Breathing Easier Filtering the indoor air

If the forced-air system in your home is equipped with inexpensive fiberglass filters, you should upgrade them to high-efficiency media filters. Standard room air conditioners usually do a pretty good job of filtering pollen, ragweed and spores if you keep the coils on the unit clean and replace the filters as frequently as indicated by the manufacturer.

Adding an air cleaner. If cleaning, ventilation and routine filter maintenance on existing systems don’t provide relief, consider an air cleaner. There are three types: media, electrostatic and hybrids. Media filters use physical barriers (media) and coatings to trap particles. The finer the media and the greater the surface area, the better it is at trapping small particles. Electrostatic filters use charged plates that create an electrical field to trap particles. Hybrid filters use a combination of these technologies. Ion generators are in a category of their own and should be avoided.

Filter facts. Although a new federal system for testing the efficiency of air filters will be finalized sometime this autumn, many manufacturers are already using it. These Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values (MERV) test how well filters remove small particles from the air; the higher the MERV number, the more efficient the filter. “This rating is really useful for comparing medium- and high-efficiency filters,” says H.E. Barney Burroughs, chairman of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers committee on the new standard. “The rating tells people what the difference is between filters, and takes away a lot of the smoke and mirrors of the manufacturer’s claims.”

Most of these more efficient filters can be used on any forced-air system, but may require some retrofitting. Have your heating and cooling contractor make sure the new filter won’t reduce airflow to a dangerous level. You won’t be as comfortable, and you could overtax the system. This potential airflow reduction, called pressure drop, should be considered when the filter is new (initial pressure drop) and when it’s full (final pressure drop).

It’s uncomfortable and even dangerous to live in a house where the air either makes you sick or aggravates allergies and asthma. But with a few simple steps you may be able to cut down on the irritants in your home—and breathe a sigh of relief

Indoor air hazards you should know about

If you’re like most Americans, you spend much of your time indoors. Have you ever stopped to think about whether the air you’re breathing at home is healthy? When you’re at home do you frequently have headaches or feel nauseous or tired? Do you feel better when you leave the house? If you have these symptoms, your home’s air quality may be the problem.

Moisture and biological (like molds, mildew and dust mites).
Sources include excessive humidity levels, poorly-maintained humidifiers and air-conditioners, inadequate ventilation and animal dander.

Combustion products including carbon monoxide.
Sources include unvented fossil-fuel space heaters, unvented gas stoves and ovens, and “backdrafting” from furnaces and water heaters.

Sources include durable press drapes and other textiles, particle-board products such as cabinets and furniture framing, and adhesives.

Radon. This is a radioactive gas from soil and rock beneath and around the foundation, ground water wells and some building materials.

Household products and furnishings. These include volatile organic compounds from paints, solvents, air fresheners, hobby supplies, dry cleaned clothing, aerosol sprays, adhesives and fabric additives used in carpeting and furniture.

Asbestos. Most homes more than 20 years old are likely to have asbestos. Sources include deteriorating, damaged or disturbed pipe insulation, fireproofing or acoustical material and floor tiles.

Lead. Sources include lead-based paint dust from removing paint by sanding, scraping and burning.

Particulates. Sources include particles from fireplaces, woodstoves, kerosene heaters, unvented gas space heaters, tobacco smoke, dust and pollen.

Environmental tobacco smoke. A mixture of smoke given off by the burning end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar, and the smoke exhaled from the lungs of smokers.

Remodeling byproducts. Remodeling can provide the disturbance that releases such materials as asbestos, lead, formaldehyde and other hazardous materials.

What should you look for when shopping for central air systems?

Your first priority is choosing the system that’s the right size for your house. Bigger isn’t necessarily better: A unit that’s too big not only costs more to buy, but it will also cost more to operate. Indeed, a system that’s not properly sized wastes energy and wears out equipment sooner because it will go on and off more frequently. And in humid climates, a system that’s the wrong size can turn a home into a mold farm because moisture will form on the overly cold surfaces.

Optimum efficiency is the next most important feature to look for. All A/C units have a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER), which is based on government standards. Units typically range from a moderately efficient SEER of 10 to the most efficient 17. Choose one within that range that’s appropriate for your climate and electric rates.

