Savvy Consumer Tips

Rodents sense seasonal changes, so when winter comes they look for comfortable places to settle. I recently noticed some mice nesting on top of my water heater, and Richard Estrada, owner of ATCO Pest Control, a Diamond Certified company, explained why. “Many water heaters are wrapped with insulation, so they’re good, warm places for rodents to harbor.” Besides insulation, rats and mice use paper, twigs and other debris for nests.

Droppings aren’t the only clue that rodents have moved in to your home. Mr. Estrada suggests you walk around the perimeter of your house and look for openings and chew marks on the surrounding wood. Check the bottoms of doors, screens and garage doors. Another clue is smudge marks: As the critters travel through dirt and mud, they drag their bodies along and leave prominent smudges on surfaces.

You can have an ant problem all year round in the Bay Area if you don’t take some precautions. Richard Estrada, owner of ATCO Pest Control, a Diamond Certified company, says the first step is “getting rid of fruit, garbage, sodas and other food items that attract ants. They love the same things we do!” Mr. Estrada recommends against spraying store-bought repellants because they simply scatter the ants. Instead, try applying bait primarily to the areas where the ants originate.

Inspecting the outside of your home is also a good idea. Mr. Estrada suggests checking bushes or trees that touch your house for ant infestations. By cutting those limbs back, you’ll shut off the ants’ path into your home. Remember: Ants are valuable to the environment, so it’s best to keep them outside by being proactive instead of reactive.

Customers often call Paul Beaton, owner of Cleaner One, A Division of Beaton Flooring, a Diamond Certified company, to complain that their marble countertops have lost their luster. They tell him they see watermarks on their countertops and floors, but they’re actually not watermarks—Mr. Beaton explains that when marble areas lose their shine, it’s called “etching.” Etching occurs when an acidic product (usually a beverage, cleaning product or food item) comes into contact with a calcium-based stone, like marble.

The solution is to keep surfaces dry and use neutral cleaning products. Mr. Beaton recommends StoneTech, which creates a line of products that won’t cause etching or damage your stone surfaces. If you do use acidic cleaning products, don’t set the containers down on stone surfaces—put them on a tray so they don’t drip and splatter while you move from room to room.

My neighbor in Sonoma has some beautiful trees, but a few of the limbs and branches are blocking my view. I started wondering whether I was within my rights to trim some of those branches, given that they’re dangling over the fence and onto my property. Who better to ask than Darren Edwards, owner of Advance Tree Service, Inc., a Diamond Certified company? According to Mr. Edwards, “You can trim a tree without your neighbor’s permission if it’s growing onto your property. You’re allowed to trim back to the property line as long as it doesn’t damage the tree’s health or integrity.” That being said, it’s still a good idea to discuss any limb trimming with your neighbor first, just to keep up good relations.

As a side note, we also had a neighbor’s tree limbs growing onto our power lines. One call to PG&E and they came right out to remove the limbs that presented a potential safety hazard.

If you’re currently planning a kitchen remodel, you need to think carefully about how you’re going to use the space. I remember when I did my first kitchen remodel years ago. My husband and I thought it would be a good idea to have a desk where the kids could do their homework. They never used it, but the family dog did—she slept under it for years.

Chris Chidester, general manager of The Cabinet Center, a Diamond Certified company, says kitchen desks aren’t as popular as they used to be. Now that people have laptops, wireless devices and cell phones, they gravitate to the kitchen island or a table to work, which frees up storage space. Mr. Chidester also suggests not wasting space on a trash compactor. “Now that Americans are recycling more, we don’t have nearly as much garbage as we once had, so compactors are almost becoming extinct,” he explains.

The first thing to know about creating a compost pile is that you shouldn’t add meat or dairy products to the heap. That advice is from an experienced Diamond Certified landscaper, Don Moe, President of All Things Green, Inc. You won’t get bad odors that way. The best stuff is a good blend of sawdust, leafy vegetables, fruit, grass clippings, leaves and shredded newspapers. Just make sure you don’t include the glossy advertising supplements.

Here is another great tip. Many people forget to turn their compost pile once or twice a week to let in the oxygen. To see if you’re doing it right, check the moisture level by putting your hand in there (wear a rubber glove); it should be like squeezing out a sponge. Mr. Moe tells me it takes from 4 to 8 weeks to produce rich compost that you can mix with your soil. Your plants, flowers and shrubs will love it!

A quality paint job always starts with a thorough prep job. Recently I had 5 rooms in a small cottage painted and it took the painter more than 2 weeks of prep work before he even applied the primer! Greg Kuzmicki, owner of Solidarity Painting, Waterproofing & Restoration says too many painters cut corners by not prepping thoroughly and rushing through the job.

Mr. Kuzmicki thinks homeowners should be on the lookout for dry rot in particular. He says, “Most painters paint over dry rot because they just don’t notice it, but more often they just want to finish the job, get paid for it, and move on to the next job. This can be very costly to the homeowners in the future.” To be on top of things for your next painting project, know where your home has dry rot and inform the painting contractor. Check out areas around the windows, the trim and roof lines.

Many stucco homes in the Bay Area have lots of little cracks in them (and big ones, too) that are caused by natural settling and earthquakes. Dan Ford, owner and general manager of CertaPro Painters of Silicon Valley, a Diamond Certified company, warns that if you don’t repair these cracks properly when painting your house, you’ll have water damage that can lead to dry rot.

A good solution is to cover the cracked stucco with durable elastomeric paint. You must apply the paint generously to damaged surfaces and take special care to cover the entire crack, because if you don’t, you’ll have what Mr. Ford calls “bubbling,” which can lead to more damage later. Mr. Ford also says not all stucco homes need to be painted with an elastomeric product; sometimes painting contractors oversell it. It’s also possible to use elastomeric paint only on the sides with cracks and regular paint on the other parts of the house.

Safety should always come first when your home is being remodeled. According to Diamond Certified contractor Matthew W. Johnson, your contractor should always make sure that any removed windows are boarded up with both plastic and plywood when the carpenters finish for the day. Anyone trying to break in would need a power tool to remove the barriers.

If you want to continue using your alarm system during the project, it’s a good idea to create an alternate code for the contractor and his subcontractors. When the job is completed, you can delete the extra code and ensure no one has access to your personal code. Finally, Mr. Johnson makes a special point of keeping all his power tools locked up at night. This way, children and even adults won’t be able to get into trouble by experimenting with them.

These days, it’s not enough to simply check out your contractor when you’re planning a big remodeling job. Most of today’s contractors employ teams of professional subcontractors as well. In California, the subs are licensed in their respective trades. Steven Katkowsky, owner of Steven's Incredible Kitchen Machine, a Diamond Certified company, recommends asking your general contractor for the license numbers of the subcontractors he’s using so you can check them out, too.

Mr. Katkowsky says you should also make sure both the contractor and all subcontractors carry at least $1 million in liability insurance. It’s not enough proof to have the certificate of insurance from the insurer. A more reliable way to confirm that insurance coverage is in effect when your job begins is to ask to be named as an “additional insured.” That way, if the contractor doesn’t pay his premium and the insurance expires, you’ll be notified.

Many people make the mistake of storing their firewood outside, directly up against their houses. John Kunkel, owner of Termite Police, a Diamond Certified company, says that’s the worst place to put it. Termites are attracted to any kind of wood and can easily move from a woodpile right into your siding or foundation. It’s much better to store your wood away from the house, perhaps in a shed.

Here’s another tip from Mr. Kunkel: If you live in an old house and set firewood down on the hardwood floors, beetles might move in with the wood. Once these beetles start feasting on your floors, you’ll need professional help to eliminate them. The best idea is to keep all firewood away from direct contact with your hardwood floors by placing the logs in some kind of barrel or holder.

You can save energy in your home by installing cellular (also known as honeycomb) shades. They’re made in single, double and even triple cells. One homeowner with a 3,000-square-foot home reported to Duane Vos, CEO of Creative Window Fashions, Inc. a Diamond Certified company, that his energy bill was reduced by 13 percent after installing cellular shades. A business owner whose office was too hot with just mini-blinds was able to lower the inside temperature 15 degrees by doing the same thing. Employees were more comfortable and the energy bill was lower, too.

You might think cellular shades collect lots of dust within their cells and are difficult to clean. Not so, says Mr. Vos. Most are made of polyester and clean up easily with an electrostatic feather duster. You can also try canned compressed air, the same product used to clean your computer’s keyboard. For really dingy shades, try professional ultrasonic dry cleaning.

I asked John Gorman, owner of Save Energy Company, a Diamond Certified company, for some good tips on windows. First, he noted that many people replace their windows to improve energy efficiency and reduce mold and mildew, but the biggest surprise is how much quieter their homes are with brand new ones. Second, Mr. Gorman warns that many older homes don’t have tempered or safety glass in the windows. All new patio doors must have safety glass in them to prevent serious injury, as should any windows within 24 inches of a door, 18 inches of the floor, or 60 inches of a shower or tub drain.

The third tip is for people who don’t want to replace old wood windows with vinyl windows because they can’t be painted. A good option is fiberglass windows—they have the endurance of vinyl and the flexibility of wood, and you can paint the fiberglass or even stain the clear Douglas fir interior to your liking.

Most of us postpone getting our hardwood floors refinished because we dread the mess. The talcum-like dust from the sanding process is not only difficult to clean up; it’s a health hazard, too. Wood dust is a known carcinogen— expectant mothers and people with asthma and respiratory problems are warned to limit their exposure to it.

Scott Miller, Operations Manager for Elegant Floors, a Diamond Certified company, reports that the dust problem caused by sanding floors can now be almost completely eliminated with a new dust extraction system. The Bona Atomic DCS trailer extracts about 98 percent of dust through powerful hoses that connect the sanding equipment to a powerful dust collector in a large, outdoor trailer. This method is so effective that you no longer have to deal with dust build-up in your air ducts; on your clothing, china cabinet, walls and ceiling; or in your lungs.

If you want a sturdy fence, make sure the footings are placed deep enough. Guy Aranda, owner of Guy’s Fencing, a Diamond Certified company, says while some contractors dig down about 24 inches, he prefers a depth of 30 to 36 inches, depending on the soil. This deep footing makes the post extremely stable and allows the fence to withstand just about anything. The concrete poured into the footing should completely and evenly surround the post for maximum stability and should slope away from the base. Mr. Aranda isn’t a fan of using gravel underneath the posts in the hole—he doesn’t think it’s very helpful.

Mr. Aranda recommends upgrading posts so they’ll last longer. Typically, a 4’ x 4’ post will last about 20 years, but a 4’ x 6’ post will last about 10 years longer. You won’t pay much more for the larger posts, and labor installation costs are the same.

Have you been living with a kitchen that’s not only outdated, but is also missing basic design dimensions that would make it easier to use? Jim Kabel, owner of Case Handyman and Remodeling, a Diamond Certified company, has suggestions for you if you’re starting to plan a remodel.

First, look at the clear space for entry doors and appliance doors, and eliminate any interference. Locate the nearest edge of the dishwasher within 36" of the nearest clean-up/prep sink. There should also be 21" of standing space between the edge of the open dishwasher and the countertop or cabinet across from it. Plan for a “landing” area, usually about 12” to 15” on each side of the range to prepare or remove items from the cooking surface. And your microwave oven should be 3" below the principal user's shoulders, but not more than 54" above the floor.

You might be surprised to find leaking pipes, fungus, dry rot, damp soil, construction debris and even old tree stumps! John Kunkel, owner of Termite Police, a Diamond Certified company, says it’s a good idea to inspect the sub-area of your home every three years, because all of these things can attract termites. Once you have termites feeding under your house, they will continue grazing and can cause serious structural damage if they’re not entirely eliminated.

You might not see any sign of termites above ground and assume all is well underneath the house. One red flag upstairs might be a “softness” in the flooring (unless it’s tile – then you won’t feel it at all). Below ground, look for termite droppings shaped like little poppy seeds. They can be tan or reddish brown. If you clean them up and they keep coming back, it’s time to call in the professionals.

Whenever you’re doing a major remodel, why not think about how to bring in the natural light and color from the outside, and increase your living space? Don Runnals, owner of Concept Builders, a Diamond Certified company, says he encourages homeowners to consider creating a natural and relaxed feeling in their homes, inside and out. Some of the possibilities include patio additions, sun rooms, glass doors, fire pits, outdoor kitchens, skylights, and even water features.

But what if you live in a tight space, say a condo or small house, without any yard at all? Mr. Runnals says you might add skylights, atrium rooms or a bay window. Another idea for the kitchen is to pop out the window behind your sink and add shelves for potted herbs. You’ll have improved lighting along with fresh herbs for dinner! The most important thing is to invest in improvements that help you enjoy your home.

Just as with heating loss in winter, make sure your house is well sealed against air leakage in summer. According to Michael McCutcheon, owner of McCutcheon Construction, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, you can have your house tested for leaks by a Home Performance Contractor, who uses a Blower Door to measure the amount of air leaking from your home. Plug any leaks you may have with sealants, caulking, weather-stripping, etc.

Once you've resolved all the air leakage problems you can, it's time to take a look at your AC unit. Ideally, it's Energy Star labeled and is at least 14 SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio), which means you will use less electricity to run the unit. Make sure it has been serviced recently, and ask the service provider what the efficiency rating is. If your unit isn't up to snuff, consider upgrading to a more efficient one.

Michael McCutcheon, owner of McCutcheon Construction, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says air conditioning is still the most reliable way to cool a building during hot weather, although in dry climates, you can use evaporative coolers, which use the cooling effects of water. Place the unit in a shady spot around your home, if possible. Often he sees coolers sitting on the roof or baking on the west or south side of homes, which means they have to work that much harder. Best to put them in the shade—north or east.

Adding insulation to your attic is a big help. Or try a light colored, reflective "cool" roof. This will reduce the amount of heat rays that penetrate into your home. Installing double pane windows with Low-E glass is another option. The Low-E glass has a coating which blocks heat rays while allowing most of the visible light to pass through.

Have you been living with a kitchen that’s not only outdated, but is also missing basic design dimensions that would make it easier to use? Jim Kabel, owner of Case Handyman and Remodeling, a Diamond Certified company, has suggestions for you if you’re starting to plan a remodel.

First, look at the clear space for entry doors and appliance doors, and eliminate any interference. Locate the nearest edge of the dishwasher within 36" of the nearest clean-up/prep sink. There should also be 21" of standing space between the edge of the open dishwasher and the countertop or cabinet across from it. Plan for a “landing” area, usually about 12” to 15” on each side of the range to prepare or remove items from the cooking surface. And your microwave oven should be 3" below the principal user's shoulders, but not more than 54" above the floor.

Ever wonder about the origin of “spring cleaning"? Ernie Andrade, owner of All Bright Maintenance Services, a Diamond Certified company, explains that the idea originated in China. The Chinese clean homes in anticipation of the New Year. A thorough cleaning eliminates bad luck and misfortune from the previous year. In Jewish custom, Passover, which comes around April, is a time of house cleaning as well. And when homes were heated with coal, wood and oils in the winter, families waited until spring to remove soot, ash, and the smell of smoke from walls, ceilings, fabric and furniture.

Nowadays we spring clean to celebrate bright days, fresh air, and blooming flowers and trees. Cleaning protects our investment and saves us money by preserving floors, carpets, and furniture. Removing dust and allergens is better for our health. Living in a clean and organized home eliminates stress, and we can feel proud when we welcome others into our homes.

It’s not too early to get your planting soil ready for a spring garden by spreading compost, fertilizing, and turning over the soil, according to Alan Kostelnik, owner of Gardens of the Wine Country, a Diamond Certified company. A few veggies, such as peas, lettuce, rhubarb, asparagus and spinach can be planted now, but you should hold off on all the others because we might still have a frost or two, and possibly heavy spring rains.

Mr. Kostelnik says it’s time to plant your annuals—petunias, pansies, snap dragons and nasturtiums. Prune the perennials, ornamental grasses and shrubbery now to encourage late spring and summer blooms. And why not get a jump on a general clean up? Eliminate weeds with Round Up or simply use good ol’ elbow grease and pull them out by hand! Finally, add a layer of fertilizer to your lawn to enhance color and root development

Have you been living with a kitchen that’s not only outdated, but is also missing basic design dimensions that would make it easier to use? Jim Kabel, owner of Case Handyman and Remodeling, a Diamond Certified company, has suggestions for you if you’re starting to plan a remodel.

First, look at the clear space for entry doors and appliance doors, and eliminate any interference. Locate the nearest edge of the dishwasher within 36" of the nearest clean-up/prep sink. There should also be 21" of standing space between the edge of the open dishwasher and the countertop or cabinet across from it. Plan for a “landing” area, usually about 12” to 15” on each side of the range to prepare or remove items from the cooking surface. And your microwave oven should be 3" below the principal user's shoulders, but not more than 54" above the floor.

The worst part about replacing deteriorating or broken sewer lines is knowing your driveway and landscaping will be torn up and need to be replaced. This can add thousands to your repair bill. Dale Maples, owner of MAPLEService, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says the good news for homeowners is that improved boring technology now makes it possible to do trenchless repairs.

The technician first runs a cable from the clean-out area at the house to the end of the line at the hook-up to the main sewer. Then, using a hydraulic pump called the Trick Trenchless, a new sewer line is pulled right through the old one, destroying the old sewer line in the process. Mr. Maples says customers are amazed at how quickly the job is done – usually in one day – and the best part is your driveway and beautiful garden are left intact.

