Wednesday, July 13, 2016

They're Killing Us . . . Breath by Breath

Forget about sleeper cells and the dangerous “lone wolves”. What’s really going to do us in is the dreaded imports that are slowly killing us, just as sure as a direct attack on our homeland. They’re putting arsenic in our orange juice, lead in our kid’s toys, and there’s even sulfur in our sheetrock. God only knows what’s in the cabinets. U.S. health regulators have recently reported that certain types of laminate flooring imported by Lumber Liquidators was found to have a greater risk of causing cancer, or other health problems, than previously believed. They said that “people who purchased the China-made flooring are about three times more likely to get cancer than it had calculated earlier this month.”  And yet we keep importing products and produce from countries that do not regulate their manufacturing.

So really, what’s the big deal? Where’s the harm in a little arsenic, or lead, or hydrogen sulfide gas, when you can save a couple of bucks? Haven’t you heard? We’re still recovering from the recession. Our health and well being is a small price to pay when you’re talking about saving money.

But if you are concerned about avoiding the perils of hazardous material exposure when eating, buying toys, homes or remodeling you must use your common sense (see K&B Insider #123, Common Sense, Priceless!). The best way to begin is by reading labels, assuming you still can read after exposure to all those noxious fumes. If not, have your BFF (Best Friend Forever) read the label for you. If the product does not have a label, ask the proprietor for a Material Data Safety Sheet, which lists the properties (both harmful and inert) of the product.

In the remodeling industry, most cabinet and countertop manufacturers have been making a concerted effort to clean up their act. Now you can purchase American made cabinets that have little or no harmful ingredients, such as volatile organic compounds, at very competitive prices; although they will never be as inexpensive as cabinets made in countries where the average hourly wage is less than a (US) dollar.
Some of these same countries sell granite counters with high levels of radon, a cancer causing, radioactive gas. Just shut off the lights and see them glow! But hey, they’re cheap! Consider instead quartz composite countertops which are certified by various environmental organizations as to their lack of harmful emissions or buy granite that has acceptable radon emissions.

Now, I’m not saying that everything made in America is great, in fact some of our stuff could stand a little room for improvement, but at least there are some government standards to adhere to. And I’m not saying that exposure to some chemicals is all that bad. When I was an Industrial Arts teacher, for many years I taught both woodworking and printing. In print shop we handled type that was made primarily of lead and washed our hands with kerosene. Having dinner with a product liability attorney the other day, I mentioned this and said it didn’t seem to have any ill affects. Her reply was, “think of what you could have been”!

So sit back, take a deep, formaldehyde filled breath, and watch the kids sip arsenic laced apple juice while putting their lead painted toys in their mouths. It really doesn’t matter much because the hydrogen sulfide gas coming from the sheet rock will eventually kill you anyway. Unless, of course, you decide to spend a couple of extra bucks and buy safe products from a country you can trust.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Duck and Cover - Under Your Countertop!


