House Calls
By Jena McGregor, Noah Rothbaum & Chris Taylor  for SMART MONEY Magazine, September 2003 Edition, page 88 to 97.

Take the average American family, whose home has shot up in value. Toss in record-low lending rates.  Mix in the trend of “nesting,” as people turn toward home and hearth in turbulent times.  Add a healthy dash of home-improvement retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s.  What do you get?

A recipe that makes for one happy remodeling industry.

Home improvement has become a national obsession and an economic juggernaut.  Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies estimates that American homeowners spent $214 billion on remodeling and repair in 2001(the latest figures available), which was a 19 percent increase from 1999.  That outlay is more than the entire GDP of Greece.  Every Tom, Dick and Sally, it seems, is scouring hardware stores for just the right wall anchor, or hiring designers and contractors to create their very own luxury spa.

“The size of it is becoming hard to grasp, even for those of us in the industry,” says M.M. Weiss, chair of the National Association of Home Builders’ Remodelors Council.  What’s driving this boom?  In no small part, it’s because Americans-rocked by Sept. 11, unsettled by an economy and a world they can no longer predict- simply want someplace luxurious to come home to at the end of the day.  “Homeowners are saying, this is what I want- and this is what I’m going to have,” says Mark Brick, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.

He just described Belle Mason to a t. The sixty something attorney lives in West Los Angeles with her two doges.  Two years ago she decided it was high time to give her home, with its sweeping views of Beverly Hills and Century City, a total makeover.  “It occurred to me, why not remodel and enjoy it myself, and then have it ready whenever I want to sell?” she recalls.

So mason hired Custom Design & Construction, an award-winning Los Angeles firm, to gut much of the 4,600-square-foot home.  Mason then had the 800-square-foot master suite and dressing area revamped, put in a Victorian bathroom alongside (the work was given a prestigious Chrysalis Award) and transformed what had been her two children’s rooms into a home office and a gym.  The result?  “I just love it,” she swoons.

Of coarse she did plunk down around $200,000 for the whole reno job, including $60,000 for the swanky bathroom alone.  But if she should ever sell-her home’s now worth at least $2 million- she’d probably stand to recoup a hefty portion of that outlay.  Remodeling magazine’s latest Cot vs. Value Report concluded that a major upscale kitchen remodel might get you 80 percent of your dollars back upon resale, while a topnotch bathroom redo would snare you even more, at 91 percent.

However, as anyone who’s ever clutched a power drill or a spackle knife (or hired someone else to clutch them)  can attest, there are a hundred different things you can do with any given room, a hundred experts telling you what you can’t live without- and at least a hundred ways to go horribly wrong.  So to help you attack your remodeling wisely, we’ve distilled all our best advice about each room project to one key consideration, the One Thing You Need to Know.  What follows is our no-nonsense take on kitchens, bathrooms, master bedrooms, media rooms, decks and basements.

At the end of it all, like other remodeling-obsessed Americans, maybe you’ll be able to “fire up the gas fireplace in your expanded master suite, climb into the Jacuzzi in your luxury bathroom and have a glass or two of champagne,” says Weiss. “For a little while each day, it’s like you’re the king and queen.”

The Kitchen

ONE THING TO KNOW: Size really matters.

  Used to be, kitchens were squished, tacky affairs.  Then, in the Martha Stewart era, people started paying attention, making their kitchens bigger and more beautiful.

            And now?  Well, if you thought kitchens were roomy before, they’re getting downright super sized.  “It’s all about space,” says Lynda Lyday, co-host of the DIY (Do It Yourself) network’s Talk2DIY.  “Kitchens have become the focal pint of the home, and they’re taking over more and more room from other areas.” 

            Indeed, kitchens are gobbling up portions of dining rooms, spreading onto decks and into backyards, and swallowing formal living rooms whole.  They’ve grown by a third in the past decade, to around 13 percent of the average 2,300-squar-foot house.  And they’ve become even more upscale and multipurpose.

