August 25, 2011

Earthquake damage? Make sure it's fixed by someone with a license, state urges

State regulators are reminding homeowners with wall and foundation cracks or other damage to their property -- courtesy of the earthquake this week -- to avoid unlicensed contractors.

Contractors must be licensed. But more importantly, you're covered by the Maryland Home Improvement Guaranty Fund if a licensed contractor does lousy work or otherwise causes you economic harm. Go with an unlicensed guy, and you're out in the cold.

"Too often, unlicensed contractors arrive after a major storm or a natural disaster with disingenuous offers to help," Stanley J. Botts, state commissioner for occupational and professional licensing, said in a statement.

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation says you can get license and complaint histories from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission at 410-230-6309. License information is also available online.

How did the earthquake affect you?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 3:25 PM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Home maintenance

July 27, 2010

Homeowner's persistence yields results

A Baltimore resident contacted me months ago to explain her particular housing woe, and she's kept me updated as her story progressed. I thought Keisha's experience (and how she handled it) would help others, so she kindly agreed to share with all of you.

She purchased a rowhome on Baltimore's west side in spring 2009 after relocating back to the state. After signing the contract, she used a variety of professionals recommended by her real estate agent, from the title company to the home inspector. "That was a big mistake on my part," she says now.

Here's her story in her words:

In June of 2009 as the summer heat started rising, I went to use my central air only to find it did not work. I notified the builder that rehabbed the home and within a week they sent an HVAC contractor. It was then I was told the air condensing units were stolen from my roof.

I did what most would do: I notified the police, then the insurance company. Days later the insurance company came to the property only to deny my claim because they saw no evidence that air condensers had ever been installed on my property.

Needless to say, I thought, "This can't be true, I had a home inspection. Furthermore, Baltimore City code enforcement inspectors were just here in mid-May -- surely they would have noticed if I had no air conditioning condensers."

Continue reading "Homeowner's persistence yields results" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (8)
Categories: Home maintenance

May 17, 2010

All hail home maintenance (emphasis on "hail")



Mr. Wonk and I got through Snowmageddon without any damage to the parts of our condo that we're responsible for, but Mother Nature intended us for a later drubbing. I came home from work Friday to that discover that hail -- hail, for Pete's sake -- had flattened flowers and left holes in  window screens across the neighborhood.

I'm not kidding. Here, have a look at one of ours:



It never occurred to me that hail could do that sort of damage. But then, it was pretty sizable hail:

Continue reading "All hail home maintenance (emphasis on "hail")" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

April 29, 2010

Home improvement plans

As the song goes, if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with. That might explain a recent American Express survey, which found that nearly two-thirds of homeowners are planning home improvement projects this year.

Average amount the polled folks intended to spend: $6,200. So we're not talking about gut rehabs. The most popular projects were cosmetic work, redoing a room and new flooring.

Most of the homeowners planned to pay with cash. Few expected to rely on loans.

A small amount of the work -- about 5 percent -- is getting ducks in a row to list for sale, American Express says. Many homeowners said they just want their property to look better.

Some of the motivation, of course, is probably homeowners settling in to try to wait for prices to rise. (Asked when they thought a seller's market might return, just over half of homeowners said they're not expecting it for two years or more.)

Wonk reader ruth noted this week that she has a different reason: "We definitely want to move and as we are looking to downsize it should be workable. What holds us back? Aging parents. Plain and simple. We're stuck, until this situation resolves. So, in the meantime, we remodel. As time passes and enough remodeling goes on, what's the sense of moving? We have a feeling we're not the only ones out there like this."

So, all you folks with experience, help out the raft of homeowners (me included) who are trying to get some improvements done this year:

What went right?

What went wrong?

How did you decide what to do yourself and what to hand over to a pro? (And was it the right choice?)

How did you find good contractors?

What's the most important lesson you learned? 

We who are about to remodel salute you.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Home maintenance

April 12, 2010

Q&A about new lead-paint renovation rules

If you renovate homes, on the side or for a living, the federal rules that apply to you will change next week for any project you take on where lead paint lurks. The regulations, put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency, have been in the works for years.

