Author Archives: Cynthia Ramnarace

Smart Homes Save Time and Energy

Control sound, heating, cooling, and lighting systems using the Internet


Odds are each night you check to make sure the doors are locked, lights turned off, and windows closed. If you had a smart home, however, you’d be able to get into bed a few minutes earlier, and sleep knowing not only that your home is secure but that there is no phantom electricity being wasted by items that should be turned off.

Smart homes use a mix of hard-wired and wireless computer and network technology to automate the home. A central computer becomes the house’s hub. Want to watch a movie from your DVD collection? No need to search a dusty entertainment center for it. All televisions and stereos have access to your entire media collection, including movies as well as recorded TV shows. Or, if you’re crazy about having the proper lighting, you can program the perfect wattage for dinnertime conversation, or set up a “vacation” setting that makes the house look occupied in the evening even when it’s not.

Smart homes are complicated setups that require advanced computing skills to fully automate, so for most people these wouldn’t be do-it-yourself projects. But your home need only be as “smart” as you want it to be. You can have an entire home system where every outlet can be controlled from a master touchscreen or remote control or you can simply have a smart keyless door lock or set up a wireless full-house stereo system.

The Fully Automated Smart Home
When designing a true smart home, the options are limited only by your imagination, says Jeff Singer, marketing communications director for smart home industry leader Crestron Electronics, Inc. of Rockleigh, N.J. “At night, you can hit a button and all the lights go out, the shades come down, TVs and radios are turned off and the house alarm set,” Singer says. “We have a family that has a house in the Gulf Coast that’s susceptible to hurricanes. We automated their hurricane shutters so that when wind speed crosses a certain threshold, the shutters cover the windows and doors. We design a system to do whatever you want.”

All these functions are controlled by a color touch panel screen, a remote control, or a customized keypad. You can have these control units in any room of your house, or get portable units to carry around with you. While traveling, you can use a remote computer or a smart phone such as a Blackberry to access your Crestron unit and adjust the thermostat, view security cameras, or turn off forgotten lights. “You can also get e-mail alerts based on preset conditions, such as when your kids get home from school,” says Singer.

Rutherford and Laura Seydel went “smart” when building their Atlanta home not just for the convenience, but for one of the other perks of smart living: energy savings. “My goal is to get my utility bill get down to where it is as close to zero as possible,” says Seydel of his LEED-certified home nicknamed EcoManor. “If I do that, then I think [the smart home] has been a prudent investment.”

Seydel’s Crestron system powers down the entire house each night with the touch of a button. Electricity to items he doesn’t use during the middle of the night, such as computers and televisions, is completely shut off, meaning that they no longer sit in “standby” mode, slowly sipping in electricity. Indoor temperature is monitored regularly, turning the heat on only as necessary.

Media is often the first upgrade homeowners make, but installing a full-home media system is easiest in new construction because all the components can be hard-wired. Wireless units do exist, but hard-wired ones are much more reliable. Components include a multi-channel amplifier, a central server that stores all your media and, if you’re interested, a gaming system such as Xbox 360. All these components are usually kept out of sight, such as in a basement or dedicated, well-ventilated closet. Music, videos, and games can then be accessed in any room that has speakers or a television.

Systems for controlling appliances and utilities are also available.  Miele’s refrigerators feature a RemoteVision system that uses the home’s wireless network to alert homeowners if a door was left unopened or a malfunction is compromising food quality.

Home utility usage can be constantly monitored with the Agilewaves system, which works on the Crestron platform and delivers real-time utility consumption information. You can set an energy usage target, such as $100 a month for electricity, and Agilewaves can alert you when you near that threshold. Its Resource Monitor can then make adjustments that will keep you on budget, such as dimming the lights by 20 percent.

Energy savings, convenience, the “Wow!” you’ll hear from friends — all are reason enough to consider making your home a smart home.

Bathroom Trends

The 2011 Kitchen and Bath Show revealed several new bathroom trends.

Bathroom Trends

Photo: Flickr

Home spas, water conservation and ornamental accessories on a budget are some of the bathroom trends being spotted by experts today.

“People want to get that spa retreat feel out of their bathrooms,” says Mark Karas, president-elect of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, which owns the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show and Conference, the largest gathering of kitchen and bath suppliers, designers and ideas. “They’re looking for that soaking tub separate from a shower. That’s the ultimate.”

At the same time, Karas says, homeowners are very interested in saving water for financial and environmental benefits. And while they still want quality hardware and sophisticated styles, homeowners are being more selective with where they spend their money.

“Everybody is budget-conscious today,” says Karas. “But the number-one thing people want is good design.”

The In-Home Spa
Having a free-standing tub and a separate shower is the ultimate in bathroom luxury for many, says Karas. Bathtubs that are long and deep provide the greatest escape, and whirlpool jets can make bathing a transformative experience. The Aveo freestanding bathtub by Villeroy & Boch, for example, uses a simple, contoured design to evoke tranquility and comfort. The tub is thirty seven inches wide and seventy five inches (more than six feet) long, which means you don’t just soak, you lounge.

