28 October 2010

Your Kitchen Makeover: Dozens of Decisions to make before Work starts

Pocono Record

Whether you're the galloping gourmet chef or prefer to open up a box of Sara Lee, the kitchen is the central hub of the house. It's where bread is broken, discussions take place and disagreements are resolved.

It's no wonder homeowners are willing to spend the most on a kitchen remodeling than anywhere else in the home.

Before deciding on remodeling, there are a few things to consider — most importantly is your budget.

"Prices can really run the gamut when remodeling a kitchen. A homeowner can easily spend $1,200 to $21,000 and anywhere in between," said Ruth Schoeneberger, certified kitchen designer for Morris Black Kitchen and Bath Designs in Bartonsville. "If you are working within a budget, you will need to make compromises and determine where you want to be within value and what is important to your design."

There are products for every price category. "Most homeowners agree that they are only doing the job once and will go with quality products for their durability," said Cheryl Franz, kitchen designer for Monroe Marble & Granite in Stroudsburg.

Some would rather spend their money to have an energy-efficient kitchen, while others prefer function and style. In either case, with many different products to choose from, your compromises should be minimal.

Do your research, suggested Schoeneberger. "If you are not educated, you can have a lot of remorse down the road," she said.

Like clothing trends, designs, colors and types of materials used in the kitchen can become outdated. If you plan to update your kitchen for the purpose of selling your home, you might want to consider using a professional kitchen designer to give you tips in the latest styles.

After you have a realistic budget in mind, now it's time for some homework. "Get on the Internet and research different kitchen styles to find out what your style is and what you like. There are free kitchen planning guides available online that come with a checklist," said Franz.

"Once you have a visual of what your dream kitchen would look like, interview several contractors and ask for a list of references. It's important to get your estimates in writing. Never go on a handshake."


When making budget-conscious decisions in your kitchen, consider the different price points.

"Many think that refacing your old cabinets will save you money; however, by the time you pay for the labor, you could be spending just as much as if you went with new stock cabinets that are economically affordable and will give your kitchen cosmetic changes without the custom cabinetry price tag," said Franz.

Once you've picked the wood, then you can choose the finish. Buyer beware: Multiple layer finishes cost more and drive the price up. Each has various levels to determine the price points. "Darker colors are coming back for the cabinets, light oak is done. We are seeing a lot of dark maple and cherry finishes," Schoeneberger said.

Many consumers are looking for ways to incorporate green choices. There are manufacturers that offer hardwoods from sustainable forests and that use products that contain recycled contents.


If the thought of granite countertops has you salivating more than the food you're preparing, it may be time for new countertops.

"In today's kitchen, everyone wants granite countertops and a breakfast/snack bar for an eat-in kitchen," Schoeneberger said.

Granite offers durability and a lot of different color options. "Engineered quartz has a higher value because of its durability and warranty, making it more expensive, but it cannot compete with the exotic look of granite with its beauty, energy and motion."

Even in a tough economy homeowners are still remodeling and still going for the luxury item. "It's the jewel of the kitchen that really makes a statement," said Franz.

"I would never recommend Formica countertops. If you can't afford the full granite countertop, a good compromise to that would be granite tiles over the top of your existing counter top. These big granite tiles, without the large grout line, are less expensive but still give the same luxurious look of granite."


The verdict is in and the lights are coming out. "No more wasted space above the cabinets with soffits and recessed lighting. People want that extra height for storage. With so many kitchen gadgets and gizmos, we need to put it somewhere," Schoeneberger said.


Flooring is a personal taste. "Many want the look of hardwood floors, but you will still have spillage, drops and scratches. There is more wear and tear in the kitchen than any other room in the house. Porcelain tiles are still the best on a kitchen floor. Ceramic tiles are less expensive but not as durable as porcelain. It really depends where you want your luxury," Franz said.

Good investment?

Don't expect to recoup remodeling money when trying to sell your home. And the more you spend, the more you lose. According to Schoeneberger, in today's market, no one cares about what use to matter years ago.

"Home buyers today do not know quality and won't pay for it either. All they look at is the price," she said.

Bev Waring, an agent with Realty Executives in Stroudsburg, said, "In this market, I would say no to a kitchen renovation to get a house sold. The house may sell more quickly with an updated kitchen; however, the homeowner most likely will not get a full return on the investment."

According to Realtor magazine, a midrange kitchen remodel brings an average 72.1 percent return on investment, while an upscale kitchen redo returns only an average of 63.2 percent.

20 October 2010

Oregon Garden Exhibit will show how to protect Home from Wildfire

Satesman Journal

The first full-scale fire-prevention safety house in the nation is blooming at The Oregon Garden.

