Author Archives: Alyson McNutt English

What’s My House Worth?

Read expert tips to calculate a home’s value in a volatile market.

What's My House Worth?


Housing used to be a fairly safe investment — you put your money in and, in a few years when it was time to sell, your house would be worth more than you paid for it. Unfortunately, many sellers are discovering that those gains in home equity they thought they had gained during the boom years are nothing more than wistful memories.

That’s not entirely true for everyone, however: Even in this brutal real estate market, there are still areas where housing prices are holding steady or even increasing.

How can you know where you (and your home) fit in? It’s not an easy answer. Here are six tips for pricing your home correctly in a volatile housing market.

Prepare for a Reality Check
 If you bought your home at the height of the market (or if you cashed out home equity when times were flush), you may be in for the seller’s version of sticker shock. Real estate experts say that even when homeowners recognize that the value of houses all around them has fallen, they often still hold on to outdated ideas about what their own property is worth. If you’re getting ready to sell, it’s time for a serious reality check, says Cincinnati, OH-based real estate appraiser Lou Freeman.

Talk to More than One Realtor
When prices are going down and the volume of sales has slowed to a trickle, it may be time to talk to real estate professionals who work with buyers, at least for the purpose of determining the right price for your home. Working with a Realtor® who has a great record as a seller is usually the best first step.

“It’s so important to hear what buyers are thinking in today’s market,” says Katie Wethman, a certified public accountant and Realtor based in McLean, VA. “Too many agents — especially the ones with the most experience in the business — work primarily with sellers, and they never hear the most common objections of buyers.” Wethman says in this market, sellers might even consider working with someone who is primarily a “buyer’s agent,” or someone who specializes in helping buyers find homes. She says having them help you stage your home and market it may actually help you sell more quickly since they know precisely what feedback they’re getting from people currently looking.

Another reason to shop around is to make sure that you’re working with someone who not only knows the area and the market but is realistic about the current state of sales.

Use Your Comps Correctly
Any real estate expert will tell you one of the most powerful pricing tools anyone has are what’s called “comps,” or comparative listings. These are statistics for recently sold homes similar to yours, usually in location, size and/or amenities. But while any licensed Realtor or appraiser will have access to comps, it’s not always easy to choose the right ones or to read them properly.

First, make sure you’re looking at what has actually sold rather than what people with comparable properties are listing them for. “Too many owners focus on what other people are asking for their homes rather than what they’re actually getting for them,” Wethman says. And when you’re looking selling prices of comparative properties, pay close attention to the date the deal closed. “Even if a comp is just a few months old, you must apply regional trend data: If the market has dropped five percent in the last three months, you need to take that comp from three months ago and apply a greater than five percent drop to that price. Too many people price at the last sale without that extrapolation and they end up chasing the market down.”

“There is a saying in real estate that you can’t be objective about your own home,” Freeman says. “It’s true. When a Realtor tells you that the home you bought six years ago for $303,500 will now only fetch $285,000, you may find it hard to believe.”

Sometimes sellers ignore expert advice because they have a number in mind that they can’t get away from, says Todd Huettner, commercial and residential real estate financing broker. If you can’t get past that number and you don’t have to sell, it’s probably time to just sit on your investment and wait out the current storm. But sellers who have to divest themselves of their property are going to have to face some harsh realities.

“What you paid for your house has nothing to do with its current value,” he says. “What you ‘need to get out of the house’ has no bearing on current value, either.” This fact can be a harsh reality check when you consider you need to receive a certain dollar amount on the sale of your home in order to pay off your current mortgage.

To add to the complication of reading comps correctly, your Realtor needs to know and understand your unique situation. “Not every market is declining,” Wethman says. “Even in declining markets, there are neighborhoods that are doing just fine.”

Consider an Appraisal
If you’re still not feeling confident in your analysis of your home’s value, it’s worthwhile getting an appraisal, say the experts.

“Most homeowners depend on their Realtor to help price their properties, and Realtors usually have a great deal of knowledge about what is and what isn’t selling in any particular neighborhood or at a particular price point,” Freeman says. “But the cost of an estimate by a state licensed or certified appraiser who is familiar with your neighborhood could save you months of extended marketing time and thousands of dollars in carrying costs by helping you price your home correctly from the start.”

Make sure you choose someone who understands not only your area but your purpose in getting the appraisal. You want to choose someone who is willing to talk to you and explain things, says Huettner. “Call three appraisers and tell them what you are doing, and choose the one who is most willing to explain things to you and help you,” he says. “If you are selling your home, $300 to $500 is worth it to have your own independent expert opinion of what your home is worth, and it’s invaluable for educating yourself.”

Be a Nosy Neighbor
Finally, don’t be afraid to be what Realtors like to call “the nosy neighbor.” ”Start going to every open house in your neighborhood to get a feel for pricing vis-à-vis square footage, level of updating and so on,” Freeman says. “Realtors expect nosy neighbors. Don’t disappoint them.” An added benefit of being nosy: If/when the home sells, you will know more about it when you look at the comps.

While it’s important to realize the only number that really matters is the closing price, comparing the list to closing prices of the homes in your area will give you a good barometer for what direction prices are heading and how long you can expect to wait to find a buyer. “Drive around your neighborhood or go online to or other similar sites and view recently sold homes and listed homes,” Huettner says. “Just remember: Only closed sale prices matter.”

It can be tough to come to accept your home’s value in a declining or volatile market, Huettner says, but it’s better to deal with it when putting your house on the market than letting it languish for months if the price is too high. “You will eventually find out the market value of your home,” he says. “Don’t wait for the market to show you when you finally sell. It costs so much more that way.”

Online Home Price Evaluation Tools
Real estate pricing experts say one easy first step for people considering selling, or just wondering about their equity, is visiting online home price tools. While you shouldn’t put too much emphasis on these prices, they may be good starting points. Here are some online tools that can help you figure the value of your home:

  • Zillow allows you to plug in your home’s address to find recently sold properties on a map of your area. You can also check the prices of recent listings in your neighborhood, as well.
  • Trulia shows listings, price reductions, and even a “real estate heat map” of average list prices of homes in your area. The downside: It shows listing prices, not selling prices.
  • Domania, a website from Lending Tree, offers a “Home Price Check” section where you can type in an address and find out the selling price of a house sold within the past five years.
  • Local Real Estate Web Sites: Some large Real Estate groups may compile a listing of the recently sold properties in their area. One example is Crye-Leike in Tennessee; its website allows you to plug in the address for a specific property to find out what it sold for.

Green Home Innovations

As energy prices have risen and the green movement has become more mainstream, innovative materials, systems, and practices have become big business. Here are a few favorites of builders and designers.

Green Home Innovations


Only a few years ago, environmentally sensitive home products were hard to find and even harder to afford. But as energy prices have risen and the green movement has become more mainstream, innovative materials, systems, and practices have become big business. Here are a few favorites of builders and designers.

Smart Surfaces
New materials for floors and countertops are getting lots of attention because they truly mimic the look of other solid-surface countertops but are made from more eco-friendly materials. Paperstone, Sqauk Mountain Stone, and Richelite countertops are made of composite materials like post-consumer recycled paper or plastic resins; are monitored to ensure they don’t release harmful levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)l and are formaldehyde-free yet look like regular, high-end solid surface countertops.

Other materials, like reclaimed wood butcher block countertops or glass tile surfaces, are also increasing in popularity.

For carpets, wool and other natural materials are good choices. Even mainstream manufacturers like Shaw and Mohawk are becoming more eco-friendly with carpets made from recycled products like old plastic bottles and organic materials like corn.

Wood Products
For wood flooring, rapidly renewable forests are becoming popular resources. Bamboo and palm look beautiful, wear well, and grow back much faster than old-growth forest trees, says Alex Pettitt, a green builder who put Durapalm from Smith and Fong in his own recently renovated house. “It’s a gorgeous product made from trees that have quit giving fruit,” he says. “It’s sustainable because they’re managing their farms and using something that would have been a byproduct, and it’s a beautiful material.”

For renovations, using reclaimed wood from its original site is a very eco-conscious way to manage your waste. LEED-accredited designer Sharon Patterson recently completed a green renovation of her home in Boise, ID, and used wood she salvaged from tear-down on the heads of the door frames as well as the new staircase to the addition. “The underframe of the stairs is reclaimed from the deconstruction, and the treads and risers are reclaimed from a barn just outside of Boise,” she says. “They’re just beautiful. They have all the richness and history and texture, like the nail holes and the knots, of old wood.”

