Monday, August 29, 2016

How Much Should You Tip Contractors, Landscapers, and Other Home Pros?

Catherine Lane/iStock
We all know that tipping a waiter is proper (and expected!) dining-out etiquette. But how much should you tip general contractors, landscapers, painters, and other professionals who help keep your home in tiptop shape. In fact, should you tip them at all?

The easiest way to clear up this question, of course, is to simply ask the company or contractor you’re using what is the tipping policy before you even agree to a deal. Yeah, it’s a bit awkward—but it’s nothing compared with getting it completely wrong. And since tipping customs can vary a lot by region—people in Bismarck, ND, may not tip the same as those on New York’s Upper East Side—you could get some community advice from people who live nearby.

Author and manners expert Amy Alkin suggests you play it straight and say: “I’m new in this neighborhood, and I want to do the right thing, and I’m wondering, do you know what people around here tip?”

Still looking for guidelines? Here’s your crash course on whom to tip, how much to give, and how to show your appreciation in other ways as well. No gratuity necessary!


In some places, a handyman earns more than $100 an hour and doesn’t expect a tip. However, if you’ve found a go-to helper who frequently does odd jobs around the house for, say, $20 an hour—change high lightbulbs, move heavy objects, wax floors— then a holiday or postproject gift equal to his daily fee is appreciated.

An Angie’s List survey of 5,000 home service professionals around the U.S. found that only a small percentage of handymen, 7%, say they routinely receive tips, although that number jumps to 28% when they’ve performed extra services and kindnesses beyond the original scope of work.


Painters generally don’t expect tips, especially if you’ve hired a small company where the boss and his brothers are painting your house. Tipping is a must, however, if you ask a painter to touch up that little scuff on the dining room wall, which wasn’t in the original contract. Most painters will oblige, and you should reward their generosity with a $15 to $20 tip if the extra work takes an hour or less.


When it comes to general contractors, the question isn’t how much you should tip but whether you should at all. And in general, the answer is no.

Please, Mr. Postman

Tipping is not expected by general contractors and their crews who pop the top of your home or remodel your kitchen. The Angie’s List survey says that remodeling companies expect a tip only 6% of the time, though 18% receive tips for top-notch service.

However, you may choose to add a clause in your cost-plus remodeling contract that pays a bonus if the contractor completes the project early or under budget. This is more an incentive than a show of appreciation, and can be a percentage of estimated money saved or a flat fee, perhaps $500 to $1,000 for a major project like a large kitchen remodel.

Other ways to show appreciation for a job well done is to write a great review of the contractor on sites such as Yelp or its local equivalent. Looking for a more personal touch?  If you’ve gotten along well with the general contractor who built your house, consider inviting him to dinner so he can see how much you love the fruits of his labor.


Decorators, who often charge hourly and a percentage of whatever they purchase for you, also don’t usually expect tips. Referrals, yes.

Actually, it’s common for a decorator to give the client a little present after a particularly lucrative job—a gift bag or the perfect bowl to set on the new dining room table.

Plumbers, electricians, the cable guy

Again, no tipping is necessary because these skilled tradesmen work either for themselves—as a general rule, you don’t have to tip business owners—or for large companies that may prohibit tipping.
Even though tipping is inappropriate, it’s always nice to offer people who work in your home a cold drink (um, not alcohol), and to thank them specifically for their prompt and skilled work.

Also, give great workers a heartfelt shoutout on review sites such as Yelp or Angie’s List. It is, in fact, the gift that keeps giving.

Lawn care workers and landscapers

It’s impractical and unnecessary to tip the guys who mow your lawn every week, though it’s nice to put a pitcher of cold water out for the workers. If the same crew arrives every Thursday, at the end of the season you can show your appreciation with $20 to $50 cash tip each.

However, when you ask a landscaper to do something extra, like prune a hanging branch, slip him something extra, from $10 to $20 depending on how long the task takes.

