Remodeling on the Web
Using cyberspace can help you improve your place, but there are limitations.
As you probably imagine, the Web will make home remodeling and even routine maintenance and repair easier. In one evening you can get an estimate on remodeling your kitchen, create a list of designers and contractors to do the job, price cabinets and appliances, order catalogs and check out loan rates to bankroll the project. You can even learn how to caulk a bathtub or power wash a deck. All while wearing your pajamas.
But with all that the Web offers, it still can't do some things completely. And it does others poorly. Our road map to remodeling on the Web will lay out its strengths and weakness to keep you from wasting time on wrong turns and dead ends.
What's Out There
Over the past few years, the Web has grown from a novelty to a utility. That means most manufacturers, trade groups and government agencies are now online. And many of their Websites are useful and easy to use. Smart companies have learned that to translate visits into revenue, they have to keep you on their site, and they have to make you want to return.
The result? Websites that provide much more information, and better tools and explanations so you don't have to be a techie to find what you're looking for. Depending on the site, there are several ways to search for specific information: by project, product category, manufacturer, price or features. It's also easier to bypass features you don't want. Many sites also let you save information from visit to visit so you don't have to start over each time. For example, Homeportfolio.com lets you set up your own password-protected portfolio of products you like. You can save these images and e-mail them to friends, architects, designers and contractors for feedback.
In addition, many sites have added interactive features such as chats and message boards. Merillat Cabinets, for example, revamped its site to include a virtual design consultant that serves as a guide to the site and the remodeling process. These interactive features let Web companies offer truly personalized products and services. The "Holy Grail of the Web", ImproveNet, which started as a contractor-locator service, now offers a free project-estimating feature for kitchen and bath remodeling projects and roofing. You enter information about a project and get an estimate based on materials and labor. By changing the parameters—using laminate counters instead of solid surfacing, for example—you'll see how the cost of the project shifts. Lest you think Uncle Sam is behind the times, the U.S. Department of Energy offers an interactive program at www.homeenergysaver.lbl.gov that computes your energy use and makes recommendations for saving energy and money. The more information you enter, the more specific the advice. You even get an ID number, so you can return to review and update your file.
Remember, six months is an eternity on the Web. So if you were unimpressed by a site, go back to it again. The site probably has changed for the better.
The Web and Efficiency
Most people really don't save time working on the Web, they just use it more efficiently and conveniently. Think of the Internet as a giant VCR. Instead of being able to watch TV shows when you want, the Web lets you do research, look at products, get advice, ask questions and set up appointments when you have the time. Online, normal business hours are 24/7. And the information, store, product or service you want comes to you at the pace you set.
"By the time I get home from work, everything is closed. So if I didn't go online, I'd only have weekends," says Amy Vischio-Tebeau, a homeowner who used the Web to remodel her kitchen and a bathroom. She found her kitchen designer online; previewing websites allowed her to get an idea of designers' work before she contacted them. Her designer used a digital camera, design software and e-mail, in addition to face-to-face meetings, to speed up the design process.
In addition, Vischio-Tebeau used the Web to preview products, and she kept an electronic file of her product preferences to show the designer and contractor what she liked. Even though she purchased many of the products online, she saw most of them in person before buying. With the discounts she found online, she was able to buy top-of-the line products that otherwise would have been too expensive for her.
"But you really have to give yourself lots of time if you want to save money," says Vischio-Tebeau, "and you need to leave time so that you can correct a mistake." She speaks from experience. The stain on her kitchen cabinets didn't match the sample she approved, so the cabinets had to be redone. And her kitchen sink did not fit into the cabinet she purchased for it. But, she says, both mistakes could have happened just as easily if she hadn't used the Web. Even though the sink wasn't returnable, the e-tailer took it back because she had bought so much on the site. But it did charge her a restocking fee, which her designer absorbed.
While most of your initial time at a Website will be devoted to evaluating its information, if you're going to actually use any services or have to give out much personal information, you should scrutinize the site itself too. Remember, you wouldn't hire a contractor without checking references, so don't let your guard down online either, especially because many of the traditional cues and boundaries between objective information and advertising or infomercials are harder to spot online.
Finding a Contractor
One of the most important and time-consuming parts of any project is finding the pros who will help you create and complete the job. Many trade groups, like those of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, National Association of Home Builders, the National Kitchen & Bath Association and the American Institute of Architects, have websites where you'll find the names, addresses and credentials of members in your area. They also provide links to homepages these pros have created for themselves. ImproveNet takes its matchmaking service a step further by screening contractors and architects for legal and credit problems, licensing and insurance information. The site also provides links to homepages of recommended pros.
According to a study by the Home Improvement Research Institute, 9 percent of homeowners who hired remodeling pros in 1999 used the Internet to find them.
A website can give you an idea of the projects the firm has handled, but it can't tell you how smoothly the jobs went. In addition, many if not most design and remodeling pros aren't yet online. Finding them often requires word-of-mouth references from friends and neighbors. So, though the Web can help you find more professionals more quickly, it cannot and should not substitute for actually meeting and interviewing them and checking their references.
