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Home Sense

With Mike McClintock
Washington Post
Thursday, June 26, 2003; 12:00 PM

Have questions about how to keep your home fit and trim?

Home Sense columnist Mike McClintock is online every other Thursday at Noon ET to answer your questions about home building, remodeling, repairs and the wide range of home-consumer issues. If it has something to do with the place where you live -- from home security to the latest on appliances, energy-saving and a lot more -- just ask. Mike has the answers.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Mike McClintock: Hi all: Did we miss Spring altogether? Well it’s summer now, and seemed to jump from high 60s to high 90s practically overnight. And summer, every year, leads to an increase in burglaries because more homes are unoccupied due to vacations. The Burglary Prevention Council says most communities experience the largest increase in burglaries during August. So with some extra home security vigilance in mind, here’s the homesense posting this week (multiple choice again so the pop-quiz angst you remember from school doesn’t apply)


Recent FBI data (for 2001) indicates that after a decade-long decrease in major crimes, burglaries and nonviolent property crime against homeowners and renters rose 2.6 percent.

1. The largest increase was in: cities or towns?

2. Most home burglaries are committed during: the day or the night?

3. The burglary rate is higher: for owners or renters?

4. What percentage of burglaries are successful: 25 percent, 50 percent, or 75 percent?

A note: it would interesting to include with your question just one or two words (if you want) naming the one or two topics you most need/want info about-- home insurance, hiring contractors, refinishing floors, buying tools, whatever.


Alexandria, Va.: Mike,

Your column in today's Post talks about sump pumps. We have a wicked case of moth flies living in our sump pump, and we can't get rid of them. Constant running water and/or flushing the system out with bleach once a week only keeps them away for a short time.

Thanks for any advice you may have.

Mike McClintock: Just happen to have what i think is the ultimate info source on bugs nearby (Common-sense Pest control; taunton press) and there are dozens of different moths; the consistent listing seems to be pheremone traps, but there are pages and pages of detailed advice; try the library as it's a big/expensive book


Silver Spring, Md.: Is it a crazy idea to refinish kitchen cabinets? I can afford new countertops, but not cabinets. How do I mask off my linoleum floor so that the stripper doesn't ruin it? Masking tape and plastic sheeting?

Thanks for the advice!

Mike McClintock: There's nothing as good as real cloth dropcloths (what pros use), but a few liberal layers of newspapers (not necessarily liberal newspapers) under the plastic is a wise extra; and there are many ways to refinish: adding new fronts only, adding wood skins, sanding and painting.


Washington, D.C.: I've got fusebox that I'd been hoping to upgrade to a circuit breaker, but am suffering from sticker shock at the cost, which includes running new wires to the house, new meter, etc... What are the dangers of sticking with a forty year old fuse box?

Mike McClintock: Rewiring is probably what's costing, as it sounds like you may be wanting to move a sub-panel to a main panel. Older homes often have sub-panels (small boxes with only a couple of fuses) for specific circuits. And older boxes often have throw switches and other things that don't really go bad-- and if the fuses are new you have new protection that in most cases should be fine.


Silver Spring, Md.: Mike,
We need to replace the toilet and sink in our bathroom. My husband says we need a plumber but I think I could probably do it myself. How hard are they to replace? Do or your chatters you have any tips the might help me along? Thanks very much.

Mike McClintock: Self-rimming sinks are pretty easy if you don't have to change the cutout, and if they are plumbed the same way, i.e. two faucets same position as before; toilets are heavier but if you match up what you had with the connections of a new unit, fine; just have to change the wax seal, rehook the water supply. Bear in mind a new one will almost certainly be low-volume flush, and they do cause problems in older homes.


Washington, D.C.: I noticed a mold presence in my unfinished basement last night. Due to the recent wet weather, my foundation walls have been wet because the grading is not complete around my new house, and I have not turned on the AC to cool the house yet.

Based on this realization, I turned on the AC and plan to buy a dehumidifier. What else do I need to do?

