Mechanical in Syracuse, New York. If you select a high efficiency system, you'll pay $3,500 to $5,500 for gas, compared with $4,500 to $10,000 for oil. A high-efficiency unit of either kind may be eligible for a 30% tax credit, up to $1,500, as well as local incentives.

How much will the hookup cost?

There are two aspects to the connection process for gas: outside the house and inside. The utility company will run an underground pipe from the gas main to your house, where it will install a meter. This requires using a backhoe to dig a trench from the road to the house and typically costs $1,000 to $1,500, according to Jim Ranfone, managing director of the American Gas Association, a trade group. But it's possible that the utility will waive or reduce that charge as an inducement to add you to its customer rolls. Your contractor will handle the second part of the job, piping the gas from the meter to your heating plant, typically at a cost of $500 to $1,000.

What other expenses are involved?

Switching to gas may require you to line your chimney ($750 to $2,000), because the moisture in gas exhaust can damage the masonry. A liner isn't necessary with a high-efficiency gas system, which, combined with tax incentives, explains why nearly all of Guiles' conversion customers choose high-efficiency equipment. Although it's probably not required, you'll likely choose to remove your oil tank for another $750 or so if it's above ground to $3,000 if it's buried.

The bottom line

So is it worth spending potentially a few grand in conversion costs to switch to gas? Well, at last year's prices, your fuel-cost savings alone would pay you back in less than five years. But as the stock-market caveat goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Most natural gas is mined in North America, so some say its pricing less volatile than oil, which is a global commodity. But the truth is, there's no way to know for sure if gas will continue its substantial price advantage. The decision usually comes down to how complicated the conversion will be for your house-and how good the incentives are that the utilities and state agencies are offering, says Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, a trade group of state officials who help homeowners cut their energy costs.

Still, there are reasons other than money to make the switch. Gas has lower carbon emissions than oil, so it's better for the environment. Plus, once you have a gas line, you can get that commercial-style, six-burner stove you've always wanted.

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, December 8, 2009

Best Ways to Green Up Your Kitchen Remodel

If you're ready to remodel your kitchen and want to go green, here's how to create the healthy, energy-efficient, eco-friendly kitchen of your dreams.

Going green with your kitchen remodeling project means making choices based on your lifestyle and your budget. The decisions aren't always simple. For example, a certain green product may outlast and use less energy but cost more than a similar product that performs equally well. Fortunately, an expanding marketplace for smart, stylish green products is helping to lower costs-making it easier to have a green kitchen and love it, too.

If products you'd like to add to your project aren't readily available, schedule visits to showrooms or green home improvement expos to examine materials first-hand before making decisions. To help you plan, here are key products, ideas, and tips to put the green in your kitchen.

Major components

are made from wood and wood products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to be produced using sustainable forest management practices. They feature formaldehyde-free glues and finishes with low volatile organic compounds that give off little or no toxic fumes. Check product literature closely to ensure the cabinets you choose meet these criteria.

· Sustainable kitchen cabinets
When shopping for cabinets, ask if the cabinet boxes are built with wheat board or straw board. These products are made from agricultural waste, such as the chaff left over from farmers' wheat crops. As a rule, they feature formaldehyde-free binders. They're strong and rated to exceed the standards set by the American National Standards Institute for medium density particleboard-the material commonly used to make cabinet boxes.

· Green countertops

offer variety but all share similar characteristics: recycled or sustainable content, low-toxicity binders, and eco-friendly manufacturing processes. In addition, they're highly durable. Examples: Squak Mountain Stone is made from recycled paper, recycled glass, reclaimed fly ash, and cement. The finished countertop slabs resemble limestone and soapstone. Eco-top counters consist of renewable bamboo fiber, post-consumer recycled paper, and water-based resin glue. Vetrazzo makes countertops that are 85% recycled glass-almost all the glass comes from curbside recycling programs. Craft-Art includes a line of wood countertops made of reclaimed wood from older barns, warehouses, and commercial buildings.

