6 tips for upgrading home’s electrical system

With today’s greater energy demands, size of main panel is key

By Bill and Kevin Burnett
Inman News®

Q: Recently you advised a correspondent on upgrading the electrical system in an older house. You recommended that he upgrade to a 200-amp main electrical panel. What is this based on? Is 200 amps the new baseline standard for residential electrical service? How would you describe the typical electrical service standard for new or remodeled houses?

A: The National Electrical Code (NEC) governs the size of the electrical panel for new homes or remodeled homes. There are various versions of the NEC. Check with your local building department to see which version is followed in your area.

If you’re considering doing some electrical work on your home, please heed this word of caution. Electrical work is not for the novice do-it-yourselfer. While it’s certainly possible for an amateur to add an outlet or replace a light switch with a dimmer switch, doing much more probably means hiring a licensed electrician.

We’ve noted that Bill was the electrician and Kevin was the plumber when we built Kevin’s house and remodeled Bill’s. Both of us had pretty extensive experience before tackling these projects, and we studied up before moving forward. And, on all these jobs, permits were pulled and our work was signed off by building inspectors.

If you decide to tackle an electrical job, consult your local building department and get an electrical permit before starting work. Have the job inspected at the appropriate intervals dictated by the inspector.

Because modern homes us a number of energy-hungry appliances, a 200-amp panel is the minimum we’d suggest. This size panel will adequately serve an average home and give room for some upgrades.

The total amperage of the branch circuit breakers serving the house should not exceed the amperage of the panel.

The load needed to serve the electrical demands of the devices in the house dictates panel size. Modern appliances such as electric cooktops, ovens, clothes dryers and air conditioners, as well as mixers, hair dryers and so forth, can eat up panel space in a hurry.

Multiple lights and most outlets can be run on a single circuit. But devices such as microwave ovens, cooktops, ovens and clothes dryers require a dedicated circuit.

Here are a few rules of thumb when thinking about the electrical requirements in your house:

1. Wire size is counterintuitive. The larger the gauge number, the smaller the wire. Eighteen-gauge wire is smaller than 12-gauge wire. The larger the wire, the greater the load it can handle safely without getting hot or causing a fire.

2. Generally a 14-2 Romex cable will serve most outlets. This means two insulated 14-gauge wires and one bare wire encased in a rubber sheath. The black wire is the “hot” wire; the white wire is the neutral wire; and the bare wire is the ground wire. It’s suitable for loads up to 15 amps.

Vacuum cleaners and lamps operate just fine on this amperage. Most home plug circuits are wired with 14-2 Romex that supply up to eight outlets per circuit. Depending on the usage, a couple of fewer outlets per circuit might be in order.

3. Generally, outlets serving the kitchen and dining room should be 20-amp circuits wired with 12-2 Romex. This is because these circuits will likely take appliances that draw greater amperage.

4. Outlets and switches within a certain proximity to a sink or other water source must be protected by a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). A GFCI breaks the circuit even when a minute amount of water is present. This safety device prevents electric shock and in extreme cases prevents death. Plugs installed in basements, garages, outdoors and bathrooms also require GFCI protection.

5. Electric dryers require a 30-amp outlet protected by a 30-amp circuit breaker, while an electric oven mandates a 50-amp and 8-gauge wire protected by a 50-amp breaker.

6. It’s important to size circuit breakers for the wire size they serve. If a 14-2 cable is run from the panel to the outlet, then a 15-amp circuit breaker is the largest that can be used to protect that circuit. If a 12-2 cable is run from the panel to the outlet, then a-20 amp circuit breaker is the largest that can be installed to protect the circuit.

Back in the day when many houses used fuses it was not uncommon for unknowing homeowners to replace a 15-amp fuse that was constantly failing with a 20-amp fuse. This mistake created the risk of a wire overheating and causing a fire.

Programmable thermostat cuts energy costs

4 models to fit your lifestyle

By Paul Bianchina
Inman News®

What if I told you it would be possible to slip an extra $180 in your pocket this year — and every year after that — and have a more comfortable home at the same time? That should be worth a trip to the home center, right?

