Author Archives: Gale Steves


Shopping DIY Online

Learn how you can maximize your DIY remodeling budget by shopping for bargains online.

DIY Shopping

Photo: Faucets.com

Everyone is doing it—internet shopping.  In fact, this year 148 million U.S. consumers age 14 and older will make at least one purchase online, according to estimates reported by eMarketer.  By 2015, that number could grow by an additional 30 million consumers.  And it’s not just the convenience of shopping online that keeps customers coming back for more.  It’s the variety and the bargains.

You can find deals for just about everything online today, from clothing and electronics to groceries and travel.  Home goods and DIY/remodeling products are no exception.  Think faucets, hardware, appliances, lighting, windows and tools. Imagine buying a Kohler jetted tub at 2 a.m. in the comfort of your own home at a store that never closes, where there’s never a line at checkout. And, while sales are common enough in retail stores, you may find even greater savings by searching the sites.  With no brick and mortar stores to maintain, online retailers are in a much better position to pass savings on to their customers.  The key is to do your research and invest some quality shopping time.

THE UPSIDE OF SHOPPING ONLINE
Whether you live in an area where retail shopping is plentiful or limited to a big box store, a small hardware shop, or perhaps a manufacturer showroom, the key to finding deals is shopping comparatively.  Online you have access to the broadest range of products possible. Having more to choose from could seem more of a curse than a blessing.  But, rather than become overwhelmed, spend time researching and comparing brands and features, and the list will begin to winnow down based on your requirements, personal likes and budget.

To help you navigate products, features, and costs more competently, look to comparison shopping sites like mysimon.com, pricewatcher.com, and dealzconnection.com.  You can search these sites by product category and then compare by brand. When you know the brand and model, be sure to check out the manufacturer’s website.  Many sites, like boche-home.com, will let you select multiple products in the same category to see how they stack up in terms of features and cost.

If budget rather than brand is your guide, then you’ll find even greater values online.  With promotional coupons and incentives from retailers, manufacturers, newsletter promotions, and websites like Groupon, your purchase can be a real bargain.  And, don’t overlook Amazon, O.com (formerly overstock.com), eBay and Craigslist.org where unsold inventory of home goods and DIY-remodeling products can be found at significant savings.

THE DOWNSIDE OF SHOPPING ONLINE
Before you get carried away filling your “shopping cart” with purchases, consider some of the disadvantages of buying online. The most obvious one is that you can’t physically check out the merchandise.  How does the hardware handle or knob feel in your hand?  What is the outward swing of the refrigerator door?  How different does a satin finish look from a brushed finish?  Does the countertop material feel warm or cool to the touch?  And what about the true color of those cabinets?  It’s always best to see any product before you commit to buying it. The savings will not be as valuable if the product you choose is not what you expected.

Another concern is whether the online merchant is legitimate and a safe place to shop. Look at what other shoppers have to say about their online experiences at sites like Bizrate.com and epinions.com.  You can also check out the Better Business Bureau online if you have additional concerns.  Look for signs that the website protects your data.  Encryption is a security measure that scrambles your personal information as it gets transmitted.  If you see “https://” in the browser web address, you should feel confident that the site is credit-card safe. Likewise, using PayPal is a secure way to make payments on the web that is linked to many popular online shopping destinations.

Before you make a purchase, be sure to read the fine print—all of it.  While shipping costs may be waived as an incentive at time of sale, some sites can make it very difficult to return merchandise.  Many will not pay for the return-shipping charges; some will only do so if the item is being exchanged.  You might also be charged a restocking fee for any merchandise returned.  If you are paying shipping fees, take that into account in determining the value of buying online or buying in-store.  Sometimes paying shipping charges for small items—like a light dimmer—may be more than the item itself or the potential savings.

Just as retail merchants rely on point-of-purchase sales, online retailers are hoping for the same impulse buy.  The array of products that are likely to turn up in the DIY remodeling category on your home computer screen will certainly be seductive.  Do not rush to buy because you see a great deal.  Also be sure you know what companion products may be required (a pressure valve or right-angle arm for a shower head) or the right specifications (a faucet that is center-set rather than wide-spread) for whatever you buy.