If you’re lucky enough to be planning a kitchen remodel, you are thinking a lot about what features you’ll want in your cabinets. Andrew Wilson, a partner with the Cabinet Center, a Diamond Certified company, advises customers to choose full extension soft close hinges and to get as many roll-outs in the base cabinets that you can afford. He says most people also “must have” a pantry with roll-out drawers and Lazy Susans in the corner.

Any kitchen remodel involves the unexpected. Sometimes, for example, once the old cabinets are removed, the contractor will discover that the walls are not lined up properly. You may also discover foundation problems. For this reason, the most important “must-have” is a competent local contractor who will guide you through the construction process and warn you ahead of time about all the inconveniences you will have to endure.

If you have a pent up desire to make changes to your home, having looked at design magazines and watched HGTV for months, you might want to first discuss your ideas with an architect. Mason Kirby, a Diamond Certified Architect, explains that a collaborative approach can be helpful and educational. The architect commonly plays the role of contractor, investment advisor, real estate agent, and even marriage and family counselor in helping you decide what to do.

Once you decide to renovate rather than move, an architect will assist you with the design, introduce your project to the contracting community, make sure the project bids are accurate and fair, and will help you find a good match with a contractor. Mr. Kirby says his goal is for you to like the person who is tearing out your kitchen sink and that you’re pleased with the job upon its completion.

Architects like Mason Kirby, a Diamond Certified professional, help homeowners think through solutions to their design problems. Sometimes the solution is to renovate the kitchen or add that extra bedroom or bathroom. Other times, you might be investing too much equity in the home itself or the neighborhood and it could be that moving to another home makes more sense.

Mr. Kirby encourages people to NOT think of their homes purely as investments. He says, “It’s where the life of your family plays out.” Here is one test he uses: If you can make some changes that will improve the quality of your family’s lives over the next 5 to 7 years, and you have the resources and the will, then remodeling is the way to go. The goal is to be excited about the process and the outcome. A competent architect provides a structured process to determine what are the best options for your situation

Ever wonder about the origin of “spring cleaning"? Ernie Andrade, owner of Allbright Maintenance Services, a Diamond Certified company, explains that the idea originated in China. The Chinese clean homes in anticipation of the New Year. A thorough cleaning eliminates bad luck and misfortune from the previous year. In Jewish custom, Passover, which comes around April, is a time of house cleaning as well. And when homes were heated with coal, wood and oils in the winter, families waited until spring to remove soot, ash, and the smell of smoke from walls, ceilings, fabric and furniture.

Nowadays we spring clean to celebrate bright days, fresh air, and blooming flowers and trees. Cleaning protects our investment and saves us money by preserving floors, carpets, and furniture. Removing dust and allergens is better for our health. Living in a clean and organized home eliminates stress, and we can feel proud when we welcome others into our homes.

You want your new hardwood floors, or newly re-furbished hardwood floors to last, don’t you? That’s why following the advice of pros like Peter Visalli, owner of Visalli Floors, a Diamond Certified company, makes good sense. Besides sweeping and vacuuming the floor regularly Mr. Visalli says that you have to remove spills right away. He suggests using a soft cotton cloth and BonaKemi Hardwood Floor Cleaner for wet spills and a vacuum or broom for dry spills and abrasives.

hPlace mats by exterior doors to pick up grit and sand, and use area rugs in high traffic pathways and pivot areas such as steps and doorways. Avoid rubber-backed rugs and non-ventilated rugs. Simple protectors on the “feet” of your furniture prevent gashes and scrapes. And finally, re-coat your surface with a finish every 3 to 5 years, as long as no wax has been applied.

Some solar companies damage roofs by attaching the solar arrays with giant wood screws. According to Jon Aikele, owner of Roofmax, a Diamond Certified company, “You should never screw anything through the roof without proper flashing.” Wind and rain will cause these types of penetrations to pull loose and leak, and on top of that, “lag-screwing,” as it's called, will void your roof warranty. “Even if the company puts caulking on the screws," said Mr. Aikele, "these areas can leak in three to five years.”

Mr. Aikele also wants you to know that it simply doesn’t make sense to have solar panels—which will last between 30 and 50 years—installed on an old and deteriorating roof. Avoid the risk and the expense of having to remove and reinstall the solar system because your roof needs replacement. Make sure the roof is in good condition before making this significant home improvement.

I do not enjoy riding my old Gitane bicycle any more with its low handlebars, hard seat and skinny tires. Ric Paul, owner of Wheel Away Cycle Center, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, tells me that with a few changes, I can reduce the strain on my neck and back and have a much better riding experience.

First off, you need to elevate the handlebars. Just getting a longer stem or buying new upright handlebars can increase the rise for the upper body 6 to 8 inches. This might slow you down a bit, but you have better visibility and a much more comfortable ride. A broader and softer seat adds comfort, and you might consider padded cycling shorts as well. If you're ready to trade in your old Gitane or Varsity Schwinn for a brand new comfortable cruiser, Mr. Paul recommends the Townie from Electra or the Expedition by Specialized. Prices range from $350-$400.

Is your computer getting slower and slower? I regularly delete photos, video clips and old e-mails, but apparently that’s not enough. Most of us don’t realize that even deleted items are still stored in your computer’s hard drive unless you take additional steps of removing them from your operating system.

For PC users, right-click on Internet Explorer and choose Properties. Under the Temporary Internet Files heading on the General Tab, click the Delete Cookies and Delete Files buttons. Check the Delete Offline Content box also. You might need a computer expert to help you with these suggestions. Another way to speed things up is to install Spyware prevention software. Spyware will certainly slow your machine down. A third suggestion is to buy an external USB hard drive, which serves as a good back-up for photos and data in case your computer crashes.

One of the hottest “green” building materials on the market today is insulation fabricated from denim scraps leftover from the jeans manufacturing process. Made by Bonded Logic and sold under the brand name UltraTouch, the denim insulation contains over 85% recycled denim and cotton fibers. The material, which is also fire retardant, doesn’t contain any toxins or irritants. And unlike other types of insulation, it doesn’t itch or require any protective clothing during installation. Use of UltraTouch may even qualify you for an energy conservation tax credit.
Though old, well-worn jeans aren’t used for the bulk of the denim insulation being produced, Green Jeans Insulation, an UltraTouch distributor in Wisconsin, does accept donated jeans, which they send through the recycling and manufacturing process. What comes out is typically donated for use by nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity. Visit www.GreenJeansInsulation.com/donate for the mailing address and details.

When you make one of the biggest investments of your life, it's well worth it to hire a home inspector to report on the condition of the house. The fees generally range from $350 to $500, depending on square footage. According to Broker Patricia Moore with ReMax Allied Brokers, most home inspectors are generalists, not specialists, who go out of their way to identify major visible defects. She suggests if you get a report saying the furnace is bad, for example, it may be worth it to pay a little extra for a furnace specialist to check things out. Sometimes, the problem can be easily resolved with a minor repair. Moore cautions against doing the inspection yourself or having a friend in the trades do it. It's too easy to miss big items such as chimney repairs and potential electrical code violations.

Homeowners doing remodeling often complain that they are spending more money on the project than they expected. Greg May, President of Diamond Certified's May Construction Inc., says one of the secrets to avoiding costly surprises is to make as many decisions about plumbing fixtures, appliances, cabinets, countertops, etc. as possible before having the contractor out to bid on their project. Put this information in writing, along with a detailed description of the work you want done. Hand it to the contractor at the time of the first jobsite visit. That way he can provide a more accurate bid in a timely manner without having to guess, which can result in problems later for both the homeowner and the contractor.

Plenty of things can go wrong when you have windows installed. They may not fit right, they may not be the quality you expected, or they may fog up. Something you may not know until you try to get warranty work done is that lifetime warranties do not always cover the last problem. According to Kevin Grundry, Chief Financial Officer for Custom Exteriors Incorporated, many warranties only cover the frame, not the glass seal. A defective seal may cause fogging on double pane windows. To know what you're getting from a contractor, ask to see the window manufacturer's warranty in writing. You want coverage for both frames and seals.

There is a right way and a wrong way to install marble, tile and granite and what makes the difference is the foundation.  A quality job has to start with a cement mortar bed. Some companies take short cuts using a cement board instead on top of the sheet rock. The result is an unleveled surface, which leads to uneven walls, floors and countertops. Knowledgeable installers use levels and special materials where needed to make the top surface perfectly even. They also create a stucco mesh wire form that goes underneath the cement mortar. Shawn claims it is worth investing in the foundation because you will be more satisfied with the end product in the long run.

Looking for ways to cut her PG&E bill, a friend told me she's turned off and unplugged her extra refrigerator. This could be a recipe for disaster, according to Steve Silver, a salesman with Diamond Certified's Asien's Appliance. He says what happens is the Freon and coolants settle, and they can eventually leak into the sealed cooling system itself. The refrigerator will run, but not cool when you turn it back on. You'll end up having to buy a new fridge.

A wiser strategy is to turn it down to the lowest setting, and put something in both the freezer and the refrigerated sections. Mr. Silver suggests a couple of milk cartons filled with plain water.

If you ignore stains or discoloration in your linoleum, before you know it, a small leak may turn into an extensive mold problem. Tests for mold are expensive and the clean up can cost thousands of dollars. An owner of a Diamond Certified company says to prevent serious mold problems, homeowners should regularly check for leaks under sinks, around toilets, bathtubs and washing machines. Don't forget to look by your water heater and near the refrigerator's hook-up for the icemaker.

If you find dampness, clean it up and lay out paper towels. Check the towels often for small drips to pinpoint where the leak is coming from. Water spots and moldy smells are clues that you need to fix those leaks right away, not six months from now.

Gophers are wreaking havoc in most of the yards in our neighborhood. We've tried everything from smoke bombs and car exhaust to ultrasonic devices. Nothing has kept the gophers away for long. One Diamond Certified pest control expert explained why one of our neighbor's yards is a gopher-free zone. They have excavated the top six inches of soil and laid down a 1/2 inch grid made of galvanized wire mesh. The wiring keeps the gophers from breaking through the ground. This solution may be too labor-intensive for big yards.

A less expensive remedy, according to some of Ensure Pest Control's customers, is to put used, urine-saturated cat litter into the gopher mounds and tunnels. The theory is that the stench drives the gophers away.

The first time I had my carpets steam cleaned, I was worried that they would be wet for days. Precision Cleaning Services' Owner Curt Holman says that's a common misconception. The truth is, if you hire a good technician who uses the right equipment, carpets should be dry within 4 to 8 hours. Another myth is that you should delay cleaning new carpets for as long as possible because they will never be as good as new again. Modern cleaning methods remove all residues and more frequent cleaning in fact extends the carpet's life. Finally, some consumers believe Scotchguarding is built into their carpets permanently. Fabric protection does wear off and needs to be renewed within 6 months to a year in high-traffic areas and every other year for the rest of your carpets.

Low water pressure out of a kitchen or bathroom faucet is usually not a good sign. You think, "Uh-oh. Something's broken. Call the plumber." Before you panic, check one thing first. Unscrew the end of the faucet and clean out the aerator, the little screen that catches pebbles and sediment. This is something anyone can do, even if you're not too handy. You'd be surprised how often a clogged aerator is the culprit.

If you're looking for other ways to save on appliance repairs, check out Fix It Yourself for Less by Mort Schultz and Consumer Reports Books. I have had this book for years and it's saved me hundreds of dollars and many service calls.

Just because the Jones family had a sit-down prime rib dinner for their daughter’s wedding that doesn’t mean you can’t opt for something else, like a wonderful hors d’oeuvres reception. The caterers say keep an open mind and let the professionals use their creativity. You should insist on a taste test before hiring a caterer. After all, you wouldn’t buy a car without a test-drive.  And tell the caterer about guests’ dietary restrictions. They can usually accommodate you with advance notice. Finally, many people forget that all the leftover food and beverages are yours after a catered event. Don’t be shy about asking for a very large doggy bag!

A few lights are out in your house. But some of your lights work so, there's not a power outage in your area. You know what to do: check the lightbulbs and outlets, check the circuit breaker, re-set it, and flip the switch back on. If your lights still don't work, don't call an electrician yet says Dave Lorber, owner of Superior Builders and Remodelers.

He recommends you try one last thing. Go back to the circuit breaker and push it hard to the "off" position before flipping it back on. Dave says that 75% of the time that's the problem. So, next time you're caught in the dark, double-check your circuit breaker to save yourself a service call.

After paying thousands of dollars to have your house painted, what can you do to make the job last as long as possible? Harold Jagoda of J and D Painting warns to keep ivy off of your house because it can destroy about anything. Also trim back nearby trees. They can bring on mold prematurely and once you see mold, it's time to paint.

Finally, pay special attention to the southern exposure. That side takes a beating from the elements, so if you touch it up every few years, Harold says you'll lengthen the time the job lasts by 4-5 years.

Every spring I get the carpets in my house thoroughly cleaned. While some people choose to clean their own carpets with rental equipment, most rug manufacturers recommend a truck-mounted hot water extraction method performed by a certified person. Murray Kahrnoff, of General Carpet, Upholstery and Area Rug Cleaning, says watch out for the advertised specials for carpet cleaning. Some companies use ridiculously low prices to get you to make an appointment, but it‚s a different story when they come out to do the job. Murray says you should be skeptical if a carpet cleaner promotes the "deep scrub" method or claims to use special rakes. This is just hype.

I like my carpet cleaner because he's honest about what he can't do, gives me advice on spot removal or buying rugs and gives me a carpet cleaning spray to remove spots between cleanings. Can you beat that?

It happens all the time, according to locksmith John Anderson, a partner at Mainline Security, a Diamond Certified company. People try to open their front door and the key gets stuck. Kicking the door is not the best solution, although you may feel like it.

Mr. Anderson says what you can do instead is turn the key to its usual removal position. Place a finger alongside the key and push in on the lock face before slowly withdrawing the key. This will prevent the key from breaking off in the lock. Spraying the lock with a quality lubricant may help, but avoid using graphite. You may still need to call a service technician later to tighten up the fasteners in the back of the lock cylinder, but the recommended strategy will get you inside and out of a jam.

Spraying the base boards and outside perimeter of your house with pesticide is usually not enough to take care of your ant problem because you're not addressing the source of the infestation. Argentine ants are common in this area, and you have to search out their colonies to get lasting results.

You will find them proliferating in shallow soil, underneath flat-sided stones, and underneath bark and trees that attract aphids and other insects. To destroy the colony, pour a mixture of hot water with isopropyl alcohol and dish detergent over the affected areas. Get your neighbors to do the same thing. Only a joint effort will effectively eliminate the ants.

Every time a plumber comes out to unclog my kitchen sink, he tells me about one more thing I should not put down my garbage disposer. So the question I posed to Diamond Certified plumbers is what can I use this appliance for? They say it’s best to stick with little things, like coffee grounds, apple cores and lemon peels. You should run the water into the disposer for 1-2 minutes after the food is gone! Ice cubes are good for disposals because they cut grease and sharpen the blades. Do not use your sink’s disposer for anything that creates starches (potato peels and rice), fibrous fruits and vegetables (celery, banana peels and artichoke leaves) and don’t dump things like big dishes of leftovers into the appliance. Remember that your disposer is not a garbage can.

Anytime you get an extraordinarily high water bill, it's time to investigate for hidden leaks. Your toilet is one possible culprit, according to Albert Nahman, owner of Albert Nahman Plumbing, a Diamond Certified company. To see if it's leaking, put a drop or two of food coloring into the tank. Wait a few minutes. If the color shows up in the toilet bowl, you've got a leak. Usually the flapper needs to be replaced. Underground leaks can also run up your bill. To detect those, Mr. Nahman says turn off the valve and make sure no live water is coming out of the faucets. Then go to your meter box. If the red indicator is spinning, you have a leak somewhere in the delivery pipe to your house. Underground leaks may cause wet spots in your yard, but sometimes there's no visible clue.

Getting your home inspected before you put it up for sale makes a lot of sense. Too many people make the mistake of assuming their house is in excellent condition just because they've lived in it for a long time. The knowledge you gain from a pre-sale inspection can virtually eliminate all the hassles a buyer's home inspection causes. If you know what the defects are early on, you decide which ones you will fix.

You can take your time comparing repair estimates. Knowing the defects also helps you substantiate your asking price. You are less likely to have a deal that falls through because a home inspector finds a problem. In the end, a complete and formal disclosure report minimizes renegotiations between the buyer and the seller.

If you've ever ordered a cord of firewood, you know it's a lot of wood. But you also know it's hard to tell whether you've gotten your money's worth. According to Amy Sinclair, Public Relations Officer for San Francisco's Department of Consumer Assurance (also known as the Department of Weights and Measures in some counties), the measurements of a cord should be roughly 4 feet high by four feet wide, by 8 feet long. The seller should provide a written receipt listing contact information and the type of firewood and amount ordered.

With enough notice, a county inspector will even come out to your home to take measurements when the wood is delivered to make sure you're not cheated. These inspectors are also responsible for making sure all gas pumps, electronic scanners and parking meters are accurate.

When you packed up those cardboard boxes to store in the basement or garage last year, it may have been a warm sunny day. Now that it's raining, you may want to do an inspection to make sure everything is staying dry. Deborah Patterson-Garvin, owner of Aloha Moving & Storage, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, warns that any wet and dark area can produce mildew and mold. Boxes stored directly on concrete floors can absorb moisture. Not only do the boxes deteriorate, but moisture can get inside where it can damage papers, documents, books, and whatever else is stored.

