Frequently asked questions

Contractors

Are there different types of contractors?


Home improvement professionals vary. Who you hire also will depend largely on the size and complexity of your project. What follows is a brief description of the different contractors who do work for homeowners: General contractors – they manage all facets of the project, including hiring and supervising subcontractors, obtaining building permits, scheduling inspections, and working with architects and designers. Specialty contractors – these are the folks who install products, such as cabinets, bathroom fixtures, and bookshelves. Architects – they design homes, additions, and major renovations. Design/build contractors – they offer one-stop service and will see your project through from start to finish.




Are there ways to save money when using a contractor?


Chances are you will have to pay the going rate for contractors in your area. Architects or designers will typically cost 12 to 20 percent more.
But remember you will want a home improvement that is done right the first time. That said, there are still ways you can save if you do decide to work with a contractor:
Shop around for the most reasonable bid - not necessarily the cheapest. Ask friends and family if the contractors they refer stuck to budget. Root out hidden costs written into contracts. Insist that trade discounts on materials be passed on to you, or buy materials yourself. Compare payment alternatives – flat vs. hourly rates, for example – and negotiate the more reasonable of the two. Do part of the project yourself, such as some disassembly or prep work.




How do I avoid being ripped off by a less than reputable contractor?


According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are several ways to spot less than reputable contractors because these hucksters tend to do the following: Only accept cash payments; Pressure you for an immediate decision; Ask you to pay for the entire job up-front; Solicit door-to-door; Offer exceptionally long guarantees; Just happen to have materials left over from a previous job; Ask you to get the required building permits; Not list a business number in the local telephone directory; Offer you discounts for finding other customers; Suggest that you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows, which could make you the target of a home improvement loan scam – a sure way to lose your home.




What guidelines should I use to find a contractor?


Use caution. Your home is your most valuable financial asset. You will want someone who completes the job, not botch it up. It is important that you find a competent and reliable contractor who will successfully complete your home improvement project.
Here’s what you can do:
Avoid the Yellow Pages. Check with family, friends, neighbors and co-workers for recommendations. Contact local trade organizations, such as the local Builder Association or Remodelers Council, for the names of members in your area. Deal only with licensed contractors. The state licensing board and local Better Business Bureau also can tell you if there are any outstanding complaints against the license holder. Interview each contractor, request free estimates, if possible, and ask for recent references. Make sure bids are based on similar project specifications. And do not automatically settle for the lowest bid. Ask for proof of worker's compensation insurance and get policy and insurance company phone numbers so you can verify the information. If the contractor is not covered, you could be liable for any work-related injury that takes place during the project. Also check to make sure the contractor has an umbrella general liability policy.




What if the job is botched?


If you are displeased with the results for obvious reasons, keep after the contractor to make the needed repairs. When that fails, contact your local consumer protection agency. Make sure you have a copy of the contract, receipts showing payments, and photographs of the work.
Although it has no legal authority, you also may want to contact the Better Business Bureau, as well as your state’s Contractor License Board. And you can take the contractor to Small Claims Court to recover amounts usually under $2,000.





Financing Remodeling Projects

How can I finance work needed on a fixer-upper?


According to the Millennial Housing Commission, few lenders are willing to administer home improvement loans. Most prefer to make home equity loans or unsecured consumer loans because they are easier to manage. Home improvement loans usually require inspections and irregular draws on the loan amount as work is completed, which requires regional or national lenders to find local partners to provide oversight.
Financing repairs and improvements with home equity is okay for most homeowners, but it is difficult for many first-time buyers. They have lower-incomes, smaller savings, and have made lower down payments on their homes than first-time buyers a decade ago. So they have little equity to borrow against. Unfortunately, it is often lower cost older homes purchased by first-time buyers that need the most work.
Unless you have a cash reserve, you will have to shop around for the best borrowing terms. In addition to the options listed above, you can ask relatives for a loan. Borrow against your whole life insurance policy. Refinance your existing mortgage and take out cash. Get a second mortgage. Contact the government about home improvement programs. And – as a last resort – borrow from a finance agency, which generally charge high rates.