Still wondering what type of savings you can expect by shopping DIY online?  Check out this Buying a Faucet case study.

BUYING A FAUCET ONLINE—A CASE STUDY
It was easy on one hand but not on the other.  Be sure you have the model number from the manufacturer as well as the correct name and details, including the finish color and a picture. Why a picture?  Because some online retailers change the model name when they offer it at a lower price than the manufacturer.  I selected a Margaux Faucet from Kohler because of its WaterSense® properties, simple design lines (translation—easy cleaning), and its two-handle widespread specifications.  I knew it was a faucet that would work well with the existing Kohler plumbing I currently have in the bathroom.

I wrote down the brand name, model number and part number from the Kohler website and started shopping:
• MFG Brand Name : KOHLER
• MFG Model # : K162323SN
• MFG Part # : 16232-3-SN
• MFG Finish Color: Polished Nickel
• MFG List Price: $682. 35

First, I went to my nearby Home Depot store to check the price: $483 plus sales tax; already a considerable savings from the manufacturer’s list price of $682.35.  That would serve as my base price for future shopping.  Back at my computer, I discovered that homedepot.com was having a sale on that very faucet for $399 (almost $100 less than the retail store) with sales tax required, but no shipping fees.  It was time to visit the online shopping destinations for more comparisons. Here’s what I was able to find.

Cost Comparison1.2

The winner—homedepot.com with best price and free shipping, even if I did have to pay sales tax.


Quick Tip: Shopping DIY Online

For homeowners and DIY enthusiasts in search of home goods, decorative accessories, appliances, and remodeling products, the internet is certainly the place to go for convenience, variety, and bargains.

DIY Shopping

Photo: Lowes.com

According to eMareter, a publisher of data, analysis and insights on digital marketing and commerce, more than 7 out of 10 internet users are now shopping online—a trend they believe will only continue to grow in the years ahead.  For homeowners and DIYers in search of home goods, decorative accessories, appliances, and remodeling products, the internet is certainly the place to go for convenience, variety, and bargains. But do your research and shop smart.

Here are 5 things you should know when shopping for DIY products online:

1.  Shop brand names.  Be familiar with brand names and the level of quality they bring.  They are the companies that have been in business the longest and for good reason—they stand behind their products.  You will also find more consumer reviews and customer “likes” and “dislikes” for products bearing the name of a nationally recognized brand.

2.  Have your measurements on hand.  Don’t be fooled into purchasing something solely on looks and price.  It needs to meet you specifications, too.  A faucet with a center-spread will not work for a countertop designed—and plumbed—for a widespread fixture.  Same is true for cabinets surrounding microwaves, dishwashers, and refrigerators.

3.  Check out the manufacturer’s site.  You are more likely to find comprehensive product details, specifications, and installation requirements at a manufacturer’s site than elsewhere.  They will also clue you in to other products you may need to complete a successful installation (particularly important for plumbing and electrical fixture purchases).  Manufacturers also offer special promotions and savings, so be sure to look on brand sites for bargains as well.

4.  Read the fine print.  Look to see if a warranty is available and for how long.  Also, check shipping and return policies.  Online retailers can make it difficult to return something unless it is being exchanged for another product.  Most will not pick-up return shipping costs and some may even charge a restocking fee.

5.  Check and double-check.   Before you hit the “buy/submit” button, be sure that you’ve done your research and are getting the right product at the best price.  Double-check the product model number, finish, size, and other details.  The convenience and savings of shopping online will be lost if the product you receive is not what you expected.


Cookies & Other Tips for Coping with Remodeling

Coping with Remodeling

What was I thinking when I promised myself—and more importantly my husband, Phil—that we would be ready to move into our new “old” house by mid-February? Well, Phil did get to move in—to the tiny garden apartment where I’d been camping out during renovations. Now with two adults and a dog, the quarters are crowded and the work seems to be progressing even more slowly for me (and far too slowly for Phil).