A good solution is to lay down some wood 2 X 4s, one foot apart and place the boxes on top. This keeps your items away from damp concrete and allows for airflow. At a professional storage facility, nothing is stored directly upon concrete. Everything is on pallets, shelves or racks.

Experts say that if you care for your drapes properly, you may never have to dry clean them. The degree and frequency of care depends on environmental pollutants (from open windows, traffic exhaust, smoke, etc.). Regular maintenance is more important and cost effective than dry cleaning. You want to prevent dust build-up on the front and back of draperies. Dust on the backside will attract the sun's destructive rays like a magnet. This speeds up deterioration of the lining and drapery fabric.

Shake the drapes while hanging to knock off dust or vacuum with an upholstery brush. Don't use the same upholstery brush you use on furniture as it may have broken bristles that will damage the drapery fabric. Use a new one. The industry says drapes should last 7 years, but with regular care, your drapes could well last 10 to 15 years!

You would be amazed at how many people don't bother to talk to their neighbors when a fence needs to be replaced. One owner of a Diamond Certified fencing company, sees this all the time. He says only about 50% of the time is the cost of the job shared 50/50 as it should be. That's usually because one neighbor is more eager than the other to get the job done. Another common neighborhood dispute involves trees.

Sometimes branches hang over a fence, and in a big storm, they can break off and cause damage. The person responsible for tree trimming and the damage is the one who owns the property where the tree comes out of the ground. If you disagree about whose property the tree is on, because you're not sure where the exact property line is, you may need to get a copy of the site map recorded with the county and/or hire a surveyor.

Mulch is good for your garden because it adds organic matter, suppresses weed growth, helps conserve water and on top of that, it looks good. One President of a Diamond Certified company, says if you mulch properly, the covering will last anywhere from 2 to 4 years. The right way to do it is to vary your mulch, cover all the bare soil, except around the base of plants and trees. You need to keep those areas dry to prevent fungus from growing. The mulch itself should be 3 to 5 inches deep.

He suggests calling a local tree service for free tree clippings to use on the bottom and then dress it up with a thin layer of store-bought mulch. Mini Fir bark is his favorite. You can also save a lot of money by buying it in bulk, rather than by the bag.

Many people assume that their automatic garage door will immediately go into reverse if it comes into contact with someone or something. Unfortunately, many doors manufactured before 1993 do not have the infrared safety eyes now required in new systems. Any contact with the lights in the improved safety sensors tells the door to reverse. Mark Griffin, owner of Automatic Garage Door, a Diamond Certified company, does not recommend testing your old garage door yourself.

Some homeowners put a box or can under the door and think it's safe because it might hit the items and then go back up without crushing them. What is not readily apparent is that it takes nearly 40 pounds of pressure to trigger reverse, making it especially unsafe for pets, children and seniors who might get hit by a closing door. Even if it eventually reverses, they can still be seriously injured. A new system, complete with safety eyes, costs less than $500, a small investment for your peace of mind.

When was the last time you had an electrician inspect and clean the electrical panel in your home? If you're like most people, you probably don't know that this kind of preventive maintenance could help you avoid a costly power failure. A Vice President of a Diamond Certified company, says most residential and commercial customers should have this type of service performed at least every other year.

It's just as important as having your chimney and furnace inspected regularly. The electrician will clean out the dust and debris that accumulates in the fuse box or electrical panel, and tighten loose connections. Those loose connections are a potential fire hazard and are caused by the wires heating up and cooling down under normal electrical loads. While you have the electrician in your home, don't forget to ask him to also check for pre-existing electrical code violations.

When was the last time you took a close look at the insulation in your attic? It may be time to check things out because the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a warning on insulation that could cause lethal exposure to asbestos. The type raising concern is called Zonolite. John Gorman, President of Save Energy, a Diamond Certified company, says this insulation is made up of shiny, little rectangular cubes.

While poking his head into attics for more than 20 years in the Bay Area, Mr. Gorman has not found too much Zonolite. The government though believes that sizeable numbers of affected homes are in Northern California. If you suspect that you might have this type of hazardous insulation in your home, contact a local professional, because the EPA recommends not disturbing the insulation yourself.

If you've ever tried to pry open a stuck window, you know how difficult it can be. Windows are sometimes painted shut. They can become swollen from accumulated moisture, or maybe they just haven't been opened in a long time. For the painted windows, An owner of a Diamond Certified glass company recommends first, carefully cutting through the paint with a knife. You may have to work on both the inside and the outside of the window.

Once the frame starts moving, use some silicone spray or a spray product containing Teflon to further loosen things up. Most products will work on vinyl, wood or aluminum. He does not recommend using WD-40 on stubborn windows. The problem is that it dries too fast. You might get the windows moving for a little while, but you won't get the same lasting results as you do with a silicone spray.

One of the reasons wool area rugs look so beautiful and last so long is that the wool fibers contain lanolin. The lanolin repels dirt and prevents spots and stains from setting, thereby making it easier to clean. While many carpet-cleaning companies tend to use the same machine on wool area rugs as wall-to-wall carpets, it is not a good practice. It's much better to hand-wash them, according to Masoud Mossabeh, owner of Marin Oriental Rug House, Inc., a Diamond Certified company.

Mr. Mossabeh says the hot water and/or steam, and chemicals used in these machines strip the lanolin from the wool fibers, leaving them dry and brittle. This will cause premature wear in wool rugs and make them more susceptible to stains. Professional area rug hand-washing begins with completely submerging rugs in pools of cold water where the pile, foundation and the back of the rug are thoroughly soaked and cleaned.

The window covering industry is making a national push this month to urge parents with young children and grandparents to repair or replace their older corded blinds and shades with safer products. Keeping kids safe is the number one priority. Since 1994, the Window Covering Safety Council has worked with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to address child strangulation concerns.

Ms. Lloyd recommends that cords made before 2001 be replaced with new updated products with safety features like permanently attached tie-downs. Many older blinds and shades have cords you can retrofit to reduce strangulation hazards.

If you're thinking of remodeling your kitchen, you've probably heard horror stories from friends about endless delays (who wants to eat fast food forever?), custom cabinets that don't fit, and outrageous hidden fees tacked onto the initial quote. Jon Cortez, President of Compleat Kitchen and Bath Center in Newark, says that the three concerns most people have before doing a remodel are:

   1. not getting the job done right;  2. not completing the project on time as promised; and  3. getting charged more than originally quoted.

The best approach is to start with a detailed design by a professional who asks the right questions (one design does not fit all), insist on a written project completion schedule, then demand a guaranteed, itemized project price. For more tips on what to know before beginning any remodeling project, e-mail us at info@diamondcertified.org or call (800) 738-1138.

Most of us don't want to spend all day cleaning house. The idea is to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, right? Professionals like the owner of a Diamond Certified house cleaning company, know how to minimize cleaning time with maximum results. Mr. Sunnen says the best way is to start in a corner of a room, usually by a door, and work from top to bottom. Take out the cobwebs, dust, vacuum and then mop.

It's also a good idea to start at the back end of the house and work forward. Wearing an apron with pockets stocked with cleaning tool and products saves time and extra steps too. The "must-haves" include a poly-wool duster for lampshades, a sponge with an abrasive side, 4 to 5 cloth towels, a grout brush and your favorite furniture polish. And, don't forget the elbow grease!

Now is the time to check out what’s accumulated in your gutters and drainpipes, and on your roof too. If you’re brave enough to climb up on your roof, you will be amazed at what you may find. He suggests wearing rubber gloves to remove all debris, birds’ nests, and especially your kids’ lost balls. Some balls are just the perfect size to block the drainpipes. Run some water to make sure it flows easily through the downspouts. If drains are plugged, the overflow may leak inside walls, causing major damage. Unless you have a lot of trees, inspecting the roof once a year will suffice. Roofing companies will do inspections and gutter and drain cleaning for $150 to $500, depending on the size of the house.

All new stone countertops need to be sealed correctly with enough coats of a good quality sealer to make them last. That's the key, according to Greg Palmer, co-owner of Northbay Stone Works Countertops, a Diamond Certified company. After that, how you care for countertops will depend on the stone you have had installed. Granite countertops, which are great for kitchens because they don't react with acids, are very hard and don't need any special maintenance other than occasional re-sealing. You only have to re-seal granite, or any other new stone, when it shows signs of absorbing liquids.

The other stones used for countertops, marble, limestone and travertine, are all organic and their appearance will change over time. To clean them, you must use a non-corrosive Ph-neutral stone cleaner only, or a damp cloth. Do not use any products that might scratch the surface, such as Ajax or Comet.

How do you know it's time to get your furnace and air ducts cleaned? Generally speaking, you should have the service done every 3 to 5 years, depending on the quality of the air filters you're using. Dirt gets through some low efficiency filters and into the ducts easier than others. Matt Farber, owner of Air Quality Heating & Air Incorporated, a Diamond Certified company, says another way to tell is by checking the fan compartment with a flashlight. Also look for dirt around the heat registers.

A thorough cleaning, which includes brushing and vacuuming the ducts and cleaning the furnace, can improve your furnace's efficiency by 15%-50%. Dirty systems block airflow and overheat your furnace. This can lead to an early failure. In the Bay Area, a proper furnace cleaning in an average home will take about 2 hours and cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $200-$400.

Sometimes a job is just too small for a licensed contractor. For example, do you just need someone to repair a gate, fix some doors, change a faucet or a toilet? Maybe you only need some caulking in the bathroom, or a picture hung. Perhaps your gutters need cleaning, but you don't want to get up on the roof yourself anymore. That's the time to call a handyman. Daniel Hernandez, owner of Handy Dan, a Diamond Certified company, suggests using a handyman when plans aren't needed and the job is small.

Also, unless they have an active contractors license in good standing, a handyman can't do more than $500 worth of work in a day. A reputable handyman should have a local business license, insurance and a bond. Even though the job is small, make sure you get a written estimate with pricing either by the hour or by the project.

If you have a glass shower enclosure, you know how quickly soap scum, mineral deposits and film build-up. The problem with keeping the glass sparkling clean is that many of the "spray-and-leave-on" products are so harsh that they can eat through the shower's silicone sealant. What's good for the glass may not be good for the metal and acrylic hardware, according to Terri Downs, Vice President of CB Showers Inc., a Diamond Certified company. Ms. Downs recommends regular maintenance for shower enclosures, such as using a squeegee or wiping the glass with a cloth after showering.

Two products that are effective for cleaning and sealing the glass are Comet Heavy Duty Bathroom Cleaner and Invisible Shield. Another option is having the glass treated with Diamon-Fusion¨. This process makes glass water repellent and stain resistant, as long as basic maintenance is performed.

If you're completely renovating a home, or moving into a brand new one, that's the best time to have a landscape designer or architect generate a blueprint for the yard. You may have to complete the landscaping in stages, according to Alan Kostelnik, owner of Gardens of the Wine Country, a Diamond Certified company, but you'll save money in the long-run if you have a master plan. When it comes time to plant, Mr. Kostelnik suggests that you get professional advice from a local nursery as to what will grow best in your particular microclimate. Something that thrives in Napa may not do so well in San Francisco and vice versa.

Also, if you get gardening ideas from other parts of the country, such as tropical Hawaii, don't assume you will be able to grow the same things here, unless you're willing to give your plants a LOT of time and attention.

Are you getting the most out of your dishwasher? I am now, thanks to Larry Asien, owner of Asien's Appliance, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, who knows dishwashers inside and out. First, you don't have to wash your dishes before loading. Just scrape them and let the machine do all the work. Second, if you have an older dishwasher, you'll get better performance by getting the water in your sink faucet hot before starting a cycle.

Third, you can use less detergent and still get the dishes sparkling clean. Liquid products are better if your water heater is on a lower setting. Powdered detergents work best at 120 degrees or higher. Finally, if you have stains on the inside of your dishwasher, don't panic. The stains are usually from minerals in your water. You can clean them up by running citric acid from the drugstore through the washer instead of detergent.

Many people think that any kind of mold you find in your home is a health hazard. That's not necessarily true, according to David Keith, President of K2 Environmental Inc., a Diamond Certified company. Shower mold is no big deal and can easily be removed by applying a bleach and water solution for 15 minutes. Damp crawl spaces do not necessarily breed mold with proper ventilation.

Mr. Keith says the mold to worry about may come from plumbing, roof and window leaks. It grows behind walls, and while only a small patch may be visible, the problem could be much bigger than what you can see. If you attempt to remove mold yourself, seal off the area to keep airborne spores from landing in other rooms and on furniture. A professional may be needed, not just to remove the mold, but to fix the water problem that caused the mold in the first place.

What’s the best way to create more space in an existing closet? The easiest thing you can do is to install double hanging poles. You end up with twice the hanging space and still have a top shelf available for storing shoes, boxes, baskets or hats.  The double pole arrangement isn’t great for dresses and long coats, but only about 15% of hanging garments in a typical household need full length space. Use another closet for those items. Home improvement stores sell do-it-yourself closet kits. The ones made of particleboard with a melamine finish are preferred over wire sets, which have non-adjustable shelves/poles and are not as durable. Because we use our closets everyday, a totally organized closet can start and end your day on a very positive note. A top-rated closet organizer can help you get the right closet for your personality.

Do you have brown patches of grass in your backyard like I do? No matter how often the lawn is spiked and fertilized, grass does not grow there. From my research, I have learned that it’s likely I have “sour” soil from the alkaline in my dog’s urine. All the spiking and fertilizer in the world won’t grow new grass for long.

Besides checking the drainage in the yard and eliminating standing water, you have to find out whether the topsoil has the proper Ph. If the Ph is off, nutrients cannot be absorbed. By adding sulphur for acid soil or lime to increase alkalinity, you can prepare the soil now for winter rains, which take the nutrients deeper. In the spring, you can look forward to a yard full of healthy grass and plants. 

Do you even remember exactly when you bought your last mattress? Many people have no idea that they're sleeping on a worn-out mattress until they go on vacation and wake up well-rested from a good night's sleep on a good quality supportive mattress. Al Koran, owner of Sleep City Mattress Centers, a Diamond Certified company, says hotels replace mattresses every 4 to 5 years, and it's not uncommon for guests to tear off the sheets, look at the label, and buy that identical brand once they get back home.

On average, most of us wait close to 16 years to buy a new mattress, while the Sleep Council recommends replacement every 8 to 10 years. If your back is hurting in the morning or you're just not sleeping well, look for signs of mattress wear and tear. Worn-out mattresses are spongy, stained, uneven and unsupportive.

If you have kids and your furniture takes a beating, you want to choose the right fabric when you’re ready to reupholster. Fabric experts from Diamond Certified companies recommend that families choose a heavy and dark fabric, and suggest something with a pattern in it, that is multi-colored. Another good alternative to leather upholstery is vinyl, which gives that same textured look, but costs less and is extremely durable. Most vinyls come in a variety of qualities.

Look for scotch-guarded fabrics to prevent staining. They are not hard to find because nowadays most companies do the scotch-guarding at the factory. When getting furniture reupholstered, what they do on the inside is as important as what they do on the outside. Ask how the seats are re-built. A quality job includes correctly rebuilding the product so that it has a longer life.


Two similar houses on my street are being painted. One painter sprayed the stucco. The other is brushing and rolling the primer and paint onto the surface. Which method is better? According to some painting professionals, brushing and rolling is always preferable. For one thing, the paint is better absorbed so it lasts longer. With spraying, some painters over-spray and you can end up with paint on your roof, cars, and even your neighbor’s house. Many contractors who spray don’t do proper prep either before applying paint. One of the most common mistakes in the prep phase is not tinting the primer. Some use white primer instead of tinting it to about 50% of the color chosen for the topcoat. Your final color will be more solid and true, and when it starts failing over time, you will have another line of defense.

Two similar houses on my street are being painted. One painter sprayed the stucco. The other is brushing and rolling the primer and paint onto the surface. Which method is better? According to some painting professionals, brushing and rolling is always preferable. For one thing, the paint is better absorbed so it lasts longer. With spraying, some painters over-spray and you can end up with paint on your roof, cars, and even your neighbor’s house. Many contractors who spray don’t do proper prep either before applying paint. One of the most common mistakes in the prep phase is not tinting the primer. Some use white primer instead of tinting it to about 50% of the color chosen for the topcoat. Your final color will be more solid and true, and when it starts failing over time, you will have another line of defense.

In the Bay Area housing market, some home improvements give you a better return on your investment than others. Greg Brumley, General Manager of Paul Davis Restoration and Remodeling, a Diamond Certified company, says he encourages clients to focus on a sensible remodel and to choose features and designs that have mass appeal. Why? Sensible remodels add the full value of your remodel investment to your home. So, when it comes time to sell your home, you'll get what you invested in the remodel back in the form of a higher sale price. In most cases, you will get back 100% of your investment on a kitchen or bathroom, if you keep in mind what most people like.

Mr. Brumley says you don't always need a complete makeover in a bathroom or kitchen to achieve a dramatic effect. Compare this to the return on a room addition or a swimming pool, where the average return is 50%. How much money do you need to come up with for a sensible kitchen or bathroom remodel? Depending on your tastes and budgets you can spend from 5% - 20% of your home's value.

