ARCHIVE

BUILDING SUCCESS

Regardless of the financial circumstances that set a homeowner against the decision to purchase another home, many choose to improve rather than move. Home improvement brings with it a decided increase in a home’s comfort, quality and/or size. These factors are of special importance to those who like living in the homes they now have, but wish to further customize them to their own tastes. Home improvement may also be undertaken to bring a home more in line with neighborhood standards. Whatever the reason, home improvement must be done with a great deal of planning and understanding. The aim of this column in the months ahead is to address home improvement topics so readers may enjoy building success.

HINT: A project that is well planned is less likely to entail costly construction changes, deletions and add-ons.

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BRIGHT WHITE

Once again, white kitchens maintain their popularity because of their classic looks, excellent resale potential, and ability to visually open up interior space. Homeowners also now recognize that white kitchens provide the most potential for excitement since anything goes with white, from various types of hardware appliance finishes to a wide range of flooring, countertops, and paint colors. Many homeowners begin with the selection of warm white for the cabinetry color and then add molding to make the cabinets look more like furniture. To warm up white kitchens further, designers encourage the selection of ceramic or glass tiles in the homeowner’s favorite colors for the backsplash. A luxurious feel can be introduced with stained wood floors and colorful accent pieces.

HINT: White kitchens have an exceedingly clean look that invites subtle embellishment with stone countertops.

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THE ESSENTIAL SAW

Even though most home workshops include a circular saw and a table saw, there is always room for a jigsaw. This very versatile saw has just what it takes to do most small jobs. While less-expensive jigsaws may sacrifice some power and features that the most expensive models have, those in the middle price range ($50 to $100) are usually all that the typical do-it-yourselfer needs. Some features to look for in this category are tool-less blade exchange, tool-less base plate bevel, and oscillating control. More expensive models may have an LED light, a blower (to blow dust away), and a speed control dial. Those faced with larger jobs should choose a jigsaw with a higher amp rating (5-7 amps).

HINT: While jigsaws are largely made to cut curves in wood, they also can cut metal, plastic, ceramic tile, and fiber cement siding.

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MAKING IT STICK

Wood glue is extremely effective at doing the job it was formulated to do, but it helps to know some gluing tricks. First of all, be aware of the fact that glue does not stick to varnish or stain. Therefore, either mask any portions of the wood project intended for gluing, before applying finish, or be sure to sand them thoroughly afterward. It also helps to use a flux brush (usually available among plumbing supplies) to spread glue in hard-to-reach areas. Once the glue has hardened, if any excess must be removed, use a damp synthetic abrasive pad for the job. A damp rag will only spread the glue over surfaces intended for finishing later.

HINT: If you use too little wood glue, it will create a “starved” joint with little holding power. Using too much glue, however, creates a mess.

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ZONING IN

While the traditional “work triangle” (consisting of the refrigerator, sink, and cooktop in an efficient triangular configuration) has been the model of kitchen design for decades, modern appliances and new cooking approaches argue for an update. While older kitchen design was primarily concerned with storage, cooking, and cleanup, today’s kitchens have microwaves, baking areas, snack or breakfast zones, coffee sections, cooking zones, preparation areas, and other task-specific spaces. With this in mind, kitchen designers look to create specific work areas with enough storage room and counter space to accommodate small appliances and other equipment. This strategy is far preferable to shoehorning these items into kitchen cabinets as afterthoughts. Homeowners can start by thinking about what appliances they use most.

HINT: A breakfast zone can consist of the coffee maker, toaster oven, microwave, refrigerated drawer, a cupboard for mugs, and a second sink.

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STOPPING FOUNDATION LEAKS

If a spring inspection of your home’s foundation reveals gaps and cracks, ordinary mortar made of Portland cement will not provide a good fix because it shrinks as it dries. It is better to use hydraulic cement, which expands as it cures, filling in gaps and ensuring that no water will push its way into the basement. In addition, hydraulic cement is designed to be used under water. This means that it can be used when leaks are active. Hydraulic cement comes in powder form that is mixed with water. It is suggested that users work with small batches since the cement hardens in three to five minutes, so work quickly and efficiently.

HINT: Because hydraulic cement is caustic and the dust it produces can cause irritation, it is important to wear a dust mask and gloves while working with it.

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LET’S SEE…

While we have become accustomed to storing dishes, glasses, and other kitchen-related items in wall cabinets behind solid doors, open shelves and glass cabinet doors are increasingly making their way into new and renovated kitchens. The motivations behind this trend are to visually expand kitchen space while placing kitchen wares on display and making them more accessible. While this open storage effect may seem to be best suited to contemporary styles, it works in kitchens of all types. The key to open-storage success is to place a high priority on presentation. Whether placing dishes, pots and pans, or gourmet oils and vinegars on display, it works best if the items have a fashionable quality and unified appearance.

HINT: Open shelving in the kitchen can be either framed or held up with brackets.

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DEFYING EXPECTATIONS

Compartmentalizing the toilet and/or tub enables homeowners to have a bathroom that looks more like other areas of living space in the home. Sectioning off the more mechanical elements of the bathroom allows the eye to focus on the furniture-like qualities of the vanity and the ornamental look of the sinks. In addition, there has been a design trend in recent years that has led to a more sculptured and artful appearance of the toilet. Without any obvious hardware, it has come to resemble a piece of art-gallery sculpture in some instances. With the addition of recessed washbasins and appropriate cabinetry, a bathroom can thus be considered more of a personal retreat than a purely functional room.

HINT: Sectioning off the dressing and makeup areas from the bathroom allows for steam-free grooming and dressing.