My husband’s office is almost finished, but the rest of the house is in various stages of completion. For instance, the closets have no door hardware, so I have been using a nail file. Usually I like things tidy, but I seem to be strangely content these days to have my clothes piled on chairs and benches just for the sheer convenience. The contractor has begun making nasty sounds, because some of the components for the kitchen cabinets are still missing. I lie awake at night, praying for parts and worrying about what I can do to keep the work on schedule.

Here are the best tips for coping with remodeling work that I’ve been able to assemble from this experience and previous projects:

Manage expectations. Throughout this remodel, one of my key roles has been to manage expectations—my own, my husband’s and the workers’. I have become a constant presence, determined to keep the work progressing on some level. When it stalls, I am the one who suggests tackling something else until the previous problem is resolved.

Familiarize yourself with the work. You certainly don’t need to know the job inside and out, but it does help if you have some understanding of what the work at hand is, and what is required to get it done properly. When did I learn that the multi-pole dimmer needs a “companion switch”? I’m not sure, but it’s something I know now.

Become project manager. In addition to sourcing products on the internet, I’ve become quite adept at locating invisible screws and missing parts and fixtures throughout the house. I am resigned to do whatever it takes to keep on schedule. The contractor assures me that work will be completed in late May. I just want to make sure it is late May of 2012.

Keep up morale. I bake cookies and distribute them in the afternoon when blood sugar is low. It’s important to keep the workers in good moods, particularly since I now spend more time with them than I do with my husband. To be sure, I am looking forward to having the relationship end soon, and amicably (with the workers, not my husband).

It will get done. This has become my daily mantra. I’ve been through the process so many times before’ I know things have a way of coming together. And they will for this remodel too, and oh, what a happy day that will be!


In Step with the Times: A Case for Updating Your Stairs

Updating Your Stairs

Photo: Shutterstock

It’s easy to take the staircase for granted, at least until a problem arises. But as one of a home’s finest architectural features, the staircase deserves a homeowner’s special attention sooner rather than later.

GSteves Stairway Original

The original staircase

The beautiful curved staircase in my ‘new’ old home is one of the reasons I fell in love with the place. After multiple trips up and down during the move-in and remodeling process, though, it was clear the staircase (and I) needed some help.

My contractor agreed with my assessment of the stairs’ structural condition. The outer strings were separating from the inner string and needed to be re-attached (this commonly occurs after years of wear and heavy traffic). By bolting the offending strings back together from underneath, the steps would provide surer footing and much-improved stability.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Backsplash: A Kitchen’s Most Underutilized Real Estate

Kitchen Backsplash

Photo: subdude-site.com

One of the areas that many of us consider absolutely last when remodeling the kitchen backsplash. After months of pondering countertop choices, we often settle for the easiest solution when it comes to the backsplash (a result of either running out of time or money, or both). And that’s a shame!  That 18-inch-high space between wall-hung cabinets and the countertop can attract the eye, both with color and texture, and it can provide some valuable, eminently useful real estate, too.

If you have a small kitchen, like I do, your backsplash needs to be more than a decorative backdrop. It needs to perform. So rather than clutter up the counter with messy containers and small appliances, I zeroed in on that six-foot run of narrow wall. To my delight, I realized there are a wealth of manufacturers meeting the challenge of backsplash-friendly alternatives. Here are a few that should help you make the most of your backsplash and your kitchen.

Store More

Kitchen Backsplash

Zero-Gravity Magnetic Spice Rack

This space-efficient Zero Gravity Magnetic Spice Rack by Zevro lives up to its name, as the 1.5 oz. canisters can store spices top and bottom. A locking mechanism on each canister allows you to dispense contents by pouring or sprinkling—great for one-hand use. Choose from the 6- and 12-canister models (each model includes a sheet of self-adhesive spice labels for your convenience).