Also look for a 10-year parts warranty on the compressor, a 5-year parts warranty on all electrical components and a 12-year unconditional warranty against refrigerant leaks. Be sure the entire unit has at least a 1-year parts-and-labor warranty. Finally, remember that even the best unit can be damaged by an incompetent installer. Hire only an experienced, qualified installation company.

Keeping Warm for Less

A dozen simple things you can do to cut down big heating bills

If you feel a shiver each time you open your utility bill, your house may be too cold. More likely, however, you’re paying more than you should to heat it. In either case, you can make changes now that will make your home more comfortable and save you money.

These aren’t big projects like adding attic insulation or replacing your windows—save those for later. They’re easy-to-do and inexpensive techniques. The most complicated will take a weekend afternoon, and many take little time and don’t even require the purchase of materials, only changing a habit or two. Others can be done for as little as $10. We’ll take a look first at the obvious stuff and then at more specialized—but still simple—energy-saving techniques.

1. Lower the Thermostat
2. Install a Programmable Thermostat
3. It’s Closed-Flue Season. Minimize Those Romantic Fires
4. The Spin on Ceiling Fans
5. Move Furniture Away From Vents, Registers and Radiators
6. Stop the Draft, Close the Door
7. Quick-Seal Windows
8. Install a Door Sweep
9. Work the Drapes
10. Change Your Furnace Filter
11. Adjust Your Water Heater
12. Defeat Rapid Cycling

Need more guidance on saving energy? The 36-page “Energy Savers” is available free from the U.S. Department of Energy. It features more than 100 easy and practical energy-saving tips. Get the booklet by calling 800/363-3732, or point your browser to

Replacing a Faucet – Just do it the easy way

There’s a simple secret here: You need to use a basin wrench, available at most home centers. The head works on a cam principle, tightening around any size nut as you turn the handle. The head is mounted on the end of a long handle; it flips to allow you to turn clockwise or counterclockwise.

To remove the old faucet, close the shutoff valves under the sink. Next, use the basin wrench to remove the coupling nuts that secure the water-supply tubes to the faucet and to loosen the mounting nuts that secure the faucet to the sink or countertop. You’ll also need to disconnect the pop-up drain linkage from the sink drain by removing the retaining nut.

Before you position the new faucet, press some plumber’s putty all around the underside along the outer edge. After you make your connections, clean off the excess putty with a plastic putty knife or rag.

Stopping Toilets That Run

Fight the annoying, nonstop trickling sound.

Many toilets eventually develop one of several problems that allow water to run from the tank into the bowl. The result is an annoying, nonstop trickling sound that wastes gallons of water each day. Usually, adjusting the refill tube or lengthening the chain connected to the flush handle stops the flow. If neither does, the culprit is the large drain hole at the bottom of the tank that’s fitted with a metal or plastic ring, also known as the valve seat.

The cone-shaped flapper valve fits into the valve seat to stop the flow of water out of the tank. Over time, sediment and hard-water deposits can collect on the valve seat and prevent the flapper from forming a watertight seal. The solution: Raise the flapper and scrub the valve seat clean with a piece of emery cloth or fine-grade steel wool. If the valve seat is made out of plastic — not brass or some other metal — scrub it with a plastic scouring pad.

Double Your Energy Savings with Fluorescent Lamps

Most folks use standard “incandescent” light bulbs. These bulbs burn out often, create heat, and are very inefficient for making light. You can save a great deal of money by replacing your old fashion light bulbs with “fluorescent” lighting.

Benefits of fluorescent lighting:

  • cool to touch and lowers cooling needs — $AVE
  • energy cost is 50% to 70% less — $AVE
  • bulbs last 10 to 20 times longer — $AVE

Ceiling light fixtures can be replaced with fluorescent fixtures. There are also many fluorescent lamps that are designed to fit in a standard medium-base light socket. While the initial cost may be much higher than old fashioned incandescent bulbs, the newer fluorescent bulbs last so long that you’ll actually spend less!

Your local hardware or department store probably carries a wide selection of fluorescent lights that will fit in standard lamp sockets. If you’re going to replace ceiling light fixtures, be sure to turn OFF the power before you start, use wire nuts to make the power connects, and for safety, cover the wire and nuts with electrical tape

Why bother to shop for energy efficiency?

