Consumer Guides

Safe and Practical Living in the Home

Q: I was told to always check references when looking at contractors to do home improvements. But I wonder if it’s worth the trouble when I know the contractor is going to hand pick the references. Is reference checking effective?

A: Reference checking is the most effective screening tool, but it is important that you check several references and that you use the right technique. Nearly all references start off positive. Nobody likes to give a bad reference, so people always search through their memory banks for the most positive aspects of their experience with the firm. You should encourage the interviewee to go on a bit about all the good things they recall about the company. Indicate how impressed you are with their comments. Eventually, the person will feel certain that they have given a good reference. At that point, turn the conversation around and say something like, “I can see that you were very, very pleased with their work, but surely they weren’t perfect in every way. What minor parts of their performance do you think they could improve upon?” For you, this is when the interview begins. Everything until now was just setting the stage. This is when you’ll start learning about how well the company really did!

Q: I usually choose a contractor or service firm based on the recommendation of a neighbor. That worked pretty well for me up until a recent experience with a heating and air conditioning firm. While my neighbors loved them, my job turned into a real nightmare. Is that common?

A: Unfortunately, it is quite common. Your method of choosing a service firm is by far the most popular, but often misleading. The problem is that even shoddy service firms please some of their customers – as many as 30 percent. On the other hand, a truly reliable firm, with all the systems in place to deliver satisfaction consistently, may please 98 percent or more of their customers. When you base your choice on the experiences of one neighbor, you have no way of knowing whether your neighbor was one of 30 percent or one of 98 percent. Now, if you can find someone who has pleased five out of five neighbors, you have something much more certain.

Q: The surface of my concrete front walk is starting to break up. Is that something I can get patched, or do I need to replace the whole walk?

A: In general, repairs to concrete are not permanent. Most experienced firms won’t even attempt a repair, because no matter how much they explain the uncertainty of repairs to a homeowner, the homeowner becomes upset when the repair only holds for a year or so. Patch jobs may buy you anything from a couple of months to a couple of years, but you will eventually to have to replace the walk. Keep in mind that replacing the walk provides an ideal opportunity to make your home more senior friendly. With minor regrading along the walk and perhaps a reorientation of the front porch, you may be able to replace the front walk with one that has fewer steps or no steps. The cost shouldn’t be much higher than a simple replacement, but the new wheelable access is likely to give you and your loved ones many more workable options in the years to come. A step-free front walk not only accommodates wheel chairs, but also wheeled luggage, strollers, grocery bag carts, bicycles and all manner of other rollables.

Q: I recently called seven roofers and only three returned my call. Don’t these guys want my money?

A: Most firms want and need your business. Unfortunately, many contracting companies are run by individuals with strong mechanical skills but little if any organizational skills. They are simply overwhelmed by the day-to-day logistics of running a business. Firms incapable of keeping track of your phone message are not likely to keep track of the details associated with your roofing project either. You might be better off never hearing back from such firms. For better results, check with a contractor referral service in your area for the names of reliable and responsive service firms.

Q: It’s getting harder and harder for me to navigate my basement stairs. The only thing I do down there is laundry. Is it unsanitary or against the building codes to move the washer and dryer upstairs?

A: Creating a laundry nook on the main living level is a very smart move and there are no restrictions on doing so. In terms of sanitation, people have bigger problems with kitchen spills getting into laundry than with laundry getting into food items. For this reason, it’s good to separate laundry and food preparation areas. In many modern homes, laundry equipment is set up in a closet near the kitchen. Both cooking and laundry activities require bits of activity followed by waiting a while followed by more bits of activity. Locating the activities in adjacent spaces allows someone to efficiently move from one activity to the other. If space is tight, consider a washer and dryer that stack one on top of the other. Such units can fit in fairly small closets. There are even washer/dryers now that are combined into a single unit. The clothes get washed and then dried without any transfers!

Q: My mother will probably be moving in with us later this year. She has bad hips and some other health problems that make it hard for her to get around. We want to get the house ready, but aren’t sure where to start. Any ideas?