How does an unsecured loan work?


The interest rates on these loans are often higher than on secured loans and you generally will not be able to get a tax deduction for the interest paid. However, the costs to obtain an unsecured loan are usually lower. And the relative ease of getting this type of loan makes it popular for small projects costing $10,000 or less. The lender evaluates applications based on credit history and income.




How does refinancing work?


With a refinancing, you pay off an old loan on your home and take out a new one, usually at a lower mortgage interest rate. To refinance, you will generally need to have equity in your home, a good credit rating, and steady income. You can borrow a percentage of the equity to cover remodeling costs, debt consolidate, and college tuition.
When you refinance, you will incur all the closing costs that go along with getting a new mortgage. So unless you're doing extensive renovations and can get a mortgage interest rate at least two points below your current loan rate, you may want to select another financing option.




Is a home equity line of credit similar to a second mortgage?


A home equity loan, like a second mortgage, lets you tap up to about 80 percent of the appraised value of your home, minus your current mortgage balance. But because it is set up as a line of credit, you will not be charged interest until you actually make a withdrawal against the loan, although you will be responsible for paying closing costs.
The withdrawals can be made gradually as you begin to pay contractors and suppliers for handling your remodeling project.
The interest rates on these loans are usually variable. Of particular importance: make sure you understand the terms of the loan. If, for example, your loan requires that you pay interest only for the life of the loan, you will have to pay back the full amount borrowed at the end of the loan period or risk losing your home.




What about a second mortgage?


It is a loan against the equity in your home. Financial institutions will generally let you borrow up to 80 percent of the appraised value of your home, minus the balance on your original mortgage.
You may incur all the fees normally associated with a mortgage, including closing costs, title insurance and processing fees.





Refinancing

When is the best time to refinance?


Many people flock to refinance while mortgage interest rates are low, particularly when rates are two percentage points below their existing home loans.
Other factors, like when to finance, will depend on how long you plan to hold on to your home and whether you have to pay considerable fees to refinance. It also will depend on how far along you are in paying off your current mortgage.
If you expect to sell your home shortly, you are not likely to recoup the costs you incurred to refinance. And if you are more than halfway through paying your current mortgage, you probably will gain little by refinancing. However, if you are going to own your home for at least another five years, that is probably long enough to recoup any refinancing costs and realize real savings as a result of lowering your monthly payment.
In fact, if it costs you nothing to refinance, you can gain even more. Many lenders will let you roll the costs of the refinancing into the new note and still reduce the amount of the monthly payment. Plus, there are no-cost refinancing deals available.
Contact your lender, and its competitors, before you refinance.




Can I refinance a home loan more than once?


You most certainly can. During the most recent refinancing boom, for example, many homeowners refinanced their home loans two or three times within relatively short periods of time because interest rates kept treading downward, making it extremely attractive to trade in one loan for another.
Just remember that refinancing is basically like applying for a mortgage all over again. Each time you refinance, you will still have to go through the application process, get a home appraisal, and likely incur closing costs. Also, if you have a pre-payment penalty clause in your present mortgage, you will have to pay that penalty if you refinance. So be certain that it is actually worth it for you to refinance.





Maintenance

How much, on average, can I expect to spend on maintenance?


Expect to spend one percent of the purchase price of your home every year to handle a myriad of tasks, including painting, tree trimming, repairing gutters, caulking windows, and routine system repairs and maintenance.
An older home will usually require more maintenance, although a lot will depend on how well it has been maintained over the years.
Tell yourself that the upkeep of your home is mandatory, and budget accordingly. Otherwise, your home’s value will suffer if you allow it to fall into a state of disrepair. Remember, there is usually a direct link between a property’s condition and its market value: The better its condition, the more a buyer will likely pay for it down the road.
Also, adopt the attitude that the cost of good home maintenance is usually minor compared to what it will cost to remedy a situation that you allowed to get out of hand. For example, unclogging and sealing gutters may cost a few hundred dollars. But repairing damage to a corner of your home where gutters have leaked can potentially cost several thousands dollars.




