Monday, January 30, 2012

On Bathtub Replacement - Prep Work

There are any number of situations that lead to people wanting to replace their bathtub. Maybe the black grime and tarnish in the grout and sealant, no matter what you scrub and rinse it with, won’t go away. Maybe you have a crack in the tub. Maybe the very sight of your bathroom makes you feel stagnant and you very simply need a change. Maybe the way you prefer to treat yourself is a deeper tub with more room to soak or some water jets. And these are just some of the more common ones I’ve heard over the years. The reasons are endless but are ultimately moot to the actual work, unless it’s an entire overhaul of the bathroom itself.

As a local friend pointed out over the weekend, what is really important is the prep work and knowledge. What I might consider common sense as a contractor are actually things people forget in the rush of picking out new designs and colors and budgeting the project. In fact, the very first thing that should be done is extensive measuring of the tub and the space around it.  In this case, mark down all the dimensions of the bathtub itself, as you will want a bathtub the exact same size as your current one – length, width, height and depth.  You’ll also want to note the length between your fixtures, such as the length from your bath faucet and your showerhead, the curtain (front of your tub) to the ceiling and other such measurements. Have these at the quick and ready when you go to buy your new bathtub.

You should have as many measurements as possible really, for your plumber and for when you actually pick out the unit you want. Just as important, however, is remembering which side of the rub your faucet and showerhead are on. Any plumber or handyman or contractor will tell you that the plumbing for your bath is one of the first things to get done during home construction, as far as the interior goes. So, unless you’re looking to spend a great deal of money to switch the side of your bath’s plumbing, it is essential to get a design where the cuts for the overflow, drain and faucet are on the same side as your old design. Again, this might be seen as common sense to some but when prepping a sizable job such as this, the devil is in the details.  

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Tile Repair

Just two days ago, I wrote about how you might go about fixing squeaks in carpeted and hardwood floors, a common, pestering and often ignored problem in the home. A friend of mine was good enough to point out that I left out a few other types of flooring, the most prominent of which being tiled floors. Damage to tiles is often done with the most minor and ignorable of actions: Erosion from constant wear, scrapes from furniture and other harsh edges, dirt rubbed and ground in, dropped items both weighty and sharp, and certain chemical cleaners. Naturally, replacing damaged tiles is something that comes up frequently, especially in kitchen floors and bathrooms. You’ll need the following items:

·         Colored Masking Tape
·         Replacement Tiles
·         Nails & Hammer
·         Chisel
·         Trowel
·         Grout & Grout Float
·         Sponge
·         Set Mortar
·         Gloves (optional)

Begin by taping off the surrounding area of the tiles with the masking tape, being sure to cut the tape before the grout, as that will be getting replaced as well. So, the damaged tile(s) and the grout directly surrounding it should be taped off. Take a nail and hit it into the center of the damaged tile(s) to shatter the tile and make it easier to pick up in pieces. Use a chisel to clear out every last trace of the old tile, so that you can lay the new tile on an even surface. (You might want to use gloves while picking up the small shards to make sure you don’t get cut.)

Once the space is clear, take your replacement tile(s) and put a very thin layer of thin set mortar on the bottom of the tile with a trowel. Make sure it is just enough to set the tile in place, as you don’t want to have any mortar squeeze up around the sides of the tile. Let it dry (six to eight hours, to be safe) and then lay down some grout using a grout float to make sure it gets deep into the surrounding area.  When you’re done, use a sponge to clean up any unwanted grout on the tile(s). Let the grout dry and pull up the tape to take a look at your brand new tile(s). That’s enough about flooring for now. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Squeaks

Squeaky floorboards are one of those things that most people consider a necessary evil of homeownership. Some people think it’s a sign that the entire floor is about to give way, or that a poltergeist is secretly creeping around, or that they really need to hit the gym. In reality, this is a natural deterioration of the floorboards that have dried out after awhile and are now sliding and grinding against each other; there’s also the factor of unstable subflooring. Bare hardwood floors tend to be the main culprits but the squeaks are still perceivable in carpeted areas and tiled areas.