Rebecca L. Morley, executive director of the Columbia-based National Center for Healthy Housing,  covers the basics -- and why homeowners should care -- in this Q&A:

Question: What’s required of people renovating homes with lead paint now, and how is that changing?

Answer: Currently, there really aren’t any requirements for people who are renovating older homes, except that they do have to provide some notification to the owners that there may be lead paint there. … But with the new rule, they’ll actually be required to follow a certain set of practices. So certain things are banned: For instance, they can’t belt-sand away old paint, or they can’t use heat guns to remove the paint. ... It just is requiring them not to create any new hazards during the course of the work that they do.

The focus really is, if they’re going to be disturbing paint … that they don’t stir up lead dust and they don’t leave it on the surfaces when they finish the job. ... A common misperception about lead is you have to eat paint chips in order to get poisoned, but lead dust, which is generated from the deterioration of lead-based paint or these renovation activities, [is] the most insidious exposure threat. That’s because the lead dust isn’t visible and just minute amounts of it can result in an exposure — and a serious exposure.

That understanding, which has come to light over the last couple of decades, has really changed our emphasis about how we deal with lead. You can create significant hazards simply by virtue of scraping it off. We want to clean up really well at the end of [renovation] jobs.

Q: How old does a building need to be in order to fall under this regulation?

A. It applies to any housing and/or commercial and public buildings built before 1978. The commercial and public buildings is for child-occupied facilities, so that gets your daycares and schools.

Q: ’78 was when lead paint was banned?

A: Exactly.

Q: What must renovators do to comply?

Continue reading "Q&A about new lead-paint renovation rules" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Home maintenance, Q&A, Renovation/rehab

April 7, 2010

Watch out for home-repair scammers

Baltimore County police want everyone to be on their guard for scam artists posing as home-repair specialists. After the beating our region took from the back-to-back snowstorms in February, the department figures more homeowners are in the market for maintenance work -- and in danger of falling for a con artist.

The police are talking about people who do shoddy work with lousy materials, particularly those who convince homeowners to take them on with a verbal agreement and then demand more money afterward.

"When the customer objects, he or she is told that the materials used were stolen and the police will be brought in if the higher price isn’t paid," the county police said in a statement. They urged people to call 911 if they suspect scam artists are at work in the area.

The National Association of Bunco Investigators has more details about these sorts of scams, including warning signs. (Offered a "special price" if you sign up on the spot? Run away.)

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Home maintenance

March 19, 2010

Ice dams, flooding and other post-snow home woes


Photograph by Jamie Smith Hopkins


Snowmageddon left us some lovely parting gifts.

Water damage.

The 40-plus inches of snow that overwhelmed the region last month is responsible for leaks in homes via ice dams -- icy ridges that cling to the edge of roofs, preventing melting snow from going anywhere ... except perhaps inside your house. I've heard complaints about that, along with complaints about roof problems from the weight of all that darn snow, of course.

The extra moisture that seeped into the ground could also cause basement flooding and termite infestations, experts warn.

One plague after another, eh?

Maryland is among the states that the National Weather Service categorizes with an "above average" chance of flooding this spring. Soils in the Mid-Atlantic are saturated, it says.

Here's what you should watch for, and what you can do to deal:

Continue reading "Ice dams, flooding and other post-snow home woes" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (6)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

February 17, 2010

Don't do this, for Pete's sake

As this AP story illustrates, some remedies for snow and ice on your property can be worse than the disease:
Authorities say a Montgomery County home caught fire after workers used a propane torch to clear ice from the roof.
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 12:36 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

February 14, 2010

Roof troubles, post-snow

Vicky from Upper Fells Point reports that one of the rowhouses on her block had a roof collapse -- a problem cropping up here and there across the region in the wake of all the snow.

"Fortunately the property is uninhabited and no one was hurt," she wrote me. "However, what should the person who lives next door to that property do now? There are concerns of structural damage, as well as water damage when the snow begins to melt."