When framing new homes or additions, sourcing locally is often a good way to go when looking for bracing products. The best way to do this is by choosing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, says Jay Hall, acting director of the U.S. Green Building Association’s LEED for Homes program.

Paints and Finishes
Many conventional paints and finishes create hazardous conditions for those using them, emitting VOCs into the home’s air as well as creating problems when it’s time to responsibly dispose of them.

Orit Yanai, a LEED-certified designer who specializes in green wall finishes, says not only do regular paints emit damaging VOCs, they’re not good for walls, either. “Regular paints suffocate the walls,” Yanai says. “Earth-based paints let the walls breathe. They repel dust and pollen and are really so much better for your health.”

Pettitt agrees with Yanai, noting that while low- and no-VOC paints used to be inferior in quality and color selection, they now are ready for primetime. “I have a child, and I need to be able to have paint that wears well, looks good, and can be cleaned,” he says. “The new low-VOC paints can do that, and they have a great selection now, which they didn’t used to.”

“It’s an insulation you can feel comfortable with,” Patterson says. “There are photos of me and the contractor installing it ourselves.” The denim-insulated walls have an R-value [the measurement that determines the efficiency of insulation] of about 21. In the addition, Patterson chose an open-cell, soy-based spray foam from Biobased with an R-value of about 45.

Water Efficiency
Water is getting newfound attention as droughts have ravaged normally wet areas. Hall says it’s time people became aware of the incredible amount of water the average home consumes.

“A typical home uses about 100,000 gallons of water each year, so there’s a huge opportunity for homeowners to save water,” he says. Hall recommends water-conserving appliances like Energy Star-certified washers, dryers, and dishwashers, as well as low-flush or dual-flush toilets.

Yanai says she also loves to use earth-based materials like clay- and lime-based paints. “These are in very high-end homes, and they look incredible,” she says.

For wood and concrete stains, choosing soy- or other plant-based stains is a more environmentally sensitive move, says Patterson, who used a soy-based concrete stain for her home.

When Patterson did her “green” renovation, one of her favorite finds was a denim insulation from Ultratouch, which she used in all the original structure’s walls. Because the sheet insulation is a recycled material and its flame retardancy comes from borate, an organic substance, it’s a safe, eco-friendly alternative.

The Green of Green
All the experts agree, however, that as green products sell more, the price will continue to drop and the availability will increase. Pettitt says today’s assortment of products is incredible. “One of my clients used to say ‘It takes green to go green,’ “ he says. “But now, many of these items are very reasonably priced. And with energy efficiency and conservation, you will make back what you spend.”

Going Green and Keeping Clean: Outdoor Edition

If you think environmentally-friendly products aren't strong enough to clean the grime off your house then think again-- green cleaning is tough on dirt and soft on Mother Earth.

Green Cleaning Outside


A walk down any big-box store’s cleaning products aisle will tell the story: It’s evident by the noticeable increase in “green” cleaning products available that people are becoming more conscious of what they use to clean their home’s interior. And while any movement toward greener cleaning is a great step, many people still use caustic chemicals to scour the outside areas of their homes.

While using traditional toxic cleaners may seem less harmful because the chemicals aren’t inside your home, the truth is your outdoor chemical cleaning can negatively affect both human and environmental health. “You wouldn’t want to dump toxic chemicals down the sink or the toilet,” says Dean Dowd, chief technical officer for CalFinder, a green-certified construction service. “Runoff from outdoor cleaning can end up in the sewer system and back into your water supply. Also, because some of these chemicals don’t break down, they can eventually affect marine life when discharged into waterways.”

Besides protecting your health and your environment, greening your cleaning is easy on your wallet. Many of these green cleaning solutions can be made out of inexpensive ingredients you probably already have at home, like baking soda, borax, vinegar, and water. Here are a few ways you can green your outdoor clean and still keep everything as fresh as you like it.

Washing Your House’s Exterior
You can easily clean your home non-toxically using just water and a pressure washer. But before you pull out the heavy-duty spray, first find out what method is best for your particular exterior.

“Wood shingled siding doesn’t need to be washed,” says Dowd. “During a pressure wash, avoid full pressure on masonry or vinyl because water can reach behind the vinyl and blast mortar from between the bricks.”

Another tried-and-true method Dowd recommends is rinsing. All you need is a hose, bucket, and mild soap. But he cautions that if you have particularly hard-to-reach areas you need to clean, it may be best to hire a contractor to do the dirty work for you.

Don’t Drench Your Driveway
One area where you should be particularly cautious when cleaning is the driveway. Because most are designed to allow any storm water to flow to public drains, any toxic chemicals you use may end up in the local water supply.
This is particularly relevant if you like to wash your own car in the driveway, says Kelly Stettner of the Black River Action Team, a Springfield, VT-based group dedicated to keeping local waterways clean and healthy. “Not only can the extra water push any dirt and junk already in the gutters down the storm drains and into the local lake or river, but think of the soap, oil and other automotive fluids that rinse off the car itself. These storm drains empty into water bodies, usually without any sort of treatment.”

She recommends looking for organic, biodegradable soaps like Liquid Sunshine and washing cars on grass or gravel, if possible, to allow some filtering before the runoff reaches waterways. Above all, avoiding chemicals is key. “Chemicals can break down the asphalt while landing in the water supply,” he says. “Simply using a street-sweeper broom on a regular basis and hosing down dirt and dust should do the trick.”
For pesky oil stains, Down recommends spreading an absorbent material like car litter, sand. or sawdust over the stain and letting it sit for a few days to soak up the spot. “Afterward, simply sweep the absorbent material off the driveway,” he says.

Window Washing
Keeping exterior windows clean is important for both your equipment maintenance and the view from inside your home. But you don’t have to resort to toxic glass cleaning chemicals for a clear window. Les Stephens, JELD-WEN windows product marketing manager, says while your need to clean will depend on your climate, there are some basic tips you can follow to green your window cleaning.

Instead of paper towels, Stephens suggests using a clean, lint-free soft cloth or sponge when you’re wiping down your windows. As for the cleaning solution, he suggests baby shampoo or vinegar mixed with water. If you have grease or oil problems, this mixture should do the trick.

Beyond just keeping your glass clear, however, you need to be concerned with the effect chemicals can have on the window casing and mechanisms. “Mild soap, water and a soft sponge or cloth is the simplest and safest way to clean exterior finishes like wood, metal-clad surfaces, vinyl, plastic and brass,” Stephens says. “Just [make sure to] always rinse and wipe dry immediately after cleaning.”

To clean insect screens, remove them from windows and place them into a tub or shower stall or on an outdoor hard surface. Gently spray the screen with water and brush lightly with a soft bristle tool until clean. “If you have stubborn dirt, use a mild soap and water solution,” says Stephens. “Then just rinse clean and replace the screen when dry.”

Green Cleaning Outside


Patio Protection
The patio or deck is an important spot for most household’s outdoor fun. But it can also easily become gritty and grimy after a few dusty days or rough showers. Gary Walker, CEO of the Lee’s Summit, MO-based eco-conscious cleaning companies Return to Green and Magic Touch Cleaning, says a few at-home concoctions can help you cut through the dirt without resorting to harsher methods.

To clean metal lawn chairs, start with a gallon of warm water. Add 1/4 cup hydrogen peroxide, a squirt of natural dish soap and a scoop of borax. Pump or spray the solution onto the metal chairs and let it stand for 10 to 15 minutes. After that, scrub with a soft nylon brush and rinse off with a hose.

And if you have mold on your cushions, don’t despair, says Walker. “This is easy to clean, and it’s safe,” he says. Make a mix of tea tree oil and water—one teaspoon of oil for every cup of water—and put it in a spray bottle. “Test it on the back side of the cushion first to make sure it doesn’t harm the fabric,” Walker says. “Once you know it’s safe, spray it on and don’t worry about rinsing it off. The oil will kill the mold, and both the smell of winter and of the tea tree oil will soon be gone.”

Worried about the state of your grill? Try baking soda. A natural cleaner and absorbent, it’s completely non-toxic (you use it in cooking, after all) and the fine granules make a gentle abrasive that works great on tough-to-clean spots like the grill. Dampen a grill brush, then sprinkle baking soda on it. Scrub your grill, then rinse it clean. For tougher stains, try a baking soda paste—three parts baking soda to one part water—and scrub with a wire brush. Walker also recommends trying all-natural citrus-based cleansers for greasy spots. “Citrus is the best degreaser,” he says.