A savings of $180 a year is what the U.S. Department of Energy estimates the average homeowner can achieve by installing and maintaining the settings on a programmable thermostat. And the great thing is, once the settings are programmed in, you can forget about them, so your house stays more comfortable, day and night, all year long.

Programmable thermostats are simple to understand. They control your home’s heating and/or cooling systems by adjusting them to specific preset temperatures at specific preset times. No more fiddling with temperatures or forgetting to turn the heat down when you go to bed or leave for work. Just set it and forget it.

The four different modes

Programmable thermostats have four different time and temperature modes programmed in, and that’s what makes them so convenient and easy to use:

Wake: This mode is used to select the time that you normally get up in the morning, and what temperature you want the house to be at that time.

Day: If you leave for work at a specific time, this setting will lower the heat down to a specific temperature and hold it there while you’re away. For air conditioning, it will raise the temperature setting and hold it there.

Evening: This setting is for when you return from work in the evening, and the thermostat will bring the temperature in the house back up to a comfortable level (or, in the case of air conditioning, down) before you get home.

Sleep: Set this time for when you normally go to bed. The thermostat will set the temperature down (or up for AC) to whatever level you set and hold it there until the Wake cycle kicks in again the following morning.

In addition to these four basic modes, there are overrides as well. You can tell the thermostat to temporarily override the program and raise or lower the heat or the air conditioning until the next cycle starts, for those times when you’re home and you want it a little warmer or cooler. There’s also a “hold temperature” mode for use when you’re on vacation, so you can set a higher- or lower-than-normal temperature while you’re gone and the thermostat will hold that indefinitely, regardless of the four different cycles.

Four different models fit your lifestyle

There are four basic types of programmable thermostats available, depending on the needs of your particular lifestyle:

7-day: The 7-day model allows you to program the four modes individually for each day of the week, and often with different settings within each of the modes. These models allow you the most flexibility, and are the best choice if you work odd hours, multiple shifts, have children at home at different hours, or otherwise keep a schedule that’s not really consistent. As you might imagine, 7-day thermostats are the most complicated to program initially, and are typically the most expensive of the four types of thermostats.

5-1-1-day: A 5-1-1 thermostat is for people who keep a pretty consistent schedule during the week, but want some flexibility on the weekends. The thermostat can be set up for five days all the same, typically Monday through Friday, and then Saturday and Sunday can each be set up with individual programs.

5-2-day: These thermostats provide for one set of program settings for the five weekdays, and a second set of program settings for the weekend.

1-week: These thermostats are the least flexible, so consequently they’re the easiest to program and typically the least expensive to purchase. They have all four modes, but utilize the same time and temperature settings for all seven days of the week. They’re a great choice if you’re retired, or for anyone who’s home most of the time.

Cost and installation

Programmable thermostats are available in both low-voltage and line-voltage models, and range in price from around $35 to more than $300. In addition to the features described above, there are other bells and whistles, including wireless operation, exterior temperature connections, dirty-filter warnings, low-battery warnings, and more.

Many of these thermostats are designed for do-it-yourself installation, with clear instructions and only basic tool requirements. Most require that you simply remove wires from the existing thermostat and reconnect them to the new thermostat. However, some of the more sophisticated thermostats can have multiple wire connections and complicated settings, and require professional installation. If you have any questions or concerns, discuss them with the dealer where you purchase the thermostat or with a licensed HVAC contractor prior to beginning the installation.

Remodeling and repair questions? Email Paul at paulbianchina@inman.com. All product reviews are based on the author’s actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.

Sellers: Don’t overdo it on home improvements

Know which projects are worth the cost, effort

By Dian Hymer
Inman News®

Homeowners who are thinking about selling this year should be aware of what today’s buyers are looking for in a home. It will affect what you should do to get your home ready for sale, and how you should price it.

A survey by the National Association of REALTORS® in 2011 found that buyers favor walkable neighborhoods that are close to shops, restaurants and local businesses over neighborhoods that require more driving between home, work and recreation.