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TOP-DRAWER APPLIANCES 

Universal design, which places a high priority on making all areas of the home accessible to seniors, is gaining traction. Once primarily limited to homes in which handicapped individuals live, universal design is making its way into homes of Baby Boomers who want to age in place. One of the more notable developments toward this goal involves increased use of “drawer appliances,” which are positioned at below-countertop level. The most popular among these are microwaves and warming drawers that function as well as their counterparts without hanging over a cooktop or countertop. Dishwasher drawers and refrigerator drawers are also becoming increasingly popular because they are within easy reach of those in wheelchairs and others with limited mobility.

HINT: Pull-out drawers in base cabinets are another universal design element that makes retrieval of pots, pans, dishes, and utensils easier for seniors and others with physical limitations.

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ENDURING DOORS

Whether you are a seller looking to increase your home’s “curb appeal” or simply want to replace a tired-looking front door, you may want to consider installing a top-quality fiberglass replacement entry door. Even people who have traditionally favored wood doors can attest to the fact that today’s fiberglass doors do a great job of mimicking the look and feel of their wood forebears. In fact, there is a host of texture, molding, glass, and hardware options to match any material and style. Fiberglass doors also typically have an R-value of about 6 (versus wood’s R-2) due to their insulating foam cores. Plus, they do not shrink and require nothing more than regular cleaning with a damp cloth for maintenance.

HINT: If you prefer the natural beauty of a wood entry door, look for products with laminated veneers and engineered lumber cores in order to reduce swelling and sticking and other problems.

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MORE SHOWERS HEADED OUR WAY

Bathtubs (even jetted ones) are becoming more like dining rooms in that they are increasingly being regarded as seldom-used features of a home that are no longer wanted. Instead, homeowners are often choosing to install multiple showerheads and sprays with “rain effects” in 4- x 6-foot (and larger) enclosures. With water spray coming from several directions simultaneously, taking a shower is fast becoming an experience that is almost akin to going to a water park. It is even possible to transform an enlarged shower into a mini steam room. To bring utility up to the level of fun, larger shower enclosures with multiple showerheads also employ bench seating, well-placed shelves, and shower-product dispensers. Showering has never been more fun!

HINT: Glass doors and partitions give shower enclosures a decidedly contemporary feel and help to visually expand the bathroom.

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ASPHALT SEALERS

As the oils in aging asphalt oxidize and degrade, driveway surfaces become brittle and more prone to crazing. Asphalt is also porous. Thus, in cold weather, moisture works into the pores and mini-cracks of the asphalt, expanding and widening them and popping out the surrounding material. Rain can also seep into the cracks and wash out the supporting base material, thereby setting up the vicious cycle of ever-widening cracks. Fortunately, asphalt sealers fill these cracks and pores, speed water runoff, and help slow the cycle. While thin sealers are mostly cosmetic, heavy-duty sealers fill the cracks and create a durable topcoat. Good sealers have more solids, which form the actual protective coat.

HINT: Spring and summer are the time to seal asphalt driveways against the future inclement weather of winter.

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THE KITCHEN SINK

While stainless steel kitchen sinks remain quite popular, many homeowners prefer the color variations available with other materials. Enameled cast iron, one of the oldest and most durable fixture materials, consists of porcelain enamel (in a wide range of colors) applied over cast iron. Vitreous china sinks are made from a clay-and-mineral mixture that is glazed and fired at high temperatures, resulting in high-gloss sinks that are scratch- and stain-resistant as well as very easy to clean. Also available is fireclay, which is similar to vitreous china’s clay-and-mineral mixture but fired at higher temperatures, making it even more resistant to extreme heat. Fireclay is also smooth and non-porous; it will neither fade nor discolor.

HINT: Vitreous china sinks can be quite economical.

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CUTTING EDGE

When selecting handsaws, bear in mind that there are more than just the popular “crosscut saw,” which has fine teeth (8-12 per inch) offset on both sides of the blade. There is also the “backsaw.” With its heavy spine and deep cutting blade, it is perfect for cutting joints. (Larger versions of the backsaw are used in miter boxes.) In addition, to make cuts that power saws cannot reach, there are “toolbox saws.” With their hardened teeth that cut on both the push and pull strokes, these small saws are convenient to have on hand as accessories to power saws. Lastly, “Japanese saws” cut on the pull stroke. Accordingly, their blades do not have to be heavy and stiff.

HINT: Use a “coping saw” to make sharp inner corners and curves in wood.

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UP FOR GRABS

When renovating or building a new bathroom, it is a good idea to incorporate grab bars into the design for both current and future use. Grab bars are not just for the disabled. It is helpful for anyone to be able to grab onto a sturdy handhold when emerging from the tub or shower after finding oneself in an awkward or off-balance situation. With this in mind, plan for grab-bar placement before the walls of the new bathroom are closed in. That way, wall blocking may be installed in locations that will serve as anchoring points for grab bars. Generally speaking, the wall structure and grab bar should be able to support loads of up to 300 pounds.

HINT: It makes sense to install a grab bar adjacent to the toilet.

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BATTLE OF THE TAPE

The ultimate success of any do-it-yourself drywall job rests with correctly applying drywall taping, fiber mesh, and corner beads. Corner beads should be securely fastened to the framing on each side (one nail every ten inches). Because paper drywall tape has a crease and is more flexible than fiber mesh, it is best used in corners (applied with a corner trowel). Fiber mesh is self-adhering and allows compound to pass through it, making it unnecessary to fill cracks prior to application. For best results, use a very thin coat of setting compound. Although it is difficult to sand, it shrinks less than regular joint compound and dries rock hard. Use joint compound for the second coat.

HINT: When applying joint compound to drywall screw holes, make two passes from different directions.

