Friday, September 23, 2011

Getting More for Less

Everybody wants to get more for less, especially in these troubled times. I’ll never forget in Key Largo (great movie), Humphrey Bogart (hero), asks Edward G. Robinson, (villain), what he wants, and Eddie G. says, “More! . . . Yeah!” And you just knew that he had no intention of paying for it. But, that was the movies, and in real life you have a better chance of getting the appearance of more, while spending less, than actually getting something for nothing.
One creative way of getting the appearance of more, while spending less, is to update your kitchen or bathroom cabinets by replacing the doors and drawer fronts. Unlike refacing, where the cabinet itself is veneered or laminated to match the new fronts, this approach matches (or contrasts) the new fronts to the existing cabinet frames.
 Assuming the cabinet frames are in good condition, by replacing the doors, drawer fronts, hinges and hardware, you can save a bundle and yet still have the look of a new kitchen. The saving is derived from not having to pay for the labor and materials to reface the cabinets themselves. And, there are several scenarios where this remodeling technique can be successfully applied.
If your cabinets are white, almond or off-white, it’s a pretty straight forward process. Using RTF (rigid thermofoil) laminate doors, the old fronts are taken off and the new ones installed. There are over a hundred styles to choose from, ranging from the popular Shaker style to traditional raised panel designs. Styles are priced on the complexity of their design, with a flat door being the most economical and raised panel designs costing more. Since the color of the cabinet is pretty standard, matching should not be a problem.
If your cabinets are wood and have been stained there are more variables to consider. The first option is to see if there is a factory stain that closely matches the finish of your existing cupboards. If you find something that blends with the cabinets, you’re all set. As with the RTF fronts, there are hundreds of wood door styles available, and, again, price depends upon the design of the replacement fronts.
The second option, albeit the most expensive of these inexpensive solutions, is to select new wood fronts and have them stained to match the color of the existing frames. The extra charge to have the fronts stained a specific color is still less expensive than refacing the whole cabinet.
Another option for wood cabinets, is to select an RTF door that closely matches or contrasts the color of the cabinet. RTF doors come in simulated woodgrain colors and there are many colors to select from. If you cannot find one that is a close enough match, you might consider using a contrasting woodgrain look which can result in a beautiful, two-tone effect. Or, you can go high-tech by selecting simulated, stainless steel RTF fronts for a striking, contemporary new look.
If your cabinets are frameless as opposed to framed, there are more choices available because you don’t have to worry about a close match as the front of the cabinet is covered by the new door. You can check to see if your cabinets are frameless by opening a door and looking at the face of the cabinet. If it is 5/8” or ¾” wide, chances are it is a frameless cabinet.
All of these alternatives are dependent on the condition of your cabinet boxes. If they are in good shape, usually in only a day or two, you can once again have a beautiful kitchen, at a fraction of the cost of new cabinets or a complete refacing job. So, if you’re looking to get more for less, consider replacing your cabinet fronts. And, as Edward G. Robinson would say, “Yeah!”

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cosmetic Kitchen Surgery

     More and more people are turning to cosmetic surgery to improve their personal appearance. Tummy tucks, Botox, and liposuction offer people a new improved look, without the headache of working hard or starting over again from scratch. These techniques are so widespread, and have been so successful, that there was no reason not to apply similar methodology to modern kitchen remodeling. Why start over if you don’t have to?
     Recent (scientific?) studies indicate that 8.5 out of 10 people can benefit from “Cosmetic Kitchen Surgery” (C-K-S). And more importantly, the procedure is much faster, safer, and more economical than a complete transplant. As with any restoration technique there are various options available to the patient. Although the prerequisite requirements for C-K-S are not stringent, in order to qualify for this process your underlying structure must be sound in order to benefit from this procedure.
     For a basic facelift, the least invasive technique is to apply permanent, make-up (paint) to the face of the cabinets and then affix new door and drawer fronts. This procedure is commonly referred to as “a partial reface.” Combine this process with new jewelry, like knobs, pulls, or molding and this becomes a fast and prudent way to make an exciting change to your otherwise dreary appearance.
     For a more dramatic approach, we must consider peels and skin grafting; i.e. a full-reface. A number of materials can be bonded to your existing surfaces, in various colors or patterns. Unattractive creases and wrinkles can be smoothed out to give your exterior a silky smooth texture. Exciting new color combinations can be explored to contrast the basic foundation with the highlights.
     What about those unsightly, sagging areas that embarrass you so? With a tuck here and a tuck there, sagging cabinets can be tightened up and made to look new again. And, at the same time those wavy looking “eyebrows” over the sink can be straightened and made to look stylish once more.
     Augmentation and reduction are also popular options in C-K-S. You may feel that some of your parts are too small or some too large. You may want to remove some unsightly protuberances. With augmentation or reduction you can add, remove and change up to 10% of your kitchens’ total volume and still realize substantial savings when compared to a complete transplant.
     Contouring countertops is yet another option, but this alternative deserves special attention. Surgical solutions on existing counters are difficult, (and may not last), so replacements are the best solution for these surfaces. With the plethora of solid surface materials available today, these new areas can be sculptured into pleasing, organic curves, eliminating the harsh angles that you may have been struggling with, all of your life.
     When your ready to investigate “Cosmetic Kitchen Surgery” make sure you chose a board certified (National Kitchen & Bath Association) specialist. Their extensive training will ensure a pleasant, successful experience resulting in a natural, beautiful and healthy kitchen. Unfortunately, most HMO insurance does not cover procedures such as these. However, the expense, which is minimal when compared with a full transplant, will give you renewed confidence and pride in the way your kitchen looks and feels. And, citing those same (scientific) studies that were previously mentioned, if your kitchen feels better, guess who else will feel better?