Multiple showerheads make a shower luxurious today. The Techno M3 series showerhead from Cifial USA comes with six individual body sprays, including a handheld shower spray. The ioDIGITAL Vertical Spa from Moen adds technology to the equation to enhance your shower experience. In addition to multiple showerheads, it allows you to set water pressure and temperature to your exact specifications. Once you find your favorite setting, it can be saved for future use. LED indicators on the LCD screen tell you when you have reached your perfect water temperature, which means the days of stepping into a shower that’s too cold or too hot are gone. And because you can program up to four presets, you and your loved ones can have an individualized shower experience.

That warm shower feels so good it can be hard to step out of the stall. A towel warmer can make that transition less jarring. If price had held you off from this luxury, consider a Myson Pearl Tower Warmer. These units, which are plugged in the wall, start at $200. Not only will it warm your towel, it can quickly dry delicate clothing and reduce bathroom moisture, mildew and musty odors, as well as heat the room.

Water-Saving Solutions
While the multi-spray shower is the ultimate in shower luxury, it is not the best choice if water conservation is your goal. “More and more, the new shower products have low-flow heads on them, so you’re still getting what feels like a lot of water at fewer gallons per minute,” Karas says.

The Moen Nurture three-setting showerhead flows at 1.75 gallons per minute, which is less than the industry standard 2.5 gallons and with a thirty percent water savings. Its spiral-patterned spray face ensures full-body coverage.

Delta relies on H20kinetic technology to make a low-flow showerhead feel like much more. H20kinetic, found on many of its showerheads, uses larger droplets of water, which retain heat longer, and a dense spray pattern for “drenching coverage.” The technology is found on its six-spray shower system, meaning you can get the spa shower while using less water.

Toilet water conservation has come far from the days when homeowners were advised to put a brick in the reservoir to use less water with each flush. Dual flush, which has been used around the world for decades, is finally becoming mainstream in the United States. The Gerber Ultra Dual Flush gives users the options of two different kinds of flushes: the 1.1-gallon option is for light or liquid usage, and the 1.6-gallon flush is for solid waste. “When you consider that we’ve gone from three gallons, which used to be the standard, to 1.6, that’s a good savings,” Karas says.

Sustainability and green building, which was once touted as a “new” design choice, has thoroughly infiltrated bathroom trends. Dupont Zodiaq countertops, for example, are made from twenty-five percent recycled glass. The Wintergreen model features glass three-dimensionally suspended in light green quartz.

For combining eco-friendly solutions with outstanding design, consider a vanity made from Kirei Board. This conversation piece is made from a wood substitute of reclaimed sorghum straw and no-added-formaldehyde adhesive. It’s available for cabinetry and countertops. Kirei also manufactures a line of tile made from reclaimed coconut shells as well as bamboo light fixtures.

Metallic design schemes are also popular with bath designers today. Metallic tiles add high-end shine to a bathroom, but they can be pricey. To get the effect without breaking the bank, add a few signature pieces into your tile work, Karas says. Metaltec Innovations offers six-inch by six-inch 3D textured metal tiles featuring designs such as starfish and conch. If you have your own artistic vision, the company can turn your design into a custom tile. Newly popular metals have also found their way to the once-lowly bathroom sink. Linkasink’s Pantheon sink, made of bronze, is reminiscent of the geometric pattern found on the Pantheon in Rome. Other designs include botanical, wing, and brocade.

Using black and white as a color scheme is a popular trend in kitchens now being extended to the bath. The Kaldewei Luxxo Duo Oval bathtub is 75 inches long and 39 inches wide with a slick, shiny black surface. Dupont Zodiaq Terra Collection features “Licorice,” a black solid surface made from twenty-five percent recycled glass in a black quartz base, which is available in either a two- or three- centimeter thickness and it can be used for vanities, countertops or as a backsplash.

Resolving Job Site Conflicts Between Homeowners and Contractors

Use these suggestions to prevent arguments in the first place — and settle them once they arise.

Job Site Conflict Resolution

Photo: Flickr

When Fern Dickey saw what a fantastic job a contractor did on her neighbor’s remodel, she had no problem figuring out whom to call when she needed work done in her own home. She didn’t get estimates. She didn’t check references. She signed a contract that offered a ballpark figure and no time line. But the contractor was a nice guy, she thought, and he did such impressive work. Dickey was confident that everything would be fine.

From day one, it wasn’t. It took nearly a year for drawings to be approved and permits issued. Then, once work began, Dickey learned that her contractor’s business now consisted not of a full crew but only him and his young, inexperienced son. The contractor never started working before 10 a.m. When he left for the day, only five hours later, he left behind trash and open paint cans.

“I had never hired a contractor before,” Dickey says. “I hadn’t read anything about it. I was so busy with work. I just assumed everything would be okay.”

A year and a half after starting the project, Dickey fired her contractor. The project —to remodel the den, add a deck, and re-side her Fairlawn, NJ, home — remains incomplete and has major flaws that will have to be fixed by a new contractor at added expense. Dickey admits she wishes she had ended the relationship sooner, but the contractor always promised that problems would be fixed and projects completed as soon as possible.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, Dickey can pinpoint all the mistakes she made. “Contracts should be very detailed and have dates for when things are going to happen,” she says. “Any change or discussion regarding work should be in writing and signed by both parties.”

Getting everything in writing upfront is one of the most basic ways to avoid conflicts on the job site. Other ways are hiring and scheduling well and limiting changes to the original plans. Here are some other ways to resolve on-site conflicts.