One of the hottest places in your house in the summer is your attic. The temperature there can rise to more than 120 degrees, and if you don't have an attic fan, your air conditioner will have to work a lot harder to cool things off downstairs. Reid Worth, owner of The Only Electricians on Earth, a Diamond Certified company, says attic fans push out the hot air while drawing in the cooler air. Fans are programmed to start up when temperatures go up, so you don't have to remember to do it.

Some people prefer to have a switch downstairs, which they can control manually. You might want to start cooling the attic early in the day to get a jump on it. The price range for having an attic fan installed is reasonable and sounds like a worthwhile investment when you think about how much you'll save on air conditioning.

Yearly deck maintenance is required on all deck types to maintain their value, according to an Executive Vice President of a Diamond Certified construction company. On wood plank decks, cleaning the leaf matter and animal hairs that accumulate on top of the wood joists between deck boards is essential. If not removed, they hold water and foster decay. If your deck boards are heavily weathered and need a "face lift", you can power wash them or sand them if they are in really bad shape.

Remember to set the nails below the deck surface you are about to sand off, or the nails will rust and stain your newly sanded deck. Finally, apply a sealer to your deck boards. Clear ones typically last about one year, while stains last longer. He recommends against painting wood decks because they will eventually chip and peel, leading to continual high maintenance costs.

Are you and your kids getting too many mosquito bites? Do mosquitoes take some of the fun out of your outdoor BBQs?  You can head off a mosquito problem by preventing them from landing and breeding on your property.

First, make sure your window screens are on tight and not damaged. Next, eliminate all standing water. Look for pooling in dishes under plants, and in the water bowls and toys for your pets. Change out the old water, especially in the birdbath. Use fogger sprays for outside dining, as they will provide some short-term relief.  Cover yourself and use repellents containing DEET when mosquitoes are most prevalent, at dawn and dusk. And finally, if your mosquito problem is totally out of control, call the Mosquito Abatement Center in your county for professional help.

No matter what type of roof you have, it's a good idea to get prepared for the upcoming rainy season. Michael Cobb, General Manager of General Roofing Company, a Diamond Certified company, suggests that you do your own visual inspection or have a professional check now for signs of deterioration, clear out all build-up from the gutters and flush them out, check all flashings around chimneys, vents and skylights for broken seals, and clean debris from the roof.

If you have a pitched roof with composite shingles or a shake roof system, Mr. Cobb says you'll want to replace missing, cracked, or broken shingles or heavily curled wood shakes. If you have a flat roof system with tar and gravel, look for bare spots which might need touching up. Some flat roofs have been treated with a reflective coating. These systems should be re-coated every 5-7 years to provide the most protection.

Do you have brown patches of grass in your backyard like I do? No matter how often the lawn is spiked and fertilized, grass does not grow there. From my research, I have learned that it’s likely I have “sour” soil from the alkaline in my dog’s urine. All the spiking and fertilizer in the world won’t grow new grass for long.

Besides checking the drainage in the yard and eliminating standing water, you have to find out whether the topsoil has the proper Ph. If the Ph is off, nutrients cannot be absorbed. By adding sulphur for acid soil or lime to increase alkalinity, you can prepare the soil now for winter rains, which take the nutrients deeper. In the spring, you can look forward to a yard full of healthy grass and plants. 

The pillows on my couch are now faded beyond repair, even though I often keep the drapes closed. The carpeting in my bedroom is lighter in spots too. If I had only known that I could have prevented much of this damage by having my windows tinted. Louis Miller, owner of Climate Insulating Products, a Diamond Certified company, says heat, indirect light and ultraviolet rays coming through your windows, even when it's not sunny, can cause a lot of deterioration. Most home furnishings are affected and that includes upholstered furniture, artwork, leather furniture, hardwood floors, everything other than ceramics and metal.

Window tinting, where a clear-appearing film is applied to your windows, has a number of benefits. Besides eliminating damaging heat and light, it can give you a little extra daytime privacy. Also energy savings will eventually pay for the film coating.

Are you tired of looking at those old kitchen cabinets? Do you wish you could change the appearance of your kitchen without spending tens of thousands of dollars? Re-facing could be the solution for you, according to John Beeley, owner of Kitchen Tune-Up, a Diamond Certified company, especially if you like the existing configuration of your kitchen and you don't want to go through an entire remodel.

When re-facing, you remove the old cabinet doors, do extensive prep work, and then permanently install real wood veneer or laminate. Roll-outs and new drawers can also be added. The new doors are then installed with modern concealed hinges. The results can be dramatic. It may be a strategy you should consider to increase the beauty and function of your kitchen when you don't want to go through with a full kitchen remodel.

The last time I had a big party, the kitchen drain got clogged. The plumber advised me never to put potato peels into the garbage disposal. Plenty of things will stop up your sinks. Besides food, grease and hair, roots can cause back-ups, as well as materials caught in old galvanized lines.

If your sink gets clogged, check whether other fixtures in the house are having the same trouble. If more than one is involved, the problem is often the main line. Many plumbers do not recommend liquid chemical products. It's better to use a friendly enzyme product such as Bio-Clean for pre-maintenance, or a manual snake. If that doesn't work, call a plumber for advice. Some will help you over the phone. If you do need a cleanout, a plumber's electric snake can flush out lines up to 200 feet!

My neighbor just had a compact water heater installed that hangs on the garage wall. I had never seen one before, so I asked Mike Maples, of MAPLEService, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, to tell me more about how they work. Known as "on-demand" water heaters, these devices have a number of advantages. They save energy because they do not keep a tank of water hot. When you turn on a faucet, a flow switch ignites the water heater. Another advantage is that you don't have to worry about flooding if your water heater springs a leak while you're away. On-demand units are safer in case of an earthquake. And finally, they last longer than a tank type heater. You do need a larger flu and gas supply to accommodate this type of heater, which adds to the cost of installation.

Be prepared. That's what Steve Gavriloff, owner of Westgate Real Estate, a Diamond Certified company, tells his clients who are selling homes Ð prepare yourself early in the process. With all of today's disclosure requirements, it makes good sense for a seller to get termite and home inspection reports done before they put it on the market. That way, you know what you're dealing with and you can make repairs or adjust the asking price accordingly.

If you anticipate the questions buyers will have and address them, you're more likely to have a smoother negotiation process. That's a plus for everyone involved. Besides getting those inspection reports done, Mr. Gavriloff also recommends that sellers freshen up the paint, replace worn flooring, and pay attention to landscaping details. Even though many buyers say they're looking for fixer-uppers, most prefer moving into a house that's already been spiffed up.

Some homeowners don’t like the idea of adding fire sprinklers to their homes because they mistakenly assume in case of a fire in one room, their entire house will be flooded. That’s not the case. Sprinkler heads are set to go off at 155 degrees. If you have a kitchen fire hot enough to set off a sprinkler, only that room will be affected by water, unless the fire has spread elsewhere. Usually just one sprinkler head will do the job.

Another misconception is that the number of fire sprinkler heads needed is directly tied to the square footage of your house. Not so. You have to look at not only square footage, but also many other variables, including the shape of the rooms and ceilings, all of which affect the number of heads needed and therefore the cost.

Most homeowners have had the experience at one time or another of dealing with a leaky roof after a big rainfall. You can minimize the damage, or make things worse, depending on what you do to the affected area, according to Paul Elmore, President of Responsible Roofing, a Diamond Certified company.

If feasible, Mr. Elmore says you need to act quickly and cover the affected section with plastic or a tarp. But proceed carefully as some roofs are slippery when wet, and high winds can make it difficult for the plastic to stay in place. Put buckets under the drips and mop up the floor. And if the ceiling starts sagging, poke a hole in the sheetrock at the lowest point with a screwdriver to relieve pressure. Mark the spot with tape so the exact location can be found later when your roofer comes out to assess the damage and perform repairs.

It used to be that you could not buy a leather sofa for less than $2,000. Now, according to the President of a Diamond Certified furniture company, you can find a good quality leather couch for around $1,200. Leather furniture is becoming more affordable because the tanning and dyeing processes have been improved, and computers are being used to cut the hides. Manufacturers sometimes add matching vinyl to the back and sides of couches to reduce costs, and you can't tell the difference.

Leather is a good choice for many people because it is four times more durable than fabric, and it looks good as it ages. He also notes that it's easy to clean and maintain, almost wash and wear. You'll find a bigger selection of colors nowadays too, due to the improved dyeing process. Besides sofas and recliners in leather, you can also find ottomans and accent chairs.

It's better to plan for replacing your furnace rather than have it come as a surprise. The best way to monitor your furnace's condition and performance is to have it serviced annually, according to Kevin Comerford, President of Service Champions, a Diamond Certified company. A professional heating contractor will do a precision tune-up and cleaning consisting of 21 procedures. This will improve your furnace's efficiency and safety.

Mr. Comerford says the average life expectancy of a well-maintained furnace is 15 to 20 years, but as with everything, there are exceptions. Generally, after about 15 years, the metal inside a furnace, particularly the heat exchanger, gets fatigued. The metal may crack, which may in turn cause the furnace to emit carbon monoxide into your home. The good news is that newer furnaces are more energy efficient than the old ones, with some reducing heating bills by 30 to 40% every year.

Did you know that one square foot of carpet can hold up to a pound of dirt? After talking to Master Cleaner Perry Holliday, owner of Candid Carpet Care, a Diamond Certified company, I was ready to get on the job. Mr. Holliday recommends slowly vacuuming high traffic areas every day to remove sand and dirt, which cut fibers and wear your carpeting down. Vacuums with a top loaded bag are preferred and should be emptied when half full.

To best maintain your rugs between professional cleanings, use walk-off mats as it takes about 12-14 steps to get the dirt off your shoes. Lay out some washable throw rugs or matching carpet remnants by the garage door and front door. Finally, when doing minor spot removal, the best advice from Mr. Holliday is never try to rub out a spot. Instead of scrubbing it, dab and blot.

Now that the days are longer and the evenings will be getting warmer, you can get more enjoyment out of your backyard garden with the addition of a well-designed low voltage lighting system. By lighting up your landscaping at night, you can make it into an aesthetically pleasing space with more depth and dimension, according to the President of a Diamond Certified landscaping company.

The key thing when installing lights is to make sure the voltage at each fixture is measured and in the appropriate range. If the installation is not done correctly, the bulbs will not glow evenly and will burn out faster. This can be costly for you. When the job is done right, your bulbs may last up to ten times longer! With a well-thought out lighting plan, you will have more time to enjoy your garden, and add value to your home.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when choosing paint color is that they pick a shade that’s too dark. Paint professional recommend trying a shade or two lighter than what you think you want. Most colors (especially yellow) become darker than the sample you see in the store when painted onto a larger surface area.

Brush your sample paints on the wall side by side.  Then look at the samples at 9 a.m., 2 p.m. and again at 5 p.m. They will look different in different light. Another suggestion is to settle on the main or base color first, and then worry about your trim and ceiling colors. Don’t try to pick out all the colors on your first visit to the paint store. Once you decide on the base, the accent colors usually fall easily into place.

How do you know when a tree in your yard has to go? Jim Cairnes, owner of Small World Tree Company, a Diamond Certified company, says you can start with your own visual inspection of the cavities, bark, lower trunk, leaves and roots. They all provide clues when a tree is in distress or decline.

By poking around inside any cavities at the base of the tree, you can sometimes gauge how much decay there is. Another sign of internal decay is abnormal swelling on the lower trunk and fungal fruiting bodies that grow in crescent-shaped brackets out of the trunk. Sparse and pale leaves may indicate a tree is sick, as do girdling roots that can strangle a tree. Other reasons a tree may become unstable include over-irrigation, a change of grade around a tree so that it doesn’t get enough oxygen, diseases such as oak root fungus and storm damage.

What’s the pay-off when you spend a little more on a name brand kitchen appliance? Chris Parisis, owner of CG Appliance Express, a Diamond Certified company, contends that comparing manufacturers’ warranties, customer service, product quality and impact on the resale value of your home will help you understand the big differences among the many brands.

Mr. Parisis points out, for example, top of the line refrigerators offer 15-year warranties on compressors, the most common part that fails. A standard model has only a one-year warranty. The same is true for garbage disposers. A name brand warranty can be 10 times longer than the base model’s warranty. Customer service calls are answered more quickly and technicians have more specialized training for high-end appliances. And finally, sellers get about 10% more for their houses, which sell more quickly when kitchens are equipped with brand name appliances buyers recognize.

When you wash your dishes with hot water, do you scorch your hands? If you do, your water heater setting may be set too high. According to Young Park, owner of Professional Plumbing Service, a Diamond Certified company, you should generally use the energy saving setting on your hot water heater, but make adjustments depending on the weather. In the summer, reduce the temperature by a notch or two, and in the winter, turn the setting a little higher. Keep the setting on vacation mode anytime you’re out of town for 4 days or more.

When hot water heaters are set too high for long periods of time, they will wear out more quickly than normal. You can get a clue that a water heater is getting ready to fail by looking for burns marks around the thermostat. Also any sign of rust on the top and bottom of the heater is a clue you might be replacing that old water heater very soon!

Artificial turf used to look so fake, no one would think of having it installed. Nowadays though, synthetic turf looks like real grass and feels great. This type of lawn requires no water and very little maintenance, and it stays green 365 days a year! Dan Theis, President of Heavenly Greens, a Diamond Certified company, says pet owners especially love it, because dogs can’t tear it up and animal urine does not discolor it.

Before installing the synthetic turf, 4 inches of sod and soil are removed. Next comes a layer of crushed rock. The turf is laid on top and then in-filled with silica sand and granulated rubber made from recycled tires and tennis shoes. The rubber is what makes it feel like real grass when you walk on it. The blades are about 2 inches high with one inch showing. It’s a great surface for backyard soccer, croquet, badminton and putting!

One of the biggest complaints homeowners have about their tile countertops and shower tiles is that it’s tough to keep the grout clean. How many of us want to scrub between the tiles with a toothbrush? A new type of grout, which is stainless, eliminates all that trouble. It does not absorb water. And it won’t grow mold or mildew.

Stainless grout is installed the same way the old filler was. While it costs a little more, it has a lifetime warranty. Another advantage with this new product is that it reduces the need for caulking. People love it because it can be used just about anywhere in the house. Ask about stainless grout if you’re shopping around and comparing alternatives for surfaces in the kitchen, bathroom, patio or family room.

If you are planning to replace an old air conditioner, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much better the new ones are. For one thing, according to Kevin Sollitt, President of Temperature Perfection, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, the latest models are more energy efficient, because they have variable speed systems, which maintain a constant temperature. They are also a LOT quieter.

Before recommending an air conditioning unit, a competent service technician will do an energy analysis of your home, taking into account the square footage, number and type of windows, and whether you have attic and wall insulation. If an air conditioner is not properly installed, it will waste energy instead of conserve it. What’s critical is that the a/c unit is properly charged prior to final installation. And with a brand new system, don’t forget about maintenance. Manufacturers and utility companies all recommend a thorough servicing once a year.

Most of us are familiar with traditional square skylights, which are like having a big window overhead where you can see outside. The newest skylights, known as tubular skylights, are much different. A dome on the roof encased by aluminum flashing filters out ultraviolet rays. Light passes though a tube in the attic to the ceiling, where a diffuser that looks like a half dome light fixture, spreads natural light into your home.

Tubular skylights have the advantages of spreading light evenly into the whole room and of eliminating heat loss or gain, which you get with traditional skylights. Because the harmful UV rays are blocked out, you don’t have to worry about fading furniture and carpeting. Another great feature is that a light kit can be added to the skylight, so it becomes a lighting fixture at night.

Are you wondering how to get rid of water spots on your glass shower enclosures? Thomas J. Nolan, CEO/President of California Shower Door Corporation, a Diamond Certified company, knows how to remove minor stains caused by soap, shampoo and scum. First, apply undiluted red wine vinegar directly to the glass. If that doesn’t work, spray on a 50/50 combination of denatured alcohol and water. Your last choice is to wipe lacquer thinner on with a towel.

It’s better to prevent spotting and staining in the first place by using a squeegee to wipe down the glass surface after every shower. Mr. Nolan also suggests asking your supplier to treat your new shower enclosure with a surface protectorant. This coating will cause water to bead up on glass like it does on a waterproof jacket. If the coating wears off over time, you can apply a reactivator yourself, eliminating spotting once and for all.

The answer to that question all depends on the type of hardwood floors you have. According to Pete Visalli, owner of Visalli Floors, a Diamond Certified company, recent developments in wood technology and wood flooring installations have led to widespread use of "engineered" or "laminated" flooring. This type of flooring has a very thin layer of hardwood laminated onto a plywood base. It is easier to install and because no sanding or finishing is required, you pay less for it.

What homeowners considering their options should know is that these newer products will never last as long as real hardwood floors. Many find out years later that their "engineered" flooring cannot be refinished. You can easily sand through the thin layer of hardwood down to the plywood, ruining the entire floor. If you plan to stay put for at least 15 years, real hardwood floors will pay off in the long run.

Bamboo is a prodigiously growing grass, which can be converted into beautiful, durable flooring. Many people choose bamboo because it benefits the environment by saving trees. We are consuming nine times more wood fiber than nature produces each day, a troubling trend.
Bamboo flooring costs about 25% less than wood. Avoid inexpensive, immature bamboo, which warps, cups and may contain formaldehyde. You can select natural, caramelized, horizontal or vertical versions and install it yourself or hire a professional. Kitchens are the number one room, but bathrooms, in fact, most rooms, look better with a bamboo floor. It is easy to clean with a damp mop. If damaged, repairs are easy, quick and inexpensive. Warranties are 5 years for commercial applications and lifetime for residential.