By July 2011, homeowners living in Oregon's wildland-urban interface, fire officials and home improvement retailers will have a life-sized teaching tool to demonstrate how to make homes less vulnerable to wildfires.

Individuals who are unable to visit the garden in person still will be able to tour the house. "This exhibit will be available nationwide," said Oregon Department of Forestry's Craig Pettinger, project manager. "One of the pieces of the grant is to provide an online virtual tour so people can view it from anywhere."

The project will be funded by a $600,000 Assistance to Firefighters grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The grant will pay for interpretive fire education displays and the production of a video chronicling the project to serve as an instructional tool for homeowners.

An existing 1970s-era home, currently used as the garden's business office, is being developed into the exhibit.

The cost of remodeling the home and landscaping the property will be funded through other grants and donations, said Denny Stoll, Oregon Garden Foundation chairman.

The Oregon Garden Fire Safety House will feature fire-resistant landscaping and building materials on the outside and fire prevention and safety displays on the inside.

Visitors will learn about the top causes of home fires in Oregon, smoke alarms and residential sprinklers.

In 2009, there were more than 2,300 home fires, resulting in an estimated $60 million in property loss, according to Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal's 2009 report.

Nine Oregonians died and 172 were injured in the house fires.

"Safety starts with one home at a time," said State Fire Marshal Randy Simpson, adding that the ultimate goal is to have no fire fatalities in Oregon.

The project is a partnership between The Oregon Garden Foundation, the Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State University, Moonstone Garden Management and the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal.

Representatives from the different entities gathered Friday at the garden to talk about the house.

Coincidentally, the ceremony fell at the end of National Fire Prevention Week.

According to Dan Postrel, ODF's agency affairs director, it's estimated that as many as 500,000 to 700,000 lots may be located in Oregon's wildland-urban interface, although not all of the lots are developed.

"Oregon is a beautiful place, and the appeal of living in the woods is strong," Postrel said. "That's why a project like this is so important, so people can come and touch and feel and learn how to make their own surroundings survivable and dependable."

Stoll said he expects the new exhibit to attract regional and national attention.

"The end result of this collaboration will be the fact that working with other entities not related to the garden has opened various avenues for us to reach out to people who we didn't have the ability to reach before," he said.

19 October 2010

Home Depot pins Remodeling Hopes on Martha Stewart

Associated Press

Martha Stewart knows a thing or two about kitchens: She owns 21. Home Depot hopes the domestic diva still has enough cachet to inspire Americans to start remodeling again with a new line of kitchen countertops, hardware and cabinets.

The line represents an expansion of a bet Home Depot made on Stewart last year when it signed a deal with her after her long-running deal with Kmart ended when they couldn't come to terms.

The increasingly high profile at Home Depot is a boon to Stewart and her company, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., which has seen its share price fall 79 percent since the beginning of 2007 as the recession exacerbated choppy performance from its publishing and broadcast divisions. It's pursuing more partnerships with retailers to make up for the tough media business.

The line, which hit stores in September, includes 11 different styles of cabinets, 8 different countertops and 45 cabinetry hardware items and is inspired by a few of Stewart's own kitchens. While focused on the kitchen, cabinets can be used in other rooms like laundry and bathrooms.

"It's a natural area for us, and we finally have a partner who is able to do it in a large way," Stewart said at a launch event in New York on Thursday. "There are details you don't get at the mass-market level," she said, citing a bracket as an example that was inspired by vintage brackets she found at an antique market.

Home Depot began selling Martha Stewart Living-branded products in January, beginning with patio furniture, cleaning products, home decor and closet organization items. Paint and carpet followed.

While Home Depot won't disclose specific sales figures by category, the company said the Martha Stewart Living items are doing well and in the month they have been in stores the kitchen products are exceeding expectations.

"It's spreading like weeds to other merchandise categories, so that's a pretty good indication of how well its doing," said Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi.

Still, executives acknowledge that introducing a kitchen line during the uncertain economy is a risk.

Americans buffeted by high unemployment, an anemic housing market and uncertain economy have scaled back on remodeling projects. Homeowners spent $114 billion on remodeling in 2009, 22 percent less than a peak of $146 billion in 2006, before the recession began according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Home Depot is hoping the new kitchen line, which is color-coordinated with Martha Stewart's lines of paint and carpeting, will egg customers on to bigger remodeling projects.

"You could argue it is a funny time to launch," said Bob Baird, Home Depot merchandising vice president of kitchens. "Nobody needs a new kitchen tomorrow. ... But it is a great time to invest because when things do turn around, we'll be able to leverage our investments big time."

Stewart, who also sells products branded with her name at Macy's, Michael's, PetSmart and other stores, said her formula is focusing on strong design coupled with low prices, items that are "affordable, sturdy and well built."

