April 2012 Archives - Bob Vila

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Words to Sell By: Perfect the Language in Your Listing

How to Write a Real Estate Listing

Photo: shutterstock.com

You’re proud of your work. But the ultimate validation comes from househunters and real estate agents. In today’s unforgiving market, they won’t put up with amateur work. And they sure don’t want to buy hidden problems, even if those problems were caused by a well-meaning but uninformed do-it-yourselfer.

Marketing a house that you’ve worked on yourself can be tricky. If you claim that renovations are “professional quality,” buyers immediately will be skeptical:  the work is professional, or it’s not. And you don’t want to imply that your work is illegal or not in compliance with local building codes.

Related: 10 Home Staging Tips Every Seller Should Know

To navigate this treacherous terrain, separate your story from the story of the house. Your war stories about measuring once and cutting twice might amuse your friends, but such tales will frighten potential buyers. They don’t want to buy your shop project. They want to buy a house that is move-in ready, with brag-worthy renovations that will easily pass lender-required inspections.  They will love before and after photos, but they probably don’t want to hear too much about the ‘during’.

Focus listing language on the finished product, not on the backstory. Scrutinize listings for similar houses to see how they describe renovations.  Concentrate on the condition of the house that buyers can see for themselves: “refinished original floors” or “restored gingerbread trim.”

Drop in name brands that resonate with your market.  Brands like Kohler can be shorthand for quality.

Emphasize what’s new in the systems, structure and finishes. Buyers of older homes are just as concerned about energy efficiency as any other buyer.

Include a timeline of improvements with supporting proof of permits. It’s less important who did the work than to show that the work complies with building codes.

Offer a home warranty. Such policies are inexpensive and reassure buyers that they won’t have to pay for a major appliance or system repair for the first year they own the house, says Marta Grace, of Grace Real Estate in Kansas City, MO.

Get professional photos. Research by the National Association of Realtors indicates that 88% of buyers rely heavily on online listings to whittle down their options; 63% of buyers visit houses they first viewed online.  Focusing on quality, show photos of rooms and close-ups of details.

Terms to avoid, according to agents, include:

With love—Buyers care about condition, not emotion.

Unique—To buyers, this means “idiosyncratic,” not one-of-a-kind.

Updated—Usually, this means new paint and superficial finishes, not a substantive remodel.

All the projects are done—This implies that you did those projects. Instead, say “Move-in condition.”

New carpet—Hardwood floors are a preferred amenity, and buyers interested in old houses will wonder what’s under that newly laid carpet—and why it was laid.

Above all, don’t try to snow the listing agent.  Max Sempowski, an agent with the Old House Properties division of Keller Williams in central Virginia, says that bragging about your DIY prowess is a red flag to a savvy agent. “If the seller says, ‘I did all this work myself,’ then the listing agent will ask, “Have you done this before, did you collaborate with contractors or did you just wing it?” he says.

Tune in next week when we’ll talk about listing terms that jack up buyer interest–and the one word that can get you 5% more for your house.

For more on buying and selling homes, consider:

Quick Tip: Why Home Staging Works
Maximize Your Remodeling Budget
Hire A Home Inspector Before You Buy

DIY Deals: Lawn & Garden Tools

It takes time and effort to maintain a beautiful lawn and the right tools definitely help. Here’s a sampling of retailers offering some great weekend savings on garden tools and supplies.  Consider checking them out; your lawn—and wallet—will be glad you did.

Take advantage of Sears Days, an online and in-store sales event, offering a variety of lawn tools at considerable savings, including the Craftsman WeedWacker Gas Trimmer for $69.99 (reg. $94.99) and the Craftsman 3-in-1 Landscaping Kit for $199.99 (reg. $244.99). Through Saturday, 4/28

WeedWacker Gas Trimmer, available at Sears, $69.99

Home Depot is currently offering free shipping on all string and hedge trimmers. Purchase a Black & Decker 36V string or hedge trimmer and get a free battery ($89 value).