Fixing these common annoyances is an easy enough project for an active home improvement weekender. In any situation, the first thing to do is locate the squeak and mark it with some electrical tape. Now, the toughest situation is when you have no way of getting under a bare hardwood floor and must fix it from above. This will require a drill, breakaway screws, matching screwdriver bit and a depth-control fixture. (O’Berry makes a handy Counter-Snap Kit for this sort of job, which you can usually find for less than ten bucks.) Drill a pilot hole (approximately 3/32 in.-dia) and use the depth-control fixture provided in the kit to drill one of the provided screws into the hole until it snaps off. To conceal the work, fill the hole with wood putty.

Carpeted floors that need to be looked at from above can be similarly fixed. In this case, I highly suggest O’Berry’s Squeek-No-More Kit, which contains everything you’d need for this job, including breakaway screws and a pilot screw for locating joists. If you have a joist locator, it’s a bit easier and quicker. Using either, locate the joist that is in closest proximity to your squeak and mark it. To ensure your carpet doesn’t get damaged, wrap the special breakaway screw with scotch tape when you drive the screw through the fixture. Screw it in and then use the fixture’s side to break off the top of the breakaway screw. All of the work you’ve should be concealed by the carpeting.

The more common and easier task is fixing squeaks from underneath, through a basement. Have a member of your family or a friend walk over the squeaky area while you’re below. Take a thin wooden shim, cover it with carpenter’s glue and tap it into the area between the closest joist and the subfloor. Follow this up with a drywall screw driven through the joist, the shim and into the subfloor at an angle. This is an easy enough fix, but for a more secure fix, get your hands on a hold-down bracket – the most popular one is the Squeak-Ender. This usually consists of a steel mounting plate being held next to the trouble-spot’s closest joist, screwed into the subfloor and then tightened via attached nuts so that the joist and the floor are brought closer together. This should cover most squeaky situations but if you have more questions, feel free to ask.

Monday, January 23, 2012

On Replacing Light Switches

Last week, I wrote about diagnosing flickers and it made me think about one of the simpler things homeowners can do in terms of electrical work: replacing your light switch. It’s something that shouldn’t come up too often but it is both important and a relatively easy for a novice to take on.  You’ll want to have the following items when you go about replacing the switch:

  •         New Switch
  •         A Screwdriver (Multi-head may be needed)
  •        Circuit Tester
  •        New Switch Cover (optional)

Of course, working with electricity always carries an inherent risk, but replacing your switch cover keeps you relatively far from any risky wires and currents. Still, as always, the first thing to do is go to your electric panel and turn the breaker sending a current to that area to the Off position. Go upstairs afterwards and flick the switch to make sure it doesn’t work, ensuring you turned off the right breaker. Unscrew and remove the cover plate before unscrewing and pulling out the old switch.  While doing this, be weary of the wiring and be careful not to pull it out too much or crack the wires.

Be on the look out for black wires, which should either be uniformly black or should be marked by black electrical tape. (On occasion of a lazy electrician, the wire connected will be an unmarked white wire, which you can fix by simply wrapping the end of the wire with black electric tape.)  Disconnect these black wires to fully remove the old switch while leaving any white, green or copper wires alone. (You might want to also mark which black wire goes to which terminal with markers or tape.) Grab your new switch and connect the black wires to the brass terminals on the backside of the new switch and put it in the exact same space as the old switch. Screw the box back into the space and then screw the cover plate back over it. Switch the breaker back on and test it to be sure.    

A fun thing to do, as part of this whole rigmarole, is paint or add a design to your cover plate. It’s especially a fun activity to do with kids who will respond better to bold, unique colors; it will keep them occupied while you are completing the task. The entire task, not including the buying of the new switch, should take you less than an hour. And be sure to test your circuit to make sure that the switch is the problem, if this replacement is in response to a light not working. When it comes to electrical work, the reasons for currents being interrupted are myriad.  