According to the survey, 77 percent of the respondents said they would look for pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Improvement in public transportation was favored over building new roads.

Most buyers (80 percent) still prefer to live in a single-family, detached home as long as it doesn’t require a longer commute. Although space is important to most buyers, 59 percent said they would accept a smaller home if it cut 20 minutes off the commute time.

Does this mean your chances of selling are slim if you don’t have a high Walk Score? No, but proximity to a popular commercial area usually brings a higher price.

In Oakland, Calif., this is evident if you compare homes in the Rockridge area with homes in the Oakland Hills. The housing recession has hit the entire area, but Rockridge prices have dropped less than home prices in the Oakland Hills.

One Rockridge home recently sold for $20,000 more than it did in 2005, and the house had not been substantially changed. From this location you can walk to trendy shops and cafes as well as to BART, the region’s rapid transit system. By rail, it’s a mere 20 minutes to the financial district in San Francisco.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Proper pricing is the key factor affecting the salability of your home in today’s market. Make sure you’re comparing apple to apples when you evaluate the probable selling price of your home.

The home-sale business is all about location. If you live in a neighborhood where you have to drive to get to work, school or recreation, you can’t expect to sell for the same price as a comparable home that’s in a desirable, walkable location.

You can’t change the location of your home, but you can appeal to today’s buyers who are typically looking for a home that is in good condition that they can move right into without doing any major work.

A common refrain heard from sellers is that there’s no point in painting or changing worn carpet — buyers will surely want to do something different. In some cases, this may be so, but many buyers don’t have extra cash to pay for extensive home improvements. They may ultimately change the color scheme, but don’t make them worry about making the house livable when they buy.

It’s a good idea to consult with your real estate agent before you make fix-up improvements. Review your list of preparation-for-sale projects and get your agent’s feedback before starting any work.

Sometimes, sellers think projects need to be done that are really not essential in successfully marketing the home. For instance, your yard may be in poor condition, but this doesn’t mean that you should have it re-landscaped. This is the kind of improvement you’d do for yourself if you were planning to stay in the house for years. A cosmetic redo will usually suffice.

Get your agent’s or stager’s input on colors, light fixtures, carpeting, etc., so that you can ensure a positive response to your efforts. Also, watch your costs. You don’t need to do a top-of-the-line paint job or use the most expensive granite for your countertops in order to sell. In fact, it will eat into your proceeds from the sale.

THE CLOSING: Stick to cost-effective, tasteful improvements for maximum appeal at a reasonable cost.

Dian Hymer, a real estate broker with more than 30 years’ experience, is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author of “House Hunting: The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers” and “Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide.”

Which Home Improvement Projects Offer the Best Returns?

Daily Real Estate News | Friday, December 16, 2011

When it comes to remodeling, exterior replacement projects have routinely rewarded home owners with more bang for their buck. This year is no different: REALTORS® recently rated many exterior improvements as among the most valuable home investment projects as part of the 2011-12 Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report.

“This year’s Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report shows the value of putting your home’s best façade forward, so to speak,” said National Association of REALTORS® President Moe Veissi. “Inexpensive exterior replacement projects are not only crucial to a home’s regular upkeep, but are also expected to recoup close to 70 percent of costs. Specific exterior projects such as siding, window and door replacements are part of regular home maintenance, so many homeowners are already undertaking them. These projects also do not require expensive materials and they have the added bonus of instantly adding curb appeal.”

HouseLogic.com, NAR’s consumer Web site, includes dozens of remodeling projects, from kitchens and baths to siding replacements, which indicate the recouped value of the project based on a national average. According to the Cost vs. Value, seven of the top 10 most cost-effective projects nationally in terms of value recouped are exterior replacement projects. REALTORS® judged an upscale fiber-cement siding replacement as the project expected to return the most money, with an estimated 78 percent of costs recouped upon resale.

