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%
MONEY home improvement

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MONEY home improvement

The 7 Best Home Improvements for $500 or Less

AG-Trac Enterprises, LLC

Give your home's look a makeover without breaking the bank.

When it comes to upgrading our homes, there seems to be a never-ending list of things to do. There are the upgrades we’d love to make, like buying new furniture or replacing countertops. And then there are the things we have to fix, like inefficient appliances or a leaking roof. But there are a whole range of inexpensive improvements that don’t take much effort but can go a long way toward increasing your enjoyment of your home—and adding to its value too.

Here are 5 such upgrades you can make for less than $500.

1. Increase curb appeal

Even if you’re not planning on selling your home, curb appeal is important. For you, that might mean pressure-washing the driveway (rent one for about $100 per day), repairing broken stairs, or updating your mailbox (anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on style). Sometimes upgrading curb appeal is simply a matter of spending time in the yard and getting your hands dirty by edging the lawn, trimming hedges, or pulling weeds. To keep costs down, plant perennials that keep their greenery all year long and invest time in maintaining your garden tools so you don’t have to purchase new ones.

Read more about budget-friendly curb appeal projects

Paulsen Construction Services Inc
Paulsen Construction Services Inc

2. Fix the front door

Your front entrance can say a lot about your home. Upgrading to a high-end fiberglass door can cost more than $1,000, but you can get a whole new look for a lot less simply by adding new hardware and a fresh coat of paint. Installing a new doorbell (kits cost about $50 to $100) or updating the lighting (anywhere from $25 to $100) are also inexpensive fixes that can add instant appeal to the front entry. Pair your newly painted door with a clean doormat ($20) or fresh pot of flowers, and you’ll have a whole new entrance for under $500.

3. Repair interior walls and paint

If your walls are a standard height, it’s easy to make simple repairs like patching holes or sanding. It’s also fairly easy to prime and paint your walls, which can instantly upgrade the look of any room. You’ll need to buy paint and primer (most brands start around $30 per gallon) plus painter’s tape, brushes and rollers. (Read this to learn more about how to budget for your painting project.)

Painting can get complicated and expensive if you need to repair a significant amount of drywall, remove mold, or have really tall ceilings, so always consult a professional if you feel you might be in over your head.

4. Update lighting and change bulbs

The lighting fixtures in your home are like jewelry on an outfit—they can instantly add pizzazz or look dated. Switching out a chandelier or sconce is a fairly easy, budget‐friendly project. Shop big-box stores for inexpensive pendants, or ask about floor sample sales at retail outlets. Plan on spending at least $200 for a large fixture, about $100 for a bathroom vanity light, and $100 or less for a wall sconce. If you’re on a tight budget, consider using the fixtures you already have but updating them with a coat of spray paint, a new light shade, or a dimmer switch. To make sure you’re really adding value, switch to energy efficient bulbs like LEDs (about $7 for a 60W equivalent) or CFLs (about $9 for a 60W equivalent) bulb. Although both are more expensive than an incandescent bulb, they last longer and require less energy.

Normandy Design Build Remodeling
Paulsen Construction Service Inc.

5. Install new toilets

Your motivation for buying and installing a new toilet may be for aesthetic reasons, but newer toilets can also save you money. Toilets installed prior to 1995 use as much as 6 gallons of water per flush; newer WaterSense models use as little as 1.2 gallons.

Over time this can represent thousands of gallons of water you won’t have to pay for. Additionally, older toilets are more likely to leak, wasting even more water and money. A slowly running toilet can waste as much as 200 gallons of water a day. Replacing a toilet (about $100‐$200) isn’t hard for an experienced DIYer. But call the plumber if you have other leaks in the bathroom or kitchen; getting them fixed will save you water and money.

6. Maintain your mechanics

Just like maintaining a car, regularly having your appliances and mechanical devices inspected and tuned up can save you lots of money in the long run. Major repairs or replacements can run into the thousands, but a simple check up might be as little as $100. Ask your serviceperson to let you know about any special customer care programs. Sometimes long-term customers are rewarded with free inspections or discounted servicing. (Thinking about DIY appliance repair? Read this first.)

7. Monitor energy usage

There are many smart-home devices on the market aimed at letting you get to know your home habits and helping you save money on energy or utility costs. Devices like Iris (Comfort & Control kit is $80) can help you regulate the temperature of your home and alert you to any unexplained changes. Add-on devices like the Utilitech Water Leak system ($30) can alert you to water leaks. Ultimately these devices help you save money on your energy and utility bills and keep you from expensive repairs down the line.

Anne Reagan is editor-in-chief of Porch.com.