Smarter Cleaning Works
Keeping your personal property neat and clean using eco-friendly methods is easy, and because most of the ingredients are readily available, it’s also convenient. “When I talk to people about green cleaning, the main reservations they have are effectiveness and convenience,” Dowd says. “Neither reservation should apply.” He says these methods are both easy to manage and extremely effective.

Plus, there are other advantages to doing the outdoor cleaning yourself. “Along with knowing you’re using great, effective alternatives, there’s always the pride of fixing up your home and enjoying some fresh air at the same time,” Dowd says.

Buying Green Cleaning Products
When purchasing green cleaning products, be wary of “greenwashing,” the practice of falsely advertising one’s product, company or practice as green, or sustainable, for purposes of increased revenue or clientele. Because labels like “all-natural” and “green” aren’t regulated by any government agency, anyone can advertise their products as healthier than they actually are.

Fortunately, some third-party designations are looking to fill the green gap. One prominent one is Green Seal. If you buy a product that is “Green Seal Certified,” you can be sure it’s met certain standards which vary by product and service. For more information, visit the Green Seal website.

Find information on Green Cleaning Indoors.

Going Green and Keeping Clean: Indoor Edition

You want to stay environmentally conscious, but can that really extend to your cleaning habits? Turns out, it's as easy as opening your pantry door.

Green Cleaning Inside


Searching for a cleaning product nowadays can be a complicated matter. All sorts of different specialized cleaners line the shelves, each promising a unique cleansing benefit for your home.

But if you really want a healthier home, it’s time to ditch the dozens of toxic cleaners and go simpler—and greener—for the health of your family and your environment. Need convincing? Our primer on greening your grime-busting is a good place to start.

Green Cleaners’ Effectiveness
One of the first questions most people have about greener cleaners is simple: Do they work? In short, the answer is yes. “People have this idea green cleaners don’t work as well, but that’s not the case,” says Emily Main, senior editor at National Geographic’s Green Guide . “The fact that a company like Clorox is now getting into the green cleaning business is a good testament to the fact the natural ingredients being used works as well as other counterparts.”

Many people protest they just don’t feel like their house is clean unless they have used something like bleach or ammonia to scrub it down, but Main says natural options like vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are just as effective without being toxic polluters. “Hydrogen peroxide is used to clean wounds in hospitals,” she says. “So, why would you think it wouldn’t work in your kitchen?”

And while many people associate the smell of bleach with the idea of clean, some green experts says we’re fooling ourselves if we think bleach means better health.  They say that green cleaners will still get your home sparkling and kill off harmful bacteria, but that using bleach, ammonia, and harsh anti-bacterial soaps can expose families to incredibly toxic products and actually lead to stronger strains of bacteria that are harder for immune systems to ward off.

Toss the Toxins
Many people think if a product is used in the home setting, it can’t really be that bad. That’s a dangerous misconception, says Lori Bongiorno, author of the book, Green, Greener, Greenest . “Conventional cleaning products contain some of the most hazardous chemicals most of us encounter on a daily basis, and the toxic residues remain on surfaces and clothing,” she says. “Despite our excessive phobias about germs, humans don’t need to live in a completely antiseptic environment.”

Instead of using tons of chemicals to clean, make an investment in a really high-end HEPA-filtered vacuum, says Annie Bond, Maid Brigade green living expert and author of the book, Home Enlightenment: Practical, Earth-Friendly Advice for Creating a Nurturing, Healthy, and Toxin-Free Home and Lifestyle .

“One of the best investments you can make is a vacuum with several filters to remove the smallest particles from your floors,” Bond says. “Vacuums with multiple layers of filtration are more effective at removing microscopic particles like dust mites, mold, pet dander and pollen.”

Consequences to the Planet
While it’s clear that most conventional cleaners are toxic to human health, there are also serious environmental offenders in your cleaning cabinet. Main says if she could get people to stop using any two cleaners, she would recommend they toss conventional dish and laundry detergents because of their devastating impact on waterways.

“People tend to think chemicals from detergents get removed in wastewater treatment plants,” she says. “But they don’t get removed as well as biological matter, and they build up in rivers and streams.”

Main says chemicals like phosphates, which are banned in laundry detergents but not dishwashing detergents, get washed into waterways and deprive the water of oxygen. This ends up killing all the plants and fish that live in those habitats. Phthalates are also a problem, she says. “Phthalates are used in almost everything,” she says. “They’re also building up in waterways, and they’ve been detected in the fatty tissue of fish. The phthalates end up feminizing the fish and they can’t reproduce, which causes population problems.

Natural Alternatives
One of the other common misconceptions about greener cleaning is that it’s more expensive. That’s just not true, says Bond. “Usually non-toxic cleaning is considerably cheaper because you can use kitchen cupboard ingredients for a number of tasks,” she says.

What should you have on hand if you want to start cooking up your own green cleaning? Main says there are eight main products that can clean most anything: baking soda, borax, white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, lemon juice, olive oil, castile soap, and washing soda. Main recommends Dr. Bronner’s castile soaps. Washing soda is less common than the other ingredients, but it can sometimes be found near the baking soda or in the laundry aisle. Arm & Hammer is one manufacturers of washing soda, and it can sometimes be found in smaller brand names, as well.

If it all sounds too simple, it really isn’t. “People think they need a lot of different cleaners when they really don’t,” Main says. “One good all-purpose cleaner will do the job as well as 20 individual cleaners.”

Smart Shopping
If you don’t want to make your own cleaners, you can buy greener cleaning products commercially. Brands like Clorox Green Works and Method are sold at most stores, says Main, who also recommends more traditional green brands like Seventh Generation, Biokleen, Ecover, and Dr. Bronner’s.

Finally, beware of “greenwashing” when shopping for cleaners. Because more people than ever are looking to clean in a healthier way, companies may label their products to appear greener than they actually are and, because companies aren’t required by law to list the ingredients in their product, it can be tough to tell what’s really better and what’s just the same old product.

“There are terms we really caution against,” Main says. “ ‘Biodegradable,’ ‘eco-friendly.’ and ‘natural’—these terms are meaningless. We recommend people look for what’s not in a cleaner instead. Look for labels that say things like ‘no chlorine bleach’ or ‘no synthetic fragrances or dyes.’ ”

Growing Home: An Approach to Adding Space

If you're planning a home addition, let the following considerations guide your decision-making.

Home Additions


As real estate markets across the country deal with sluggish sales and plunging prices, many people who, just a couple of years ago, might have decided to sell a smaller home to move to a bigger one are now choosing to remodel and add more space. And while adding square footage can be a sound financial decision, it still represents a major investment.

Be Realistic about Your Budget
Homeowners who are unrealistic about their budgets are one of the biggest roadblocks to successful renovations, says Greg Harth, president of Spring House, Pa.-based Harth Builders. “When it comes to budget, people come to the conversation thinking about what their project will cost and what they want to spend, and those numbers are usually the same for them,” he says. “Unfortunately, sometimes that just isn’t realistic. So, we like to talk about the budget right away.”

Another reason it’s important to start with budget is so your contractor knows what he should be talking to you about doing. “You can go through so much work and get them so excited about a project only to find out they don’t have the money to do it,” says Nick Barile, president of Greenwich, Conn.-based York Construction & Development. “People really do have misconceptions about how much certain additions will cost because they don’t always realize everything that goes into it. I recently had one person who had some really fantastic, grand ideas about what he wanted to do with his home, but it turned out he thought it was going to cost about half of the actual estimate. It sounds kind of bad to say the first thing to talk about should be budget, but it is.”

Being realistic about budget doesn’t just mean not going over the top, says Dave Whitehorn, co-owner of Kitchen and Bath Unlimited in Derry, N.H., which specializes in kitchen and bath remodels and additions. “Some people fail to do their homework when it comes to allocating a realistic budget,” Whitehorn says. “The budget can certainly get away from people quickly on the higher end, but it can also be a problem on the lower end. If they don’t have a realistic budget, they’ll never get what they want.”

Finally, in the current financial climate, it is important to secure financing right away, even if you have stellar credit. Harth says that people who in the past would have been approved for home equity loans without hesitation are now being turned away. “We’re advising people from the beginning to go to the bank,” he says. “We have projects sitting, ready to go, and people with phenomenal credit scores — above 700 — and dual incomes are having trouble securing financing.”

Consult with Experts on the Best Improvements
Even before meeting with a contractor, consulting with a real estate professional on your addition can be worthwhile.