Is it true you never really stop fixing up a home?


From the day you move in to the day you sell your home, there will always be something that will need to be repaired or remodeled. You may want to undertake some changes simply to elevate your comfort level – like installing central air conditioning – or spruce up the home’s aesthetics, such as adding a few stained-glass windows.
But other work will need to be done to maintain the property and minimize problems later on. For example, replacing a hazardous roof, fixing broken windows, and repairing leaky pipes. These are all necessities. Left undone, they can lead to major problems and damages within the home.
If you decide one day to sell, other improvements will likely be made to increase the home’s value and appeal to potential buyers.




Is there anything I should pay special attention to?


From the very beginning, get in the habit of taking an inventory at least once every year of every nook and cranny of your home to check for potential problems. Examine the roof, foundation, plumbing, electrical wiring – basically everything. Try to fix trouble spots as soon as you uncover them. This proactive approach will help you avoid larger expenses later on, so leave no stone unturned when taking your inventory.




What about the unseen problems like toxic gases?


Problems with your chimney, mechanical devices on your heating appliance, and pressure within the home can all cause combustion spillage, the unwanted flow of combustion gases into your home. Present in these gases are toxic elements such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides.
The best way to prevent spillage is to hire a professional – preferably one who specializes in building inspection, indoor air quality, ducting, chimneys and heating equipment – to do a yearly maintenance check of all your combustion appliances. These appliances include a gas-fired furnace, boiler, or water heater, an oil-fired furnace, boiler, or water heater, and a fireplace.
The service professional can check for heat exchanger leakage, evidence of start up spillage, and condensation in the chimney. Maintenance normally includes a tune-up, or in the case of a chimney, clearing it of debris and fixing cracks on the inside wall.





Renovating and Adding Value

What should I weigh before considering an addition to my home?


Thoroughly assess your space. You may find you have the room you need, particularly if there is unused or under utilized areas in your home. Perhaps a garage, attic, side porch, or basement can be converted to fit the use you have in mind. Or, maybe, a small area can be carved from a larger area like a kitchen or living room to create a powder room. These improvements are certainly cheaper than a major construction job.




What should I consider once I decide to add on?


If you must construct new space, ask yourself the following questions: Can I finance the home improvement with my own cash or will I need a loan? How much equity is in the property? A fair amount will make it that much easier to get a loan for home improvements. Is it feasible to expand the current space for an addition? What is permissible under local zoning and building laws? Despite your deep yearning for a new sunroom or garage, you will need to know if your town or city will allow such improvements. Should I make the improvement myself or hire a contractor?




What kind of return can I expect from home improvements?


Some improvements offer a greater return than others do. This will vary greatly depending on the type of work you have done. Remodeling magazine publishes an annual "Cost vs. Value Report'' that can answer this question in more detail, based on the top 15 home improvements. A recent study it conducted says the highest remodeling paybacks have come from siding and window replacements, major kitchen remodeling, bathroom and family room additions, and mid-range master bedroom suites.




Is there such a thing as “over improving?”


Yes. The last thing you want to do when undertaking a home improvement is go overboard. This means fixing up the home to the point where it becomes worth far more than nearby neighborhood properties.
Down the road, when you may want to sell, potential homebuyers will be reluctant to pay, say, $200,000 for your home when others are priced at $150,000. If they want to pay that kind of money, they will likely make a purchase in a neighborhood where most of the homes sell in that price range.
Carefully measure the cost of any improvements you want to make against the overall values in your neighborhood. Otherwise, you may not recover your costs or increase your property value significantly.





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