26 May 2010

Bungalow with Style

Minneapolis Star-Tribune
A south Minneapolis home, built in 1938, gets a thoroughly modern and family-friendly makeover.

The roof had been torn off, the demolition finished and the framing about half-done when James and Betsy Schwartz got some surprise news: Betsy was pregnant with their second child.

James immediately called architect Bob Ganser, principal at CityDeskStudio in Minneapolis, and the contractor, John Koch, owner of Bennett and Koch Construction, in Arden Hills, who were remodeling the Schwartzes' 1938 bungalow in south Minneapolis.

"When the architect and the contractor knew I was pregnant before my mother, that was odd," Betsy said sheepishly.

But Ganser acted on the news immediately. He set to work reconfiguring the second story, transforming an alcove office into a nursery by carving space from the master bedroom. What was once going to be interesting open space around the staircase was suddenly partitioned into enclosed rooms. Not so interesting.

So Ganser improvised by creating a pint-sized closet that doubled as a tunnel between the nursery and daughter Lucy's bedroom. Then he added three deep banks of trifold-shaped skylights to infuse the narrow kid closet and the spaces on either side with natural light.

The results of the last-minute remodeling of the remodeling?

"I think it actually works better than the original plan," said Ganser.

Kid magnets

The closet/tunnel is only one of the features designed specifically for 3-year-old Lucy and new baby June, who is now 18 months old.

In fact, every room in the bungalow was crafted to combine a kid-friendly environment and modern design. There are no fewer than four formal play spaces: June's nursery, the kid closet, Lucy's two-sided bedroom and the downstairs playroom.

Even the rooms that aren't playrooms have kid magnets, such as the living room's clean-lined sectional sofa that easily transitions into a fort and the custom wall shelves that rise up just inches from the floor so the kids can pull out favorite books.

19 May 2010

7 Tips to Cut Remodeling Bills

Smart Money

In a "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" scenario, the weak economy is having an unexpected impact on home renovations in Michigan and elsewhere. With homeowners still finding it difficult to fund a major remodeling project through home equity, they are increasingly embracing smaller projects that will make them happy right now -- instead of insisting on improvements that will add to a home’s resale value in the long run.

“There’s no more faith in that saying, ‘A dollar in, a dollar out;’ that renovations will pay off when you sell,” says William Hallisky, a vice president with Meridian Design Associates, a New York-based architectural firm. Owners are putting aside worries about beige paint or stainless steel appliances to appeal to buyers and are considering small projects that will increase the livability of their space, says Hallisky. “It’s more about personality, like, ‘I would really like an orange refrigerator. Is that possible?’” he adds.

With the economy stumbling to its feet, spending on remodeling this year is expected to rise 5%, compared with 2009, to an annual rate of $121.5 billion, according to an April report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. That would be the first increase since 2006. If you are in the market to remodel, how should you make decisions that will leave you with more cash now (and later)? Here are some strategies to consider.
Update instead of renovate

Some rooms may not need a major home remodel as much as a look that doesn’t scream '70s-era construction. Replacing wallpaper with paint and removing textured “popcorn” ceilings are easy updates to do yourself, says Matt Blashaw, a licensed contractor and the host of “Money Hunters” on the DIY Network. Swapping out lighting fixtures, cabinet hardware and faucets also modernize the space for relatively little outlay.
Stick to decisions

Indecision makes for an expensive remodel, Hallisky says. Ripping apart a project to start over can cost thousands of dollars, but consumers can also lose smaller amounts for say, nonreturnable tile or the deposit on a specially ordered (and now unwanted) sink. Ask for a mock-up or other visual of how the completed project will look, and finalize decisions before any work begins.
Shop around for contractors

Get at least three bids for the job, including two referrals from friends or neighbors and one you found via the Internet or phone book, Blashaw says. Contractors base bids in part on their work schedule -- the busier they are, the more they’ll charge -- so it’s important to shop around, he says. Beyond price, check that the contractor has the right licenses and insurance, says Ryan Evers, the business management advisor for Mr. Handyman, a home-repair and maintenance franchise. Ask for the names of customers who whom they completed similar projects. Call those people to ask about the quality of the work and their experience.