The Gardener’s Supply Company is holding a Gardening Sale this weekend. Save up to 74% on a variety of gardening supplies, including the Sav-A-Drop Nozzle, on sale now for $14.99 (reg. $24.99).

Shop True Value this weekend for great discounts on a variety of garden tools and supplies, including 40% off the Green Thumb Twin Wheel Garden Cart ($49.99, reg. $89.99); Green Thumb 75-ft. Garden Hose ($16.99, reg. $28.99) and the Suncast 175-ft. Hose Hideaway ($34.99, reg. $54.99).  Pick up a $5 coupon online for additional savings on any $25 purchase. Coupon expires July 8.

Suncast Hose Hideaway Reel, available at True Value, $34.99

Celebrate Arbor Day at Garden.com with 10% off all pruning tools and tree care products this week only. Choose from a wide selection of Fiskars, Corona and Felco tools, and pick up a 5-pack of Jobes Tree Spikes for just $6.48 (reg. $7.20).

For more on lawn and garden, consider the following Bob Vila articles and slideshows:
5 Ways to a Greener Lawn
Landscaping Made Easy
7 New “Must-Have” Annuals

Today Is National Arbor Day: Plant a Tree

Plant a Tree

Photo: Shutterstock

A couple weeks ago I stumbled on the sale of a lifetime: 6′-7′ maple trees for under $20 at my local Tractor Store. Of course, getting the tree into the back of my Subaru Outback was a challenge, but the tree is a beauty and one that I can’t wait to plant this weekend.   And, since today is National Arbor Day, the planting will seem that much more meaningful.

For those who might not be familiar, the Arbor Day Foundation was founded in 1972 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first Arbor Day.  It’s mission is twofold: to inspire people to plant, celebrate and nurture trees, and to make certain that our national and state forests are here for future generations to enjoy.

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Kitchen & Bath Show: Day 3 Top Picks


Today, my last day at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in Chicago, continued to reveal more innovative products, design ideas and smart solutions. Here are just a couple of the beautiful discoveries that were spotted today.


Sub-Zero introduces its first French door refrigerator. Similar to the rest of the company’s built-in line, the 36” French door is available as a stainless model with tubular or pro handles or as an overlay model that can be flush inset with custom panels, like the show-stopping blue on display at the show.

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How To: Spring Clean Your Power Tools

How to Clean Power Tools - Sander

Like everything with moving parts—your car, your computer, your body—your power tools will last longer and work better with a little bit of maintenance. Since it’s the season for spring cleaning the rest of your life and home, take an afternoon to show your power tools some TLC. They’ll work more accurately and more safely, and they’ll work for a considerably longer period of time.

How to Clean Power Tools - Before 2

As an example, I’ll be using my stationary bench sander, a tool that sits on the bottom of a storage shelf. It’s so heavy that I rarely move it; I just kneel down and work the parts with it on the floor. As you can see, it’s in serious need of some cleaning.

How to Clean Power Tools - Sawdust

1. Clean out the dust! Unless you have a pro-grade dust collection system, your power tools have dust in them—somewhere. Use a shop vacuum to suck up what you can, then used compressed air to clean out the vents. It may help to actually run the tool. Spray around all moving parts: blades, arbors, drill chucks, etc. Use a damp rag to clean off molded plastic or PVC parts.

How to Clean Power Tools - Rust Brush

2. Remove the rust. Use a stiff brush or steel wool to remove the rust on iron tables, fences, or hardware. Work lightly so you don’t scratch the surface. Use a degreaser to remove any extra gunk, then protect the surface by spraying on corrosion protector. I like to use T-9, which is a protectant and lubricant. Follow the instructions on the can for best results.