“Realtors are very useful when considering an addition,” says Kary J. Bartmasser, licensed Realtor® and Certified Public Accountant in Beverly Hills, Ca. “They can analyze the sold comps [comparable listings] in your area. These area comps can show how additional bedrooms or bathrooms may add to the value of your home, based on your local area. Your main objective is not to overspend for your neighborhood.”

Bartmasser says one of the biggest mistakes he sees people make is overbuilding. “Don’t build a mansion where one-stories are the norm,” he says. “You don’t want to have the most expensive house on the block.”

“Realtors are constantly expected to sell properties that have been ‘over-improved,’ “ says New Hartford, N.Y.-based Realtor Jean Hunt. “However, if your home is on the low end of the price range for your neighborhood, go ahead and make improvements. I bought the smallest, least expensive home on my street, and I was very comfortable adding on twice — I’m still easily within the price range for my neighborhood.”

Beyond making sure your improvements will pay off when it comes time to sell, having an architect you trust on your project is wise both structurally and financially. “It’s always good to have an architect or some design professional helping homeowners through the early part of the remodeling process of gathering information and doing homework,” says Ken Hirsch, AIA, owner of Hirsch Architects, Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla. “They dive into it, and depending on when they finally talk to a contractor or a design professional, they may not really be ready to make practical choices. The best way is to find a professional who’s really experienced in the process and let them walk the homeowners through it.”

Find the Right Contractor for Your Job
With so much money and emotional investment on the line, one of the most important decisions you will make when adding on to your house is the contractor you choose. The biggest mistake homeowners make is simple, says Hunt. “Not getting competitive bids from contractors is one of the most common mistakes people make when adding on to their home,” she says. “Going with the first contractor and the first bid could be your biggest mistake. You get a second opinion when you go for surgery. Why not do the same for your house?”

Asking some basic questions in the interview and bidding process can weed out contractors who may not be a good fit for your style, says Whitehorn. “If you’re a homeowner and you’re going to do a big project, they’re going to be in your house, they’re going to be in your life for a long time,” he says. “Find out how many different people will be in your home during the project, find out what their payment schedule is and how they handle payments and how they handle change orders. If you don’t like these answers, that may be a tell-tale sign this isn’t the right contractor for you.”

Whitehorn also cautions against relying too heavily on references. “References can be helpful, but keep in mind that most contractors will have a list of their favorite customers they use as references,” he says. “So, I wouldn’t overrate the importance of that.”

Beyond liking a contractor’s work, feeling confident about their business practices and agreeing on budget, there’s one more factor homeowners shouldn’t overlook, says Colin O’Neill, co-owner with Whitehorn of Kitchen and Bath Unlimited. “You’re speaking to somebody who you’re thinking about giving tens of thousands of dollars to make drastic changes to your home,” he says. “You really need to be able to trust them on a personal level.”

Carefully Consider Why You Want More Space
Carefully considering why you want or need more space is essential in deciding how to go about your addition. You might be surprised that what you thought you wanted isn’t actually the best answer to your problem, says Harth.

“We really take a look at the house as a whole and how the space is used,” he says. Harth says he worked with a family recently who contacted him about adding square footage to their home for a playroom. “They said they were tired of constantly stepping over the kids’ toys,” Harth says. “But once I really got in and looked around, I realized a better solution to their space problem would be adding a master bedroom suite and turning the old bedroom into a playroom.”

One reason this was a better solution was because the return on investment (ROI) of master bedroom suites is better than that of playrooms. And even if you plan on staying in your home for many years, it’s still wise to consider how appealing your addition will be to future buyers.

So, what are the most “profitable” additions? Bartmasser says adding bathrooms and expanding kitchens are perennial winners. Harth agrees that kitchen expansions or additions have a very high ROI, and he adds that he’s seeing a lot of requests for second-story additions and master bedroom suites, as well, and those also pay off when it comes time to sell. In fact, according to Remodel Magazine’s 2010 Cost vs. Value Report , second-story additions recoup more than 80 percent of their cost in most parts of the country.

And again, it’s important to consider not just the “average” return on investment but also what’s right for your area and your immediate neighborhood. Don’t do too much, says Barile, or you may find diminishing returns on your investment. “It’s so important to consider the other homes around and what’s typical for the area,” he says. “You don’t want to create a Renoir in a neighborhood of art prints.”

Be a Good Client
Adding onto your home can be an exciting time but also a time marked by stress and money pressures. While your contractor, architect and designers are there to work for you, it’s imperative that you understand what it means to be a good client, says O’Neill.

“Choose a contractor you really trust,” he says. “What happens a lot of times is people will make that choice based on the wrong criteria, like putting too much. or not enough. emphasis on price, then they try to micromanage the person rather than letting them do their job and then holding them accountable for the results. Take the time, hire the right person, trust them to give you the end result, and you’ll have success.”

More Tips for Choosing a Remodeling Professional
Beyond doing due diligence by checking for complaints on the Better Business Bureau website and other similar sites, it’s smart to choose a professional certified by the National Association of the Remodeling Industry says Harth, who notes that in places like his home state of Pennsylvania, licensing is not required for contractors. “You need a license to do someone’s nails, but not to work on their house,” he says. “By choosing a local professional who’s a NARI contractor, you know you’re getting someone reputable.”

Here are a few warning signs from NARI that you may be dealing with a remodeler who is less than reputable:

  • You can’t verify the name, address, telephone number or credentials of the remodeler.
  • The company or salesperson says your home will be used for advertising purposes so you will be given a “special, low rate.”
  • The builder/remodeler tells you a special price is available only if you sign the contract “today.”
  • No references are furnished.
  • Information you receive from the contractor is out-of-date or no longer valid.
  • You are unable to verify the license or insurance information.
  • You are asked to pay for the entire job in advance or to pay in cash to a salesperson instead of by check or money order to the company itself.
  • The company cannot be found in the telephone book and is not listed with the local Better Business Bureau or with a local trade association, such as NARI.
  • The contractor does not offer, inform or extend notice of your right to cancel the contract within three days. Notification in writing of your Right of Rescission is required by law. This grace period allows you to change your mind and declare the contract null and void without penalty (if the agreement was solicited at some place other than the contractor’s place of business or appropriate trade premises-in your home, for instance).

In addition, be cautious when:

  • You are given vague or reluctant answers.
  • The contractor exhibits poor communication skills or descriptive abilities.
  • The contractor is not accessible.
  • Your questions are not answered to your satisfaction.
  • The contractor is impatient and does not listen.
  • Only the work is addressed instead of your needs as the homeowner.
  • There is no book of previous projects presented.

Nursery Safety Tips

Worried about the hazards lurking in your child’s room? Skip the fretting and check out these expert tips on how to make the nursery the safest place in the house.



Want to know what you need to do to make sure baby’s nursery is safe? Don’t ask your mom, says Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council.

“Things have changed so much as far as safety,” Appy says. “You really need to make sure you have the best, latest information so you can keep your children safe.”

Crib Care
The crib should be the safest place in the house,” says Jamie Schaefer-Wilson, child safety advocate and author of The Consumer Reports Guide to Childproofing & Safety: Tips to Protect Your Baby and Child from Injury at Home and on the Go. “There should be no soft bedding, comforters, blankets, dolls, bumpers or quilts,” she says. “It may seem severe, but you don’t hear of babies becoming hurt or entangled in an empty crib.”

Schaefer-Wilson says parents often underestimate babies’ abilities to get into trouble, even at a very young age. “Kids put everything in their mouths,” she emphasizes. “It just takes one second for something to happen.” Removing all toys from the crib is one of the best ways to keep baby safe.

Some studies have shown that bumpers or other soft items in the crib can increase the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, according to First Candle/National SIDS Alliance and the American Academy of Pediatrics. While some trade groups maintain that soft items don’t pose a danger, activists say it’s better to be safe than sorry.

And while it’s important to make the crib environment as safe as possible in your home, don’t forget to safety check anywhere a baby will be sleeping, such as a babysitter’s or grandparent’s house. “They may have outdated information,” Appy says. “You really have to confront old myths. Make sure they keep the crib clear and don’t wrap the baby in blankets or put them to sleep on their stomach. Create a safe sleep environment wherever baby will be.”

Another thing to remember is to always use a tight-fitting, crib sheet — never put an adult sheet on a baby’s mattress. “It can be tempting in the middle of the night when you’re out of clean sheets and you just want to sleep, but it is really so dangerous,” says Schaefer-Wilson. “Babies can easily become entangled.”

