MONEY home improvement

The Best Flooring for Your Money

Empty room with finished parquet flooring
Getty Images

The right flooring can not only help you snag potential buyers, it can also boost your home's value.

So you’ve finally decided to pull up the old carpet in the family room and replace it with a wood floor. But what kind of wood floor? Hardwood is naturally beautiful, but it’s expensive. Engineered wood, made up of multiple plywood layers with a top layer of hardwood veneer, is quick to install. And synthetic laminate can mimic the look of many different wood species for a fraction of the price. When deciding which one to choose, consider not just the cost but also the return on your investment. Here’s some help with the decision.

Hardwood Flooring

There’s nothing like a beautiful wood floor to bring a “wow” factor to your home. But those good looks come at a cost. Expect to pay between $9 and $12 per square foot installed, compared with $3 to $5 a square foot for carpet. For a 250-square-foot living room, installation of new hardwood could run more than $2,000.

But while the up-front cost may be higher, hardwood flooring can have a great resale value. A study of homebuyer preferences by USA Today using data from the National Association of Realtors found that 54% of home buyers were willing to pay more for a home with hardwood flooring. Wood is easy to clean and maintain, and unlike engineered products it can be sanded and refinished multiple times, which means it retains its value for the long haul. A majority of real estate agents surveyed by the National Wood Flooring Association said houses with hardwood flooring are easier to sell, sell for more money, and sell faster.

Laminate Flooring

There is not much difference in cost and ROI between solid hardwood flooring and engineered hardwood, but the same isn’t true of laminate flooring. On the plus side, laminate is easy to clean, scratch-resistant, and can be installed in places where natural wood can’t go. And though it doesn’t last as long as hardwood, it costs 50% less on average to buy and install. Expect to pay about $5 to $8 a square foot for laminate flooring. Laying laminate floors is a relatively easy project, so you can save even more if you opt to DIY. (Note: Before you begin any floor project in your home, contact a local flooring expert to help you decide which flooring option is best for your particular application.)

But there’s no getting around the fact that laminate, while it may do a great job imitating wood, has few of the qualities of the real thing. In high-traffic areas it can show wear and tear, and laminate can’t be sanded or refinished for an updated appearance. Because of its lower price point, laminate also won’t do much for your home’s resale value.

The Bottom Line

So which type of flooring is better for you? To get the most bang for your buck, stick with hardwood. Potential buyers will find it more desirable—and you get to enjoy its natural beauty for as long as you own your home.

Get more smart home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

Read next: The Best Kitchen Countertop for Your Money

 

MONEY home improvement

How to Squeeze the Most Value From Your Home

woman in kitchen
Getty Images

Buyers and sellers are getting busy, but if you're planning to stay put, low rates on home equity loans and lines of credit make this a good time to remodel.

In part one of our Spring Real Estate Guide, we told you what to do if you’re in the market for a home this year. In part two, we offered tips for sellers. Today we’ve got advice for those who want to say put and add value with smart home improvements.

It’s always nice to remember that the value of your house should climb while you’re enjoying it—and at a great mortgage rate (assuming you take the advice below about refinancing!). If you’re at the love-it rather than list-it stage of your life, remodeling may be a good option. Nationwide, 57% of home-owners surveyed recently by SunTrust said they planned to spend money on home-improvement projects this year. But be warned: The competition for contractors in many markets is fierce. You may have to wait your turn in line.

If you’re staying where you are, here are three ways to get the most out of the home you’re in.

Hit the refi table. According to CoreLogic, roughly 30% of all primary mortgages still carry an interest rate of 5% or higher—even though the average fixed rate today is 1.3 points lower. If you took out a $300,000 loan in mid-2009, say, and refinanced the roughly $270,000 balance at today’s rates, you’d cut your payments by about $370 a month.

You might consider making a few other changes. First, don’t assume that your current lender will offer you the best deal this time around—different lenders are marketing different kinds of loans.

You might also want to switch to a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage, especially if you are a decade or so from retirement and looking ahead to reducing your debt. You’ll pay more each month: about $170 more than the current payment on the $300,000 30-year mortgage at 5% cited previously. But you’d retire the loan nearly a decade sooner and save tens of thousands in interest.

