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Buyer Beware:
Tread carefully when an A/C emergency strikes

A recent report from CNN Money showed that only 22% of Americans have any type of adequate savings - and the bulk of these savers are millennials (those born somewhere around 1980). If you happen to be among the 78% without a healthy nest egg or even a small cushion, you know that something like a central air conditioner or furnace breakdown can be devastating. At a potential cost of upward to $10,000, even using credit cards or financing options can add another $300 or $400 to your monthly bills. And, with the myriad of options and diverging professional opinions, it can be very difficult to make a sound and informed decision on how to proceed.

The following is what I learned from watching my friend, Kate, try to navigate the very frustrating world of central A/C replacement. It is my hope that the information will save others from the stress my friend endured when an early June heat wave coincided with an air conditioning breakdown.

The first thing to do when experiencing trouble with your central air conditioning is to check the filter. A clogged filter can cause serious - and sometimes permanent - problems with the unit. While the filter can be found in different places depending on the unit, it is generally located behind the only panel that can be opened without unfastening screws. It should be clean enough to see even dim light through it, and if it is not, replace it ASAP. A/C units are generally located in dusty basements and a common source of debris (as in my friend's case) is dusty cat litter from boxes kept nearby. Filters should be checked every two weeks and in the case of a dusty basement - every week is best.

If the filter is clean and your problem persists, check out the condensate pump. When the pump has failed, you will generally see puddling - sometimes quite a bit - around the base of the unit. If the water accumulation is especially bad after the unit has been turned off, it is often times the condensate pump. This is an surprisingly easy part to replace, and since it is only about $55.00 at your local home improvement center (and refundable), it is well worth the time and effort to give it a try. My friend replaced hers in less time than it takes to cook most microwave dinners, so even if you consider yourself severely challenged mechanically, you really can do it yourself. Click here to learn how to replace your A/C condensate pump.

If neither the pump nor the filter is the culprit, it's time to call a professional. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning of Kate's frustration. If you don't already have a trusted HVAC person, the single best way to start is by asking friends, family or neighbors for a referral. If you get nowhere with that tack, use popular referral websites like Angie's List, Home Advisor or Renovation Experts. Simply doing a blind internet search with your zip code may lead to a local gem or, on the other hand, a laundry list of unvetted "contractors" that could cost you a lot of time and money with bogus "estimates." A good example of bad business is the first technician that came out to evaluate my friend's job. He was from a well-known national plumbing franchise that offers "free" estimates. Upon arrival (6 hours late) the technician proceeded to hem and haw, and tell her what she already knew: her unit may be at the end of its lifespan. He told her that to actually open the unit and do any real diagnostic work would cost $200. So, this outfit will come out to shake your hand and scratch their head for free, but if you want a diagnosis, it will cost you.

What I learned is that gone are the days of a truly free estimate or diagnosis, so be very wary of those claiming they are free - unless they come recommended.

The next thing to consider carefully, is that if your unit is, in fact, reaching the end of its lifespan (generally about 15 years), you will most likely need to replace it. It is tempting to engage in some trial and error with refilling coolant or changing coils, but since coolant can run upward to $100 per pound, it is just not worth the gamble.

After another technician from a local company gave my friend an estimate of $10,000 to replace only the A/C unit (she was considering replacing the furnace at the same time), she finally decided it was time to call the local big box home improvement store. They contract with reputable HVAC companies and offer financing options if you have their credit card. They also come out to do a full diagnostic check for only $99 and will try to save you money by doing some trial and error. The estimate to replace both the A/C and heating system was a relatively fair $7500, but the thing to watch for is the upsell. The salespeople are there to make money and will slip in unnecessary options like extended warranties, carbon monoxide detectors and high-end filters. Being aware of the nonessential costs shaved $300 off of the total and my friend was fairly comfortable with spending the $7200 to replace the entire system.

It was at the final hour, however, that a neighbor stepped in, recommended a reputable local contractor and Kate got her entire system replaced the next day for a flat $5000 - with a 10 year warranty on labor and parts at cost. She and her family are now cool as cucumbers and she got the best possible price.

For me, the question that still remains is how can there be such a disparity in the cost of A/C replacement. From $10,000 for just the air conditioning to $5000 for both units seems a bit suspicious. After poking around and asking various companies with no vested interest in securing the job, it turns out that this is, very much, a business where in some cases unscrupulous parties take advantage of people in desperate circumstances. And, apparently the biggest tactic used to scare people away from lower estimates is by discrediting the units they are selling. From what I have learned, there is no one brand of A/C or furnace that outshines another, and all of them come with a manufacturer's warrantee should it simply be a dud.