Go green

They may not be glamorous, but projects that improve energy efficiency have some of the best returns for your money, says Linda Minde, the president and co-founder of Tri-Lite Builders, Phoenix-based residential remodeling company. Homeowners can cut upfront costs through the state appliance rebate program, and get extra back come tax time with a federal tax credit worth up to $1,500. They’ll also reap immediate returns in the form of lower energy bills.

Longer term, green upgrades hold value, Minde says. At resale, window replacements recoup roughly 76% of their cost ($11,000 to $18,000, depending on the material and region) according to Remodeling Magazine’s 2009-10 Cost vs. Value report. A home-office remodel, on the other hand, recoups just 48% of its average $28,375 price tag.
Consider low-cost alternatives

Homeowners on a budget still have plenty of options. In bathrooms, acrylic tubs, sinks and shower liners are a more affordable alternative to marble or fiberglass, Minde says. Blashaw likes granite tiles instead of slabs for kitchen counters, which offers a similar feel for $6 to $10 per square foot instead of $70 to $100.
Clean house

Basic maintenance projects can drastically improve the look and livability of your home, says Kate Hart, the founder of Hart & Associates Staging & Design in Philadelphia. Aim to complete a few simple and inexpensive upkeep projects each year, such as touching up peeling paint, replacing a cracked outlet plate or securing a squeaky floorboard. “Buyers are all about wear and tear,” she says. That curb appeal pays off at sale. Buyers expect a $2 discount for every dollar of necessary repairs that turn up in a home inspection, reports to home inspection service HouseMaster.
Refinish the basement

Done right, it adds to the square footage of your house without an actual expansion. Just make sure to add an egress window, Blashaw says. Without one to serve as an emergency exit, the basement can’t be considered a livable space -- and so doesn’t factor into your home’s square footage upon appraisal, no matter what else you’ve done to improve it. Installing a window can cost an extra $2,000, but it returns $15 to $20 per square foot of that basement space, he says.

10 May 2010

'Cash for Caulkers' Gives Rebates for Green Remodeling Projects


SEATTLE - Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the "Cash for Caulkers" bill that would give rebates to homeowners making energy efficient improvements to their home.

Russell Johnson's new Everett home is getting a complete makeover.

"As we're doing the Saugatuck kitchen remodeling, doing the bathroom, doing the bedrooms, we're taking off the drywall off the walls and putting in insulation, so it's more energy-efficient," said Johnson.

Johnson just heard of a new federal legislation dubbed "Cash for Caulkers," that could give him rebates from $250 to $8,000 for energy-efficient improvements. Democrats claim the bill would create 160,000 jobs for the slumping construction industry.

John Jacques who owns the Bothell company called "Green City Window and Door," installs windows, doors and siding. He laid off more than half his workers trying to weather a stormy economy.

"I think this program will really spur growth for us. It's gonna give people a little more incentive to make a difference with their homes and save energy," said Jacques.

The Master Builders Association supports the legislation, but warns homeowners that most Pennsylvania home remodels now have a higher pricetag because of a new EPA regulation on older homes with lead paint.

"We have the interesting effect of Cash for Caulkers that could provide rebates, but then you have the EPA lead paint rule that drives up the cost of that job to begin with," says Dan Klusman, spokesperson for the Master Builders Association.

Cash for Caulkers is a takeoff from the popular Cash for Clunkers program that gave rebates to people for dumping their gas guzzlers and buying a more fuel-efficient car and the program for trading in old kitchen appliances. Critics of both programs are wondering how the federal government is going to pay for them.

Even though the program could help cut costs for Johnson, he admits he has second thoughts.

