July 2011 Archives - 2/4 - Bob Vila

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A Recipe For Renovation Contracts

Well-written renovation contracts normally take into account many of the following details.

Renovation Contracts

All contracts you sign should begin with the parties to the agreement. Yours and the contractor’s names and addresses should be stated up front, along with the date the agreement was drawn and a brief statement describing the work to be done. The rest of the ingredients are these:

The stages. The stages in the process should be identified and the job described in some detail (more is better). If the job requires cutting into the existing structure (to install electrical or plumbing lines, for example), the contract should specify whose responsibility it is to patch and repaint.

The site. The area and the limits of the job should be specified here (new shingles on the house, not on the attached garage?). Who’s responsible for the trash removal? The term “broom clean” may be useful. You might want to insert the phrase, “The job shall not be deemed completed until the premises are broom clean and all trash and unused materials removed.”

The materials. Detail is important throughout the estimate, but nowhere more than here. The specifications should include brand names, dimensions, style, color, weight, and other identifying characteristics of all the materials to be used.

The warranty. Is there a warranty? If there is one for all the work or even a part of it, it should be spelled out here. Oral representations are more often forgotten than remembered.

The liability. A copy of the contractor’s insurance certificate should be attached to the agreement and mentioned here, along with words to the effect that the contractor will not hold the homeowner responsible in the event of any personal injury or property damage.

The schedule. When does the work begin and when is it to be finished? Put in specific dates.

The cost. The total cost and the schedule of payments belong here. As a rule, you should pay for work that’s completed, and paying less now and more later gives you maximum leverage.

Getting a Loan

Photo: flickr.com

Loaning money is at the heart of a bank’s business. But to stay in business, the bank must do it carefully, lending it to people who can be trusted with it.

A bank will establish your “trustworthiness” on numerous grounds, most obviously on the basis of your finances. The three key determining factors are your income, your credit record, and your assets and liabilities.

The rule of thumb used at present for borrowing money is that your monthly mortgage payments should not exceed 28 percent of your gross monthly income. If you have other indebtedness—car payments, credit card balances, student loans, or others—the total of those installment debts plus your mortgage payment should not exceed 36 percent of your gross income. In calculating income, the bank will be concerned not only with your salary or average weekly paycheck, but with all sources of revenue, including stocks, bonds, trusts, income from part-time employment, child support, and real estate.

If you are confident of a substantial increase in your income in the near future (for example, if your business has grown at a constant rate for each of the past five years), the projected future income is also an argument that can be used to persuade a bank you are a good risk.

Credit record
If you have previously applied for and been granted a mortgage and have subsequently paid some or all of it off, you are a better risk than someone who has never borrowed money in his life. Other evidence that you are a good credit risk are a prompt payment history on previous personal loans, credit cards, and department store bills, and the timely liquidation of other indebtedness.

The lender will be calculating not only what you owe but also what you own. Do you own your car? Another house? How about other valuable belongings? Stocks and bonds or other liquid assets? Are you vested in a retirement plan?

Other considerations
If you own or control a business or have substantial financial resources of your own, you may already have a relationship with a particular bank. Try to use it to your best advantage. If you get the feeling you are not getting your due, go to another bank and make it clear that you are interested in not only a loan but might also be interested in shifting other business their way as well. It might help.

Open a Separate Checking Account


Photo: flickr.com

Unless your project is very small or you’ve one professional to manage everything for you, open a separate checking account for the duration of your construction project.

Keep your day-to-day household and other finances discrete from the new account. Deposit all loan proceeds or other construction funds directly into the account. Pay all your contractors, suppliers, designer fees, and other expenses by check from that account.

The separate account will make it easier to monitor costs and identify your available balance at a glance. It may also help discipline you into thinking of the project in a more businesslike fashion. Construction projects have a way of assuming a life of their own and you want to be sure to be on top of the process. The separate account can help.

A Kitchen Garden

bobvila, kitchen garden, tomato, vegetable garden

Photo: flickr.com

If you have a summer home, you know that referring to it as a “retreat” or “get-away” doesn’t relinquish you of the responsibilities for seasonal care and maintenance. I’ve reported on my own deck and flag pole projects in earlier posts and have additional things to tackle, not the least of which is replacing a screen door that has seen too many dogs trying to claw their way inside the house.

