DIY project safety: "If only" can last a lifetime

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ July 19, 2013

It's safe to say that it's not just a fad -- more and more families are taking on their own home improvement projects these days. They're quickly discovering what many longtime DIYers already know: the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from working on your house can be addictive. And of course, the amount you may save on labor can be pretty nice as well.

However, there's one part of tackling DIY projects that doesn't receive much publicity: some types of tools can be dangerous - especially to those who don't use them every day. In a matter of seconds they can inflict a serious injury -- the kind from which you may never fully recover. Taking the time to follow these four safety tips could save you from thinking "if only" for the rest of your DIY career.

4 tips for DIY project safety

Have you ever marveled at how quickly your sander disperses of old paint and splintered wood? How about how your circular saw goes through an old piece of oak as if it were butter? Now imagine how the various parts of your body might fare against those same or just about any other power tool. Probably not too well. Here are a few safety tips that should be followed when doing your DIY projects:

  1. Eyes -- Invest in a good pair of safety glasses and wear them every time you pick up a power tool. All it takes is one tiny piece of flying metal or wood and your vision could be affected for life. The really good safety glasses can be a little pricey, but how much are your eyes worth?
  2. Ears -- Your hearing probably isn't what it once was, but don't let your DIY projects speed up the hearing loss process. Power tools can be loud, and sustained use can cause long term damage to your hearing. At the very least wear earmuffs before flipping the switch on your circular saw or router, but inexpensive foam plugs that close off the entire ear canal may be even better.
  3. Fingers -- Do you really need all ten fingers? You might find out the hard way if any get too close to one of your power tool's blades when the juice is on. Any type of saw from reciprocating to jig can have one or more of your digits in the sawdust pile in just a fraction of a second. Always be sure of where your fingers are in relation to the blade and your working area before pulling any type of power tool's trigger.
  4. Lungs -- All of that dust in the air must mean that you're making some progress, but your lungs might think a little differently. If you can see the dust that your power tool is creating, chances are that you're breathing it in as well -- especially when working in a confined space. Disposable dust masks are available at just about all home improvement stores and when working with materials such as fiber cement, a respirator is highly recommended.

Doing your own home improvement projects can be highly rewarding. But don't forget: when it comes to jobsite safety, "if only" can last a lifetime.

DIY remodeling: Are you really ready for sheetrock?

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ July 11, 2013

Whether adding on to your home or doing a renovation, hanging the sheetrock is a milestone that many DIYers eagerly anticipate. When the framing is covered up, rooms finally begin to take shape and you know that the end of the project is right around the corner. But as anxious as you are to hang that sheetrock, has anything been forgotten? There are a few items to check for prior to screwing that first board up on the wall.

A pre-sheetrock checklist for DIYers

Sheetrock can be patched, but the end result almost never looks quite as nice as an unblemished wall. Even when repairs are done by an expert, in certain light the spots are often easily visible. Therefore, the best course of action is to ensure that everything that needs to be behind the boards is there before you pick up a screw gun. Here are a few items that are often overlooked:

  • Plumbing -- If you're doing a kitchen remodel, it's not too difficult to remember the primary water and drain piping -- they may even be unchanged. But what about the ice maker line? While the small line can sometimes be routed through the bottoms of base cabinets, locating it inside a wall can reduce the chance of accidental punctures. And if you're finishing your basement, adding a line now for a future refrigerator with an ice maker might be a good idea. Tape off the ends of the line to prevent debris from entering until you're ready to make the hookup.
  • Electric -- Hopefully a contractor was hired for this phase of the project as working with electricity is definitely not DIY-friendly. However, many electricians don't install low-voltage wiring unless it's made a part of their contract. If you didn't know this, don't despair -- low-voltage lines such as speaker wiring, video connections, and interior telephone lines are considered safe for homeowners to install. Speaker wires dangling from walls and running behind furniture were fine when you were in your 20s, but at this point in your life, they should be hidden behind the sheetrock.
  • Blocking -- How many times have you found the perfect spot to hang something on the wall only to feel the nail go into a void behind the sheetrock? Drywall by itself can support very little weight, but with proper blocking behind it, you can hang just about anything. Almost every major remodeling job or home addition has plenty of scrap rough lumber when the framing is complete. Instead of throwing it away or having a bonfire, use it to provide blocking for any item you may be planning to hang on the walls.