Friday, January 20, 2012

On Flickers

The first thing most people do (rightly) when they see a bulb flickering is try to replace it, or just chalk it up to bad weather or a momentary dim from a momentary glitch. Most of the time, this is all a flicker denotes but some flickers (think a three-to-four-second flicker) can become annoyances and represent a fault that requires either immediate or forthcoming repair.  Now, to be sure, we’re not talking about the expected dims that can come from CFL bulbs (the twirly, spiral energy-saving ones) connected to dimmer switches, but rather repetitive flickers that usually coincide with other electrical usage.

Consistent flickers are usually due to a poor connection in your wiring, affecting a singular part of your circuit. If an entire circuit is affected, the source of the problem will likely be in the breaker or, less frequently, the panel; the panel is a regular source for flickers on an entire circuit. But we’re talking about consecutive flickers coming from a single source. For an example, let’s say an overhead light is flickering every time you turn it on at night. The source of the problem will almost always be spotty connections coming from the light fixture, the switch box or the outlet. To help diagnose which one it is, one should mark when the flickering occurs and for how long. For instance, if it starts immediately as you flip the switch, the likely culprit is the switch box. It’ll make for an easier project, whether you’re trying to fix it yourself or you’re hiring a professional.

Though this seems like a minor issue, these problems almost always cause arcing, which can heat up connections or wires and lead to further problems either with the single fixture or the overall circuit if it goes unchecked. Smaller, fickle outages will likely be unable to be diagnosed until they erupt in an outright open. In any case, the rule of thumb here is to trust a professional electrician with these problems though, if you do go DIY, be sure to shut off electricity to the entire circuit if you’re attempting to replace or repair the wiring or connection. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

On Bathtub Leaks and Water Damage Origins

Water is a tricky substance, which is why diagnosing a leak is often such a hassle. A few entries back, I wrote about locating leaks around your bathroom sink and diagnosing what exactly caused them. What I left out is the all too familiar sign of water damage on the ceiling of the room below your bathroom. Now, sure, most of the time, this is a clear sign that there’s something wrong with your upstairs bathroom or kitchen’s plumbing but this is not 100% true. Indeed, as I mentioned earlier, water knows how to travel, and the water damage could just as well be from piping leading from your attic or roof or other second-story plumbing.

Lets look at showers and baths as an example of pinpoint and differentiating. Leaks from baths and showers are as common as those from faucets or toilets, so its worth knowing how to zero in on the trouble spots. The most common origin spot is the grout around the tiles, which can shrink and allow water in behind the tiles. Other popular spots are the tub’s filler, which may have a worn-out washer or an improperly sealed valve threads, and the tub itself, which might similarly suffer from improper sealing or cracks that are (usually) easily identifiable. Less likely but possible culprits include a problem with the overflow pipe (worn-out or shoddily installed overflow washer) or the drain (clogged outlet pipe).

For the drain, a simple way to test is to run a length of tubing (black rubber will do) from your vanity faucet fixture to your drain and send water down the drain for anywhere from 10-20 minutes. If the leak doesn’t show up, you know the drain and the attached plumbing is secure. And unless the leak is constant throughout the day, the hot and cold water valves are not the culprits.

The next suspects are the tub and the tub filler. The latter is easy enough to check: Just fill your tub and look for a leak from the filler (the tub faucet). This usually denotes broken piping, usually on a copper elbow. As for the tub overflow, close your tub drain and fill the tub to the overflow and look for your leak; if this ends up being your trouble, it likely will require the replacing of the sealing or the washer on your overflow.

The most complex check is the plumbing behind the showerhead. You’ll need to take off the showerhead and cap the stem with a threaded cap before running the water. After 10 to 15 minutes, check the leak area. If this turns out to be the problem, you will need a plumber to look at the rest of the stem and the piping behind and below the showerhead.