· Eco-friendly flooring

includes linoleum and cork. Both are made with renewable resources that make them sustainable choices. They're good-looking and durable, but require periodic maintenance.
Linoleum is made from renewable, biodegradable materials including linseed oil and cork. It produces no harmful vapors and comes in many patterns and colors. Linoleum stands up well to traffic and offers some cushioning underfoot. It's resistant to moisture but susceptible to staining, so some manufacturers add a coating to protect against spills and scratches. Without this protection, linoleum must be cleaned and polished every two years. Cost: $2 to $4 per sq.ft.; installation adds $5 to $7 per sq.ft.

Cork is a sustainable flooring product made from tree bark; the bark grows back and can be harvested repeatedly. Harvesting practices are carefully regulated to ensure future supplies, reducing environmental impact. Cork is waterproof and slightly soft underfoot, which makes it both moisture-resistant and comfortable. It's made in 12x12-inch tiles and 1x3-foot planks, each with a distinctive grain pattern. The surface is slightly textured and slip-resistant.

Treat cork flooring with a sealant every 3 to 4 years to prevent scratches and stop moisture from penetrating seams between tiles. Natural wax and water-based polyurethane work well. Cost: $2-$6 per sq.ft.; installation, $5-$10 per sq.ft.


reduces energy consumption and saves utility costs. Energy Star appliances are tested and rated to be the most energy-efficient models in any product category. In addition, some states and regional utility companies offer rebates for buying Energy Star appliances.

· Choosing Energy Star products

· Dishwashers go green

when they feature an energy-saving or quick-wash cycle. These cycles operate for shorter periods of time, saving water and energy. Also, look for dishwashers that include an air-dry option, which dries dishes with circulation fans rather than energy-draining heating elements. Or, simply open up the dishwasher door when the wash cycle is complete and let dishes air dry.
Energy Star models are 25% more energy efficient than the federal standards for energy consumption. If you replace your pre-1994 dishwasher with an Energy Star model, you'll save as much as $40 a year on energy costs.

· Buy a new refrigerator

and you'll save on energy costs. That's because manufacturers are constantly improving technology and insulating techniques. In fact, today's new models are 75% more energy efficient than those manufactured just 20 years ago, saving about $100 per year on energy costs. An Energy Star-rated model will save an additional $20-$30 per year.
Choose models featuring the freezer on top and use 10% to 25% less energy than a same-sized model with a side-by-side configuration.

Green essentials

cleans water of contaminants before it reaches the kitchen tap; it has about 10 times the filtering capacity of a faucet-mounted purifier. A model with a top-quality activated carbon filter will remove heavy metals, bacteria, and pesticides. In addition, it removes odors and bad tastes. Expect to pay $150-$200 for an activated charcoal purifier with a replaceable cartridge.

· An under-the-counter water purifier

• Energy-efficient lighting includes fluorescent and compact fluorescent lamps that use 50% to 90% less energy than comparable incandescent lamps. In fact, according to, a single compact fluorescent bulb will save $30-$40 during its expected lifespan of 10,000 hours over conventional incandescent bulbs of similar luminosity. However, consider the correct quality of light, such as an efficient halogen and LED lighting sources, for task areas.

• Being an active recycler is one way to ensure your kitchen is green. Most cabinet manufacturers offer options for lower cabinets that include pull-out recycling bins that keep contents organized and out of sight. In some instances, these bins are designed to be positioned conveniently beneath holes in countertops so that you can sweep food scraps into them. You can also retrofit existing cabinets with recycling bins-rotating lazy Susan-type recycling centers feature multiple bins and are designed to fit in lower corner cabinets.

John Riha has written six books on home improvement and hundreds of articles on home-related topics. He's been a residential builder, the editorial director of the Black & Decker Home Improvement Library, and the executive editor of Better Homes and Gardens magazine. His standard 1968 suburban house has been an ongoing source of maintenance experience.