Read more:

How to Budget Your Painting Project
5 Budget-Friendly Updates to Boost Your Home’s Curb Appeal
Fix Leaks & Start Saving Money

TIME advice

56 Essential Survival Skills for Homeowners

repairing-sink-pipe
Getty Images

Prep now for common household disasters you may (unfortunately) encounter

Our household troubleshooting guide will get you out of all-too-common jams around the house, whether they’re true emergencies or everyday annoyances.

1. Tighten a Stair Baluster

Use a thin flat bar to gently pry off the end cap on the stair tread, which will expose the mortise that holds the baluster. Insert a shim to push the baluster tight against the banister on top. Then reattach the tread cap.

2. Unclog a Caulk Nozzle

Chuck a drill bit into your driver and zip through the dried-up gunk in the tip.

3. Remove Porcelain-Sink Stains

Start with toilet cleaner and scrub in circles. If that doesn’t work, try Bar Keepers Friend, which contains pumice, a mild abrasive. If that doesn’t work either, wet the sink and use a pumice stick; it’s the most aggressive technique that’s safe for porcelain. If that also fails? Sorry, you’ll need a professional refinishing.

4. Get Your Radiators to Heat Up All The Way

Trapped air can cause a hot-water or steam radiator to stay cold at the top. Releasing the air restores efficiency. On a hot-water unit, let the air out through the bleed valve, a square nut located near the top of the unit. Using either a special valve key or a flathead screwdriver (depending on your model), open the valve a quarter turn until you hear hissing. When water begins bubbling out, close the valve again. Steam units trap air if the valve’s air vent is clogged with paint or dirt (or not pointing up). With the heat off, clean out the little hole at the top of the valve with a wire, or just replace the whole thing. But with either system, warns This Old House plumbing and heating expert Richard Trethewey, “be careful with those valves. That radiator is way older than you are, and if those threads break, you’ve got a big problem.” For a stubborn valve, he recommends holding the outside nut with a crescent wrench as you turn the valve. You can also use WD-40, but not too much elbow grease: Better to leave a bubble than to bust a radiator.

5. Install a Motion-Detector Light

So long as there’s an existing light fixture, this job is a cinch: Kill the power, remove the old unit, and wire up the new one, says TOH‘s go-to master electrician, Scott Caron. “Hot” black wire to black, neutral white to white, and don’t forget to connect the green ground to the bare copper wire wound around the ground screw. “Really,” he says, “the most important thing is to buy a high-quality unit.” Sophisticated circuitry guards against false triggers, and you can adjust the sensor to ignore animals—or not. “I like to know when our neighborhood skunk is around so I don’t get surprised,” Caron says. Set the light to test mode and aim the sensor so that it doesn’t pick up traffic or pedestrians. Or late-night hot-tub action.

Read the full list HERE.

This article originally appeared on This Old House.

More from This Old House:

TIME advice

50 Home Fix-Ups for Under $100

front-doors-curtain
Getty Images

These tips, projects, and products can offer a big payoff for a small investment

Simple upgrades can drastically improve the feel and function of your home. Read on for clever tips, projects, and products that offer a big payoff for a small investment in time and money.

1. Dressed-Up Door

Block drafts and highlight the entry with a curtain on the inside of the front door.

Lush Decor’s Mia Panel Pair in eggshell white with silver and black stripes, about $40, and Talon Valance in gray, about $20; wayfair.com

2. Surprisingly Luxe Lighting

Wire up a rustic lantern over a dining table as a striking substitute for the typical chandelier.

Hampton Bay Hanging 3-Light Outdoor Aged Iron Lantern, about $60; homedepot.com

3. Cozy and Practical

Cover a ceiling in cork for a cozy effect that also absorbs noise. Trim cork sheets to size. Spread adhesive on ceiling, position cork, and roll into place, securing corners with brad nails.

Natural Tan Composition Cork, about $3 per square foot, and Forbo adhesive, about $10 per quart; bangorcork.com

4. Noticeable House Numbers

Adorn your door with house numbers in an oversize fancy font so that friends can find you easily. Stick-on vinyl decals in a range of fonts and colors make it simple.

Similar: From $10; etsy.com/shop/vinylizeit

5. New Sliding View

Rehang an existing door, or a new salvaged one, as a space-saving slider using barn-door hardware for a chic industrial look.

Barn-door install kit, about $95; hardwareworld.com

Read the full list HERE.

This article originally appeared on This Old House.

More from This Old House:

MONEY home improvement

7 Things Every Remodeling Contract Must Have

Q: The builder who’s doing my family room addition handed me a fill-in-the-blanks form contract with handwritten details and numbers. It looks about as unofficial as can be. Is that a problem? What should a remodeling contract include?