            Lisa Chin is very familiar with such kitchen extravaganzas-that’s exactly what she was aiming for.  Chin grew up in a kitchen-at her family’s restaurant on New York’s Long Island, making wontons and ringing up orders.  Now, living in Bellevue, Wash., Chin wanted to prepare her specialties in spacious comfort.  “So we basically tore down the back of the house,” she and her husband Nigel began in the summer of 2000.

            Chin’s new mega-kitchen, shown on pages 88 and 89, swallowed up part of the deck, a spare bedroom and part of the family room.  Into the new 600-square-foot space remodelers Shirey Contracting plunked an 8-foot-long, granite-topped island tricked out with two tiers, its own sink, shelves for Chin’s cookbook collection and seating for five.  “I wanted to be able to spread out he Sunday New York Times on it without it falling off,” she smiles. “That’s what I got.”

            But an island, with plenty of room to maneuver around, is just one thing you’re going to have make space for.  Many folks want to add a mini home office in one corner, or a wet bar, or a separate butcher-block or a vegetable sink for food prep.  To do those things, and still achieve openness, you might have to take down some walls.  Jeff Skinner, whose Cypress, Tex., home was built in the ‘70’s, had to combine four tiny, separate rooms to get the look he wanted.  Thanks to contractors Brothers Strong, when Skinner and his wife both celebrated their 50th birthdays recently, more than 75 people mingled in the kitchen without a problem. “Before, if you had even 12 people in there, they were running all over each other,” says Skinner.

            Taking down a wall sounds more pricey and intimidating than it really is, says Ace Hardware’s home-improvement expert Lou Manfredini.  Having a contractor scrap a 15-foot-long, 8-foiot-high drywall and doing any necessary reinforcing might set you back as little as $2,500 to $3,500 (although  you might have to make some flooring adjustments as well),

            It’s a good ting you’ve got all that new pace; you’re going to need it for your new professional-grade cooking setup- a “must have,” says Los Angeles remodeler Bill Simone.  Stainless steel all around, with double ovens, commercial-grade vents, trendy warming drawers, Sub-Zero wine units and more.

            So how much is all this going to set you back?  A midrange job-with touches like a 3x5 island, 30 feet of new cabinetry and double-tub sink- inches close to $45,000, while a luxury job-granite countertops, commercial-grade ranges and imported ceramic tiling- can easily rocket past hat figure (see box below)

ROOM CHECK: The Kitchen

AVG. SIZE: 200 square feet

AVG. RENO COST: $43,213 for midrange; $70,368 for upscale

RETURN: 67 percent for midrange; 80 percent for upscale (all averages from Remodeling magazine)

DIY IDEA: It’s easy to put in a backsplash of ceramic tile for the sink or cooking areas.  And consider a fresh paint job or new wallpaper to update the room.

BIG MISTAKE: Forgetting about lighting.  “Especially in older homes, the kitchen is stuck in the darkest corner of the house,” says designer Sally Ross of Montclair, N.J. Brighten things up with plenty of recessed halogen lighting, pendant (hanging) lights and task lighting for different areas.



ONE THING TO KNOW: The water makes it work.

You may not be a Hollywood starlet, a free-spending CEO or a bloodthirsty Mid-east tyrant.  But by God, you want your bathroom to look as if you were.

            The spacious, decadent master bathroom is all the rage in homes across America.  Homeowners are taking what in older housing stock is essentially a glorified closet and packing in huge showers with multiple body sprays, separate claw foot soaking tubs or Jacuzzi whirlpool baths, his and hers vanity sinks- sometimes even full-fledged steam rooms.  “Bathrooms have become luxurious spas,” says Seattle area contractor Donna Shirey, who built Lisa Chin’s kitchen.  “I call it the ‘Delight Factor,’ because it really brings delight into people’s lives.”