Appy says while it may sound austere, the facts support the empty crib advice. “Research is very clear on this,” she emphasizes. “The safe way for a baby to sleep is on her back in a very sparse environment with a firm mattress and tight-fitting crib sheet.”

Window Hazards
The designer-photo image of a bright, airy nursery with huge windows and long, sheer curtains backlit by sunshine may be a beautiful sight, but experts say it is not the safest place for baby to rest.

Windows are a major hazard in children’s rooms, especially in multi-level homes or high-rise apartment buildings. But if you take care to create a safe environment, you can mitigate the dangers windows cause, says Appy. “Never put a crib in front of a window,” she says. “Babies become toddlers soon, and they can easily climb up and fall out.”

Install window guards, recommends Schaefer-Wilson. “A screen won’t stop a child from falling through an open window,” she says. “Window guards are a good idea, just ensure they’re properly installed. Look for something hardware-mounted that has a latch to allow for safe escape in case of fire.” Another option is clear, hard plastic window covers. Just make sure they’re easily removable for an adult in case of fire.

Be aware of the window coverings you choose for the baby’s room, says Michael Cienian, vice president of quality assurance for Hunter Douglas and past president of the Window Covering Safety Council (WCSC).

Window cords may seem like a small detail, but ignoring them can be a tragic mistake. “Strangulation deaths on window cords really do occur, and it’s usually with children under two years old,” Cienian says.

He says all window blinds sold in the year 2000 or later should have built-in safety features. But if your blinds are older, the WCSC has free retrofit kits that will make pre-2000 blinds safer for homes with children. If you’re installing new window coverings, cordless options are now available, and that’s the safest choice.

If you’re unsure about the age or safety of your home’s blinds, here are some tips from Cienian:

  • Look for a loop: If a cord loops at the bottom, it is unsafe, he says. Go to WSCS and order the retrofit kit, or simply cut the loop to reduce the strangulation hazard.
  • Search for “stop beads”: “Look at your cords where they go into the headrail. You want to see some little plastic rings or washers tied up there. Those are called “stop beads” and they prevent inner-cord loops from tangling,” he says. If they’re not there, order a retrofit from the WSCS site.
  • Vertical blinds pose a danger. They often have what’s called a “continuous cord” loop or chain, which is also a strangulation hazard. The WCSC also offers a free fix for this.
  • Know how to fix it: Visit the WCSC website or call 1-800-506-4636 for help solving any of the problems mentioned above or to find out more information.


Electrical Dangers
Outlet covers are often one of the first things parents buy when they’re safety proofing their home. Here are just some of the many options available today:

  • Outlet caps: The cheapest and easiest solution, these plastic caps simply slide into the exposed outlet, blocking little ones from sticking in fingers or foreign objects. These work well for babies’ rooms, but as toddlers watch you remove them and gain manual dexterity, they may figure out who to work these covers. OneStepAhead designs outlet caps that are larger so they’re less of a choking hazard, but it’s still prudent to make sure these aren’t left loose within a child’s reach.
  • Plug adapter and cover: Want full coverage for outlets where something is plugged in? This boxy adapter provides that as well as a cord-shortening device to reduce cord hazards.
  • Universal outlet covers: These outlet covers are often found in commercial settings like doctors’ offices or play areas because of their effectiveness and convenience. These are easily installed in minutes with just a screwdriver, and they keep little fingers out of sockets while allowing adults to plug in needed items.
  • Power strip cover: If you have an outlet shortage and must use a power strip in your child’s room (or anywhere else in the house), these covers are a great way to keep your littlest family members safe. They snap over the entire power strip and are a cinch for an adult to remove, but they will stymie curious little fingers looking for trouble.

Also, be aware of cords from outlets snaking around a baby’s room. Not only do they pose tripping hazards, they also make the outlets more attractive.

Can’t figure out what you need for your house or want to simplify shopping? The Child Safety Kit from offers several different electrical — and other — safety solutions in one package.

Changing Table Safety
The changing table can be a hidden danger spot in many nurseries, says Schaefer-Wilson. “Parents sometimes leave kids [unattended who] they think can’t roll off, but they will surprise you,” she says. “Children have fallen off changing tables and died.”

Appy points out that the safety straps on changing pads should not be ignored. They wouldn’t be there if someone hadn’t been hurt before, she says.

Also, be cautious about the baby care items you leave in the area. “Never leave an oil or a powder on the changing table,” says Schaefer-Wilson. “If a child ingests the oil, they can’t get it out of their lungs and they can actually suffocate that way.” She says powders and other creams should also be kept out of reach, preferably stored away in a medicine cabinet that isn’t in the baby’s room. For ease of use, however, try installing wall shelving high above the changing table where the child—even a standing toddler—can’t reach.

Safe and Secure Furniture
One subject that has been gaining attention as a safety hazard is furniture tips and falls. It’s garnering more attention for good reason, says Schaefer-Wilson: “Think about it — what does a child do when they want to get to something on a dresser?” she asks. “They open the bottom drawer and they step in.”

She says just opening all of the drawers on the dresser, if the drawers are full, can cause a tall piece of furniture to tip over. She also warns that in any room, putting a television on top of a dresser is a bad idea because kids can climb anywhere, and television falls have been associated with many tragic tipping deaths.

Furniture straps are an essential ingredient in any nursery, she says, and they should be installed before the child is old enough to climb. “[Children will climb] as soon as they can, which is going to be earlier than you think,” she says.

Breathe Easy
Because babies’ systems are still developing and they breathe at a faster rate than older children and adults, it’s especially important to ensure the indoor air in your home, and specifically in your child’s nursery, is healthy.

One way to ensure better air quality for your whole house is to buy an air filter specifically designed to trap harmful particles like formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), like the SafeHome air filter. “It is sad that many of the exciting steps taken to prepare for a child’s arrival, from painting walls to moving into a larger home, can be detrimental to their health,” company president Sam McLamb says.

Beyond filtering out harmful air quality problems, you can help your child by choosing “green” items and practices. Natural and organic mattresses are a great choice since the fire retardants used in conventional mattresses contain many harmful chemicals. “We decided to go with a natural mattress after we shopped and realized the regular ones were recommending they be aired out before being used,” McLamb says. “The recommendations to leave vinyl mattresses outside for two weeks before use were not comforting.”

If you’re painting a room, choose low- or no-VOC paints, and have your home checked for radon, lead and mercury by an environmental inspector. If you’re worried about allergies, add a mold inspection to the list. You and your baby will breathe easier because of it.

Odds and Ends
Some other things to consider:

  • Appy emphasizes that parents often worry about babies getting cold, but it’s been shown that if the adult is comfortable with the temperature, the baby is, too. In fact, she says new research shows the safest temperature for a sleeping baby is between sixty-eight to seventy-two degrees. “And it should never get above seventy-five degrees in a nursery,” she says.
  • Loose floor rugs may look pretty, but they can be a tripping hazard, especially when you’re dealing with a baby that often wakes in the middle of the night.
  • Make sure furniture hasn’t been recalled, and reconsider using “vintage” pieces—they may pose risks you haven’t considered. Old toy boxes aren’t designed to open from the inside, so toddlers can become trapped and suffocate, for example. All newer designs come with a feature that allows them to open safely. Never use an old crib, either, because it may not be stable and the slats may be far enough apart to allow child entrapment and strangulation.

Creative Kids’ Spaces

Because your child's room should be as awesome as they are.


When Dr. Randy Pausch gave his famous “last lecture” in September of 2007 at Carnegie Mellon University, he talked about the creative space his parents gave him when he was a teen, letting him paint his bedroom at will, even if it meant they ended up with the quadratic formula on the walls. He implored parents, “If your kids want to paint their bedroom, as a favor to me, let them do it. It’ll be okay. Don’t worry about resale value on the house.”

What Pausch understood, and what kids innately know, is that children need space that’s theirs, where they can let loose and really be creative.

“Engaging kids in active play to inspire creativity is so important,” says Glen Halliday, founder of Windham, Maine-based Kids Crooked House. “There are so many things in kids’ lives today where their creativity is force-fed to them, that doing anything you can create that evokes that imagination and creative play is key.”

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Design for Your Kids, Not for You
One of the first mistakes parents make when creating a space for their kids is not involving them in the process enough. The best way to set out on a project like this is making your kids a part of it from the beginning.