Hire a Reputable Firm
Many job site conflicts can be avoided by making sound choices. Ask friends for referrals, but also check references and licenses, says Monica D. Higgins, founder of Renovation Planners, of Culver City, CA. “Check references and actually go out and see the work, and it should be work that was done recently and maybe work that was done five to ten years ago so they can see how the work has held up,” Higgins says. Also, ask how many jobs the contractor takes on at once and how many hours per week they will spend on your project.

Seek bids, but don’t make lowest price your final determinant, Higgins adds. In fact, many of the horror stories you hear come from small, less-expensive contractors who, unbeknownst to you, have cash-flow problems. For example, a contractor will tell you everything you want to hear, take your deposit, and then disappear for weeks. This is often because he needed your money to pay the people he has working on another current project.

Once you settle on a contractor, get everything in writing and make sure the contract is extremely detailed. Add factors that are important to you. Require contractors to clean up after themselves daily. Mandate that notice be given before certain kinds of work — like anything that involves turning off the water or that might disturb the neighbors.

Require a Schedule
From the contractor’s perspective, scheduling is the most challenging part of any project. “Estimating and scheduling are the crux of this industry,” says Higgins. That’s because there are so many variables to consider: applying for permits, ordering and receiving materials, scheduling subcontractors, waiting for inspections. There are also the factors you can’t control. Weather can seriously delay an outdoor project such as roof work, siding, or building a deck.

When it comes to setting deadlines, contractors have a habit of “being a little unrealistic,” admits Dean Bennett, president of Tri-Lite Builders in Chandler, AZ, says you should ask your contractor to guarantee a time line up front. And homeowners need to take responsibility for their role in that time line. Her company requires that clients make all design selections — such as granite, tile, paint colors, and light fixtures — before any work begins. “If we all of the sudden realizewe don’t have a part, and the homeowner says, ‘I’m going out of town and can’t make that decision right now,’ it holds up the project. It makes a mess,” Minde says.

Make a Plan and Stick with Your Decisions
Before you even call a contractor, come to an agreement with your spouse or partner about what the end result of your remodel should be. If you’re not working with a design-build firm or an architect, consider hiring a remodel consultant or project manager. Higgins provides homeowners with 3-D models of what their completed project will look like, complete with paint colors and tile choices. This can be very helpful for people who have trouble visualizing a blueprint and can reduce costly change orders midproject.

If a picture in a magazine or a home improvement program inspired you to make a change, understand that there are limits to what your contractor can do. “Sometimes homeowners can be unrealistic in terms of what’s available,” says Minde. “For instance, with all the green building going on, people want certain kinds of paint. But that paint doesn’t come in a myriad of colors.” So, she adds, don’t blame the contractor if the certain item you want simply doesn’t exist in the size, quantity, or materials you require.

Insist on Regular Progress Reports
In your contract, stipulate that you want to have a weekly meeting with the general contractor. Even if you’re living in the home while the work is going on, there’s a good chance you’re unaware of the particulars of the project. This communication can help limit costly and time-consuming surprises.

“We have a project manager assigned to your job,” Minde says. “We have weekly client meetings so they know, this is what is going to happen this week: On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, there will be drywall going on. On Thursday and Friday, I’m going to have to wait for it to dry so we won’t be here. What we all say in our company is that we should never hear the phone ring with clients saying, ‘What is going on?’ If we ever got thatcall from a client, we have not done our job.”

Create a Realistic Budget
If you have $50,000 for a kitchen remodel, plan your project so it will cost $40,000, says Bennett. Leaving a 20 percent cushion can help cover unexpected costs, such as the plumbing that no one knew needed replacing until the walls were ripped out. It also creates some wiggle room when, for example, you thought you wanted a basic $500 tub but then saw a $2,000 model that became a must-have.


Handle Disputes Calmly
Greg Antonioli has a philosophy at his firm, Out of the Woods Construction, in Arlington, MA. It is: “Never allow the homeowner to turn you into an adversary.” That means no matter how loudly the homeowner yells, don’t help fuel the argument. “I tell people, ‘Bite your lip and maintain congeniality,’” Antonioli says. “Remind the homeowner that we’re in this together.”

This philosophy should work both ways. If you’re incensed over something your contractor did, turning up the volume is not the best way to fix the situation. Being politely persistent and persuasive is much more effective. “If you’re the nice guy,” Antonioli says, “on any given morning when the contractor has to decide where to send his resources, odds are they’re going to go not to the squeakiest wheel but to the nicest squeaky wheel.”

If your contractor made a mistake on the project — placed a window in the wrong spot or installed the kitchen tile in the bathroom — give him the opportunity to correct the error, Antonioli says. This should come at no cost to you.

If your contractor is obviously dishonest — if, say, he took your deposit and never returned to do the work, or you think he’s trying to scam you into paying him more money —  report him to your local authorities as well as the Better Business Bureau. You can fire him outright and then take him to court. Most contractors would rather negotiate with the homeowner than go to court, Bennett says, so see if you can come to an agreement before you hire a lawyer.

Bottom line: When undertaking any remodeling project, try to hire the right person for the job, get everything in writing, and handle disagreements calmly.

Renovate Your Rental

More and more renters are adding personal touches to their temporary homes, and rental owners can benefit as well.