Merchandise revenue has a bright point for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Although the black eye of Stewart's prison stint in 2004 has faded, the company was hurt by the advertising slump during the recession and has operated at a loss for six of the past eight quarters.

There have been signs of stabilization. In its most recent quarter, the company's loss narrowed, helped by strong merchandise sales and solid growth in online advertising revenue. The company also moved Martha Stewart's eponymous show to the Hallmark channel last month in an effort to improve its results. The show had been in syndication.

The items in the new kitchen and cabinet line come in a wide range of prices — some kitchens cost $133 per linear foot, while others cost $153. The cost of a total kitchen renovation falls around $2,000 or $3,000 for a small kitchen, depending on the products used and not including labor.

Stewart added she was interested in expanding the Martha Stewart Living brand to other areas of Home Depot. Mirrors, drapes and drapery hardware begin to roll out this month, as are holiday items including pre-decorated artificial trees, wreaths and ornaments.

"There are many, many opportunities," she said.

14 October 2010

New Day for Home Builders

The Wall Street Journal

Pelican Preserve, an adult community in Fort Myers, Fla., hasn't had its grand opening yet, but several buyers have already signed contracts for homes in the development, where prices start at $140,000.

The early sales—and the relatively modest selling prices that helped attract them—reflect the advantages WCI Communities Inc. now enjoys over many of its home-building rivals, thanks to a trip through bankruptcy court.

Pelican Preserve, with its planned new 1,150 homes, is the company's first new construction and sales project since it emerged from Chapter 11 proceedings last year.

Under court protection, WCI slashed its costs by nearly 75%. It has also been able to write down the value of its land holdings, which was battered by the housing downturn, to reflect the current market.

That "gives us a competitive edge in pricing our homes," says Chief Executive David Fry. "Other companies didn't have that luxury."

While most builders done in by the housing market's collapse are gone for good, a few are emerging from bankruptcy revitalized—with less debt, choice land and sharper business plans. Like WCI, whose public shareholders were wiped out under its reorganization plan, they are more likely to be owned by their creditors.

Relieved of day-to-day shareholder pressure to keep up their stock price and pay all their bills, these companies can take steep write-downs on the value of their land, which was often purchased during the industry's boom years. That allows them to price homes low enough to capture consumers' attention and still post a profit.

The new competition hasn't helped large publicly traded home builders. Many of those builders managed to avoid bankruptcy court but are struggling to sell homes in what continues to be a weak market, particularly in states like Florida, Nevada and Arizona. Having counted on winning business away from their failed peers, they may instead find themselves up against tough, newly private rivals that have learned from past mistakes.

"It's just a lot easier to steal market share if all the private guys are on the sidelines," says Michael Widner, a home-building analyst with Stifel Nicolaus.

Some industry executives, however, believe that tight credit and lack of access to public markets will keep Chapter 11 veterans like WCI in check.

Ken Campbell, the CEO of publicly traded Standard Pacific Corp., of Irvine, Calif., says his overriding concern is the lack of a housing-market recovery.

"Without good prospects of a recovery, I don't think much capital is going to make its way to the recently bankrupt companies," says Mr. Campbell, whose company was near bankruptcy when it was rescued by a distressed-debt buyout firm in 2008.

Even for the healthiest builders, home construction is a risky business these days. Despite record-low mortgage rates that have made homes more affordable, new-home sales have been hurt by high unemployment and weak consumer confidence. A bloated supply of bargain-priced resale and foreclosed homes makes it tough for home builders to compete on price.

But housing is cyclical. "We're not going to be in this slump forever," says David Warren, a bankruptcy attorney at Poyner Spruill LLP.

That's what Orleans Homebuilders Inc. is counting on. The Bensalem, Pa., company initially planned to sell the bulk of its land to rival NVR Inc., but instead it opted for reorganization.

"Why would you sell at the bottom?" asks Mitchell B. Arden, senior managing director of Phoenix Management Services Inc., Orleans Homebuilders' chief restructuring officer. "Home builders have historically made money."

Orleans's goal is to emerge from bankruptcy court later this year with its debt chopped in half. It aims to increase efficiency and cut cost by scaling back the number of home models and variations it offers. Under its reorganization plan, Orleans will be owned by senior lenders, including a trio of hedge funds.

Mr. Arden says the revamped Orleans could sell off less-prime land parcels. Finding buyers shouldn't be a problem, he says, because plenty of builders are in the market for bargain-priced land as they prepare for an eventual upturn.

Indeed, some private investors are already betting they can make money building houses on cheap land. City Ventures, a Santa Ana, Calif., builder launched last year, raised $100 million this year in private-equity investment to fund land acquisition. It says cheap land has allowed it to price homes as much as 50% below prices at the height of the boom.