Now that nuclear proliferation has once again crept into our lives it brings to mind the 1950’s, when we were taught in elementary school, in case of a nuclear attack, to duck under our desks and cover our heads. This we were assured, by Bert the turtle, would certainly protect us from Armageddon and in case of a nuclear blast we would live to tell about it. Hard to believe, but that was the syllabus back then. Just click here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKqXu-5jw60 to watch the riveting 1951 production of Duck and Cover.
Obviously, we now know that the only real protection against radiation (and Kryptonite too, I think) is lead. So I’ve decided to use a crowdfunding source like Kickstarter https://www.kickstarter.com/ to create a lead countertop business. When the bombs start to fall, just empty your cupboards and climb in. You’ll be safe and sound when all your neighbors are fried to a crisp.
It’s not so outrageous. Back in the 1880’s and 90’s, zinc was all the rage for counters. I visited the mansions in Newport last fall (and by examining the kitchens was able to write off the whole trip). Each palatial home had a zinc counter in the kitchen. But in time zinc lost out to stainless steel; stainless to granite; and now quartz composite is the latest fad. Concrete rears its ugly head every once in a while, but who wants to prepare food on a sidewalk?
Each material has its own benefits but quartz is the zinc of the 21st century. Sold under the trade names of Cambria, Viatera, Caesarstone, etc., quartz is the second most abundant mineral on earth, and is a basic component of granite. In a typical quartz countertop, the raw quartz is crushed and combined with pigments, to give it color, and resins (sticky stuff), to hold it together. The resulting process creates one of the most durable countertop surfaces on the market today. It is harder than granite, more scratch resistant and non-porous. For the geologists who follow the K&B Insider, quartz ranks #7 on the Mohs hardness scale (whatever that is) and only diamonds, sapphires and topaz are harder. But it still doesn’t block radiation as well as lead.
The fact that quartz counters are non-porous makes them considerably more stain resistant than granite and safer in terms of bacteria growth. They require very little care, and perhaps that is why they are so popular today.
But don’t rule granite out yet. Considered by many as the most beautiful surface available, granite has movement! Movement is the suggestion of motion in the elements making up the finished surface. The swirls and patterns created by nature cannot be completely duplicated in engineered stone, however some of the new quartz composites are approximating this attribute. If you exercise a little care with granite, you can avoid staining and scratches. Granite should be sealed when it is installed and at least once a year afterwards.
The cost of the average granite slab is pretty stable; however, granite prices are dependent on the rarity of the color and the hardness of the stone and as quartz becomes more popular, its price is going up.
If you’re not ready to duck and cover under the protection of your new lead countertop, and your not concerned about outliving your neighbors, quartz and granite are probably the way go to. Take your time when making your choice and examine all the options that are available, selecting the one that best suits your lifestyle and the current political climate. 
This has been a public service message.

Monday, February 8, 2016

What’s Wrong With Me?



It appears that I have reached the point in life where I have difficulty accepting the premise that when something sounds too good to be true it almost certainly is too good to be true. Or, perhaps its not age related but ingrained in our DNA; we want more for less, something for nothing, always searching for the deal of the century.
Every day I find myself bombarded with countless ads and emails offering everything from handy gadgets (that I am assured I cannot live without) to fabulous furniture to complete new kitchens or bathrooms, all at ridiculously low prices. As hard as I try to avoid even glancing at these limitless offerings my fingers pay no attention to my brain. Taking on a life of their own, they click to open every offer that has managed to avoid my spam or junk mail rules and regulations. And each time I succumb to the lure of the must have LED flashlight with built in can opener, that’s “cheap at half the price”, I am disappointed yet again. What’s wrong with me?
I saw a young woman on TV who totaled her car, which she had named BRAD (while insured by a company that we should switch to immediately). I think she took her settlement and created a web-site named after her car that offers terrific DEALS, but only if you act very quickly. Most of this stuff is too good to be true, or too cheap to be good. But that didn’t stop me. I purchased a set of outdoor furniture (some assembly required); six chairs and two foot rests, guaranteed not to rust for a year. I’m too embarrassed to reveal how low the price was. It took two full days to assemble, after a two week wait for the missing parts to be shipped from California. The rust started 31 days after initial delivery. Company policy: 30 day return. Informed I was out of luck for return, but since the warranty was good for a year, I could ship the assembled chairs back to California (small print: at my own expense) to get a replacement. After calculating that shipping the assembled chairs would cost five times the initial cost of the product, I have decided to live with the rust.
But did this experience teach me anything? Apparently not much, although my resistance to these hard to believe offers is gradually building. And, speaking of building, the same holds true with remodeling. Ads for incredibly low priced cabinets and countertops are springing up all over. Often the cabinetry and counters are imported from overseas, in countries where they have no scruples or standards. We have no way of knowing what harmful chemicals are in these products and what dangerous gases will permeate our home environment once they are installed. But by then, it’s too late, the damage is done, and we’re pushing up daisies (that never grew because we ordered them from a cheap mail order catalog).
There is a range of legitimate prices for any product or project, but beware of the preposterous deals that don’t sound plausible. Every time I’ve succumbed to the deal of the century, be it for a lawn chair or a new computer program that will fix everything, I’ve regretted it. As attractive as low bids are, especially when coupled with big promises, they should raise a red flag.
Do your research! Check reviews and referrals and use your common sense! In the case of remodeling, make sure you select a qualified firm for your project, whose business and financial capabilities, past performance and reputation guarantee that you will get a job done well, with products that will perform as promised. I’m not saying that you can’t find bargains, but remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and you just may end up living with the rust.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Common Sense . . . Priceless!