3. Check all moving parts. Go through the tool (unplugged, of course) and spin the moving parts: gears, v-belts, pulleys, etc. All fasteners should be sturdy and connected; all parts should move safely and straight. Listen for noises and note wobbles, lubricating when appropriate. Use an Allen wrench to adjust hex-head bolts and other fine adjusters. Also, check power cords and plugs to make sure there are no frays or worn spots.

How to Clean Power Tools - Moving Parts

4. Replace or sharpen disposable parts. Go through your tool and make sure all abrasives and blades are in shape. Remove abrasives, clean metal parts with mineral spirits, and replace. Check blades and bits for chips and sharpness. If necessary, replace or sharpen planer and jointer knives, and replace any overly-worn belts.

How to Clean Power Tools - Calibrate

5. Adjust and check for square. Check all tables, fences, bevel gauges, etc., with a machinist’s square to make sure everything it still aligned at 90°. Go through degree adjustments and clean the knobs and gauges to keep everything square.

How to Clean Power Tools - After

6. Double check. Once everything is clean, tightened, and dust-free, plug the tool back in and turn it on carefully to confirm you’re ready to go. Now, go get some home improvement projects accomplished!

For more on woodworking and tools, consider the following:

The $20 Japanese Pull Saw: A DIYer’s Best Bang for the Buck
5 Ways to Get Perfect, Clean Cuts in Plywood
Why Every DIYer Needs a Thickness Planer

Kitchen & Bath Show: Day 2 Top Picks


Today was another day of discovery at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, and while I covered a lot of ground and saw a full array of bath and kitchen faucets, tubs, showers and toilets, I also found some amazing surfacing materials—some of them faux, some of them real, some of them amazingly innovative, and some of them just too beautiful to imagine.

Kitchen and Bath Show

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Save Money with an Irrigation Well

Irrigation Well

Photo: JNoonan

The development where we chose to build our house is about 2 miles from the beach. We can ride our bikes to the state park or the Dairy Queen in 10 minutes. We love being close to the ocean, but the beach locale and ocean breezes do carry a price, as the wind and sandy soil dry out the lawn very quickly. Thank goodness we took the advice of our builder and opted to dig a well for our irrigation system. Without it, we would have either a crackling brown lawn or enormous water bills.

Related: 10 Ways to Turn Your Backyard into a Water Park

When we thought about the budget and options for our house, we decided to spend our money on structure rather than finish. In other words, we spent money on the big things that are harder and/or more expensive to put in later (like a well, or a screened-in porch) and cut out more expensive tile and carpets. Our irrigation well cost just around $3,000 to drill, which is no chump change, but it will pay for itself in less than three years. Water bills in our area for irrigation run upwards of $600-$800 a month! So it was completely worth it.

If you too want an irrigation well, here a few things to keep in mind: Read the rest of this entry »

Kitchen & Bath Show: Day 1 Top Picks


KBIS Chicago 2012

Today was opening day at the annual Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS) in Chicago’s McCormick Place. The show is the world’s largest international trade event dedicated to the kitchen and bath industry. As you can imagine, it is THE place to be if you are looking to discover the latest new products and most innovative design ideas in the category. Here are just a couple of my first day picks.

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Bathroom Renovation: The Hammonds’ House, A Case Study

The construction of the Hammonds’ house proves the better prepared you are, the better your bathroom renovation results will be.

Bathroom Renovation

Photo: Richard Bubnowski Design

In 1742, when Thomas Gray wrote, “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” he couldn’t have been referring to building a house. As we have seen throughout the construction of the Hammonds’ house, the more educated you are about the bathroom renovation process, the better your chances are that your dream house won’t turn into a nightmare.

In many cases the families that are having their dream homes built work full time and find it difficult to get out visiting showrooms and stores. Many manufacturers and retailers are discovering that if they can offer sales services all the time—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—it will allow their customers the freedom to educate themselves and purchase whatever they need on their own schedules. Years ago L.L. Bean in Maine became famous for this type of service. In today’s world, companies are using the Internet to provide similar service.