While we don’t really have a lawn, we do maintain a small kitchen garden that needs continual tending. The garden is pretty basic, just four raised beds framed in 2′ x 8’s of non-pressure-treated wood.

My decision to go with non-treated wood was based on the fact that I would rather replace decaying lumber over time than have chemically-treated boards containing the fresh, organic vegetables, herbs, and fruits I was trying to grow.

We have many rabbits in residence, so our post-and-rail fence has galvanized chicken wire on the lower section dug into the ground to about six inches. A sprinkler on a timer is all we need to maintain sufficient watering requirements.

For more on gardening, consider:

Planning and Planting Sustainable Gardens
Green Homes: Water-Friendly Landscapes
A Sustainable Yard and Landscape

P.S.  For those of you, who inquired about the paint that I used to refinish my flag pole, it was Supermarine Revolution SM-1000—a single-stage marine formula paint that, according to the manufacturer, is designed to withstand intense UV, high heat (400F), corrosive chemicals, acids, alkalis and staining agents. Should do the trick, don’t you think?


How To: Finish Drywall Joints

How to Finish Drywall Joints

Photo: Kit Stansley

Most of the time finishing drywall joints isn’t one of those jobs that has people jumping up and down with excitement. Even with a decent amount of drywall experience under my belt, when faced with the 2000 square feet of unfinished drywall in my current house, all I could picture was a lot of sanding in my future. Like, for all of eternity. Luckily I had a great mentor to teach me some of the tricks of the trade, and in no time my joints required very little sanding for a perfectly smooth wall.


Before you can finish drywall joints you need to have actual wallboard in place. You can learn how to install drywall here. The thing to keep in mind is that a sheet of drywall has slightly beveled ends which make finishing joints much easier. When hanging the boards it will be tempting to use small scraps to finish things off, but you’ll be hurting yourself in the long run.  Always try to use the factory edges to create your joints.

Now, let’s talk mud.

What You Will Need
Now, I never turn down a good excuse to add to my tool collection, but this is one instance where having the right tools will mean the difference between a good drywall joint and losing your sanity over a sanding block.
– Mud pan
– 6″ drywall knife
– 10″ drywall knife
– Drywall tape
– Lightweight joint compound
– Sanding block

How to Finish Drywall Seam - Mud Pan

Photo: Kit Stansley

Now, let’s talk mud.


Step 1: Mixing Joint Compound
Joint compound comes in two forms: ready-mixed and powder. You can use either, but I prefer the ready-mixed variety for convenience. You will need to stir the compound to loosen it up and make it easier to work with. You can do this with a mixer attachment to the drill or use the drywall knife (and some elbow grease). A little bit of water at the ready will also help get the mud to an easy-to-work-with consistency, loose enough to spread on the wall without running.

How to Finish Drywall Joints - Mixing Compound

Photo: Kit Stansley

Step 2: Taping The Joints
You can use paper or mesh tape to finish the joints. Mesh tape is usually self adhesive and can go right on the joints.  For paper, you will need to apply a thin coat of mud to the joint, apply the tape, and press into place with the drywall knife.  It’s a good idea to let paper tape dry overnight before finishing off the seam.  Mesh tape can be finished immediately after installing.

Step 3: The Three Swipe Method
I’ve always been pretty conservative with how much mud I put on the seam, because like everyone else in the universe, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life sanding it down. However, getting enough joint compound on the wall is key. This is how much should go on the seam to start.  

How to Finish Drywall Joints - Three Swipe Method

Photo: Kit Stansley

I know, I know, even seeing that much mud on a seam in a picture gives me sanding anxiety too. However, the three swipe method is all about putting a lot of mud on to start and then taking away the extra.

First, “feather” the top edge of mud by holding just the top edge of the knife tight to the wall and drawing it smoothly across the seam (Swipe 1).

How to Finish Drywall Joints - Swipe One

Photo: Kit Stansley

Then do the same to the bottom with the bottom edge of the knife (Swipe 2).