“There are so many times a parent will design a house for their child, and it will have all the bells and whistles,” Halliday says, “but if you ask a kid, they just want the simplest things.”

And giving up a little control can make all the difference in how well-loved the room becomes. “What really makes a difference is when parents allow their kids to conceptualize, and pick the colors and textures, and have a say in what elements they would like in the space,” says Doug Masters, founder of the design and building firm Masters Touch in Medfield, MA.

Color Their World
Paint can be a very evocative substance for kids, who are often passionate about the colors they love and those they can’t stand. Kelly J. Thyen, owner of the Blaine, MN-based kids’ design boutique Wiggles N’ Giggles, says parents should consider not only their child’s interests, however, but also the “psychology of color” in choosing the base shade for their child’s creative area.

“Blue is a fabulous color for a kids’ space,” she says. “It is a peaceful color that actually causes the human body to create calming chemicals and also make you more productive. Green is another great color because of its calming effect.” Thyen adds that although kids often love colors like red and yellow, using them only as accent colors may make for a more pleasant space. “Red stimulates chemicals in your body that create excitement and hunger, and yellow can have a very unsettling effect; even though it’s cheerful and sunny, it tends to make people loose their tempers and children cry, which is definitely not what you want in your child’s play space,” she says.

Beyond just color, however, paint can be used to delineate a space. “It’s important to remember that for younger kids, their eye level is right around three feet or so,” says Ann McGuire, Valspar Color Consultant and founder of Beehive Studios of Buckhill Falls, PA. “Think about doing borders along the bottom of the wall like handpainted flowers for a little girl’s garden or a cityscape for little boys who want to play with their trucks or LEGOs.”

And it doesn’t have to stop with the walls. McGuire says when parents are willing, painting the floor adds a whole new dimension to kids’ play. “Painting hopscotch boards, roads for cars or even four-square sets, especially in a basements, where you don’t mind the bouncing ball, can be great for kids.”

Focus on Kid-Friendly Materials
When designer Sharon McCormick, principal of the Durham, CT-based Sharon McCormick Design, LLC, created a playroom for her clients with a rambunctious two-year-old, she knew she had to choose materials that were both attractive and durable.

She recommends checking out Flor carpets for soft, modular flooring that can be easily replaced. “We made a checkerboard design, but the number of designs and colors are seemingly limitless,” she says. “By buying a few extra tiles, if one gets dirty, you can take it out and replace it in a jiffy.”

McCormick also chose beadboard wainscoting for the room. “It’s tough and much more washable than sheetrock,” she says, adding it’s important to choose high-grade paint that can withstand multiple cleanings before having to be repainted. But even then, having the wainscoting will reduce your work. “Since with little kids, the lower half of a wall takes the brunt of the dings, when it’s time to repaint, you can just repaint the wainscoting instead of the whole room,” she says.

For fabrics, she chose stain-guarded, relatively inexpensive cottons and rugged denim. And instead of choosing fragile tassels for window treatments, she went with a more practical trim. “We used a braid trim on the bottom of the roman shade and saved the tempting tassel fringe for the top of the valance,” she says.

Don’t Neglect Safety
Creating a room that’s just for kids means they will sometimes end up there without much adult supervision, which is why safety is a key concern in any room you design with kids in mind.

One safety issue parents need to address early is making sure the space is completely finished. “Don’t leave any bare studs or loosely tacked carpeting that the child could get caught, cut, or slip on,” says Thyen. “The space should be fully finished.”

Also, Thyen says to make sure any furniture that can be climbed on or that might wobble is screwed securely to the wall. Any large, heavy items like televisions should also be secured. And don’t forget the cords: “Make sure cords are hidden, wound up, and secured,” Thyen says. “And cover every outlet.”

Finally, don’t forget lighting safety. “Watch that light fixtures are fully enclosed and that they don’t get hot enough to burn, especially when creating a playroom under stairs or in another small space.”

Worry Less, Play More
Still worried about the resale value of your house if you install that fireman’s pole your son craves or turn your fourth bedroom into a jungle room? So was Janie Glover, who created a deluxe playroom for her daughter Katherine in their former home in High Point, NC. When the family put the house up for sale, their realtor suggested they remove the room, which had been featured in several local papers and had been a labor of love for the entire family. So Glover decided to wait.

“We decided we would try to feature it as a selling point first,” she says. “We knew that it was a unique feature and felt it would set our house apart. We told our realtor that if a couple was interested and did not have children or grandchildren, we would take it down and repaint the room.”

Glover’s decision was the right one — the house was put on the market on Thursday, and it was under contract on Friday to the first couple who looked at it. “They had been looking for a home for more than a year,” she says. “They had a two-year-old little girl who spent hours in the playhouse while her parents toured the rest of our home. It was perfect for them and they said the playhouse is what sold them on the house.”

Open Floor Plans: Is This Design Right for You?

Before you knock down walls and make the switch to an open floor plan, here are a few things to take into consideration.

Open Floor Plans

Photo: St. James Canter

Postwar bungalows and midcentury ranches fill much of the prime downtown residential areas in Huntsville, AL, a thriving city of 350,000 people. The housing market hasn’t taken the hit that many other cities have experienced, and Huntsville Realtor Amanda Power of Keller Williams Realty says the high-value locations of these older homes make them prime candidates for modern renovations. In addition to remodeling bathrooms and refinishing hardwood floors, many homeowners in Huntsville are opening up their homes—formerly compartmentalized spaces.

Having an open mind about open floor plans is paying off for these renovation-minded homeowners, according to Power. “Open floor plans absolutely sell better,” she says. “They fit in with today’s family life, but they also make the renovations seem bigger and more up-to-date.”

But while free-flowing floor plans may be hot, they’re not right for everyone. So how can you know if opening up your space will work for you? Here are some guidelines.

Consider Your Home’s Structure
First, consider what “open floor plan” means and that different homeowners have different definitions. “There are different types of open spaces,” says Peggy Hlobil-Emmenegger, principal at UCArchitect in Toronto. “For example, one may open up an entire floor so the space flows horizontally, or one may open up the entire house through interconnected spaces so the space flows vertically.”

An open design can be incorporated into any existing home with varied results, dependent on the size of the house, number of stories, structural integrity of the outer shell, location of plumbing and ductwork, and existing structural supports. It’s always critical to talk to a structural engineer before you begin an open-space renovation, but if you’re working on a home built before 1980 or so, it’s especially important. “Older houses are structurally set up for divided spaces,” says Seattle-based architect Milan Heger. Because of issues with floor and ceiling joist lengths in older homes, he says, it can be very costly to open up some historic homes’ interiors. “Any renovation that starts with divided spaces and intends to create open spaces is tricky and by all means requires a structural engineer,” he says. “No one should take it upon themselves to take out structural walls without a structural engineer involved. The seismic strength and lateral stability of the building is essential to protect the people inside.”

Another practical consideration when thinking about opening up your floor plan is the placement of spaces like bathrooms and stairwells. Brenda Be, principal of Mosaik Design in Portland, OR. During the many renovations in which she has opened up living spaces, Lord learned what the most common potential pitfalls are with these boundary-free floor plans. “Unless you live alone, you really have to ask yourself, ‘Am I okay with sharing this space?’” she says. “Imagine somebody’s clanging pots and pans in the kitchen while someone else is trying to watch something on one TV and maybe a child is trying to watch something on another TV. Those are big considerations to think about.”

Another consideration is that your old furniture might not work in the new space. When designing spaces, Lord works with clients to make sure they have the right furniture for the new look and feel of their home.

And if you have children, consider that your space will now be their space and vice-versa. Kricken Yaker, a partner at Vanillawood, a Portland, OR–based design-build firm, creates open floor plan spaces for many clients. A mother herself, she understands the need to come up with a space that works for the whole family. “Especially when you have younger children, you can still capture some sort of space within the house that is kind of the flop room,” she says, noting that half-walls, screens, and sliding wall barriers can be a good middle ground for families who love to be together but who still occasionally need to have separate spaces.

Designers say solutions like these will usually work for homeowners who want to live in open-space floor plans. “Most of today’s existing homes have an outdated layout with wasted spaces such as narrow hallways, cramped rooms, and unused guest bedrooms that don’t at all reflect today’s changes in lifestyle or our society,” says Hlobil-Emmenegger. “More and more people are starting to realize this and are looking for home designs that reflect their uniqueness.”

If you think opening up your home from the inside out will work for you, here are some tips to help smooth the transition to a less constrained house plan.