Of course, in your excitement to start sheetrocking there is one item that should never be overlooked: the close-in inspection. Almost every jurisdiction has inspections that must be passed prior to the work being hidden from view, and if you should happen to forget to call the building inspector, tearing off all that sheetrock won't be much fun.

Kitchen remodeling: curing the over-budget blues

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ June 20, 2013

Some things never seem to change. Remember when you were a kid and all the candy looked so good, but all you had to spend was a dollar? Kitchen remodeling is much the same -- it's just that the candy prices have gotten much higher! A major kitchen makeover may be the home improvement project that most often exceeds its budget -- sometimes by a lot. So what's the answer? Are there ways to accomplish what you want without coming down with a case of the over-budget blues?

4 tips for stretching your kitchen remodeling dollars

While you may not have been able to stretch that childhood dollar into several candy bars, there are some methods for making your kitchen remodeling budget go a little further. Here are four tips to try:

  1. Layout -- When it comes to remodeling, it's often what can't be seen that can hurt your budget. There are all sorts of hidden wires, pipes, and perhaps even ductwork installed to service your existing cabinet layout. Making a major change in design can involve a lot of costly electrical and mechanical work, none of which is DIY-friendly. If budget is a concern, stay as close to the current cabinet layout as possible.
  2. Cabinets -- It's easy to spend an afternoon or longer in a kitchen cabinet showroom with all of the beautiful styles, finishes, and wood types available. However, if you want to stretch those remodeling dollars, consider installing ready-to-assemble cabinets. RTA cabinets are offered by many manufacturers and are often a fraction of the cost of factory-built units. Look for solid wood models if you want top quality. If you can assemble your children's holiday presents, putting together RTA cabinets shouldn't be a challenge.
  3. Schedule -- Who hasn't seen countless commercials where companies advertise deferred payments on their products? If the new kitchen of your dreams is straining your remodeling budget right now, why not defer some of the work until next year or anytime in the future. Floor coverings, paint, light fixtures, and even some types of appliances can all be installed at a later date.
  4. Appliances -- Why would major manufacturers offer brand new, never-used appliances at major discounts? It's because they have small dents or scratches that occurred during shipping or when being delivered. If the defect will be up against a cabinet and never seen, who would ever know that you didn't pay full retail for that top of the line side-by-side refrigerator? Just about all major appliance manufacturers have regional scratch and dent warehouses.

Of course, doing some of the remodeling tasks yourself can be one of the best methods for saving a little money on your project. But be careful -- exceeding your skill level and having to hire someone to redo your work is almost a sure way to blow your budget.

Where's my contractor?

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ June 10, 2013

Whether you're doing a kitchen remodel, installing new siding, or putting on an addition, few things can be as frustrating as having several days go by with no workers on the project. Where did they go and when will they be back? Should you file a missing persons report?

Fortunately, contractors that operate like this are in the minority, but unfortunately, they do exist. Checking references from previous customers is one way to guard against this type of situation -- especially from those whose projects were recently completed. However, there are also a few other ways to avoid having to solve the case of the missing contractor.

Communication: establishing guidelines with your contractor

Who's in charge of your remodeling project? How can you get in touch with your contractor other than calling their office? How soon should you expect a call back? If you don't know the answers to these questions before your project begins, the groundwork has already been set for potential problems. Here are a few communication guidelines to establish before starting any home improvement job that involves a contractor:

  • Phone numbers -- Being able to call an office and speak to a receptionist is nice, but you should have your remodeling contractor's cell phone number. Very few contractors spend much time at their office other than very early in the morning and at the end of the day. And while it's perfectly understandable that they may not always be able to answer their phone, make it clear that you expect a call back that same day.
  • Jobsite supervision -- Depending on the size of your project, the owner of the contracting company may not be on your jobsite every day. However, they should always have an onsite supervisor who knows what's going on and with whom you can communicate. This supervisor should be there at least part of every day that the job is underway.
  • Schedule -- While your contractor may have told you about how long the project should take, make sure there is a completion date in your written contract. Contractors are often a little less likely to put a project on the back-burner or pull a disappearing act when the completion date is written rather than just verbal. Of course, you have to be reasonable as well -- they have no control over the weather or material backorders.