Finish it off by going over the whole joint with one smooth stroke while keeping the knife flat to the wall (Swipe 3).

How to Finish Drywall Joints - Swipe Three

Photo: Kit Stansley

The beveled edge of the drywall retains more mud in the middle of the seam than on the top or bottom. Between swipes, be sure to wipe both sides of the knife on the pan. Dried clumps of drywall are your enemy at this point.

Once the first coat is dry you’ll need to repeat the process, making the finished coverage about 12″ wide. You can use a sanding block to smooth away any imperfections between coats and after the final coat.

As with anything, experimentation and practice will help you perfect the technique of finishing drywall joints. But, follow my three-swipe method and you too can have smooth joints without losing your sanity to sanding.

To find out more about drywall installation and finishing, consider:

How To: Choose Drywall
Installing Mold-Resistant Drywall
Patching Damaged Drywall (VIDEO)

On the Waterfront: Decommissioned Lighthouse Auctions

Kenosha North Pierhead Lighthouse, Wisconsin, real estate

Kenosha North Pierhead Light, Wisconsin

With the advances in marine navigation systems—radio, satellite, and radar—the need for lighthouses to guide mariners along the nation’s coastlines has diminished, leaving many of these unique properties derelict and deserted. But thanks to a program sponsored by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Interior’s National Park Service, the mariner’s loss could be a homeowner’s gain.

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Remodeling a Dutch Colonial: The 12-Year Kitchen

Remodeling a Dutch Colonial

Photo: Roseann Foley Henry

There are two quotes I’ll never forget from our home-buying days. One was what our real estate agent said to us as she first unlocked the door to a faded Dutch Colonial: “Now be prepared – when the builder walked away in 1920, that was the last time anyone paid attention to this house.” The other was what my partner and I said to each other as we left that day: “What a fantastic house! It’s way too big for us, of course, but it’s a great house.”

Neither of those quotes proved true. Previous owners had covered 900 square feet of the main floor with baby blue shag carpet, painted each room a different pastel color (right over old wallpaper in some rooms), and carved a four-legged kitchen sink right into the window casings. And not only did we buy it in spite of its being too big, ten years and two kids later Margaret and I found ourselves wondering where all that extra space had gone.

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New Air Conditioning for Old Houses

It's now easier to retrofit older homes with increasingly compact air conditioning systems.

New Air Conditioning for Old Houses

Photo: Flickr

High noon will turn many a classic home into a summertime sweatbox. And while noisy window-mounted air conditioners can lower temperatures, they are just as apt to spoil a charming exterior. Unfortunately, many old homes don’t have a convenient space to install ductwork for a traditional central air-conditioning system. Lowering ceilings or building out walls to hide supply and return ducts is expensive, and can blemish indoor spaces. Sometimes the attic or basement can hold the ductwork, but it’s still a shame to chop big chunks out  of original plaster ceilings, wood floors, or wainscoting to place air registers.

Retrofit Systems
But don’t sweat it: There are air-conditioning systems that don’t need much bulky ductwork. Mini-split systems use individual cooling units placed room by room, which require only a thin refrigerant and power line connecting them to an outdoor air-conditioning compressor and fan. Another alternative, known as high-velocity systems, use two-inch insulated air-supply tubing to deliver chilled air. This tubing can be snaked through existing walls and ceilings in an old home to deliver cool air where it is needed. The registers are unobtrusive discs placed around the perimeter of the ceiling, or high on the walls.

All retrofitted air-conditioning systems will require some degree of creative cutting and patching in walls, floors, and ceilings. And while the new high-tech systems cost more than a regular duct system in new houses, they save money in old homes because of the reduced need for rough carpentry and subsequent finish work. An $8,000 to $10,000 price tag isn’t unusual for a high-velocity air-conditioning retrofit in an old house. Mini-splits offer an economical compromise: You can install cooling units in just one or two rooms, creating an oasis to retreat to during the dog days of summer. Consult a professional installer to choose an air-conditioning compressor that will allow you to expand a partial system at a later date.