New Home Co., another California-based start-up, says it has been buying land for 20% to 50% below boom prices. Its first community in Irvine, Calif., sold out this year, and it plans 38 more homes.

"As a private builder with no legacy assets that are tying us down and being pretty well capitalized, I think it gives us every advantage," says Larry Webb, New Home's chief executive, who previously worked for a private builder that went bankrupt.

Overpaying was a mistake that came back to haunt WCI, as it did many builders. It bought two smaller builders at the top of the market, says Mr. Fry. And it started several luxury-condominium projects in Florida, one of the states hardest hit by the housing slump.

As the company stumbled, activist investor Carl Icahn bought up stock and fought his way onto the board, but WCI couldn't escape the crumbling housing market. In August 2008, with $1.9 billion of debt, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

WCI, based in Bonita Springs, Fla., emerged from Chapter 11 last fall as a closely held timber frame home builder with debt of $450 million. It is owned primarily by more than 15 private-equity firms that bought up its debt at a discount. Its largest holder is Monarch Alternative Capital LP.

The reorganized company sold the land that didn't work with its revamped business plan, including sites for high-rise condominiums in Florida and Virginia, and kept about 9,000 acres.

Land cost now accounts for an average 10% of the price for one of its homes, down from 20% at the market's peak.

WCI slashed its work force and the number of floor plans it offered on its homes. Corporate costs—ranging from marketing to real-estate taxes—fell to around $40 million a year from more than $150 million.

"There has been a radical culture shift in the organization," Mr. Fry says. "We will be much leaner going forward."

03 October 2010

A Good Kitchen Remodel Starts with Planning

Maine Sunday Telegram

Kitchen remodels continue to be popular home improvement projects despite the economic stagnation, according to the August 2010 issue of the Consumer Reports. This isn't exactly dish-shattering news given the impact of a kitchen to a family's lifestyle and home value.

Many homeowners are uncertain about where to start. A simple first step is to consult a Bucks County kitchen designer. A professional designer understands the entire process, inside and out, and will provide many important services: in-home measurements, personalized consultations, layout designs, computerized renditions, installer referrals, oversight management, and more.

Some companies hire professionals to provide free kitchen design services to their customers.

"Kitchen designers provide invaluable support throughout the entire remodeling project," said Bob Hunt, director of Kitchen Destination, the new cabinetry and design division of New England Building Materials. "We provide these services free as an added value to our customers."

Following are some things to consider doing before starting a kitchen remodeling project.

Start asking questions. Why do I want a new or remodeled kitchen? What do I want to change and why? What are my needs and wants? Is my budget fixed or flexible? When is the best time and way to begin? Tip: Search the internet for other questions related to kitchen remodeling.

Set a budget. Establishing a preliminary budget will help keep you on track and make temptations more resistant. The National Kitchen & Bath Association claims the average kitchen remodel costs between 10 percent and 20 percent of a home's value.

Still, kitchen remodels are one of the best home improvement investments with an average return of 76 percent according to the Remodeling Magazine's 2009-2010 Cost vs. Value Report. Tip: Budget 10 percent to 15 percent of the total cost for unanticipated surprises.

Explore ideas and identify needs versus want. Perhaps the most challenging and exciting part of the entire process is exploring possibilities. However, it's important to balance functionality and style. Make a list of what you need first and then move on to wants. Don't forget to consider cabinets, flooring, appliances, sink, faucet, lighting, plumbing, windows, and wiring. Tip: Make sure to include any special needs of small children, handicapped or elderly members of your household into your budget and design.

Schedule a home visit with a kitchen designer.

The designer will take accurate measurements and provide a professional perspective on your design with additional attention to walls, doors, windows, lighting, wiring, plumbing, and so on. Tip: Save money by consulting a professional designer from a building company that provides these services for free.

Visit a cabinet showroom. "Visiting a kitchen design center showroom is a great way to explore cabinet options," says Joy M. Martel, a certified kitchen designer for Kitchen Destination. "Unfortunately, images in magazines and on the internet are not as reliable as seeing and touching the real thing." Tip: Having a good understanding of your taste will help in the selection process.

Find a Maine concrete contractor or bath installer. Ask friends, neighbors or your designer if they can recommend a reputable contractor or installer. Tip: Ask for references and a copy of the contractor's license and workers' compensation and liability insurance to confirm they are current.

Get a quote. Your designer and/or contract need to confirm all aspects of the Saugatuck kitchen remodeling plan before providing accurate quote. Otherwise you may end up incurring unnecessary costs and delays due to misunderstandings or misinformation. Tip: Ask your contractor to the written contract give you a list each phase of the project; every product, including the model number.