Renovate Your Rental

Photo: Flickr

When Jamie Kaneko was looking for a new home, she was excited to finally find a rental property large enough for her family. The five-bedroom, 3,200-square-foot house was perfect for her four children, but she did have one complaint: The bathroom was dated and in disrepair.

Instead of continuing her search, she decided to sign a lease for the Murray, Utah home and renovate the bathroom herself. She and her boyfriend tore out the existing shower and floor, repaired the plumbing, and retiled the entire bathroom. “We are trying to clean up our credit before we buy, and this really was the only way we could make the house our home—by adding personal touches and modifying to our taste,” Kaneko says.

This drive to personalize a space—even if it’s a rental that you don’t own, and even if you are spending money you won’t get back—is pure human nature, says Atlanta-based interior designer Melissa Galt. “It does not matter where you live, it is not temporary—it is yours. So, make it work for you,” Galt says. “When you are living in an environment that has been designed well and right for you, it will improve your health and it will improve the relationship that is going on in the space. You will have more interest in entertaining your friends. It will impact your entire life on so many levels.”

Kaneko is happy she did the work, and even happier that her landlord reimbursed her efforts in the form of refunded rent. In fact, they have several more projects planned for this year, including painting. “Some will be on our dime just because we want to have them done,” Kaneko says. “Renting isn’t ideal in the long run, but we feel like we are creating the home we want as we rent it. We may buy it next year.”

Making Renting Attractive
Industry experts say people like Kaneko are more likely to stay in their rental properties longer if they are given the freedom to personalize. That’s good for landlords and building owners because it’s easier to keep a tenant than to have to look for a new one.

“Years ago, owners said, ‘No way! I’m not going to let you do that,’” says Lisa Trosien, the self-proclaimed “Apartment Expert” and consultant to the multifamily housing industry. “But the thing that they found is, on average, if you rent or customize your unit, tenants will stay for about 30 months.”

And not all renters are transient. Some are so-called “lifestyle renters,” who don’t want to deal with the hassles of home ownership. Others are being forced to delay their dreams of home ownership because of economic concerns. In both cases, these are people who are planning to stay put and want to personalize their space.

Trosien has seen tenants add mirrored closet doors, change paint and wallpaper, bring in their own appliances, install new carpet or hardwood flooring, and change plumbing fixtures. Getting landlords to pay for these improvements is practically unheard of, she says. But in rental markets with high vacancy rates, where incentives such as “two months free rent” are used as lures, prospective tenants might be able to negotiate.

“If a would-be renter came to me and said, ‘I do not want the two months’ rent. I want hardwood floors;’ as an owner, I would do that in a heartbeat, because that is going to enhance the value of my asset,” Trosien says.

Some owners are seeing the cash benefit of allowing tenants to customize. At Avistele rental communities in Georgia and Florida, tenants are given the option of upgrading their home’s appliances, flooring, and countertops as well as adding steam showers and surround-sound media rooms. Here, owners are capitalizing on the idea that just because you rent doesn’t mean you can’t live in the home of your dreams.

Ask First
From a legal perspective, it is always best for tenants to ask before making any changes. If you want to take down a wall or put in a door between two apartments to “combine” them, you could be asking for trouble. You could be compromising the structural integrity of the building, and the landlord could be left with a space that violates local housing codes.

If you make changes without asking, you’re risking more than your security deposit. The landlord can sue you for the cost of returning the apartment to its original condition.

“If your security deposit is only $1,000, but it costs $1,500 to repaint the apartment, they can come after you for that,” says Michael Semko, counsel for the National Apartment Association. “Or, if you do something that damages the unit, not only would there be the repair costs, but if the owner can’t re-rent the unit, he or she might be able to get lost rent as well.”

For this reason, Semko recommends first asking the landlord for permission for anything that could potentially damage or change the rental unit. And get that approval in writing, he recommends.

Spruce Up Your Rental Home
Painting your rented apartment or house is “the fastest and most economical way to make a dramatic change,” says Atlanta interior designer Melissa Galt. But if you want to go beyond simply adding a splash of color, consider these do-it-yourself projects:

  • Install crown moldings, and go big—4 or even 6 inches. “A lot of apartments have low ceilings. Molding will lift the room,” Galt says.
  • Laminated cabinets often look—and are—dated. They can be painted if you prep the surface with a high-grip primer.
  • Replace the hardware on kitchen and bathroom cabinets and drawers. And because hardware can be pricey, keep the originals so you can replace them before you move out.
  • Update your kitchen floor with peel-and-stick vinyl tiles.
  • Tile paint allows you to change the color of your bathroom floor. But keep the paint outside of the bath area as too much moisture and humidity can make the paint peel.
  • A closet organization system such as Elfa is easy to install and will make the best of cramped closet space.
  • If the laminate countertops have seen better days, head to a stone distributor. Closeout prices on granite or marble remnants can make switching the surfaces relatively economical.

How To: Create a Pet-Friendly Home

From cat rooms to dog houses, here are some simple ways to keep pets safe and comfortable in your home.

Pet Friendly House


If you’re a pet lover, odds are that you care enough to add the few touches necessary to make your home your pet’s castle as well as yours. In fact, nearly 90% of pet owners say their dogs or cats are members of the family, according to a December 2007 Harris Interactive Poll. And considering that nearly two out of three Americans own a pet, that’s a lot of people willing to share their home with barking dogs and pouncing cats.

