Home Improvement - Our Experience

Home Improvement was not a choice for us as we purchased a fixer upper. Below is a look at the home improvement projects we did after purchasing a 17-year old Bay Farm Area property in 2004 in the Bay Area in Northern California:

1. Windows and Sliding Doors – Double-pane windows became a household name in the residential space only in the late 80s. Our house constructed in that era had double pane windows only for the living room. Acrylic frames made their debut much later. Today’s acrylic double pane windows and doors provide better noise protection, energy savings, and improved looks. The windows, sliding doors, kitchen bay window, and the exterior painting/maintenance were done together as a package. The windows averaged $250 while the sliding doors and kitchen bay window were in the $1800 vicinity. Contemporary colors were chosen for exterior painting. The return on this investment on this home improvement project was immediate - it gave the house a much-needed face lift.

When upgrading windows and sliding doors, contractors promote the option to replace the seating for the frames as well. This involves additional labor and certain counties require construction permits. Only very old places encounter the possibility of the seating getting completely rusted out. Unless that is the case our recommendation would be to bypass this option, as it would be harder to recoup the additional home improvement cost.

2. Kitchen – Kitchen remodeling is one area people tend to break the bank. The industry experts have largely blind-sided the public here by constantly hyping this as a proven home improvement area, where one cannot but recoup their investment with dividends.

From our experience this holds true only if done prudently. Our home improvement efforts were centered on crafting a contemporary appeal by eliminating the enclosed, small-room design from yesteryears. This involved:
  • Relocating the bulky cabinets to the garage,
  • Opening up one complete wall and part of another one,
  • Expanding into the family area a wee bit to build a nook area with a low pony wall,
  • Installing new cabinets along with granite counter-tops
  • Doing the back-splash and the floor tiles in a diamond pattern for an illusion of volume.

Lesser wall space meant lesser cabinets, which lent a slick finish. By not sending to landfill the existing cabinets, our storage needs were greatly met thereby keeping costs down. The one area we splurged on was on fancier back-splash tiles.

Research on kitchen remodeling will show similar kitchens costing upwards of $60K to modernize. We were firmly committed to NOT expanding the square footage of the house to accommodate a bigger kitchen. That one decision saved us a lot, as expanding square footage inevitably comes with its huge baggage of labor, material, and permit related costs. Overall, we consider this home improvement a good value for money, unless you go overboard.

3. Floors – Being veterans of all flooring options – carpet, tile, stone, laminate, and wood, we strongly advocate something other than carpets. Carpets amass dust and other things underneath them over time rendering useless all kinds of cleaning including professional jobs. Periodical replacement is the only real solution. Stone and certain types of tile tend to be more expensive and they are not exactly feet friendly. Nonetheless once installed, they are a very low maintenance choice providing better protection from the elements (moisture, termite, etc.). Wood or the modern equivalent Engineered Wood is greatly preferred if budget allows, though moisture is not held at bay. Laminate is a good middle-ground alternative although not as durable as tiles or wood. Our house had the original standard carpeting for the most part (including bathrooms), while the entryway, the wet-bar area, and the kitchen had the standard half-inch tiles. The yellowed, spotted carpets paved the decision to replace the entire flooring as part of our home improvement project. We laid Pergo laminate flooring for most of house, black granite for entryways and other areas, and large (2”) tiles in diamond-pattern for the kitchens and bathrooms. Diamond pattern along with design work for the corners are both labor-intensive and consumes more tiles but greatly enhances the overall look as the pattern gives a larger feel to the space.

With flooring be cognizant of the following:
  • When replacing tile floors choosing to lay them atop the existing tiles involves less labor and associated dust/cleanup.
  • Baseboard skirting that attaches to the wall comes in a variety of shapes and forms with each type intended for a particular spot. It is easy to unknowingly use the wrong type.
  • As laminate or wood flooring has to float on its backing there has to be a gap between the floor and the wall, wood frames, skirting, etc. Else wood expansions and contractions brought about by climatic changes can cause the floor to quickly warp.

4. Lighting – The norm for the majority of the houses in the US is to have no lighting in place for nearly all rooms except the bathrooms and the kitchen. The logic behind this approach is that it provides the owners an opportunity to furnish the place with chandeliers and other ornate lighting options of their choice. In fact the lamp and shade industry has capitalized on this trend by pushing the wonderful mood setting effects of lamps. The downside is that such items take up space, collect dust and promote a heavy and dated look to the house. The contemporary approach is to go for recessed lighting with dimmer capabilities and use sleek fixtures when absolutely necessary. Our house was similar to the rest of the US with some patched up lighting in one bedroom and the wet-bar area. We went for the most economical standard 5” recessed lighting wherever possible and employed track lights and fixtures on other parts keeping the costs for this home improvement project below $5K. The possibilities to top this figure are endless as home improvement options abound for recessed lighting with increasing cost.

This is one area where it is vital to use an electrical contractor as opposed to a general contractor who claims to be the Jack-of-all-trades - it is easy to complicate the circuitry that can cost an arm and a leg later on.

5. Garage – Unless opting for a finished one with a new house, garages come with just the framework in place. The good news is that it is relatively easy to finish, insulate, add an attic if there is a high enough ceiling, etc. A garage is also the holdall for stuff so save for the ultra-efficient, clutter free folks, this is a required home improvement upgrade. We did all this and moved the original kitchen cabinets as well for a combined cost of around $2.5K including labor - overall, the best value for money, as far as home improvement projects go.

Purchasing cabinetry to install in the garage can significantly add to the cost of this upgrade. It can also be taken one step further and have half of it transformed to an office with flooring also in place.

6. Painting – A fresh coat of paint breathes a new life to any house. It is very common to go with the single off-white color for the entire house. Also, if wood trims and/or cabinets are left untouched, simple takes on a new meaning for there will be little or no sanding involved. On our part, we opted to go color for both the walls and the built-in oak cabinetry – the oak cabinetry gave a vintage look to the whole house. Choosing colors were not straightforward for us and we turned to a professional color consultant (~$150/hr) after repeated trips to Home Depot and other paint shops – there are umpteen different shades of the same basic color, which can have different impact depending on the surroundings. Also, the different brands have products that differ in appearance (Regal Wall Satin vs Super Satin for example) and quality to further confuse the issue. The consultant’s recommendation had a total of almost twenty colors of Benjamin Moore paints (not to be confused with another brand Kelly Moore) although many appeared to be minor variations of each other. He also offered the services of his paint crew for between $6K and $8K. We opted to don the mantle of painters and have to say the results were more than satisfactory – it took us around a month to finish the house (2-3 hours average per day). The cabinetry was the hardest as it required sanding and used oil paint. The material costs added up to a little over $1K, making it a relatively economical home improvement option.

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Last Updated: 03/2012.

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