Alkin says we all have an “inner accountant” who notices when others are “taking us for a ride.”
“If you’re generous, others won’t approach you in a nickel-and-dimey, suspicious way,” she says.

House cleaners

If the same cleaning lady makes your home sparkle each week, a big tip is expected during the holidays, typically a week’s wages presented in a card with a personal message of appreciation.
If you hire a cleaning crew, tipping is not expected or required. At the end of the year, or after a major project, however, you can give each crew member a small gift, or divide the price of a cleaning session among the crew.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Boosting curb appeal

 Top 5 tips to aid power of your home's 1st impression

Chicago Tribune
Whether you plan to sell your house this year or after your last child leaves the nest, being a homeowner includes keeping the house in tip-top shape.

Yes, you can boost your sale price by updating your kitchens and bathrooms, but buyers will never even see your home's interior if the exterior scares them off.

Every house needs curb appeal. You want your house to say "welcome" to prospective buyers, not, as Oz said in the "Wizard of Oz," "Go away!"

Following are some suggestions from experts in the field and homeowners who have upped the curb appeal of their homes.

Be objective
"Step back and look at your house as though you've never seen it before," said Chip Wade, host of HGTV's "Elbow Room" and a home-improvement consultant for Liberty Mutual Insurance. "Even if you don't use it, there should be a clearly defined path to your front door. After dark, the entry should have sufficient lighting. The address numerals should be visible and easy to read. If your front door needs to be replaced, now's the time."

Buyers will notice if your house needs a new roof or siding. These are costly, but they can make or break the sale. Long-term warranties tell the buyers they don't have to worry about re-doing these projects.
One of Wade's biggest bugaboos is the garage door, which can hog the screen in your house photo. "It's a necessary evil," he said. "But a substantial one will look better than a 'builder-grade' door. The new wood-look doors look real but are not as heavy as real wood."

Ideally, your house has a front porch, said Wade. "Short of that, you can add a portico that's big enough to keep your guests dry when it's raining," he said.

Before you add either to your house, read your city's building rules and neighborhood covenants. They may say, for example, that there must be at least 40 feet between your home and the curb or you can't use certain materials that are not common in the neighborhood, such as vinyl siding.

If you have a front porch that's just decorative and not deep enough for chairs, it detracts from your house's curb appeal, said Wade. Hire a contractor to remove this 1980s amenity, which only looked good on paper.

