About Me

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I have 20+ years experience in Home Furnishings and Interior Design, specializing in Kitchen and Bath Design since '01. I work for Bilotta Kitchens in the A&D Building on East 58th Street in the Mid-town Manhattan. I have a passion for learning and love the opportunity to collaberate on projects of all sizes. My strengths in the field begin with my design background, use of color and texture to bring interest to a room, spatial relationships, organizational skills, innovation, decisiveness, and planning. I have had the thrilling experience of helping hundreds...?maybe thousands of people with their projects, and what I love is it never gets boring, and no two are ever the same. Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 29, 2010

How Do I Choose a Good Contractor?

Choosing a contractor is not often easy, and many times fear of commitment holds homeowners back. One of the best ways to find a good reputable contractor you can trust is to ask friends and neighbors for referrals. It's even ok to stop at an ongoing job, but be careful to stay out of the way and speak directly with the homeowner. For the most part people are flattered that you noticed their project and they are proud to show off what they are having done. Strike up a pleasant conversation and you may even be invited back to see the progress.

The remodeling industry is frought with nightmare stories, so it's also important to be able to weed out the truth, the homeowner may have had a bad experience yes, but it's possible that it had nothing to do with the contractor.
One of the most daunting things about remodeling is the cost overrun factor. If you ask a neighbor who just had their kitchen remodeled and they exclaim "my kitchen was supposed to cost $50,000, but when I was done paying for the extras it was closer to $70,000...I love my new kitchen, but I won't recommend the contractor because of how the price went up." Hmmmm, what can you make of that statement, it comes down to what were the extras? Was it that the tile, which the homeowner said went completely under the cabinets really only went two inches under them?...and now with the new cabinet layout the entire floor needed replaced, and while selecting the material, the homeowner fell in love with an exotic marble tile and thought it made sense to add radiant heat, and continue the floor to the foyer?

That's a big change, they just added work and material to include:
  1. Rip out and removal (contractors pay to dump waste) of the exisitng floor
  2. Expanded the job to the foyer not just the kitchen ($50,000)
  3. Radiant heat (will invlove either plumber or elecrtrician depending on the sysytem)
  4. Labor and material for Marble floor install (more expensive than ceramic/porcelain.

This change could easily add $10,000 to the bottom line on a job. If the homeowner was warned that uniform flooring throughout was key reusing the exisiting floor in a new layout, and advised of the costs of a potential new floor, gave the go ahead, then the contractor was completely upfront and the homeowner just has remorse over the expense. The homeowner picked beautiful natural stone and wanted warm feet, no wonder they love their kitchen! Give the contractor a break here, he was doing his job.

Now take the same floor, same homeowner, they told the contractor the tile only went under the cabinets by two inches and they wanted to replace it with marble throughout the foyer and add radiant heat since the tile was cold in the winter. The homeowner still ended up with almost $8,000 in additional flooring costs, then you would look at the allowances the contractor included for labor and material, were they enough, did they include the foyer at all?? Probably not or at too low a rate, in this case the homeowner has a right to feel upset.

Unforseen conditions and exposed code violations have to be brought up to code at the homeowners expense. If you bought Pandora's box, it's unfortunate, but it's yours. In this case, the key to a good contractor is that he helps you through the process, with the right subs, and getting the work done quickly and inspected so you can put the situation behind you and your mind at ease.

Remember if you told your contractor your entire wishlist and that you wanted to spend $50,000 on your kitchen, you have to carefully read the contract that everything you want is included at your number. Full disclosure is they key to an honorable home improvement contractor. Ask for a list of what is not included in the job, or what is covered by an allowance, how much is it, and can you go to any store? What good is a $750 allowance for an Exterior French Door, when the least expensive one they sell at the approved vendor is $2000? Well, it $750 worth of good, now add $1250 to your personal bottom line.

Items typically covered by an allowance only or not included:

  • flooring material
  • cabinetry upgrades (premium woods, finishes, drawer glides, plywood const.)
  • faucets
  • appliances
  • specialty windows
  • exterior doors
  • exotic granite

Remember it IS reasonable for the contractor to cover these items by allowances, after all, you don't want to have the cost of Blue Bahai Granite built in to your kitchen when what you want is a Blue Sapphire or Blue Opal. If you know the stone you want ahead of time, you can ask that it is specifically included in the contract to avoid questions later. When it comes to a kitchen faucet you could spend anywhere from $120.00 to $1200.00, if the contractor offers you a credit to supply your own, believe me there will be noisy days you won't want to be at your house, and they will be perfect for faucet shopping!

