Finding a Contractor

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Need a new roof? How ’bout a bathroom remodel? What about getting some additional electrical outlets in that 1965 split-level?

You are looking for a contractor, aren’t you?

I just recently heard a Facebook tale of woe from a friend who had hired an electrician to do some work at her house. Upon completion, the work didn’t pass inspection, AND the electrician in question was reluctant to admit that there was a problem, AND he had a ‘smart’ attitude, too. Does this sound familiar? Very few of us have escaped this sort of encounter.

Angie’s List just had a useful article on hiring a contractor. I receive a print copy of the bi-monthly magazine and here are a few tips I found there, plus a couple of my own:

  1. Talk to friends and neighbors who have had similar work done. You can add or subtract potential contractors on your interview list just by finding out about other people’s experiences. Caveat #1: some people are negative in general, and will find fault with most any workers who come near. Is your consultant in this category? Caveat #2: Every contractor, even the best, has one job that just didn’t go well from the very beginning. You can’t make a judgment call based on only one customer’s opinion. Remember this when you read online reviews, too; frequently, only people who have a gripe bother to leave a review. Conversely, the business might have found a way to front-load the reviews with artificially positive comments.
  2. Ask if the business has ever done business under a different name. DBAs (doing business as) are easy to get, and if the business has a lot of DBAs in its past, it might mean the business has something to hide and is trying not to leave a trail.
  3. If the contractor you are interviewing is in a field that can be licensed, such as plumber or electrician, the contractor will gladly give you the license number. If you run into resistance at this point, best run the other way or do a lot more homework, either because the person is not licensed, or because the person has let the license lapse, or it has been revoked.
  4. Ask the contractor for contact information. You want a street address of some sort, because if the person is operating without a permanent address, it is too easy for them to disappear when there is a problem with the work down the line.
  5. Ask for a copy of the insurance policies that will cover workers’ compensation AND damage to your property. Make sure the policy looks adequate to cover whatever disaster happens- you don’t want to be the one liable for injury to the crew!
  6. Make sure the contractor specializes in the type of work you want done. For most jobs, you want someone who does that work all the time, not just every once in awhile when business is slow otherwise.
  7. Ask yourself how the contractor makes you feel when you are discussing all these points. If the person is reluctant, or glosses over answers, or denigrates you for asking the questions, 1) the person isn’t going to get easier to work with than when he/she is trying to impress a new customer and 2) the person probably has something to hide, or feels insecure about the number of complaints she/he has received in the past. Remember what your mom told you about ‘not making excuses’? Yeah, that. You don’t want to hear a bunch of excuses from a person your are considering hiring.

have had terrible experiences with remodelers and other contractors and I have had wonderful experiences over and over again with other home maintenance and remodeling contractors. I can tell you that the previous suggestions are worth following.

I have one picky, perfectionist friend I rely on for great recommendations over and over again. I figure that if Stephanie is happy, then I will be, too. Who is your trusted picky-person?

 

Glass ‘n’ Me

Did NOT think I could get excited about a pane of window glass. Wrong, wrong, wrong! We have started replacing double-paned window glass at our house and got the first set installed yesterday. I keep staring out the windows in complete appreciation and awe of what just happened!!! It is the difference between squinting through dirty eyeglasses at the sunny landscape and looking boldly through expensive sunglasses- suddenly the view is clear and crisp, yet not glare-y.

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Before

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After

So here’s the deal about double-pane glass: the less reliable the glue between the layers and the less careful the process, the faster that factory seal will fail, ruining the vacuum between the panes. How do you know a seal has failed? You start seeing moisture between the panes of glass; moisture that cannot be removed from inside the house or from the outside. Or, you start seeing a whitish film on the window that cannot be removed because it is between the panes. Or, you see dirt between the panes.