There’s a good reason some homeowners haven’t refinanced at all: They couldn’t. In 2012 about a quarter of homeowners owed more on their homes than the houses were worth. Thanks to rising property values, that’s changing. Today only 11% of owners have negative equity, according to CoreLogic.

If you’re one of them, you may still be able to refinance, perhaps without having to bring cash to the table. Borrowers with FHA and Veterans Administration loans are eligible for “streamlined” refinancing, which looks at payment history rather than equity. For borrowers with conventional mortgages, the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) is still available and has undergone some improvements since it was introduced in 2009. If you were turned down before, it’s worth another shot, says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of HSH.com, a mortgage information provider.

Get the right renovation financing. For a project that requires a one-time loan and at a fairly predictable cost—say, a bathroom—you may want to consider a home-equity loan, says Gumbinger. The 5.9% rate isn’t all that favorable, but you have the security of its being fixed. For a larger project in which you’ll need ongoing access to funds, a home-equity line of credit can be a better option since it operates like a credit card. HELOCs are now ringing in at 4.8%. The downside is that the rate is variable, so if you won’t be able to pay the debt off in two years, it might not be your smartest choice.

Think about the next owner. According to a 2014 survey by Houzz, 53% of homeowners who are remodeling say they are hoping to increase their home’s value. Yet most upgrades won’t help your resale. The most common remodeling projects are kitchens and bathrooms—9.5% and 7.7% of all upgrades, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. But according to Remodeling magazine’s 2015 Cost vs. Value report, you’ll recoup only 70% of costs on a bathroom remodel, 59% on a bathroom addition, 68% on a major kitchen remodel, and 79% on a minor kitchen. (The only project that recoups more than its cost: installing a steel front door, which runs from $500 to $750.) That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t renovate; just know that you’re not going to get back all of what you put in.

No matter what project you choose, consider adding improvements to appeal to aging baby boomers. According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies, just over half of existing homes have more than one of five key features for aging in place. Notably, only 8% have wide doorways and hallways or levered door and faucet handles. Those could become huge selling points. Just think: Those renovated doors could provide the perfect entrée to your next great home.

Read next: If You Want to Buy a Home Here’s What You Need to Do Now

MONEY Housing Market

6 Smart Real Estate Moves That Will Pay For Themselves

Whether you're new to the housing market or already live in the home of your dreams, these 6 moves can help put money in your pocket.

 

  • Rent Until You Can Stay Put

    rental sign in front of apartment buildings
    Alamy

    When deciding whether to rent or buy a home, don’t forget the fees, commissions, and closing costs that come with buying, says Darrow Kirkpatrick of CanIRetireYet.com. Local prices and appreciation trends matter too. Use the rent/buy calculator at Trulia.com to see the tradeoffs. A good rule of thumb is to rent if you might move in three years or so. (For more help with the decision, see “Should I Rent or Buy a Home?“)

  • Ready to Buy? Remember 28/36

    woman looking at real estate signs
    Dave and Les Jacobs—Getty Images

    Eight years after the real estate crisis, lenders are making mortgages more accessible. But don’t go back to the old days of high borrowing, even if a lender offers some wiggle room. Housing should take up no more than 28% of gross monthly income; housing plus other debt, 36% or less.

  • Fix Up Your Home—the Cheap Way

    home with new driveway
    Greg Nicholas—Getty Images

    Looking to sell fast? Curb appeal literally gets buyers in the front door. An overlooked simple project: a fresh seal coat on the driveway, which “gives a pop” of a first impression, says Kokomo, Ind., agent Paul Wyman.

  • Fix Up Your Home—the Luxe Way

    attic bedroom
    Martin Barraud—Getty Images

    You’ll get the most bang for your buck by adding living space, says Craig Webb of Remodeling magazine. An attic bedroom and basement remodel average $51,700 and $65,400, but, he says, “buyers will appreciate that you made space that wasn’t previously available.” (For a rundown of major projects and what they return in your area, check out Remodeling‘s annual Cost vs. Value survey.)