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DESK SPACE FOR NEW KITCHENS

Desktop computers may have given way to iPads and smartphones, but it is still necessary to locate all these information-gathering devices in one centralized area for easy retrieval of important information. At the very least, as the hub of the household, the kitchen needs a place to set down the mail and car keys, as well as to sit down to send e-mails, pay bills, and look up recipes. All it takes to create a modest kitchen desk area is about three feet of wall space in which to locate a desk top, some pull-out drawers, and open shelving. When outfitted with proper lighting and electrical outlets, the desk area can become the ideal work space.

HINT: A kitchen desk area can handle paperwork that would otherwise accumulate on countertops elsewhere in the kitchen.

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MILDEWS AND DON’TS

When mildew builds up on exterior walls, treat the surface with a mixture of one part bleach with three parts water. Leave the mixture on the surface for about 20 minutes, and then rinse thoroughly. To guard against future mildew accumulation on exterior walls, clean the surface and only paint when completely dry. Avoid painting on windy days when mildew spores from nearby surfaces may infect the fresh paint. While many high-quality paints contain a mildewcide, additives are also available to help paint resist mildew. It may also help to use latex paint, which contains fewer nutrients for the mildew to feed upon. Glossy paints are also less porous, which gives mold spores less to grab onto.

HINT: Once a mold spore is exposed to humidity, it soaks up water and expands, a process that continues as long as there is a source of oxygen-rich humid air.

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SOAKING WET

According to the latest National Kitchen & Bath Association survey, nearly two-thirds (64%) of its members specified a soaking tub in their master bath designs, and 42% expect that trend to accelerate in 2014. Homeowners and designers have significantly shifted their preferences from jetted tubs to non-jetted models. To achieve the spa-like effect that a soaking tub brings to master baths, homeowners with room to spare may set their sights on full-sized models with luxurious contours. In more limited spaces, there has been a great deal of emphasis on deep Japanese soaking tubs that have a more constrained footprint. These tubs offer all of the soaking potential of larger tubs with a promise of greater energy and water savings.

HINT: Inspired by the prevalence of outdoor hot-water springs, soaking tubs in Japan make it possible to soak neck-deep at home. This tradition is fast catching on in American homes.

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COMPOUND INTEREST

Because it can cut framing lumber and trim, and perform a host of other duties, the 10-inch compound miter saw stands at the heart of just about any home workshop. This versatile power tool has a blade that pivots left and right for angled cuts and tilts in a single direction for beveled cuts. Maneuvering the saw on both of its axes simultaneously yields a compound miter cut. This saw is useful for making cuts for picture frames, crown molding, or any project that requires angled cuts in two planes. While compound miter saws tilt in only one direction, dual compound miter saws can tilt both left and right, which means that they cut bevels at any angle.

HINT: Sliding compound miter saws have a sliding feature similar to a radial arm saw that allows users to move the blade forward and backward, thereby providing cuts of increased length.

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KITCHENS WITHOUT BORDERS

We have come a long way since traditional kitchen design defined the kitchen as an isolated room. Now, “open” designs that more fully integrate the kitchen with the rest of the house prevail. So, what is the next step? The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) released its “The New Home in 2015” report, which surveyed designers, home builders, and other kitchen experts to rate the likelihood that certain characteristics would be included in the typical 2015 home. On a scale from one (not likely) to five (most likely), the forecast that the 2015 kitchen will fuse with the living room, family room, and dining room to become one open “great room” received an average 4.6 rating.

HINT: According to the latest designer surveys, glass backsplashes are becoming ever more popular.

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A LIST OF ENERGY UPGRADES

If you have it in mind to make your home more energy efficient, you might want to prioritize your list of improvements with the least costly coming first. Probably the most cost-effective improvement of this sort involves installing a programmable thermostat, which cuts down on unnecessary heating and cooling. Next on the list could very likely be replacing energy-wasting bulbs and lighting fixtures. For each incandescent bulb that you replace in your home with a compact fluorescent, you can expect to save about $6 per year in electricity. After that, it is a good idea to air seal your home’s windows, doors, foundation, and attic, which the Environmental Protection Agency estimates can cut heating and cooling costs by 20%.

HINT: Once you have followed the energy-saving steps described above, think about replacing your old appliances with newer, more energy-efficient models.

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A BREAK WITH TRADITION

There has been a gradual shift in bathroom (and other room) design preference in recent years that has led to “traditional” no longer being the most popular type of design. Instead, “transitional” is now the most popular design. The shift is more subtle than radical because transitional represents a blend of traditional and contemporary. As such, transitional is typified by lines that are more simple than traditional, but a touch more elaborate than contemporary. The result is a modern, classic look that both modernists and traditionalists can embrace. Of course, traditional still remains popular, and contemporary is the third most common style. Shaker, Arts and Crafts, and cottage also have their enthusiastic followers when it comes to individual decorating style.

HINT: The most interesting decorating styles, such as “eclectic,” borrow from various influences.

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TAKING THE BIT

When drilling a hole in wood, it often happens that the drill bit emerges on the back side surrounded by splinters. The bit may enter the wood cleanly because the top surface is surrounded by plenty of supporting wood fiber, but the unsupported backside allows splinters to push away with the bit. If this poses a problem for a wood project that will be viewed from both sides, woodworkers can take measures to minimize (if not totally eliminate) splintering. All that is required is that a second board be placed beneath the work piece prior to drilling. This second piece will provide the necessary support needed to resist splintering. It always helps, too, to use a sharp drill bit.

HINT: Forstner bits, which are designed to drill precise flat-bottomed holes in wood, are less prone to splintering.