We compared some prices, then called in Fair and Square Glass Repair, a local business that travels widely in the Austin/San Antonio area. They came out and we talked about the situation, and Trey Doran, the owner of the business, educated me on the type of window frames we have and the type of glass we have. He gave me a tutorial on how our particular windows function and on how I can best care for them. Then, I made a spot decision which windows I wanted to change out first. This is not a cheap project, but we had moved into this house with some milky panes, and I knew that it was a repair/update that I wanted to accomplish and enjoy. We decided to do it a little bit at a time. We are also replacing torn and damaged screens with Fair and Square, upgrading the glass panes and the type of screen while doing it.

About a week after Trey took the measurements, he and his son returned with glass and new screens in hand. I am sorry to say that I had to leave during a lot of the procedure, but I took a few pictures at the beginning.

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He popped out these strips that hold the panes from the inside.

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Using a strong suction device to hold the old glass in order to remove it to the outside.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a torch and a scraper sitting on the outside ledge. Missed this part, but it must have been exciting.

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Oooooo, cleaning up those beautiful new panes!

Aside from the tremendous pleasure that looking through clean glass brings, these panes are highly energy-efficient and they block 95% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. You know how your fabrics, paintings, and furniture fade near windows? Yeah, well, not with this glass. Not in my lifetime, anyway.

Although we have been pretty prompt on needed repairs to our homes and on decorating to our taste, we have a track record of putting off updating certain features that are still functional until suddenly we decide to put our house on the market. Then, we go into high gear and do all sorts of things to the house that we could have done years before and actually ENJOYED ourselves before we decided to move. We have made a plan for updating and upgrading this house so that we won’t be in a bind, or leave money on the table if we should decide to move, or if some circumstances force a move.

Here’s a question for you: if my house is on the market and my neighbor down the street has her house on the market, which windows are going to give a better impression when  buyers walk in- the milky windows down the street, or my clear, high-definition view of nature?

 

 

Undercover Detective

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Quick- what is this person doing?

If you said, “looking for where the main sewer pipe exits the house to go out to the street”, you’d be right! Ding, ding, ding…

Why do we care about a sewer pipe we can’t even see? Because old sewer pipes can rust from the inside out, develop cracks and leaks, and allow tree roots to invade and clog up the system.

How do you know this has happened? When your sewer line stops working and your toilets and sinks back up. Fun, huh?

The solution, of course, is to install a new main sewer line from the house to the street, digging up the yard.

What if the sewer line now travels through the roots of a large, desirable tree? Some companies are experienced in using a water-and-air shovel to delicately dig through the roots without harming them.

Costly, but necessary.

(Almost) Every House is Unique

Cat video. You’re welcome.

Recently, I have found myself consulting with a number of different people about future moves that are not necessarily imminent. I think this time spent together with potential clients is rewarding! Every situation is different and every house is unique in that it is situated in a particular place in the city, in a neighborhood, of a certain age, amount of updating, and is experiencing street changes, or street stability, according to what’s happening in the market.

After asking lots of questions about goals, future desired location, amount of support- family, and otherwise- financial strengths and weaknesses, and determining which emotions are most at play, I put together a suggested plan for tackling all the issues, including prepping the house, for that future move.

Before our meeting, I drive the neighborhood carefully, even if I already know the area well, looking for signs of change, looking for clues to what’s happening. If I see on the MLS that an older home that is mostly in original condition has recently sold, I’ll check from the curb to see what it looks like now. If it is in an area where older houses are being torn down to make way for new ones, I want to know if this particular older home has met that fate, or if it is still being used as a home. Toys and playthings in the front yard six months after the sale are a pretty good indication that this home isn’t being replaced this year.

In advance of my neighborhood drive, I study the MLS and all the properties that have sold in the past six months, or year, depending on the area, searching for sold prices, condition of homes, location in neighborhood, etc. I study the photos that the listing agents put up on the MLS to see the condition of the interiors. I look for homes that might be comparable to the home I am scheduled to visit. I make graphs and charts of market activity in that neighborhood or that feeder district to a particular high school, depending on which parameters I think are most relevant to that house in that location.

