Warning: include(/home/auxblood/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/wp-cache-base.php) [function.include]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/mikeindustries/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/wp-cache.php on line 65

Warning: include() [function.include]: Failed opening '/home/auxblood/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/wp-cache-base.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/usr/local/lib/php:/usr/local/php5/lib/pear') in /home/mikeindustries/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/wp-cache.php on line 65

Warning: include_once(/home/auxblood/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/ossdl-cdn.php) [function.include-once]: failed to open stream: No such file or directory in /home/mikeindustries/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/wp-cache.php on line 82

Warning: include_once() [function.include]: Failed opening '/home/auxblood/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/ossdl-cdn.php' for inclusion (include_path='.:/usr/local/lib/php:/usr/local/php5/lib/pear') in /home/mikeindustries/ahousebythepark.com/journal/wp-content/plugins/wp-super-cache/wp-cache.php on line 82
Consumerism | A House By The Park
Archive for the ‘Consumerism’ Category

New House, New Junk Mail: How to Opt Out

Within a few weeks of buying a new house, you should start receiving mountains and mountains of new junk mail thanks to the fact that you’re now considered “fresh meat” to a lot of marketing and mortgage companies. There appears to be good news and bad news about getting off of these mailing lists.

The good news is that you can opt out of most of them by spending two minutes filling out a couple of quick forms on only two sites. The bad news is that mortgage offers, specifically, seem to be immune to the opt-out lists. The reason is that when you take out a mortgage, your mortgage information is part of the public record, and solicitors routinely cull these records in order to generate leads for their mortgage refinance businesses. On the bright side, quantity of mortgage junk mail seems to start out high and then taper off as your loan becomes less and less fresh.

You might as well do what you can though by opting out of both direct marketing mail and also pre-screened credit solicitations:

DMAChoice.org gets you out of the former, and OptOutPrescreen.com gets you out of the latter.

Picking Appliances is as Difficult as Manufacturers Choose to Make It

While the house plans are in for approval, I’ve been checking out appliances — both online and in-person — looking for the right dishwasher, fridge, washer, dryer, and oven/range.

The quality gap between appliance websites is simply astounding to me. It’s 2009… you’d think everyone would know how to do a “help me select my appliance” feature by now. The worst I found was ironically the company whose brand I had already decided on: Bosch. Bosch makes TWENTY models of dishwashers and the process of distinguishing between all of them is maddening. None of the features are explained in a convenient manner, none of the sub-brands are clearly differentiated, and worst of all their “product comparison tool” only lets you select three models at a time. To compare each model against every other would require 1140 different combination trials. Go ahead, try it… it’s embarrassingly bad.

On the other side of the spectrum is Samsung. Ironic as well, since their cell phone interfaces are so second rate. Where Bosch fails in leading me towards a happy, confident purchase, Samsung excels. Samsung’s washer selector lets me pick features one by one and removes models that don’t fit the criteria on the fly. It also has some nice Flash demos demonstrating some of the features that might need explaining. By the time I was done checking off features, I was down to one model. That is how it’s done, BOSCH!

I haven’t made any final decisions yet, but here’s what I’m leaning towards (if you have experience with any of these brands or others, please let me know in the comments):

Dishwasher: Bosch

Despite the awful website, Bosch seems to have a great reputation with regard to dishwashers. Multiple people, including Build, have recommended them personally to me so I am loath to go against that sort of word-of-mouth claqueury. It’s the one appliance that a lot of people seem to agree on: Bosch makes the best dishwashers. That said, thanks to their website, I have no idea which model to choose. My only requirements are integrated cabinet face and the adjustable upper rack option. Depending on the model, it should cost anywhere from $800 to $1600.

Refrigerator: GE Profile

There are tons of good refrigerators out there, but so far I’ve only found one that has the top two features I’m looking for: French doors with the freezer on the bottom and an external water/ice dispenser. French doors seem to be in these days, but external water/ice dispensers are harder and harder to find. Many models just do the water-only dispenser on the inside now apparently. Boooooooooo. External seems a lot more convenient.

The GE PFSS6PKXSS seems to fit the bill perfectly and has dope LED lights on the inside as well, which is just awesome. It’s $2699 retail, but since I work at msnbc.com, my GE employee discount should knock a good portion off of that. Not bad considering some of the other fridges I looked at were twice that amount.