            Christina Black needed a dose of delight when a bathroom faucet “came off in my hands’ one day in 2001.  The Sandy Springs, Ga., homemaker soon decided that it was time for a total bathroom renovation.  With the help of designer Kitchen & Bath Concepts, in came iridescent slate tiles, a Kohler whirlpool tub, trendy twin bowl sinks and a huge glass-enclosed shower that’s like a “human car wash,” Black raves.  Not only does she get to luxuriate in the newly outfitted space- see pages 90 and 91- but it was recently named the U.S.’s best-designed master suite/bathroom by the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

            When it comes to bathroom makeovers, though, remember that to supply new our spa, you’re going to have to juice up your H2O supply.  “Everybody wants to have all these fixtures, but you can’t just plug it all into regular water lines”,  says Ed Del Grande, host of DIY’s Waterhouse Warriors  and a Smithfield, R.I. –based home-improvement expert.  “You have to make sure your plumbing can handle it.” 

            That means getting a licensed plumber to take your pipes up to a 10inch cold water supply, and ¾ inch for hot water. (Standard is ½ inch for both.) Replacing the pipes will start at $500- $700, but it’s a necessary expense. “People spend $20,000 on a bathroom remodel and then barley gets a mist coming out of the showerhead,” says Ace Hardware’s Lou Manfredini. “It’s crazy.”

            Wimpy water pressure isn’t even the worst outcome.  Without proper plumbing and ventilation, you could be looking at the dreaded mold problem. And houses these days are built tight, so ventilation is more crucial than ever, says Donna Shirey. High capacity fans on timers, with vents to the outside, might cost you $200 to $350 but will save you countless headaches.

            No one knows that water is king better than Jim Holmes.  Earlier this year the actor, who specializes in commercials and voice-overs, and his wife, Elizabeth, decided on not one, but two master baths for their two-story home in Woodland Hills, Calif.  “Houses in the million-dollar price range in California all have palatial master baths now,” says the 45-year-old.  “And ours was relatively small, so in looking ahead we just had to remodel.”

            To make it work, “we had to completely re-plumb the house,” says contractor Bill Simone, including slapping in two large-capacity water heaters.  Older homes might have a 40-gallon capacity, but you’re going to need 75 gallons minimum to feed the beast, says Manfredini.  A top-of-the-line model will cost you $1,000 to $1,200 installed.  And have a so-called hot-water return line put in for anther $50; it means you’ll have hot water pouring out of your taps in seconds.

            Get everything right and you’ll have created a sanctuary to call your own. “It’s your place of refuge,” says Christina Black, who spent over $100,000 on her award-winning bathroom.  “It’s a hustle and bustle kind of world, and it’s so nice to get in there… and just relax.”

ROOM CHECK: The Bathroom

AVG. SIZE: 5x7 is traditional; 9x9 is better.

AVG. RENO COST: $9,720 for a midrange remodel; $22,639 for an upscale job that includes a 4x6 shower, twin sinks and custom vanity.

RETURN: 88 percent for midrange; 91 percent for upscale.

DIY IDEA: Retiling your bathroom can give it a fresh start.  Go big: Instead of traditional 4x4-inch or 6x6 tiles, try 12x12 size, which can contain more intricate designs.

BIG MISTAKE: No matter how elegant your new tiled shower stall is, don’t forget what goes under it.  Having a sturdy copper liner, for instance, will prevent leakage and mold.



ONE THING TO KNOW:  The greatest luxury is convenience.

No room is more of an escape than the master bedroom.  It’s your place to get away from the kids, curl up with a good book before bed and relax in a luxurious tub behind locked doors.  That’s why the driving force behind creating your sanctuary should be convenience. 

            With that in mind, many contractors suggest adding a built-in entertainment center to replace the television on top of the messy dresser. You might also explore home automation options, which let you adjust your entire home’s lighting or climate from your bed.  A basic lighting package from Lutron Electronics will run you about $2,000, including installation and programming.

\           Or added a direct-vent fireplace, which vents out the side of the house, meaning it doesn’t require building a chimney- so you won’t have to go downstairs to enjoy a cheery blaze.  They typically cost between $1,000 and $3,000, plus installation and finishing, and future homebuyers will pay a premium for this touch.

