san francisco

My “Cheap” Mistake

I recently made a mistake when I tried to “save money”. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Chicago for a small business education class with other kitchen and bath design companies to learn techniques to run Design Set Match more efficiently. Not being a frequent flier, I simply did what has worked well for me in the past. I went to one of the travel websites and then a couple of others to discover that they’ve been bought up by the same company and are essentially all the same site now. Ok, so I didn’t see as much variety as I have before, but the rates looked reasonable.

A previous homeowner "saved" money by adding multiple pipes to raise this shower head

A previous homeowner "saved" money by adding multiple pipes to raise this shower head

The trouble is what I didn’t see coming. I booked a cheap flight on a “young” airline. I’ve done this before without any trouble from other airlines. Sure, I usually sit towards the back in economy, but that's not a big deal, I almost always get a window seat. Then I went on to select my hotel room. It was a little more than the cheap hotels, but it was within walking distance to the Häfele showroom where the training classes were to take place. I even upgraded because I didn’t want to be in a “dorm style room”. I felt good, paid for the trip, and was all set.

Not so fast, I immediately got an email from the airline about their “bare fare” to discover that they charge extra for everything! Ok, so I need to pay for a meal, that's pretty typical, I prefer the airport restaurants… wait, now I need pay for my carry-on luggage too, it's a basic essential for a 4-night 5-day trip! So I fork it over… select a seat? Forget that, it is additional money for even the farthest back seat! If I was flying with my family I would have needed to do it though (to be able to sit together), so I opted for a “random” seat. There’s more… or I should say less. They don’t even provide the most basic human necessity of water on this 4.5 hour flight without charging for it! And just to grind in the nickel-and-dime insult they have billboard advertisements on the interior walls and they have a long-winded flight attendant trying to “sell” their MasterCard at the end of the flight to get a discount on the food they just charged an arm and a leg for! Ok, rant over. 

What does this mean for remodeling? What can a homeowner like yourself take away from this? Learn from my mistake. Ask questions

1960's Blind Lazy Susan

1960's Blind Lazy Susan

When a contractor, cabinet company or plumbing shop says they can do your kitchen for less what does “less” mean? What are they removing to make it a “bare fare” like my flight? Often with cabinets they haven’t paid attention to the details of functions that have been painstakingly poured over by you and your kitchen or bath designer. 

Häfele Lemans Blind Corner Solution

Häfele Lemans Blind Corner Solution

Homeowners in the San Francisco Bay Area trust me as their kitchen and bath designer to review their orders before they spend $20,000+ on cabinetry or $150,000+ on their remodel. I often find that from the outside cabinets or other items “look the same”. What they’re actually being sold isn’t a solution to the problems that brought them into me in the first place. Lower cost cabinets usually function like their 1960’s cabinets do now. My clients will continue to lose pantry items in the back of the corner cabinet or deep pantry only to discover them years after they’ve expired. Or they’d be purchasing plumbing fixtures like a Toto wall-mounted toilet with the Geberit in-wall tank through an online retailer only to discover their plumber hasn’t installed one before and needs to spend hours on the phone with customer service because he thinks its “broken” and he can’t get a local manufacturer’s representative to talk him through the process which will prevent leaks in your walls. And worst of all is getting a general contractor who doesn’t meet expectations. They usually are unlicensed, have poor communication during construction, draw out construction longer than expected (even if there are no unforeseen circumstances) are careless with other rooms of your home and nickel-and-dime you because “they didn’t plan to install crown moulding” or the “wall-mounted toilet took more time to install than I had planned”.

Homeowner beware. Ask questions, get detailed written agreements spelling out what will actually be done, get a written construction schedule. It's worth the savings in valuable time and stress to pay a little more for the proper management and quality materials your trusted remodeling professionals will provide.

There's a difference between "frugal" and "cheap". Don’t make a “cheap” mistake of your own.

Do I really need a permit? But I'm only doing...

Benjamin Franklin first attempted to safeguard homes with minimum standards for fireplace clearance requirements in 1735.