Quality Installations
A properly sized air-conditioning system is the most important factor for a comfortable home. Systems that are too big or small will lead to a host of complaints—it’s too loud, it breaks down too often, some rooms are too hot, some rooms are too cold, the electricity bills are too high. A professional installer who will size the right is crucial to comfort. Make sure your installer shows you the industry-standard “Manual J” and “Manual D” sizing calculations for your house. If an installer wants to use rule-of-thumb sizing methods, find another contractor.

While there are a number of factors involved in choosing an air-conditioning system, keep in mind that bigger isn’t better. Oversized systems don’t dehumidify as well as systems that are properly matched to the needs of the house. This is critical to making the house feel cooler. Also, oversized systems cycle on and off more frequently, which means they wear out faster, break down more often, and cost more to maintain. 

House Power
Before you install a new air conditioning system, consider your home’s electrical system. It is not uncommon for old houses to have only 110-volt, 60-amp service for the entire home—barely enough power to handle the home’s existing complement of lights and appliances. Central air conditioners require a dedicated 230-volt circuit and may require 20 to 50 amps of power, making an electrical service upgrade necessary. Have an electrician evaluate your home’s electrical supply before your HVAC contractor begins work.

Know the Rules for Finished Basements

Finishing your basement? Be sure that your remodeling work is in compliance with building codes in your area.

Photo: Flickr

Converting your basement is like finding new space, fully equipped with plumbing and heat. Before you begin your remodeling, however, you’ll need to check local codes for safety exits or egress.

Know Your Code
Basement living space requires emergency escape and rescue openings. Your first step is to check local building codes. Your code authority may have authored its own rules or it may be among the more than 90 percent of communities in the United States that adopt the standards of the International Code Council (ICC). The council is a nonprofit organization that publishes new editions of the codes every three years and, in interim years, produces a supplement. 

The ICC’s 2006 International Residential Code for One- and Two-Story Dwellings has new language stating that basements that contain one or more sleeping rooms are required to have emergency egress and rescue openings in each sleeping room. Emergency exit and rescue openings are not required in adjoining areas of the basement, according to the code.

Marc Nard, ICC technical expert, further explains which spaces require emergency egress or exit openings, saying emergency exits are required in basement sleeping rooms or habitable space — defined as spaces used for living, sleeping, eating, or cooking. While that does not include spaces like bathrooms, toilet rooms, closets, halls, storage spaces, or utility spaces, it does include offices, recreation rooms, bedrooms, and home theaters. 

There are some fine points. For example, a basement that has no bedroom but has an office would need an emergency exit for the office. But, says Nard, “Say you have a basement bedroom and an office which is not in the bedroom. How many emergency egress and rescue openings do you need? Answer: One, but it has to be in the sleeping room.”

Egress Requirements
Whether it is an egress window or an egress door, it has to open to the outside and open easily without the use of keys or tools. It must also follow code requirements for the height and width of basement egress windows. Egress opening requirements include:

• A window with a minimum width of opening of 20 inches.

• A window with a minimum height of opening of 24 inches.

• A window with a minimum net clear opening — the actual opening through which a person must crawl — of 5.7 square feet.

• A sill height no higher than 44 inches above the floor.

• A window-well floor space of 9 square feet with minimum dimensions of 36 inches wide and long.

• A permanent ladder or steps if the window well depth is more than 44 inches.

Homeowners may come up with all sorts of reasons why they don’t think they need an egress. But, says Nard, “It’s not about you. It’s about the firefighter or rescue worker carrying gear and wearing an oxygen backpack who has to get through that opening to drag you out in case you are unconscious from a fire or other emergency.” It’s also about anyone who will own the home after you and may use that basement space.

Basement Egress Options

Many manufacturers offer basement egress options. Boman Kemp, based in Ogden, Utah, has its Basement Window Well Systems. Boone Brown, national sales manager, says the Boman Kemp product is a full system that includes everything needed, from double-insulated vinyl window to escape ladder. The system works in new homes as well as retrofits in concrete or block basements. The basic code-compliant system costs about $950 for the do-it-yourselfer.