Wasted energy translates into carbon dioxide production, air pollution, acid rain, and lots of money down the drain. And though the average American household spends more than $1,100 per year on appliances and heating and cooling costs, you can easily shave 50–75% off this expense by putting some intelligence into your appliance choices. For example, simply replacing a twenty-year-old refrigerator with a new energy-efficient model will save you about $85 per year in electric bills while saving 1,000 kWh of electricity and reducing your home’s carbon dioxide contribution by about a ton per year (which reduces global warming). While highly efficient appliances may be slightly more expensive to buy than comparable models with lower or average efficiencies, the extra up-front cost for a more efficient appliance will be paid back through reduced energy bills long before the product wears out.

Efficient refrigerators and freezers

After air conditioners and water heaters, the refrigerator is likely to be the largest single power user in your home. Refrigerator efficiency has made enormous strides in the past few years, largely due to government prodding from government agencies. Nationwide, an average new fridge with top-mounted freezer sold today uses less than 700 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year, while the average model sold in 1973 used nearly 2,000. The numbers are dropping, too—the most efficient models available today use less than 400 kWh per year.

The average refrigerator has a life span of 15 to 20 years, with operation costs over that period totaling two to three times the initial purchase price; paying a bit more initially for higher efficiency offers a solid payback. And while it may not be worth scrapping your 15-year-old clunker to buy a new energy-efficient model right now, when it does come time, buy the most efficient model available. (Be sure to have the freon removed professionally from your clunker before disposal; most communities have a shop or portable rig that will do so at a reasonable cost.)

Improving your existing fridge’s performance

You can do several simple things to help any fridge do its job more easily and efficiently:

  • Cover liquids and wrap foods stored in the fridge. Uncovered foods release moisture (and get dried out), which makes the compressor work harder.
  • Clean the door gasket and sealing surface. Replace the gasket if damaged. You can check the gasket seal by closing the refrigerator door on a dollar bill; if you can pull the bill out without resistance, replace the gasket. On new fridges with magnetic seals, put a flashlight inside the fridge some evening, turn off the room lights, and check for light leaking through the seal.
  • Unplug the extra fridge or freezer in the garage. The electricity it uses—typically $130 a year or more—costs you far more than the six-pack or two you’ve got stashed there. Take the door off or disable the latch, so kids can’t get stuck inside!
  • At least once a year, move your fridge out from the wall and vacuum its condenser coils. Clean coils carry waste heat off faster, and the fridge runs shorter cycles. Leave a couple of inches of space between the coils and the wall for air circulation. (This advice is for fridges with rear coils; some models have the coils under the fridge.)
  • Check to see if you have a power-saving switch or a summer-winter switch. Many refrigerators have a small heater (yes, a heater!) inside the walls to prevent condensation build-up on the fridge walls. If yours does, switch it to the power-saving (winter) mode.
  • Defrost your fridge if significant frost has built up.
  • Turn off your automatic icemaker. It’s more efficient to make ice in ice trays.
  • If you can, move the fridge away from the stove, dishwasher, or direct sunlight.
  • Set your refrigerator’s temperature between 38 and 42° Fahrenheit, and your freezer between 10 and 150° Fahrenheit. Use a separate thermometer, as the temperature dial on the fridge is likely to be quite inaccurate.
  • Keep cold air in: open the fridge door as infrequently and briefly as possible. Know what you are looking for.

Label frozen leftovers.

  • Keep the fridge full. An empty fridge cycles frequently without any mass to hold the cold. Beer makes excellent mass, and offers a good excuse to put more of it in the fridge. (In all honesty, plain water in old milk jugs works just as well.)

Buying a new refrigerator

A new, more efficient refrigerator can save you $70 to $80 a year, and will pay for itself in nine years. Newer models also free you from the guilt of harboring a known ozone killer—most are completely CFC-free.

Shop wisely; carefully read the yellow EPA Energy Guide label found on all new appliances. Use it to compare models of similar size.

The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing energy efficiency as a means of promoting economic development and environmental protection. Every year ACEEE publishes the Consumer Guide to Home Energy Savings, an invaluable guide listing the most efficient mass-produced appliances by manufacturer, model number, and energy use. We strongly recommend consulting this guide before venturing into any appliance showroom. It has an amazing calming effect on overzealous sales personnel, and allows you to compare energy use by model.