A: The first consideration has to be independence – both hers and yours. Ideally, you want to set things up so that she can live independently on one level of the home. She’ll need cooking facilities, bathing facilities, and a bedroom all on one level. The other big issue is accessibility. Choose a level where it’s possible to get into and out of the house without going up or down steps. If that isn’t possible look for an entrance that lends itself to a gradual ramp.

Q: A speaker at my church recently spoke about something called a flex suite. What is it?

A: A flex suite is a multi-purpose room configuration that can meet a wide variety of family needs during many different phases of life. Any time a family is considering building or remodeling, they should consider installing a flex suite. At its heart, a flex suite is simply a ground floor bedroom with a separate entrance and a nearby bathroom built according the principles of universal design. In other words, the entrance, hall and bathroom must be wheel-chair accessible. This means the suite accommodates a wide variety of other rollable equipment including strollers, bicycles, luggage, and hand trucks. The key to the flex suite is building in the capacity for the space to serve many different purposes. For a young couple, it serves as a room for a boarder to help fund mortgage payments. Later it becomes a nursery, then an au pair apartment, then a homework room, then an exercise room, then a home office, then a “granny” flat. Later in life it provides an ideal convalescing space or room for a boarder or caregiver. By building in everything the first time, you end up with a space that offers any family at any life stage more options for better living.

Q: I hear a lot about power washing decks. I have a deck that I haven’t done anything to in ten years. Is power washing necessary? What will it really do for me?

A: If you do not clean and seal your deck, it will simply age faster and continue to look a little dingier each year. In this sense, cleaning and sealing are not absolutely necessary. It’s like getting a haircut. It’s primarily a matter of grooming. A deck that has been thoroughly cleaned and sealed will look much more inviting. On a neglected ten-year-old deck, the effect of power washing should be quite dramatic. Your deck will look just about brand new. Beyond appearance, there are a few practical reasons for maintaining a deck. The sealants that are applied to a clean deck also protect the wood from Mother Nature. A properly maintained deck will develop far fewer splinters than a neglected deck. A clean deck is also less slippery. Older decks are often covered with algae and moss, and just like rocks along a stream, become very slippery when wet. Traction is much better on a clean deck.

Q: I read an article warning about “flat-rate pricing” as a new scheme plumbers are using to rip-off consumers. What is “flat-rate pricing” it and how do I protect myself?

A: Flat-rate pricing is growing in popularity among plumbers, electricians, and heating and air conditioning firms. It is not a rip-off scheme but, like most good ideas, it can be abused. Traditionally, service firms charge by the hour. Under that system, when you ask how much it is to install a water heater, the plumber says it will take one to two hours at “x” dollars per hour. You have to decide whether to hire him before you know exactly how much the job will cost. With flat-rate pricing, the service firm establishes fixed prices for most common jobs. A flat-rate plumber will tell you up front exactly what the job will cost. With flat-rate pricing, the plumber absorbs the risk. If your job takes longer than expected, you pay no more and he makes a little less on your job. If your job takes less time than usual, you don’t pay less and he makes a little more on your job. The nature of plumbing repairs is that a plumber may complete five jobs in a row that take very little time and then hit a job that has every complication in the book and takes forever. Under flat-rate pricing all six pay the same price. In a way, “the five” are subsidizing “the one.” This is obviously a better deal if you are “the one” rather than one of “the five.” Some consumer experts condemn the practice because they focus on the fact that “the five” are probably paying more than they would under a traditional system. Such experts forget that all six are getting the assurance that if they are “the one” with complications, they won’t get walloped with a very high bill. Like it or not (and I do like it), flat-rate pricing will eventually become the standard in service businesses in the future. It fits much better into compensation and management systems that more and more firms are turning to. These same systems are necessary to improve overall service quality levels in the industry.

Q: My husband passed away years ago. He used to do all the little repairs around the house. I’m willing to pay the going rate to get someone to help me out, but I can’t find anyone interested in these small jobs. What can I do?

A: There’s good news on this front. More and more companies are getting interested in small repairs. With the remodeling business so slow (and likely to remain that way), many firms are looking at the handyman business as a way to keep busy. Expect to pay rates only slightly less than plumbers and electricians. To get the most bang for your buck, take a detailed inventory of things that need fixing around the house and get them all done at once.