Washer/Dryer: Samsung

I didn’t even know Samsung made washers or dryers. They do and they are awesome, according to Consumer Reports and other sources. Among the more novel features is something called “SilverCare” which embeds microscopic silver particles in your clothing to keep the stank away. Watch this video for the entertaining details of how Consumer Reports performed the test.

The kicker, however, is something called VRT. It’s a technology that Samsung pioneered which dramatically reduces the vibration of and noise of the washer and dryer during spin cycles. According to everyone who has tried it, it’s a no-brainer if your washer/dryer is not on a concrete floor. Since we’re putting ours upstairs right next to the master bedroom, this seems like a slam dunk.

The other set that looked awesome is the Electrolux. Honestly, they look even better than the Samsungs but I couldn’t find a single review online and Consumer Reports hasn’t tested them yet. They are priced similarly as the Samsung set (about $1500 per piece), so at that price, I feel much better buying something that’s been thoroughly tested and reviewed.

Oven/Range: Probably GE Monogram or Wolf

This is the appliance I’m least sure about right now. I do know I’ll be getting a dual-fuel 36-inch wide unit, but no one model has stood out yet. The Wolfs are nice, but $8500 for a range seems ridiculous, considering how often I failover to the microwave. Currently, I’m leaning towards the 36 inch GE Monogram Dual Fuel Oven/Range with 4 burners and a griddle. It’s more like $5500 and hopefully the discount will knock a substantial amount off of that as well.

So that’s where I’m at on appliances so far. If anyone has any advice or positive/negative reviews for certain brands or models, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!

UPDATE (8/8/2010): I just published this new post describing the final appliance package.

To G.C. or not to G.C.

As design stage neared completion, it was time to turn my attention toward the construction stage of the project. My architects at Build LLC specialize in what is called “Design/Build”, which is exactly as it sounds: designing the house and then building the house. Design/Build proponents will tell you this is the most efficient and cost-effective way to build a new house because it centers all responsibility in one place and eliminates many arguments, inefficiencies, and other overhead associated with using a separate traditional architect and general contractor. Both traditional architects and general contractors, however, will tell you that this back-and-forth between architects and contractors is what gets you the best quality house possible. Their argument is that the architect keeps the G.C. honest and the G.C. keeps the architect honest… all on your behalf. For instance, if an architect specifies a certain material and the G.C. tries to sub in something inferior, the architect will point it out and make sure it is remedied. Conversely, if an architect specs a material that is 5x as expensive as something just as good, the G.C. will alert you to this and ask if you’d like to use the more cost-effective stuff.

Both arguments make sense to me and I’m sure there is merit to each. Addtionally, I can see either situation working out very well or very poorly. A great Design/Build firm will provide a great all-around experience without the need for checks and balances whereas a crappy one will deliver you a poorly designed poorly constructed house. Conversely, a good architect/G.C. combo will give you a great finished product with minimal friction, but if either the architect or G.C. is a weak link, the entire project can turn out poorly.

One thing that doesn’t seem debatable, however, is price. The Design/Build process would seem to produce a less expensive experience in most cases, but as my attorney pointed out to me, it also involves more risk. The reason for this is that in a typical Design/Build arrangement, you never sign a G.C. contract at all. Instead, you sign what is called a C.M. (construction management) contract. This type of contract essentially just specifies the fee you’ll be paying your construction manager and the fact that they will be “advising” you throughout the process. Now… “advising” includes a lot of the things a G.C. would do like coordinating subcontractors, getting bids, supervising the site, etc but the two key things it doesn’t provide are blanket liability for the project or cost guarantees.

Liability

In a G.C. contract, if something bad happens during construction, the G.C. is ultimately responsible for it. If it’s a problem caused by a subcontractor (more common than not), the G.C. will attempt to assign blame and remediation to that subcontractor, but in the event it cannot be assigned for some reason, the G.C. assumes it. This is a valuable service, in my opinion. It’s nice to know that no matter what happens on site, you’ll never even have to hear about it.

In a C.M. contract, the construction manager will also attempt to assign blame and remediation to subcontractors when appropriate, but if that fails, it’s on you, the client. One of the reasons it’s cheaper to use a C.M. than a G.C. is that the liability insurance isn’t there, but the downside is more risk for you so you need to get cool with that if you’re going the C.M. route.