  • Ditch the 30-Year Mortgage

    Local and Express subway signs
    John Ott—Flickr Creative Commons

    The 30-year mortgage has been called the best friend of the middle class, since it allows families to buy bigger homes. But is that in your best interest? Meet your new buddy: the 15-year loan. The shorter term makes you stay on a tighter budget. The trick is to commit before picking a house, because “that really forces you to save,” says financial planner Ron Rogé. Say you can afford $1,950 payments on a $400,000 home with a 30-year loan at 3.75%. With a 15-year at 3%, you’d have to settle for a $310,000 home. But you’d have a better shot at retiring debt-free. And the total cost savings are immense.

  • Pick the Right ‘Hood

    Ample Hills Creamery ice cream shop, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York
    Richard Levine—Alamy Brooklyn, New York

    “Don’t buy in the part of town that’s already hot—you’ll have missed the opportunity to buy low and sell high,” says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow. Look in an adjacent area “and wait for the cool to come to you.” And don’t listen to that old saw about buying the worst home on the best block. That will bite you when it comes time to sell. One surprising indicator of value? Starbucks. “Homes within a quarter-mile of Starbucks doubled in value, whereas the average home in the U.S. appreciated 65%” from 1997 to 2013, Humphries says.

    Adapted from “101 Ways to Build Wealth,” by Daniel Bortz, Kara Brandeisky, Paul J. Lim, and Taylor Tepper, which originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of MONEY magazine.

MONEY deals

Long-Lasting LED Bulbs Now 90% Cheaper

Philips bulb
Philips

A new lightbulb from Philips, combined with a special deal from Home Depot, means that efficient bulbs with a 10-year lifespan cost as little as $2.50 apiece. Similar bulbs cost $25 or more not long ago.

Around Earth Day 2013, the average price of an LED lightbulb with the equivalent brightness of a 60W incandescent bulb was about $25. The average American house has roughly 40 lightbulbs, so upgrading your home to LED cost a cool $1,000.

But, as with virtually every emerging tech and consumer product, prices for LED bulbs have dropped steadily as manufacturing has ramped up and the products have been embraced in the mainstream. When This Old House published a guide to LED bulbs a year ago, most of the 60W equivalent bulbs it recommended sold at retail for $20, some went as high as $35, and one outlier was priced at a comparatively cheap $10. Manufacturers and retailers have also periodically used coupons and rebates to further bring down the cost and tempt consumers into into buying unfamiliar, non-incandescent bulbs.

Now, during Earth Day week, Philips Lighting has introduced a long-lasting LED bulb that’s simply “Too Cheap to Ignore,” as Wired put it. The 60W equivalent bulb will sell at retail for $4.97, no coupon or rebate required. What’s more, starting May 1, Home Depot will be selling two-packs for a limited time for that same $4.97.

So essentially these efficient bulbs, which have a 10-year lifespan and are expected to add just $1.02 to your annual utility bill, cost slightly less than $2.50 apiece. Remember, two years ago the typical price of a similar bulb on the market was $25. Prices have come down by a factor of ten in a remarkably short period of time, and the total cost of outfitting your home with LED bulbs can run as little as $100, rather than the $1,000 outlay a couple of years ago.

It’s been estimated that 70% of lightbulbs in the U.S. are inefficient models—usually old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. But government regulations improving the energy efficiency of bulbs are more or less phasing out the usage of incandescent bulbs. A few years ago, some shoppers were buying up all the incandescent bulbs they could find out of fear they wouldn’t be available in the future—and that they’d be stuck with overpriced alternatives that some deemed inferior. As the cost of innovative bulbs has declined and quality has improved, however, the argument in favor of old-school, inefficient incandescents has been harder to make.

For instance, Home Depot still has 40-watt and 60-watt Philips incandescent bulbs for sale, and at $3 and $4, respectively, for a two-pack they’re cheaper than the new LED bulb offer. Yet the incandescent bulbs have an expected lifespan of 1.5 to 2.7 years, compared with 10 years for the new 60W-equivalent LED bulbs. What’s more, the estimated energy cost of using the 60-watt incandescent bulb is $7.23, compared with $1.02 for the LED bulb.

Overall, now that LED retail prices have come down so substantially, there isn’t much debate about which option provides more value. Clearly, in this instance, paying a little more upfront will save you money in the long run.