Three reasons not to base your decision to hire a contractor:

  1. He/she said we didn't need permits or contracts because my project just direct replacement etc.
  2. He/she looked the most professional.
  3. He/she stayed for hours going over the reasons we should hire them.

You may feel more comfortable and friendly with a contractor who doesn't want to deal with paperwork, let call it a "handshake deal", but the truth is, a contract is to protect everyone and your state has laws by which the contractor must abide. This is important for both parties, and it should clearly outline all of your project specifications, allowances etc as well as your obligations for payment and cost overruns. A well written contract can save the project for all involved. With regard to permits, allow the town to tell you they aren't needed, even if you are just upgrading from electric cooking to the evermore popular dual-fuel range, you will need a plumbing inspection. This is in your best interest to get.

It's fine and good to clean up and present well after a day on the jobsite, but when a contractor sits in your home for 2-3 hours in a pressed shirt and slacks and says "you know how I know all this, it's because I make this presentation to homeowners four times a day." Now ask yourself, if that is the case, when will he/she find time to be on my job. You are talking to a professional salesman. If he really does this schpeel that many times a day, how would he ever find time to manage or supervise your project? BEWARE.

This "contractor" who took 2 1/2 painstaking hours selling you on the reasons to sign with him/her surprises you and then jams through the paperwork so quick you don't remember what you bought. Now should now sit down and read the paperwork before your time to ask questions is up. Often under the sense of relief that the commitment is made and the process is underway, homeowners tuck the contract in a drawer, unfortunately the next time they pull it out is when they face the first unexpected add-on of something they thought was included

Lastly, online contractor referral services, they are paid for and supported by the contractors. Not all the feedback customers post remain online for your eyes to see. These services are not necessarily bad, just make sure you check references carefully. Always consult the Better Business Bureau, local trade associations, ask for references, speak with the subs if possible, meet directly with the kitchen designer and go see at least one job!

I wouldn't like to make it sound like one industry has it tougher than another, but if the landscaper scalps your hedges and they look terrible, you can still take a shower and sit down to a home cooked meal. A troubled home renovation can affect how you live for many months so take the time to make a wise choice, you will be happy you did!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cooking Under Pressure-How GREEN it is!

When I was in my twenties I was a pressure cooker, my definition: a person who cooks meals short order for a family of picky eaters on various eating schedules, while juggling school, a career, a carpool, baseball, basketball and soccer seasons, and a seemingly never-ending home renovation.

Along the way, I learned a couple things about kids:

  1. kids will eat foods they help prepare so I always recommend child safe veggie peelers as a must have in the kitchen
  2. you can slip a lot of nutrition into soup and thererby into your kids without them even suspecting what you are up to!
  3. kids love to see things close up, so don't be afraid to keep a magnifying glass or microscope nearby

As I became a little older and hopefully more savvy, I began to look for ways to economize for the sake of my time, and that led me to a store called "Fortunoff's" now gone, but was then "The Source" a destination spot for many a young homemaker looking for obscure kitchen items like my fish turner and my measuring spoons (dash, pinch, and smidge sized). It was there I purchased my first actual pressure cooker, a kitchen gadget of cartoon lore for most of my generation...I know for sure my mom never had one, and the only rare others I'd seen were in the basements of older neighbors.

This little stovetop appliance became my number one go to gadget anytime I was making soup, stew, rice, pasta, you name it, if it boiled it went in the pressure cooker. Chickens that formerly boiled for 2+ hours to make soup were ready for adding veggies in 30 minutes and tasted delicious when done. When cooking short ribs or other meats, I generally brown the meat and the onions in the bottom of the cooker with a little oil before adding water and the lid, it makes for a delicious full flavored gravy and I never worry that the meat will be tough.

Cooking accounts for approximately 10% of the energy used in a home, and pressure cookers cut cooking time by 60-70%, so by using this handy gadget, you can significantly cut you energy usage, good for you and good for the enviorment. The shortened cooking time also means that your kitchen doesn't overheat, essential if you live in a warmer climate.

The most difficult thing about using a pressure cooker is getting over the fear of buying one, if this sounds like you get a less expensive one to start $50-$60 and try it, you will wear it out in time and want a better one. By that time you will know it was worth the investment and $100-$200 will not seem like much at all. Stainless steel, in my opinion, is better than aluminum, they hold up better with no fear of leaching of mineral content and they are better for browning meats. Always remember to wash the gasket by hand even though the rest of the pot is dishwasher safe.