So, the takeaway is to thoroughly do your research and be prepared to spend some initial money on estimates (getting at least three is the best way to go). And, if you follow the bullet points below, you will save money in the long run.

1) Check first to see if the filters are clean and that the condensate pump is functioning properly.

2) If replacement is necessary, look first for an HVAC person that comes recommended from a friend or family member. Look secondly to trusted referral sites and finally consider your local big-box home improvement store. And, if a company tells you they offer free estimates, be sure to ask if it is for a full diagnostic test.

3) Know your home's square footage and learn what ton-size unit is appropriate for your space. Selling units that are larger than necessary is a common upsell practice.

4) Don't feel guilty about getting at least three estimates and have them carefully outline, in writing, the cost of each item, the brand of unit and the labor. This way you can compare estimates more easily and readily see if you are being sold unnecessary parts or services - including a unit that is too large or too costly.

If you take your time and "keep cool" during the process, you can save yourself thousands of dollars and still have a solid, quality A/C and heating unit for many years ahead.

Hazards in the Home

Home may be where the heart is, but it is also - unfortunately - where a whole host of hazards are. We have come a long way over the years, bringing awareness and enforcing legislation for things like asbestos, lead paint, radon and carbon monoxide, but there are other real threats that loom large. In a recent article on MarketWatch.com, four such hazards are highlighted and they are ones that many of us have never given a second thought.

The Wrong Smoke Detector
Most of us feel very comfortable knowing that our homes are fitted with working smoke detectors. As long as they are UL approved and we check our batteries twice per year - that should be sufficient, yes? Well, not really. There are two main types of smoke detectors designed for home use: ionization and photoelectric. 95% of homes are fitted with ionization units as they are the least expensive and most easily found. Statistics show, however, that these popular detectors take an average of 20 minutes longer to detect smoldering fires - fires that begin with things like cigarettes on synthetic fibers or faulty electrical wiring. While the ionization units trip more easily with fast flames or quick smoke plumes from things like burnt toast, they do not react quickly to the thick, slow-moving smoke from smoldering fires. It is suggested that photoelectric detectors be placed in vital areas of the home like the kitchen, bedrooms and basements, but in areas like hallways, bathrooms and living areas, ionization units should do fine.

Old Gas Lines
If your home was built between 1860-1915, chances are you have defunct gas lines that were formerly used to supply lighting to homes. Many have been capped off or converted to electricity, but if they are active and open, there is a very real danger of explosion if disturbed during construction. Even some modern lines made from thin stainless steel tubing were found to be susceptible to lightening strikes. It doesn't even need to be a direct strike, according to experts - just enough heat and energy in the approximate area can create an explosion. If you are homeowner with have any concerns about your gas lines, contact a private gas line specialist to first determine if you or your municipality is responsible. In many areas, gas line reconstruction is on the public infrastructure "to-do" list but can be moved along with enough pressure from the community.

Light Construction
Light or "truss" construction, while great for starter or inexpensive homes, has shown to be a major factor in more swiftly moving and more destructive fires. While sturdier homes are made with wood joined by bolts, screws and nails - lightweight structures are put together using gussets that join corners - gussets that are simply clamped onto the area that needs fastening. The main problem with truss construction is that in the case of a fire, the heat generated is often enough to pop the gussets out as easily as they were popped in. While there isn't much one can do to change this basic structural feature, it is very important for homeowners living in a lightweight construction home to take extra precaution against fire.

Topsy-Turvy Appliances
There is now one more good reason to not let your television be your child's babysitter. Between 2000-2010, nearly 170 children were killed from large, flat-screen televisions tipping over and causing fatal head or internal injuries. While making sure that the television is on a very low media table (never on a high dresser) can help decrease the risk of serious injury, the best way to avoid problems is to have large flat-screens professionally mounted to the wall. Using a skilled installer is crucial because if a wall-mounted TV is not properly secured, it can pose even a greater risk to children than one simply placed on a table.

Another dangerous appliance is the stove - and not for reasons that you may think. According to MarketWatch, in 2008 Sears settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit as a result of more than 100 deaths or injuries from faulty mounting mechanisms on stoves. The vast majority of stoves sold today are light enough for even small children to tip over if they climb or grab onto the unit, and if not properly mounted, can cause very serious problems.