On occasion, a remodeling contractor may need to pull their workers from your project for a day or two when a special need arises. However, you should be informed of the situation and provided an estimate of when they will be back on your job. Establishing these communication guidelines should help avoid misunderstandings and even more important, keep you from wondering where your contractor is.

Site restrictions and your home improvement project

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ June 3, 2013

Is this the summer that home addition or detached garage long dreamed about is finally going to become a reality? Are you already envisioning exactly how it's going to blend in with your home and sit on your lot? While what you're picturing might come to fruition, there could be a few adjustments that need to be made. Your property may have some site restrictions that could affect your project.

Understanding site restrictions

Do you own your home and property? If so, you might think that allows you to determine what and where a structure can be built on it. However, in many localities that's not quite true. Whether you live in a rural area or a sub-division, there may be site restrictions that must be considered during the early planning of your home improvement project. Here are a few terms you should understand when you research whether your plan is acceptable:

  • Plat - When you purchased your home or property, the settlement attorney should have provided this drawing which shows the boundaries of the lot. A plat also delineates the locations of all the existing permanent structures. The drawing may be referred to as a plot plan or final survey drawing in some areas. This document should be the starting point when planning a home addition or the construction of a stand-alone building. If you don't have one, a copy should be on file in the administrative offices of the county or city where the property is located.
  • Setbacks - These are restrictions established by localities as to how close a permanent structure can be built to a property line. Front, side, and rear setback distances often vary depending on the type of neighborhood where your home is located. Setbacks are often shown on your plat.
  • Easements - Have you ever wondered how utility companies can dig ditches across private property to install or maintain their lines? It's because many lots have legal utility easements that have been recorded with the local jurisdiction. That means utility companies can work on that section of the property any time the need arises. It can also mean that there are restrictions as to what can be placed on that portion of your land. While most easements are for utilities, they can also exist for issues such as community drainage. Easements are normally shown on plats.
  • Restrictive covenants - If you live in a community with a Homeowner's Association (HOA), there's a pretty good chance it has a set of restrictive covenants that regulate what can be constructed on your property. While some have fairly basic limitations, others can go so far as to stipulate the architectural style of the project and what exterior finishes are allowed.

Doing a home improvement project that encroaches on a site restriction can be a big problem. At the very best you may be asking the local jurisdiction for a variance and the worst case scenario could involve some demolition. Your local building officials can be a tremendous help in determining what limitations might exist on your property. However, when it comes to deciphering HOA restrictive covenants, you might have to attend one of their meetings.

DIY projects: remember to figure waste

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ May 9, 2013

You're starting the last row of tile when installing a new kitchen floor only to discover that all the ceramic boxes are empty. What happened? Few things can be as frustrating as running out of material while doing a home remodeling project, especially when you were so careful about calculating how much was needed for the job. More times than not the problem is simple: you forgot to figure the waste that is a part of almost every home improvement project.

Remodeling waste: How much to figure for your project?

Whether you're a seasoned DIYer or just strapping on a tool belt for the first time, there's a pretty good chance there's going to be some waste during your home improvement jobs. After all, even professional contractors figure in a little extra when estimating their phase of work.

At best, coming up short can mean having to stop work for an unplanned trip to the local building supply outlet. However, when working with materials such as ceramic tile or brick that are manufactured by "lot," running out can mean having trouble matching the color shade of the initial batch.