The very last check is the most common: The grout. The DIY check requires you to run water over each wall of your shower individually for ten minutes, either using the showerhead or a hose from another water source. A plumber will likely be needed, regardless, but the more information you have to give him makes the job quicker and the price, in most scenarios, at least minutely less expensive.

Monday, January 16, 2012

On Hometown Winters and Draft Detection

For the record, I am not a native New Yorker. By technical definition, my hometown is Washington DC, where I spent most of my days as an infant before my family moved to Albany, which is, for all intents and purposes, the place I consider home. As NYC seemingly finally settles into the more unbearable stretch of winter (it was in the mid-to-high 40s a week or two ago), my Albany upbringing has kicked into high gear and I find myself warm enough with a good winter coat and beanie. This comes from some 15 winters of serious blizzards, frequent below-zero days and bundles of slush-drenched boots, caps, mittens and socks. It’s still cold here in NYC but in all my years, I’ve never had to brace for winter the way one hunkers down for the initial months of a new year upstate.

Not to play the back-in-my-day card, but back in my day, the in-house rule was if the heat wasn’t good enough for you, find thicker sweaters or socks on. To be honest, this is still the rule of the house (and my home) these days, but at the very least I’ve become aware of how to locate drafts and unsealed gaps in my home, and fix them when need be. The major effort is to get your windows and exterior doors weatherproofed and properly sealed, making sure that the bigger part of your thermal envelope is sealed. Finding other gaps, however, can be a useful way to make sure your energy bill is kept on a leash.

When it comes to windows, any fault will likely end in professional work on the seal or frame, so lets keep to smaller things. If you can stand it, bundle up and turn off your furnace on an extremely windy day. You should be able to hear or feel areas where the wind can get into your thermal envelope. Look especially at areas where two materials (brick and siding, for instance) are meeting, as those seals will need some serious insulation. Shut all your doors and windows and see if you hear any serious rattling, as this will note an opening allowing unregulated airflow. There’s also the smoke test, which essentially consists of you lighting something that emits smoke (incense sticks work best for me) and hold it close to suspected leak spots. Watch the smoke: If it drifts up, you’re good, but if it seems to be sucked somewhere, it usually denotes a gap.

If the smoke test doesn’t suit you, the flashlight test, in which you point a flashlight at a suspected leak spot and have someone go outside and see if any light passes through, essentially does the same thing. These are household tips, most of which are endorsed by the Department of Energy, but the bigger solutions (vent inspections, full weatherproofing etc.) tend to require professional contractors who can check those places where you can’t necessarily and tell you exactly what needs to be done. Still, no one’s saying that a hefty hooded sweatshirt and a pair of heavy-duty wool socks won’t solve your problems for the time being, if not tide you over until April rears its head.   

Friday, January 13, 2012

On Sink Leaks and the Odd Habits of the Modern Canine

My best leak detector used to be Bishop, my golden Labrador who passed away four years ago. Every canine has its quirks, its oddities and its habits and Bishop was no different in this regard. He wasn’t much for biting at flies or starting epic, saga-like fights with cats but he had an odd habit of lapping up any puddles he could find which, as you might imagine, led to some rather disgusting situations. Most of the time, however, Bishop was just fine licking up spilled water, soda or juice, and was around for long enough for me to feel assured that this was not necessarily a dangerous occurrence.

Our new dog, Guinness, a French bulldog, has more normal habits (humping pillows, chasing random beams of light etc.) and it now falls to me to be on the lookout for bathroom leaks, and all other home-improvement warning signs, for that matter. Most of the time, the surefire sign is a spot on your ceiling (for second-floor bathrooms) or just random puddles of water. Almost all leaks in bathrooms come from corroded, cracked or improperly installed P-Traps, especially if the P-Trap is metal. This is the reason that many NYC plumbers are now installing or replacing broken P-Traps with PTV P-Traps, which hold out for impressive stretches of time.