The refrigerator-shopping checklist

  • Smaller models use less energy than larger models—don’t buy a fridge that’s larger than you need. One large refrigerator, however, is more efficient than two smaller ones.
  • Models with top- or bottom-mounted freezers average 12% less energy use than side-by-side designs.
  • Features such as through-the-door ice, chilled water, or automatic ice makers increase the profit margin for the manufacturer, and up the purchase price by about $250. They also greatly increase energy use and are far more likely to need service and repair. Avoid these costly, troublesome options.
  • Make sure that any new refrigerator you buy is CFC-free in both the refrigerant and the foam insulation.
  • Be willing to pay a bit more for lower operating costs. A fridge that costs $75 more initially, but costs $20 less per year to operate due to better construction and insulation, will pay for itself in less than four years.

For more information on energy efficient living, explore the following websites:

Dodging Home Repair Rip-offs

EACH YEAR hundreds of thousands of consumers complain to their state attorneys general about home-repair rip-offs. The National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, in fact, says home repairs are second only to car repairs on the nation’s pet-peeve list. To get the inside story on how tradesmen take advantage of their customers, SmartMoney interviewed dozens of general contractors, home inspectors and tradesmen themselves. We culled the results and assembled this section, which tells you what to watch out for when signing up for a repair.

You’ve heard the one about the plumber who thought twice about becoming a doctor because he’d have to take a pay cut. To aggravated homeowners, that’s no joke. The most frequently used parts in a plumber’s bag cost anywhere from a few cents (washers and O-rings) to a few dollars (faucet stems). It’s the house calls that empty your wallet. Plumbers usually charge a $50 to $75 “mobilization charge” per visit, which covers only the first hour of labor. You pay this fee even for a leaky toilet, often a 10-minute job.

Since most plumbers also fix disposals and do pool and sprinkler work, try to have them resolve several problems in a single trip. Unfortunately, plumbing jobs are tough to estimate. The way around that problem: Detail your problem over the phone, then ask how it will be fixed, how much it will cost and when work will start and finish. If you live in an affluent neighborhood, don’t give your phone number or address until you’ve been quoted a price. “In the years when I was a contractor, there were some neighborhoods where you immediately marked up the standard price by 50%,” says Bob Santucci, co-author of A Consumer’s Guide to Home Improvement, Renovation and Repair (Wiley, 1995).

For the same reason, seek “border bids” — quotes from tradesmen in not-so-affluent towns nearby. The going rate for plumbers in upscale Chappaqua, N.Y., is around $65 per hour, while in Yorktown, a working-class suburb nearby, it’s $50.

Two to four calls should provide a ballpark price for a repair job under $200. More expensive work requires an on-site estimate. Since 80% of your plumbing is hidden behind walls, chances are your plumber knows as little about what’s back there as you do. This is especially true of older homes. “I constantly start what I think will be a simple repair and I end up chasing it,” says Massachusetts handyman Mark Genovese. If a highly-recommended plumber has no hunch about a job’s cost, negotiate a flat rate for him to go in and find out.

When dealing with tradesmen who charge by the hour, check if travel time is on the clock. Alan Fields, co-author of Your New House (Windsor Peak Press, 1995), forgot to ask this question when he hired a plumber to replace a leaky faucet. The plumber charged him for a half-hour trip each way and ran the meter when he drove to the supply store for a missing part. “It was a $100 mistake,” Fields gripes.

Plumbers, like electricians, are more heavily regulated than other tradesmen and more accountable for shoddy work. But some routinely cut corners to boost their own margins. They use 1/2-inch pipe instead of 3/4-inch pipe — which means that in bathrooms where there’s a shower, your toilet may not flush on the first try. They use L or K grade copper piping, which wears in five to 10 years, instead of M, which lasts 15 to 20. Some plumbers use plastic pipe, which is less expensive but noisier and less durable than metal. Ask your plumber what he’s using before he starts work.

If you suspect that your plumber is overcharging for materials — passing along a $50 toilet for $400 — try comparing prices at your local Home Depot or plumbing-supply house. The latter may not sell directly to consumers, but you can still read the price tags.

The biggest painting rip-offs aren’t in the final coats, but in the prep work. On a three-story house, most people don’t bother climbing up a ladder to make sure every inch has been properly scraped, sanded, patched and primed. But a spot-check makes sense, since poor preparation can lead to water damage and rot. To verify that priming has been done, ask your painter to use a different color, such as light-gray primer on a white paint job.