Benjamin Franklin first attempted to safeguard homes with minimum standards for fireplace clearance requirements in 1735.

What most people don't realize is that permits are there to protect you, the homeowner and the money you're investing into your home. It's a little like the safety nets and guide wires that trapeeze artists have, everyone hopes that there will be no need for them as they freely fly through the air and at the same time everyone is sitting a little more comfortably knowing that if they missed the catch it wouldn't end in a tragedy. 

Similarly, permits require that your remodel has been planned to acceptable safety (fire prevention, harmful sewer gasses and flooding for example) and efficiency standards (water and energy savings to prevent rolling blackouts and reduce wasteful clean water consumption for our drought ridden state) called codes and that your installers and contractors adhere to those regulations by having city and county expert officials visit and inspect at critical times. 

Often homeowners think this is too much of a hassle to deal with and that they shouldn't be bothered because "nothing is changing". How much more of a hassle is it if you are "caught" remodeling without a permit? What would the additional fines do to your budget? How might delays due to being "red flagged" affect your moving back in? Did you know you can lose money, possibly your entire remodeling investment, in reselling your home because you must disclose any remodeling work not done with the proper permitting?

While some jurisdictions may require a little more patience on the homeowner's part than others, you should have permits on every remodel you do. Some cities make it easy and have a FAQ's just for this. 

Visit these local agencies to see if You need a permit or your work is exempt exempt from permits...

Alameda Permit Center

Alameda Permit Center

So yes, if you're remodeling your bathroom and you're not moving plumbing locations, you need a permit, however if your simply replacing your toilet for a quick repair you usually don't. And yes, If you're remodeling your kitchen to give it a face-lift but you're keeping the kitchen cabinets you need a permit, but if you're just changing the flooring in your kitchen and freshening up the paint you usually don't.

When we try to work around the law it will only return four-fold to haunt your home. Remodel safely and get your contractor to pull permits for your kitchen or bathroom remodel, it may save lives as well as money.

Source: http://alamedaca.gov/permits

Do I Really Need Three Bids?

The short answer is no, however the Contractors State Liscense Board (CSLB) says"Yes". Discrepancy? Not really. 

Alameda Victorian kitchen

Alameda Victorian kitchen

What the CSLB is trying to do is help protect you, the consumer. Too often homeowners like yourself decide to use the first "nice guy" contractor they meet to remodel their kitchens and bathrooms. Unfortunately an overwhelming number, seniors and younger generations alike, are taken advantage of by unlicensed, expired or even shared license contractors who take excessive time in completing the remodel and usually increase the cost by nickel and diming "unforeseen" circumstances that they really should've been aware of and all too often these "nice guys" disappear never to be found or finish the work you've already paid them to do. The CSLB isn't recommending that you do this practice of getting bids just so you can find the lowest bidder. In fact it's the mere opposite. Doing the bidding process will illuminate for you who has listened and payed attention to your needs, home, budget and other details vs who it trying to be the lowest bidder. Typically the lowest bidder has not made a clear detailed description of the work they will be doing for you, how long it will take and fixed costs, sometimes they even have asingle page contract that generically says "remodel kitchen".

So why do I disagree with the CSLB regarding bids? Honestly it's because you can vett the good contractors out more easily. Start with a conversation. Ask your interior designer or architect for recommended professionals they have relationships with. Ask them why they think the contractors they are recomending might be right for you. During the Schematic Design Process, I often recommend a couple of contractors for the homeowners to meet. Occasionally I haven't worked with them before in a home, but I've built a relationship with them through the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and I've had great feedback about them and their work from colleges and past clients. More often than not I have worked with them on some remarkably transforming spaces. 

Main things I look for and recommend you look for too:

Lafayette Cottage Traditional Kitchen

Lafayette Cottage Traditional Kitchen

Trust

  • How do I feel in there presence
  • How do the things they say about their business model and process align with my core values? 
  • What is my basic gut feeling? It's okay to say it's not a good fit based on this alone.