Two additional siding replacement projects were in the top 10, including foam-backed vinyl siding, expected to return 69.6 percent of costs, and upscale vinyl siding, expected to recoup 69.5 percent of costs. Three door replacements were also among the top exterior replacement projects. The steel entry door replacement is the least expensive project in the report, costing little more than $1,200 on average and expected to recoup 73 percent of costs.

The upscale garage door replacement jumped seven spots to number six this year, primarily due to the average cost of the project declining more than 15 percent nationally. The upscale and midrange garage door replacement projects are expected to return more than 71 percent of costs. One window replacement project — upscale vinyl — rounded out the last exterior replacement project in the top 10, expected to recoup 69.1 percent of costs.

The 2011-12 Remodeling Cost vs. Value Report compares construction costs with resale values for 35 midrange and upscale remodeling projects comprising additions, remodels, and replacements in 80 markets across the country. Data are grouped in nine U.S. regions, following the divisions established by the U.S. Census Bureau. This is the 14th consecutive year that the report, which is produced by Remodeling magazine publisher Hanley Wood LLC, was completed in cooperation with NAR.

Source: NAR

 

5 tips to stay on top of home maintenance

Where to find reliable contractors

By Dian Hymer
Inman News®

You’re not alone if your roof is leaking and you’re kicking yourself for not having called a roofer during the summer months. Most people have a limited concept of preventative maintenance. This can lead to big problems that end up being more expensive than if you had routine maintenance in place.

Many buyers don’t understand that home maintenance goes with homeownership. When you rent, someone else usually pays for repairs. As a homeowner, you’re responsible for keeping your home in good condition.

Unless you’re handy at home repairs, it can be costly to maintain a home properly. But there is a benefit at the end of the line. Buyers pay more for homes that are well-maintained and show a pride of ownership.

It can be a hassle to properly maintain your home unless you organize and prioritize the projects that need to be done. You also need to set a schedule and stick to it.

Most home maintenance can be done annually: roof maintenance (including gutters and downspouts); sealing exterior cracks; weatherproofing; a furnace and air conditioning inspection; and inspecting and cleaning the drainage system.

Mark these events on your calendar so that they can be scheduled for about a month before you’d like to have the work done. If you wait until just before the rainy season to start your annual maintenance, you could have trouble finding good contractors to help you.

Don’t wait until your roof is leaking to repair or replace it. There will be collateral damage to the interior of the house. Your homeowners insurance company might pay to repair the interior damage, less the amount of your deductible, but it won’t pay to replace the roof. Too many claims could be grounds for not renewing your policy.

HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Assemble a crew of contractors and tradespeople who can help you with your home maintenance. It’s not always easy to find reliable people who do good work. You’ll end up frustrated and having to do more oversight if you work with people who don’t show up or do the job right.

Ask your real estate agent or acquaintances who own homes in the area to recommend tradespeople to you. If the seller is happy with people who have worked on the property, ask for a list of names and contact information when you close the sale.

Homeowners who haven’t the time or expertise to determine what needs to be done to keep their home in good shape could ask the home inspector that inspected the house for them to do a reinspection periodically to point out areas that need attention.

One of the keys to good home maintenance is to take care of critical items as soon as they become apparent. For instance, don’t postpone repairing a plumbing pipe leak. Have it repaired as soon as you notice it.

Don’t assume that because your house is new that you won’t have any maintenance issues. If the gutters back up on any house, even a new house, water can leak into the house or down the inside of the walls. This, left unchecked, can lead to a major repair to the framing. If repaired right away, you may just need to seal and touch up the paint.

Likewise, even though you just had the exterior painted, you still may have areas that will need touch up every year or so, especially if they receive intense sun exposure.

THE CLOSING: Don’t go for the cheapest contractor or building materials just to save money. If an inferior-quality job has to be redone sooner than anticipated, your savings will dwindle.

Dian Hymer, a real estate broker with more than 30 years’ experience, is a nationally syndicated real estate columnist and author of “House Hunting: The Take-Along Workbook for Home Buyers” and “Starting Out, The Complete Home Buyer’s Guide.”