MONEY sustainability

10 Super Easy Practices That Are Good for the Earth—and Your Budget

In honor of Earth Day, here are 10 incredibly easy things we should all be doing: They're good for the environment and save money at the same time.

Taking major steps like installing rooftop solar panels or buying an electric car are hardly the only ways to go green. It’s very possible to practice an earth-friendly lifestyle without incurring a major cost outlay. In fact, tons of tiny, easy tweaks to what you do and what you buy day in, day out can not only help the environment, they’ll save you money as a bonus. Here are 10 green cost-saving practices for Earth Day—and every day.

  • Walk or Bike

    Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.
    James A. Parcell—The Washington Post via Getty Images Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.

    Cities and even many small towns are increasingly focused on becoming more walkable and bike-friendly. So why not take advantage? Obviously, neither of these modes of transportation requires the use of fossil fuels or electricity. They’re also free or nearly so. Depending on where you live, you might not even have to buy a bike: The bike share program in Washington, D.C., for instance, costs $75 per year and rides are free if they last 30 minutes or less. (Check out MONEY’s ranking of the Best Places to Walk or Bike.)

  • Group Errands Together

    150420_EM_EarthDay_GroupErrands
    Getty Images—Getty Images

    You could take separate car trips to go grocery shopping, get the oil changed in the car, and visit the doctor for an annual checkup. Or you could combine them into one outing, in a process some call “trip chaining,” which is as simple—or challenging, for some—as being a little more organized and efficient. By planning ahead and grouping errands, you save time and gas money and reduce congestion on the roads.

  • Use Public Transportation

    150420_EM_EarthDay_MassTransit
    Craig Warga—Bloomberg via Getty Images New York subway

    Some parts of the country have better public transit than others, and surveys indicate that people—millennials especially—place a high priority on living in cities with good options for getting around. This makes sense for a number of reasons. According to a study on commuter satisfaction, people who get to work on foot, bike, or via train are happiest. These options are not only more affordable compared with driving, the time of one’s commute is more consistent and therefore less stressful. Check out the tools at PublicTransportation.org to scope out transit options and see how much money and carbon emissions you could save by using public transportation in your neck of the woods.

  • Drink Tap Water

    150420_EM_EarthDay_WaterBottle2
    Alamy

    Americans spent roughly $13 billion on bottled water last year, up 6% from 2013. We’re drinking roughly 34 gallons of bottled water annually per capita, up from just 1.6 gallons in 1976. Granted, this is a much healthier option than sugary beverages, but is bottled water any better for us than tap water? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, tap water is completely safe; many bottled waters are just tap water that’s sometimes (but not always) filtered. And bottled water easily costs 100 times or perhaps even 1,000 times more than tap water. Only an estimated 23% of disposable plastic water bottles are recycled, by the way.

  • Shop with Reusable Bags

    canvas bag
    Getty Images

    The environmental benefits of shopping with a reusable bag like these recommended by Real Simple are pretty obvious: They eliminate the need for plastic bags that tend to wind up in landfills. Shopping with a reusable bag may also save you money, because stores in places like Dallas and Encinitas, Calif., charge customers 5¢ or 10¢ apiece for non-reusable bags.

  • Don’t Overdo It on Groceries

    shopping list
    Getty Images

    Somewhere between 25% and 40% of the food we buy in the U.S. is thrown away. What this shows is that too many of us buy too much at supermarkets and warehouse bulk-supply retailers, and/or that we’re not particularly good at strategically freezing or concocting leftover dishes. To waste less, shop smarter and be creative with foods that might otherwise be dumped in the trash. And to avoid going overboard with impulse purchases at the grocery store, always make a shopping list in advance, and stick to it.

  • Heat and Cool Your Home Wisely

    Insulation
    Jonathan Maddock—Getty Images

    Among the many straightforward and fairly simple steps you can take to trim back household costs and conserve resources: Turn the heat down in winter (you’ll shave 1% off your heating bill for every 1 degree lower); use fans rather than nonstop A/C in the summer; insulate around doors and windows to protect from drafts; and put heating and cooling systems on a timer so that they’re only in use when needed.