"A good website means the professional is good at e-technology, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's good at the craft you're hiring him for," says Mark Richardson, president of Case Design/Remodel, a Bethesda, Maryland, remodeling firm with its own nifty website. "Homeowners run a risk if they get ahead of what the Internet can do."
The web also can't convey communication skills. You can only find that out by actually meeting and interviewing people. If you don't have a good rapport with your architect, designer or contractor, you'll be working under a serious handicap. You should never hire someone you don't like or can't talk to, no matter how wonderful an architect, electrician or designer is—or how great that pro's website looks.
Once you have found a pro, the Web can help speed communications. If your architect, designer or contractor has a digital camera, he can take photos of the project area and incorporate them into plans. These plans and any questions can be e-mailed to you and other family members. You can look at them at your convenience, and e-mail comments and questions back to the pro so he can incorporate them. Fewer hard-to-schedule meetings and less phone tag are the result. Vischio-Tebeau's contractor used copies of her e-plans to obtain local permits.
However, e-mail should only complement, not substitute for, the real-time give and take of meetings, especially when plans and contracts are being finalized. Contractor Sylvain Cote, of Absolute Remodeling in Yorktown Heights, New York, blends the two. "Initially, I direct people to my Website to fill out a questionnaire about their project. But I do preliminary plans and estimates in person. From then on, depending on the client, it's a mixture of online communications and face-to-face meetings."
Home improvement e-commerce is still in its infancy. Many products, such as windows, doors, cabinetry, countertops and large appliances, are not sold online. Of those that are available, the best buys are on sinks and faucets, toilets and tubs, lighting and decorative hardware, and especially on high-end products in these categories. As is the case when you buy from a catalog, you'll have to pay shipping charges for many online purchases. If you don't like something once it arrives, you will have to pay to ship it back. That can be expensive on something as large and fragile as a whirlpool tub. Often, special-order products are not returnable, or you have to pay a restocking fee in addition to return-shipping costs. Beware of sites that do not have secured systems to keep your credit card number safe.
Even though you can't buy many things online, you can compare prices. While manufacturers' sites might not contain pricing information, other sites, like Brandwise.com and Productopia.com, do. So at least you have some idea of what products cost. You can also learn which product features are typical and which add to the cost of an item. For example, if you're looking for an appliance, in an hour you could visit most manufacturers' sites to see which brands interest you and request catalogs. Since it's often hard to shuttle between several sites or keep several sites open at once, comparing multiple features and products is still more easily done with catalogs. Once you narrow down your choices and determine if you can buy a product online and at what cost, go to a showroom. Bring your information with you. There you can check out the item, compare prices and haggle.
On-Ramps to the Net
There are so many Websites out there, where do you start? If you know the name of a manufacturer or retailer (say, The Home Depot), type its name followed by .com (homedepot.com). If you know the name of trade or nonprofit group, use its name or initials plus .org. For government agencies, try the initials followed by .gov.
Listed here are some terrific sites for you to check out.
Contractor-licensing information: www.contractors-license.org/.
In alliance with National Association of REALTORS(NAR), www.housenet.com/ offers an archive of how-to and do-it-yourself articles on home improvement, home decorating, lawn and garden and real estate topics.
Seeking to be a full-service portal for home remodeling and repair, www.improvenet.com offers general information, a design gallery of ideas and projects, kitchen and bath estimators and product information. A contractor, architect and designer referral service helps you find prescreened pros, and a personal project coordinator answers your questions and holds your hand during the project.
For general information on home loans and going rates, visit www.bankrate.com.
If you don't have the strongest credit history, www.hsh.com will tell you about "subprime" loans and lenders. It also offers an archive of general information.
If you want to set your own rate and fees, try www.priceline.com.
For information on product recalls, listed by product as well as by company, visit the Consumer Product Safety Commission at www.cpsc.gov.
The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Network, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, offers brochures on making your home more energy efficient as well as an ask-the-energy-expert feature at www.eren.doe.gov/consumerinfo.
The Environmental Protection Agency has articles on indoor air quality at www.epa.gov/iaq.
For general information on home-related topics, visit the Federal Consumer Information Center at www.pueblo.gsa.gov.
Repair and Maintenance
Featuring animated instructions on home improvement projects and the tools you'll need to complete the project, www.cornerhardware.com also lets you talk to a customer service rep via a live-chat feature.
For information on appliance repair and buying parts, try www.repairclinic.com.
Sponsored by the nonprofit United Homeowners Association, www.remodelingcorner.org alerts to you common remodeling problems and offers advice on how to avoid and solve them.
Examples include situations like: What if your contractor does not like to work with your architect, and How to recognize and avoid "remodeling fever" (the urge to keep expanding your project).
For those of you with an older home, online booklets are available from the National Parks Service Preservation Department at www.oldhousejournal.com.
Calling itself a community for old-house owners, www.oldhouseweb.com has articles, products and bulletin boards.
For a source for hard-to-find restoration products and contractors, visit www.restorationcentral.com.