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Quality, at What Cost?

      The other evening, after dinner, I sat down in my favorite chair to read, and promptly fell asleep. This phenomenon is occurring more and more frequently of late, however, this night was unusual because I had a dream. A vivid, realistic dream, where I was having a glass of cold, whole milk with a box of crispy, fresh Mallomars! Alas, when I awoke and pined for such a treat (which has long been forbidden by both diet and doctor), I reflected that even if I had the ingredients to recreate the experience, the Mallomars wouldn’t be the same. Over the years, the chocolate, encapsulating the marshmallow and graham cracker has been reduced in thickness, until it has became incapable of containing the freshness of the magical, inner ingredients.
     As I analyzed my dream, looking for hidden, Freudian meanings, I realized that what was really on my mind had to be the quality of cabinetry, and how it has changed over the years. There are literally hundreds of cabinet manufacturers in our country alone, each with their own set of specifications, that change on a frequent basis. Have they paralleled the nefarious history of the Mallomar? The answer is a clear-cut, yes and no.
     Fortunately, most high- and mid-priced cabinets, such as custom and semi-custom, have maintained their integrity over the years. The biggest change has to do with the materials used in the construction of the cabinet “box”. Although, the doors and frames of the cabinets are usually made from solid wood, many higher-end cabinet companies have started to offer medium density fiberboard (MDF) internal components to reduce cost and help save our natural resources. Plywood boxes are available at an upcharge, however MDF does offer some advantages over plywood. These include greater dimensional stability, (resistance to warpage), and better insular qualities. MDF, also referred to as “engineered wood”, handles and lasts as long as plank wood, as long as it’s not frequently exposed to excessive moisture.
     If you do consider cabinets that have engineered wood in their construction, make sure that the manufacturer has been approved by the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association and has received Environmental Stewardship Program certification. This certification ensures that the cabinets are made from approved materials, in a manner that has minimal impact on the environment.
     Unfortunately, the quality of stock cabinets has suffered the most over the years. Being at the economical end of the spectrum to begin with, it was only natural that, in many cases, the manufacturers’ have cut back on construction and material to keep the cabinets as inexpensive as possible. In some cases, the quality has deteriorated to an unacceptable level, although the low price still makes it tempting to some. Remember, you get what you pay for! To be safe, when purchasing stock cabinets, look for a minimum warranty term of five-years.
     Not all stock cabinet companies have cheapened their products, and not all semi-custom companies have maintained their standards. When you’re ready to purchase cabinets it pays to compare their specifications, with the help of a designer that you trust, balancing your budget with construction quality. For additional information check with the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturer’s Association, After all, there’s nothing worse than biting into a stale Mallomar! 
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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The High Cost of Bathing