 

Practical

  • What will they be like to work with as a designer and as a homeowner? 
  • Do they speak contractor over my head terminology or can they explain things in a way that I can easily understand? 
    • One of my pet-peeves is when experts in their field are my advisors, such as accountants and insurance professionals, and speak over my head in a lingo that is only specific to their career knowledge base.

 

Value

  • Pricing style:
    • Do they give a bid right after their first conversation with you based on random allowances?
      • How realistic could that really be?
    • Or do they offer a small contract to assess your home and provide a detailed construction contract with a fixed price?
      • In my experience this is the best path for a successful remodel.
  • Communication:
    • Does their construction contract provide a detailed list spelling out every fixture, faucet, work being done to re-wire and where etc?
    • Do they provide a construction schedule with their agreement outlining everything from where materials are ordered to when construction is expected to be completed?
    • Do they respond to emails and phone calls etc in a timely manner (generally 2 business days if they're not computer savy)? 
  • Finished product: 
    • Have you seen their recent work online or another portfolio?
    • Will they invite you to not only meet a past client but also see their project if you ask?
    • Did they pay attention to details or do you notice odd things that seem unfinished?

While there is nothing "wrong" with getting bids, we've seen how that can have a major negative impact in projects like the new San Francisco Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco and the gigantic cost overruns! The most important thing to remember is that this is your home, who do you want to invite into your most private spaces?

Glass Block

Berkeley has a hippie mentality reputation even more than San Franciscans, but boy, those wonderful crunchy granola folks can have some great ideas for reuse!

I was visiting a friend, who is also my bookkeeper, and she had found an awesome reuse solution for glass blocks! Yes, that stuff that was used in the 80's, instead of windows and walls, which provide privacy and solar heat in homes and offices all over the Bay Area. It's so simple, I'm surprised that I haven't come across it on Pintrest yet. She had one 10" block halved to make a leak free planter for her succulents. Perfect for a desk in need of a little freshly made oxygen.

Commando Shower and other Water Saving Techniques

Some regions are known for their weather, hot and humid in Georgia, cold and snowy in Minnesota, and rainy and grey in Seattle. California is no different, we are simply "weather-less" to the minds of people from the more extreme regions. Especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, with our summer fog blowing in through the Marin headlands, past the golden gate up into the Berkeley hills and all our other microclimates, it is easy to forget the dry heat of the valleys, that though fruitful with crops can also seem like a dessert. In times of severe drought, California's governors have time and again called for conservation. Have you seen the EBMUD's (east bay municiple utilities district) billboards showing use of brooms instead of hosing the sidewalk? Have you heard the Water Sense radio ads for how boaters can save water so they can keep their boats in without getting stuck in the muck? Maybe you've even heard a Josh Donaldson of the Oakland A's recommending taking a "power shower"?

So if conserving water is their problem, isn't it ours too? Hetchhetchy water tastes great, until we run out and need to use wells filled with minerals that discolor and leave hard to clean spots on our cars and shower doors and that has a disgusting taste like Hanford water. So what can we do?

 

Effective cheap techniques (more men than women seem to prefer these)

Water Collection While Waiting For Hot Water

Water Collection While Waiting For Hot Water

  • Commando Shower: Turning the shower on, waiting for it to get up to temperature, getting wet, turning off the water, lathering up while getting goose bumps, turning the water back on and fiddling around trying to get the temperature right again, rinsing off and being done in 5 minutes or less. Over twenty years ago a shower head was designed just for this purpose with a little "off" button on the shower head!
  • Bucket Brigade: Having a bucket, or several, in your bathroom hoping not to trip over them, filling them with cold water as you wait for the hot water to reach you from the water heater that is located at the other end of the house, picking the heavy bucket out of the tub or shower being careful not to spill gallons all over your floor or drop the thing on your toe and then enjoying a nice warm shower... Repeat per person in the house because the water cools off in the pipes in the 15-20 minutes it takes for you to dry off, get dressed and other essential getting ready time.
  • Let it Mellow: Applying only "if it's yellow", let urine and toilet paper sit and hang out in the toilet bowl for a few trips to the toilet, not enough to clog the system hopefully, then flush assuming your friends are friendly with this, otherwise expect them to flush or think your toilet may not be functioning and try to fix it for you, and scrubbing the toilet bowl more often due to bacteria that tries to make a new home for itself.
  • Sink Capture: Hand washing dishes in a bucket and reusing the dirty water in their toilet and over time having a toilet that clogs regularly and flushing mechanisms not working. Some pour this water into their gardens, more appropriately, but find that pests become attracted to the washed out food particles.