Cost Guarantees

There are three ways a G.C. can bid your project: Fixed bid, cost plus, and cost plus with gmax. Fixed bid is just as it sounds: a G.C. tells you he or she will build your house for X dollars and that is exactly the amount you pay. If it’s tougher to build than expected, the G.C.’s margins suffer and if it’s easier, their margins increase. A cost plus contract basically says you will pay whatever the house ends up costing to build, in time and materials, plus a fixed fee to your G.C. (either a flat fee or a percentage of the cost of construction). A cost plus with gmax is the same as a cost plus except the G.C. gives you a maximum amount you will be on the hook for no matter what happens.

While the certainty of a fixed bid contract seems nice, I have two problems with it. Firstly, since the G.C. needs to make sure the project is profitable for them, they are highly incented to pad the number, almost guaranteeing you are paying more than you should, unless things go terribly wrong… at which point they eat it and aren’t going to be happy anyway. Secondly, change orders inevitably come up and I imagine this can cause arguments between clients and G.C.s as to whether or not the fixed bid should be affected by the change.

The cost plus method seems the riskiest but also has the potential to save you a lot of money if things go well. The cost plus with gmax improves this option by at least giving you a ceiling you know you’ll never go over. Although again, fighting over changes can surely result in disputes here.

My situation

Anyway, my attorney advised me to look into going the G.C. route because he feels more comfortable with the liability protection they provide. Although I had planned on using Build for both designing and building, I agreed with my attorney’s concerns and met with a couple of reputable G.C.s in Seattle to see what they could do for me.

It is important to note that I did not talk to any one-man shops or otherwise unestablished firms. I’m sure I could have gotten plenty of low-ball, unrealistic bids if I did. Instead, I picked one G.C. based on what I knew about their reputation and another G.C. based on some great work I had seen from them. My experience speaking with each firm was different.

When I called the first firm and inquired about them building my house, I ended up spending an hour or so on the phone with one of the principals and we got along great. He was a very knowledgeable guy and explained to me in great detail the benefits of going the G.C. route and what his firm offered. By the end of the phone call, I told him I’d love an estimate at which point he asked me to send the plans over. I emailed the plans over a day or so later and his response surprised me a little. He essentially said that the plans were “so complete” that it would actually make the project harder to estimate. I guess Build does such a thorough job spec’ing everything out that it requires more of a G.C.’s time to examine than if it were just a sketch. Given this, he asked me if a quick ballpark bid would suffice for now and if the fit felt right, they would do a deep dive. Absolutely I said, not wanting to waste anyone’s time. Two full weeks later, I got a bid from them and it was shocking. They submitted a “low end” (best case) number and a “high end” (worst case) number.

The low-end number was 86% higher for the total project cost than Build’s! And the high-end number was 155% higher!

I’m not just saying their fee was higher. The entire project, if contracted through them, would cost between 86% and 155% more. I’m not sure any amount of liability protection is worth that. It’s simply an obscene amount of money. So what accounted for all of the extra costs? A lot of stuff, including a higher fee and a bucket called “General Conditions” that essentially includes a construction management fee on top of the standard G.C. fee. This G.C. pitches their “fee” as being 12%, but it’s really a bullshit number. If you add in the fee they charge for their project manager and superintendent, it’s more like 20%. This is fairly standard practice, so I’m not implying any dishonesty here. I’m just saying, when you’re pricing a project, you need to really dig into the numbers and find out what you’re paying for. As a point of comparison, Build’s proposed C.M. fee would be a flat charge and it would amount to approximately 11% of the cost of construction, pre-tax, pre-contingency.

With this sort of cost differential, there is no way I could ever justify using this G.C. With no hard feelings of course, I sent an email to the principal informing them how much higher their bid was and that as a result, I could not justify a relationship with them. That’s when things started to get a little weird. The principal asked me to keep their bid confidential, and I told him that I planned on talking about the bid on my blog but that of course I wasn’t planning on mentioning his firm’s name because I’m not trying to make anyone look bad. I thought that would be the end of the discussion but he then felt the need to clarify that he wasn’t afraid of looking bad but rather that he doesn’t want his competitors learning about the way his firm bids and that “ethically” he would never ask for information on his competitors either.

What?

I asked him what could possibly be unethical about inquiring about your competitors and why was he so concerned with obscuring his business practices? I told him that one of the things that attracted me to Build in the first place was their transparency, honesty, and desire to remove the mystery from the profession. He told me his was decidedly unimpressed with that and wished me good luck on my project. Very strange… and very much NOT a good fit for me, obviously.