Here are some simple ways to move beyond the monogrammed food bowl and create the sleep spots, hangouts, and dining locales in your home that will pamper your four-legged friend and keep him or her safe.

Sleep Spaces
Dogs need a designated sleep space, says New Jersey-based dog trainer Kathy Santo, author of Kathy Santo’s Dog Sense. “This relates back to the times when they were den animals,” she says.
 More than half of the country’s pet owners (69%) allow their pets to sleep with them, according to the Harris poll. But if you’d like to reclaim your sleep space, consider setting aside a part of the house that is solely for your cat or dog. This has an added benefit, as many animal experts contend that your pet needs his or her own space to rest and recoup from the stimulation of being with the family. A sleep space can be as simple as a pet bed or crate in the corner of your bedroom, or as extravagant as turning an unused closet into a pet room. “A crate really most closely approximates a den,” Santo says. “I am a fan of crates, especially for puppies and dogs that have dominance or aggression issues.”

If you see pet beds or crates as eyesores, consider remodeling a closet into a pet room. You can install a pet door into the closet door for easy access, or simply remove the door altogether. The bed can be placed inside, as well as food and water bowls. These can be as simple or luxurious as you’d like. New York City-based pet expert Charlotte Reed, owner of Two Dogs and a Goat pet care service, says she has worked on rooms outfitted with grooming tables, bathtubs, and a television for the pet’s favorite programs. “The new trend is to create something opulent,” Reed says. “Some rooms have a real bed that is low to the ground, with comfortable pillows. In one house there was a closet with all of the dog’s clothing.”

Potty-Time Solutions
Giving cats a private place to do their business is more about the owner’s comfort than the pet’s, Reed says. But because dogs love to nose around in the litter box, concealment is a priority if you have both cats and dogs.

There are many creative solutions to this problem. One recent trend is installing hidden litter box spots in cabinetry, such as built-in sofas or entertainment units, with hideaway entry points too small for dogs to access. Reed recommends adding a sensor-operated light that goes on when the cat enters. Also, if you have a cat that sprays, make sure to line the space with plastic or linoleum for easy disinfecting. This same approach can be used with small dogs and puppies that use training pads, Reed says.

If you have a dog that lets himself out of the house when nature calls, consider upgrading your pet door. New models, such as Pet Safe’s Extreme Weather Pet Door, have an insulated flap that can withstand 40-mile-per-hour winds. And a pet door doesn’t need to be installed in a door. In fact, one of Pet Safe’s bestsellers is a through-the-wall entry door. It’s a self-framing, do-it-yourself project that is especially appealing to people with glass doors.

And if critters or other intruders are your concern, there are pet doors that come with “keys” installed on the pet’s collar that automatically unlock the door when the pet approaches.

Pet Hangouts
If your pet likes to spend time outdoors, consider constructing a dog or cat house. The basic requirements are that it be well-insulated against the elements and have proper drainage. It should also be large enough that your pet can stand up, turn around, and lie down. Beyond that, let your imagination take off, Reed says. Would your pooch like a shaded porch outside the house? How about building a miniature replica of your own abode, or just painting it the same colors? “Some people have even installed air conditioning and heating in their doghouses,” Reed says.

Cats are happy to just have various spaces to laze around. The Cat Veranda, by Pet Safe, allows cats to be safely outdoors. The unit is a large, screened box that extends outside a double-hung window, much like an air conditioner. “Customers are using them for feeding, too,” says Willie Wallace, Pet Safe vice president of sales and new product development. “The additional benefit is that if you have smelly cat food, it stays outside. Some people use it for a litter box as well.”

Pet Safety
To keep your dog from roaming the neighborhood, install an electric fence. A perimeter is established around the house, either through in-ground wiring or a portable wireless system. A transmitter on your pet’s collar will deliver a safe yet annoying jolt if he or she approaches the boundary line.

If your cat enjoys being outdoors, keep him or her safe with a specially crafted cat fence. One model, the Purr…fect Fence, aims to outsmart even the most enterprising cat. Its flexible material is difficult for cats to scale. But for those determined kitties, there is an added line of protection in the “Houdini-proof” arch that makes escape very difficult.

If your pet bolts out of the house once the door opens, a simple solution is at hand. Take an eyehook, screw it into the wall, and attach a leash, Santo recommends. Then, whenever you need to open the door, first leash him to the wall.

Other small touches can help “pet-proof” your home, keeping it just as safe for him as you would make it for a curious toddler. Place your trashcan in a locked under-counter cabinet or pantry so spoiled food or the caffeine from coffee grounds won’t sicken pets, says the ASPCA. The same goes for cleaning products, medications, vitamins, garden and automotive supplies that can be toxic. Keep your dishwasher closed, as detergents can burn the mouth if ingested.

By making your home pet-friendly, you’re letting your dogs or cats know that their unconditional love is appreciated. And when you see your pets content, you’ll know that you’re providing them with the care they deserve.

The Pampered Pet
To truly make your home your cat’s or dog’s castle, pet experts Kathy Santo and Charlotte Reed recommend adding these touches to your home:

  • Arthritis and stiff joints can make stairs a challenge for older pets. A ramp outside the front door can help.
  • Radiant heating systems under tile floors can keep pets warm during the winter.
  • Install a pet shower in the “pet room” or near the front door. A walk-in shower, half the height of the average shower, will make washing muddy paws quick and simple. Add a grooming table if you enjoy styling and blow-drying your pampered pooch.
  • A recessed shelf allows pet food bowls to be raised off the floor. This makes mealtime easier, especially for older pets.