Open Floor Plan


Prepare for Decorating Changes and Challenges
If you have an Italian buffet or heirloom Persian rug that you love, be sure to mention it to your architect or designer. “When you’re doing something fresh and new and then you move in all your old furniture, it can be quite a letdown if we haven’t designed around the furniture,” says Lord, who designs around homeowners’ prized possessions to ensure that they work well in the new plan. “But more often than not, the homeowners’ furniture doesn’t work anymore, and they want to live differently in this new and different space. After all, that’s why they remodeled in the first place.”

Another potential pitfall is the new acoustics that come with very open spaces. With fewer walls and sometimes higher ceilings, homeowners may experience issues like echoing or cross-room conversations that sound garbled and less crisp. “The easiest way to address this is with the right window treatments and floor coverings,” says Kati Curtis, principal of Nirmada Interior Design in New York City. “Softer materials can absorb sound yet not detract from the open, airy feel of the space.”

The smaller details may get lost when you’re considering larger issues like determining if taking out a wall will cause your roof to collapse, but if you don’t take the time to think about them, you won’t like your open floor plan lifestyle nearly as much. “If your kitchen is open to the rest of the house, think about investing in that really quiet dishwasher or raising an island bar a few more inches so you can’t see the kitchen when you’re sitting on the couch watching TV,” Lord says. “If you don’t want to have to do dishes every night but you don’t want to look at clutter, go ahead and get that extra-deep sink where you can hide your dirty plates.”

Be sure to consult with your designer about places in the home where you need storage. “If your child’s play area or your office is located in the open area, make sure everything has a place and can be put away when guests come for dinner,” Curtis says.

The Bottom Line: Choose What Works for You
“You either love it or hate it, and people should think hard before deciding for a costly remodel,” Heger says. “On the other hand, once you get the ‘bug’ of living in a loftlike space, you may never go back to a traditional house.”

Make sure an open space reflects your personality. Designers say that opening up your home can be like opening up your life. If you’re a very private person, you may not enjoy life without walls, even if it appeals to you aesthetically. “Open floor plan is modern, contemporary, artistic, urban, and social all at the same time,” Heger says. “My clients usually love other people, company, and friends. I’m not a psychologist, but there’s something about this connection. Open floor plans have no secrets.”

The Challenge of Electronics in Open Floor Plans
When you’re looking for a light socket, cable outlet, or phone jack, you usually go straight to the nearest wall. But in open floor plans, plugging into the nearest wall may mean running unsightly wires under rugs, around baseboards, or, worst of all, across a walking area. If you’re thinking of knocking down walls, keep the following advice in mind, courtesy of the Custom Electronic Design & Installation Association (CEDIA):

  • Hidden installations: Electronic systems contractors (ESCs) can create hidden installations where home electronics blend seamlessly into the living area, storing bulky components in one central location like a closet or cabinet.
  • Wiring: It’s important for architects to incorporate wiring systems into floors and ceilings, so they’ll reach throughout the house without dragging wires and cables all over the place.
  • Integrate controls: If you’re redesigning electrical and wiring systems, consider choosing an integrated control system that will allow you to activate lighting, control HVAC levels, open and close window treatments, and manage media components in central locations. “Open plan spaces are especially tough when it comes to locating the switches and control interfaces found in a modern home,” says Ray Lepper, president of

    Child Safety During Home Renovations

    Watch out for potential hazards during your home renovation to keep kids safe.


    Safety is an important consideration in any home renovation, but when children live in a home under reconstruction, keeping them out of harm’s way isn’t as simple as it may seem. Kids are curious, exploratory beings, and simply having an area with something new, interesting and dangerous going on is an attractive nuisance.

    “Parents really need to talk to their kids who are old enough to understand and lay down ground rules for the renovation,” says Eric Phillips, vice president and general manager at DreamMaker Bath and Kitchen of the Triangle in Apex, NC. “And once the rules are there, parents really have to have the discipline to enforce those rules with their kids.”

    The first step, of course, is awareness of the dangers that lurk for children during a home renovation.

    Change Home Habits
    One of the most difficult things for children to get used to during a home renovation is changing the way they use their home. This is especially true when a remodel is focusing on a room the kids use every day, like a kitchen, bath, or living area.

    Phillips says the contractor and the family need to work together to set up alternative areas that will fulfill the family’s basic needs while the job is underway. “If I’m doing a kitchen remodel, for example, we’ll set up a temporary kitchen somewhere like a garage or extra room,” he says. “Just having a refrigerator, microwave, and crock pot in a separate area helps kids stay out of that area.”

    For bathrooms, parents need to help kids remember to stay out of those areas, whether it’s by locking doors, putting up physical barriers like plastic sheeting, or adding signs around the house.

    Prepare the Air
    More and more children (and adults) suffer from allergies and asthma than ever, and the dust and particulates brought into the home through a large remodeling project can be damaging to the health of the air in the household.

    Protecting the quality of the air you breathe is one of the most important steps you can take to keep your family save during a renovation, says the carpenter Christopher Ashe.

    “Sealing off any HVAC ducting or vents in the area, hanging plastic sheeting, using disposable drop cloths and maintaining a clean workspace by vacuuming all horizontal surfaces with a HEPA-filtered vacuum at least twice a day, preferably more often, can really protect your family from the particulates and dust that can get into the air,” he says. And these steps are particularly important, he adds, if there are any materials like asbestos or lead paint that will be disturbed during the project.

    Phillips says his workers seal off areas and HVAC units with plastic sheeting, and they also use “air scrubbers” while doing work like sanding drywall to protect the household’s air. “There’s so much more allergies and asthma in kids than there used to be, it seems,” he says. “We have to be very conscious of the materials, dust and particulates in households.”

    Keep Tools Tamed
    Many children’s toys have buttons to push and sliders to move that often result in colorful lights, funny noises, or fun moving parts. Now, consider how the average power tool would look to a three- or four-year-old.

    “Parents should tell contractors they shouldn’t leave power tools there overnight—or plugged in and within reach when kids are in the house,” says Phillips. “Taking batteries out of cordless tools or moving those out of reach and unplugging corded tools is definitely a good idea.”

    Just keeping track of where all the tools are can be a challenge, Especially with large jobs that aren’t necessarily isolated to one area of the house,. “At the end of the day, we like to have a ‘tool gathering’ where we collect all our tools and put them in one secure area,” says Dean Bennett, president of Castle Rock, CO-based Dean Bennett Design and Construction. “That’s good for us, too, because tools can get scattered during a day’s work. But you don’t want a kid finding a tool somewhere on the site and deciding to see how it works.”


    Know the Hazards of Unfinished Areas
    Even when tools are put away and workers aren’t present, there are still plenty of dangers on an unfinished work area.

    “Sometimes parents don’t realize that even when a room looks mostly done, if something like the wall socket covers are off, that can be a real hazard to a kid because the sides of those switches are live,” says Phillips.

    When important safety features are missing, a room is still a hazard, agrees Bennett. “Even something like having a toilet off with the wax ring exposed—that looks neat to a kid, but it’s full of bacteria,” he says. “Or, if a stair rail isn’t up on a new stairway, that’s a dangerous situation.”

    Stay Out of the Path of Work
    Workers moving around in a home with small children can be dangerous to the kids—and the workers.

    “When guys are carrying in something like lumber or cabinets, they can’t see a curious little kid who might get in their way,” says Bennett. “Parents really need to keep kids out of the way in those situations so neither the kids nor the workers get hurt.”

    Parents also need to realize that when workers are moving large equipment or materials in and out of the home, they probably won’t be too worried about shutting the door behind them. “It’s really easy for a little kid to slip out the door while it’s open and have no one notice,” Phillips says. “It’s just so important for them to be really well-supervised.”

    Keep Waste Contained
    Bennett recalled one of the few times that a child get hurt while he was working on a home —in that case, a kid was playing in a trash pile and stepped on a nail.

    “The parents needed to keep the kid out of the trash pile, of course, but it would be less interesting to a kid if the trash had been in some kind of container,” he says.

    Beyond hazards like sharp metal and nails, keeping used chemical containers out of reach is important because even after the contents are gone, toxic chemical residue can remain. Even a small amount of these substances can harm a child, so making sure they have no access, even to empty containers, is a must.

    Be Conscious of Allergies
    Beyond the dust and particulates that come from any remodeling job, Bennett notes that many people may be sensitive to some of the materials and chemicals being used in the project.