And why do we bother to bathe in the first place? Popular in the ancient empires, bathing fell out of favor in the middle ages, when having a layer of filth on you was considered protection against illness. It wasn’t until the 1700’s that washing caught on again, when some intuitive doctors believed that this procedure could help keep you from getting sick. In the 1800’s germs were discovered and the first thing we wanted to do with them was wash them off. By the mid-1800’s, indoor plumbing was being developed, and although a luxury for many years, it began to find itself in more and more homes as the 19th century progressed. And with the advent of indoor plumbing came the modern toilet. Often attributed to Thomas Crapper, who was a plumber in the 1800’s, the toilet was actually invented by an Englishman named Albert Giblin.
With this very succinct history of the modern bathroom, we can see how all the necessary ingredients fortuitously came together just at the right time, enabling us to devote a special room in our homes dedicated to personal hygiene. But in the contemporary world, what would this simple room be, if it isn’t beautiful as well as functional? We need stylish tubs; showers; glass enclosures; tile; faucets; vanities; countertops; medicine cabinets; lights; mirrors; soap, glass, tooth-brush and toilet paper holders; and towel racks, to complete this unpretentious room. (Not to mention the shower body, diverter valve, shower pan and other pipes and things that you don’t even see).
A typical, modern bathroom is a conglomeration of many, many elements, that when assembled enable it to accomplish its primary goal, and be aesthetically pleasing at the same time. Granted, a “powder room” (with no shower or tub, also known as a half-bath) doesn’t need quite as much, and a “master bath” may need more, (a Jacuzzi, steam shower, heated floor, etc.). Couple all these parts with the labor involved in installing them and you have quite a project. As with a kitchen, you need a plumber, electrician, mason, tile-man, carpenter, and painter to assemble all these components in order to create your Dream Bathroom. You begin to understand why bathrooms are not inexpensive.
If you are remodeling (as opposed to doing new construction) you also must factor in the additional cost of demolition. Demolition (the removing of the old fixtures and tile) and preparation of the space depend on the original construction. Chances are the old tile and bathtub were set in “mud” (concrete mortor) which needs to be removed, a messy and time consuming task. And, even if the new fixtures are to be placed in the same location it’s usually best to replace the old pipes because once the new tile is on the wall, you don’t want any problems with the pipes.
Naturally, the selection of the fixtures also has a large impact on the final cost of a bathroom remodel. A toilet can range in price from under $100 at the box store, to the Herbeau Creations, Dagobert Throne Toilet which costs $9,799.00 (shipping included). Similar price ranges are found when purchasing the rest of the fixtures.
If you’re on a budget, and want to keep costs as reasonable as possible, don’t move the location of the tub and toilet, and shop around for the best deals on the fixtures. Better yet, if you don’t mind a thin layer of filth on yourself, you can close up your existing bathroom and install a Porta-Potty in the basement.
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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"I Don't Need No Stinkin' License"

            First uttered in 1948 by the bandit leader Gold Hat, (portrayed by Alfonso Bedoya), to Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the actual quotation is “I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges.” But since contractors don’t get badges, only licenses, I thought I’d make the phrase more relevant. And, just as Fred C. Dobbs wasn’t fooled for one single minute by these ruffians without proper credentials, neither should you fall prey to their machinations.
            Unfortunately, during the current “economic slow-down”, over 400,000 construction workers have lost their jobs. Giving each one of them the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume that they are all hard-working craftsmen who are experts in their chosen field. With no jobs available in their specific area of expertise, many are marketing themselves as contractors, and who can blame them - they need to work. But even a master carpenter is usually not well versed in all the other aspects of contracting, such as business management, scheduling, designing, planning, electric, plumbing, etc., etc. It takes a lot more than experience in one area of building or remodeling to be a successful contractor, and your Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) is well aware of this. That’s why they require contractors to be licensed.
            You can check the reputation of a licensed contractor by contacting the DCP and the Better Business Bureau. And, in Westchester, you can quickly see how long a home-improvement contractor has been in business by looking at their license number. The last 2 digits of the number indicates what year they first received their license, e.g. WC1234-H95 indicates the company was licensed in 1995. As I’m a firm believer in “Experience is the Best Teacher”, when you’re ready to remodel, select a firm that’s been around for awhile and has a proven track record. Especially in Westchester, which has forty-three separate municipalities, each with their own rules and regulations.
            Besides experience, the DCP also requires that licensed contractors maintain current worker’s compensation, disability, liability and vehicle insurance. This protects the consumer from any financial exposure due to accidents that occur, on their property, during the course of a remodel. If a worker without insurance gets hurt while working at your home, YOU may be responsible for their medical and disability payments for a long time to come. And beware, there’s a loop-hole in the New York State Worker’s Compensation insurance law! If a contractor (even one who is licensed) is the sole employee of their company, they can waive Worker’s Compensation insurance coverage; still get their license; and you’re still liable for medical payments if they get hurt! It’s best to ask the contractor for proof of actual coverage.
            I know how tempting it is to hire “this guy” you’ve heard about from a friend. You heard he’s quick, he’s cheap, and he does great work. Just keep in mind that there is no recourse if something goes wrong. He may be quick and cheap but can you find him again if something goes awry? Who will you complain to if promises are not fulfilled? Will he be around to honor his warranty? Will he steal your gold?
            If you feel the short term financial savings outweighs all the aforementioned liabilities, I wish you luck. Go ahead and hire someone who has no stinkin’ license. But if you’re looking for peace of mind and long term contentment, look for someone Fred C. Dobbs would trust: a contractor who can proudly show you their license.
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Sunday, February 6, 2011