The Bilco Company, based in West Haven, CT, has its high-density polyethylene ScapeWel terraced-step window-well system that accepts other manufacturers’ windows. The ScapeWel works for new or retrofit work. Bilco’s poured-in-place ScapeView two-piece window system works with the ScapeWel for new home construction. Jim Edgeworth, director of sales and marketing, says the ScapeView now gives its customers one-stop shopping.

Bilco also offers an alternative basement egress. PermEntry is a pre-cast concrete stairwell with steel or maintenance-free polyethylene basement doors. The direct basement access can be installed by a Bilco dealer in a few hours. According to Edgeworth, PermEntry works for both new construction and remodeling. Retrofits involve excavating and cutting a hole in the foundation. The entrance system sits on the footing and is drawn tight to the foundation for a watertight seal.

Up and Out

Here are the basics of a typical basement egress window system:

• A “buck,” poured into the wall during new construction, creates a frame in the foundation wall.

• A window well keeps the earth away from the basement window. It can be bolted to a buck or, if a remodel, to the foundation wall.

• A basement window can be of any style that meets code requirements.

• Safety grates or grilles keep people and pets from falling into the well.

• Well covers keep debris from filling the well.

• Ladders or steps provide a way to get out of the well.

Added Value
Homebuilders like the idea that a livable basement easily doubles the amount of marketable square footage of new homes they sell. Homeowners are finding how easily and affordably they can open up formerly uninviting basements to new uses. Finishing the basement typically costs a third to half of what it would take for above-ground construction.

A Step-by-Step Solution: Pre-Cut Treads and Risers

Pre-Cut Treads - Stairs

Photo: Shutterstock

In the world of DIY, it is the step-by-steps that detail a solution to a problem or project. In my case, it was the steps themselves that posed the greatest dilemma.

stairs, carpeting,

Photo: LABworks360

When I purchased my house, there were a number of fixes I wanted to make, among them refreshing a dated bathroom and removing the carpeting that covered the stairs and second-floor landing.

Related: Trending Now—Painted Stairs

By using a screwdriver to loosen a corner of carpeting in the hallway, I started to tug at the material. Within minutes I realized that the carpeting had not been installed the conventional way, with padding and carpet tack. It had been glued directly to the oak flooring below.

Removing the carpeting became a bigger challenge than I anticipated, calling into service paint scrapers, putty knives, and straight edge razors to cut, pry, and separate the rug from the floor. Despite the fact that the floors had residual adhesive stuck to the boards, I expected that a good professional sanding would restore them to their original beauty.

stairs, repair, risers and treads

Photo: LABworks360

The uglier truth was revealed when I managed to tear away the carpeting adhered to the stairs. Clearly the carpeting (like the paneling) was an easy way for the prior owners to conceal a problem rather than remedy it.

The wood finishers that I hired to restore my oak floors said there was really nothing that could be done for the stairs. Sanding them would be useless, since the bullnose edges of the treads (the top, flat boards) were worn bare, “tread bare,” and the risers (the vertical, horizontal boards) were in no better shape.

Their recommendation was to rebuild the stairs, a costly prospect I was eager to avoid. There had to be a less expensive and construction-free alternative.

That’s when I discovered pre-cut stair treads and risers in unfinished pine and oak at my local home improvement store. I started wondering if we could just add new treads and risers over the old. The stairway, despite its visible wear, was solid and secure. And while the boards would raise the height of the first step by an inch and shorten the rise for the top step by the same amount, it would have no other altering effects other than considerable cost savings.

stairs, pine, risers, treads, stairway


That’s exactly what the woodworkers were able to do. They squared off the bullnose edges of the original steps and installed new pine risers and treads directly over the old. I chose pine over oak because I planned to paint the stairs eventually.

It was far less expensive than a total demolition and rebuild ($9.97 per 48″ x 11-12/” board), and, as you can see by the finished project, well worth the 14 steps it took to complete.

Now, since I brandished the previous owner for disguising problems rather than resolving them, is this a case of “the pot calling the kettle black?” Let the next owners weigh in on that one!

For more on flooring, consider:

How To: Install a Herringbone Wood Floor
Green Homes: Flooring
Choosing the Right Floor Covering