A: A contract doesn’t have to be printed off a computer—or contain a bunch of legalese—to get the job done. But it should clearly state the arrangement that you and your contractor have about the project, and it sounds like this document probably doesn’t do that very well.

“Putting everything in writing helps clarify both parties’ expectations at the beginning,” says Fairfield, Conn., construction attorney Neal Moskow. “And it’s much easier to fulfill your expectations at the end if they’re clearly stated from the start.”

The safest bet is to have your attorney draw up a contract for you. But even if you choose a less formal approach, here are the basic elements Moskow recommends including—either by typing up a new document or just making handwritten changes on the existing form, as long as both you and the contractor initial each change.

 

1. A description of the project. The contract should include a project description that thoroughly outlines all of the work, materials, and products that will go into the job. That includes everything from what will be demolished to what will be constructed—and each different material and fixture that will be used, with its associated cost. It should also specify that the contractor will obtain all of the necessary permits (and close them out by getting the required certificates of occupancy) and dispose of the debris properly, and that the project is covered by his liability and workman’s compensation insurance.

2. How (and how often) the contractor will be paid. Not only should the contract state the total project price, but it should also outline the timing and amount of installment payments based on project milestones, such as when the foundation is completed, the rough plumbing and electricity are installed, or the wallboard and trim are done. Your initial payment at the start of the job should be no more than 10% of the project cost. If the contractor has to immediately place orders for expensive items such as windows or cabinets, offer to pay the supplier directly. The final payment should be at least 10%, payable only when the “punch list” (the roundup of final project details) is completed to your satisfaction.

3. Lien waivers. Here’s a scary thought: Any worker who comes to your house as part of a remodeling crew could place a lien on your property, claiming he was never paid for his work—even if you have paid the contractor in full. So write into the contract that your contractor must provide you with a “lien waver” for each installment before you pay the next one. What that means is that the invoice for each payment needs to include a signed statement indicating that the contractor used your previous payment to pay for the labor and materials described in its invoice. That gives you some legal protection against liens from him or his employees and subcontractors.

4. Approximate project dates. Discuss approximate start and end dates for the project with your contractor and write them into the contract. The point is not to hold him to an exact date but to ensure that you both have an understanding of when work will commence and—barring weather interruptions or major plan changes—about when it will be completed.

5. A procedure for changes. Write in that no changes to the original plan can commence until the contractor has given you a clear description of the new work, how much it will cost, and how it will affect the schedule—and until you have given written approval. Change orders should be done with pen and ink (or by text or email). If you ever make a verbal agreement on the fly, follow up with an email to the contractor restating the details and your approval, and ask him to respond with a confirming email that you got the details right, so you have a written record.

6. An escape hatch. Some states’ consumer protection laws give homeowners three days to rescind a contract without penalty. And it’s a good idea to write in just such protection for yourself if you’re not in one of them. This prevents you from losing your deposit if, for example, you sign the contract and then find out that there’s a problem with your credit line and you don’t have the funds you thought you did.

7. Signatures. A contract isn’t a binding legal document unless it’s signed by both parties—and in some states, it also must include the contractor’s license number and both of your addresses.

Read next: What Your Contractor Really Means When He Says…

 

TIME advice

34 Life-Changing Tips for a More Organized Home

organized-wardrobe
Getty Images

Organize any part of your home from entryway to bathroom to kitchen to bedroom

We asked pro organizers for strategies that help them conquer chaos in their own lives. The result: secrets that will streamline your day and restore your peace of mind (promise!)

Entryway: Furnish the Space

Take inspiration from Jenkins, who uses a Victorian-era dresser to organize her entry. “The drawers hold gloves, hats, and other outdoor accessories, and the mirror on top gives us a place to do a spot check before we leave,” she says. Another popular option: cube storage systems with fabric bins for each family member’s gear.

Entryway: Map It Out

Make organization a no-brainer with thoughtful placement. Put sports equipment or school bags on the way to the car or very nearby. Then kids can grab them as they’re headed out the door and put them right back as they return. “The farther away you put those things, the harder kids have to work and the less likely it is that things will get back to where they belong,” says Tokos.

Entryway: A Place for Everything

Get the most out of entry storage by giving each group of items its own designated space. Labels can help. Says Morgenstern: “If a shelf or a cabinet or a drawer is marked miscellaneous, it’s easy to put things into but impossible to retrieve things from.”

Entryway: Peg Rail

Shaker-style wood pegs hung by the door make it easy to hang hats, scarves, and even leashes on your way in or grab on the way out.

About $25; landofnod.com

Entryway: Charging Station

Create a neat place to power up phones and tablets. Make one, as we did, by drilling holes in the bottom of a wood mail sorter, to thread cords through, then give it a coat of color.

Read the full list HERE.

This article originally appeared on This Old House.