"There's No Place Like Home"

I just watched The Wizard of Oz again, and realized for the first time, how closely the plot parallels our current global plight. Homes are being sucked up from families by an inexorable force that can’t be controlled. The wicked witches of the (middle) east want to destroy everything we hold dear, and our only hope is a bunch of world leaders with limited brains, courage, and heart. But, obviously, the most important theme in the film is that during troubled times there’s no place like home.
Accepting this premise, its only logical to take it one step further, and agree that in the home, there’s no place like the kitchen. So, until the wicked forces of evil are destroyed, and our economy is restored, there are alternatives to make your kitchens as pretty as a pair of ruby slippers, without spending a small fortune. These choices include inexpensive cabinet restorations; painting; refinishing; custom refacing; and complete renovations.
If you already have beautiful wood cabinets but they’ve been neglected, cabinet restoration may be just what you need. Technicians remove all the grime that has been building up on the woodwork; touch-up nicks and scratches; and apply a new top-coat to the woodwork. The hinges can be adjusted and oiled (look what it did for the Tin Man), and the hardware can be changed, making a world of difference. The process usually takes a day or two and prices start at about $1,000. Keep in mind, however, that a restoration of this type will not make heavily worn cabinets look new again, nor will it change their color.
When wood cabinets have deteriorated to a point where restoration isn’t possible they can be painted or refinished. Painting can make cabinetry look new again but it doesn’t last as long as some of the other options. Just as you have to paint your home every several years, you will have to re-paint the cabinets. Because the surfaces on the doors are subject to the wear and tear of everyday use the paint can scratch, chip, and eventually fade.
Refinishing cabinets is a traditional method of rejuvenating them and in some cases can lighten the color as well. A good refinishing job will last for years and will be more durable than painting. The procedure can take a few weeks to complete and involves sanding and harsh chemical “strippers” to remove the old finish and stain. As with painting your cabinets this options does not change the style of the door and drawer fronts and if that is your goal then other options must be investigated.
Probably the least invasive method of a real renovation is refacing, (also known as resurfacing). If you’re ready for an exciting new look for your kitchen and you’re happy with the location of the cabinetry, custom refacing provides an attractive alternative to replacing them. You can have the look and feel of a new kitchen in about a week. Replacement components come in real woods like cherry, maple and oak; or easy-to-clean and economical thermofoil. With the addition of cabinet and drawer organizers your kitchen can also have the convenience of a completely new kitchen. Easily, the equivalent of anything you’d find in the Emerald City.
     If you want to change the layout of your kitchen then you must consider remodeling. If you select a from the multitude of stock cabinets on the market, new cabinets can be a relatively economical solution for your project. Custom and semi-custom cabinets are available in numerous styles, colors and wood species but will cost considerably more than stock cabinets.
     If you're considering updating your kitchen, I suggest that you watch The Wizard of Oz again to put things in perspective. If you're worried that a tornado in Yonkers (or some other evil force) may suck up your home, but you still want to spruce up your kitchen without emptying your retirement fund, you may want to investigate some of the options that I've touched on in this month's column. and, ignore that man behind the curtain.
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"All New Kitchen or Bath Only $5,995!"

