Finding bargains on the Web, from sinks to siding
In 1996, when my wife and I remodeled our house in northern California, shopping for plumbing fixtures, lighting, tile, appliances, and other accessories consumed our evenings and weekends for months. Last year, when we did a similar job on our new house near Washington, D.C., we managed to find all the items we needed in half the time, with a wider selection, less driving, and discounts totaling more than $10,000.
The difference? The Internet.
Online shopping for building materials, barely heard of five years ago, has come of age. Whether you're a do-it-yourselfer or a professional contractor, you can find a vast array of brand-name and specialty construction products from online vendors who offer aggressive pricing, fast shipping, and excellent customer service.
But you have to be a savvy shopper, because you don't want to lose all of your savings to shipping charges or, worse, discover that the 300-pound stove you ordered won't fit through the kitchen door. Following are some online buying tips, as well as pitfalls to watch out for.
Where to Find the Biggest Bargains
Some of the best deals online can be found in the area of plumbing fixtures — toilets, sinks, tubs, and faucets. Most top brands are available from online retailers for 20 to 30 percent less than you'd pay at a local showroom. At The Plumbing Express (www.plumbingexpress.com), for example, we found the Toto low-flow toilet we wanted for just under $200, versus $350 at the plumbing-supply store. Our Grohe kitchen and bar faucets came from other vendors, like FaucetDirect (www.faucetdirect.com).
When purchasing fixtures, you'll also need to buy the appropriate accessories, including valves for faucets and drain kits for bathtubs. Good Web sites will tell you what you need for installation, and many have customer service representatives who can assist you by phone.
Sometimes Internet price shopping can lead you back to a bricks-and-mortar bargain. Initially, we decided against spending the money for a jetted tub in our master bathroom. But a Web search uncovered a plumbing-supply store 100 miles away that offered huge discounts on excess items ordered by new-home builders and never used. A brand-new 6-foot jetted tub cost just $350, half its usual retail price — a saving that made it well worth the drive.
Negotiating With Your Contractor
If you're doing a major job, such as a remodel or addition, the way to save the most is to specify up front in the contract with your builder that you will be providing plumbing, lighting, appliances, and other agreed-upon items for him to install. He might tell you that he can buy materials more cheaply because he gets discounts from suppliers — which is true if you shop retail. But chances are you'll be able to match or better his prices online.
That's a particular advantage if your contract includes allowances, dollar amounts meant to cover the cost of items, such as lighting and hardware, that you haven't selected yet. Allowances are typically based on the cost of average-quality fixtures, and you'll quickly exceed that if you want anything beyond the usual home-center fare. Buying online, you can often find more-stylish products for the same amount. Better still, shopping online can help you reduce or eliminate allowances altogether, thus removing the cost of those items from the contractor's overall job markup (typically between 20 and 25 percent), a potential saving of thousands of dollars on a major remodel.
In discussions with your contractor — who by now is probably getting a little cranky — assure him that you will have the items on the job when he needs them. You can't hold him responsible for delays if you don't have everything he needs to do the work. Communication with him (or an architect supervising the job) about when items will be needed is key. We found that out the hard way when finished drywall had to be torn up because two sconces we bought late in the process had round junction boxes instead of square.
A Word From Tom Silva
This Old House's general contractor has no problem with remodelers taking advantage of Internet bargains. But he offers this reality check: "Homeowners need to know that if something is defective, or can't be installed because there is a small part missing, they have to deal with it. They are taking on the risks, not the contractor. There are more potential problems on a job site than homeowners could ever anticipate. That's why they pay us the percentage for the goods we install. Then the problems become ours to solve."
Beyond the Basics
For us, plumbing and lighting proved to be the low-hanging fruit. But we scored some great coups on other products, chief among them exterior siding. We knew we wanted fiber cement, which can be stained to look like wood but will withstand summer humidity and the woodpeckers of our treed lot. The contractor brought us samples, but when we saw them our hearts fell. The stuff looked artificial. So it was back to the Internet, where we soon found a brand of fiber- cement siding that was nearly indistinguishable from real wood. The samples the company sent were excellent, and it cost 20 percent less, including delivery, than the product we didn't like. Our terrific contractor credited us the difference.
Other areas where we ended up buying online:
A closet system, which we designed via the Internet at Easyclosets.com (www.easyclosets.com) and received three days later, without shipping charges, with clear directions and extra hardware. We installed it in a f w hours.
Massive antique gate doors from China, from eBay (www.ebay.com). Known for its online auctions, eBay also acts as a storefront for vendors who sell at fixed prices. If you're really lucky, the seller is close by, allowing you to pick up the item in person and save shipp costs.
Hardware for doors and cabinets, and decorative switchplate covers. We saved nearly 30 percent on high-end kitchen cabinet hardware over prices at local kitchen-and-bath stores.
Shipping, Returns, and other Considerations
If you're not careful, you can lose all the money you've saved to shipping charges. This is where it pays to be aggressive. Many sites offer free shipping as an inducement to choose them over competitors with similar prices. Others will ship free if you exceed a certain order amount. Another key consideration when it comes to shipping: Most "standard delivery" policies simply mean the item gets dropped off at your door or in your driveway. Ask the vendor who will be responsible for actually bringing it inside the house — an important factor that clinched our decision to purchase a 36-inch professional-grade range from CuttingEdgeKitchens (www.cuttingedgekitchens.com), which arranged for inside delivery free of charge.
The biggest downside to online buying is that if the item is defective or you don't like it, you are responsible for the cost of returning it. The good news is online vendors are very accommodating. Competition is fierce, and they know that word of bad products or service can fly around the Internet at warp speed and
kill their business.
It's vital that you inspect all items when they arrive, as return privileges expire. Still, it can be hard to determine if the inner workings of a faucet are defective. Of everything we bought, however, we had only one such problem — a light fixture that arrived broken — and the vendor not only replaced it but also gave us a credit for the purchase price and didn't ask for the defective one back.
In some cases you might want to buy locally even if you can get a better deal online. Knowing that refrigerator ice makers often have problems, we decided to buy our fridge from a local retailer with a strong track record for service. Even though name brands come with warranties when purchased online, we preferred paying a bit more for the security of a service contract. But even here, online shopping helped: Our knowledge of appliance prices gave us bargaining power, and the dealer matched what we'd seen online.
Finally, be sure you have secure, dry storage space on the job site for all the boxes you'll be living with until the items get installed. And be nice to your UPS driver — you'll be
seeing a lot of him.
Where to Find It
Many sites offer building products and materials at favorable prices. Here are a few good places to start your search.
Commercial and residential kitchen appliances, from ranges and vent hoods to hot-dog condiment trays.
All manner of faucets and accessories, plus an extensive parts catalog.
A great selection of ceiling fans, and they'll match anyone else's price.
Everything for the kitchen (except major appliances) and bath, plus an array of sprinklers and other irrigation products.
An online home superstore, for everything from plumbing fixtures to lighting to outdoor grills.
An extravaganza of knobs, pulls, switchplates, and other cabinet hardware.
All the usual fixtures, plus saunas and steam showers.