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Character Building: A Case for Moldings

I live in an old house that was virtually stripped of its moldings in the 1970s. It was an act of modernization, ever so popular back then when it was the style to simplify. My house, however, was built in 1867, when trims were considered the finishing touches to a room. It would have been considered bad taste not to have a fancy wooden or plaster molding crowning the upper walls.

On the parlor floor, where the public rooms of the house are located, crown molding survives only in the dining room and library. It offers a glimpse of the well-conceived decorative trim that once dressed the 12-foot walls. The adjacent room—which we plan to use as a small family sitting room—had some insignificant 2-inch trim that looked very out of place by comparison. Upstairs, it appears that moldings were never installed, making the 10-foot-high ceilings look naked.

Before I could find a suitable molding profile, I needed to educate myself on a variety of fronts and turned to the folks at Good Millwork to help me understand the four terms that are bandied about in millwork selection: height, width, thickness and projection.

Moldings

GoodMillwork.com

Next, I needed to learn some basic rules:

Rule 1. The width of the molding depends on the height of the ceiling. If your ceiling is 8 feet tall, look for crown moldings that are 3 to 5 inches wide. If your ceiling is 9 to 10 feet, consider moldings that are 5 to 7 inches wide. Over 10 feet—you can choose moldings up to 12 inches wide.

Moldings

Lexington Crown Molding from Century Architectural Specialties

Rule 2. Select the right material for your budget and your project. Many moldings are still made from hard woods, wood veneers and plaster (more expensive choices). Others, less expensive, are constructed from fiberboard, soft woods (such as pine) and high-density polystyrene. I selected the latter because of its moisture resistance, something of interest to a newly minted Southerner.

Rule 3. Find a design that complements the other features in the room. For my 12 foot high ceiling, I needed something important but not too ornate. I looked at historical profiles of molding but none seemed as simple and elegant as what I had in the dining room. I was loath to climb up 12 feet just to sketch the details of the existing molding, so I looked online for possible sources. After a day of total immersion in crown molding designs, I found something just right: a simply layered look called “Lexington” from Century Architectural near Atlanta. This profile is designed to bring the eye up and over as it extended to the ceiling. It is 4 -5/8 inches high but projects almost 9 inches onto the ceiling. Perfect!

Moldings

Monticello Crown Molding from Century Architectural Specialties

Finding the right moldings for the two bedrooms should have been simpler, but I spent just as much time looking for something that would complement the fireplaces and window trim (Hint: This is another good way to start thinking about molding—simply mimic the window trim). Since the ceilings are lower in the bedrooms, I decided to focus on a heavier wall molding that would bring the eye to the ceiling. Each molding adds a lot of character to the respective rooms.

And here is what I purchased—a subtle change of design on the same dentil theme with “Monticello” (4-5/8 inches wide and a 4-3/8 inch projection) for the master bedroom, and “Manchester Dentil” (4-7/8 inches wide and a 4-7/8 inch projection) for the guest bedroom.

I could not have made these decisions without some guidance from an expert—Barbara Duncan of Century Architectural Specialties. She was patient with my endless questions and offered a number of  creative solutions for me to consider. In the end, the process was a learning experience for me and a character-building one for the house.

For more on moldings and trims, consider the following Bob Vila articles, slideshows and videos:

Installing Baseboards and Making Moldings
Quick Tip: Installing Crown Molding
10 Ways to Bring Historic Style Home


What Do You Say to a Naked Ceiling? Remodel.

Wood Ceiling Installation

Photo: shutterstock.com

It started with a casual stare. Then I gave my kitchen ceiling a withering glance and declared it dreadful! The kitchen actually changes elevation over the cooktop from a flat to a peaked ceiling so the transition that should have been an eye-catcher, was actually an eye-sore. I knew a ceiling remodel was in order.

A fresh coat of paint would certainly be an easy solution to conceal the nasty, discolored wallboard. But, I wanted the ceiling to be more important. Perhaps even a different material… like the wood plank ceilings that I remember seeing in European homes. And that’s exactly what I decided to do.