  • Use Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs, Appliances

    150420_EM_EarthDay_Lightbulb
    Alamy

    They tend to cost more upfront than less efficient models. But they’ll save you money in the long run because they eat up less electricity when being used, and, at least in terms of lightbulbs, they have longer lifespans so therefore have to be replaced less frequently. As for appliances, look for the Energy Star label as a sign of a product’s efficiency—and its potential to shave dollars off your utility bills.

  • Be Practical About Landscaping

    cactuses outside home
    Trinette Reed—Getty Images

    It’s not wise to battle against Mother Nature by trying to force flowers, plants, and grasses to grow in areas where they’re simply not suited. A low-cost, low-maintenance yard is one that incorporates native plants and greenery that flourish in your zone, without requiring extensive watering, fertilizer, and attention—nor a big budget. Check out classic tips from This Old House and Better Homes & Gardens for landscaping that’s gorgeous, affordable, and earth-friendly. Don’t fixate on having a prototypical grassy front lawn, which may look good but often requires loads of time, energy, money, water, and chemicals to maintain.

  • Compost

    Dumping compost
    Jill Ferry Photography—Getty Images

    Many towns give residents free or deeply subsidized composters, and using one is generally as simple as dumping vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and such into the bin. The resulting material can be help your garden and new plants grow, and eliminate much of the need to water and buy fertilizers and pesticides. Composting reduces the amount of waste in landfills as well, of course. (Even apartment dwellers can get in on the act with vermicomposting, or composting with worms.)

MONEY home improvement

Getting Your Lawn Equipment Ready for the Season

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I learned the hard way that lawnmower gas goes stale over the winter, so now I use gasoline additive in my mower, string trimmer, snow blower, and generator. But my neighbor says it’s better to burn the tank dry. Is that true?

The reason that gas gets “stale” and can gum up power equipment engines is that it contains ethanol, which absorbs water. That water can damage the engines of non-road equipment, says Kris Kiser, of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade association.

Most gas-station gas contains 10% ethanol, thanks to a 2007 federal mandate designed to reduce carbon emissions. And 15% ethanol is now being sold at some stations, but only for cars built in 2001 or later.

It actually turns out that ethanol doesn’t provide nearly the environmental benefit that was expected—and some lawmakers are proposing eliminating the mandate altogether—but that’s another story. For now, the vast majority of small-engine problems can be traced to ethanol, says Kiser, and you have three choices for avoiding trouble:

  1. Buy ethanol-free fuel. You can get it at home centers and outdoor power equipment dealers. Burn it and you won’t have to worry about your gas going stale. The problem is you’ll pay around $6 a quart for “E-0” gas. That equates to a very steep $24 a gallon.
  2. Use a fuel stabilizer. It prevents the ethanol from absorbing moisture and thereby prevents regular gas-station fuel from going stale and gumming up the motor. A bottle that costs only about $9 will probably last you several years.
  3. Run your gas tank dry. By rationing small portions of gasoline into your power equipment as needed and always running the machines until they burn all that gas and stall out, you ensure that no gas is left in the engine to go stale. This solves the problem and offers another large benefit, especially for gas-powered generators. The standard advice to run generators monthly is largely designed to burn the old gas and prevent it from going stale. But if you leave the tank dry, there’s no need to do that. Just start it (with very little gas) every few months to ensure it’s working properly, and run it until the gas is gone.

“Any of these three options works well,” says Kiser, “but check your owner’s manuals because different manufacturers have different requirements for their machines.”

 

MONEY home improvement

5 High-Impact Home Improvements for $1,000 or Less

Simple cosmetic upgrades—and even a good cleaning—can instantly transform your home.

Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of investment to add a lot of value to your home. You can start seeing instant payback with maintenance projects that keep your home running smoothly, such as replacing furnace filters, or upgrades, like new appliances, that help save on energy costs. Although $1,000 is a drop in the bucket compared with a major home renovation project, that dollar amount can go a long way toward fixing or updating things around the house, especially if you’re planning to put your home on the market anytime soon. Here are some smart ideas for $1,000 improvements.