When Bob was renovating his own Cambridge shingle-style home in Season Seven of Bob Vila’s Home Again, he traveled to Wisconsin to tour the Kohler factories there. For our bathroom renovation project we decided to tour Kohler in cyberspace. We invite you to do the same.

Kohler Co.’s website is both informative and impressive. When the Hammonds were looking for their bathroom fixtures not only could they visit the site and find a convenient distributor, they could also browse through photographs and learn about the multitude of choices Kohler offers.

Before choosing their Revival bathtub they could see photographs of several other tubs, whirlpools, and spas. Furthermore, when they decided on the Antique bath faucet and Revival hand-shower they already knew what to expect before they stepped into the showroom.

Take a Test Dry
Homeowners are always on the lookout for new ideas to improve their homes. As you know from any previous projects you’ve done, a good part of the fun is in the dreaming and the planning.

Because bathroom renovation work is expensive, you should make your decisions carefully. In order to feel, touch, and see what kind of bathroom fixtures are available, you may want to visit your local home shows. Of course, if you’re interested in experiencing the most recent advances in bathrooms and furniture and want to get in a game of golf as well, all you have to do is plan a vacation to Kohler, Wisconsin.

The American Club in Kohler Village has 236 guest rooms with suites which have 1-1/2 baths and a whirlpool. The people at Kohler regularly renovate the rooms and furnish them with Baker and McGuire furniture, which are also companies within the Kohler corporate family.

While staying at the hotel, you can visit Kohler’s Design Center, learn how fixtures are made, and see the latest and greatest from Kohler’s designers. When we visited their website we also learned that in addition to producing superior kitchen and bath fixtures, Kohler also maintains two golf courses, which are probably mowed with lawn mowers powered by Kohler engines. Panoramas of their Whistling Straits golf course have recently been incorporated on lavatories in Kohler’s Artist Editions series.

So Many Options
The Hammonds chose their fixtures after considering several different options from Kohler. From the outset, Anne and Ned had wanted their house to have all of the modern conveniences while maintaining a sense of traditional style. When you renovate your home or have a new home built, there are several factors you will want to consider when deciding on new bath and kitchen fixtures.

Even if you are planning to move from your present home in a year or two, oftentimes the bathrooms and kitchen can sell a house. So when you determine your budget, consider if skimping now may hurt you in the long run.

The First Floor Bathroom Renovation
One theme the Hammonds have followed since the design phase of their project is the blending of contemporary architectural features with antique charms. Their choice in the first floor bathroom is a good example of this. Now that everything is plumbed and installed we can see how stylish fixtures are enhanced by the antique faucets and accessories.

The merlot pedestal lavatory is from Kohler’s Memoirs collection. The Sonata shower module ties in well with the Revival lavatory faucets. Even the toothbrush holders give the room a sense of timelessness.

When Bill and his crew from Weston Plumbing installed the pipes in the first floor bath, they also installed the washing machine hook-ups. A design consideration was that in order to have the washer and dryer on the first floor the bathroom would have to be smaller.

Instead of putting in a half bath, the folks from Kohler, Acorn, and the Hammonds decided to put in a shower module. Deciding this early on made it easier for the architects to design a room that was roomy and not too tight.

The two bathrooms on the second floor have full-sized bathtubs so having a shower downstairs was an extra bonus. Because the house is perched above the beach and because the bathroom is located right next to the back door, it will be easy for the family’s beachgoers to shower off the salt after a cool Atlantic dip. The location of the bathroom will also mean there is little concern with children tracking sand and periwinkles on the way to the shower. The Glassworks shower doors and the Revival hand shower will also make it easy for the kids to aim the water at their bodies and let it drain in the shower and not on the floor.

Trickle-Down Ergonomics
Experienced installers and designers of bathrooms can help you determine your needs. It is likely that they will suggest ideas many of us would never think of. For instance, if you suffer from back problems, it may make sense to have waist-level cabinets. Or if you or a family member has arthritis, you may decide to install faucets which are sensor activated like those in many public restrooms.