If you have a large yard, consider landscaping a dog run. By incorporating grass, rocks, and hills, you’ll encourage your pooch to stay fit and trim.

The Low-Stress Home Renovation

Low-Stress Home Renovation


For eight months, Sue Gladstone’s home in Suburban Boston was a maze of plastic construction sheeting covered in a haze of construction dust. Half of her first floor was off-limits. The stove and the sink were the only things she could access in the kitchen. The refrigerator was in the living room, which was now the only place in the house other than the bedrooms that anyone could go.

Her home improvement project involved expanding the kitchen and family room and adding a master bedroom suite to the first floor, and offices and a laundry room in the basement. It was supposed to take five months. It lasted eight. “It just was very stressful when you think you are going to be done at Thanksgiving, and then you are going to be done at Christmas, and then you are hoping for Valentine’s Day,” says Gladstone.

But despite the delays, the dust, the close quarters and the frustration of having workers underfoot, Gladstone emerged with her sanity intact. And her family, including her husband and her two kids, ages 15 and 11, did not resort to wringing each other’s necks. How did they do it?

“The number one thing is communication,” Gladstone says. “We had someone on the job every day who was our lead person. And every day, he said, ‘Here is what we are going to be doing today’ or ‘Here are the things I need from you. I need these paint colors; I need these specifications, so that I can keep moving.’”

Although the completion of her house was delayed, it did not come as a surprise to the Gladstones because of the good communication with their contractor. It’s the surprises that will stress you out. Here are some other ways to keep your stress level as low as possible as you renovate your home.

Research Contractors
Don’t just hire a contractor because of a television ad or a sign on a front yard. Call references, get bids and visit your local courthouse to see if your contractor of choice has been sued recently. And when you interview, consider your contractor’s personality. After all, you’ll be working closely with him for a while.

Finding a contractor who offers guarantees can also bring peace of mind. “Our company has a guaranteed construction completion date,” says Max Christenbury, senior vice president of Bryant Phillips Associates in Apex, N.C., which specializes in fire- and water-damage related restoration. “If it’s not finished in six months, we pay additional housing expenses.”

Budget Concerns
No matter how old or young your home, there are secrets lurking behind its walls. And once a contractor taps into those secrets, your costs will go up. Mold, radon, water damage, and plumbing or electrical lines that need replacing all are costs you have no choice but to incur if you want to get the project done.

You have to assume that you are going to be anywhere from 10 to 20 percent over budget,” says psychologist Leslie Beth Wish, Ed. D., who has completed two home renovations and two constructions. “If you can come in under 10 percent, you are doing really good.”

Avoid the “you might as well” trap, Dr. Wish says. You’re putting in a new bathroom, so “you might as well” get the whirlpool tub. Ask yourself: Is this something you really need? Will this tub keep you up at night with worry as dollar figures run through your mind? If so, it’s not worth the stress toll.

Low-Stress Renovation - Herringbone


Understand the Construction Business
Contractors are notorious for taking on more than one job at a time. This means you might have a crew in on Monday to put in the floor, but they might not return until the following week to finish the job. And understand that contractors do not have absolute control over the sub-contractors, such as plumbers and electricians.

Also, don’t think that just because on TV they can build an entire house in a week that your project should move with that kind of speed. Renovating an existing home can actually be more complicated than building a new one from the ground up, Christenbury says.

Avoid Becoming Overwhelmed
The signs of stress can be insidious at first: your foot shaking when you’re on the phone with your contractor or your heart racing when staring at a wall full of tile samples, says Anutza Bellissimo, executive director of the Stress and Anger Management Institute in Hermosa Beach, Calif. Unless this stress is addressed, you will react negatively, such as yelling at your contractor or your spouse, seeking comfort in a pint of ice cream or developing sleep-stopping heartburn.

Making lists of what you need to do and the questions you have for your contractor can help ease that overwhelming feeling, Bellissimo says. Being honest with the people involved in your project is also helpful, she adds. Tell your contractor what you need. Tell him what you’re unhappy with. Do it unemotionally, without yelling, and you’re much more likely to get the resolution you want. “Bullying will only get you short-term results,” Bellissimo says. “It will eventually backfire because there are only so many times you can bully someone before they begin to bully you back.”

Plan for Delays
If your contractor says a project will take three months, plan for it to take six, Dr. Wish says. If you are renting a place while your house is being worked on, get a month-to-month lease that won’t have you forced out the door before your home is ready.

Moving out of the home while it’s being renovated can also speed the process. This is especially true if by being there, you are limiting your contractor’s access to the home. “A family might not want repairs done on Fridays, or they only let us work after 10 a.m. when the kids have left for school,” Christenbury says, adding that those limitations can delay a project.

Another way to avoid the stress of delays is to make sure you are not a cause of the problem. Paint colors, plumbing fixtures and cabinet styles are all decisions you should make before the construction even starts. That way, supplies can be ordered in advance, reducing the chance that shipping and inventory problems will delay your project.