            Morning bars, or small kitchenettes that save you another trip down the stairs fro coffee, a midnight glass of water or a nightcap, are another convenience-adding trend.  A basic morning bar, complete with a sink, small refrigerator and cabinets, start at about $10,000.  But don’t forget about the clatter and hum of a n ice maker and of the refrigerator, says Hollywood, Fla. - based interior designer Alene Workman, who advises keeping the morning bar as far as possible from sleeping areas.

            Sound unnecessary?  Perhaps. But for Reed Stewart, an interior designer in Rye, N.H., who has designed morning bars for many of his clients, having one in his own home was an extra luxury.  “I can make phone calls with my morning coffee without even going downstairs,” says Stewart, “and it’s great in the middle of the night for bottled water.” Stewart’s morning bars, shown on page 92, is directly outside  his bedroom and includes a refrigerator, microwave and sink, along with custom cabinetry.  “People have called it a master bedroom complex”

            Convenience, of course, takes on a while new meaning in the master bedroom as you get older.  Don’t wait until you need those senior-friendly features to install them.  Wider doorways and hallways, closet doors that slide into wall pockets and curb-less walk-in shower stalls can be put in without making the room look anything like the inside of a nursing home or spending a lot of extra money, says Dan Bawden, a contractor in Houston who founded the National Association of Home Builders’ Certified Aging in Place Specialist program.  (Call 800-368-5242. ext. 8154 for a CAPS builder near you.)

            And many senior-friendly adaptations will make for more convenience now.  Changing doorknobs to lever-style handles-easier for arthritic hands-makes opening a door when your arms are full effortless, no matter how old you are.  Building waist-high cubbyholes in the closet for shoes means you won’t have to bend over.  As we all know, bad backs don’t wait for senior citizen hood.


AVG. SIZE: 384 square feet

AVG. RENO COST: $69,173 for midrange addition; $131,471 for upscale.

RETURN: 75 percent for midrange; 77 percent for upscale

DIY IDEA: While enlarging your bedroom, keep its intimacy by using low-wattage lamps on end tables and dressers, not harsh overhead lights.  Make sure you furniture is big enough so that it doesn’t look dwarfed by the larger space.

BIG MISTAKE:  Not adding enough closet space. These days, his-and-hers closets are all but standard- and spouse love them.



ONE THING TO KNOW: Bigger isn’t always better.

Still heading to the mall for a movie?  Come on.  That’s almost as passé as going to a drive-in.  Now, with the way home entertainment has evolved in recent years-from VHS to DVD, projection TV to flat panel-you might as well stay at home  (the popcorn too).  More and more Americans are installing media centers in their family rooms, or even fully loaded home theaters.  According to Parks Associates, a consumer technology research firm, 27 percent of all U.S. households now have some version of a home theater, up from 19 percent five years ago.  But before you have the Barcalounger delivered, take note: Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to family rooms.  Acoustics are what really count, especially I f you’re making it a true home theater.

            And acoustics is a tricky business. That’s especially true with very long rooms or rooms whose dimensions are even multiples-say, 20x10 feet.  In such rooms, sound waves aren’t distributed evenly and will either exaggerate or block out each other- and you won’t hear the full range of tones. You can fix this by changing the shape of the room to make for a smoother distribution of sound waves.  Also, with acoustics panel installed in strategic places, the sound waves will either be muted or enhanced depending on the desired effect. 

            Steven Haas of SH! Acoustics was recently called upon to help design a super-luxury eight-seat home theater for the lower level of a 50-year Stamford, Conn., home (see page 93).  The first thing Haas suggested was to make the room longer and to expand its height to give the theater a warmer sound. That meant digging 3 feet down through the house’s foundation, which added $10,000 to the cost.  In order to prevent sound from leakiong into an adjacent guest bedroom, Haas essentially built a room within a room: two sets of walls, which made the theater almost soundproof.  Last, Haas attached acoustical treatments, including fiberglass sound-absorbent insulation covered in fabric, to prevent distortion.  Geometrically shaped panels, made of gypsum, disperse the sound around the room.