 

  • Update the Lighting

    lighting in living room
    Gallery Stock

    A quality light fixture can burn brightly for decades, but the style can fade. If your lighting fixtures are stuck in the ’70s, updating them will instantly transform the look of a room. Plus, switching out old sconces, pendants, or table lamps is easy to do yourself, saving you money on hiring an electrician. A quality fixture costs as little as $200, or shop floor sample sales or big-box stores for bigger bargains. If you like your current fixtures but want to give them an update, try new shades, or change the color of the metal for the cost of a can of spray paint. You can save additional dollars by swapping your old incandescents for CFL or LED bulbs, which use a lot less electricity and last far longer. Bonus: Adding more lighting to your room will generally make the space feel larger. Read more about interior lighting tips and tricks.

  • Replace the Front Door

    front door
    Dreamstime.com

    Your front door is a key element of great curb appeal, not to mention the first thing your guests see. Updating a door for better looks and added security is a wise investment of your money. The national average cost for a new steel door is $1,230, a bit over the $1,000 budget, but the cost may vary depending on where you live and whether you will be installing it yourself. The best part of this replacement project is that on average, a new steel entry door has a return on investment of 101%, one of the highest ranked projects according to Remodeling’s Cost vs. Value report.

  • Fix Up the Kitchen

    kitchen
    Eric Prine—Gallery Stock

    A grand can go pretty far in making over your kitchen. You may not be able to completely replace your dated cabinets, but you can install new drawer and door pulls (about $2 to $10 apiece) that instantly modernize the cabinet fronts. If you’re handy, you can add a new backsplash tile design for as little as $2 to $5 a square foot. Kitchen backsplashes can add big visual appeal without the cost of a full-on remodel. For appliances, you may not be able to afford the latest five-burner gas range, but you can invest in an energy-efficient stainless steel refrigerator for about $1,000 (check your stores for seasonal discounts, rebates and sales) or dishwasher for about $500. EnergyStar rated appliances will also help save on utility bills, further adding value to your home. Inexpensive cosmetic upgrades like repainting dirty walls, repairing broken shelves, fixing leaking faucets, or changing electrical outlets can all be done for $1,000 or less, many of them without the help of a professional.

  • Freshen the Bathroom

    bathroom
    Morgan Norman—Gallery Stock

    The bathroom is one of the most heavily trafficked rooms in the house, so just keeping the space clean and free from water issues can go a long way to making sure it holds its value. But $1,000 can help give the space an updated look as well as increase its functionality. A new shower curtain, fresh linens, new light fixtures, and accessories like towel bars and robe hooks can instantly modernize a bathroom. Replacing your old toilet with a WaterSense model (about $200) and adding a faucet aerator (about $5 to $15) will reduce water consumption, putting money back in your wallet each month. Some of these tasks may need the help of a professional plumber, especially if you suspect water leaks. Here’s how to tell whether to hire a pro or do it yourself.

  • Hire a Cleaning Pro

    pressure washing house
    Mats Persson—Getty Images

    You might think that $1,000 is a lot of money to spend on a house cleaner, but there are parts of your home that may require deep cleaning on a regular basis. Carpets, for example, should be cleaned about once a year—more often in heavy traffic areas. You can rent portable steam cleaners, but these models don’t have the same vacuum power as professional units, and could potentially leave water and dirt behind. Some professionals can also deep-clean upholstered furniture and area rugs as well. Another great use of your cleaning budget is pressure-washing sidewalks and driveways to remove moss, which is not only unsightly but can also be dangerous because it’s so slippery. Machines can be purchased for less than $500, and once you own a pressure-washer, you can regularly maintain walkways, driveways, patio furniture and other outdoor items. You can also rent machines by the day (check your local home center for costs). Before you attempt to use a pressure washer, though, be sure you understand how to operate it.

    Anne Reagan is the editor in chief of Porch. Get more $1,000 home improvement ideas at Porch.com.

MONEY home improvement

5 Questions to Ask Before You Hire a Roofer

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve been putting off replacing my roof, but after the beating it took this winter, I know it won’t make it through another snow season. Before I spend all that money, though, how do I make sure I’m getting the right professional for the job?