While these risks may seem to be remote, "better safe than sorry" is really the takeaway. Installing a few photoelectric smoke detectors in key areas, making some calls about your current gas lines, being extra fire-cautious in homes built of light construction and properly mounting appliances can mean the difference between a safe, healthy home and a major disaster.

Top 10 Home Improvement Fixes for Return on Investment

Are you looking for the most bang for your home improvement buck? Then you'll be interested in this recent infographic by Nationwide Insurance, which details the top 10 home improvement for getting a return on your investment.

The infographic breaks down the ROI of your classic home improvement jobs, like a kitchen or bath renovation, as well as some not-so-classic investments, such as landscaping or flooring.

So where can you get the most bang for your buck? Click the link above to find out.

Are you in one of the top 25 counties for remodeling in 2011?

Top 25 Counties for Remodeling

Want to find out if your county is in the Top 25 for Remodeling in 2011? Hanley Wood has put together their top 25 U.S. counties with the most potential to see a big jump in remodeling and replacement work in 2011.

According to data collected by the outlet, these 25 were picked based on what they consider factors that cultivate a strong remodeling environment, including:

  • Healthy economic conditions

  • Healthy economic forecast

  • An ample housing stock amenable to remodeling (old--but not too old--houses)

  • Large number of remodeling-inclined households

  • Strong forecast on Residential Remodeling Index (RRI)

  • That last item can be found in the January 2011 issue of REMODELING.

    It's interesting to note that three Texas counties were placed in the top 25. The top county for remodeling in 2011? Howard, Maryland.

    For more info on the particulars of the counties selected, check out the full Hanley Wood article.

    Make sure your contractor is playing by the rules.

    Is Your Contractor Building By the Rules?

    The good people at this handy little online resource shared a list of 20 Ways To Spot if Your Contractor Isn't Complying with Code.

    A few of the ways that stood out for me included:

    1) Your contractor doesn't give you a detailed quote. This is often because he's not pulling permits, so the quote wouldn't include a line for the building permit costs, which would be (or should be) an instant red flag for the homeowner.

    2) No plans or drawings are submitted. Permits require drawings or plans. If the contractor doesn't have any, guess what? He also most likely does not have the permits.

    3) He does not offer you a copy of the lien waiver once the job is completed. This is an important one, as it ensures that you are not held responsible for the material costs from the companies the contractor has not yet paid.

    Check out the full list at the Construction Management Degree website.

    Screen shot of Los Angeles DiggersList listing. Any unused Dodgers baseball bats for sale?

    A New Online Spot for Cheap Building Materials

    We've all searched Craigslist and Freecycle for roofing, flooring and other home renovation scraps. Sometimes we hit the jackpot and sometimes we get sidetracked and buy a new TV instead. Whoops. So we were really psyched to hear about Diggerslist.com, dedicated to buying and selling excess from construction sites.

    Recently launched in 15 top metropolitan areas, DiggersList allows big construction companies to sell their unused building materials online at discounted prices. Flooring, roofing, tile -- it can all be found.

    The new service aims to reduce nationwide construction waste, allow suppliers to offload surplus inventory and make materials available to the DIY enthusiast at reduced cost. Contractors can also post their services on the site, and property owners can post projects they're looking to have professionally done. It's people meeting people, hammer meeting nail, bargain building materials meeting the bed of someone's pickup.

    The construction-centric DiggersList can be aptly compared to the beloved CraigsList. The UI has some similarities, although DiggersList features additional info like "Recent Users", "Recent Photo Albums" and a "Recently Listed" section. It's worth checking out, particularly if you live in one of the DiggersList areas. For everyone else, the wait is on.

    If you had DiggersList in your area, what would you use it for?

    Will 2010 be a rebirth year for remodeling?

    2010: The Rise of the Remodeler

    True or false: We've reached the bottom of the home remodeling decline?

    Harvard says it's true, so it must be, right?

    2010 is the Year of the Hammer, particularly by the second quarter, the study (released by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University) suggests. Despite unstable housing market prices and roof-shattering foreclosure rates, potential remodelers may see "favorable financing costs" and increased home sales as reasons for taking on some nonessential improvement projects.

    If the prognosticators in Crimson Country are correct, this is great news for contractors, remodelers and homeowners alike. It's still too soon to pop the champagne, but tell us, what's the first project you'll hire-out?

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