The second G.C. firm I met with was a smaller shop (about 40 people) whose work had impressed me and seemed to build a lot of great modern homes in the Seattle area. The firm is Dyna Contracting and I’m mentioning their name because they’re just as open about their practices as Build and they said they didn’t mind being mentioned even though I didn’t end up moving forward with them. In other words, they are my type of guys.

My initial meeting with Dyna went great and when I walked out — without even seeing an estimate yet — I knew this was a firm I would be happy to work with. They are into modern architecture, their overhead is smaller than some of the bigger firms, and they strike me as the type of people that are more interested in working on cool projects and providing value than capturing every potential dollar that could hit the top line. They also seem like great “value engineers”, meaning they are vigilant about looking for cost savings wherever possible in order to reduce your projects costs and thus make you a happier client.

While the first G.C. firm took two full weeks to get me a rough estimate that went into no detail, Dyna produced a detailed breakdown of every single cost anticipated in the project, right down to the door hardware and cabinet pulls. There were pages and pages of details about everything, including an entire section on “qualifications” spelling out things like “existing downspout locations assumed to be adequate”. Like the first G.C., they commented on the completeness of Build’s drawings and even said they were among the most complete they’d ever seen. Go Andrew!

What Dyna produced exceeded my expectations as far as completeness goes, and it took them only a few days to turn around. Amazing.

At the end of the day, however, it’s the bottom line that matters most, and I had to stack Dyna’s numbers up against Build’s. Dyna came in a very respectable and reasonable 16% higher, while of course being much lower than the other G.C. Most of the additional cost was in a higher fee and once again a higher “General Conditions” bucket that included a separate project management fee. Again, this appears typical in the industry so it’s not a big deal, but you just have to add it to the equation.

The decision

At the end of the day, my decision came down to whether or not liability protection was worth an extra 16% to me. Since neither Build’s nor Dyna’s estimates were fixed cost, I risked going over on either number, but I assigned a high honesty score to each, so I assumed an equal chance of overage with either route. This point should not be underestimated. An estimate is just an estimate and if you don’t trust the estimator, the estimate isn’t worth much. Through my many months of working with Build, they’ve done nothing but increase my trust in them and when I called their references to ask how well they stay on budget, they got glowing reviews. Although I hadn’t had any experience working with Dyna yet, they just felt very honest to me (and I tested them a bit) and I’m sure if I called their past clients, that hunch would be validated as well.

In the end, my decision was to stick with Build, mainly because they have given me no reason not to. I realize not hiring a traditional G.C. is a bit of a leap of faith, but the past several months have given me the faith I need to take that leap, and hopefully save some moey in the process. I am convinced that the Design/Build process Build goes through indeed saves money and produces great results. I accept that if my project goes off the rails in a way their projects never have in the past, I am a bit more exposed than I would be under a normal G.C. relationship, but at the same time, I’ve heard of plenty traditional architect/G.C. relationships that get out of hand as well.

In the end, you need to trust the people who have given you reason to trust them, and Build has given me that in spades over the last year. That said, if you’re looking for a great G.C. in the Seattle area, I would start your quest with Dyna… and of course if you’re looking for a Design/Build firm to design, build, or remodel something, you know how I feel about Build.

Endnotes

  1. Wow, 2400 words. That was a long post.
  2. We may end up using Dyna as a vendor for some major elements of the project, including plumbing, electrical, and other things.
  3. Big ups to both G.C. firms for not low-balling and not responding to my declining of their services by lowering their own bids to unrealistic levels.
  4. My sample size of G.C.s was very small. I do not mean this as any sort of referendum on G.C.s as a whole, although as mentioned above, I do believe that the Design/Build process — although requiring more risk — generally results in lower costs in the end. We’ll see if this proves true. This is just the sort of thing this blog is for!

The Last Thing you Need is Another Credit Card, but…

Although I can’t put the entire house on a credit card, I can pay for a lot of its elements with one… like deconstruction, printing fees, legal fees, and plenty of other items. Because of this, it made sense to use the most lucrative credit card possible. My friend Calvin alerted me a couple of weeks ago to a new card by Schwab that gives you 2% cashback on every single purchase. Not bad at all, and much better than the tons of 1% cards and airline mile cards out there.

Furthermore, Schwab just deposits the 2% into your brokerage or bank account automatically at the end of each month. No more messing with rewards, redemptions, and other roadblocks designed to get between you and your refunds.