So how do you know how much waste to figure for a particular type of remodeling project? One of the best sources for estimating information is the staff where you're purchasing the materials. Many building supply companies hire former contractors who have years of experience or at the very least, are knowledgeable about estimating various types of materials. Here's a few waste factors for remodeling materials that may be helpful when planning your job:

  • Hardwood flooring -- Hardwood Floors, the magazine of the National Wood Floors Association, suggests figuring a minimum of 5 percent over the square footage of the room for premium grade flooring. You may need to go as high as 10 percent for lesser grades.
  • Ceramic tile flooring -- Figure how many tiles you need for the actual square footage of the room and then add 10 percent. If the room has a lot of angles or the tile is being laid on a diagonal, increase the waste factor to 15 percent.
  • Vinyl siding -- A good rule of thumb for figuring vinyl siding waste is to allow enough material to cover all the windows and doors in the exterior walls.
  • Wall framing studs -- Many professional construction estimators figure a 2-by-4 every 12 inches of wall length to allow for lumber waste.

These average waste factors are based on you having a few DIY projects on your resume. If you're just starting out, it may be a good idea to add a little extra.

Is it a load-bearing wall?

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ April 24, 2013

Is this the year that your living and dining rooms finally become one large area? According to some experts, an emerging trend in home design is wide open interior spaces -- especially if you're single or a couple with a newly empty nest. That means many interior partitions could soon end up in local landfills. But prior to swinging that sledge hammer, it might be a good idea to determine if you're about to remove a load-bearing wall.

What exactly is a load-bearing wall?

While the walls in your home might seem to just serve as separations to create rooms or hallways, some have an additional function: to carry a structural load. A house's exterior walls almost always support the roof framing or trusses and depending on the floor joist layout, a portion of that weight as well.

In addition, some interior partitions may help provide support for structural components with long spans. An example of this would be when a floor joist can't reach from the front to the back of the home without interior bearing points to prevent deflection.

The good news is that many load-bearing walls can be altered or even removed. However, in almost every situation a substitute means of support such as a header or beam must be installed. Their sizing is determined by the distance spanned and weight being carried.

While the only sure way for a DIYer to determine whether a wall is load-bearing is to look at the home's blueprints or consult with an architect, here are a few telltale clues:

  • Exterior walls -- A home's exterior walls are almost always weight-bearing.
  • Headers -- If you remove sheetrock from an interior wall and there are headers over the door openings, there's a pretty good chance the wall was designed to carry a load. Headers are normally framing lumber that is 6 to 12 inches wide and 2 inches thick. The lumber is doubled across the top of the opening.
  • Stacked walls -- When walls are constructed in the same locations on different floor levels, they are normally carrying a roof or floor load down to foundation walls or concrete piers.
  • Stairways -- An interior partition that parallels a stairway may support the floor joists that have been shortened to create the opening. The exception is when the floor joists also parallel the stairway.

Load-bearing walls always have double top plates, but many partitions that don't carry any weight do as well so that isn't a reliable indicator.

Always determine if a wall is designed to carry weight before doing any demo. You may not notice any immediate changes to your home when a structural wall is removed, but over time the damage often becomes very apparent. And while removing the wall may be DIY-friendly, the sizing of the new support header or beam should always be done by an architect or engineer.

Sawhorses: remodeling tools of a different color

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ March 18, 2013

So you've decided to enter the exciting world of tackling your own home improvement jobs … what's the first thing on your "to do" list? If you're like many beginning DIYers, it's probably figuring out what new tools are needed for your first projects.

You may already have your eye on a particular drill or circular saw that should make the jobs a little easier. Or perhaps you're going to take the leap and spring for big ticket item such as a compound miter saw. They can make just about any DIYer feel like a professional contractor.

But before you get carried away, there's a tool that should be at the top of any DIYer's wish list. They're an important part of every remodeling contractor's tool collection and are so versatile that they can be a big help on almost any type of project. The next time you're at your favorite home improvement store, ask a salesperson on which aisle their sawhorses can be found.

What you need to know about sawhorses

While they're available in numerous styles and configurations, all sawhorses are basically platforms that allow you to work more efficiently and safely. The best models are tough enough to support just about any type of material, but also lightweight and easy to carry.