The last major leak I had to fix at a customer’s home, however, was a speedy valve problem. Speedy valves can be found on the ends of your hot and cold water lines and, in my case, the valve on the hot water needed to be replaced; a bad soldering job can also be blamed for speedy valves leaking. As much as the state of these valves and your P-Trap are important when diagnosing a leak, one of the bigger questions, actually, is if the leak is constant or intermittent. If it’s constant the problem is likely with your water line, which will require more work. In fact, Bishop fed off a water line leak for nearly a weak in his salad days, before I knew what I was doing when it came to plumbing.

Bishop was also a fan of the leaks that came out from under our old pedestal sink, and spent many a day performing the gross task of lapping up any moisture around the bottom ring of the pedestal. Many think that this has something to do with the inner mechanisms of a pedestal sink. The truth is that pedestal sinks are no different from other sinks, in terms of pipes; there is nothing inside your pedestal and all the pipes can be found directly under the faucet fixture, not below. I highly suggest you find a leak-seeking dog, if you can, but if you cant, this should be helpful enough when it comes to diagnosing your major sink leaks. After all, as much as you might wish it, your pooch can’t wield a wrench. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On Camping and Space Heaters

I come from a big camping family and, as such, I am a big fan of fire building and bonfires; I learned the former while in the cub scouts. Throughout my high school and college years, an annual weeklong camping trip in the summer was a staple for my mother and a great portion of my extended family, whether it was at Sacandaga, Schroon Lake, Brookwood Park or Eagle Point. Canoeing was my largest outdoor interest as a teen and most of the week in the woods was spent in the water, so much so that my parents eventually purchased a canoe from a neighbor.  And when the day on the water was done, there was always the family gathering around the campfire, where I not only had my first beer but also had my first kiss (a friend of my cousin).

The camping trips have, sadly, cut down in frequency over the last few years but my family has continued with the fires: my uncle has built his own fire pit and my mother spent most of a considerable bonus on installing a fireplace in her home. Both of these things are practical and enjoyable, if not exactly cost-effective, which is why most people have foregone fireplaces in favor of space heaters. I can’t argue too much: space heaters are a good, relatively cheap way to heat up rooms that don’t benefit as much from your heating system, though they can get a little pricey when you consider the electricity used on your electric bill.

My bigger concern as of late, having read quite a lot about recent recalls of popular space heaters produced by Wal-Mart and GE amongst other companies, is the issue of safety and home care. They are relatively simple mechanisms but, like air conditioners, they use a lot of power and therefore have the ability, especially in the higher-watt models, to trip your circuit breaker or blow a fuse. There are also hundreds of reports of them causing small fires, smoking, emitting a noxious odor etc. There is also the hard-to-ignore fact that they blow out easily and often need repair: switches malfunction, fans stop working, thermostat up and dies, and the central heating elements are known to fail with a consistency that is more than a little disconcerting.

Indeed, its much more fruitful to look into getting your heating system correctly pitched in those rooms where the heat doesn’t seem to be getting or, to really nip the problem in the bud, get your boiler looked at and replaced if needed. If you’re paying your heating bill already, you should be paying to have your entire house kept at a decent temperature. That being said, the cheapness of it is hard to argue with and plenty of space heaters are used daily that will never malfunction in any unsafe way. Indeed, part of my hesitation with space heaters may simply be a recent, rather bone-chilling pricing excursion on fireplace installation. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

On Christmas Lights and Roof Leaks

We’re pragmatists in our house, for better or worse. More times than not its for the better, as this tends to lead to a lot less bickering than I have engaged in in my day, but I saw the other side of the coin the other day when I was ordered, and I use that word specifically, to take down our Christmas lights. I can only be thankful that this weekend saw an unseasonable warm streak for January, which didn’t much help for all the struggling and pulling I did on a silver ladder older than my grandmother. The next day, I could have very well appeared in an Advil television advertisement.