I've heard that a mix of bleach or ammonia with water should be sprayed onto the mold areas and scrubbed off. What is the proper ratio and what else is needed?

Mike McClintock: You've got it, and plenty of ventilation (maybe a dust mask), gloves of course, and to start maybe 1-4 bleach to water-- and not to mix bleach with amonia or any detergent containing it because the combo produces dangerous fumes


Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Mike,

I'm refinishing my basement myself and have a problem. The concrete block walls/ floor are in good shape and DRY, I plan to paint the walls with block sealer as a precaution. There are currently two layers of vinyl tile on the floor and here's the problem...do I pull up the tiles, block seal the floor, put down plastic moisture barrier and sleepers with solid insulation and plywood OR do I just lay down new flooring on top of the vinyl tile (new flooring will be carpet)?

Next issue: if I do go the route of pulling up the floor is it ok to use 1x4s instead of 2x4s for the sleepers so I don't loose as much height in the room?

Mike McClintock: Adding sleepers is quite a job, and changes floor level which means doors don't work, the last step of stairs is too small and leads to trips. Mainly, if the floor is dry why not leave the tiles (getting rid of the adhesive even enough to lay sleepers can be a struggle-- and if they're old they may be vat (vinyl asbestos) that's best left intact


Potomac, Md.: A friend wants to fix up an old, 30-year-old house for a performance space. There are holes in the top-floor ceiling, the insulation is old, and for years parts of the bottom floor were used as a dental office. Should the space be checked for mold, hazardous waste, asbestos and radon? Also, should every house, regardless of age or condition, be checked for mold, asbestos, any hazardous wastes and radon? Thanks.

Mike McClintock: Older ones, for sure, and i think it's wise in any house to do a radon test as the kits are inexpensive and you just leave them there for a few days. Mold is almost always fixable (cleaning it up and then changing the inside environment to prevent it) and only a deal breaker , generally, in some newer, stucco-coated homes where the problem is whole-house.


Silver Spring, Md.: I just bought a new house with an open floor plan. How do I paint the living/kitchen/dining/hall areas? I don't want to paint it all the same color, but I don't want the 3 walls in the living room 1 color, and then the hall white, etc. How do you decorate an open floor plan? Thanks!

Mike McClintock: Stopping a paint color in a strip where another color starts is certainly doable, but generally looks pretty strange. I'd try installing vertical molding, a false column, or other separator. The area will still be open but the transitions won't be so strange.


McLean, Va.: For 10 years we pinched pennies, ate bagged lunches and saved everything in order to have a nest egg to build our "dream house." Two years, we finally hired a recommended architect, who professed to be a "design build" firm but drew up plans that were 1/3 over budget! We fired him, lost a lot of money, and now are trying to find another architect/firm that can design our home within budget (which, we think, is relatively generous $400K+). Do you know how we can find a reliable, honest firm (or have one to recommend specifically)? And are we getting ripped off with these bids just because we live in McLean? Is it better to try to get builders who usually build in further out suburbs (they seem to be cheaper).

Mike McClintock: You could try the AIA (architect professional society) but mainly rely on recs from friends and neighbors. And in the design stage you should have the option to say no, here's the budget; here’s the limit. Local, as to builders, doesn't have to be right in the vicinity. I've travelled 1-1/2 hours (one-way) to sites.


Clifton, Va.: Mike,

I am interested in replacing the interior railings and banisters in my house. They are currently oak and painted wood with stainless steel railings. Do you know anyone does this type of work. Any idea of the per foot cost? Maybe a commercial or industrial supplier. Does need to be custom.

Mike McClintock: What a strange combo-- oak, painted wood and SS, as in part mansion, part reg house and part hospital. You need a good carpenter, but best bet is to use a stair mfg. that contractors normally farm out all stairs to. The runs and angles are simple matters for them, and they can make up almost any custom fittings and bring them ready to pop in place,


Chevy Chase, Md.: My 1939 home has a bay window with a painted copper roof. I would like to remove the paint and want to know the best way to do it. Is there any reason to leave it painted?

