Bang On: President's Column

Know what you are paying for

  • Written by Sue Wastell

It’s always important to know what you’re buying. When you buy something at a store, you get the hands-on experience of seeing its size and how it looks, feels and works. You leave the store knowing what you’ve bought. 

When you agree to pay for renovation work, though, it’s up to you, your architect and your contractor to agree on what will be built. This can be difficult, because the “product” you’re talking about is something that’s never been built and doesn’t even exist yet except in everyone’s minds — and in documents. 

And it’s the latter that will make all the difference in understanding what you’re paying for. Typically, when you contract for residential construction work, the documents for plans, scope of work and specifications can help define the work to be done so that you can be sure what the finished project will look like and include. Understanding these documents will help you feel confident that you know what you’re buying.

1. Contract - This protects all involved parties. Just because you had a great conversation during the first meeting, and even though the work is only supposed to take two days, you'll regret not having a contract if one of you forgets half of that great conversation.

2. Insurance. Injuries can occur on a construction site. If the location is your home and your contractor does not have the proper insurance, you may be held liable. Make sure the contractor carries the appropriate worker’s compensation insurance and check with your insurer for the proper amount of liability insurance.

3. Scope of work. There are many details to get right in a renovation, write everything down before work begins. For example, if your designer has drawn up detailed plans, make sure the contract references the designer and the date on the plans.

4. Duration of work. Though projects can take longer than predicted for many legitimate reasons — some caused by the homeowner and some outside the contractor's control — the expected project duration should be in writing. The important thing is not that your contractor shows up every day, but that he finishes the project on time. Having a timeline will help calm your nerves if progress hits a slow spot.

5. Exclusions. A good contract should include a list of exclusions. These might be related to areas that will not be visible until the walls are opened up, or the level of cleaning you should expect after work is complete. It’s impossible to know whether asbestos might be found, so talk to your contractor about a potential contingency budget.

 6. Payment schedule.  These can vary by job, but should always be agreeable to both parties. In my opinion, payments tied to milestones in the project are better than those tied to percentages of completion. As long as you are confident that you're not paying for significantly more than what's been completed, you should be OK.

Other basic information that should be included:

  • what the contractor is responsible for doing, what work you will do yourself or have another contractor do;
  • if sub-contractors are used, who is responsible for hiring, paying and ensuring work is done properly;
  • who obtains building permits and inspections
  • amount to be paid to the contractor for the work
  • what warranty the contractor provides for the work

The contract sets out basic business requirements the contractor must meet in order to protect in the event of an accident and to comply with the laws in your province. To do this, the contract should specify that your contractor:

  • has adequate business liability insurance
  • is enrolled in the provincial Workers' Compensation program
  • has a Business or HST Number
  • has a license number if your municipality requires contractors to be licensed

The contractor should also warrant that any sub-contractor they engage to work on your project also meets these business requirements.

Making sure you have a comprehensive construction contract and reading it before signing the contract are the most effective way to ensure that you will get what you think you are paying for.

Sue Wastell is the president of the London Home Builders' Association and Owner of Wastell Homes in London.     

User-friendly homes fit changing needs

  • Written by Sue Wastell

When young families go house hunting, the biggest priorities at the top of their list of must have’s are usually good schools, a modern kitchen and a large walk in closet. Homes that are environmentally safe, that reduces the chance of injury and can accommodate all different types of interests are not features that are generally investigated or asked about. But we’re seeing a change where the ‘question of accessibility’ conversation has started happening.

When you think of “accessibility” does an institutional setting come to mind? How about substituting the term “user-friendly”? Accessibility is about fitting the home to the real requirements of those who live and visit there—whether they use a wheelchair, a cane, bifocals or hearing aids.

According to the Canadian Census, one in seven persons have some kind of disability—mobility and dexterity problems, hearing or vision loss, intellectual limitations and other so-called “invisible” disabilities such as cardio-pulmonary disorders, to name just a few. By age 65, disabilities affect one out of every three persons. Whether one has a sports injury or an older relative, a progressive illness or simply the wish to “stay put” in one’s golden years, homeowners are warming up to the idea of home accessibility.

The Canadians With Disabilities Act changed the ways public buildings are designed, and these changes are making their way into the home. A generation of architects and builders, as well as disability-rights advocates and policy planners, are awakening to the possibilities created by an accessible environment—greater participation in community life, at all levels. Provincial and local building codes now mandate accessible public spaces, but for single-family houses, it is usually the unique requirements of those who live there that set the standards.