When I show up at the door, I already know a lot about the situation, and I bring my graphs, information on comparable homes, a Seller’s Disclosure that the owner will have to fill out sooner or later, and other useful papers. After we sit down and talk about the personal situation, I walk through the house, taking snapshots and noting things that need to be repaired and/or updated.

Depending on the house and the micro-market it inhabits, I use one or more sets of these eyes to examine the property: the flipper-investor eyes, the buy-and-hold investor eyes, the move-up buyer eyes, the downsize buyer eyes, the coming-from-a-different-state eyes, the moving-out-of-the-city eyes, the second-home eyes. The recommendations I make to prepare the house for sale are usually based on the least amount of stuff the homeowner can do to make the house desirable. Of course, price of the home and price of updating and repair is a big factor, too.

Some homes merit new faucets, new flooring, new paint, etc., because through these improvements the homeowner is likely to make a quicker sale, or sell at the higher end of a reasonable price range. Some homes will be purchased by a flipper and price is the only thing that will matter to those folks. Even within my written recommendations, I make two tiers- one is “must do” and the other is “would be nice to do, if possible”.

Here are three short samples from some write-ups I’ve done recently:

The two most important points at which we must capture a buyer’s imagination are from the street and then again just outside and just inside the front door. Those are our ‘hooks’. People have no clue when looking at your neighborhood from the street that there is an amazing view behind the privacy fences, so we have to pull them up and in until they arrive where we want them to be.

The goal of any effort put into your home between now and putting it on the market is to transform it from your ‘home’ into a ‘house’. In other words, it will become a commodity when it hits the market. Your best chance for getting the highest price the market will offer is to get as many buyers aware of its existence as possible (that’s my job) and to pull them from the curb and into the front door (your job and my job). What I am describing now is changes you can make to the real estate to help pull those people in. Staging, our last effort before taking pictures and putting it on the market, will come later.

Because you are looking at a limited time for owning and enjoying the house (5 years is your general estimate, but it could be much less), you will only make changes which, if not made, will result in more days on market to sell your house, or will make the price lower than it needs to be. The changes you elect to make to upgrade the house in the eyes of future buyers must be changes you would enjoy, too, for the length of time you own the house.

Now… why the cat video?  Today I met with a friend and fellow agent who has recently marketed and sold a house that was home to an elderly couple with dozens of rescued cats! What a feat! (It took a village.)  Our rescues in the video? There are only 11 and they are well-loved and cared for. But, I hope we don’t have to move anytime soon!

Live in Austin? You’ll Need to Do An Energy Audit

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Newsflash for you who have lived in your Austin home since the Year One: before you put that home on the market, you must get an energy audit done by an energy professional.

Yes, it’s true, the City of Austin has an Energy Conservation and Disclosure ordinance. If you are an Austin Energy customer, you live in the Austin city limits, and your house is more than 10 years old, you must get an audit done. They check heating/cooling efficiency, amount of air escaping your home, the insulation level, and the window efficiency, all of which require specialized equipment.

This will cost you several hundred dollars, based on the size of your home. Be sure to get quotes from several energy professionals, and get a recommendation from someone who has used an auditor, if possible, before hiring one.

Just like any other aspect of home improvement, you can wait until you decide to put your house on the market before you take action. OR, you can choose to take action early and enjoy the fruits while you are still living in the home. You might go ahead and get an energy audit and get yourself some beautiful new windows. Or, you might decide to upgrade to a more efficient HVAC system and enjoy the savings on your utility bills.

In any case, the city does not require you to make upgrades based on the energy audit. It just requires you to pay for the audit so that potential buyers will understand what might be involved in owning the home in the condition it’s in.

The New Home and Garden Show

Right here, in Dripping Springs, home to thousands of new homes in the next few years- The First Annual Home and Garden Show today and tomorrow. March 25-26, 10-7 on Saturday and 10-5 on Sunday at the Dripping Springs Ranch Park on Ranch Road 12.