Adding a portico costs $2,500 or more.
Enlist the experts
"We did a lot of the work ourselves," said Chris Berry of the 19th-century house he and his wife, Rebekah, remodeled in Elgin. "But first, we got professional advice."
Before they bought paint, they hired a color specialist who helped them choose a set of colors that would have been used when the house was built. "And we hired a landscape designer to draft a plan that took summer and winter light into consideration, then planted the plants ourselves to save money," Berry said.
To define the Berrys' corner lot, the landscape designer suggested they install an aluminum fence with a wrought-iron look. The designer was spot-on, Berry said. The fence frames the front-yard view of the house and saves their plants from being trampled by kids who attend the grade school across the street.
If you can't afford the pros, take advantage of apps and manufacturers' websites that let you post a photo of your house, then "paint" it different colors or add amenities.
For a landscape design, not including plants or installation, set aside at least $500.
Respect the house's origins
As you undo the remuddling your house suffered, "don't fight the house's original style," said John Potter, architect with Morgante Wilson Architects in Evanston. "A professional designer can help you work with it."
When Potter designed a remodel of Renee and Garrick Lau's 1896 Italianate house in Wilmette, he chose materials his predecessors would have used in the late 1800s.
"We used 3-inch-exposure cedar siding, painted sage, with white trim," said Potter. "We gave the house a wooden front door, beadboard porch ceiling and wooden front steps."
Potter kept the home's original, wavy-glass windows. What they lack in energy efficiency, he said, they have in character.
Sometimes the house's original exterior is there, but hidden.
"Under a layer of aluminum siding was the original siding and architectural details including sunbursts and half-round windows," said Berry.
The Berrys do their own home-improvement jobs to save money, but Berry estimates it would cost about $25,000 to repair original clapboards, replace rotted areas, recreate damaged ornamentation and paint the whole exterior. This is for a 2,000-square-foot house.
Weigh cost vs. value
Before you embark on home improvements that will enhance your home's curb appeal, consider how much money you'll recoup when you sell the place.
Lucky for you, Remodeling magazine compiles an annual cost vs. value report.
If you replace your unsightly front door, for example, you can recoup 72 percent of your cost if you get a fiberglass one or 101.8 percent if you buy one that's steel. You'll get 88.4 percent of your money back at resale if you buy a new garage door.
A new roof costs about $19,528, said the report, but you'll get 71.6 percent ($13,975) of that back at resale. Windows are costly, too, but yield a 72.9 percent payback if they're vinyl and 78.8 percent if they're wood.
If you are not selling the house soon, add the value of having that amenity while you live in the house. Many a homeowner says he wishes he had made the upgrade years ago instead of making it prior to selling.
A subscription to Remodeling will set you back $24.95.
Greenbacks for greenery
There are two components to curb appeal — the house itself and the plants that give the property life.
For the lush lawn that buyers want, consider a professional lawn service for fertilizing and weed control.
If you have at least three months until you list your house, the service can seed and aerate it, too.
If you're listing the house soon, splurge on sod for an instant upgrade.
Trim or replace foundation plants that hide the view of your house from the street. Edge the lawn for a tidy look.
Post large planters on either side of the front door. If you don't have a green thumb, fill the pots with faux boxwood, said the experts at The Silk Thumb in Highwood. They cost more than the real McCoys, but are maintenance-free and look real.
Grass treatments cost $100 and up, depending on the size of your lawn.

Today's buyers start their home shopping on their computers or smartphones.
"The first picture they see is the front exterior, so if that's not good, they won't go any further," said David Yocum, a real estate agent with Redfin's Chicago office. "If there are no pictures online, the buyer assumes there's something really wrong with the house and isn't interested at all."
If buyers like what they see online, they ask their agents to schedule tours.
For a set of professional photos of the house, you'll spend $500 or more. Many real estate agents cover this cost, though, for properties they list.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Tips to Stage Your Home to Sell

Put your best foot forward.

Make a good first impression.

First impressions are the most lasting.

What I’m trying to say is, when it comes to houses, prospective buyers are going to judge your house based on their first, two-second impression of it, whether or not they should.

When others make strong judgments based on first impressions, it’s usually seen as a negative. Instead, look at your home’s first impression as an opportunity for you to get a leg up on your competition by wowing potential homebuyers.

Home staging is setting your home up as a neutral space where buyers can easily imagine the drama of their life unfolding. Home staging doesn’t have to mean dropping 10 or 20 grand on remodeling. A lot of it is doing all the little things right – making your home appear as attractive as possible and then getting out of your own way so buyers can see how they, not you, would live in the home.

I asked Joe Delia with Keller Williams Royal Oak Market Place for tips on how to best stage your home for a quick sell.

The Basics

Listing Photos

Put some effort into the listing photos – maybe even hire a professional photographer. Buyers sort through many, many listings online. If your photos fail to grab their attention, they may not even give your home a chance.

Clean Up

Clean and tidy goes a long way. “When it’s dirty, people focus on that,” explains Delia. Clean isn’t enough – make your home spotless.


The close cousin to clean and tidy is decluttering your home. People have a hard time envisioning their belongings in a home when it’s packed with someone else’s stuff.
The seller should remove as much clutter as possible. Less furniture makes the space look bigger. The furniture you do leave out should be up for entertaining. Make traffic flow obvious to buyers.

Depersonalize the Space

Removing personal items like family photos is another important thing to do. It’s hard for buyers to envision themselves in an empty home and equally as hard to envision themselves in a home full of someone else’s life and mementoes.