2% may not seem like a lot, but it adds up. I’d rather spend that 2% on upgrades than just have it disappear into the ether.

Timing and tax assessments

I just got my property tax assessment card in the mail, and wow, what fortunate timing: my house was valued at zero dollars, and will remain so for a couple of years. It turns out King County does its annual reassessments based on the value of your house/land as of July 31st. July 31st also happened to fall in the two week window where the old house was gone and the new house framing hadn’t been erected yet. If I had deconstructed a week or two later, or even a week or two earlier, my tax bill would have been quite a bit higher.

So, the lesson of this blog post is: if you’re building a new house, find out when your taxing authority resets property values and try to plan around it if you can.

Also, I’ve added some pictures of the ongoing HVAC, plumbing, and electrical rough-in to the photo gallery section.

Choosing a deck surface

So far, none of my house-building research has yielded more negative information than deck construction. Everyone seems to hate their deck. People who have wood decks complain about having to stain them every year or two, and people who have composite decks complain about the material not being maintenance-free at all.

I’ve researched no fewer than 10 brands of composite decks and also looked into ipe and cedar, and there just doesn’t seem to be a clear winning option. It’s all about tradeoffs. The one thing I’ve decided I definitely don’t want, however, is a faded (“silvered”) deck. Some people like the weathered look. I don’t. Therefore, ipe is unfortunately eliminated. It’s a shame too because ipe is generally regarded as the most durable wood one can buy. Unfortunately, however, ipe is so dense that it doesn’t take stains or protectants very well, so it is recommended you just leave it alone and let it fade to its natural patina. No thanks. I’ve heard of people using a product called Penofin to keep Ipe brown, but treatment must be frequent and results seem to vary.

Cedar is the other wood to consider, and while I think it would provide the best looking deck out of any of the options, it would require the greatest amount of maintenance, and I’m not sure I want to sign up for that.

From there, we get into the composites. Trex is the best known name in composite decking, but it’s also the company that receives the most negative reviews and has been successfully sued for misrepresenting the quality of its product (actually, they settled out of court, but whatever). After Trex, there are a slew of companies selling their own variation of a composite deck, each one made with slightly different materials and esthetics in mind.

This is allegedly what a Trex deck looks like. In reality, it is significantly less impressive.

I found it next to impossible to find objective, scientific studies comparing deck materials, but it turns out Consumer Reports did a reasonable study on the subject recently. By the way, if you’re building a house, buying an online subscription to Consumer Reports should be one of your first expenditures. The study took many different brands and exposed them to sun, wind, and rain over the course of several years. The results varied wildly, with some decks holding up admirably and others literally disintegrating to pieces. The material which came out on top is called Symmatrix by Dow Chemical. To my surprise, however, I found out the product has been discontinued, despite its great rating. Unbelievable… and a bit suspicious, to be honest. Why would a seemingly great product be abandoned by its producer? If anyone knows, please post in the comments.

The only other brand that scored nearly as well in all of the areas important to me was something called Timbertech. It’s especially good at mildew resistance, and that’s key. Unfortunately, Kevin at Build brought me a sample of it today (along with some Trex), and it has a fake grain texture to it that seems a bit chintzy. I may look at some more samples, but this particular one didn’t look great.

Here is the concerning part though: do a Google search for Timbertech, Trex, or any other brand of composite decking and you’ll see loads and loads of very detailed complaints. The ratio of haters to lovers seems troublingly high. It’s enough to make you want to ditch the idea of planks altogether and go with concrete pavers or something.

I’m not sure where I’ll end up yet, but I’d say so far, I’m favoring Trex, then Timbertech, and then cedar. Would love some first-hand opinions from anyone who has their own deck, so if you have one (a deck or an opinion), please feel free to post your thoughts below.

Incidentally, the best article and discussion I found on the subject was from Fine Homebuilding Magazine.

Interior carpentry continues

This is probably the least interesting entry of the blog so far, but interior carpentry work has been going on for the last couple of months and I needed an entry to capture the costs associated with it. Build along with PJJ Construction have been doing most of the work and it includes such things as fabricating bamboo stair treads, cutting and installing baseboards, chopping back wall portions, and a thousand other things that need elbow grease around the site. I’ll probably do one more of these housekeeping entries before the house is complete (about 6 weeks!), but I’m trying to keep my accounting of cash outflows reasonably accurate, and hence, I’m posting this now.