Any home improvement project, no matter the scale, is going to come with its own surprises and challenges. But preparing yourself mentally and being organized from the get-go can ensure that you end the process more in love with your home than when you started.

Design a Green Home Office

Take advantage of systems and materials that save energy and costs.

Photo: Flickr

As a freelance writer and book author, Linda Mason Hunter spends many hours holed up in her home office. It has all the amenities necessary for the work-at-home life — computers, desk, lighting — but her setup is not something you’d find at your local office supply store.

That’s because Hunter, author of Green Clean: The Environmentally Sound Guide to Cleaning Your Home (Melcher Media, 2005) and a long-time supporter of the environmental movement, insisted on using materials that were earth-friendly and limited her toxin exposure. “My main home is an old farmhouse that was built in 1910,” Hunter says. “The structure is not made from synthetic chemicals like drywall, medium-density fiberboard, plywood and all that. My walls are plaster and whenever I paint, I paint with no-VOC [volatile organic compounds] paint.”

Her furniture is all antique solid wood chairs and desks to avoid chemicals used in pressed board. Windows on two of the four walls not only let in natural light but allow for a cross-breeze that cuts summertime energy costs. Her shelves are metal and she uses special outlets, called Smart Strips, to reduce the use of “phantom electricity”—power used when a device is technically turned off. To charge electronic gadgets such as cell phones, MP3 players, and digital cameras, she uses Solio, a solar charger that eliminates needlessly draining energy from a wall socket once your device is fully charged.

Hunter believes that these changes are not only good for the Earth but also good for her health. “I just want to be as happy and productive as possible,” she says. Choosing materials with low VOCs that are sustainably harvested and that help reduce energy needs allow her to do just that.

Here are some tips for designing your green home office:

Paint is preferable to wallpaper, which uses paper and adhesives. Look for brands, such as Safecoat, that do not use VOCs. VOCs are gases that may have short- and long-term health effects, including eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

For a home office, hardwood is preferred. Bamboo, a renewable resource, is the eco-all-star. “It is a woody grass, which grows quickly and it can be harvested year after from the same plant,” Hunter says. “Plus, it is beautiful.” Cork is another flooring favorite.

Marmoleum is also a good choice. Made from linseed oil, rosins, wood flour, and natural jute, manufacturers say it stands up well to heavy rolling loads and foot traffic. But Paul Novack, environmental product specialist at Brooklyn, NY-based Green Depot, says that no matter what flooring you choose, a rolling chair is going to make its mark.

“You need something between the rollers and the floor,” Novack says. “Bamboo has the same hardness as maple, but believe me, rolling is certainly going to wear it out.” A floor mat made from recycled plastic will help.

Heating and Cooling
If you work from home, there’s a good chance you are heating or cooling your entire house even though you are really only using one room. Green architect Charlie Szoradi, who runs, recommends installing an extra programmable thermostat and dampers that allow you to climate control just that room.

“We normally need to run a furnace for 30 or 40 minutes to bring the house up to three or four more degrees of temperature,” Szoradi says. “You might only run this thing for 10 or 15 minutes to heat your office because it is not blowing air to all those other branches on the tree.”

A radiant floor heating system would be another good choice for warming only one room in the colder months. In the summer, use ceiling fans to reduce your need for air conditioning. Thermal insulated curtains, especially those that use Mylar, can block out the sunlight that quickly raises a room’s temperature.

Energy Conservation
Many electronics, including televisions, are still using 25 percent of their regular electrical load when turned off because they are actually in “standby mode.” You can eliminate that waste, Szoradi says, by plugging these items into a surge protector that allows you to completely cut all power with the flip of a switch. To control energy for the entire room, call an electrician to install a wall switch that will allow you to shut off all the room’s power.

Another good option for reducing energy usage is installing compact fluorescent light bulb (CFLs). They use 60 percent less electricity and have nine to 10 times the lifespan of incandescent bulbs, Szoradi says.

Novack cautions that while CFLs are great at reducing energy, they’re not optimal for the task lighting you would need at a desk. He recommends full-spectrum bulbs, which give you the same color-rendering index (CRI) of sunlight and are therefore easy on the eyes.

Smart Technology
Between computers, printers, scanners, and other peripherals, a home office can use a lot of electricity. Consider trading in your desktop PC for a laptop. The Apple MacBook has an energy-efficient LED screen. If you need the memory resources of a desktop model, the latest iMac features recyclable materials and meets Energy Star 4.0 requirements.

If you’re a PC-person, Hewlett-Packard now offers energy-efficient desktops that are 46 percent smaller than previous models and loaded with SURVEYOR, a network power software agent that helps to measure, manage and reduce PC power consumption.

A greener home office will not only reduce your carbon footprint and help you breathe a little bit easier, but also put dollars back into your wallet — both in terms of dollars saved and increased value of your home, says Szoradi. “Just like granite countertops are more valuable, when you tell someone that they will save thousands of dollars a year in utility bills, people’s ears perk up,” he says.

60-Minute DIY Projects

Improve the look, efficiency, and safety of your home.

DIY Projects

Photo: Flickr

On television, home improvement projects go from start to finish in 60 minutes or less. You’ve probably thought while watching, “If I could get a project done in less than an hour, I’d definitely do it, but I don’t have all day or a whole weekend.”

If you’re one of those people, there’s good news: You don’t need to spend a lot of time to spruce up your home. Here are some ideas for quick projects that deliver big results.