 

Mythological techniques (no unicorns or dragons to help these out)

E. Coli Bacteria in Black Water

E. Coli Bacteria in Black Water

  • Hand-washing dishes in the sink: many homeowners all over the Bay Area are still hand-washing their dishes, some simply don't have a dishwasher, others find it therapeutic but most believe they are being Eco conscious. What they don't realize is that even if they are washing in a bucket and collecting dishes in a sudsy place, while they rinse they actually use more water on average than they would using a dishwasher! Dishwashers today have been designed to use very little water, not only can they reach the scalding germ killing temperatures that are impossible by hand, but they precisely spray the water where it is needed and use small effecient and powerful streams of spray that push the grime off. They also have integrated little garbage disposers in them so that the particles get grinded up and sent out so that they're not spread all over onto other clean dishes.
  • Reusing all water is good: Water from the kitchen sink, and even washing machines especially for parents washing soiled diapers and changes of clothes is actually considered "black". Black water is a fabulous place for organisms to grow, hibernate and spread potential disease in food partials and grease. Grey water, called so because of its general coloring and lack of clarity, can be reclaimed immediately without needing to go to a major processing plant. This water may be from washing hands with environmental friendly soaps or using the washing maching with a regular cycle of clothes and can be used to flush toilets and water plants safely. There are elaborate systems plumbers can hook up to capture this potential waste and direct it to gardens and filtering collection tanks. There are also simple systems to connect bathroom sinks to toilets to avoide flushing potable drinking water directly down the drain.

 

Realistic techniques (approved by Berkeley and San Francisco hippies)

  • Basic: Water Sense and PG & E have a great websites with simple cost effective techniques that are safe and relationship friendly.

What if you're already Planning to remodel? 

Toto Drake II, 1 Gallon per Flush (GPF)

Toto Drake II, 1 Gallon per Flush (GPF)

  • Select water saving fixtures and faucets start with dual flush toilets and low flow toilets, Toto has one that is 1GPF (gallon per flush)! 
  • How about the shower head? Yes, you can still feel luxurious as water rushes down covering your whole body, has enough pressure to rinse out your hair and saves water! No need for those commando showers boys!  That being said, for those who like to turn the water off mid-shower, I recommend getting a thermostatic shower valve. This measures how warm the water is and maintains that temperature during your shower without losing pressure when someone in another part of your home runs the dishwasher or flushes a toilet.
  • Shorten your wait time for hot water. Ask your plumber if an on-demand or tankless hot water heater just outside your bathroom, or even under the sink makes sense for your home and situation. Another cost effective option might be to use a recirculating pump which pushes the cold water from the hot water line into the cold water line until hot water is a few seconds from your sink or shower without changing the temperature of the water in your cold water line, it's a neat trick!

I'm curious, how might your thinking have changed about saving water? Please add your comments.


San Francisco Design Center's Historic Preservation on Pause

San Francisco Design Center

San Francisco Design Center

About a month ago I had discovered that the San Francisco Design Center was in a land development pickle. Now I am pleased to see that district supervisor Malia Cohen has stood her ground! 

She also agrees that the design district buildings deserve landmark designation but not at the cost of its current tenants. 

While I love Pintrest, this issue has nothing to do with them except that they were the big name tech company in the running for this space. These couple of blocks of street was named after Henry Adams for a reason, and that history for the design center is key for all in the remodeling industry and homeowners too. 