How much will you have to pay? A detailed on-site estimate helps avoid unpleasant surprises for both parties. The old saw says get three estimates and take the middle. Forget it. As long as the tradesmen are bidding on the same job — strip the wallpaper, plaster the walls, apply one coat of primer and two coats of Benjamin Moore Regal Satin in Linen White — you can get as few as two estimates, provided they’re in the same ballpark.

Don’t scrimp on quality paint, even if you can afford only a single coat. You get the most wear for the money buying one step down from the top of the line. Also keep in mind that painters often do better on paint prices than do consumers. One painter in Katonah, N.Y., buys paint at $22 a gallon, then charges clients $25. At retail, it would cost $28. Make sure to ask your painter how his paint pricing works.

When evaluating exterior painters, ask for addresses of homes they painted five years ago — and then go look. A good paint job should last about seven years. At five years, you should see just the beginning of wear around the eaves and gutters.

One final thing to keep in mind: No matter how much you nag potential contractors to lower their prices, they will need to make money on your job. There is such a thing as pushing them too hard. Explains one painter who figures in a 20% to 25% profit margin: “With insurance and expenses, each man costs me $150 a day. If I can’t make a profit on that, I can always get cheaper men.” And cheaper men means shoddier work.

Because electricians have the most explicit national standards, they register the fewest complaints from consumers. Before hiring an electrician, though, make sure he’s a member of the National Electrical Contractors Association or a local electricians’ union. You should also check — as with all tradesmen — that he’s insured and uniformed (he should be), driving a truck or van with a painted-on logo (magnetic signs indicate fly-by-night operations) and willing to write you an estimate on his own printed invoice (which should reveal a street address rather than just a post office box).

Electricians’ estimates vary widely, as with all repairs involving more labor than materials. A heating contractor can only price a furnace as low as he can buy it wholesale. But an electrician or a plumber can bill whatever he likes. Just ask the transient plumbers from Maine and Vermont now working in Fairfield County, Conn. They’re charging $14 an hour, nearly double their normal rates, but a far cry from the $55 to $60 local residents generally pay for a house call. (If you’re looking for itinerant tradesmen, check the local Pennysaver and grocery store bulletin boards. You might even drive by new housing developments, since builders usually get their hooks into any cheap available talent.)

Though it’s rarer, electricians can rip you off on parts, too. A cheap electrical switch costs your electrician 29 cents, compared to $2 for a longer-lasting one. When buying such devices from your electrician, make sure he’s providing “specification grade or better” products, a standard set by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association. Cheaper grades like “utility” and the unfortunately named “residential” won’t last in a high-use area like your kitchen, where you’re plugging and unplugging the can opener several times a day.

Your best weapon against shoddy electrical work is a $10 voltage tester purchased at a hardware store. This basic diagnostic tool will tell you if outlets are wired incorrectly, one of the biggest problems with electrical work.

State attorneys general have files stuffed with stories of roofers who have skipped town with a client’s shingles — and his check. Some roofers don’t even bother using shingles, claiming that a coat of latex paint prevents leaks just as effectively.

If you’ve got a leaky roof, the likely cause is flashing, which is the material — usually copper, galvanized steel or aluminum — that joins your roof to the chimney and vents. Flashing can be fixed cheaply with a black gooey substance called asphalt cement (which lasts around three years) or with new flashing (which lasts more than a decade). Plan on paying $30 to $50 an hour to have flashing fixed correctly.

Beware the roofer who gazes up at your house and announces, “Your roof is 15 years old. It will leak soon unless you replace the shingles.” The only way to determine if you need a new roof is by walking around on it. Worn-out shingles, which have lost their oil and thus their water repellency, look brittle, curl up at the edges and often crumble into powder when broken.

A new asphalt shingle roof (with one layer of shingles) costs $30 to $50 per “square” (a roofer’s square is 100 square feet), depending on the quality of the shingles and the slope of your roof, and lasts 15 to 20 years. A second layer will last about 10 years. If you plan to move within that time, adding a second coat without stripping the first will save you around 20% in labor (as well as $500 to $700 for a dumpster to haul away the old shingles).