The furnace is the largest appliance in your house. Help it work more efficiently—and reduce the drafts that force it to work harder—with these suggestions. 

Install a programmable thermostat
If your home is one of the millions in America that still has an old-fashioned dial thermostat that you manually adjust, according to the National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association, it’s time to switch. Programmable thermostats allow you to automatically vary the temperature in the home throughout the day, so the heat is lowered while you are at work but then raised before you return, which is a money and energy saver. Also, dial thermostats contain mercury, which can affect the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system of people of all ages. Of great concern is mercury’s impact on children’s developing nervous systems, which can affect cognitive function. Because of these risks, 15 states have restricted the sale of mercury thermometers.

Fortunately, programmable thermostats are easy to install and relatively economical, costing $35 to $100, says Dean Bennett, president of Dean Bennett Design and Construction, Inc., in Castle Rock, CO. “These help avoid discomfort by raising temperatures while you sleep or before you return home,” he says. “Most are simple to install yourself and the job takes about 45 minutes.” A screwdriver, drill and possibly touch-up paint are all you need to start saving money on your heating bills. 

Seal out drafts
Weatherstripping around windows and doors can stop chilly air from making your home feel less than cozy. Permanent weather stripping, which has adhesive, is recommended around doors and windows that are opened through the season. For windows that will stay shut until spring, consider temporary weather seals or sealant that peels off when it’s no longer needed. This will make your home more comfortable while ensuring your furnace won’t have to work so hard to warm your house. 

Drain your water heater
Water contains sediment that can collect at the bottom of your water heater. These particles will create insulation over time that will force your heater to work harder to get you a hot shower. The extra temperature stresses the metal, causing leaks. To counter this, simply drain a quart of water from your hot water heater once every three months. Check your owner’s manual for instructions.


Update your hardware
The most time-consuming part of this job might be selecting the new doorknob, door or drawer pull from the dizzying amount of choices at your local home improvement center. But once you make your purchase, installation in many cases requires nothing more than a screwdriver. If you’re placing pulls on doors that never had them before, create a template out of wood or cardboard that will ensure you drill your holes in the same spot on each cabinet door. And while you’re at it, install childproof locks that will stop either your kids, grandkids, visitors or pets from getting into unsafe places.

Switch out your faucet
Sick of your drab, impossible-to-clean or leaky faucet? If you can wield a wrench, you can install a new one quickly and easily. Simply unscrew the connections from your old faucet and screw in your new faucet. Just remember to turn off the water supply before you start the job, and you’ll be done quickly (with no spills to clean up). This is an easy solution that can help update your kitchen or bath. Add an aerator, and you’ll lower your water bill as well. 

Freshen up an old room with paint
Pick a bold paint color. Then use it to paint just one wall in a room. It will cost less and won’t take as much time as painting the whole room.


Clean out your dryer ducts
Ever sense that your dryer doesn’t work as quickly as it used to? Lint could be the culprit. But buildup not only affects efficiency, it also increases your risk of fire. In fact, “failure to clean” is the leading cause of clothes dryer fires, according to the U.S. Fire Protection. To clean your ducts, you’ll need a vacuum and some muscle to move your dryer away from the wall. Once it’s unplugged, disconnect the ductwork and vacuum as well as you can.  

Inspect your electrical
Conduct an audit of your electrical outlets. Insert outlet covers into unused plugs and covers over power strips and secure any loose wires as childproofing measures. Look for overloaded circuits and power cords and adjust as necessary. Frayed cords should be replaced as should any light switch that is hot to the touch and cords that run under carpets, which are all fire hazards.

Replace your furnace filter
To improve air quality as well as efficiency, furnace filters should be checked for dirt monthly and changed at least every three months, according to the Department of Energy. A new filter will substantially lessen airborne dust particles. If you have allergies, you might want to invest in a better filter. Replacement is a cinch. Just swap the old one for a new one and you’re done.

Don’t be surprised if a pressure washer becomes your new favorite household gadget. It has a multitude of uses and gets big jobs done quickly.  

De-grime your house
With a pressure washer, there’s no need to crawl on the roof to clean your gutters. Just aim and spray. A pressure washer also cleans grime off your gutters as well as your vinyl siding and can be used to clean your second floor windows. Just make sure that all your windows are securely closed before you start.

Scrub your pathways
Sidewalks, walkways, and driveways can become stained by wet leaves, mildew and automotive leaks. A power washer can get rid of these eyesores.

Do an end-of-summer cleanup
Have patio furniture, kids’ toys, and inflatable pools that need to be scrubbed down before they’re stored away, but don’t want to spend hours wielding a scrub brush? A pressure washer can get the job done quickly.

Build raised flowerbeds
These beds, made from durable pressure-treated wood, make your yard look more organized. Add landscape fabric to the base and you can stop the growth of messy-looking weeds as well.

You can build an 8-foot-square garden bed in less than an hour. All you need are eight, 8-foot long sections of pressure-treated lumber, screws, construction adhesive and landscape adhesive. With a drill and a saw, you simply cut pieces to size and secure them together. Add dirt and you can start planting. Visit here for more information on this project.

Maintaining and improving your home can seem like a job in itself, but it doesn’t have to. Small projects that can be done quickly can greatly improve the appearance of your home without taking up an entire weekend.