Mike McClintock: When materials that usually aren't painted are painted, it's often a sign of something wrong (to hide) underneath. But could be that someone didn't like the dark color copper takes on. Sure, you could strip it, and best to test a chemical stripper first. Heat and scrapping also work but has to be controlled not to melt any soldering if there is any. Also, if it's old, could lead paint you should check for.


Alexandria, Va.: I underwent a kitchen remodel last spring, including new cabinets -- which were hung from the ceiling (unlike the wall mounted ones I had replaced). About two weeks ago, out of the blue, I noticed all the doors on the cabinets would no longer close because they overlapped. The overlap was fairly slim, less than 1/2 inch, but enough to keep them from closing. I re-adjusted the doors, but it made me a bit nervous wondering if there has been a shift (or weakening) in the ceiling beams that would jolt them out of place. My house was built in the 50's, and we did remove a non-bearing wall between the kitchen and dining room for the remodel project. There have been a few other incidents, like buckling of the bathroom floor tile located directly above the kitchen, but that happened almost immediately after the new cabinets were installed. Is there any cause for concern? Thanks.

Mike McClintock: Active, continuing structural movement is always worh checking. Removing a nonbearing wall shouldn't have mattered-- unless it was load bearing, even partially. And as you have more than one sign of movement in the same area, you should have a contractor take a look. Also wise to make some marks and measurements so you can track any further movement reliably.


Clifton, Va.: Sorry want to replace the wood railings and banisters with stainless steel.

Mike McClintock: Basically same answer as to where to go. Pays to contact someone who does just and only what you want for a living.


Stuckyville: Probably an annual question but, I can barely get my wood door to close and lock due to the moisture/humidity. Simple remedies? Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Same here! Help us out Mike!

Mike McClintock: The solution is a compromise; has to be. Plane off all the sticking points and the door will rattle in winter. On the other it has to open and close. What I do is put some chalk on the door edge, see exactly where it's hitting, then take just barely enough (in summer) to make it work. That makes the least negative impact in winter. Best solution is interlocking weatherstripping that can handle some seasonal movement, but it can cost $100 and up per door.


Petworth, Washington, D.C.: I have a 1926 row house. At some point, it had central air. The ducts are still there, and seem solid. There's a big AC unit right out back. However, the AC has not worked since I bought the place, in 1990.

So, my questions:
What kind of company do I need to end up with working AC in the house?
How do I find a good one of these companies?
Assuming I need everything new except the ducts, what price range are we talking about? That is, closer to $1,000 or to $10,000?


Mike McClintock: What's called an HVAC contractor. And you didn't say how large a house but adding ductwork (particularly in existing homes) is the biggest hassle, so without knowing size more like $2 or so than $8 or so. Get the ducts cleaned, too.


Sacramento, Calif.: 1. towns
2. day
3. owners
4. 75 percent

Mike McClintock: no, yes, no yes ( I think, just checking my answers at a glance)


Lorton, Va.: 1. The largest increase was in: cities or towns?

-- towns

2. Most home burglaries are committed during: the day or the night?

-- day

3. The burglary rate is higher: for owners or renters?

-- renters

4. What percentage of burglaries are successful: 25 percent, 50 percent, or 75 percent?

-- 75 percent

Mike McClintock: no , and all yesses-- but have some extra info on the answers to post end of hour as usual


Washington, D.C.: I'd say:


2. Day

3. Renters

4. 50 percent

By the way -- an interesting stat -- I read recently that in England (where burglary rates are much higher), 50 percent of burglaries occur while the occupants are home(!) versus fewer than 10 percent in the U.S.

Mike McClintock: not towns, and surprises me that you guys think crime would rise more in smaller communities than in cities


Washington, D.C.: How easy/difficult is it to remove those glass doors in the metal frame from a bathtub and replace it with a pole for a standard shower curtain?

Mike McClintock: Not hard to get the mountings off. but there will be a lot of guck on the tub edge, and you'll need to do work on the walls, too. Worse if the walls are tiles. Realize that most people want it the other way around, right, changing pole to doors.