Private homes are the test sites for residential accessibility, as people with disabilities collaborate with medical and design professionals to find ways to make everyday life easier.

For a parent who is hard of hearing, removing walls and adding glass doors can help in keeping track of children in the next room. For someone who is blind, including storage cabinets throughout the house (entrance, stair landings, toilet) means that essential items are readily accessed when needed.

Accessible design is creative design, tailored to the unique needs of those who live there.

Trademarks of accessible design are wider doorways and zero-step entrances—useful features, whether using a mobility device or pushing a baby stroller. Also lever-type handles are replacing knobs at sinks and doors—making it functional for a person with weak upper body strength or an armload of laundry. These are the kinds of details that have come to be known as “universal design” (or “inclusive design”).

Universal design represents an approach to creating things that can be used by everyone, everywhere. It is a movement as well as a philosophy of design, one that homeowners, realtors, builders, architects and designers are starting to embrace.

Big sunny rooms with generous vistas to the outdoors and between activity centers are features that are appealing to everyone, as well as essential to people with a variety of disabilities, hearing loss and low vision included.

Universal design is commonsense design.

The idea of “adaptability” addresses a valuable middle ground in the design of homes, somewhere between full accessibility and the typical barrier-filled residence. Non-slip floors in the front entrance and bathrooms, combined with good lighting, and light switches and electrical outlets that are not too high or too low are easy and inexpensive adaptations. Installing solid wood blocking behind a shower wall means sturdy grab-bars can be mounted there later without requiring costly re-tiling. Adaptable design saves money over the long run, as well as providing options to allow you stay in your home longer.

Sue Wastell is the President of the London Home Builders’ Association and Owner of Wastell Homes in London.

Home ownership builds equity, sense of community

  • Written by Sue Wastell

When you are looking for a new place to live, one of the questions that is bound to come up is whether you should buy or rent. For some, it’s either one or the other with no room for debate, but if you aren’t sure the choice can be a tough one.

Both buying and renting have many pros and cons, but in the end there is really nothing like having a home of your own. Purchasing a home is a big step. It’s not purely a financial decision; it is an emotional one as well that can affect everyone in your family. It makes sense to feel nervous about taking such a big step. I always remind my staff that our customers have trusted us with probably the biggest purchase they will ever make in their life, and we have to deliver.

So if you think you’re ready, here’s a list featuring 5 benefits of buying a home of your own instead of renting.

1) Building Equity for You - The thing about renting is, in many cases you’re still paying off a mortgage. It just belongs to someone else. Basically, you’re helping to create equity for someone else, instead of yourself. You have to live somewhere and in most cases, you have to pay to live there. Why not pay to live somewhere that creates a valuable asset for you at the same time? Homes have averaged a 10% return year over year in Toronto over the last 10yrs. So on average, if you bought a house for $500,000 in 2004 that same house would be worth at least $1,000,000 today in Toronto. That is an amazing return on investment.

2) Your Inner Designer - If you are a renter, you know how difficult it can be to make any even minor changes to the décor of your rental property. And if you are able to paint or switch light fixtures you usually have to change everything back before you move out. When you buy a home, you can unleash your inner designer / DIY person and change whatever you want. You can put those hours of watching home improvements to good use - change the entire theme of the home, re-route plumbing, take down walls or change the flooring. It’s your choice.

3) Family Stability - When you buy a home and make it uniquely your own, you are setting the stage for decades of childhood memories, grandkids and important family get-togethers. The sense of nostalgia that comes with owning a home and watching your family grow with it is immeasurable. You’ll also create a source of financial security later in life when the mortgage is gone and you have this valuable asset.

4) Payment Stability - Most lease agreements last for one to two years, then it’s time to do it over again, possibly with a rent increase that depending on the landlord, could be as high as the law allows. And while mortgage rates aren’t always rock steady, you can opt for 5-year fixed terms where you’ll know exactly how much you have to pay for that period of time, making it a more stable option. 

5) Sense of Community - When you buy a home instead of renting, there is often a higher likelihood that you’ll take an active interest in the community. This includes ensuring your property looks neat and well-maintained, getting to know your neighbours on a deeper level and working to keep the neighbourhood safe. That’s not to say a renter doesn’t want a safe community. But when you own your home, it also feels like the community belongs to you and your fellow homeowners, taking community pride to another level.

Sue Wastell is the president of the London Home Builders' Association and Owner of Wastell Homes in London.     