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THE BEAUTY OF SEMI-CUSTOM CABINETS

One-third of the cost of an average kitchen renovation budget is consumed by the cabinets. Therefore, it pays homeowners to get the best value they can, which often means selecting “semi-custom” cabinets. A recent survey of members of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturer’s Association (KCMA) reveals that semi-custom cabinets account for 46 percent of the overall market. Semi-custom cabinets fall somewhere between stock and custom cabinets. As defined by the KCMA, they are “built to order but within a defined set of construction parameters; available in standard widths but with more choices for depth and height modifications.” Unlike stock cabinets, which are limited to very specific dimensions, styles, and finishes, semi-custom cabinets offer “flexibility within limitations.”

HINT: Unlike stock cabinets, which are often available off the shelf, semi-custom kitchen cabinets require a longer lead time because they are built upon the receipt of an order.

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UNDER-THE-TABLE PAYOFF

Nearly every serious woodworker has a router; however, unless it’s mounted to a table, it will be difficult to get the full benefit from this very versatile power tool. Once mounted on a table, a router becomes a highly accurate joinery machine that is capable of producing flawless sliding dovetails and tenons that fit straight into their mortises. A table-mounted router also produces more consistent edges due to the fact that it is not susceptible to tipping. For greater convenience, consider a plunge router with built-in above-the-table height adjustments, or get a router lift and clamp the router motor in it. The table should also have a power switch within easy reach, precluding the need to reach under the table.

HINT: For the best dust collection, choose a router table that has dust ports at the fence and at the collection box that encapsulates the router.

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RADIANT BATHROOMS

Your first step on a heated bathroom floor tells you that radiant (underfloor) heating combines practicality and comfort. Unlike a vented forced-air heating system, a radiant system provides even heating at floor level, making it exceedingly efficient. The tile and stone that are commonly used on bathroom floors are also great conductors of radiant heat. The two most common types of radiant floor heating systems are electric (electric wires) and hydronic (hot water tubes). While electric radiant floor heating systems are more affordable to install, they are more expensive to operate than hydronic systems. Consequently, electric underfloor heating is generally specified for smaller spaces while hydronic systems are best for larger applications.

HINT: Hydronic towel racks provide a good way to introduce radiant heat into bathrooms.

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PAINTING ADVICE

If you’re tackling a painting job in your home, do not try to cut corners. To begin with, do not attempt to coat walls with one thick coat of paint that may run and take quite a bit of time to dry. Instead, try applying two thin, even coats of paint, which will result in a better job. If you do use a primer, avoid using a light color that you will be trying to cover with dark paint. Instead, use a tinted primer (such as gray) underneath darker paints. Having said all that, cheap paint seldom provides any decent value. Instead, it is likely that it will take more inexpensive paint (and effort) to cover a surface than necessary.

HINT: Do not attempt to paint over an unprimed patch of wall since most patching compound will leave an unattractive foggy spot on the wall (called “flashing”).

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DESIGNING A HEALTHY KITCHEN

Recent research focusing on the factors that influence how, what, and when we eat has led to kitchen design that encourages better eating behaviors. Factors such as how people store food, where people eat, and what they look at when they eat are now being given careful consideration. For instance, kitchen designers and health researchers want to know such things as, if a window in the eating area of the kitchen overlooks a garden, will it encourage healthier eating? Such variables as lighting, colors, sound, and air circulation may also affect how people eat. Storing food out of sight, creating spacious layouts, and even the comfort level of kitchen chairs can help keep overeating to a minimum.

HINT: While you may not find it cost-effective to change the size of your kitchen, you can certainly optimize storage and appliance arrangement.

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STOP COSTLY AIR LEAKS

A cold draft felt on your feet after entering the front or rear door may be a sign of worn threshold weather-stripping. If so, it can be easily replaced to ensure a tighter seal. Begin by measuring the door width and bringing in a sample of the old vinyl weather-stripping. Wood and metal thresholds take different profiles of weather-stripping. One common type is vinyl seal weather-stripping with flanges that fit tightly into two grooves in the threshold. To insert in place, start at one end of the threshold and press the flanges of the new weather-stripping into the grooves. Use a hammer and a wood-tapping block, if necessary, to drive the flanges all the way down into the threshold grooves.

HINT: A tiny one-eighth-inch gap around a typical entryway door is the equivalent of drilling a 5.5-inch-diameter hole through an outside wall.

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GAINING STEAM

As homeowners continue to design bathrooms for master suites with spa-like features, “steam showers” are becoming ever more popular. To summon steam into their shower enclosures, all it takes is the press of a button on the digital controls to trigger an electric valve that fills the breadbox-size steam generator with about a gallon of cold water. Then, it’s just a matter of an electric element bringing the water to a boil, after which a pipe channels the hot vapor to the steam head (or “disperser”). The shower stall then fills with hot moisture that never gets above a safe 118˚ F. A 20-minute steam consumes approximately two gallons of water, far less than a whirlpool bath requires.

HINT: Aside from the volume and shape of the shower enclosure, the type of material (tile, stone, glass, etc.) also has a bearing on how much steam-generating capacity is needed for a steam shower.

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WEATHERING THE STORM

Leaky windows are one of the primary causes of unnecessarily high home-heating costs. One way to address this problem, of course, is to install new window units throughout the home. These upgraded units save money and increase the comfort factor by eliminating drafts. New windows also increase the value of your home when it comes time to sell. On the other hand, if you are looking for a less expensive solution, you may want to consider storm windows. Triple-track units hold two glass sashes and one screen, all of which slide up and down on separate tracks. Storm windows are relatively easy to install and can reduce heat loss by 25% or more when installed over inefficient single-pane windows.

HINT: Cold glass can create uncomfortable drafts as air next to the window is cooled and drops to the floor.