          P.T. Barnum was said to have said “there’s a sucker born every minute”. (Actually, no one knows who originally coined the phrase, but Barnum’s arch rival, Adam Forepaugh, attributed it to him, to besmirch his character). Nevertheless, whoever said it, was a pretty bright guy (or gal, to be PC).
I’ve been seeing more and more advertisements offering incredibly low prices for almost anything, and all I can say is, if you believe this, I’ve got a bridge for sale! What has happened to common sense? (Definition: sound judgment, native good judgment, not based on specialized knowledge). Has it disappeared with the affluent days of pre-recession America? Sure, we all want to save money, but it reaches a point where you’ve got to realize that either a price is too good to be true, or the quality of the products and workmanship are so poor you’ll regret your purchase for a long time to come.
These incredibly low offers always have some sort of catch. Often the cabinetry and other materials are imported from that really big, red country in the east (I don’t want to mention names or they may ask for their money back). We have no way of knowing what is in these products or how they are made. Take the sheetrock that was used in the south for example. It was found to emit hydrogen sulphide gas, making people very sick and rotting all the wiring, outlets, pipes, etc. in the houses. "It's economically devastating, and it's emotionally devastating," said Florida attorney Ervin A. Gonzalez. “It would cost a third of an affected home's value to fix the dwelling.” It turns out that about 3,000 homes now have to be gutted and rebuilt, according to the federal government. Now, that was a really great buy!
Sure, there is a range of legitimate prices for any project, but beware of the low bidders. Every time I’ve succumbed to the lowest price for a job at my house I’ve regretted it. As attractive as low bids are, they can be a warning sign that the contractor may be in financial difficulty. He may be desperate to get your deposit in order to pay off bills from a job that he has already started. If this in the case he will no doubt run into the same difficulty when he does your job and may have to abandon it due to lack of funds.
There is a bottom line price that legitimate companies can charge their customers and yet still make a profit (not a dirty word). The profit ensures that the company can cover their overhead and remain in business so that, years down the road, when you have a warranty claim, the company is still around.
You can be fairly certain that many of these incredible prices are being offered by contractors that are living “off the grid”. They don’t bother with the silly expenses of a home improvement license, liability, worker’s compensation and disability insurance, or EPA certification. So what if you get exposed to lead dust or they get hurt while working in your home? I’m sure you won’t mind paying their disability for the rest of their lives. Because, you saved a fortune!
Make sure you select a qualified bidder 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. Otherwise, you may become responsible for a variety of unpaid bills from sub-contractors and costly legal problems from the contractor’s suppliers.
I’m not saying that you can’t find bargains, but remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That’s common sense.
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Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Aging in Place or If You Can't Move...Improve"

 By the time you read this month’s article, I’ll have been aging in place for several weeks. In my case, the place is at my desk, and I’m certain that I can feel the keyboard getting further and further away as my bone density decreases. Now, what does this latest catch phrase “aging in place” really mean? It refers to the choice that many homeowners are making to stay in their existing homes as they get older, rather than packing up and moving to a new location. Whether it be an emotional decision or a financial one, it brings us to our second phrase of the month, “if you can’t move…improve”.
Fortunately, both these concepts go hand in hand, and so can be combined into one article. (Which will leave me scrambling for a new topic next month). However, whether you chose to age in place because you want to, or you cannot afford not to, is of no concern. The point is you’re staying put. Now, the trick is making your existing kitchen or bathroom more beautiful and more user-friendly at the same time. While the clock is ticking.
Both The National Association of Home Builders and the Research Institute for Cooking & Kitchen Intelligence, (yes, there really is such a organization), have noted increased consumer interest in Universal Design. This is a philosophy that encompasses all aspects of a home; designing for the young, the old, and people with disabilities, while recognizing that the aesthesis of the environment and its contents are equally important. Basically, designing with comfort for all, easy maintenance and visual attractiveness.
Open floor plans, with wider interior doors and countertops at different heights are some of the structural considerations when doing a complete renovation, however, even if you are just refacing your kitchen you can incorporate accessories to make your life easier. Installing roll-out trays in cabinets, or changing cabinets with doors to drawers, makes it much easier to reach whatever you’re reaching for.
Just as it gets more uncomfortable to bend over these days, so does it get harder to see with poor lighting. Additional ceiling lighting and task lighting over the countertops is usually a relatively inexpensive way to make our lives a little better. Remember, every little bit helps, and it all adds up. Consider also, easy to grab knobs for your cabinets and decorative grab bars for you bath and shower. And, while we’re in the bathroom, how about a taller toilet, with a softer seat, that doesn’t slam when you put it down?
Not only do these design elements improve the quality of your life, they will also help you to retain your independence as abilities recede. Even if you’re still a youngster, it pays to plan ahead, so that when it’s your turn to be old, (and trust me, its inevitable), your home will be more comfortable. And in the mean time, it will be easier on your parents when they come to visit, so maybe you can get them to pay for them.
Whether you’re considering incorporating Universal Design in your home because you are a senior, or planning to be one someday, it’s best to do it sooner than later. (Do you realize that you’re a little older now than you were when you started reading this article?) The moral of this month’s article is “today is the first day of what’s left of your life”. And there’s no reason that we all shouldn’t be as comfortable as possible with the rest of our lives. 
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