Frequently, readers call or email, and ask me if they can ask a stupid question. As I used to tell my students, when you’re learning about something new, there are no stupid questions, (other than asking if you can ask a stupid question). This especially holds true when it comes to remodeling. However, many a question can be answered by using “common sense”, and if you just think about it for a minute, sometimes the answer just pops into your head.
Defined in the dictionary, common sense is defined as sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts. For example, you are about to cross the street and an 18-wheeler (big truck) is barreling down the street towards the intersection. Should you cross or wait for the truck to pass by? If you chose to cross the street you’re probably reading this column in your hospital bed, after being crushed by the truck, because you didn’t use your common sense.
Unfortunately, you can’t go to CVS to buy common sense. You get your allotment when you’re born and that’s it, but, most people have at least a modicum of this priceless attribute. The real trick is to use every bit of it that you were born with, and never ignore it just to save a buck or take the easy way out. You should know better!
So, you’re getting estimates for new semi-custom kitchen cabinets. Diligently, you get three estimates and two are about the same at $10,000 and one comes in at $5,000. What does your common sense tell you? There has to be a reason one estimate is considerably cheaper than the other two. Common sense dictates that you must evaluate what the cabinets are made of, where they are being manufactured, and most importantly, who you are buying them from. Most likely they are made from sub-standard materials, from a country that doesn’t pay its workers a living wage and the dealer has a less than stellar reputation and will probably be long gone before cabinets are delivered or your warranty expires.
Comparing appliance prices is not as complicated as the cost of cabinets, but even the appliance companies are making it more difficult to make “apple to apple” comparisons. If you choose a certain brand of dishwasher from a box store (big home center that’s shaped like box), often it is not the same model as one you find at your local appliance dealer. The model number may be KCMA1223QV34-W1543 for one and KCMA1223OV34-W1543 for the other. Deceptive, isn’t it? (Why can’t the appliance companies call it a model “5” instead of a hundred numbers and letters? But that’s a topic for another article). Check the model numbers carefully if you want an accurate comparison.
Common sense is not limited only to pricing, it has to deal with every aspect of a remodeling project. An equally exciting example is the location of a wine rack in the design of your new kitchen. I’ve had clients insist that it be positioned over the refrigerator (model #X123ABF25Q15a-2b) or next to the dishwasher. Although I’m not a wine connoisseur, my common sense tells me it gets hot over the fridge and next to the dishwasher. Find another place, so your wine won’t turn to vinegar.
One last example before I let you go. When you empty your dishwasher, you can stack several plates on the counter and then bring them all to the cupboard where they are stored. But, you can only carry two glasses at a time, unless you want to risk breaking them. So, which cabinet should the glasses be stored in and which should be used for dishes? Think real hard and let your common sense answer this question for you.
Most of the remodeling basics will be taken care of by your kitchen designer, because with training, experience, and common sense they know what to do. It’s your job to use your common sense when picking the right kitchen designer and contractor. If you choose strictly by price, you usually get what you pay for, and you may end up drinking vinegar.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Your Future . . . in the Stars