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WHAT’S COOKING?

Cooking was once a relatively simple affair involving a slide-in range. Eventually, the cooktop was separated as a stand-alone unit, while wall ovens were placed in a more isolated piece of kitchen real estate where they would be out of the way until needed. Today, cooking appliances are far more numerous, as microwaves, toaster ovens, waffle makers, slow cookers, and a host of other small cooking appliances have worked their way into the mix. It is therefore important to design a cooking zone that can accommodate them all in cabinetry that allows for easy access, effortless storage capability, and copious countertop surface. Small appliances should be stored conveniently out of sight, waiting until they are needed. I

HINT: A dedicated cooking zone should be about 6-8 linear feet long, 16-18 inches deep, and able to accommodate docking stations for 3-4 small appliances.

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TAKING HOLD

Some soft woods, like pine, take stain unevenly. Fortunately, there are products on the market that can help woodworkers avoid this problem when finishing their projects. Before applying these products, the entire piece should be uniformly sanded with the same grit sandpaper. (Sanding one spot with finer paper will result in the spot staining lighter.) After that, it helps significantly to use a product known as “stain controller” before applying the stain. It will partially seal the wood and even out the stain penetration. Use of a stain controller may also lighten the effect that the stain has on the wood, so be sure to experiment on a spare piece with thinned stain controller and/or multiple applications of stain. It’s unbelievably frustrating to have all your painstaking efforts ruined at the last stage when your woodworking project turns out streaky and uneven.

HINT: A stain controller is well suited to projects that involve soft woods and hardwoods that will be stained together.

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LINEAR THINKING

If you grew up in a house with a shower with a centrally located round drain, you are in for a surprise. The latest trend in shower design calls for walk-in showers to have “linear drains,” which avoid the need for shower pans. Instead of having a wide-edged basin with a drain in the center, showers outfitted with linear drains have imperceptibly slanted single-plane floors with elongated drains at one edge. Instead of stepping over a drain in the middle of the floor, a person simply stands on a flat floor surface. Another big benefit of walk-in showers with linear drains is that there is no threshold to step over. Linear drains keep the entire bathroom floor flush and level.

HINT: No-threshold showers with linear drains provide barrier-free showers for elderly and handicapped individuals.

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THE NEW GENERATION OF HAMMERS

We are all quite familiar with the classic, general-purpose, 16- to 20-ounce hammer with its smooth face, straight grip, and rip claw. For those with bigger things in mind, the latest generation of general-purpose hammers provides new features and potentially better feel and performance. To begin with, the newer and larger 20-ounce hammers have a wider face. Some even have nail starters that hold a nail in position in a groove with a magnet for easier overhead, one-hand nail starts. In addition, newer hammers often feature hatchet-style designs with curved handles and hooked ends that feel more balanced in the hand. To top it all off, anti-vibration designs take much of the hand and arm fatigue out of bigger jobs.

HINT: Regardless of what type of hammer you choose, pass over those with slippery wood handles for more durable fiberglass or steel handles.

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TONING IT DOWN A BIT

While the preference for granite kitchen countertops shows no signs of abating, tastes have changed with regard to its finish. Although stone with a glossy finish remains popular, the latest trend calls for granite with a honed finish. The matte surface is subtler than the typical gloss and appeals to homeowners’ sense of sophistication. Honed granite offers all the desirable benefits of its glossy counterpart. It is heatproof, waterproof, chip-proof, and difficult to stain (as long as it is sealed), and it can last a lifetime. For those who prefer even less maintenance, quartz composite surfacing is so dense and non-porous that no sealing is necessary. This engineered stone product is composed of bits of quartz bound together with an adhesive.

HINT: Quartz composite has become as popular as granite among homeowners with new and remodeled kitchens.

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AMP DRAW

A portable power tool’s peak horsepower rating doesn’t accurately reveal how much power the motor can sustain in regular use. “Amp draw” may provide a better indication of a motor’s power. To determine peak horsepower, the motor is brought up to speed and a mechanical load is applied to it. At the instant that the motor locks up, the amp draw is recorded. To determine the horsepower that a motor is able to maintain during use, multiply the amp draw by the voltage of the circuit it is plugged into to get the maximum number of watts it can produce. Multiply that number by 0.7 (average motor’s 70% efficiency), and divide by 746 (the number of watts in one horsepower).

HINT: A motor’s amperage draw is typically listed on the motor plate or sticker of a portable power tool.

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WINDOW SHOPPING

Master bathrooms have been going through a thorough transformation over the past few decades. Instead of adhering to the traditional formula of having a basic shower/tub, sink, and toilet in a confined area, homeowners have been carving out larger spaces for their bathrooms and creating spaces that are more along the lines of spas than pedestrian restrooms. Along with the enlarged shower stalls with multiple showerheads, steeping tubs, and his-and-her vanities, homeowners are also increasingly looking to remove a barrier that was once thought to be necessary and essential. Instead of electing to use exterior walls as privacy barriers, many homeowners are outfitting their showers and bathing areas with windows and skylights, which bring light and the outdoors in.

HINT: If a window in a shower stall seems too revealing, try frosting the glass to make it semi-opaque.

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MAKING THE CUT

When cutting a sheet of plywood, keep the blade from becoming pinched in the kerf (the space the cut leaves behind), which is the primary cause of kickback. Place a few four-foot lengths of scrap lumber between the panel you are going to cut and the underlying sheets. Measure for the cut you need to make, and mark the cutline by snapping a chalkline. Secure the panel with a pair of clamps. Set the circular saw’s cutting depth. If you begin to stray from the chalkline, do not try to twist the saw back on course. Instead, turn off the saw, back up to where your cut was true, center the blade in the kerf, and start to cut again.