Project outlines help you make wise decisions

  • Written by Sue Wastell

Designing a new home or renovation can seem like an easy task, but the challenge is deciding between what you need and what you want — which are not the same thing.

First, create a project outline. More than a wish list, it should describe your design objectives, including all aspects of the project — size, appearance, location, orientation, cost, construction methods and much more. This forms the foundation of your home design, and you will constantly refer back to it. It is a very important task, requiring a lot of thought and consideration.

1. List what you like and then analyze the items.

Establish the sort of house you want to create. Begin by collecting images of all the things you like and that speak to you about the type of home you want to create.

Look closely at the pictures to note exactly what attracts you. Is it specific like a back splash tile or a larger feeling of comfort? It’s important to identify the qualities you want your home to have, rather than simply how you want it to look.

2. Look closely at how you live. No matter whether you own a house, rent an apartment or sleep on your parents’ sofa, ask yourself:

What do you like or dislike about where you live?

Which rooms do you spend time in and which do you rarely use?

What is it specifically that you like or dislike about these spaces?

If you could improve one thing, regardless of cost and practicality, what would it be?

3. Draw up a list of spaces.

Compile a list of the rooms you hope to include in your new home. Consider the entire range of activities (indoor, exterior, storage, etc), including future needs, that you would like your home to incorporate.

4. Analyze the use of each space.

What specific activities normally happen in this space. For a kitchen, for instance, this may be eating or socializing in addition to cooking.

Identify furniture and storage needs, including built-ins.

Can you combine a few rooms into a multifunctional space that serves different purposes at different times?

Revisit the qualities and feelings identified in your list of likes, as well your analysis of the rooms you enjoy spending time in. What qualities do you want the rooms on your list to have? This may include natural light at certain times of the day, or feelings of spaciousness, comfort, warmth, for example.

Think about rooms in your current home that you rarely use and make sure you aren’t replicating them in your new home.

5. Establish big-picture goals and priorities, including:

Environmental goals of energy efficiency or water conservation
Economic goals of maximizing affordability and minimizing maintenance costs
Personal ones, such as flexibility for future lifestyle changes or creating the perfect entertaining space
Consider the relationship between spaces. For quiet and privacy, you might want the bedrooms away from the main living area.

6. Ensure against common mistakes.

Match your completed overview against common mistakes that people often make, such as:

Focusing on esthetics instead of quality, comfort and functionality. Looks comes later.
Thinking purely room by room. Be sure you have real goals and values for your whole project from the outset. A good designer can focus on the little details without forgetting the bigger picture.
Not considering all family members’ thoughts and feelings.
Keeping up with the Joneses. If your neighbours have a hot tub on the roof doesn’t mean you have to have one too.
Not considering the future. If this process is going to be worthwhile, your design is able to grow with you and your family.
This is a working document. The purpose of this exercise is to write things down, think about them and make wise decisions that keep the project on design.

Sue Wastell is the President of the London Home Builders’ Association and Owner of Wastell Homes in London.

Research can shed light on windows

  • Written by Sue Wastell

Summertime is a great time to be looking at items around the house that are better suited to be fixed or replaced while the weather is good. Windows are one of those items.

Energy efficiency requirements in the Ontario Building Code coupled with advances in glass making and glass coating technologies, have made todays windows extremely efficient. You can bid drafts and stuffiness farewell plus reap the benefits of increased comfort and lower utility bills!

Various factors contribute to a window’s efficiency. The U-factor measures its insulation. Basically, the lower the U-factor, the more insulated it is. The U-factor needs to be really high in northern regions, because homeowners need more protection against the harsh outdoor climate. Increased insulation means the windows won’t be fighting the outside air to maintain a comfortable temperature inside. The solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) measures how much solar radiation passes through the window.

Efficient windows will also filter sunlight, which prevents the sun’s rays from fading your furniture, upholstery, wood floors and art. Another important side effect is soundproofing. The thicker the glass, the more sound they’ll block. This can work surprisingly well in homes near an airport or busy traffic areas. 

Here are a few of the more popular styles to consider:

Double and Single Hung – This window is made of two independent sashes that are hung in one frame.  The sashes, one at the bottom and one at the top, can slide up and down within this frame or, as in the case of a single-hung window; only one sash will be movable. This style is mostly used in Traditional styled homes.

Sliding Windows - The sliding or gliding window functions much like a double-hung window. The big difference is that the sash will slide horizontally rather than vertically. It's as if a double-hung is placed on its side. These are ideally used in areas that have horizontal proportions and where you want to maximize the amount of glass for light or a view.