Many manufacturers design the tops of their sawhorses with predrilled holes so a piece of framing lumber can be easily attached with bolts. The lumber serves two purposes: it permits tacking material to the top of the sawhorse so it's held secure during an intricate cut and the wood prevents damage to the sawhorse or saw blade if the cut is too deep.

Contractors and DIYers used to build their sawhorses from wood and while sturdy, the devices were also fairly heavy and took up a lot of room when not in use. Tool manufacturers had the answer: sawhorses constructed from lightweight plastics and metals that were tough enough for just about any job, but could be folded up when the project was complete. Here are a few to consider for your DIY tool collection:

  • DeWalt -- The DeWalt DWST11031 weighs less than 11 pounds but a pair can support up to 2,500 pounds. The legs can be adjusted for uneven surfaces.
  • Stanley -- The Stanley 060582R folding sawhorses are budget-friendly and can be purchased in pairs. Each set has a weight capacity of up to 1,000 pounds.
  • Crawford -- This company's SH38A sawhorses have adjustable legs and feature all-steel construction. They're only 19 pounds each, but a pair will support up to 1,200 pounds.
  • Rockwell -- If you want a little more than a basic sawhorse, Rockwell's JawHorse should fit the bill. Each unit features an adjustable clamp that holds your material in place while working. The JawHorse is constructed from steel, has legs that can be adjusted for uneven surfaces, and is easily folded up when not being used.

Drills and saws may get the accolades, but just about any home improvement project is easier if sawhorses are a part of your remodeling tool collection.

Sheetrock 101: what every DIYer should know

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ March 11, 2013

What do finishing a basement, adding onto your home, and repairing a plumbing leak have in common? If you're a DIYer, there's a pretty good chance you'll be working with sheetrock on each of these projects.

So what do you need to know about this material that's such a big part of most remodeling jobs? Well for one thing … while you'll probably never be as proficient as a professional contractor, once you know a few basics, sheetrock is fairly DIY-friendly.

Getting started with sheetrock

Installing and finishing sheetrock are tasks that become easier with practice, but every DIYer has a first time. Here are a few basics that should help you get started:

  • Thickness -- While most sheetrock in homes is ½-inch thick, don't assume that it's all going to be that way. Partitions that are considered to be fire separation walls are normally drywalled with 5/8-inch boards. If you live in an attached town home, there's a pretty good chance the side walls will have the thicker board. The same is true with the material used in many garages. The 5/8-inch board often has a fire rating.
  • High moisture areas -- Moisture resistant sheetrock known as "green board" was often used for tub and shower surrounds, but is no longer considered the best choice. If you're remodeling or adding a bathroom, WonderBoard, Durock or Aqua-Tough panels are better at resisting water damage.
  • Support -- Even small pieces of drywall used for repairs need proper support if you want the patch to last. At least two sides should rest over framing and if possible, install blocking so that all four sides have adequate support. When doing a repair, you may need to trim back the existing sheetrock to expose about half of the face of the adjacent wood wall studs or ceiling joists.
  • Fastening -- Drywall manufacturers normally provide specific fastening requirements for installing their materials on their websites. The specifications are based on the material thickness and the type of framing where it will be applied. While these recommendations are for full sized sheets, they can also be used for smaller repairs. When drywalling an entire room, keep in mind that local building code often dictates how the board should be fastened.
  • Sizes -- Sheetrock is normally 4 feet wide, but can be 8-, 9-, 10- or 12-feet long. If you're working by yourself, buying 8-foot boards is almost always a good idea. A 4-by-8 foot piece of ½-inch sheetrock weighs about 50 pounds. While that might not seem like much, it can feel much heavier when attempting to fasten it to a ceiling.

Another tip that may make your sheetrock project a little easier: many distributors can deliver board on a boom truck. If you have a window that can be removed or an exterior door near your project, the drywall can be placed right inside your home.

2013 may be ideal for remodeling projects

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ March 5, 2013

Is this a good year to tackle a remodeling project? Actually any year is a good time if you're making some changes to better fit your family's lifestyle. However, if increasing your home's value is also a goal, 2013 might be the year you've been waiting for: Remodeling Magazine's Cost vs. Value Report for 2013 is out, and the numbers are looking pretty good.