HINT: When cutting plywood with a circular saw, drape the saw cord over your shoulder to prevent the cord from catching the edge of the panel.

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THE MOST DURABLE COUNTERTOP MATERIAL

Because they are primarily composed of quartz, which is one of the hardest minerals on earth, quartz countertops are fast gaining ground on granite as a favorite among homeowners. Quartz countertops are engineered in the factory using ground quartz (about 94 percent), polyester resins to bind it, and pigments to give it color. In some cases, recycled glass or metallic flecks may be added to the mixture for added visual appeal. The resins are non-porous (unlike granite), as well as stain- and scratch-resistant, which means that quartz countertops never have to be sealed (unlike granite). Quartz countertops also come in a wide array of colors and textures, which also helps place them in a class with granite.

HINT: Quartz countertops can be made to look like matte limestone and textured slate as well as glossy granite.

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GETTING IN TRIM

If you have neglected to predrill nail holes in a piece of wood trim that you are installing and it splits, try repairing it in place. To do so, insert a thin applicator smeared with wood glue deep into the wood crack. Do not remove the nail that caused the split. Instead, use it to wedge the crack open to accept the glue. Once the glue is applied, remove the nail and apply a clamp across the top of the molding. Use a damp cloth to wipe off all excess wet glue. Once the glue has dried, drill a 3/32-inch hole next to the original nail hole, and install an 8d finish nail and set the nail head.

HINT: If a gap remains in the mitered corner of your trim molding, drill a 1/16-inch hole on the side of the molding and carefully drive a 1-inch-long brad-size nail to close it.

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PUTTING SPACE TO BETTER USE

A recent survey of homeowners who are remodeling a bathroom reveals that three out of four plan to make better use of the existing space rather than expand the bath’s existing footprint. One of the first steps in this direction involves removing the existing tub. While 43 percent of respondents favored showers over tubs, younger homeowners with children still showed an interest in keeping a tub as part of their plans. As far as toilets are concerned, more than half of those surveyed (52 percent) do not plan to separate the toilet from the rest of the bath. Among the many upgrades intended are high-efficiency toilets (91 percent), glass shower enclosures (54 percent), and multiple shower heads (24 percent).

HINT: While most homeowners surveyed avoided the use of wallpaper in their master bathrooms, they were eight times more likely to put it in their powder rooms.

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BACKERBOARD

The special kind of tile substrate that can be used on floors, walls, and ceilings is known as “backerboard,” of which there are two common types. Fiber-reinforced cement board has an aggregated Portland cement core coated with a fiberglass mesh. One side is smooth for tile adhesive, while the other side is rough for accepting thinset mortar. Cement board is not affected by moisture, but it is not waterproof. When used in shower stalls, cement board should be covered by a waterproof membrane. The other type of backerboard is made of a gypsum core reinforced with glass fiber and protected on one side by a heat-cured acrylic coating. It is designed to stop moisture on the surface.

HINT: Cement board is cut to size by scoring the surface and snapping the panel or by cutting it with a circular saw equipped with a carbide-tipped blade.

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NOT HALF BAD

According to research conducted by a manufacturer of bathroom fixtures, approximately 84 percent of new homes include “powder rooms.” Now largely referred to as “half-baths” or “guest bathrooms,” “powder room” is a term that originated during the Victorian age. However, there is nothing outdated about the concept of having a half-bath accessible to guests and family on the main living floor of a home. In fact, research shows that adding a high-quality powder room can return as much as 67-78 percent of its initial cost, depending on the area. After the kitchen, no room in the home is visited by guests more frequently. This home improvement adds convenience and value to a home.

HINT: Powder rooms allow homeowners to experiment with their sense of style without breaking the bank.

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WOOD JOINTS

When joining wide boards at right angles, either cut a channel across the grain (called a “dado”), or make an L-shaped cut (called a “rabbet”) along the edge or end of a board. The mating piece fits into the dado or rabbet. When both pieces are rabbeted to produce a “double rabbet,” it adds a bit more shoulder strength. When combined as a rabbet-and-dado joint, the two lock together to resist twisting. The depth of a dado is typically one-third the thickness of the cut board, while a rabbet’s depth is between one-half and three-fourths the thickness of the board. All four types of joints should be assembled with glue and nails or screws.

HINT: Both a dado and a rabbet can be made with a router or with a table saw.

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KITCHENS’ WARMING TREND

Open-floor layouts that merge the kitchen with adjacent living areas have encouraged a warming trend in kitchen design that makes the kitchen look more like the rest of the house. This trend began with the selection of kitchen-island cabinetry that looks more like complementary furniture and differentiates it from surrounding cabinets. From there, kitchen designers took things a step further by selecting wall cabinets that are different from the base cabinets, such as wall cabinets with frosted-glass fronts that seem to float above base cabinets. Some designers are mixing things up even further by choosing different colors, finishes, and countertop materials for various segments of cabinetry. A kitchen can have as many design elements as any other room.

HINT: One popular design element that links the kitchen and an adjoining room is the “standout” piece, a tall, wide furniture-like piece that works as a pantry.

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IN THE THICK OF IT

Residential drywall comes in 1/2-inch and 5/8-inch thicknesses. Because a 4- x 8-foot sheet of 5/8-inch drywall weighs 22 pounds more than its 1/2-inch counterpart, most people opt for the lighter variety. After all, why bother with the heavier drywall when a properly finished installation will look the same with either product? There are some benefits to using the thicker 5/8-inch drywall, beginning with the fact that the extra thickness makes the 5/8-inch drywall stiffer and less prone to sagging. In addition, it is more resistant to impact. The additional 1/8-inch also provides a higher R-value (0.45 for 1/2-inch, 0.56 for 5/8-inch) as well as more fire resistance. With its greater mass and stiffness, the thicker board also dampens sound transmission better.