This follow-up story by SF Gate is clearly stating everything. Check it out. Oh and if you are in her voting district, I hear she is up for re-election, please consider supporting her in the polls for doing there right thing for her community and yours!

Apple's Home Kit

Home automation gets easier with Apple's upcoming release of their "Home Kit"!

If you're anything like my husband, you have already watched the keynote address for the World Wide Developer's Conference (WWDC) at Moscone Center in San Francisco. If so, this is old  news. But for most of us not so "with-it" tech people this is is still very exciting!

In the fall of 2014, Apple will be releasing its iOS 8 operating system for their mobile devices. While there are currently some deadbolts like the August Smart Lock and thermostats like ecobee's Smart SI with special apps,  this will include home automation that can open even your garage door simply by using Siri! Along with Home Kit, Apple is trying to establish a standard for home automation devices. Having a unified standard will allow more manufacturers bring products to market quickly and ensure cross-compatibility with other devices.

Latch-key kids can now forget their keys and still get home safely, actually they don't even need keys anymore!

Savvy Thermostats

Piggybacking on last week's thoughts, I realize that I forgot to mention thermostats.

ecobee interfaces with your mobile technology

ecobee interfaces with your mobile technology

How do smoke detectors and thermostats relate? By their manufacturer. The same home owners living in San Francisco, no they're not paranoid, needed an alternate solution to the Google owned Nest thermostat. Something with a simple, well designed, user friendly interface that they could not only program but also monitor, pause and resume while on vacation. Who doesn't want to come home to a warm home after a ski week without paying a PG&E bill to match? 

Ecobee has come out with two great solutions, the Smart and Smart Si thermostats and they have a new App "Home IQ" in beta so that you can see your personal savings and energy usage. Their controls a digital interface, small profile and can interact with your iStuff, phone, computer etc. it can learn your patterns and desired home temperatures without reporting back to big G so that they can determine the best time to send you which advertising.

Welcome Home!

Sleep Safety

No matter where you live, whether its San Francisco, Alameda, or Berkeley, one code requirement remains the same. Smoke detectors are required inside and outside of each bedroom. Its not that the building inspectors really want to checkout your whole house, it is a safety precaution. Even if you are "just remodeling a kitchen or small bathroom" it is something that all building departments are responsible for. Its a good thing, big brother is actually looking out for your best interest for a change. Does this mean that you need to re-wire your entire house to put in a fancy hardwired system that alerts the fire department? In most cases, no. Requirements of that kind are usually reserved for new construction or when a certain percentage of your home is being worked on.

So what are your options? You could run to the hardware store and purchase the lowest costing model off the shelf, or you could go to the Mac Store and drool over the Apple computers and iStuff to buy a Nest model with its sleek design. The drawback to the Nest is that it is now a Google owned company and they have been able to turn its sensing features into more personal anylitics for their marketing strategies. I have done some research recently because my Apple employed clients are anti-Google-tracking, especially when it comes to your coming and going in your home just because you wake in the night to use the toilet. 

First Alert Photoelectric Smoke and CO Combo Alarm with Voice PC900V

First Alert Photoelectric Smoke and CO Combo Alarm with Voice PC900V

You may be aware of the concerns about carbon monoxide during sleeping hours too. This is because its presence will actually cause drowsiness  and if you are already asleep you are not very likely to notice any difference in your ability to take in the required oxygen to continue to breath. So how can you keep your newly remodeled home less cluttered without sacrificing your safety? First Alert has a wonderful, clean and simple combination detector that is photo sensitive to detecting smoke and has an active voice. Its the  PC900V, it will tell you which alarm is going off with words, it will also tell you when its battery is getting low so that you don't end up taking it down in the middle of the night and never returning it to its post. Its affordable too, you can buy it directly from their website or in most local hardware stores like Ace.

Now you can sleep safely in style without the concerns of the big G knowing even more about your hourly habits.     Nighty night!