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MONEY Ask the Expert

How to Evaluate Contractor Bids

Q: I’ve followed your advice and gotten three bids from different contractors who want to do my project. Now what? Do I just hire the one with the best price?

A: Those bids can tell you a lot about the contractors who wrote them—but they may not be very accurate measures of the total price each one would wind up charging for your project. Here’s why.

Unless you’ve given the bidders the exact specifications for your job—in other words, drawings, materials lists, and product names put together by an architect or designer—the bids are at best educated guesses, says Cambridge, Mass., Realtor and renovation consultant Bruce Irving.

The contractor is making assumptions about what you’ll pick as the project unfolds and pricing each component of the job based on those assumptions. So the differences in their bids could very well boil down to differences in their assumptions. And your costs are bound to escalate as the project proceeds, because you can be sure that the contractors will hit you with up-charges for any product or option you select that’s more expensive than his estimate.

If you have hired a professional designer (which Irving recommends for any significant project, because for the added 10% or 20% you’ll pay, he says, you will get you a far better result, professional oversight of the contractor, and a whole lot less stress along the way), the bids are likely much more accurate measures of what each contractor will charge, especially if their bottom lines are just a few percentage points apart. Always throw away outliers. Extreme low bidders are probably desperate for work and planning to cut corners on your job, and super high bidders are probably too busy to take on your project unless you’re willing to overpay.

Whether or not you’re not using a designer, however, bids can be quite useful as character studies about the contractors.

“Look not only at the numbers but at how they’re presented,” says Irving. “Are they clear, organized, detail-oriented, and delivered when they were promised? Do they accurately reflect the nuances of what you told him you’re looking to do?” There’s no guarantee that a quality bid equates to a quality contractor—or that a sloppy one means you’ll get sloppy work—but it increases the odds.

Look for a bid that thoroughly outlines every aspect of the job, from the cost of the porta-potty for the crew to the fee for the town building permits—and of course the contractor’s price for each and every element of the project, with a bit of detail about the options that he’s priced (not just “under-cabinet lights,” for example, but “eight under-cabinet LED light fixtures”).

That way, even without architect specs, you can see, in writing, exactly what he’s proposing to deliver—and charge you—for each part of the job. Once you sign the bid and it becomes your contract, if a question arises later about whether the price includes, say, installing stone or ceramic tiles, you’ll have his description to refer back to.

In any case, the bids should only play a supporting role in your decision about who to hire. “It’s just as important to visit a current project, see the way the jobsite is kept, and meet the crew,” says Irving. “And it’s vital that you talk to his three most recent customers to ask whether they’d use him again—and how close the final price came to his original bid.”

MONEY Ask the Expert

Home Improvements That Add the Most Value

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

Q: I’m hoping to sell my house in the spring, and I’m told the place could use some freshening before I put it on the market. I don’t have the budget to fix everything, so which are the best projects to invest in if I want to get some of that money back when I sell?

A: The good news is that after years of sluggish performance, in many places the housing market has started picking up steam again. But that doesn’t mean you can expect every home improvement project to increase your home value when it comes time to sell. Remodeling magazine’s latest Cost vs. Value report shows that, on average, home improvements paid back 62% of their costs at resale in 2014. That’s up from a low of 58% in 2011, but still well below the 87% paybacks of 2005.

Each year, the magazine surveys contractors about the costs for a host of common projects and asks Realtors to estimate how much each of those projects adds to a house. You can’t exactly take the results to the bank, because there are a host of other factors that will affect your payback, from how badly your house needs the work to how common such updates are in your neighborhood. Still, the numbers are handy to keep in mind if you’re investing in a project and also think you may sell within a few years.

Here’s how the 2014 return on investment looked for some major remodeling projects across the country. As you can see, curb appeal goes a long way, ditto cosmetic upgrades of kitchens and baths. For a regional breakdown to see how much these projects would add in your area, check out the full report.

 

Project Cost ROI
Siding Replacement (upscale fiber cement) $14,014 84.3%
Deck Addition (midrange wood) $10,048 80.5%
Minor kitchen remodel (midrange) $19,226 79.3%
Window Replacement (midrange vinyl) $11,198 72.9%
Finish basement (midrange) $65,442 72.8%
Window Replacement (upscale wood) $17,422 71.9%
Bathroom Remodel (midrange) $16,724 70%
Major Kitchen Remodel (midrange) $56,768 67.8%
Add a two-car garage (midrange) $52,382 64.8%
Family Room Addition (midrange) $84,201 64.1%
Bathroom Remodel (upscale) $54,115 59.8%
Major Kitchen Remodel (upscale) $113,097 59%
Master suite addition (upscale) $236,363 53.7%

Source: 2015 Cost vs. Value Report

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