HINT: The thicker 5/8-inch gypsum wallboard provides fifteen minutes more fire resistance (one hour) than its 1/2-inch counterpart (45 minutes).

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SITTING IN COMFORT

As Baby Boomers age and their requirements continue to influence our culture, we see that their impact even extends to bathroom design. This should hardly come as a surprise to those familiar with “universal design” principles that make building products and environments more accessible to aging and handicapped individuals. Inclusive design also makes things work better for everyone else. With this in mind, “comfort height” toilets have been designed to make sitting down and getting up easier. Approximately two inches higher than standard toilets, the seats on comfort height toilets generally measure between 17 and 19 inches in height from the floor to the top of the seat, making them easier for adults to use.

HINT: Elongated toilet bowls also provide added room and comfort for adults.

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NOTES ON SUBFLOORING

Both plywood and oriented strand board (OSB) are regarded as interchangeable as subflooring under most conditions. While each is manufactured by gluing layers of wood with a thermal-setting adhesive, oriented strand board is about ten percent heavier than softwood plywood. Although their strength and stiffness characteristics are virtually identical, it is important to note that OSB is not good for use as underlayment directly under either resilient flooring (vinyl) or glued-down carpet. The rougher surface texture of OSB may telegraph through the flooring. Although OSB can be used under three-quarter-inch-thick wood flooring, it does not hold fasteners as well as plywood. OSB of a minimum three-quarter-inch thickness is recommended, therefore, instead of the five-eighths-inch minimum for plywood.

HINT: Because OSB swells more than plywood, it is not recommended as a subflooring for tile floors.

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BRIGHT WHITE

Once again, white kitchens maintain their popularity because of their classic looks, excellent resale potential, and ability to visually open up interior space. Homeowners also now recognize that white kitchens provide the most potential for excitement since anything goes with white, from various types of hardware appliance finishes to a wide range of flooring, countertops, and paint colors. Many homeowners begin with the selection of warm white for the cabinetry color and then add molding to make the cabinets look more like furniture. To warm up white kitchens further, designers encourage the selection of ceramic or glass tiles in the homeowner’s favorite colors for the backsplash. A luxurious feel can be introduced with stained wood floors and colorful accent pieces.

HINT: White kitchens have an exceedingly clean look that invites subtle embellishment with stone countertops.

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PURCHASING HARDWOOD

Hardwood lumber is measured by the board foot (one inch thick, twelve inches wide, and one foot long). Other thicknesses can be calculated using the formula: width (inches) x length (feet) x thickness (inches) divided by 12 equals board feet. Most hardwood is sold according to the guidelines established by the National Hardwood Lumber Association. Firsts and seconds (FAS) is the clearest and most knot-free hardwood. FAS-1 (firsts and seconds on one face) is the next best. This grade is good on one side and may have knots or worm hole-type blemishes on the other side. “No. 1 common” has more imperfections, but still provides a lot of blemish-free cuttings, while “No. 2 common” yields fewer blemish-free cuts.

HINT: As a rule, imported woods are finished with just clear oil or varnish to bring out their natural beauty.

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IN THE NAME OF VANITIES

If you are looking to add a stunning dash of style to a small bathroom, a wall-hung vanity may be just the thing you are looking for. While it may take a bit more preparation in terms of wall bracing and some additional labor for the installation, wall-hung vanities provide a very nice payoff. By raising the vanity off the floor just a few inches, the payoff for homeowners is that there is more floor space visible in the room, which serves to make the room look larger. Aside from increasing the perceived spaciousness of the bathroom, a wall-hung vanity lends a decidedly more contemporary look with cleaner lines and added focus on the cabinet.

HINT: One way to visually increase the space of a small bathroom is by adding hidden lighting underneath a wall-hung vanity.

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WINDOW DRESSING

As far as replacement windows go, vinyl clad windows feature wood window frames wrapped with a thin, protective layer of polyvinyl chloride. While the exterior surfaces require no paint or maintenance, the interior wood frames can be stained/painted for a traditional look. Windows made from hollow vinyl extrusions, on the other hand, offer the same advantages as clad windows but without the underlying wood core. These all-vinyl windows are typically the same inside and out because the frames consist entirely of hollow, or foam-filled, extrusions. Neither exterior nor interior surfaces are painted. Increasingly, window manufacturers are offering another type of clad window with vinyl extrusions for the structural framework and wood added over the vinyl on the interior surfaces.

HINT: According to the Efficient Windows Collaborative, vinyl-clad and extruded vinyl windows show identical thermal performance.

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DOES YOUR GRANITE COUNTERTOP NEED A SEALER?

As homeowners continue to show a decided preference for natural stone countertops, questions still linger as to whether or not these materials require a sealer. In the case of granite, there is no single answer since some granites are porous while others are inherently quite dense or are treated with resins that fill any fissures and cracks. Fortunately, there is a very easy test to determine which granites need to be sealed. All it takes is to place a few drops of water on the surface of the granite. Then, wipe the water away after 15 minutes. If there is any darkening of the granite surface where the water once stood, the stone is porous enough to require sealing.

HINT: Impregnating sealers have resins that penetrate the stone and act as a protective seal; topical sealers remain on the surface of the stone (acting as a sacrificial layer). Enhancing sealers deepen the color of stone with unpolished surfaces.