    “With paints and primers, you can go with low-VOC [volatile organic compound] options to help reduce sensitivities, especially in kids,” he says. “Carpets are another problem sometimes because they have lots of formaldehyde. Sometimes it’s best if the family can just take a week-or-so vacation after these products are installed to let them off-gas without harming anyone.”

    Bennett says the danger is reduced by opening windows and using air filters after painting or installing materials with formaldehyde (like composite-wood cabinets or carpets). There are also materials available that don’t harbor the dangerous chemicals. For instance, look for paints and finishes with “no-VOCs” on the labels.

    Ashe says while it may cost a bit more, looking for more environmentally friendly choices can pay off in the long run, especially when children are involved. “You can always find an eco-friendly alternative,” he says. “It may cost more, but sometimes it’s a small price to pay.”

    Choose the Right Contractor
    While conscientious parents are the best way to keep kids safe during a family’s remodel, choosing a contractor who understands and appreciates the unique challenges that come with remodeling a home with children is an essential step toward ensuring a safe renovation.

    1. Choose certified contractors. Too often, people mistakenly hire the contractor who offers the lowest price with lots of assurances, which, according to Phillips, can end up a costly mistake. “There are a lot of operations that are really just two guys and a fax machine, and they’re not reputable,” he says. “It can be expensive to license and insure a contracting business, but it protects you to choose someone who may cost a little more but is regulatory compliant.”

    2. Find out about safety practices and record. While everyone wants a safe contractor, families in particular should concern themselves with a company’s safety record because a low injury rate usually means the contractor follows good safety practices, like keeping work areas clean and storing tools safely.

    3. Ask how they feel about kids in the house. Before deciding on a contractor, ask about any issues or concerns he may have with children around a construction site. A good contractor should mention ground rules for kids, their own safety practices, and any experiences they’ve had working with families living in a house while it was being remodeled.

Basement Remodeling Ideas: Overcoming Obstacles

Basements don’t have to be cold, dark rooms hidden from public view. Try these tips to turn your home’s lowest level into a pinnacle of design and comfort.

Basement Remodeling Ideas, Basement Renovation Ideas

Photo: Flickr

If you’re looking for extra space to expand your home and haven’t considered the basement, you’re missing out on the possibilities of this perennially underrated room. Long relegated to use as little more than laundry rooms and storage areas, basement remodeling can enable everything from guest suites to media rooms. Try these ideas to turn your lowest room from a cold, dark afterthought into a warm, inviting centerpiece.

Accentuate the Positive
The obstacles that come with basement renovation ideas are many: little to no natural light, exposed ductwork, concrete structural beams, and low ceilings are just a few problems many homeowners encounter when planning a basement remodel. But instead of looking at the basement as a hopeless case, consider the room’s positive aspects.

“A basement provides a lot of raw space to work with,” says Sharon McCormick, principal of the Durham, CT-based Sharon McCormick Design, LLC. “Ductwork can be boxed in with hollow beams or drywall, creating an interesting coffered or soffited ceiling. Or suspended square ceiling panels made of copper or tin can lend a historic feeling.” For a more modern look, McCormick suggests painting exposed mechanicals and joists black to create a trendy, loft-like ambience.

Choose the Purpose Wisely
Choosing the right purpose for the room and planning it wisely can give homeowners a head start on making the area more inviting.

“The first thing to do is detail what activities you would like to accommodate,” McCormick says. “Game rooms with a billiards table, poker table, arcade games and bar are well-suited to a basement space, because you don’t have to worry about the weight of the equipment. Creating a moody, masculine game room is a breeze in a dark basement.”

Another room that uses a basement’s natural characteristics to its advantage is a home gym. Designer Nicole Sassaman, owner of Los Angeles-based Nicole Sassaman Designs, turned her basement into a workout area. “A room that benefits from the cold, like a gym, is a good choice for a basement makeover,” she says.

Other rooms that work well in basements include home theaters, which benefit from the naturally dark character of the room, and family lounges, which can have open areas that allow little ones to run and explore. “A wide expanse of space lends itself to laying out race tracks or large dollhouses,” McCormick says.

Let the Light Shine In
One of the most commonly cited problems in basement spaces is the lack of natural light. But with some careful planning and creative lighting design, even this seemingly fatal flaw can be corrected.

“As you plan for basement lighting, remember you will likely need more light than in other places in the home,” says Jeff Dross, lighting senior product manager for Cleveland-based Kichler Lighting. “Because the basement is located below grade, natural light does not provide the baseline ambient light that is found in the above-ground floors.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that quantity should rule over quality. Dross says tricking the eye to “see” natural light is one way to make a basement space feel more inviting. “To supplement the light that would typically come from a window, consider washing the walls with light or using recessed can lights close to the walls, or even energy-efficient fluorescent linear fixtures hidden in a cove,” he says.

When choosing your lighting, think about the room vertically, considering the effect each level will have on the room’s feel, says Atlanta-based interior designer Melissa Galt of Melissa Galt Interiors. “Light is best created in layers: ambient or general lighting, task or specific lighting, and accent or decorative lighting,” she says. “Soffit lighting and bookcase lighting are great enhancers for accent lighting, and torchères work especially well in corners, since they bounce light up the corner and across the ceiling.”

Finally, when choosing your fixtures, think about not only the light they give out but also their look in relation to your space. “Shorter lamps or lamps that have stout or squat bases with wide shades will look more natural and more fitting in conversation areas,” Dross says, adding that choosing both bulbs and fixtures carefully will accentuate your space. “Consider using warmer fixture colors, which will of course make the whole space feel warmer and more inviting.” If you’re using fluorescent lamps, he says that finding the lamp with the highest color rendering index (CRI) will give the room the most natural feel.

Paint with Purpose
If you’re trying to make a room feel lighter and more inviting, the first instinct is often to wash the walls in white. But Ann McGuire, a Valspar color consultant and the founder of Beehive Studios in Buck Hill Falls, PA, says it’s time to toss those ideas out the window. “People sometimes think, ‘Oh, I’ll paint the walls white, paint the ceiling white, and put in lots of fluorescent lighting’,” she says. “It makes it really bright, but it also makes it really unpleasant. The key with a basement is really warming up the space to make it an inviting environment.”

McGuire suggests that no matter what function the room will serve, going with colors on the warm end of the spectrum is a good choice. “No matter if it’s a home theater or a children’s play area, starting with a warm color will really make the space much more livable,” she says, noting that while yellows tend to look dingy, colors like a light caramel or a warm ivory can soften the glare from all the lighting without making the room feel too enclosed.

Because basements are often huge, undefined spaces, using paint to clearly delineate areas according to their purpose can make the room more livable. “Use paint to visually section off different areas of play,” McGuire says. “Creating activity spaces for the kids can make it more fun for them, and it can also help keep the room more organized.”

Wow with the Unexpected
When finishing your basement space, don’t forget the details. Because of the sublevel nature of the room, people often neglect finishes that they would put in other areas of the house. “Use architectural details just like you would in the rest of the house,” McCormick says. “Crown molding, substantial baseboards, wainscoting, and beadboard ceilings all go a long way toward eliminating the ‘basement’ feeling of living in a substandard space.”

Finally, don’t be afraid to express your decorating personality. Because basements present unique challenges, homeowners are often afraid to do anything too daring with them. But Sassaman says that’s the wrong idea if you want to make people think about the room rather than its location. “Be bold in your style, whatever that is, and give people that ‘wow’ factor when they enter the room,” she says. “It will take their minds off the fact that they are even in a basement.”

Feng Shui for Your Basement
Want to take your quest for a livable basement a step further? Space design consultant and feng shui expert Suzy Minken offers these tips for a more balanced basement environment: 

  • Reconsider the basement home office. Minken says home offices in the basement can be a real feng shui challenge. “Energy, or ‘chi’, enters the home through the front door and flows upward, not down into the basement, she says. Because of the energy profile of a basement, rooms that are higher-energy naturally, like a children’s indoor play area or exercise room, are better choices.
  • Stay clutter-free. One problem Minken often sees in basements is furniture that’s too big for the space, overpowering the room.
  • Fake the natural. Choosing a wall and creating recessed boxes where you can place outdoor-themed decorative accessories, like silk plants, along with small upward lights, can give the appearance of a window, which makes the enclosed interior feel more open.
  • Relax with water. If you really want to give your basement a refreshing twist, think fish. Minken suggests using a wall-mounted aquarium. “It looks like it is built-in, and it will add a wonderful sense of comfort and harmony,” she adds.