Most people who love fine wine know that you should store the bottles on their side in a cool place. But there’s more to it than that, if you start getting serious about collecting wine. Market Engineering, a Diamond Certified company, says the ideal storage temperature is 55 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of 70%.

You can get creative with your home wine cellar. And, they can be built in all sizes to fit a closet, a bedroom, the garage or even an attic space. According to Market Engineering, all the walls, floors and ceilings need to have a vapor barrier and rigid urethane or fiberglass insulation. The door needs to be an exterior grade door that is weather stripped on all sides. When tightly sealed, the room is then ready to have the cooling system and wine racks installed. Wine collectors install cellars for the love of properly aged wine and because the improvement adds value to the home.

Teak’s beauty is more than skin deep. It's naturally resistant to the ravages of northern California weather, according to Tom Haid, owner of Tom's Teak Outdoor Furniture, the Diamond Certified store in Menlo Park. "I leave my teak outdoors year-round. Simply hose the dirt and debris off. In its natural state, teak weathers to a beautiful silvery grey, which doesn’t affect its durability."

If your teak has been oiled and you want to maintain that golden glow, Mr. Haid recommends a simple treatment, using Thompson’s Water Seal Waterproofer Plus Clear Wood Protector with the green and white label, readily available at Home Depot or OSH. Apply a light coat to clean, dry teak, using a spray bottle. Allow it to "soak in", then wipe any excess off with a clean rag or shop towel. Resist the urge to cover teak when the weather is bad. If you do, mildew may develop.

Your carpets should be cleaned every 6 to 12 months, depending on the number of people and pets in the home, the foot traffic and where your home is located. One good option is a hot water extraction procedure that uses safe, natural products. It's recommended that you vacuum your rugs slowly and thoroughly before you clean it yourself or hire a professional.

To help the carpeting dry quickly, close the windows, turn on the fans and crank up the heat if it’s cold outside. If it’s 69 degrees or more, open the windows and turn on the fans. To keep the rugs healthy between cleanings, take your shoes off at the door, and do not go barefoot or wear slippers in the garage. You could be tracking heavy metals and contaminants onto the carpets.

Many of us still need to repair the damage from this winter’s devastating storms and unscrupulous or unlicensed contractors are ready and willing to take advantage of the high demand. Pam Mares, spokeswoman for the Contractors State License Board says her office is doing stings every week and arresting lots of unlicensed contractors. It’s a felony to operate without a license in any place that’s been declared a state or federal disaster area. Contractors who perform more than $500 worth of work in these areas without proper licensing can be fined up to $10,000.

The Contractors Board is urging us not to hire the first contractor who comes along or one that “just happens to be in the neighborhood.” After you get the license number, verify it at www.cslb.ca.gov or 1-800-321-CSLB. Be sure you don’t pay more than 10% or $1,000, whichever is less, as a down payment on any job.

When was the last time you shopped for fluorescent lighting?  Years ago, people were nervous about fluorescent light bulbs because the flickering bothered the eyes. The light given off was cold and pale, not flattering. Now, new technology has eliminated earlier problems. New and improved fluorescent lighting emits warmer color and doesn’t flicker anymore.

Because they’re energy efficient, state building codes now require that some fluorescent lights be used in all kitchens and bathrooms in newly constructed homes. These light bulbs are three times brighter than incandescent bulbs and much more energy efficient.  Regular bulbs will last about 750 hours, while a fluorescent bulb lasts 10,000 hours. You can buy fluorescent bulbs in other colors now besides white. Also dimming ballasts are now available, which is a great feature, especially for kitchens.

So you like the layout of your kitchen, for the most part, and you don't want to spend your entire remodeling budget on just one room. Then consider refacing your kitchen, according to Carmen Gage of KitchenWorks, a Diamond Certified company. "Cabinet refacing is not cabinet refurbishing, staining, or refinishing. You'll see a dramatic change in your kitchen when the old cabinet doors and drawer fronts are removed, the cabinet surfaces are renewed, and your custom crafted doors, drawer fronts, and new hardware are installed."

In a mini-remodel, a designer can help you make your selections and find materials compatible with the style of your home. You can add new countertops, an island or pantry, new appliances, or even have additional cabinets built for extra storage space you need. What's unique about cabinet refacing is that the job is done quickly, usually in one to two weeks, depending on what amenities you add to your new kitchen. The other good news is that updating your kitchen this way will cost you about half as much as a complete kitchen remodel and will increase the value of your home.

Most homeowners want their homes to sell quickly for the highest price possible. To accomplish that, Jane Brown, owner of Diamond Certified's Optimum Realty, a full-service real estate firm, strongly recommends that sellers consider staging their homes before posting a "for sale" sign. Staged homes stand out from the others, and evoke an emotional response from prospective buyers.

New home developers originally introduced staging by fully furnishing their models. The concept is now applied to existing homes. Once you remove your clutter and furnishings, the walls get a fresh coat of neutral colored paint. Then an experienced interior designer creates a motif with temporary furniture and just the right accessories. The idea is to maximize the use of space and create immediate curb appeal. According to Ms. Brown, this approach works well on almost any property and in her experience, results in an increased selling price of somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000.

Trees can add significant value to your property. By taking an informed approach to caring for your trees, you can minimize problems before they occur. According to Jonathan LoGiudice, a Certified Arborist for Bartlett Tree Experts, a Diamond Certified company, "A scientifically trained arborist is better able to identify tree problems and help prevent them.
Problems include tree failure, damage from storms and decline from insects and diseases. Arborists are also trained to help improve tree health and aesthetics." The arborist should also be receiving continuing education to stay current with the latest research and training in the field.

"With a sound scientific approach, your trees can be converted from a liability to an asset", says Mr. LoGiudice. Scientific care is proactive and helps protect your trees long term. Therefore, when deciding how to care for your trees, consider the knowledge, experience, training and scientific background of the arborist examining your tree

Low-voltage halogen lighting does a great job of saving energy and providing good quality light. On top of that, the fixtures are fun and stylish. Halogen lighting is of such high quality and shows colors so well that many art galleries and jewelry stores are now using it.

The best news is that you do not need to make any changes in your electrical system at home in order to convert to halogen lighting. No special wiring is required. The fixtures themselves are designed to handle the lower voltage and provide a steady light over the life of the bulb, unlike an incandescent bulb, which steadily becomes dimmer. Another benefit is that you can adjust halogen lights with a dimmer switch and you won’t get that awful buzzing sound!

This is one of the most important questions to ask when you’re shopping for a contractor, plumber or skilled technician. Many customers forget to inquire when pricing a job whether work will be done by a licensed and trained expert, or whether it will be subbed out to a less skilled employee who is nominally supervised. This alone may account for price differences between bids. Having someone with more skill can often make a big difference in the quality of the job.

When collecting bids, make sure you understand what the bid includes. You should always ask whether such things as freight, labor, measurements, and a service contract are included. You might be surprised to find out what kinds of extra charges show up on the final bill.

To prevent pet urine stains on hardwood floors, the key is to catch the problem when the urine is still fresh. Use paper towels or cloth to dry the area. Then apply white vinegar and wash the area thoroughly a couple of times. Wash again with warm water and soap. Don't flood the floors; you don't want them to cup. Dry thoroughly. You should pay extra attention to cat urine because the odor is more harsh and cats will return to the same area to urinate if the scent remains.

If the urine has penetrated into the floor and turned it dark, there are two possible solutions.  One, the area may be sanded down to bare wood, re-stained and refinished.  Two, if the boards turn very dark, or even buckle, the boards will have to replaced and professionally sanded and refinished.

You may think you're cleaning your refrigerator by simply putting an extra box of baking soda on the shelf, but eliminating odors is the easy part of the job. Stanley Costa, President of SonoMarin Cleaning Services, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says a thorough cleaning must eliminate spoiled foods and include a top to bottom hand washing with steam and sometimes a mild detergent. Never clean the inside with products such as ammonia, Windex, 409 or bleach. The chemicals will soak into your food, especially protein-based foods and veggies, in an enclosed environment, so avoid them.

Outside refrigerator surfaces can be wiped down with a damp cloth and use a de-greasing product for fingerprints around the handle. The new stainless steel fridges with brushed finishes can be especially challenging to clean. They require a specially formulated stainless steel cleaner. Then use a cloth to wipe with the grain, rather than against it.

Many Bay Area homeowners decide to add a sunroom because they feel they don’t have enough space inside for socializing.  People use their new spaces for all kinds of things from poker parties and prayer groups to sleepovers. The average sunroom is about 12 ft. by 16 ft., the size of the average living room.

Sunrooms differ from patio covers in that they can be used all year round because they’re glassed and screened in. Windows can be removed in the summer when you want a more open feeling. You can add electrical outlets and a ceiling fan along with other custom features. The roof is fully insulated. Leaks are the most common complaint about sunrooms. That’s why it’s important to choose a quality company that offers a solid guarantee to do the installation.

I have seen exterior paint jobs in my neighborhood last as little as 2 years and for as long as 8 years. Why the difference and how long should they last? Cleve Dayton, owner of the Painting Pros, a Diamond Certified company, explains that the keys to a lasting job are good prep before the paint is applied and on-going maintenance. With quality work, you can expect the exterior paint to hold up for at least 6 to 8 years.

Before hiring a contractor, ask how they will prep your house and pay special attention to what will be done to the southern exposure. That side takes most of the beating from the elements and is the first to crack, fade and peel. Quality painting contractors guarantee against chipping and peeling for five years, while others only offer the minimum, a one-year guarantee.

If you invest in high quality wood furniture, chances are you’re already of thinking of passing the items down to someone in the family. Custom dining room sets and bedroom suites are wonderful keepsakes to pass on. Some families give relatives their china along with a hutch engraved with a family crest to store it in. A rocking chair for a new baby has great sentimental value. And one of the most popular items is a cedar chest, which comes in a variety of sizes and can be personalized with initials, a birth date or marriage date. Some couples will even have a photograph framed and incorporated into the design.

Since Greek and Roman times, people have used shutters to cover their windows. Any invention that's lasted this long must have something going for it. Shutters add beauty and value to your house. The Shutterman, Jeff Lee, a Diamond Certified company, sells shutters which are energy efficient and easy to clean. They also beautify your house and enhance its curbside and visual appeal.

Shutters are durable and can last beyond 30 years. Mr. Lee says shutters create a barrier to shield your house from noise and outside distractions. It's almost as if you have a wall over your window as a sound buffer. As a barrier, shutters also provide an invaluable service shielding your furniture, floors and carpet from harsh sunlight. Anything you can do to eliminate sun damage will save you money in the long run. Finally, using shutters to control light allows you to create the perfect ambience for any room.

Many homeowners postpone major landscaping projects once they get the bid for the entire plan. But many landscape designers believe you can do the yard incrementally and not wait years to enjoy it. With a general plan, you can develop the outdoor space in stages and even do some of the work yourself.

It’s best to invest first in the “hardscape,” which provides the footprint for your future area. This can include decking, pavers, concrete or any other surface work, usually the most costly part of the job. Later, irrigation will be needed for plants. Finally, top off your retreat with accessories - lights, fire pit, fountain, mirrors, statues, birdbaths, boulders, etc. The only limit is your imagination. A home’s outdoor space is an extension of your personality and lifestyle and should be designed to maximize both your pleasure and financial investment.

More damage is done to carpets by homeowners trying to remove stains than from anything else. When a spill occurs, don't rub the carpet. You'll remove more of the stain by blotting than by any other method. To remove wax stains use paper towels and an iron on white wax-but not on colored wax or you'll dye your carpet many lovely shades of a candle's color. Products advertised to remove paint or gum could dissolve your carpet's glue layer and need to be rinsed out. This means your carpet could fall apart or become a sticky mess.
And if you're desperate because your favorite product didn't remove a stain, do not grab just anything from under the kitchen sink. Call an expert in carpet care for the best result.

Maybe the last time you moved, everything fit into your VW van. Now, it's a different story, especially when you not have only furniture, but also household appliances like microwave ovens, refrigerators and big screen TVs. Moving expert Cal Farnsworth, President of Diamond Certified's Earl Farnsworth Express, agent for Mayflower Transit, Inc., says your large appliances need to be emptied, and then banded and wrapped tightly in moving blankets. Any moving parts such as washer drums and icemakers must be securely fastened before shipping.

Gas appliances need special attention and it is highly recommended that you have a plumber or electrician disconnect stoves and dryers before the move. Do not pack items inside these large appliances because they could damage wiring, motors or drums. For big screen televisions and plasma TVs, you need to use a special moving box that can be rented or purchased, unless you still have the original packaging.

People use the terms linoleum and vinyl interchangeably as if they’re the same product, but they’re in fact very different. Here are the main differences between the two so that you can better evaluate alternatives when shopping for flooring.

Linoleum is a “green” product consisting mainly of linseed oil, gypsum and jute. It is very stiff and must be heat welded at the seams. It has to be waxed to best maintain it, an important consideration. It is more expensive than most vinyls and more expensive to install. Vinyl sheet flooring, a petroleum product, is a more popular choice for homeowners, mostly because it’s easy to clean with a damp mop or Swiffer. Vinyl is flexible and the seams are carefully matched to the pattern. Should repairs ever be needed, vinyl patterns can be cut and seamed more easily than linoleum.

Drain cleaning should be part of regular home maintenance and it's best to get it done before Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's Eve. Storm drains may contain dirt, leaves and roots. Tree roots love to grow inside the main sewer line. Kitchen drains can have grease and food build-up. Many holiday parties have been ruined by these lines backing up at the worst time, according to Kevin Garza, President of San Jose Plumbing, Inc., a Diamond Certified company.

Expert drain cleaning and some precautions will help you avoid big problems during holiday parties. Ask your plumber to check all your drains and snake those that need cleaning. Good plumbers should also check faucets, garbage disposals, toilets, traps and the water heater. And finally, clean the gutters, check all storm drains and use lots and lots of water when putting food down the disposal.

Nowadays you can find quality handmade wool oriental rugs in every price range. The "entry level" or "starter" rug can be an investment that fits your budget, style, taste and décor, according to Max Safavi, Partner in Marin Oriental Rug House, a Diamond Certified company.

A good handmade rug is an investment in that it will hold its value better than other home furnishings. It can be used as a trade-in should you choose to upgrade your rugs. A beautiful rug is also a work of art that can add to a room's aesthetics for many years and can be passed on within the family. When shopping for your first oriental rug, know your room's measurements and color scheme (bring fabric swatches). And discuss your budget openly with your salesperson. This way the salesperson will know exactly what kind of rugs to show you.

If you have the know-how, you can save a lot of money by ordering parts and materials on the Internet and acting as the general contractor on your own plumbing projects. However, you may not save money in the long run unless you are well versed in city and county building codes, requirements and labor laws. You might also have problems with defective materials that have to be shipped back and then re-installed.

Laura Lee Pokovich, President of Gotelli Plumbing Company, a Diamond Certified company, says parts and materials bought from a licensed and insured contractor may be initially more expensive, but you do get a warranty. If defective parts are purchased somewhere else but installed by a licensed plumber, only the workmanship is guaranteed, not the parts. You will have to pay the plumber's hourly rate to take out the defective part and re-install the replacement, which may eat up the savings you had counted on.

You know the expression, "Don't let the bed bugs bite." People who find bugs and small pearl-shaped eggs on the cheesecloth attached to box springs wonder how these pests get into their homes in the first place.

Bed bugs nest in unfinished wood furniture, so be careful if you bring second hand end tables, dressers or headboards into your home. Inspect them carefully. If you stay in budget hotels when you travel, take a flashlight and check the box springs for droppings, eggs and bugs. Adult bed bugs are the size of a #2 pencil eraser so they're easy to spot. If you share a room with them, they might come home with you! Anyone who discovers a nest should leave it undisturbed; moving anything will only make things worse. A professional exterminator can usually eliminate bed bugs in two visits, spaced 10 days apart.

Homeowners often make the mistake of adding too much firewood to the fireplace. Keep the top of the flames visible below the fireplace opening to gauge the right amount of wood. If you have glass doors, keep them wide open with the screen closed for at least 30 minutes after starting the fire. Once the wood is burning well, close the doors and set draft controls. That advice is coming from Andy Gatley, owner of Best Chimney Sweep, a Diamond Certified company.

If you use your fireplace a lot, it's important to know that creosote buildup is the main cause of chimney fires. Creosote is highly combustible. Mr. Gatley reminds homeowners to burn only seasoned wood. Do not allow your fire to smolder by separating the logs or standing them on end, and never burn trash in a fireplace or woodstove.

What is the difference between a $40 gallon of paint and a $20 gallon of paint?  Serious painters say you will see marked differences between high and low quality paints when you compare how easy they are to apply and how long they last. The bottom line is that it almost always pays in the long run to buy the best paint you can afford.

Paints with better ingredients splatter less, cling to the paint roller better and adhere more easily to surfaces. The difference quality paint makes on the finished product is more obvious with exteriors. Cheap exterior paint becomes chalky and peels sooner than quality paint. Inside your home, inexpensive paints will show marks easier when walls are bumped. The better paints will usually have their ingredients listed on the label.

Have you thought about installing a wood-burning stove? Some of these zone heaters, as they're called, burn gas, wood or pellets made of recycled sawdust. Tony Renati, Manager of Frizelle-Enos, a Diamond Certified company, says the stoves can be freestanding or installed inside an insert in an existing fireplace. Stoves come in both traditional and contemporary styles and are available with enamel finishes of all colors, brown being most popular right now.