9 ways to keep lid on energy bills

Air leaks can infiltrate surprising places

By Paul Bianchina
Inman News™

No one likes wasting money, especially in these tough economic times. So it certainly makes sense — dollars and cents — to make a small investment of time and supplies to close up those heat-wasting air leaks around your home. It’ll pay back big dividends in reduced energy bills and a warmer, more comfortable house this winter. So let’s look at some of the areas where those drafts may be lurking, and see how to take care of them.

1. Doors and windows: This should be an obvious one. If you can see gaps between your siding and your windows or exterior doors, close them up with a bead of clear or paintable acrylic latex caulk. Larger gaps can be filled with foam backer rod before applying the caulking.

2. Exterior penetrations: Some of these areas are going to be obvious, while some may take a little bit of searching. Some examples of exterior penetrations where air can leak into the house include exterior faucets, dryer vents, exterior electrical outlets, exterior light fixtures, holes that have been drilled for phone and TV cables, conduit penetrations, exit points for plumbing drains, and penetrations for air conditioning lines. Closing these penetrations may require a variety of different techniques, including caulk, expanding spray foam, or, in the case of electrical boxes and fixtures, specific gaskets that are designed to fit the boxes.

3. Exhaust-vent covers: Dryer vents, range hood vents, bath fan vents, and other interior ventilation equipment typically terminate outside the house in a plastic or metal cover that has one or more louvers on it. The louvers are designed to be in the closed position whenever the fan is not in use, so that outside air doesn’t leak in. Check all of these louvers to be sure they’re closing completely, with no air leaks. If they aren’t, you can adjust the spring tension to hold them closed more tightly; add foam weatherstripping tape for a more air-tight seal; or replace the entire vent cap with a new one.

4. Gaps around interior vents and recessed lights: Inside your home, heated air can be leaking out around that same ventilation equipment, where vent pipes pass through the walls or ceiling, or where vent covers meet wall and ceiling surfaces. Recessed light fixtures can also be real air-leakers. Around the vent pipes and recessed light cans, seal any gaps with caulking. For the vent covers and recessed light covers, remove the covers, then adjust the springs and/or add foam weatherstripping tape to create a tight seal between the cover and the ceiling.

5. Heat-duct penetrations: Gaps around heating-duct cans where they pass through the floor or wall allow cold air to enter from the crawl space, while gaps around ceiling-duct cans allow heated air to escape into the attic. To close those drafts, first remove the register, then use a combination of caulking and/or metallic duct sealant tape to close any gaps between the sheet metal cans and the floor, wall or ceiling surface.

6. Fireplaces and woodstoves: Lots of gaps can occur around these appliances. With a conventional fireplace, keep the damper closed except when burning a fire to prevent heated air from escaping up the chimney. Consider investing in a set of air-tight doors, which close off the air leaks and also make your fires more efficient. Look for gaps around woodstove and gas fireplace flue pipes, and air leaks around masonry chimneys. Use a metal collar if necessary around flue pipe penetrations, and seal gaps with heat-resistant sealant specially formulated for this application.

7. Attic and crawl space hatches: These can be real air losers if they’re not weatherstripped, so take care of that with some foam tape. Make sure the hatches are insulated as well.

8. Interior doors to unheated spaces: If you have any interior doors that lead to unheated spaces, including basements, garages or attics, be sure the doors are weatherstripped to prevent air leakage. If possible, replace older, hollow-core doors with solid-core or, better yet, insulated metal doors.

9. Sill plates and penetrations: This one’s not as easy to deal with, but it’s well worth the effort to try to do whatever you can with it. Air can leak both into and out of the house through gaps where the sill plate meets the foundation or the siding, and around plumbing and wiring penetrations drilled through wall plates in various areas. If you have a gap between your siding and the bottom of your exterior wall, especially in older homes where the use of sill sealers was not a common practice, consider closing up this big air gap with a bead of caulking or expanding foam. In the basement, crawl space and attic, if you can access any of the pipes and wires that pass through the wall plates, seal the penetrations with expanding foam.

Remodeling and repair questions? Email Paul at paulbianchina@inman.com. All product reviews are based on the author’s actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.