Our roof is an old pitched roof that has seen many a repair and more than one replacement, both which usually were spurred by a leak – our house used to be the property of a family friend and I have assisted in finding a good roofer for the home on more than one occasion. NYC handymen, roofers and the like have yet to deal with a big snowstorm quite yet but as soon as the first one hits, calls about leaks will likely being coming in double-time.

With a roof like ours, the leaks generally come from overlapping areas where flashing is needed, leaving an open area for the water to get into. Flashing is also needed whenever a skylight, chimney, air stack or hatch is put in, and these are also areas where leaks are common. There are similar problems with both flat roofs and tiled roofs: wherever flashing or two intersecting areas are joined is where water can get in and cause a leak over time. Gutters are also places to check, which will usually be noticeable if the leak is coming in near a corner.

The most important things to mark down in this situation is how long it has been since your roof was last serviced, where the leak is coming from, and the frequency of the leak; does it happen every time it rains or is it more sporadic? Roofing, perhaps more than any other home improvement venture, is one where professional help is required and a professional, licensed roofer will need to know these things before coming over. It is my sad duty to say, however, that most fixes are just stop-gaps before a new roof installation is needed. Much like the putting up of Christmas lights leads to the tiresome chore of taking them down, it’s a loathsome inevitability. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

On Hot Water Heaters and Gustav the Plumber

Today, at the office, my post yesterday brought up a few questions about a related subject: hot water tanks. The funny thing is that as compared to boilers, which are prone to more damage and problems, hot water tanks are relatively simple in terms of diagnosing problems and fixing the entire mechanism. One of my first jobs as an apprentice, in fact, was installing a new hot water heater with Gustav, one of those old-school Greek NYC plumbers that fill the stereotypical “crank” role so well that you’re forced to love them.

Whatever our differences, Gus was a great teacher and hot water tanks became one of the easier fixes for me. That being said, I am remiss to report that they are not something that I would suggest a novice undertake fixing, unless you happen to be particularly ambitious. What I can go through here is how to troubleshoot your hot water tank if you find that you’re having trouble getting your daily hot shower or being able to get hot water to wash your dishes. As our designer pointed out to me, this could work as a bit of a companion to yesterday’s post.

Oddly enough, the first part of troubleshooting would be identifying if you have an honest-to-god hot water tank or if you get your hot water from your boiler. This should be evident as boilers with hot water capabilities often are attached to the wall with a coil coming out of them whereas a hot water tank is, well, a tank; there’s also the difference between electric and gas heaters, though electric heaters are very rare these days. Now, comes the issue of size: there’s 30, 40 or 50 gallon units for most homes, and 40 gallons should be adequate for an average one-family home. If, in the morning, the first person gets hot water in the shower but the third one doesn’t, that more than likely means you have an undersized water heater.

Next, check your warranty. If you were smart and got a 10-year warranty, you should be set until that 10-year mark and don’t get greedy: if your heater lasts for ten years, be happy and pony up for a new one. And again, like a boiler, sometimes the problem is the pilot light, which is controlled by a small pump that should be right above the temperature control. Make sure its set to “Pilot On” and pump it if you’re suspicious that its not lit. Also, check that the temperature control is where you want it to be. These are all easy fixes, as stated before, and in the case of leaks or factory defaults, its simply a matter of calling in your warranty or replacing your existing water heater and having a licensed, bonded and insured plumber install it for you. These are really the only two options though, if he were still around, I imagine Gustav would have a few things to say about that opinion and a few, more curse-laden things to say about me. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Heating Problems and the Lesser Concerns of the American College Student

Talking recently with the daughter of a family friend, who just moved out to Long Island to attend Adelphi, I found myself wrapped up in a conversation about cheap winter living. For her, this meant loading up on a variety of Ramen packets, cutting down on showers, and spending as much time as possible at her boyfriend’s house in Astoria. For certain, these are all scrappy, if ultimately small-scale ways to live one’s winter on the cheap but for most of the people I know, including a great deal of NYC handymen and other service providers, the way of living cheap in winter is locating the essentials and knowing they are all budgeted.