Make it Bright and Open

Lots of natural light and storage space are helpful too. Bright, open, refreshing and relaxing are some of the feelings potential buyers want to sense when walking through your home.

Decorating and Updating

Be Consistent

A consistent d├ęcor theme is more important than having all the newest updates/materials. A buyer should be able to come into your home and immediately sense a flow, an order to the home and be able to picture themselves in that flow, Delia states.
If you have some brushed nickel and some brass hardware in your home, for example, replace one or the other so that everything matches. Avoid a combination of styles, like ultra-modern and antique, as much as possible too. Decide on a look for your home and commit to it.
Putting in new cupboard or drawer fronts and hardware and repainting your home in neutral colors are some relatively cheap fixes that will significantly revitalize your home. Setting out fresh fruit or flowers greatly increases the appeal and hominess of your home, without making it feel personal to you.

Remodeling vs. Updating

You can go for more extensive remodeling like a whole kitchen or bathroom overhaul if you want, but just adding some nice furniture, art pieces or stainless steel appliances (that stay with the home) will be more cost effective in increasing your home’s appeal.
Make bedrooms as serene as possible; don’t make bedrooms gender specific. Update bathrooms including tub, shower and vanities, clean grimy walls, change fixtures, clean shower doors. Paint out dated tiles on bathroom walls.

Outdoor Tactics

Remember that first impression? It started with the images the buyer saw online and is largely cemented in their mind when they drive up to your home, so make it look great!
  • Power wash your driveway, deck, outside of home, etc.
  • Cut the grass regularly
  • Keep bushes and shrubs well-trimmed
  • Clear out weeds
  • Add flowers or other colorful accents to improve curb appeal
  • Get rid of any dead plants
The bottom line is that it’s absolutely worth spending some time, effort and a little money to increase the appeal of your home. At the same time, don’t think you need hardwood floors, granite countertops and vaulted ceilings to get people to look at your home.
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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

7 Remodeling Tips

Julie Laughton Designer and General Contractor 
This is the busiest time of year for remodels. Most homeowners like to start their remodel now so it is completed by the new school year and the holiday season. Summer is a convenient time for a family to travel while their home is being worked on.
The home remodel experience should be fun and rewarding. You are essentially getting a new home to meet your family’s lifestyle and needs without moving. However, you may have heard stories from friends and family whose remodel turned into a nightmare. For example, a job that was supposed to take six months to complete went on for over a year. Not only is your happiness about the remodel squashed, but you also have a bitter taste in your mouth and won’t feel the same about it in the end. The delays and the stress take the joy out of it. If your remodel needs to go on hold in the middle of the job, then the original budget goes out the window.
The keys to not having this happen are to know what to look for, who to hire, and see the warning signs. Here are 7 tips to help avoid a nightmare remodel.
1) Moving Out or Staying in Your Home: Are you prepared to either move out or stay and camp out while your remodel is being done? To move out means additional costs if you don’t have a second home to go to. To stay in your home means living with a temporary kitchen and in a more confined space with inevitable added stress.
2) Hiring the Essential Players: The architect, designer, space planner, kitchen and bath designer, and contractor are the four most essential players to the project. You should also be aware that hiring a professional educated interior designer who does space planning is much different than hiring a decorator who does furniture and drapes. You need the appropriate person to draw the plans because it is not only about the home’s design architecturally, but also how the space is designed and functions along with the overall style. Letting your contractor play designer doesn’t work.
3) Creating Good Plans: You need to have plans that work. This allows you to achieve a budget and stick to it. Sometimes a homeowner will think they hired the right person to draw them. However, the architect or designer who drew the plans has to understand city rules, residential design, and construction in general. They also need to understand space planning and kitchen design or the plans just won’t work. Even if the plans are complete but not everything is reviewed in advance, there will be surprises and added costs.
4) Making Decisions and Selections: For budget and timing reasons, all design decisions and material selections should be made in advance of starting the project. A well-known fact in all remodels is the “unknown” behind the walls. This cannot be avoided. The other unknown to the professionals is how the client will react and how many changes they will make “after” the jobs starts. My best advice to a client is if they have a budget, they want to stick to. Do not under any circumstances make changes or add to the scope of work after the work starts. It’s a nightmare of additional costs on top of delays.
5) Determining Your Style: It’s best to work with a professional designer to help guide you through this process. The professional design process is executed in a way that is supposed to allow you to see all the options and, at same time, fine-tune the options while establishing the style. In the end, it has to not only have style, but it also must function so it will all work for the homeowner. Getting there can be overwhelming and proper guidance is the key.
6) Avoiding the Owner-Builder Route: The biggest nightmare is when a homeowner starts their project without a permit or a plan. They try to hire all of the sub-contractors themselves as an owner-builder without hiring a contractor. They manage the project with no experience and think the process is easy because it’s their house. The risk to the homeowner is very high in this situation. A homeowner will usually spend much more time and money in the end if they choose to go the owner-builder route. Then it will be too late when they realize that they need a professional to take over and finish the job right.
7) Checking References: It’s amazing how many contractors aren’t who they say they are. You want to make sure that your contractor is legitimate: licensed, bonded, and insured. Actually check his license and make sure it’s valid. Check his references. Ask for proof of insurance. It’s illegal to work without it. If they don’t have it, then you stop.