HVAC Specialists
According to a recent survey by Checkbook Inc., a Washington, D.C., consumer group, the biggest heating and air conditioning rip-offs include substituting used parts for new ones and replacing parts that don’t need fixing. Always ask to see the decrepit or broken parts before they’re replaced, and to see the packaging and documentation for new parts before they’re installed. And make sure your heating, ventilation and cooling contractor doesn’t fix what isn’t broken. If your forced-air furnace breaks down, your technician may suggest installing a $100 automatic gas valve when all that’s needed is a $4 thermo coupler (which detects heat coming from the pilot light). If you’re suspicious, ask to have the thermo coupler replaced first, then see if your furnace works. It’ll take less than 10 minutes.

If possible, have heating and air conditioning repairs done in the off-season. Checkbook estimates that air conditioning work is up to 10% cheaper in November than in July. Also, stay away from extended payment plans, if you can help it, says Alex Walter, who runs his own HVAC firm in Aurora, Colo. “When people are offered these ‘free’ extended payment plans for a year, they really are paying for it, somewhere in the order of $100,” says Walter.

Since heating and air conditioning systems require regularly scheduled maintenance, many consumers buy service contracts. Make sure your service provider has the most up-to-date equipment, like a refrigerant-recovery machine and a refrigerant leak-detection device.

When replacing an air conditioner or furnace, quickly eliminate bids from any contractor who estimates the job off-the-cuff — without measuring your windows, asking what type of insulation you have and looking at the direction your home faces — and plugging this information into a form (or computer program) called Manual J. This calculates the heat loss and gain of your house and ensures that you won’t buy too powerful or weak a system.

Should You Hire a Contractor?
Our experts were mixed on the merits of contracts. While a written agreement may help keep a tradesman to his word, a piece of paper doesn’t necessarily protect you from getting ripped off. If you’re duped by a licensed contractor, you can complain directly to the local or state licensing board and request an arbitration or hearing. If found liable, the contractor can be ordered to make good, or his license can be revoked. If you’re dealing with an unlicensed tradesman, contact your regional Better Business Bureau for low-cost arbitration. If all else fails you can sue, although unless the contract is substantial — our experts suggest $7,500 or more — you’ll probably want to represent yourself in small-claims court rather than hire a lawyer.

Whether or not you get a contract, make sure that upon completion of the work you get a written statement that the tab has been paid in full and that the tradesman won’t put a lien on your house. Occasionally repairmen will go home, decide they deserve more money, and then send another bill. If you don’t pay it, they can spend $25 to file a lien, which makes it impossible for you to sell or refinance your property.

Don’t Get Nailed By Bad Contractors

When someone comes to your house and starts smashing down walls, tearing out appliances and crunching holes in ceilings, it’s best to know exactly who you are dealing with.

As a smart homeowner, you’ve already used Bankrate ( to lock in a low interest rate on a home equity loan and to find out which remodeling projects pay you back the most.

Now is no time to get nailed by a shoddy contractor
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans spend more than $120 billion each year on home improvements, and little wonder. A 1997 American Housing Survey pinpointed the average age of the 64 million owner-occupied houses in the United States at 29 years, well ripe for any number of improvements.

So who is improving America’s homes? The National Association of the Remodeling Industry says professional contractors perform 78 percent of all remodels, with do-it-yourselfers hammering away at 18 percent and buy-it-yourselfers participating in 4 percent of the projects.

Lots of work means lots of contractors. And lots of ways to get scammed.

Slam the scam
Each year, home remodeling contractor problems rank among the top 10 consumer complaints to the Better Business Bureau. In fact, the BBB has received more than 7,000 complaints annually during the past decade. Americans lose an estimated $35 million each year to everything from shoddy workmanship to outright scams.

Holly Cherico, vice president of communications for the BBB, says there are three main reasons for the flood of complaints:

1. Homeowners don’t get all the details written into the contract before signing it.

2. Homeowners select a contractor based on price alone without investigating their background.

3. Homeowners get duped by outright scams.

These fly-by-night artists fall into three broad categories. There’s the con man, an outright criminal who promises anything at any price, demands his money up front and vanishes. Then there’s the lowball artist, a shady operator who intentionally bids below his legitimate competitors, then makes costly changes or skimps on workmanship to recoup a profit. Last, there’s the slipshod businessman whose intentions may be honorable but whose incompetent estimates and overall poor judgment end up costing you money.

“These are the door-to-door home contractors who claim to be doing a job at your neighbor’s house, they have leftover materials and would be happy to patch your leaky basement, repave your driveway or check your furnace,” says Cherico.