            The total tab for this project was whopping $400,000, but don’t assume getting your home theater’s sound right will mean breaking the back; costs will vary widely depending upon the room- and your ambitions.

            Furnishings can also make a difference. For instance, the distance your couch should be from the TV screen is either three times the height of your screen or two times it’s diagonal.  So buying the largest TV you can get your hands on might not be the best idea.  If your hands on might not be the best idea.  IF your seating can’t move back far enough to accommodate the screen size, it will feel as if you’re sitting in the first row of a movie theater.

            Eric Kovan found out that size isn’t everything when he set up his family room in West Bloomfield, Mich.  He wanted a 60-inch TV to enjoy all his favorite movies and short programs.  Thing is, he also wanted to use half of the family room as a play area for his children.  Something had to give.  The kids won out-Kovan bought a 51-inch-wide screen.  “That’s still plenty big,” he says.


AVG. SIZE: 400 square feet

AVG. RENO COST: $52,251 for a 16x25 family-room addition, including wood siding, shingle roof, drywall, windows and skylight

RETURN:  79 percent

DIY IDEA: Give your room a warmer sound by installing rugs or carpeting.  Tiles or hardwood floors reflect sound, which can create an echoing effect.

BIG MISTAKE: Don’t install windows or convert a room without planning where your TV will be.  The glare from the windows can ruin the picture on even the largest screen, and the reflection from your TV can ruin the most picturesque view from your windows.     



ONE THING TO KNOW: The railing isn’t just for safety.

Take a look out onto your deck.  What’s the first thing you see-besides, of course, that old patio furniture that should be tossed?  It’s the railing, both the visual and actual barrier between the deck and the great outdoors.  This focal point can determine how well the deck becomes an integral part of your home.  The oft-forgotten railing can also enhance or ruin the view, starting with your painstakingly cared-for backyard.  “The rail is what you see,” says Phil Brown, a builder and designer with Archadeck in Berlin, Conn.  “People usually don’t look at what they’re standing on.” 

            Railings, for sure, are first a safety feature and subject to many building codes regarding height or the distance between the posts and balusters.  But a good dick designer will work within those codes and find ways to make the deck’s railings an augmentation, not an annoyance.

            Gary Marsh, founder of deck design firm All Decked Out in Marin County, Calif., likes to create decks where you come out of the home’s back door to a landing before stepping out of the home’s back door to a landing before stepping down a few stairs to the deck’s main level.  That way, he says, the railing’s height is at a lower level and won’t block the view from the interior.  Sometimes, he wants a deck to “nestle you in a little more”-in those cases he favors using some solid railings made from the same material as the house’s exterior.  The result: A deck that doesn’t look like an added feature, but rather a component of the house.

            Just ask Bob and Camille Johnson, whose deck is shown on page 95, how important it is to match the home with the “home improvements.”  For years the couple’s ranch-style Mill Valley, Calif., house with white siding featured a redwood deck that seemed “just thrown on the back of the house,” says Camille, a retired advertising media director.  So four years ago, the Johnson’s hired Marsh.  First, the blocky wood railing was replaced with a thin white metal grate, which blends easily with the home’s overall exterior.  This new white railing is also lower than the original.

            Then the white siding on their house was extended on the sides of the new 775-square-foot deck made of ipe, a durable Brazilian hardwood.  “That was really important because we’re in a neighborhood where we’re surrounded by homes,” says Camille.  With the deck’s solid side panels and less obtrusive front railing, “your eye doesn’t go [to the sides] where the homes are.”  Instead, she says, the new setup “invites you to look out toward the view.”

            Another way to enhance your vista: Cables can often be used between wooden posts to create a safe but near-invisible barrier to the beyond.  And Vivian and Bob Dunbar of Minnetonka, Minn., used dark metal-wrought iron-when they replaced their deck last year.  He metal was thinner and blended into the view better than wood.  “It just doesn’t stop your eye when you’re looking out into the yard,” says Vivian.  “When you’re out there, it’s kind of like you’re getting away, like you’re sitting in the treetops.”