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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Experts offer tips for homeowners thinking about remodeling

Experts offer tips for homeowners thinking about remodeling 
Laura Borchers

Many Central Ohio contractors say in the spring their business warms up. Now experts are offering tips to homeowners thinking about taking on a home remodeling project.

"Being in German Village and looking around at different houses, we felt this one had everything we were looking for,” said homeowner Angie Steinhauser. “But every room needed a facelift.”
Steinhauser and her partner Ziad Shaheen hired a contractor and went room-by-room replacing light fixtures, updating walls and in some cases, tearing out drywall.

“We had to tear out something we called the ‘Medusa light’ immediately,” said Shaheen. He went on to say remodeling was not easy. “Just living with contractors, in general. Not anything personal, just the clutter and mess that comes with all of that."

That is why the first piece of advice the couple offers to others is to be careful in selecting the companies who will help you renovate.

"We interviewed a lot of contractors,” said Steinhauser. “I think finding the right contractor who you're going to work well with can make a big difference."

The tip is echoed by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Days ago he filed a lawsuit against a home improvement contractor for failing to deliver promised services. The lawsuit accuses Columbus-based 5 Star Remodeling LLC and owner Robert Turnquest of violating Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act.

In several consumer complaints, customers said they paid for home improvement work they never received and that the company did not provide refunds.

“In this case, we found that consumers paid thousands of dollars for work they never received,” Attorney General DeWine said. “We’re seeking recovery for affected consumers and protection for other consumers so they don’t experience the same problems.”  

Attorney General DeWine offered tips to avoid home improvement problems:
  • Research contractors carefully. Ask neighbors, friends, or family members for recommendations. Review complaints on file with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau. Check with the Ohio Secretary of State to confirm that the business is properly registered.
  • Get written estimates from several contractors before making a final decision. Be skeptical of an estimate that is much lower than others. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Read any documents a contractor gives you before signing them. Don’t rely on verbal claims. 
  • Be wary if you have to pay a large down payment, such as half of the total cost.
  • Make sure the written contract includes the start and end dates and an itemized list of all material costs, labor, and services.

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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tips for building an outdoor kitchen for clients

Outdoor kitchens have been growing in popularity over the years. The benefit of learning how to build an outdoor kitchen is that the profit margins are traditionally higher than standard indoor kitchen remodels given that the select group of contractors with the skill of installing them is small and their services are in demand.

The outdoor kitchen is comprised of four distinct zones: the hot zone, which is where your grill, cook top and pizza oven goes; a wet zone, which is where your sink goes; a cold zone where you keep your cooler or refrigerator; and a dry zone, which is where you want to keep cooking and storage items dry.