Related: From Finland with Love: Notes on Installing a Wood Ceiling

I live in the land of pecky cypress (Georgia) and wanted to adorn the ceiling with a local wood that looked like it had always been part of the house. Finding rough sawn cypress was not a problem, though it was disappointing to discover that much of the knotty character would be lost when planed into tongue-and-groove planks.

Step #1—Talking the Talk
I had to learn the lingo of wood from a nearby lumber yard. What I really wanted was old-growth cypress (more possibility of knots). I also needed to specifiy that the “boards be dressed on three sides and rough on the face” to achieve the look I wanted.

Step #2—Background Check
To start, I had furring strips installed and then had the ceiling painted black; a designer trick I learned to make the knot holes less apparent while creating a sense of depth.

Wood Ceiling Installation - Firring

Photo: GSteves

Step #3—Board Walk
When the cypress boards arrived, I sorted them so that the knot holes were evenly distributed. My contractor did a masterful job of fitting and nailing them with the same attention to detail. He also covered the main support beam that now makes the wooden ceiling seem to float overhead.

Wood Ceiling Installation - Boards

Photo: GSteves

The end result is a unique ceiling that will get the attention it deserves. Now, if I can just prevent cobwebs in those crevices!

Wood Ceiling Installation - Complete

Photo: GSteves

As an alternative, if you want a more refined or less rustic look in wood, Armstrong makes a Woodhaven ceiling plank system that can be installed easily. The pre-finished planks—available in pine, cherry and apple—are virtually maintenance-free and sag-proof.


Tankless Hot Water Heaters: Should I or Shouldn’t I?

Tankless Hot Water Heater

Photo: rinnai.com

Whether you are building a new home or retrofiiting an older one (like me), take time to evaluate the hot water system. After all, estimates say that as much as 30% of a home’s energy budget is consumed by heating water.

My new “old house” came complete with an old and rusted gas-fueled tank-style water heater in the attic that was dying… well, dead. The question was not “should it be replaced?” but rather, “should it be replaced with a similar model or a new tankless system?”

Related: 12 Ways to Put Your Home on an Energy Diet—TODAY! 

A traditional water heater continuously heats water in the tank, regardless of whether it is being used. By comparison, the newer tankless designs heat water only when there is demand for it. Less stored water to heat means less cost—and let’s not forget, a more compact, wall-mounted design.

I did some research on water heating in general and tankless hot water heaters specifically, and here is what I learned:

Size Matters: Tankless hot water heaters are available in room or whole-house sizes. Calculate how many appliances or fixtures need hot water in order to determine the best size unit for your home. For me, a whole-house system was needed.

Gas-Operated Tankless Water Heater Diagram

Gas-operated tankless hot water heater diagram.

Fuel Type: Hot water heaters are available in either electric or gas (natural and propane) models. If you are considering electric, check for voltage and amperage requirements. The gas version will need some electric to operate, but venting will be the bigger issue.

Location: If you live further north, your ground water will be colder than if you reside in the southern or western part of the country. The temperature of the water will affect the speed and flow.

Know the Flow: If you think you will need to run the dishwasher while someone else is showering, assume a larger gallons-per-minute (GPM) rate will be on order to meet your overall water needs. Take into account water usage, too: A bathroom needs less water than a kitchen, a dishwasher less than a shower, and so on.

Look into Rebates: Many utility companies offer incentives, and you may benefit from state tax credits as well. Investigate both to ensure that you’re eligible and if so, that you reap the full benefits.

Understand the Payback: In general, a tankless hot water heater will cost you more upfront—between $800 to $1,150 (plus installation)—compared to a traditional tank water heaters at $450 to $750 (plus installation).

Balance the cost of your unit with your ongoing operating costs. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website, tankless water heaters can be 24 to 34 percent more efficient than a traditional tank-style water heater, depending on a home’s daily demand for hot water.

For more on energy-saving home improvements, consider:

Installing an On-Demand Hot Water System
Five Simple Ways to Save H2O at Home
Smart Water: Faucets, Heaters and Systems