People buy zone heaters because they want to save money on energy bills and help keep the air clean. Gas-burning stoves are cleanest of all, according to Mr. Renati. These stoves are also safer and more economical than electric heaters. You can expect to invest somewhere between $900 and $3,000 in a unit before installation, depending on size. For wood and pellet heaters, a professional cleaning by a chimney sweep is needed at least once a year to remove creosote build-up and accumulated soot.

Have you ever wished you had more storage space in your kitchen? Who hasn't? One of the easiest ways to do that is to upgrade your old cabinets with full extension roll-out shelves and/or replace old drawers. Ron Strong, President of Strong Roll-Out Shelf and Drawer, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, says most kitchens have inaccessible or wasted space that can be converted to make your life a lot easier and increase storage capacity. And upgrading cabinets is much less expensive than a remodel but still adds value to your home.

A typical kitchen pantry cabinet with three or four shelves will have loads of dead space between shelves and inaccessible space towards the back. With an upgrade to full extension roll-out shelves, you can add five to six shelves for more levels of accessible storage. Replacing old drawers with longer, full extension drawers can add 20% more storage to the same space.

Most pool contractors say they carry liability insurance, but can they prove it? If you're spending thousands of dollars on a new pool, you want to make sure the contractor has liability insurance for several reasons. According to Tony Cisek, owner of Riviera Pools, a Diamond Certified company, the insurance protects the homeowner in case someone is injured on the property while the job is underway. For pool contractors, the policy also covers you in case the pool is not properly completed.

Ask the pool contractor to FAX you its certificate of liability insurance. (By the way, Diamond Certified verifies this insurance as part of the certification process.) Once you receive it, check the date on the certificate to make sure it's current. If you're especially particular about protecting yourself, the insurance company can officially name you as a co-insured party on the policy. The fee for this is around $150.

No, probably not. Unless you have a home with the following attributes, it is not for you.

First, you need a structure strong enough to bear the weight. Slate can weigh anywhere from 7 to 20 pounds per square foot. Another consideration is the pitch of the roof. A certain minimum pitch is required by law. And finally, a slate roof, which can be expensive, may not be within your budget.

What makes slate roofs so special is that they’re built to last at least 100 years. All the flashing is copper and lead, and even the nails are copper. All design work, such as ridges and valleys must be cut by hand.  The slate is waterproof, however it is accompanied by heavy felt paper. What is interesting, even though we don’t see much slate in America, it produces some of the best slate in the world.

Does the inside of your home need a little spiffing up?  Have you thought about upgrading the interior doors to achieve a fresh look? Replacing inside doors and/or the hardware, can transform your home and it’s not as expensive as other types of remodeling.

The door from the kitchen to the dinning room, for example, can be made of frosted or fluted glass, or you can add designer handles to match the interior design of your home. You can replace a hollow core door with a solid one to help reduce noise levels. The children’s room can have a chalkboard built in to the door to encourage a budding artist. Most of the time existing doorframes and old jambs can be used to further reduce the cost of these wonderful and functional home improvements.

Criminals now are breaking into homes and buildings by unlocking doors through a method called lock bumping or key bumping. According to Joe Schoepp, owner of Crown Lock and Safe, a Diamond Certified company, about 90% of all locks can be opened by hand-filing a blank key, inserting it into the lock and then knocking it (or bumping it) with the head of a screwdriver or piece of wood. The tapping eventually unlocks the lock.

Mr. Schoepp suggests a number of ways to safeguard your property. First, you can buy "bump-proof" locks such as those made by Medeco. These high security locks also prevent unauthorized key duplication. Another suggestion is to add a non-keyed lock to the inside of your doors for when you are home. Finally, if you only use a door for exiting, you can fill the keyhole with glue. Use clear silicone glue, so the lock is not permanently disabled.

You are not getting your money’s worth if a home inspector is in and out of the house in an hour or two.  Experts home inspectors tell me that a thorough inspection of the average 1200 square foot structure should take three to three-and-a-half hours and should always include a visit to the attic and crawl spaces.

In the attic, for example, the inspector might find broken rafters, improper venting, mold or old compressed insulation that is no longer effective. Under the house, it’s common to find standing water near improperly directed downspouts and leaking pipes. The house framing should be checked to see if it’s bolted to the foundation and that the floor framing is properly secured. Ideally, the inspector’s final written report should include glaring safety issues, major concerns, improvements needed and problems that require monitoring. This report can be useful to buyers, sellers and homeowners who are planning a major remodel.

Surveillance systems for homes and businesses are very popular because they are effective crime deterrents. Sammy Sze, manager of Cypress Video Surveillance Systems, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, suggests that if you just want to keep an eye on your own kids and pets, all you need is an inexpensive do-it-yourself (DIY) system. A typical DIY system includes 4 identical cameras, a monitor, and an optional recorder.

However, for security applications against vandalism, thefts, burglaries, and trespassing, professional-grade equipment is required. Trained surveillance specialists can advise you how to secure your property by making the right choices on the number and model of cameras, installation locations and camera angles. A word of caution - some locksmiths, phone installers and other companies may pose as surveillance experts and merely sell you low-quality DIY systems. If you're making a significant investment, make sure you find a specialized surveillance company.

Have you ever heard of the two-towel window cleaning method? Professionals like Deven Dallman, owner of Squeegee Brothers, a Diamond Certified company, say you always need two lint-free hand towels while washing windows. One is for wiping off the wet squeegee after every stroke, and the other is for drying the perimeter of the window. The experts never use paper towels or newspapers to dry wet windows.

The preferred method for cleaning your own windows inside and out is to use a squeegee, a mop head for the cleaning solution and of course, two towels. On any glass, move the squeegee either up and down, or side to side. Make sure you overlap each stroke by a little and dry off the squeegee in between strokes. If you see a streak, wait until it dries before wiping it again. If it's wet when you wipe it, you will end up with a big smear.

If you're up in the mountains and bring home firewood, you might make this mistake. David J. Roe, owner of Leading Edge Pest Management, a Diamond Certified company, says many homeowners don't realize that the wood could be infested with termites. If it's placed up against the house, in the garage or fireplace, and you forget about it, you might end up providing food and shelter to several termite colonies.

Subterranean termites thrive in dark, damp places. They can migrate from the moist firewood leaning up against your house through tubes made from mud. Before you know it, termites will be feasting on your exterior siding and house framing and over time, they will cause extensive and expensive damage. The best thing is to keep all firewood, and especially wood brought back from the mountains, several feet away from the house. If you suspect you already have termites, consult a professional pest control operator.

If you're up in the mountains and bring home firewood, you might make this mistake. David J. Roe, owner of Leading Edge Pest Management, a Diamond Certified company, says many homeowners don't realize that the wood could be infested with termites. If it's placed up against the house, in the garage or fireplace, and you forget about it, you might end up providing food and shelter to several termite colonies.

Subterranean termites thrive in dark, damp places. They can migrate from the moist firewood leaning up against your house through tubes made from mud. Before you know it, termites will be feasting on your exterior siding and house framing and over time, they will cause extensive and expensive damage. The best thing is to keep all firewood, and especially wood brought back from the mountains, several feet away from the house. If you suspect you already have termites, consult a professional pest control operator.

Tree specialists are specifically trained to prune trees using a methodical procedure. All of them follow regulations developed by the International Society of Arboriculture, according to Bill Mitchell, owner-operator of Mitchell Tree Service, a Diamond Certified company. What you want to avoid is having someone lacking the knowledge hack away at your trees, because eventually that butchering could destroy them.

A tree that's incorrectly pruned will not heal properly and its structure, the trunk, is weakened and becomes rotten inside. The right way to prune is to make the proper sized cuts down to the sap rings. Some trees also have special maintenance requirements. A lemon tree for example, should be trimmed on the inside to let in light, and if some of the green lemons are thinned out, the ones left will be larger. Fruit trees need pruning once a year, while with other trees, you can often wait 2-3 years.

He's inspected more than 1500 floors and has found that after re-finishing, some hardwood floors look horrible just 2 years later, while others look great after 20 years. Guy Lee, owner of LPC Enterprises, a Diamond Certified company, explains what makes the difference. People who properly maintain their floors fend off the two major enemies of hardwood - water and dirt.

To give your floors a long life and to retain their beauty, the easiest thing to do is to keep dirt out by adding mats at the entry points, both inside and out. Polyurethane coated floors should be cleaned regularly with a damp mop or with a hardwood floor cleaner, such as Murphy's. Recoat every several years as needed to prevent wear through the existing coating. When refinishing is required, a competent hardwood floor refinisher can do a far better job than the average do-it-yourselfer.

When you put your home up for sale, your real estate agent is there to help you set the right price for the property. A thorough agent will analyze comparable homes sold in your area, taking into account the condition, square footage, lot size, parking, public transportation and even the school district. Many factors go into determining the appropriate selling price.

Your home has only one chance to make a first impression.  That’s why a fresh coat of paint inside and out, staging, and sprucing the front and back yards are important. The first three weeks the property is listed are critical because that’s when your house will be getting maximum exposure through ads and open houses. If the home isn’t generating interest, you and your agent should reassess the situation. One option is to lower the price.  Another is to offer a credit back to buyer.

When your house is on the market for several months and isn't selling, it's time to get professional help. A customer, called Scott O'Neill, Sales Manager for Madden Door and Sons, Inc. a Diamond Certified company, and explained that his realtor thought the property wasn't moving due to the look of the home as you approached it. The tall side of the house wasn't visually appealing as you drove into the driveway.

You can quickly spruce up your house with the right garage door and add to its appeal and value. In this case, Mr. O'Neill designed a beautiful carriage garage door and some faux cobblestone was added along with window accents. The week after the work was done, the house sold for $120,000 more than the list price. The new garage door was the first visible feature and in the end, the $6,500 spent on it was well worth the investment.

Whether you’re updating a room, remodeling a bathroom, or planning to simply paint the entire inside of your home, a designer can help save you time, money and aggravation.  A designer can do everything from space planning and project management to lighting design, and color, fabric and furniture selection. You might even want to use the designer to work with your contractor and be the go-between to keep the project rolling or when communication breaks down.

The biggest thing is to find a designer who listens and comes up with a plan for your project that reflects you and your style. Designers will create user-friendly, practical designs and incorporate items you love. They can also help out when couples have different ideas on how to decorate and find designs and styles that both people can agree on.
If you have a tight budget, some designers will help you decide what to buy, while you do all the legwork and shopping. However you use a designer, these professionals will use their experience to guide the process and prevent you from making costly mistakes.

Are you looking for a relatively inexpensive way to make one of the rooms in your home “pop”?  Have you considered adding crown moulding? Mark Dobel, owner of Mark Dobel Painting and Restoration, a Diamond Certified company, says many people find that this type of accent can transform almost any room in the house.

When picking moulding, take into account the style of the home, your own personal taste, the size of the room, the height of the ceiling and the furniture. Mr. Dobel suggests finding pictures of what you like in magazines and looking at room displays because moulding comes in many different sizes, shapes and styles. It can be made of wood or medium density fiberboard. Both materials look the same after being primed and painted. Mark spray paints the moulding prior to installing. Using nails and glue to install, he then spackles nail holes, caulks any gaps, and applies a beautiful enamel finish.

Alarm systems fail for a number of reasons, according to Ron Kent, General Manager of Binkley Alarm, a Diamond Certified company. They might have low batteries or damaged sensors. Sometimes in a remodel, wiring or sensors may be damaged. And occasionally, systems just wear out.

To test your alarm, begin by telling neighbors and your monitoring facility that you’re running a test. Make sure you know how to reset all your system’s devices. Now turn on the alarm and pretend to be leaving the house by opening and closing the entry door. Wait for the alarm to turn on and then walk in front of the motion sensors, and then trip all the sensors in the house. Once this is done, turn the alarm off and contact your monitoring facility to verify the signals. Follow manufacturers’ instructions for testing of smoke, heat, carbon monoxide and other sensors. Be aware that only trained professionals can test commercial fire alarm systems.

Simple, early planning will dramatically enhance your next remodeling experience, according to Harvey Bondar, President of HouseWorks, a Diamond Certified company. Clear understanding of the motivation and expected outcome of a project saves time, focuses your investment, eases decision making and assists your contractor in delivering the best possible result.

The planning approach Houseworks uses is called the “M.O.R.E.” process. What is your Motivation for the project? Here’s where you examine why you’re considering the project.  Is it personal satisfaction or to increase your home’s marketability?  Next consider your Options. Should you knock out a wall or keep the same footprint – at what trade-off?  Realism is where budget constraints and code regulations are examined.  And the final piece is Execution where you and your general contractor lay out in detail what has to be done to complete a successful project.

Buying good quality material is the key to a great granite job. So says Jack Chan, Sales Manager of Amazing Stone, Inc., a Diamond Certified company. This is a big investment and something you usually have to live with for a number of years, so it pays to make sure you know what you are buying.

Mr. Chan recommends seeing the actual stone you are buying, not just a little sample from the showroom wall. Select granite from the same lot number, so the pieces are from the same stone block and matching in color. Some imperfections in natural stone are normal. And make sure the thickness between slabs is the same; otherwise, seams will be too thick and that’s unattractive. Seams should not be placed close to the sink because if water seeps in, it can ruin the plywood or cabinets underneath the granite. Finally, be there for the installation.

You can give your redwood decks and fences a longer life and a better appearance by using penetrating oil sealers. This is especially true for
areas getting a lot of sun exposure. It is almost impossible to preserve redwood’s “just-installed” look. Even with regular maintenance, redwood will eventually turn gray.

The benefits of redwood sealers go beyond appearance and any product you choose should contain water repellants, fungicides and UV inhibitors. Mr. Slendebroek says water repellants slow down the seasoning process, fungicides work against decay, and ultraviolet inhibitors block damaging rays that break down wood fibers. Clean the surface by hand, before applying a sealer, with a mild detergent and a non-metallic brush. Power washing is never recommended because it removes softer wood tissue. The California Redwood Association recommends the following redwood sealers: Penofin, Preservawood, TWP, Cabot and Olympic.

When it comes to improving air quality inside your home, you have a number of options these days, according to Steve Moore, owner of Moore Mechanical, Inc., a Diamond Certified company. Duct cleaning has become popular, but if you’re not addressing the leaks in your ductwork, you may be wasting your money. And with utilities offering rebates for the repairs, it just makes sense.

Mr. Moore says if a homeowner is serious about a clean “forced air system,” they should hire a qualified HVAC contractor who knows their entire system, and should always have the ductwork tested to insure its integrity and efficiency, before proceeding with any cleaning. You may pay a little more but the results are well worth it, and who doesn’t want to save a little energy? Additionally, new technologies have produced some effective air purification products that can be added to any forced air system.

Most homeowners have had to deal with water damage at one time or another from leaky roofs, clogged toilets or gutters, defective water heaters, worn-out washing machine hoses or flooding from a heavy rainstorm. Sal Vitalie, owner of Restoration 9-1-1, a Diamond Certified company, has seen it all. He knows that the harmful effects of water are sharply reduced by prompt action.

Do not leave wet fabrics in place; dry them as soon as you can. Remove all books, magazines and colored items from wet carpets and floors. Televisions and appliances standing on wet floors or carpets should not be used, and avoid turning on any ceiling fixture if the ceiling is wet. Use towels for blotting and mops to remove as much excess water as possible. Call an experienced water restoration professional for additional advice on whether to use fans, heat, air conditioning or open windows to speed up the drying process.

You can take almost any window treatment today and add a new dimension – motorize it. Jack Alter, owner of The Yardstick, a Diamond Certified company, tells me that many customers want motors and remote controls for window coverings for the convenience and wow factor. Remotes come in both infrared and radio frequency. Motors can be ordered either hard wired for electricity or battery driven. The batteries can last up to a year.

Mr. Alter has installed motorized systems for everything from roman shades, draperies, silhouettes and for blinds of all types.  Motorization is perfect for hard to reach windows and skylights and for draperies.  Remotes are also helpful for older people who might have a hard time pulling cords.
And for anyone who travels a lot, your curtains, blinds, or shades can be set on timers. They can be programmed to open and close regularly so it looks as though you’re home, even when you’re not!

If you have seen today’s “Astro Turf” you can understand why consumers are enjoying their new “synthetic lawns.”  Homeowners installing these lawns like them because they require no water and no maintenance to stay green.  Today’s turf is child safe and pet friendly.  Michell  Salamanca, owner of Southwest Greens SF/SJ, a Diamond Certified company, says people are finding that “turfing” their yard is giving them more usable and enjoyable space.

Synthetic lawns are quickly becoming an acceptable alternative.  When shopping for a synthetic lawn, consider a few points: the quality of the turf and the quality of the installation.  Ask to view lawns in the ground both new and a year or so old.  There should not be any discoloration or visible seams. And understand a few differences: the infill of the turf, the look and feel of the turf, and the pricing of the turf/installation.  As they say, “Compare apples to apples.”

A high-quality bathroom or kitchen faucet simply works better and lasts longer. Eric Nelson, owner of SplashWorks, a Diamond Certified company, says an inferior quality faucet may only last a couple of years and require more service calls from your plumber, making the less expensive model more expensive in the long run.