She knows about, where you can see deeds and other property records. Her plan was to look up the owner so the immediate neighbor can contact him or her "with certified mail return receipt to start a paper trail." And she also suggested her neighbor call his insurance company post-haste.

"Any other suggestions?" she asks.

If you have any, please offer them in a comment.

Here are some of the warning signs that a roof is in trouble, courtesy of the city of Alexandria, Va.:

Continue reading "Roof troubles, post-snow" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

February 12, 2010

Basement remodeling project in your future?

As the housing market slumped, so did home improvement, and spending on that sector has been down since 2007. But, which links homeowners with contractors, thinks things are turning around. Requests to the site for bids on home-improvement work are rising.

Nationwide, requests in the last three months of 2009 were up nearly 40 percent over a year earlier. But that wasn't evenly spread. Baltimore, for instance, saw a 2 percent uptick.

States with big increases -- Arizona, California, Florida and Illinois -- also have large numbers of foreclosures, and thus more properties in need of repair, ServiceMagic said.

In Baltimore, the category with the biggest year-over-year increase in requests was basement remodeling -- up about 80 percent. Roofing was a close second. 

No. 8 on the list of biggest increases: pest control. Yergh.

On the flip side, ServiceMagic said Baltimore residents put in 35 percent fewer requests for new appliances, 34 percent fewer requests for garage or garage door projects and 26 percent fewer requests for siding.

Full report here in PDF form.

All told, the biggest chunk of Baltimoreans' requests -- more than one in every four -- was for maintenance and repair. People trying to get homes in shape to sell? Or just doing necessary work? I don't know, but there is a specific "moving & real estate" category, and that's just 1 percent of the total.

Some of you shared your adventures in home improvement on this post. Anyone just getting started?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (11)
Categories: Home maintenance

February 6, 2010

Get that snow off flat roofs, county exec says

Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold sent out an advisory this morning warning everyone with flat roofs not to wait around for the snow to melt.

"Flat roofed buildings are extremely susceptible to collapse from the weight of large accumulations of heavy snow," he said in a statement. "In the interest of public safety I urge citizens to take the necessary steps to remove snow from flat roofs in order to avoid the increased danger of collapse."

It probably goes without saying, but be careful if you're going to take those steps.

Do you have a flat-roofed home or business?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 11:24 AM | | Comments (3)
Categories: Home maintenance, Weather

January 22, 2010

What you've done when it comes to DIY

A number of home-improvement and maintenance tasks are potentially do-it-yourself jobs. But Wonk reader Lori says she speaks from experience in saying that potentially and actually do-it-yourself-able are two different things.

"The ease of MANY DIY jobs is completely dependent not on whether the job is easy to do in a perfect world, but rather whether one is inheriting a Rube Goldberg mess of mediocre construction and dubious code adherence," she wrote in a comment on this week's DIY post.

Here's an example she gave: "Wallpaper removal can ONLY be done by oneself if the (drooling morons) who put the wallpaper up were intelligent enough to use SIZING on the walls. We have a rental property that has wallpaper on the walls and ceilings (!!!), and because of the manner in which it was put up, professionals don't even think it's worth the trouble to pull it. We have had 2 different contractors recommend putting new drywall over it rather than dealing with the fact that pulling the wallpaper is going to tear up the drywall."

(Don't know what sizing is? Here's a explanation from Ask the Builder.)

The DIY discussion you've been having here is so interesting I wanted to shine a light on it for readers who don't make a point of reading the comments. A few more nuggets:

Continue reading "What you've done when it comes to DIY" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Home maintenance

January 19, 2010

'No-brainer' DIY home-improvement work

Sometimes you know you can fix something in your home with your own two hands. Sometimes you're absolutely certain you'll need professional help. And sometimes you're not sure one way or the other, which is where Do It Yourself or Not comes in.

The website, run by Marylanders Gene and Katie Hamilton, has details on how much a variety of projects would cost -- and how much time they would take -- if you do them vs. paying someone else to do them for you. 