Protecting yourself against the con artist should be easy, she says. “Contact your local BBB and ask for a list of members in that industry. That’s just being a wise consumer,” Cherico says. “If you’re spending several thousand dollars, I think you want to make sure you’re giving it to a reputable company.”

Contracting 101
OK, you’ve successfully avoided the outright scam artists. But you’re not out of the woods yet. There are plenty of other ways your remodeling budget can head south — the first and perhaps most important being the failure to calculate an accurate budget in the first place.

To get a ballpark idea of what your project will cost, check out the national averages as compiled by Remodeling magazine. Adjust the ballpark cost slightly upward if you live in the East or West, slightly downward if you live in the Midwest or South. As a rule, you should adjust your total upward again if you live in a major metropolitan area.

A number of other Internet sites can also help you arrive at a more accurate budget for your remodeling project. One of the best is ImproveNet, which helps calculate the cost of labor and materials based on the size of your job.

Next, you need to determine which types of home professionals you’ll need to accomplish your remodel. For minor work, an experienced general contractor likely will be the most cost-effective. A specialized contractor, however, may save money over a general contractor by knowing the timesaving tricks of their particular specialty.

If major work is involved, especially if there are design, aesthetic or structure issues, an architect may be needed to draw up detailed plans and obtain permits. To save on costly architectural fees, consider instead a certified or licensed designer, who generally specializes in particular types of projects (kitchens, interiors, baths, etc.). Or consider a through from start to finish.

A ‘good sense’ list
To save headaches later, consider drawing up a short list of qualified professionals in your area by logging on to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, the National Association of Home Builders RemodelorsTM Council or the Better Business Bureau. To help your search go smoothly, check out NARI’s detailed advice on “Selecting a Pro”.

It’s also good sense to make sure the contractor you choose has:

* Verifiable business licenses, certification and professional affiliations.

* Previous work experience, including a verifiable list of local customer references.

* Financial security — check banking and supplier references.

* Adequate insurance to protect you and your property against loss or suit.

* Good communication skills.

That last item should not be taken lightly. When you get down to writing the contract, clear communication on both sides is your single best insurance against a remodeling nightmare.

No-nonsense contract talk
Once you’ve solicited bids from several licensed professionals, studied them carefully and selected your contractor, it’s time to commit the project to paper. In general, remodeling contracts come in three flavors:

1. Cost Plus: You and your contractor arrive at an estimated cost and you agree to pay all actual costs plus the contractor’s fee. It’s a common type of bid, but you assume the risk of cost overruns and corrections.

2. Turnkey: The contractor commits to a fixed price for cost overruns. Change requests are documented, signed by both parties and typically paid for prior to the change being made.

3. Combination: If you choose to do part of the work yourself, you may combine elements of the cost plus and turnkey approach. The key is making each party’s responsibilities absolutely clear.

Your contract should include:

* Detailed descriptions covering all aspects of the work to be done.

* Remodeling plans signed by both parties.

* Payment plan (never pay more than 30 percent down).

* Start/finish dates.

* Change orders are to be approved by you before work is done.

* Final inspection and sign-off prior to final payment.

In addition, include these provisions:

* Cancellation rights: When you sign a remodeling contract, you have three business days to change your mind and cancel it. Contractors are required to tell you about this right and provide you with any cancellation forms.

* Lien protection: On large projects involving subcontractors, protect yourself from liens against your home in the event your primary contractor fails to pay the subs. This can be done by a release-of-lien addendum or by placing your payments in escrow until the work is finished.

* Permitting: It is the contractor’s responsibility to obtain building permits, if required, and to perform the work in accordance with all building codes.

* Warranty clause: Make sure all warranties on products and materials installed by your contractor are in writing and verified.

Control the quality
You’ve heard the old phrase “built to spec,” right?

Well, specifications, or specs, are written instructions detailing how the work on your project is to be completed, including installation processes, materials and actual products to be used. Without specs, a contractor is free to complete the work to their satisfaction, not yours.

If your project is a major one and your budget allows, have your architect include specs with your blueprint and hire a knowledgeable professional as your independent inspector to make sure the work is performed “to spec.”

Bottom line: The best-laid plans of home remodeling have a way of going awry without your watchful eye to oversee the process from start to finish. If you want it done right, hire a reliable professional, get everything in the contract, then watch over it like a hawk to make sure your contractor is performing quality work.

Then, of course, sit back and enjoy what you have caused to be done so well.