Throughout history there have been a group of people who believe that the stars and planets could predict their future, (although with Pluto gone I would question the accuracy). However, the stars that I’m referring to are not in the sky, even on a Starry Night. These are the stars presented to you on your internet search engines when you’re seeking feedback on stores, designers, contractors, or just about anything or anybody.
These new stars, albeit smaller, are almost as important as the older ones that you see up above, on a clear summer’s night. But unlike the astronomical bodies, the internet stars must be interpreted for their accuracy, because they are subject to manipulation by unscrupulous star gazers.
I’ve found that houzz and Angie’s List seem to have the most reliable feedback, and interestingly, for two completely different reasons. All comments submitted to houzz are carefully checked for accuracy by their Review Department, prior to publishing the remarks. They confirm that the submissions actually relate to real projects at the appropriate location, and that the IP address of the submitter (your location in the clouds) is accurate and authentic, as well.
Angie’s List is different from most review sites in that you have to pay to be a member, which makes it an expensive proposition to post a multitude of fictitious reviews. The posted reviews are coming from people who are willing to pay to view legitimate evaluations posted by others who have made their own financial commitment. This gives them a high degree of authenticity.
Other sites will accept reviews from anyone with limited or no vetting. One site, (that rhymes with Help) claims that they have a computer algorithm that determines if a review is legitimate or fabricated. This site has been brought to court many times by companies claiming that when they refused to advertise on the site, their good reviews disappeared. The management claims that the algorithm made the decision to delete those reviews and they do not have the ability or inclination to question the decision. However, it seems, when money changes hands, reviews reappear.
Google Reviews can be very helpful but must be evaluated carefully. Anyone who creates a gmail account can post a review on Google. Although I’m sure that most of the evaluations on Google are legitimate, anyone who is determined, can create ten or twenty new gmail accounts at no cost and post to their hearts content. Who would do such a thing? Perhaps a devious, corrupt vendor, who has many low-star reviews to boost up.
And let’s not forget the good old Better Business Bureau. I always thought that they were above reproach, until I received a phone call and was told that they have only heard good things about my company and have decided to invite me to become part of their auspicious community. I was so moved, as I had always held them in high regard, that I said I’d be proud to be part of such an organization. Until I was informed that I had to pay them $600 a year, and in return they would indicate I met their “accreditation standards”. I said, “No thanks”.
So like everything else in this world, it’s best to use your common sense when evaluating the stars. Just as Nick Copernicus did when he mapped out the stars above, you need to evaluate the sources of your information when checking out the stars below. If your future has you Swinging on a Star* and making your choice by internet feedback, remember, the more legitimate stars, the merrier.

*Crosby, Bing. “Swinging on a Star”. Composed by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Johnny Burke. Best Original Song Oscar. Going My Way, 1944.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Even Lucy is Refacing!



To be more accurate, the statue of Lucy is going to be refaced. The likeness of Lucille Ball, in her hometown of Celoron, New York, is so bad looking that the town has decided to have her refaced. The newspaper headlines vary, but my favorite is “Upstate Town Terrorized by Demon Lucy Statue”.  Thank goodness refacing is now considered an acceptable method of rejuvenating a scary, sad looking statue or kitchen.
            The mayor of Celoron, Scott Schrecengost, has chosen to reface Lucy, rather than replace her, because it is considerably less expensive to put a new face on a 400lb bronze statue than to replace it completely. And, it can be done much faster that starting a new statue from scratch. Interestingly these are the same reasons most people chose to reface their cabinets rather than replace them. It comes down to convenience and cost. With our hectic schedules, many people don’t want to have their lifestyles disrupted any longer than necessary. It’s hard enough getting everything done that we’re supposed to each day without having construction going on for several weeks. Refacing takes much less time than replacing a kitchen and is much less stressful than a total renovation.
And in most cases it’s usually more economical than a new kitchen. I say “usually more economical” because there are factors that can increase the costs of refacing. When you select thermofoil replacement fronts the cost is about 50% less than buying and installing new, all-wood cabinets. However, if you choose special shapes or wood fronts the savings begins to diminish. Another factor that can add to the expense of refacing is changing the layout of your kitchen. You realize the greatest saving when no alterations are made to the floor plan. If you intend on changing more than 10% of the cabinets in the kitchen it makes more sense to think about replacing all of them.
            The selection of replacement fronts has recently expanded exponentially. Now, Lucy’s new face could be anyone; Ethel, Marge, Wilma, or best of all, a pretty image of Lucy, as was originally intended. In your home, you can reface with real wood, choosing from maple, cherry, alder, birch, pine or exotic woods. If you want to go with laminate fronts there are close to a hundred colors to chose from, and now the laminates can be textured or hand-crafted with a glazed finish or Italian high gloss lacquer, just like real wood. Add to this all the modern internal conveniences that you find in new kitchen cabinets and refacing becomes a viable alternative.
Although, in the past, refacing used to conjure up a less-than-beautiful solution, where the material used to cover the cabinets and doors didn’t look real and would peel off in a few years. While this may have been true years ago, the materials and adhesives used for refacing today have improved dramatically. Most contractors who offer this service now replace the door and drawer fronts and cover the cabinet with the same material the new fronts are made of. Today, a custom refacing job, if done properly, looks just like a new kitchen and lasts just as long.
            If you’re terrorized because you’re living with a scary looking kitchen, like the folks in Celoron are of their statue, it might be time to consider this wonderful solution. Granted, it’s not for everyone, so it’s in your best interest to speak with a professional designer for their input, however, most kitchens will benefit from refacing. And considering Lucy was one of the most talented, beautiful and funny women in TV’s history, it is only right that her statue get a face-lift. If you find yourself upstate, stop by the Lucille Ball Memorial Park to visit with Lucy (after the work has been completed) and see what a difference a new face can make.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Remodeling Fever Delayed by Snow!