Faucets and all the other components which are installed in bathrooms come in a wide price range. Though price does not always mirror quality, more often than not it does. If you visit your local hardware store or discount center, you can see several different lines of plumbing fixtures. Of course your decision will be based balancing what you want with what you can afford.

One thing to consider is how often you will need to replace a fixture. A leaky faucet can slowly transform into water torture if you are trying to concentrate or sleep. Not only are dripping faucets and running toilets annoying, they also cost a lot of money in city water and waste charges.

There are many stories of people who opt for the least expensive faucets available and need to replace them within the year. Consider if the lifetime of one fixture is known to be three times that of another manufacturer. If it’s twice the cost, it makes sense to spend the extra money now.

There are many sources and consumers’ guides that rate appliances, fixtures and manufacturers. Again, it’s worth your time to investigate the options. You may also decide to work with a reputable contractor and/or a kitchen/bath designer who has been referred to you.

Ask Yourself or Another
When you are deciding on what type of bathroom fixtures you want in your home consider the following:

  • Which is better for us: sinks which have a single-handled faucet or a faucet which has separate cold and hot valves?
  • Do we need the storage of a vanity sink or will a pedestal sink look better and work for us?
  • How high should the sink be?
  • Is it worth the expense of installing a separate sink for the kids which is lower?
  • Could we swap out that sink as the children grow?
  • Do we want the watercloset to be in a separate area like many European homes have?
  • When we install the shower should we put it on a side of the room that doesn’t abut a bedroom?
  • Will this keep the early risers from waking the slumber bunch or should we relocate the bathroom?
  • If we’re adding a bathroom, is there any way to install it above or below an existing bath or kitchen to keep down plumbing costs?
  • Do we want a hand shower, a stationary shower head or both?
  • Do we want to include any fixtures that will make it easier for our handicapped friends or relatives to visit?

In the Hammonds’ master bath, they chose to have Kohler’s Revival grab bar installed next to the tub to insure that no one would slip getting in or out.

What kind of bathroom cabinets do we want? There are several choices of cabinetry for bathrooms. Ideas to consider include deciding on style and who will be using the cabinets. For instance, if small children are going to be using this bathroom, you may want to put some cabinets higher up for storage of cleaners and soap. You may also decide to have cabinets with pocket doors or sliders if there isn’t a lot of room to open cabinet doors.

What about medicine cabinets? Again the options may seem endless when you begin your search. One idea you may want to consider was offered by Buckminster Fuller when he was working on his Dymaxion bathroom. He designed his cabinets to have mirrors on the inside in order to keep them from fogging during showers. Some companies offer mirrors which have de-foggers. The Hammonds chose unique mirrors from Kohler which they had installed in the master bathroom.

Mirror, Mirror
The Hammonds’ master bath is the perfect place to hang two of Kohler’s nostalgic Revival mirrors. Before the Peaches hung the mirrors, Anne and Ned met with them to determine the best height for hanging them. In the event that someone shorter needs to see him or herself, the mirror simply rotates towards the wall.

The design may have been loosely based on the cheval, glass mirrors which gentlepeople had in their dressing chambers in days gone by. The Kohler mirrors are easy to install with two pieces of hardware which are secured to the wall.

The Master Bath
The master bath is very important to the Hammonds. Anne and Ned wanted to be able to take full advantage of the view while they soak in the tub. As the pictures show, the Hammonds succeeded perfectly in achieving this goal. Lighting consultant Markus Earley created a sophisticated lighting design utilizing Lightolier fixtures. There are several combinations of illumination enabling bathers to enjoy the appropriate ambiance for every mood.

Another great feature of this room is the two-person shower. The shower was custom built and has two Kohler Revival hand showers which are controlled with two separate Rite-Temp valves.