Of all the zones within the outdoor kitchen the dry zone requires the most specialized equipment. Special water-tight  and water-resistant cabinets will need to be put in to keep storage items dry. Among the offerings are NatureKast high-density resin and Werever marine-grade HDPE cabinetry that are so impervious you can clean them with a water hose. Kalamazoo also makes beautiful stainless steel cabinets and appliances for the outdoors.
Werever marine-grade cabinetry
In regards to appliances for an outdoor kitchen, Kalamazoo makes the nicest, most durable appliances you can buy. They make warming drawers and side burners. They even make outdoor dishwashers, which is a real luxury item if you think about it.

Another aspect of building an outdoor kitchen is to select the right grade of tile. Tiles that work best outside are high-grade porcelain tiles, which are nearly impervious to moisture, and quarry tiles that are highly durable in structure. Another building material you can consider working with is stained concrete with a durable layer of polymer coating.  If you choose to stamp the concrete you want a very low stamp level, which will make cracking less of likelihood. Also if you want to put wood deck flooring in your outdoor kitchen, pick the most water-impervious grade of wood you can. Epay wood is a highly recommended outdoor wood flooring option. Remember sourcing the most durable materials you can and paying more initially is better in the long run as the life of the kitchen can be extended into many decades of time.

Although many keep the outdoor kitchen as closely adjacent to the indoor one as possible, it should not be relegated to just the backyard. You can put outdoor kitchens on the roof as well.
Building an outdoor kitchen is not a necessity but it is a luxury symbol. Many homeowners appreciate what an outdoor kitchen can provide in terms of entertaining guests, and may be eager to have one custom built.

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Friday, April 22, 2016

6 spring chores to do now to protect your home's value

As of early Sunday morning on the East Coast, spring officially has sprung. But before you break out in your happy dance, you've got some work to do.   To protect what's probably your biggest investment, it's important to take care of a few spring chores. Nino Sitchinava — principal economist at, a leading platform for home remodeling and design — offers her top tips for getting your property back in shape after winter:
1. Tackle any drainage issues. The 2016 Houzz Landscaping Trends study revealed that drainage issues are the top challenge homeowners face when updating their yards. After winter, you likely know where excess water pools around your home. Spring is the best time to fix this to avoid erosion and mold issues.

2. Fix a leaking roof. During winter, it's common to patch or tarp a roof as a temporary fix for leaks, but now is the time to resolve issues for good. According to the 2015 Houzz & Home study, which had more than 170,000 respondents in the U.S.,  homeowners are nearly two times more likely to remodel their kitchen (27%) than roofing (15%), an important update when needed. "Fixing leaks and maintenance repairs should be prioritized ahead of other remodeling," Sitchinava says. "Leaks can cause problems like pests and mold. Often these repairs are also lower budget and require less planning."
3. Refresh your entry or mudroom. During winter, you're likely to track snow, road salt and mud into your entry or mudroom. In spring, make sure to thoroughly clean your walls, floors and doors to avoid any long-term damage.

4. Clean and repair gutters. Winter debris can build in gutters, and it's important to remove it before spring rains. To avoid water running down the side of your home, check for places where the gutters may have pulled away from the house. "Termites and other pests, which become most active during this time of year, are attracted to moisture," Sitchinava says. "Standing water can create mold issues and cracks in driveways and paths create tripping hazards."

5. Clean siding. Similar to your entry or mudroom, salt and mud can build up on the exterior of your home during the winter. Depending on the type of siding, you can use a hose or pressure washer to clean your siding.

6. Update paths and your driveway. Often driveways and paths crack during the winter, especially in regions that experience freezing conditions. During landscaping projects, more than half of homeowners update their paths (51%) and 17% update their driveways, according to the 2016 Houzz Landscaping Trends study.

"Often, it's not an option to resolve these issues during the winter because it's too cold to have workers on site and there may still be snow on the ground in colder climates. So, it's important to address them ASAP in the spring."

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