     Just when you thought the winter was over, we got another six inches of snow on the first day of spring! I think we all had enough because this unusual weather is delaying our seasonal compulsion of remodeling something in the spring. It could be a kitchen, a bath, even a closet or garage, it really doesn’t matter. Our species is predisposed to do something to our home when the weather starts to warm. Like the swallows returning from wherever they went, this need is not something to be ashamed of. We have very little control over it.
     If you are facing this uncontrollable remodeling urge, you will probably need some help. But don’t despair; you don’t have to do it alone. There are many qualified designers available to create a functional, as well as aesthetically pleasing, kitchen or bath to satisfy your desires. Look for a firm that is associated with the National Kitchen and Bath Association. This is the largest organization in the industry and it sets the standards for modern interior design. But don’t expect to get something for nothing, because you get what you pay for.
     Most trained and qualified designers charge for their initial work, however their charges and pricing structures vary greatly. I know of companies that charge anywhere from $100 to $1,000 or more, for this service. Usually, this sum can be applied towards the purchase of designs or cabinets, and I wouldn’t recommend contracting with a firm that did not adhere to that policy. After all, a good design takes a great deal of time, effort and creativity, so why should they give this away for free? However, if they’re willing to credit these charges towards a purchase, you’re not taking too big a risk.
     An argument could be made that if you don’t like the design and/or estimate you’ve wasted your money. I don’t entirely disagree with this, and that’s why I recommend finding a firm with a minimum initial design fee. This smaller expense certainly does not compensate the designer for all the time he must spend creating your dream kitchen, but it shows a commitment on your part, indicating that you are serious about the project.
Some firms have a staged design fee, which includes a minimum initial design charge. If after reviewing the design, you wish to pursue the project, they have a secondary fee (sometimes called a retainer) for additional work on the design or releasing the drawings to you. This seems to be an equitable compromise. The designer charges a minimal fee, confident that they will create an exciting design, within the budget that you specify. You get a chance to review the design and see how much the renovation will cost, before laying out a lot of money.
     At that point, assuming the design fits your budget, you have to ask yourself three questions. The first is, do you like the design? It doesn’t have to be perfect yet, but it must show promise, and you have to be convinced that it can be modified to your satisfaction. The second question is, do you like the company’s products? This includes the cabinets, countertops and other accessories. The final question is, do you trust the designer and his support staff? If the design or designer is not to your liking, or the cost is out of line, you have the option of ending the relationship without incurring additional costs.
     If you answer, “yes” to the three questions, you’re ready to move to the next step in a “staged design fee” program. If any of your answers were “no”, look for another firm that you are more comfortable with.
Once you find the right company to work with, a design you love, and a price that’s compatible with your budget, you can succumb to your impulses. Don’t feel guilty. Just as the swallows fly home, spring home improvement has been ingrained into our genes for a thousand years and it will remain that way for a long time to come.