AVG. SIZE:  320 square feet

AVG. RENO: $5,865 for a deck of pressure-treated pine, with built-in bench, railings and planter

RETURN: 76 percent

DIY IDEA: Build in some benches.  They’re a great way to add seating without buying patio furniture, and they’re simple enough so that your hardware clerk should be able to help you plan the weekend project.

BIG MISTAKE: Not looking ahead.  Wood, and especially the popular new composite decking materials, may change color after they’ve been exposed to the elements.  To avoid a surprise, ask your contractor to show you a deck that’s been exposed to the weather for at least a year.



ONE THING TO KNOW: The downstairs doesn’t have to be dark.

Most finished basements look just like, well, a basement.  Even if they’re updated rec. rooms with carpet and drywall, there’s often something missing: natural light.  Unless you want to create a home theater in your basement, that’s the key ingredient to making your dingy dungeon feel more like your lower lair.

            If the windows in your basement are mere postage stamps-or you have no windows at all-don’t despair.  After a change in the International Residential Code in 2000, builders are increasingly installing “window wells” that meet the code’s requirements of having a second “egress,” or exit, form any living space in the basement.  Window wells with egress capability are typically about 4x4 foot holes dug into the foundation along the side of the house, with windows installed to allow light o funnel down below ground.  Opposite the window, stair like rows of plants, do double duty steps for emergency exits and landscaping-it’s much nicer to look out on plants than a concrete wall.  Window wells typically run from $1,000 to $3,500 per window, depending on the material used and how deep they have to be dug.

            Because the new building codes require these windows wells to be no more than 44 inches higher than the basement floor, they won’t always get enough light into the room.  If you live in a one-story home, you might try tubular skylights, which capture light through a clear dome on the roof and channel it down through reflective tubing to the basement.  A tubular skylight in a one-story home costs $500-$800, including installation.

            A much easier job? If the door to your basement is near a window or goes straight to the outdoors, replace it with a glass-paned door to let sunlight down the stairs.  Replacing a window with French doors can also really let the sunshine in.  That’s what Frank and Lisa Sinapi did last summer to add light to their refinished basement in Katonah, N.Y.  This meant digging out part of the backyard, adding a retaining wall in the yard and opening up the exterior brick wall to make room for the glass-paneled set of doors.  The project ran them about $7,500.  Says Lisa: “It makes a tremendous difference.”

Of course, there are always areas in the basement where natural light won’t ever find its way inside.  That’s where carefully planned electrical lighting works well.  After they added windows and French doors to bring in more light, David and Jill Proskin were concerned about a dark area at the foot of the stairs.  Their contractor, Sylvain Côté of Absolute remodeling, who also worked on the Sinapis’ basement, helped the Cross River, N.Y., couple design a wall of translucent glass blocks lit from behind by diffused fluorescent lights for about $2,500.  “The effect is remarkable,” says David.  “It really appears to be natural light.  When people see it, they want to know what’s behind it.”


AVG. SIZE: 784 square feet

AVG. RENO COST: $43,112.  That’s for finishing lower level from scratch into an entertaining area with wet bar, full bath and unfinished auxiliary room. Includes drywall, recessed lighting and small refrigerator.

RETURN: 79 percent

DIY IDEA: Lay some tile. Because of the moisture problems in basements, contractor Sylvain Côté recommends it instead of carpet.  Since it’s the last step in the remodeling project, it makes sense for you to finish after the work crews are gone-not to mention the thousands you’ll probably save.  Use at least 12-inch, preferably 18-inch, square tiles to avoid having to fill too much grout.

BIG MISTAKE: If you have a full basement, don’t forget to add a bathroom.  “If you can’t afford everything at once, put the bathroom in first,” says Philip Felice III, a contractor in Syracuse, N.Y. “It’s the messiest part of the project.”


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