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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