What should you look for in a good faucet?  A well-designed faucet will be made of pure, high-quality materials resulting in many years of maintenance free use. These higher quality faucets are manufactured, plated, & assembled in the factory of origin, not out-sourced to various parts of the world where quality control suffers.  Although most manufacturers offer lifetime warranties for the parts, in Mr. Nelson’s experience, not having the inconvenience of an “out of order” faucet coupled with plumber’s bills to fix that inferior faucet, is usually worth the cost of buying a better product.

If you’re lucky enough to be planning a kitchen remodel, you are thinking a lot about what features you’ll want in your cabinets. Andrew Wilson, a partner with the Cabinet Center, a Diamond Certified company, advises customers to choose full extension soft close hinges and to get as many roll-outs in the base cabinets that you can afford. He says most people also “must have” a pantry with roll-out drawers and Lazy Susans in the corner.

Any kitchen remodel involves the unexpected. Sometimes, for example, once the old cabinets are removed, the contractor will discover that the walls are not lined up properly. You may also discover foundation problems. For this reason, the most important “must-have” is a competent local contractor who will guide you through the construction process and warn you ahead of time about all the inconveniences you will have to endure.

If you’re worried about erosion on your property, you have a number of options, some are short-term remedies and others are a long-lasting fix. According to landscaping professionals, the ideal long-term solution for eliminating erosion is adding plants to create soil structure. Native plants give you the best results because roots create a web throughout the soil.

Other more temporary methods for stopping dirt from wearing away and sliding down the hill include laying down erosion-control blankets made of biodegradable straw or jute netting, an inexpensive option. Some people use straw, hay, or coarse mulch. Rocks are popular too as is rip-rap, a term for larger crushed stones. The main thing is that you do not want materials, which are too fine, such as sand.  Retaining walls made of blocks and drains can also help support your yard and reduce erosion.

Does your plumber take time to fully understand your situation?  According to Peter Johnson, owner of Surf City Plumbing, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, this means doing some probing. What is the reason for the service call and how old is your home? Have you had any past or future remodels or changes to the plumbing system, has the current problem happened before and has any other plumbing work been done recently?
A great plumber will do a pretty thorough walk through and inspection of the plumbing system.  Because most of us don't have plumbers out annually, ask for a full inspection on every call.  This normally doesn't take very long and will give the plumber the opportunity to make sure that everything is functioning properly. A quick check for leaks, safety issues or potential weaknesses will help the plumber determine where there is a link between the current service request and any other plumbing issues.

Does your plumber take time to fully understand your situation?  According to Peter Johnson, owner of Surf City Plumbing, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, this means doing some probing. What is the reason for the service call and how old is your home? Have you had any past or future remodels or changes to the plumbing system, has the current problem happened before and has any other plumbing work been done recently?
A great plumber will do a pretty thorough walk through and inspection of the plumbing system.  Because most of us don't have plumbers out annually, ask for a full inspection on every call.  This normally doesn't take very long and will give the plumber the opportunity to make sure that everything is functioning properly. A quick check for leaks, safety issues or potential weaknesses will help the plumber determine where there is a link between the current service request and any other plumbing issues.

It helps to know what to expect when you hire a pest control company to do a termite inspection. For one thing, a thorough job should take at least 2 to 3 hours, according to John Van Hooser, owner of Van Hooser Enterprises, Inc., a Diamond Certified company. The inspector will do a visual inspection, both outside and inside the house, in any place where water might collect. He’s looking for termites and moisture that can cause dry rot.

If termites are making themselves at home in your home, you might see damage in the wood, honey-colored pellets (droppings), tunnels made of mud and intermittent bursting swarms of winged insects. The inspector will produce a written report of the findings, which is filed by street address with the State Pest Control Board. The report stays on file for two years. If you have any questions about the inspector’s recommendations, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion.

If you’ve been unlucky enough to be get tagged with graffiti, you know it’s tough to remove. Tim Covington, owner of Big Al’s Grime Fighters, a Diamond Certified company, and an expert on graffiti removal, has a few tips to make the job easier.

On a painted surface, it’s best to paint right over the graffiti.  If tagging is done on concrete, metal or brick, start with a paint remover.  Some products are aerosols, but it’s more economical to buy a large can of it. Next, apply paint remover to the graffiti and power wash the surface, which is easier than wiping off disintegrating paint by hand.  Always remove graffiti as soon as possible. This will give you better results and discourage taggers. If the problem continues, consider applying an epoxy sealant. This coating makes it easy to simply wipe off the paint with a rag after applying the remover, thereby eliminating the need for power washing.

Choosing the right cleaning product has become a lot more complicated than it used to be. Pat Belardi, owner of Molly Maids of Marin, a Diamond Certified company, says that’s because in newer homes, you’re cleaning a wide variety of surfaces all requiring special products.  Stainless steel, acrylic, pewter, copper, marble or any other stone can be permanently damaged if you use the wrong types of chemicals. In an older home, you’re probably only cleaning tile, linoleum and painted surfaces, so an all-purpose cleaner will usually do the job.

Ms. Belardi tells all her clients to read cleaning product labels carefully and follow instructions to the letter. For example, if you’re cleaning a bathroom or oven, and the label recommends a well-ventilated room, open those windows. Also, don’t apply two different products to the same grime without a thorough rinsing in between applications. You don’t want to unknowingly create any dangerous chemical interactions.

The stores are now full of what’re called “No Flip” mattresses. They’re flat on one side so you can rotate them, but you can’t flip them and use the other side. John Babine, owner of Salinas Mattress Company, a Diamond Certified company, says some customers still prefer two-sided mattresses, where you can sleep on either side and flip occasionally.

So how often should you rotate and flip? Generally, it’s recommended that in the first year you change it up every 3 to 4 months. After that, Mr. Babine suggests flipping and rotating about every 6 months, or as needed due to body size and shape. The idea behind this is to make sure the materials in the mattress wear evenly, especially if you have two different size people sharing a bed. Frequent rotations and flips even out dips and impressions, and prolong the life of your mattress.

Cement is now being used to create beautiful surfaces both inside and outside the home. Eric Valtenbergs, owner of Touchstone Architectural Cement, a Diamond Certified company, had to explain to me what you can do with architectural cement, and was I ever surprised. The cement is used as a very thin overlay to existing surfaces, about 1/8” to 1/4” thick, and homeowners find it appealing because it’s lightweight, durable, decorative and versatile.

Inside the home, architectural cement can be applied to flooring, fireplaces and countertops. You can add custom colors, patterns and textures. It can also be poured into the shape you want, let’s say a curve on a countertop. This type of cement is used outside on patios, outdoor kitchens and pool decks. A big advantage is that a cement overlay may simplify restoring something like a patio, making it safe and beautiful again, and save you the cost of replacing the entire thing.

Did you know that most of us over-water our lawns? According to Peter Haeberlin, owner of Vitale and Sons, a Diamond Certified landscaping company, many people water their lawns every day in the summer, when 3 times a week is plenty. If you need  help in controlling water useage in your garden, you might consider installing one of the new smart irrigation control systems.

Mr. Haeberlin explains that these systems can be linked to sensors in your backyard or connect with a satellite weather station. You start by programming in the details about your garden and lawn — things like what type of soil you have, whether shrubs are shaded or in sunny areas, and whether the lawn is sloped, etc. The amount of watering allowed is determined by taking into account all of your yard’s variables and conditions such as humidity, precipitation, temperature and hours of daylight. The controllers are available through your landscape contractor and depending on your water consumption you may qualify for a rebate from your water district.

You can get the most out of your air conditioner this summer by paying attention to a few small things. Kevin Comerford, owner of Service Champions, a Diamond Certified company, suggests changing the system’s filters frequently because the dirt builds up, restricts airflow and causes your air conditioner to work harder and less efficiently. You can do this yourself, and while you’re at it, clean and hose off the outside condenser coils with Simple Green. If your system is blowing warm air it may be that the Freon is out of balance or the compressor outside is shut down. So while a professional is checking that, have him clean the blower motor and the indoor evaporator coil.

A programmable thermostat can help reduce your utility bill and eliminate large swings in temperature. This will also extend the life of the air conditioner, which lasts an average of 12 years. The latest models are much more energy efficient.

You may be tempted to hire an unlicensed contractor who offers the lowest bid on a home improvement project. Before you make that decision, Don Moe, owner of All Things Green, Inc. a Diamond Certified company, says homeowners need to know what consumer benefits come with using a licensed operation.

For one thing, licensed contractors have to carry liability insurance, so if an accident occurs while the job is underway, you, the homeowner, are protected. The Contractors State Licensing Board tracks background information on licensees, including reports of disciplinary action and license revocations. You can verify (www.cslb.gov) how long a company has been in business and get help with complaints. Unlicensed contractors can be difficult to find once a problem occurs; the only contact info may be a cell phone. Also, some are notorious for low-balling a job. Their price is the lowest for starters, but then unexpected charges come up as the work goes on.

The big threats to our homes during an earthquake come from two different forces.  Rick Wilson, owner of RC Wilson Construction, Inc a Diamond Certified company, explains that structures in earthquake zones are vulnerable to both shaking, and uplift.  The former can wreak havoc on the integrity of a structure’s framing, while uplift can cause an entire building to be jolted off the foundation.

You can minimize damage to your property by adding sheer walls, which counteracts the shaking.  Adding bolts, hold-downs, and other mechanical connections placed throughout the building can reduce the possibility of uplift. Above all, RC Wilson emphasizes that a solid foundation is key to any structure’s stability. Structural work of this type can be a tax write-off, all in one year if they’re considered repairs. Otherwise, if categorized as home improvements, you have to write them off over a longer period of time. 

If your garage looks like mine, you know how hard it is to find things like tennis rackets, soccer cleats, and bicycle helmets. All that unused space can be organized and even re-configured. Jason Muehlenhard, General Manager of California Closets, a Diamond Certified company, says one great idea is to create a "mudroom" in or close to your garage.

A mudroom is usually about 3’ by 4’ or 3’ by 5’, and it’s full of hooks, cubbyholes and shelves. You can add a mini-bin for shoes and boots and a rack for balls. The room itself can be enclosed, or left open. For larger items, such as golf clubs, skis, bikes and your brooms, rakes and shovels, you can add racks to the garage walls, so all that stuff can hang. This is a great way to maximize storage, and if you still need more space, add an overhead rafter.

Many of us who live in large cities are looking for privacy in our backyards, and one way to achieve that is by planting semi-mature trees, or trees that will grow quickly, according to Dave Graham, owner of Atlas Landscapes, a Diamond Certified company. Choosing the right trees for your garden is critical to avoid future problems. Large trees grown in 24-inch containers will usually fit through your door and can in most cases provide an instant privacy screen. Trees as tall as 20 feet can be placed in the yard with a crane when access is limited.

Large trees can also be moved from one side of the yard to another. However, the success rate for that type of transplant is about 60%. The easiest trees to move are palm trees and maples, and many other trees under 12 feet tall. Fruit trees, tea trees and rose trees are the most difficult.

You might be tempted to buy a home that was foreclosed upon and is owned by a bank. One potential problem for buyers is that some banks are NOT allowing any time for pre-sale inspections and are selling the houses “as is.” Kim Herrera, owner of Insight Home Services, a Diamond Certified company, says while you might pay below market prices, you might be sorry once you find out how much it will cost to make all the repairs.

Many homes for sale by banks were not well maintained by the previous owners in the first place. Vandals sometimes steal the copper piping and electrical wires, major appliances, showerheads, or you might find graffiti on the walls. Major damage may only be detected by crawling under the house. Ms. Herrera recommends asking the bank if you can do an inspection before making an offer. That way you’ll know whether you’re getting a real bargain or not.

Over the last 30 years, Jack Alter, owner of The Yardstick, a Diamond Certified company, has seen trends come and go and then come back again. Draperies were very popular up until the 1980’s and 1990’s when blinds and verticals became the rage. But homeowners soon had problems with blinds and verticals breaking and clanking.

Now draperies are back in a big way. Clients are saying, “I love drapes and I hate blinds.” Today you will find a broader selection of fabrics and incredible drapery rods. The trend is away from wall to wall curtains and floor-to-ceiling drapes, and you’re seeing more creativity. Today's design might include a stainless steel rod with faux silk side panels. Many types of blind choices for inside the window will give the room light control. This frames the window and makes the room look larger and more elegant.

Sellers usually do not know the condition of their home. According to Bob and Berta Bower with Alain Pinel Realtors in Saratoga, a Diamond Certified company, “Getting inspections allows you to learn of any issues and complete any items found in need of repair, prior to listing, resulting in a quicker sale.” Also, they tell clients that homes presented initially in good repair simplify the negotiation process and sell at a higher price.

Doing repairs prior to listing allows the seller more flexibility in choosing who does the work and what materials are used. For example, a tile shower can be replaced with a fiberglass shower stall in some neighborhoods saving thousands of dollars or a shake roof can be tuned up instead of replaced. Buyers will pay more for a house that has been repaired. Most families are dual income and have neither the time, nor expertise to do repairs themselves.

Have you ever come back home after a long vacation to just find ugly rings in your toilet bowls just below water lines? You’re tidy and you left everything immaculate as usual. What happened while you and the family were away?

Lamine Elabed, owner of Handyman Network of Marin, a Diamond Certified company, says you should not blame your toilet flushing system, its valves and flappers, or anyone else for that matter. The culprit is evaporation. When water evaporates, it leaves these unsightly discolored rings. How can you prevent this from happening next time? Before going away, if you know the toilets will not be used, lift the toilet seat and cover the bowl tightly with a plastic wrap like Saran Wrap. This way, you can avoid the hassle of having to scrub off theses ugly water spots when you get back home.

My last water bill was more than $300 (yikes) and a quick investigation revealed one big problem — the sprinkler was watering my driveway! What I didn't know is that many irrigation clocks are set for typical lawn circuits, even if they are watering more drought-tolerant shrubs, trees, or ground cover. And sometimes your sprinkler spray heads need adjusting, so that you're not watering your driveway.

Good drainage may disguise overwatering and some plants can get too much water for a long time before showing any symptoms. A few signs to look for though are yellowing leaves and wilting, especially with California natives and Mediterranean plants. Another good test is the finger or shovel test --- dig in and feel how moist the soil is.

Experts recommend getting to know what your yard needs and how to program your clock or consulting a landscaping pro.

This is a question that Dave Johnson, President of State of the Art Cleaning Services, a Diamond Certified company, sometimes gets from customers after cleaning their carpets. He has to explain that buckling occurs either because the polypropylene backing on the carpeting is defective or, more commonly, the original installation was not done properly.

Sometimes installers don’t take the time to stretch wall-to-wall carpeting (they are often paid per house, not by the hour). The slack can be up to 1%, or an inch for every 100 inches of carpeting.  Without stretching, buckling or bunching usually shows up around the edges and heavy furniture. It may appear after a few months or after a visit from your carpet cleaner.  If you’re having carpeting installed soon, make sure the installers don’t just “knee kick” the floor covering into place. Not only ask for power stretching, insist on it.  For more on quality installation see http://www.carpet-rug.org/residential-customers/installation/index.cfm

A well-organized home office can help you and your family be more productive. It all starts with allowing for plenty of surface workspace. Ideally for a corner desk, you need enough room for 2 people and their computers, with about 48 inches coming off each corner, and 30 inches of knee space.

Taylor has other good suggestions for your workspace. A wire management system helps control the clutter. Upper cabinets are useful and should be at least 12 3/4 inch deep to store large binders, and the like. Don’t skimp on slides for file drawers – they’re important. You don’t want heavy drawers falling out of the desk when you try to open them. Finally, make sure you have a durable finished surface for your work area and that the edges are not sharp.

In times of economic uncertainty, people are more likely to choose to remodel their home rather than go through the expense and stress of building a new home. Warren Kaufman of Renovations, a Diamond Certified company, uses methods of design known as “Life Cycle” and “Aging in Place,” to coach clients into making the right decision.

Kaufman says it’s usually less expensive to remodel than to opt for new construction. You already have the lot, a roof over your head, and equity. Another consideration is how long you and your family plan on staying in the home. It’s wise to look at the return on investment ratio. With “Life Cycle” design planning, you’ll be asked to think about who will be living or visiting the home. If plans include staying in your home for your “golden years,” it’s possible to make simple modifications to enable you to remain in your home as long as possible.

Fall is the best time to plant in Northern California, allowing new transplants to benefit from the expected winter rains. But what happens if the rains don’t come? As anyone who’s lived in California for more than a few years knows, the occasional drought is as sure a bet as the rains.

So, the next time you go to the nursery, shop with water conservation in mind, making selections that require little or no watering when established. Two great guides for picking the right plants for your plot are the Sunset Western Garden Book, published by Sunset Books, and the California Gardener’s Guide (Volume II), by Nan Sterman. Nursery staff can also steer you toward drought-tolerant plants.

As the cover of Sterman’s book illustrates, xeriscape — landscaping designed specifically for its ability to resist drought — doesn’t mean giving up lush greenery and flowers.

A rain barrel—used to catch storm runoff from your roof—does wonders for the environment. First, it keeps usable water out of the sewer and water treatment system. It also helps reduce overflow in the sewers. And it reduces the amount of potable water that must be used for things like irrigation and toilet flushing. To begin harvesting useful rainwater, just slide a rain barrel under a shortened downspout from your roof. San Francisco residents can get a deal on a 60-gallon rain barrel through a partnership between Cole Hardware and the Public Utilities Commission. If you prefer the do-it-yourself approach, visit the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for instructions on building your own rain barrel.

