PHILADELPHIA — The situation: You want to make some improvements to your house, but you don’t want to spend money you don’t have. Nor do you want to waste the money you do have by buying something inappropriate for your needs.
A tall order, for sure, and a situation many homeowners find themselves in as the economy totters toward a recovery that always seems just shy of a sure thing.
The Internet has made finding the best price for a product easier than it was 10 years ago, said developer Carl Dranoff, who has written the checks for more than a few renovations at his buildings over the years.
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“The Internet has driven down the prices of just about everything,” Dranoff said, “so there is little variation” from, for example, one manufacturer’s refrigerator to the next.
Need replacement windows? A modest federal tax credit — up to $1,500 — is available until Dec. 31.
Energy-efficient windows will cut utility bills 7 percent to 15 percent, government data show. But the cost of complete window replacement for the average home is $7,500 to $10,000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.
They advise this: When you’re interviewing contractors, ask them to break down the price quote by labor and materials, keeping in mind that although energy-efficient windows cost more, the labor costs for installation should be the same for all kinds of windows.
In general, experienced buyers recommend that you shop carefully and know exactly what you want before you hand over your credit card or write a check to a supplier.
“A dozen years ago, you might have to go to specialty stores to find the really groovy items,” said Center City Philadelphia real-estate agent Mark Wade, who also buys and renovates condos for resale. “Today, it is as simple as hitting Lowe’s, Target or Home Depot.”
Stores don’t stock everything they offer, though. “Go online and see their entire product line,” he suggested.
Durability is what developer Liz Solms looks for when she shops for products.
Solms is using green materials to renovate apartments in Philadelphia. She said she measured the value of these products by how long they would last.
“Time is money, right?” she said.
Jay Cipriani, president of Cipriani Builders, a Woodbury, N.J., remodeling contractor, thinks so.
“Features to consider other than price might include durability, as well as whether the product will result in a healthier or safer environment” in your home, he said.
Another question to consider, Cipriani said: “Does it add value to the home?”
He suggested looking for lesser-known names to get a good product and warranty. Look into how to buy directly from the manufacturer “rather than through big-box store or distributor,” he said.
Sometimes, immediate need compels us to buy something without considering all the factors.
It’s hot, and you need a window air conditioner. You find a website that lets you calculate the size you need — say, a 7,500-Btu unit. Several retailers are selling them for about $300, so finding the lowest price isn’t the overwhelming issue. What else do you need to think about before you buy?
“Sales tax is one,” Dranoff said. “Can you pick it up yourself, or do you need to have it delivered? Can you install it yourself, or do you need someone to do it for you?”
Not to mention these pertinent details: Can it make it through the doorway? Is the window too small or too big? How can you adjust the window opening so it will fit?
How close is the outlet? Is the outlet grounded? Will you need an electrician to install the proper outlet? How will the unit drain?
What about the warranty? Who will repair it if the unit breaks down? How easy is it to obtain parts?
If you plan to install something yourself, Cipriani said, “think about the hidden risks of self-installation, such as technical obstacles — plumbing for example — or whether or not you need a permit before installation.”
Dranoff favors American-made products because of the availability of parts and people who know how to repair them if they break. He prefers established products to new ones.
“New is not necessarily better,” he said. “Consumer Reports suggests waiting a year on any product before you buy so that it will go through a cycle of consumer testing.”
Of course, the goal is to do it right the first time, and that requires planning and common sense. Measuring helps, too.
How many times have you heard of people buying mattresses that won’t fit up their stairs?
Or granite countertops too heavy for their cabinets?
Or refrigerators with ice-makers for spaces where there are no water lines?
Or gas dryers where there is no gas connection?
“It is as easy as asking if that washer you want to buy can make it down the basement stairs,” Dranoff said.