When designing a new kitchen always remember to discuss with your kitchen designer what types of small appliances and pots you use so they can make sure your new kitchen offers the proper storage solutions to meet your needs.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My "Off the Wall" Wall

My daughters, ages 10 and 13, and I share a comfortable but small home. They both like to bring their friends over after school, and the place fills up with kids quickly . I LOVE IT! We go through a lot of drinks, popcorn, and of course paper.

Almost two months ago, as I was beginning to sift through this years accumulation of stuff, in preparation for the arrival of Santa's sleigh, I attempted to discard a small wipe board that was wedged under Kirstie's bed. "No Mom," she squealed, "I need that for my homework". I pushed back the bedroom door to reveal three more wipe boards of various sizes. Kirstie shrugged and began to explain the part wipe boards play in her study method. A method I am not permitted to reveal at this time. Well, honestly, she gets better grades than I did as a kid, so who am I to question her?

I left the boards, but now I was thinking. I returned to the living room and began to pick up an assortment of artwork and discarded doodles off of the floor. My kids had just been there with their friends a short time earlier. And as I walked towards the recycling bin, papers in hand, I passed my foyer wall, my personal decorating nemesis. I can't tell you how many 20 minute intervals I have logged in front of the paint samples, just not "feeling" the right color for that space. Suffice it to say, this hallway/pseudo-room is:
  • the very first thing you see when you enter
  • like Grand Central Station bustling with activity
  • got 4 doorways and two archways
  • serves as a casual dining area
  • adjoined by 5 other rooms each with a color
  • a very difficult space to define

It was at that moment an idea started to take shape, as I looked down at the bunches of paper in my hand, I was about to discard an entire logs worth again. I knew this wall was meant for a better purpose. A purpose I believed any home with kids or even kid visitors could benefit from. I was going to have a (semi) permanent memorial to my kids creativity, and make a commitment to save paper long term.

I shared my plans with my daughters, and Miss. Middle School scrunched her nose at me and asked "are you crazy Mom?", Kendall began to jump around "when can we get the paint, when can we go Mom?" Kendall has vision, I want her to stay 10 years old. I told her it would take a little planning, and that during the week I would put up the chair rail molding and sand and prepare the wipe-board section of the wall ready for the Rust-o-leum Dry Erase Paint.

The space below the wipe board section was the blank canvas for my girls artwork, and a few of their friends they had invited. In preparation for Sunday afternoons mural, Kendall and I headed down to the local Home Depot and chose 9 colors. The associates were so helpful. We chose primary colors for mixing and tinting and a few other fun shades like a lime green, pink and a purple. The convenient 8oz pots were about $3.00 each, and we grabbed a gallon of pure white that had landed on the "oops cart" (rejected paint) for $5.00. It was a great find!

On Sunday, we collected an assortment of brushes, we put plastic down and taped the area for protection...and the handiwork began. It took 7 girls three hours, a couple dozen plastic cups, and just a little adult supervision (special creative director and Dad of artists) for mixing colors and cleaning brushes, to create the happy masterpiece that replaced my blank unappealing wall.

The first chair rail was up already approx 36" AFF (above the finished floor), I left an approximately 30" space between the first and the second one I added. The space, 84"x 30" was prepped and painted as wipe board, I applied 5 coats, more than the directions suggested, but it gave a smoother finish, and then I allowed extra dry time too, 3 days for the paint to cure instead of 2 days. I closely followed the application instructions as they pertained to time between coats and how quickly the dry erase paint must be used or discarded. The results were terrific.

Now the "wipe wall" is the first place everyone goes when they come in, it's a place for open expression, frivolous doodles, important and other miscellaneous (welcome home, going to dad's this weekend. etc) messages, it was even the home of our official New Years countdown, the kids monitored the official count, and ticked off the hours leading up to 2010. It's fun, eco-friendly, whimsical, saves paper, encourages creativity (sorry TV)... and never gets boring.

My total project investment was less than $80.00 and I recommend if you have kids, get a wall like ours (no two are the same of course)...and if you don't have kids, it's still a fun useful project!

Thanks for all the beautiful work Sadie, Molly, Anna, Kendall, Kirstie, Alana, and Ariel, I love our wall.