Sponsored by Rotary Club of Dripping Springs, Harvest Rain, and Hill Country View, there is also a kid entertainment zone provided by Costco. They advertise builders, contractors, materials, decks, pools, spas, entertainment systems, storage, plants, landscape displays/materials, and kitchenware information and products on display. With plenty of parking, this sounds like a great day to me!

“What’s in it for ME?”

The Secret Underground

Although the title could be referring to a book review of Dante’s Inferno, or a report on intrigue in wartime, it doesn’t. Today, we’re going to get the scoop on septic systems. How ’bout THAT?

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Using flushable kitty litter BEFORE we lived with an on-site septic system

This post is for all those folks who never lived in the country. And for those looking longingly at moving out of town and into the hills. And for those who have not experienced septic system technology in the past 15 years.

Living in terrain that is not amenable to pumping sewage vast distances to be treated at a central location means that either you personally, or your new subdivision, will have a small sewage treatment plant on the property. I know a little bit about the single-owner kind because I grew up with a traditional drain-field system at my childhood home, and now we have two dwellings and two advanced systems on our property. Texas A&M Extension Service has the best website for explaining on-site sewage facilities.

You will be surprised to know that I compare the maintenance of a healthy septic system to baking yeast bread. Before I lose you entirely, let me explain:

  1. The principle behind baking great bread is to keep your yeast, a living organism, very happy.
  2. The principle behind maintaining a functional septic system is to keep your beneficial bacteria, a living organism, very happy.

That’s it!

The septic system takes effluent from the house and drains it into a tank where the solids settle out, and the liquid is either treated and partially sanitized in compartments then sprayed out onto the landscape, or it goes from the tank into underground drain fields through horizontal tubes arranged in the pattern of tree branches, to be treated and sanitized by the soil organisms. In both cases, bacteria are the heroes that break down the nasty sludge and the effluent water into soil nutrients plus clean water. We ♥love♥ our bacteria!

Here is what to consider when you are using a septic system to treat your effluent: what will make the bacteria very sad? What will make the bacteria sick? What will make the bacteria die? Avoid these!

  1. Too much water running through the system (a deluge!) at once flushes through the tank way too fast and doesn’t allow solids to settle out. This clogs your pumps or your filters. Yuck! Choose the low-water-use front-loading washer and don’t do all your loads in the same day.
  2. Installing the underground tank where rainwater runoff will enter it quickly creates the same deluge problem.
  3. Antibiotics- whether medicines flushed, antibiotic soap and cleaners used, or other chemicals (bleach! phosphates!) poured down the drain- you’re gonna kill off some, or all, of your bacteria and THEN you’ll be sorry!
  4. It takes ⇐time⇒ for the solids to be decomposed by the bacteria, and if you put more through your system in a short period of time than it is rated for, you are going to create clogs, either in the pump, the filter, or in the drain or sprayer lines. Forget the food scraps and the disposal- too much unprocessed solid material at once. No kitty litter (even flushable), no sanitary products, no wipes (even flushable), no nothing that isn’t natural and mushy! Just figure out a different disposal method, or you will be spending thousands of dollars replacing your system early.

On-site sewage facilities, when properly cared-for, are environmentally-friendly and efficient. You can admire them and how well they do their job without causing collateral damage to ground, air, and water. Yay for the little guys!!! Bacteria are awesome!

Your county is going to require a permit in order for you to create a septic system. This is because the specialists want to look at your plans to make sure the idea in your head isn’t going to come out into the world in a way that will pollute a nearby waterway, well, or adjoining property. Also, your county is going to require you to have on file a maintenance contract with an approved contractor that will periodically inspect your system and keep it functioning. No polluted groundwater, please!

My next post will be my favorite yeast bread recipe. Don’t say I don’t have a sense of humor.