The most eco-friendly way to use a fireplace is to turn it into a showcase for candles, flowers or other décor. If you’re not willing to give up cozy nights by the hearth, do the next best thing by making wood choices that reduce pollutants.

According to Treehugger.com, manufactured logs — Java-Log and the new Duraflame, for example — are a greener alternative to real, cut firewood. That’s because the manufactured logs recycle waste, such as sawdust and coffee grounds, which saves trees. They also use plant-based waxes, which are a renewable source of carbon. And they burn cleaner than cut wood, emitting less particulate matter, carbon monoxide and other pollutants.

If you do burn real wood in your fireplace, make sure it’s dry. “Green,” or damp, logs will release more smoke and carbon. How do you know a log is dry? It’ll make a sharp, hollow sound when you tap it, compared to the dull thump of green wood.

It’s summertime and that means more cooking outdoors. Reduce your carbon footprint by retiring your old charcoal grill and replacing it with a gas grill. They’re not ideal, but they do burn cleaner. If you stick with charcoal, the Daily Green recommends using all natural charcoal briquettes, which don’t contain additives, or environmentally certified wood briquettes, made from sustainably farmed hardwoods. Use a chimney starter—a tall metal cylinder—to get the fire started with fewer CO2 emissions.

While you’re greening your grill, why don’t you go all the way and use biodegradable plates and utensils when you can’t use the real stuff. And don’t forget to compost the leftovers.

If you hire an incompetent contractor to tile your bathroom, you could end up with a big mess. Monica Beverly, owner of Santa Cruz Tile and Stone, a Diamond Certified company, says to re-do a job can cost thousands of dollars more because of all the water damage that may occur.

On a bad install, the shower pan may not be waterproofed, resulting in leaks through walls, floors and ceilings. Tiles might be crooked, not cut correctly, not flat, and not set with the right adhesive. If tiles are installed on an incorrect surface in a kitchen, tiles could start moving and the grout will fall out. To avoid making an expensive mistake, hire a licensed tile contractor with a known track record. Monica specifically recommends asking the bidding company for references from people who had work done a few years ago. A well-done tile job will stand the test of time.

You can’t go wrong replacing your old, incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). A CFL, which looks like a glass corkscrew or spring, lasts longer than a standard bulb, conserves energy and, ultimately, saves you money. But CFLs do require special handling when they burn out.

To avoid releasing toxic mercury into the environment, don’t toss CFLs into the household trash — recycle them. Home Depot and Ikea both offer free in-store recycling. If you don’t live near either business, visit Earth911.org to find a recycling location near you.

A broken CFL also requires special handling. Visit the EPA online for tips on safe cleanup and disposal.

According to the Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center, nearly 80% of structures built before 1980 contain some asbestos. The material can become a hazard when asbestos-containing building components such as floor and ceiling tiles, insulation, and drywall are damaged during remodeling or as the result of a fire, flood or earthquake.
Avoid asbestos exposure by hiring qualified professionals to remove it or repair the damage. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides information about when asbestos can become a hazard and what homeowners should know about hiring an inspector or contractor. Read the EPA’s advice and then search for a reputable professional in the Diamond Certified directory.

When the doorbell rings, it’s not always the Avon lady. Be on the alert for scams involving unscrupulous contractors who come to your home uninvited. In some cases, the unethical contractor does a job for a neighbor and then goes door to door collecting deposits for jobs he never intends to start. In other cases, the dishonest contractor says he’s offering free inspections. Not surprisingly, he finds something seriously wrong with every property he inspects. Then he offers to make the unneeded repairs at what he says is a bargain price because he’s doing a number of homes in the neighborhood.

The safe way to handle home repairs and improvements is to determine what you want to have done and then contact one or more contractors you choose from a list of ethical contractors. The best place to start your contractor search is in the Diamond Certified directory.

Some contractors’ home inspections are more thorough than others, according to Jack Diego, President of Diego Bros. Inc., a Diamond Certified company and certified green builder. To insure you get an unbiased opinion he recommends hiring your own home inspector, not just depending on a referral from a real estate agent.

Some contractors fail to inspect the crawlspace to determine evidence of moisture, potential mold and ventilation issues. Differential settlement causing uneven floors is another oversight. Lay a marble on the floor and it tells the tale very accurately. Check exterior drainage by running water up against the house on a hard surface to see where the water goes. An attic inspection will reveal whether insulation is adequate, heat ducts are leaking and note evidence of rodents. Lots of reports leave out the roof. Mr. Diego recommends that an inspection includes the estimated lifespan of the roof surface and the condition of flashings, vents, roof jacks, and drainage issues.

Alan Kostelnik, owner of the Gardens of the Wine Country, a Diamond Certified company, says when people ask about planting groundcover, they’re usually looking for ways to decrease maintenance, lower water use, improve erosion control, or cover a large area with difficult access.

Typically, groundcover is planted on a 6 to 12-inch grid, and it can take 12-18 months for it to completely fill in the area. Proper and routine weeding is needed until the groundcover is well established.  The type you choose depends on what you’re trying to do and your microclimate. Ask a local garden center or landscaper what works best for your area and application. In a large area, you might consider using a couple of different types of plants - one groundcover that’s functional and another for a splash of color. To see pictures of fully mature groundcover, get the Latin name from the landscaper or nursery, and Google it.

An experienced kitchen designer can help you get the most out of your kitchen remodel. The idea is to plan how to use your space not just for today, but for the next 10 to 15 years, according to Patty Hayos, owner of Signature Kitchen & Bath Design, Inc., a Diamond Certified company. The goal is to achieve the look and feel that you want, while maximizing the use of space and overall functionality of what Patty says is the most “abused, used and loved room in the house.”

The designer will pick up cues about your lifestyle by looking at the outside and inside of your existing home, probing for information before planning the layout. She might ask what you don’t like about your kitchen right now, and if you could have one thing, what would it be? A professional designer will create a cost-effective design, and help you avoid making big, and costly mistakes.

Good planning helps you eliminate some of the stress of any remodel. Frank Canova, owner of Diablo Valley Cabinetry, a Diamond Certified company, recommends tearing out kitchen pictures from magazines to start. Right away you’ll able to discern likes and dislikes. Tear out the page, make a short note and put it in a file.  Even things that you know you don’t like help when you sit down to discuss your project with the designer.

Plan ahead by ordering your tile, countertops, cabinets and appliances well in advance. When decisions are left to the last minute, it becomes very stressful for everyone. Be prepared for the construction phase.  When walls start coming down and the dust is everywhere, this is when the project gets real. Expect to eat out a little more than normal, use the BBQ or visit family and friends. Start having people over before the project starts so they can reciprocate later.

If you’re putting off getting your hardwood floors re-finished because you’re dreading moving furniture and living with all the dust, here’s some good news. Companies like Norcal Flooring, a Diamond Certified company, make it easier by moving all the large items for you and using a dust containment system.

Operations Manager Cynthia Soito says it works best to move furniture into other rooms or the garage, and if that’s not possible, bring in a portable storage pod. So you won’t have to live with fine dust everywhere for months after the job,  many companies now use  containment systems with HEPA filters that eliminate 98-99% of the particles. Make sure the employees put up plastic to block off areas being re-finished. Expect the job to take at least 3 to 4 days to complete and up to a week for larger homes.

Lisa Sabini, owner of Floors Etc., a Diamond Certified company, says when maintaining your floors, avoid using too much water on any type of flooring you’re cleaning. Many products, floor steamers and floor cleaning machines, can damage your laminate and hardwood floors allowing moisture to seep into the wood or strip the finish. Go easy with the water, no matter what the surface is.

A second tip is to avoid cleaning products that leave a residue, which builds up over time. When you have build-up on your flooring, vinyl or wood, you then have to remove it because it too can become dull and dirty looking. Use cleaners with a neutral ph or that are eco-friendly, which contains little detergent. Her last tip is to sweep or vacuum as often as possible and always before cleaning. That’s the best way to keep them in tip top shape.

Choosing the right cleaning product has become a lot more complicated than it used to be. Pat Belardi, owner of Molly Maids of Marin, a Diamond Certified company, says that’s because in newer homes you’re cleaning a wide variety of surfaces all requiring special products. Stainless steel, acrylic, pewter, copper, marble or any oth er stone can be permanently damaged if you use the wrong types of chemicals. In an older home, you’re probably only cleaning tile, linoleum and painted surfaces, so an all-purpose cleaner will usually do the job.

Ms. Belardi tells all her clients to read cleaning product labels carefully and follow instructions to the letter. For example, if you’re cleaning a bathroom or oven, and the label recommends a well-ventilated room, open those windows. Also, don’t apply two different products to the same grime without a thorough rinsing in between applications. You don’t want to unknowingly create any dangerous chemical interactions.

Worried about too much sunshine fading your hardwood floors, rugs and upholstery this time of year? Some rooms become almost unusable because they’re too bright and too hot. Fortunately, Terrance Leake, owner of V2K Window Décor and More, has solutions for controlling the sun using window coverings.

One option is solar shades, also known as roller shades.  This type of shade allows the light to come in, but blocks 99% of harmful UV rays, and keeps most of the heat out as well. If you prefer to match your décor, consider Roman shades. This more traditional look allows you to add a lining to the fabric shade to darken the room, keeping it cooler. Honeycomb shades are a third option, and work well if you want a modern and clean look. The big advantage with these shades is that they’re less expensive and can be ordered and installed quickly, often within a week.

Wood cabinets of any kind are a big investment, and you should know what you’re getting for your money. The best ones, according to Kevin Mancino, owner of Olde World Mill & Cabinets, a Diamond Certified company, are made from domestic plywood rather than imported plywood. How can you tell them apart? Mr. Mancino says the domestic plywood has 7 layers, while imported plywood has 13 layers.

The problem with too many layers is that the wood can bow, twist and warp. Domestic plywood is more stable under all conditions. Some of the imported plywood does not meet air quality standards either due to formaldehyde glues used.  You can also run into problems when trying to paint or stain the low quality plywood.  When it comes to cabinet hardware, American-made Accuride or imported European products provide the best products on the market. Watch out for inexpensive knock-offs; they have a much higher failure rate.

Have you ever seen little things floating around in the air through a ray of sunshine inside your house? Most of those airborne contaminants, such as dust, pollen and particulate matter, end up landing in your carpeting. That’s why Scott Mayer, Vice President of North Coast Carpet Care, Inc., a Diamond Certified company, recommends keeping your carpets clean to improve your indoor air quality.

Your carpeting absorbs airborne contaminants, as well as dust mites, pet hair, skin slough, and plain old dirt from the outside. Mr. Mayer tells me that close to 80% of all the soil in your floor coverings is dry, so frequent vacuuming helps a lot. How often you vacuum depends on the size of your family and whether you have pets. He suggests using doormats, shaking out area rugs and pillows, changing heating and air conditioning filters annually and of course, regularly scheduled professional carpet cleaning.

Taking a few precautions with your teak outdoor furniture will give it a longer life and keep it in tip-top shape. Steve Keihner, President of Terra Teak & Garden, a Diamond Certified company, says you can either use a sealer every year to retain the caramel brown color of the teak, or leave it alone and let it turn a natural gray.

To make sure your teak lasts, you need to cover the furniture in the rainy season. Strong rains wash out the fine grain and makes the furniture rough to the touch. Those rough spots create pores for dust to settle in, allowing organic substances to grow. That’s what causes spotting on your furniture. Another insider tip is to create an air pocket when you cover dining tables by placing a beach ball between your table and the cover. Your makeshift “tent” protects the wood from being damaged by moisture.

When you perform home maintenance on a routine basis, you’re less likely to have big and expensive repairs down the road. Marc Depew, President of Home Assurance Services, a Diamond Certified preventative maintenance company, recommends following a maintenance checklist at the beginning of every season.

This fall, for example, it’s time to turn your attention to your gutters, roof, furnace, air ducts, windows and drainage system. The gutters and downspouts need to be cleaned out and inspected for cracks, leaks and other weak spots.  The air ducts should be tested for flow and temperature, and your furnace should be cleaned and the filter needs to be cleaned or replaced. Windows can be lubed, caulked and chipped areas repaired and possible touched up with paint. And finally, check your drainage system by running water through the pipes to see where blockage might occur. Clean out roots, leaves and sludge to open those pipes up.


David Hurwitz, owner of Glass with Class, a Diamond Certified company, knows all the ins and outs of window washing. I asked him about common mistakes people make when washing windows for starters, Mr. Hurwitz says you should never blast your windows with the garden hose. That’s because we have hard water in the Bay Area and it can leave expensive-to-remove water stains on your windows.

Another way to damage your windows is to use a dark green scrubber on the glass. It might scratch the glass. Instead use a lighter-colored scrub pad; white or light yellow pads are best. Stay away from ammoniated cleaning products because they eventually break down the seals in double-paned windows and cause fogging. And Mr. Hurwitz’s last piece of advice is to stay off of those inexpensive extension and stepladders. Most have bad locking mechanisms. Avoid serious accidents by leaving the highest windows to the professionals.

Experts like Paul Asadov, President of Zeus Remodeling, a Diamond Certified company, know exactly what to do to reduce noise problems in a home. The most common complaint is about the sound of footsteps in multi-family dwellings. Mr. Asadov explains that the solution to “impact” noise is to replace the original drywall with a detached drywall made of two layers, where one layer is laminated with noise control material. You can also add soundboards inside the ceiling to reduce noise.

If your noise problem is street or freeway noise, Mr. Asadov suggests reinforcing the weak spots – doors and windows. Hollow core doors are replaced with solid noise control doors with several acoustical layers inside. Then install triple-pane windows, where one of the glass layers has a vinyl lamination just like a car windshields.  With these types of improvements, noise levels can usually be reduced by at least 50% to 60%.

Living in Northern California, and particularly in the Bay Area, we don’t have to do a whole lot to winterize our homes—no screens to take down or storm windows to install. Still, there are a few important tasks you’ll want to take care of as the weather begins to change.
   * Have your roof checked, particularly around chimneys, skylights and vents. Now is the time to find and fix leaks, before the rains start.
   * Clean your gutters, downspouts and drainpipes before leaves and other debris come down in heavy winds. Full gutters and drainpipes can result in a water overflow where you least want it.
   * Have chimneys professionally cleaned. A buildup of creosote—the by-product of wood combustion—can result in a chimney fire. (Learn more about keeping your chimneys safe and clean at the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s website.)
   * Check your smoke detectors and replace batteries if needed. (Check smoke detector batteries twice a year, when you change your clocks in the spring and fall.)
   * Check your heating system. Replace filters if needed—a dirty filter makes the furnace work harder and can spread allergens. (PG&E offers a 10-point furnace safety and efficiency checklist and free furnace safety inspections.)
   * Replace damaged or missing weatherstripping around windows and doors to stay warm and conserve energy. (The U.S. Department of Energy provides online instructions for the do-it-yourselfer.)

Have you ever heard of “weep” holes?  John Pope, the General Manager of Old Town Glass, a Diamond Certified company, tells me that many people are unaware that their vinyl, aluminum and even fiberglass windows have small holes in them, weep holes, to allow water to drain. Without regular maintenance, the weep holes become clogged by dirt, stucco and debris, causing water to back up and leak into the wrong places.

As part of your fall/winter maintenance, check those weep holes and if they’re not clear, blow them out with an air compressor, or clean them out with a small tool. While you’re checking your windows, touch up cracks in the caulking between the window and trim. Make sure you’ve also touched up cracked paint; you want all exterior surfaces to be weather-tight. That way, you’ll not only keep the water out, but bugs out as well.

If you have a pent up desire to make changes to your home, having looked at design magazines and watched HGTV for months, you might want to first discuss your ideas with an architect. Mason Kirby, a Diamond Certified Architect, explains that a collaborative approach can be helpful and educational. The architect commonly plays the role of contractor, investment advisor, real estate agent, and even marriage and family counselor in helping you decide what to do.

Once you decide to renovate rather than move, an architect will assist you with the design, introduce your project to the contracting community, make sure the project bids are accurate and fair, and will help you find a good match with a contractor. Mr. Kirby says his goal is for you to like the person who is tearing out your kitchen sink and that you’re pleased with the job upon its

Architects like Mason Kirby, a Diamond Certified professional, help homeowners think through solutions to their design problems. Sometimes the solution is to renovate the kitchen or add that extra bedroom or bathroom. Other times, you might be investing too much equity in the home itself or the neighborhood and it could be that moving to another home makes more sense.

Mr. Kirby encourages people to NOT think of their homes purely as investments. He says, “It’s where the life of your family plays out.”  Here is one test he uses:  If you can make some changes that will improve the quality of your family’s lives over the next 5 to 7 years, and you have the resources and the will, then remodeling is the way to go.  The goal is to be excited about the process and the outcome. A competent architect provides a structured process to determine what are the best options for your situation.

Have you been thinking about installing new windows? John Gorman, owner of  Save Energy Company, a Diamond Certified company, says if you buy double pane energy-saving windows now,  you will qualify for a maximum of $1500 in federal tax credits. You’re allowed to deduct 30% of the cost of the materials through 2009 and 2010. For more detailed information on the tax credits, go to www.energystar.gov.

Double pane windows have improved a lot over the years, according to Mr. Gorman. Besides reducing your energy bills, they eliminate mold and mildew. People find that the new windows reduce street noise, which is a huge benefit. New tinting blocks harmful UV rays, so they protect your rugs and furniture from sun damage.  In many homes, you can install new windows without replacing the casings or damaging your stucco.