A: After this winter’s snow and ice, spring promises to be a busy season for roofers in much of the northern tier of the country. If you’re in the market for a new roof, proceed with caution, because some roofers deserve the trade’s bad reputation. As with any hire, always get referrals from homeowners or other tradespeople you trust, and check references and licensing. Then ask these five questions:

1. Can I visit a project currently being installed by the crew that will be doing my roof? However smooth the salesman is, it’s the workers that matter, so this gives you a chance to assess their workmanship, the way they keep a jobsite, and their attitudes. “And it probably means the salesman is going to give you one of his best crews, because that’s who’s going to best sell you on hiring his company,” says Dan Bydlon, the president of Craftsmen Home Improvements, a contractor in Edina, Minnesota.

2. What exactly will you be replacing? If you have two or more layers of existing roofing, building codes require that you tear them off before installing a new roof. That adds to the mess and cost no matter who does the job, but some roofers may attempt to cut corners by not replacing the flashing. Unless it’s thick copper with a lot more life left, now is the time to replace it; the contract should specify what material the roofer is going to use. Additionally, the contractor should install a rubber membrane called Ice & Water Shield along the eaves to prevent any future ice dams from causing leaks. And he should install a ridge vent at the roof peak (and soffit vents under the eaves if theyre not there already) to help prevent ice dams from forming in the first place.

3. How will you leave the job site at the end of each work day? It’s best when the roofer strips only as much as he can reroof the same day, to reduce the chance that your house is left open to the elements overnight. At the end of the day, the crew should tarp any open roof and clean up stripped shingles—including running a magnet over the lawn and planting beds to pick up stray nails—before leaving the job site. You might even write these procedures into the contract.

4. Will your insurance carrier provide a personal letter confirming your workman’s compensation and liability coverages? It’s not enough for the roofer to just tell you that he is insured, or even show you a form letter. You need a document from his insurance provider addressed to you, and there’s nothing offensive about asking for one. After all, if one of his guys falls off the roof and he is not properly insured, the injured party could sue you for medical costs and lost wages.

5. What sort of workmanship warranty do you provide? Manufacturers’ warranties do not include labor—that’s up to the contractor. One to two years is standard, and having it in writing (even as a simple clause in the contract) is preferable.

MONEY home improvement

The Best Kitchen Countertop for Your Money

For Sale sign illustration
Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I’ve been dreaming of granite countertops for years, but now that I’m finally planning my kitchen redo, I’m seeing “quartz” in all the showrooms. What exactly is it, and should I use it instead?

A: Quartz is another way of referring to “engineered stone” countertops—manmade surfaces created from chunks of stone mixed with resins and coloring. (This is not to be confused with “quartzite” or “natural quartz,” both of which refer to a solid-stone alternative to granite.)

Manufactured quartz is now the leading countertop material in the land, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association. It surpassed granite in 2014, at least for kitchens created by NKBA members. (We’re betting granite still wins if you count all of the kitchens built without a professional designer.)

Quartz has many advantages over granite, including that it’s impervious to stains and stands up to acidic foods, and it does this without ever needing to be sealed. It’s also far more scratch and chip resistant—and it’s generally considered a greener choice because it’s made from waste stone and therefore doesn’t require mining slabs or shipping them around the globe, both of which are carbon-intensive processes for natural granite and marble.

The downside to quartz—at least for some people—has always been that the patterns looked so uniform and consistent that they don’t quite pull off the look of real stone. But lately manufacturers have figured out how to create irregularity in their quartz, effectively mimicking the natural-looking variegation of granite and even the swirls of marble, in a nearly indestructible material.

“Gone are the days of flecked quartz countertops,” says Sacramento kitchen designer Kerrie Kelly. “Now there is movement and veining that mimics the look of real stone.” She no longer even displays granite in her showroom and only shows marble as a backsplash material. “It’s all about functionality today,” she says. “From furniture fabric to tile grout to countertops, low maintenance is the trump card.”

Quartz generally runs about $80 per square foot (installed), Kelly says, putting it right in the middle between granite (about $75) and marble (about $85). Some of the leading brand names include Silestone, Zodiaq, Cambria, and Caesarstone.

If you’re curious, here are the countertop materials most commonly specified by kitchen designers last year, according to the NKBA:

  • Quartz—88%
  • Granite—83%
  • Marble—43%
  • Solid surface—43%
  • Butcher block—35%
  • Other wood—29%
  • Other stone—26%
  • Recycled countertops—22%
  • Stainless steel—17%
  • Concrete—13%
  • Glass—11%
  • Tile—6%
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