Across the room the Peach crew built the sunken tub enclosure. They used water-resistant cement board over the wood framing as the underlayment for the finish tile work which was accomplished by “Chip” Randall and his son, Matt. All of the tile work in the home was set in mortar — tradesmen refer to this type of work as a “full mud” job.

Bill and the Peaches included a small access door in the tub enclosure. This is a critical step. Too often plumbing fixtures are installed with no access for repairs. If this is the case, even if only minor repairs are needed, it will be costly to retile and repair wherever the plumber needs to break through. Bill was careful to make sure that all the critical pipes, joints and connectors can be reached through the door. Prior to installing the tub, Bill checked his lines for leaks. He also checked the water pressure.

Before Bill and his helper Mark place the Thunder Grey Revival bathtub in the enclosure, they mix gypsum plaster which they will use as a skim coat under the tub. While the plaster is still moist, they spread it on the inside floor of the enclosure. The plumbers are careful to make sure the plaster is pitched slightly (many plumbers suggest a slope of 1/8 inches per foot.) Without a slope the tub could be placed at an angle making it impossible to drain.

Before the plaster dries, Bill and Mark walk the tub in and slowly lower it into place. Bill tightens the pipes and hooks up the Antique bath faucet. The workmen caulk all the seams including the under-lip of the tub.

With this view, a telephone, and a television, The Hammonds’ new master bathroom is a place where they can retire to and soak away the cares of the day.

Green with Envy
When friends and family wash up for dinner, they can gaze at the trees and wash their hands in the deep green Timberline sink in the guest bathroom. The tree theme doesn’t stop here. The bathroom is also made from wood. It’s not often that we think of the trees that were felled in order to build our homes. Remember, lumberjacks yell “timber” just before a tree becomes just that.

Bathrooms often require more framework than other rooms in the house. Tubs and whirlpools can weigh hundreds of pounds, even when they’re not filled with water. In order to support that weight, contractors need to reinforce the joists and headers which will support all the fixtures.

Unlike the master bathroom, the guest bathroom has a tub/shower enclosure which is very popular in new construction. Many of these enclosures are similar to the panelized construction of the Hammonds’ house. The enclosures often come in three or four panels which are snapped and fastened together. Kohler’s Sonata bath and shower module is a perfect example of these advancements. Basically, instead of spending the time and money to build a custom tiled shower stall, it is now possible to purchase a complete manufactured bathing unit.

Because this unit is one molded part with no seams it will not crack or seep as tile might. Modules are made of fiberglass, plastics or a combination of each. Many different configurations are available. Consumers may decide they want a simple module or they may want to buy a module which has shelves for shampoo, soap, and other toiletries.

When the Hammonds imagined their guest bathroom, they thought about their guests. They worked with the architects and designed a room which would accommodate both houseguests and overnight visitors. The key to their accomplishment fit into two doors.

It’s Rough
Before the doors were hung, Bill Weston and his crew studied the floor plan and blue prints. In order to rough in the pipes, plumbers first measure twice and mark the exact location of where the pipes and fixtures will be installed. When the bathroom is new and unfinished, before locating a water-closet or pedestal sink, the plumber will add the thickness of drywall, ceramic tile, and flooring that is not yet installed. After cutting the appropriate holes, the plumber will begin installing the drainage, waste and vent system (DWV).

Because the DWV pipes are larger, it is easier to work the smaller supply pipes around them. The DWV system is set at a slope towards the sewer main. Many plumbers prefer to install the supply pipes in walls instead of up through the floor. This will make it easier to do the flooring, and it will also be easier to clean the floor without having to work around floor pipes.

As we mentioned in an earlier segment, it is illegal in most regions of the country for consumers to do their own plumbing and heating work unless they are licensed. There are several good books and videos on plumbing which are worth reading and watching. Though you may not be able to do everything you read about, it may make it easier for you to understand and justify the cost of plumbing and other work which you contract to have done around your home.

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!