"Even though I may get a couple thousand dollars back for doing little energy things to my house, how much debt are we going to put on their next generations?" Johnson asked.

Cash for Caulkers still has to pass the Senate. President Obama says he supports the bill.

A Cut Above

Delaware Online

Cleaner models challenge the polluting gas mower

You've been recycling for years, switched out your lightbulbs and even bought a small fuel-efficient car. But if you've still got that old gas-powered mower in the garage, there's one more thing you can do for the environment: Replace it.

Mowers are among the worst household polluters, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Using an older model gas-powered lawnmower for one hour emits as much pollution as driving a sedan from Washington to Boston, said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

The EPA estimates there are 44 million gasoline-powered mowers in the country. But the topic of pollution rarely comes up when customers come in the store, said Chris Babbitt, general manager of Burke Equipment Co., in Newark.

"It's usually other features they're more interested in," said Babbitt, referring to performance, size, ease of operation and safety. "Pricing's always a concern," he added.

Modern lawn equipment is usually more energy-efficient than earlier models, experts say. The EPA is helping: Standards for mowers that will go into effect next year set a 35 percent emissions reduction standard.

For those who want to go above and beyond, there are a few lines of cordless, battery-powered electric lawn equipment. Mowers are just the start: There are also battery-powered hedge trimmers, leaf blowers, even battery-powered chainsaws.

But "you do sacrifice power, there's no doubt about it," Babbitt said. A cordless electric mower might be good for a homeowner with less than an acre, who could finish cutting before the battery dies, he said.

The version with the cord provides more power, but "people don't like to be tethered. That's the bottom line," Babbitt said.

Neuton brand electric mowers, made by DR Power, sell for $400 and $500 at Suburban Lawn & Equipment in Newport. A "quality" gas mower sells for $350 to $400, said Grey Petruccelli, a member of the family that owns the store.

According to company literature, the Neuton's battery fully recharges in 12 hours, at the cost of 10 cents, and delivers an hour of mowing charge.

There's also the cordless electric Toro e-Cycler, which is listed on that company's Web page for $419.

Worx also makes some nice, affordable, battery powered hand-held lawn equipment, Petruccelli said.

For those with larger lawns to tend and more money to spend, there's an all-electric riding lawnmower called the Zeon, from Hustler Turf Equipment. It costs about $6,500, compared to a $4,000 gas-powered model, Petruccelli said. Its battery provides a charge of about 80 minutes.

"It sounds like a golf cart when you're riding it," Petruccelli said.

Environmental groups and local clean air agencies are working to motivate people to buy environmentally friendly lawn equipment. They're spurred, in part, by federal air quality standards, which many counties are out of compliance with.

Exchange programs are planned for this spring in Denver and Sacramento, Calif., among many other spots.

Last year, Together Green and Audubon Maryland-DC, as well as a Baltimore-area neighborhood association, sponsored "Cash for Lawn Guzzlers." It allowed people to turn in their gas mowers for $110 coupons toward push reel lawnmowers.

Delaware's Sustainable Energy Utility, which has run appliance rebate programs and encouraged other forms of energy efficiency, has no such offerings at this time, a spokeswoman said.

Of course, there's nothing more environmentally friendly than a manual reel mower, said Philip Socorso, manager of Foulk Lawn & Equipment in Wilmington.

But "there are very few good ones out there," he said. There's no easy way to sharpen the blades, except on a few high-end ones that are self-sharpening, he said.

Modern gas-powered models use less fuel, Petruccelli said. Honda's new lawnmower engines are "very green," he said, but he added that they have their limits. "You're still talking about a gas-powered machine."

Petruccelli noted that a New Jersey electric utility recently had a promotion in which the utility would credit ratepayers up to $250 for buying a cordless electric lawnmower.

In Delaware, Suburban Lawn & Equipment did a lot of business on this promotion, he said.

"If they could get something like that done over here, that would be pretty nice," Petruccelli said.