Here are a few of the projects they think are "no-brainer" DIY efforts:

--Wash windows

--Remove wallpaper

--Remove paint or varnish

--Paint paneling

--Paint a room

"Maintenance and repairs may be tiresome but they’re worth your effort," the Hamiltons note.

They estimate, for example, that it would cost you about $760 to hire someone to paint a room but $150 to paint it yourself.

Some of it comes down to personal preference, I know. Plenty of homeowners are diehards of the do-not-do-it-themselves sort. And life situations make a difference, too. Hard to find the energy to do anything yourself but diaper changes when you've got an infant in the house.

Have you been DIY-ing lately? Do share.

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (17)
Categories: Home maintenance

September 4, 2009

Smile! You're on code-enforcer camera

Baltimore housing-code enforcers have new authority to fine property owners who get violation notices but don't do anything about the problems -- a change from the old system of no recourse but court. That's for housing issues that require a warning, from broken gutters to vacant and unsafe homes.

The city has long been able to issue immediate fines to property owners for trash problems, though. And now it has the photographic proof online for all to see, a feature that went live a few weeks ago.

I threw "Canton" into Baltimore Housing's citation search tool, and up popped more than 100 citations with pictures. There's the Baylis Street property -- an in-process rehab? -- with wood and other construction materials piled up behind the open-to-the-elements rowhome. The Belnord home with trash all down the front steps, an old couch slumped on the back patio. The Conkling property owner who dumped a mattress and other trash in an alley -- including mail with name and address. (Doh!)

Baltimore Slumlord Watch, a blog that calls out problem property owners and expresses frustration with city reaction, thinks this feature is pretty keen.

Continue reading "Smile! You're on code-enforcer camera" »

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 7:00 AM | | Comments (16)
Categories: Code enforcement, Home maintenance

July 7, 2009

Home maintenance

One of the joys of being a homeowner is replacing appliances when they break. Thus I spent last night researching my buying options after coming home to discover that my dryer was -- technically speaking -- no longer a dryer but rather a sort of amusement-park ride for clothes. (In wet, out wet, despite great tumbling action in between.)

It seemed the right time to replace the washer as well -- both washer and dryer are 17 years old, so they're elderly as appliances go. Total bill: $931.

This got me musing about the difficulty deciding when to replace and/or upgrade things. Get a new carpet, for instance, and you might have to repeat the purchase when it's time to sell (can you tell I own cats?). But if you hold off getting new things with the idea that you'll do it when you're leaving, you'll never get to enjoy them. And if you wait until things break, well -- you could end up with a pile of wet laundry.

How have you homeowners out there dealt with this now vs. later dilemma? What sorts of things have you replaced and why?

And you buyers out there: What deferred maintenance issues really bug you in homes for sale?

Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:55 AM | | Comments (12)
Categories: Home maintenance

March 10, 2009

Figuring out where your house leaks energy

You've heard about high BGE bills. Maybe you're seeing them personally. Today, Scott Calvert tells the tale of energy "auditors" going through homes to figure out where, exactly, warm air is escaping and cold air is getting in.

One homeowner, Kim Glaun, signed up not only to find out why her monthly bill is hovering around $1,000 but also because she's tired of always being cold in her house.

A state official says this is a growth industry -- one that out-of-work folks from a contracted industry could get in on:

"We do not have enough auditors and retrofitters trained in Maryland to do all this work," said Maryland Energy Administration Director Malcolm Woolf. "An unemployed construction worker in a matter of weeks can get retrained so he learns about insulation and ductwork and gets put to work implementing these retrofits."
Posted by Jamie Smith Hopkins at 8:30 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Home maintenance
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About Jamie Smith Hopkins
Jamie Smith Hopkins, a Baltimore Sun reporter since 1999, writes about the regional economy. Her reporting on the housing market has won national and local awards. Hopkins is a Columbia native and has lived in Maryland all her life, save for 10 months spent covering schools in Ames, Iowa.
She trained to become a wonk by spending large chunks of time as a geek and an insufferable know-it-all.
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