Casement Windows - This window is a single sash that's attached to a frame on one side. Hinges, or a hinge, are used to make the attachment, allowing the window to swing out like a door. These are quite popular in both Traditional and Contemporary homes.

Awning Windows - Sharing many of the design considerations of a casement, this style is suited to both traditional and contemporary designs. They are typically horizontal which maximizes the light or view and makes them appropriate for placing over a counter or vanity or above or below a fixed window. The single sash and glass are all in one plane, the screen is located on the interior and the hardware is an important design element. Unlike the casement, though, an awning window can be open when it's raining. Because an awning pivots up and out, the sash effectively creates a mini awning that prevents the rain from coming through the window opening. 

In addition to these factors, if you’re replacing or adding windows as part of a larger remodelling project or planning the construction of a new home, consideration should be given to location, size, type, style, function, operation, material, interior and exterior finish, hardware and assembly. It can seem overwhelming, but this is where your builder, renovator or window and door expert should help you to work through the choices and determine the best combination for your specific needs and preferences. Working with professionals, will also ensure there are warranties on the windows and on their work.

Taking a few extra minutes to plan is always the best advice!

Sue Wastell is the president of the London Home Builders' Association and Owner of Wastell Homes in London.     

Many ways to divert waste from job sites

  • Written by Sue Wastell

Whether you’re renovating your home, building a new home or living in an existing home, waste is not something that is new but there are new ways we can deal with it.

So often during renovations, cabinetry, plumbing and hardware used to be thrown into a dumpster and driven off to the nearest dump. Luckily over the years, opportunities have risen that have changed this. Despite what you see on TV, demolition can be done carefully to allow still-good cabinets or materials to be repurposed or recycled instead of ending up in the landfill. In the industry we call this waste diversion.

At the start of construction, one of the first things to show up is a large bin. This is where all scraps of non-hazardous building materials (non-pressure treated lumber, scrap metal, drywall, concrete, asphalt and glass) will get collected during construction. Once full, the bin is hauled to a transfer site where it is weighed, charges are paid for by the contractor and contents get sorted by the recycling company:

  • Clean woods (palettes, 2 x 4’s etc) are ground into landscape mulches / products;
  • Mixed woods get ground up to size for use as biofuel for greenhouses or the agriculture industry;
  • Concrete and asphalt are processed into aggregate products for use in local construction projects;
  • Cardboard and metals (removed by magnet or hand) are sent to specialized local recyclers to be further processed into finished products;
  • Drywall is processed into a new product that is used in the agricultural industry as an additive for field application to capture the calcium and sulphur, replacing native gypsum. This product can also be used in the production of cement.
  • Glass is used as an additive to native aggregate as a component for road building material.

Consideration is also given to lifecycle and environmental impact of products and materials included in the construction:

  • LED lighting can last 50 times longer than old incandescent bulbs;
  • Metal roofing, which is becoming popular, has a lifespan far exceeding traditional asphalt shingles;
  • Reclaimed wood is being widely used in todays designs because of the great texture it adds – but also because it is environmentally friendly.
  • Quartz and granite reminants are available for use on vanity counters
  • Floor coverings made from recycled materials are stylish and readily available
  • Foundation concrete is made from 25% recycled content sourced either locally
 or within Ontario.

When it comes to homeowner waste, Home Recycling Stations are becoming more widely asked for in all housing types, from large to small. Pull out cabinetry with multi bins allow for separation of plastic, paper and general garbage.

Trash compactors aren’t yet a mainstream item to install, but are beginning to catch on. Units now are built in under the countertop and look a lot like a dishwasher, but take up less space. They are efficient and noiseless, and can reduce the volume of trash in your garbage by 80%. While odor used to be a concern, most compactors today have odor seals, to keep the compactor and space around it smelling fresh. The effect on the environment is the biggest benefit, as they have been proven to play a role in reducing landfill.

Composting is fairly widespread, but there are new pull-out drawers that seal when closed that are getting more traction in kitchen renovations and new builds.

No matter what we do, our homes and jobs sites will always create some waste. But it’s up to us as contractors and homeowners to make educated decisions in how we build, and what techniques we use, to reduce the materials that go into our landfills every year. Sustainable building needs to be a factor we consider during all stages of construction — even demolition.

Sue Wastell is the President of the London Home Builders’ Association and Owner of Wastell Homes in London

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