Q: My 78-year-old mother wants to continue living in her home. Unfortunately, the home was built in the mid fifties and really isn’t designed well for someone her age. We’re concerned about her safety. What do you suggest?

A: Start by calling AARP (the American Association of Retired Persons) in Washington at (202) 434-2277. Request a new workbook they have called “The Perfect Fit: Creative Ideas for a Safe and Livable Home.” Besides good room-by-room advice, it provides names and addresses of companies and organizations with products designed specifically for adapting older homes for folks like your mother. With a little creative thinking and some minor alterations, you should be able to help her adapt her home so that her day-to-day living is much easier and far safer.

Q: I’ve seen a number of guides that show fairly easy ways to make my dad’s home safer for him. He doesn’t get around like he used to but is too proud to admit it. Every time I bring up the subject of installing grab bars and the like, he gets all huffy and says they are for really old people. What can I do?

A: That’s a very tough question and one that is often overlooked by the so called experts. Pride, a stiff resistance to spending money, and fear of problems with contractors can combine to form a major obstacle to needed and practical changes. One tactic that has worked for many in your situation is to break down your approach in a way that addresses the practical issues separately from the emotional issues. Usually, it’s best to lead with emotional and follow with the practical. For example, on the emotional side you want him to feel like he is the decision maker about the plan of action. Stress the idea that each of the options provides opportunities for ensuring his independence. While he may not be moved by arguments emphasizing his safety, he may well be moved by arguments that stress how changes will make you feel better. Finally, you need to address his more practical objections. Get some cost numbers up front. Have names and numbers of possible contractors at the ready. Be prepared to show catalogs of some of the products. In a word, make it easy. Show him that getting these things done won’t cost much and won’t entail too much fuss. Good luck!

Q: A good friend of mine, told me about a bunch of things I can do to make my life at home much easier. I have arthritis. It’s not too bad, but some very simple things seem to take a lot out of me. I don’t know how many more years I’ll be living in this home -I hope many!, but I don’t want to make changes that will make my home strange or unappealing for when it comes time to sell. How do I make the changes I need without hurting the resale value of my home?A: Fear not! All the trends are with you. A huge and growing part of the housing market is made up of folks like you. Chances are very good that the changes you will make will have strong appeal among potential purchasers. Things like grab bars, wide open bathrooms, accessible kitchen appliance controls and easy-to-use lever door knobs are useful for folks of all ages. Go ahead and make the changes you need. The odds are good that all or most will appeal to a significant number of purchasers.

Licensed: There are many licensing authorities, but the most important license comes from the state. You can call the state directly to verify that the firm is fully licensed. However, you must give the state the exact name of the firm as it is stated on the license or it won’t be able to help you. The contractor should be able to provide this information.

Insured: There are many different kinds of insurance. The key ones to focus on are called general liability insurance and workers compensation insurance. All firms should have general liability insurance. This covers things like a ladder falling on a passerby or similar incidents. Workers Compensation insurance covers injuries to the workers themselves. One man operations are not required to maintain workers compensation coverage. For any larger job, you should verify the insurance coverage, by getting the contractor to ask his insurance company to send a “certificate of insurance” directly to you.

Clean record: A number of agencies keep track of complaints on contractors. Besides the state authorities listed under licensing above, most area counties have consumer affairs offices that keep track of complaints. One thing to keep in mind is that many lousy companies have clean records, so don’t assume a clean record means your checking is done. And in some cases, a very good firm may have a complaint on file from a homeowner trying to take advantage of the process. The point is to avoid firms that have several complaints.

References: This is the single most important part of any screening process. To be useful, you must actually call these people. Have a list of questions prepared in advance. If you simply ask if they’d recommend the company, most people will say yes, because unless they are really upset, they don’t want to bad mouth the company. In order to get a true idea of their feelings, you need to ask probing questions and chat for a bit. As they relax, they’ll begin to tell you about what went well and what didn’t. In a fuller conversation, you’ll also discover which references are really friends and family.

Credit history: On any job involving larger amounts of money, you want to make sure the company is not in dire economic straits. The easiest way to do this is to get a note from the contractor authorizing you to inquire with his largest suppliers about the status of his account. Not all suppliers will provide this information to a consumer, but the note will encourage many to do so.

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