One of the more important essentials, of course, is heat and a year does not go by when I don’t field a dozen calls or more a month, between December and March, about lack of heat. Now, any NYC plumber will tell you that the first thing you have to do in the case of no heat is check the boiler and see how the pilot light and burners. Okay, so maybe first you should be making sure that the safety switch is on but after that, its important to check that your pilot light is working. This would often be fixable by simply lighting a blown-out pilot light with an extended grill lighter, if that’s the problem. If the pilot light is working, however, and the burners simply aren’t catching, this is a problem that would call for a plumber. They will likely want to know if you use oil or gas and, more importantly, when the heat initially stopped working.

There are also times when the problem is not the boiler at all but the radiators in your home, which are separated as either steam or hot water powered. Hot water radiators run along baseboards and are far more regularly found in apartment buildings, covered by aluminum casings often. Steam radiators are typically what you think of when someone suddenly screams out “Radiator!”: a classic metal unit, three or four feet high, usually placed near windows. Steam-powered radiators are also largely typified by a hissing sound when they are turning up, a universal winter annoyance. The problem with steam radiators often comes back to whether or not it is pitched correctly or, in some cases, lack of regular bleeds; there could also be a problem with the pressure valve.  Hot water radiator problems, on the other hand, invariably lead back to piping, which could mean there was a poor soldering job done, problem with connections or even worn-out pipes.

In any case, these jobs are a professional plumber’s bread and butter, and they will likely be able to diagnose the problem and locate the solution within a few minutes of arriving at your home with the proper information provided.  Far be it for me to propose that this is something a college student should know or think about: if someone had given me a tutorial on home heating in my college days, I would have likely assaulted them with the closest empty Rolling Rock bottle. In fact, I’d rather them enjoy their unwashed, Ramen-fueled days for the time being and let them come upon these less exciting though unavoidable concerns in their own time. The tedious, inescapable boredoms of adulthood have a way of revealing themselves at the right time. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On Hangovers and the Perils of Unlicensed Contracting

First things first: Happy New Year! How did you ring in 2012? Me? Well, I spent the night with my girlfriend at a friend’s small party in Astoria and unwisely took not only a magnum of champagne but a great deal of a bottle of Dewar’s to task. My payment for such foolishness came in the form of day-long hangover gleefully watched over by my better half, who was all too happy to dole out the told-you-sos as we made our way through the first season of Boardwalk Empire.

I was also privy to an e-subscription to the New York Times (a gift from my dear aunt Margaret), which has become my best friend in the world on the drives to and from work and various freelance jobs. While I was checking it out on my girlfriend’s iPad, I came across an old article from 2006 that I found somewhat apropos of recent crackdowns on unlicensed NYC contractors, general and otherwise. The article detailed a slew of citations that the NYC Department of Consumer Affairs handed down in 2006 and the lowering of fines that came with said citations in the case where the contractor agreed to get licensed.

It’s a pretty good system, one that from all my research seems to be more or less still in place though perhaps not as readily available as it seemed to be five years ago. I’ve written before about the importance of hiring insured workers and there are similar benefits to hiring licensed contractors. First of all, it’s a certification that they have a legitimate business and at least a mid-range idea of what they are doing when it comes to home improvement. It also tends to mean that they have been around for some time, which is always a good sign.

Still, plenty of licensed contractors are capable of scheming and are prone to using their knowledge to make unfair deals with uninformed customers. That’s why a licensed contractor also guarantees that if, by some chance, the job you hire them to do is not done well or is done without the proper permits or if there is any other major problem with the project, you can take legal action. An unlicensed contractor isn’t on file with the Department of Consumer Affairs (how do you know you can contact him or her?) and also can argue, essentially, that you get what you paid for. The instances in which any court has sided with a consumer who used an unlicensed contractor over a licensed one are extraordinary, if not downright non-existant. So, as we take our first steps into a new year for housing, be sure to hire laborers who took the time to get there license. Also: never mix Dewar’s and champagne…ever.