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PUTTING SOME TEETH INTO IT

With the wide selection of blades available, jigsaws can cut everything from wood and metal to ceramic tile and plastic. When selecting a jigsaw blade, consider the number of teeth per inch (TPI), which ranges from 6-20 TPI for woodcutting blades. Blades with 36 TPI are used to cut metal. Basically, the fewer the teeth, the faster the blade will cut. The compromise comes when blades with fewer teeth make rougher cuts than those with more teeth. Another factor to bear in mind is the thickness of the material being cut. As a rule, at least two teeth should be engaged in the work at all times. For thin materials, therefore, select a blade with finer teeth.

HINT: There are three types of blade mounts—hook, T-shank, and universal. A few saws will work with more than one type of mount.

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FLUSH WITH POSSIBILITIES

One of the more notable aspects of current kitchen cabinet design involves renewed interest in “inset” cabinetry. This style, inspired by the work of skilled craftsmen and artisans of the Georgian and Victorian periods, features doors and drawers that fit inside of the cabinet face frame openings. As a result, the construction provides a full view of the cabinet frame, with only minimal spacing or gaps between the cabinet components. While inset cabinetry is steeped in tradition, it displays the clean lines and the flush fit of more contemporary styles. Inset cabinets can also be personalized with  a beaded detail  (subtle grooves on the face frame on all four edges of the door) that provides a finely crafted look.

HINT: Inset cabinets can be tailored with numerous color and finish options, moldings, and embellishments.

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ON THE SIDE OF QUALITY

Beveled wood siding for your home’s exterior usually comes as either flat-sawn or quartersawn material in several species of softwood. Quartersawn (vertical grain) is the better choice, although it is more expensive. Quartersawn lumber is cut from the tree so that the growth rings are perpendicular to the face of the board. Thus, when seen in cross-section, a quartersawn board will appear to have a series of short parallel lines from top to bottom of the board. In flat-sewn (plain-sawn) siding, the growth rings are tangential to the face of the board, appearing as curved lines. Generally, quartersawn lumber shrinks in width half as much as flat-sawn material as it cures, making it less likely to change shape after installation.

HINT: Quartersawn siding is less likely than flat-sawn siding to cause nail pops and is more likely to hold paint better (because it is dimensionally more stable

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WALK-IN SHOWERS

Not only are homeowners increasingly choosing to make the showers in their master bathrooms larger, but they are customizing them in ways that reflect their individual preferences. In some cases, these new designs strip showers down to the bare essentials. Two-walled showers with no doors or thresholds make it possible to enter the shower from one or two entrances without any need to open or close a door. These showers are designed to keep splashing to a minimum. Some designs call for custom-built walk-in showers with huge, plush, monsoon-like overhead shower sprays that make it feel like you’re standing outside in a downpour. Stone wall tile completes the “outdoor effect,” making the shower feel like a tropical paradise.

HINT: Many of today’s natural bathroom designs incorporate plants, including “living walls” of plants and ivy.

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A OPEN DOOR POLICY

Many homeowners have been plagued with interior doors that will not remain in an open position owing to the fact that they are not hanging perfectly plumb. Seemingly, there is no simple fix for this problem. It requires carefully removing the trim and jamb, reshimming and replumbing, followed by retrimming and repainting. On the other hand, there is an equally simple, and more effective, alternative. All that is required is popping the bottom hinge pin out of the hinge, placing it on a hard surface, and tapping its shaft with a hammer to put a slight crimp into it. When replaced, the bend in the pin will produce enough friction in the hinge to keep the door open.

Hint: If you door resists staying open with the bent-pin trick, try moving up to the middle hinge and bending its pin, as well.

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HEIGHTENED SENSIBILITIES

For a truly custom kitchen, homeowners should consider setting the heights of countertops in accordance with their own height. Although the standard height is 36 inches, the ideal height is measured by standing and bending your elbows. The height of general countertops should be two inches lower than your elbow. The countertops in the baking center will see more downward motion when rolling dough and kneading bread; therefore, you can get more effort out of your arms and back by lowering the baking countertop another two inches. As for appliances, place oven controls no more than 48 inches off the floor, and the top of the microwave should be no more than 36 to 54 inches off the floor.

HINT: Guard against customizing your kitchen too far beyond the standard dimensions if you plan to move within five years or so.

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ALL DECKED OUT

If you are planning to (re)build a deck, here are a few tips that will ensure long-term satisfaction. First, be sure to install a ledger flashing along the house. This will keep water from soaking into the siding and framing, which might lead to rot. The bent metal flange routes water to the outside of the ledger, where it drips away and dries. Beyond that recommendation, give careful consideration to increasing the joist depth to one size above the minimum, for instance, a 2×10 instead of a 2×8. The wider joists will introduce an added degree of strength and stiffness that will eliminate any tendency to bounce. Lastly, use stainless steel deck screws to keep your deck boards solidly fastened.

HINT: Instead of relying on deck screws or nails, bolt the railing posts of your new deck to the frame with 3/8-inch minimum size carriage or hex bolts with nuts and washers.

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GETTING BACK WHAT YOU PUT IN

There is little question that remodeling a bathroom more than pays back the dollar investment with greater enjoyment and improved efficiency. In terms of dollar payback, the latest report from Remodeling magazine shows that, on average, bathroom remodels recoup two-thirds of their cost at resale time. The payback is best achieved with a “modest” remodel, which involves a 5-by-8-foot bathroom that makes use of white fixtures and a neutral color scheme for the tile, a two-piece toilet, a cast-iron tub with a ceramic surround and sliding glass doors, a stock wood-cabinet vanity with a granite countertop, and a ceramic tile floor. The general cost for this type of remodel is around $9,000, but the cost rises with higher-grade choices.

HINT: Many homeowners are forsaking the use of a seldom-used bathtub in favor of a larger shower.

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