Remodeling returns are headed upward

Remodeling Magazine's annual Cost vs. Value report has long been recognized as one of the best resources for how much homeowners might expect to recoup from home improvement projects. The data is compiled by region and from larger metropolitan areas so that trends across the entire country can be identified. The estimated cost of construction of various remodeling projects is compared to how much they can be expected to increase a home's price when it's sold.

The percentage of return has increased across the board for the first time in six years due to dropping construction costs and home values stabilizing -- even rising in many markets. A recent article in Barron's Magazine concurs on the upward trend in housing values: several experts predict they could increase as much as 5 to 10 percent nationally over the next several years.

Construction costs might be another matter -- the current low levels could be temporary. An article on Bloomberg.com describes how a rebounding housing industry might cause a lumber shortage that could result in higher prices. Framing lumber and trim can be a big part of the material costs of many home improvement projects.

For now, however, the planets appear to be aligned, and 2013 might be a good year to finish your basement or add a bedroom in the attic. Here are a few remodeling projects that the Cost vs. Value Report estimates should provide a good return on your investment:

  • Adding an attic bedroom - 72.9%
  • Minor kitchen remodels - 75.4%
  • Basement remodels - 70.3%
  • Bathroom remodels - 65.2%
  • Installing new wood windows - 73.3%
  • Putting new vinyl siding on your home - 72.9%
  • Installing a new garage door - 75.7%
  • Replacing your old siding with fiber cement - 79.3%
  • Installing insulated vinyl siding - 71.8%

The percentages are based on a national average and could be higher or lower in your region. For example, if your home is located in the Pacific region, you might be able to recoup as much as 89% of the cost of adding an attic bedroom, and a basement remodel could return 87.8 percent. Regardless of where you live, 2013 might be the ideal time for a home improvement project.


{Remodeling Ideas}

{Ask the Contractor}

  • Is this home worth it?

    I am looking at buying a cheap house that needs some major upgrades, including raising the ceiling. I would like to make it a cathedral ceiling. The roof looks like it is sagging and would need to be redone anyway. Is it worth buying a house under 100,000 if it needs these big remodels? Any ideas of what I could expect to pay? Thanks.


  • Is it possible my I-joist is damaged?

    My home had I-joists supporting the plywood floor. I had the plywood replaced, and when the contractors were pulling it up, I noticed they were ripping off a top layer of the joists. I asked them to stop and called the foreman over to evaluate. He says it did not damage the integrity of the I-beam, but I don't know if I can trust his word on that. What do you think?


  • Can I safely move a support post?

    I bought a house with an unfinished basement and there's a support post right in the middle of the I-beam. To properly frame out the room, is it possible to move it three feet off center and not have it cause any issues structurally? It's a two-story home.


  • Whose job is it to measure for a kitchen remodel?

    The design plan of my new kitchen cabinets said the end of the cabinets would terminate with inches of wall space showing. When the cabinets were installed there was a whole foot of wall space. When I questioned my contractor, he said it's not his job to measure - it's my job. Is this true?


  • How can I remove a column from my basement?

    I have a structural beam in my basement that has a 15 foot span with a lally column at seven feet. The beam is three 2x8s pocketed into the foundation on both sides. There are no walls or beams above this beam. How can I remove it?


  • What are the best boards to use for building a deck?

    I want to build a 16" x 16" deck. What size boards should I use?


  • What's the best way to move a washer and dryer?

    If I wanted to relocate my washer and dryer to a newly constructed out building to save a little room in my house, how would I handle the drainage? Also, if I created a rain garden next to the out building, can I drain it into the rain garden?

  • How do I reattach wires going from the thermostat to the fireplace?

    I have a continental gas fireplace, and the wires from the thermostat to the fireplace have come disconnected at the fireplace. There are four wires: yellow, red, green, and black. There are three vertical terminal posts labeled from top to bottom TP TH, TP, and TH. Can you tell me which wires go where? Thanks.