Front Royal, Va.: Answer to Home Sense Questions.

1. Increase in crime was in towns.

2. Most burglaries committed during the day.

3. Burglary rate higher for homeowners.

4. Successful burglary rate is 75 percent.

Mike McClintock: another with towns, nope, and it's renters who are hit harder than owenrs


Annandale, Va.: Mike
Whenever my outside AC cuts on, the lights dim a couple of seconds. Is this a fire hazard?

Mike McClintock: Not really a fire hazard assuming you have code for breakers. If the unit pulled to much power they would jump. But it's a sign that the unit is underpowered, and eventually or gradually the slow start up could degrade the compressor. It was Tim Allen, right, so I rewired it-- back when he did funny stand up bits.


Washington, D.C.: About to move in to a recently purchased home. House is in good shape but there are a number of projects we are contemplating. Neither my wife nor I have much do-it-yourself experience but we are willing to try. What types of projects would you or your readers recommend as providing the best "bang for the buck?" We could limit the discussion to the kitchen for starters.

Mike McClintock: Bang for the buck has to be balanced against what you'll do well versus what you won't. Generally cosmetic jobs are the best bet for novice d-i-yers, like floor refinishing and painting, mainly because if you mess up during the job you can sand more and finish more and make things better. Leave the structural and more all-or-nothing jobs to pros.


Annandale, Va.: Hi Mike --

What's the easiest method for constructing raised beds in different sizes and shapes? What types of materials should be used? How can I make the sides come together in a neat way without having to cut complicated corner angles? Thanks.

Mike McClintock: Not to cut angles (miters) on landscape timbers, but interlocked is nice, and keeps water from pushing apart the structure. On most ground you simply dig out enough to get a layer started, then make half laps at the corners (half on one timber mates with the other half of the next one. You could do butt joints and save the cutting, use angle irons inside to keep things together, but half laps looks a lot better.


McLean, Va., too: This is for the McLean folks navigating the dream house "design build" gauntlet.

It's not for everyone; we did it ourselves six years ago. The idea behind design build is it locks you in and saves the builder money; very little of the money is put into design. They really just want to build something they've built before, preferably many times before.

We fired one design build firm but not until we had already gotten a zoning variance; our subsequent architect kept complaining he wished that he had one more foot to work with. One builder wanted us to pick either a living room or dining room, but not both.

It takes all kinds, and I guarantee that there will be a couple of ugly moments during construction. I could write a book. But if you have the temperament, it will be worth it in the end.

I would be happy to exchange phone numbers through Liz or whoever is moderating the chat if the other chatter would like.

Good luck!

Mike McClintock: there are design-build firms that do it better than that


Petworth, Washington, D.C.: Small house - 3 bedrooms. Roughly 2500 square feet, I think. (Not counting cellar.)

So, AC should run closer to $2000 than $5,000? Cool?

Now, how does one choose a good HVAC contractor?

Mike McClintock: Without any ductwork, you're basically buying one machine and paying for one hookup, and you find the contractor by interviewing, getting recs, more and more, getting bids, shortening the list, etc. There is no easy answer unless the guys next door have a cousin who does HVAC-- and is sort of a saint.


Alexandria, Va.: I live in an older (1948) duplex. It's fairly small at 400 square feet per floor with a finished basement, main level, and top floor. The air conditioner works well -- blowing (hard, windy) cold air into the house. So, it's freezing on the main level when the air is on, but still cool when it stops blowing. But it's not really cooling the top floor (though I've pretty much closed the downstairs vents and I can feel cool air coming from the upstairs vents). I have a ceiling fan upstairs, but that's not really helping and makes too much noise to sleep. Any suggestions how to improve the situation?

Mike McClintock: First, you can get ceiling fans today that are almost silent; that would help. And if it's not central air, but a powerful machine, you're bound to get uneven distribution. One idea is to install a small box fan in a vent between floor that would pull up more than the normal amount of cool air.


Virginia: Brand new homeowner here. Sorry if I sound clueless, but I have questions re wiring.

Our house was built in 1956. The house is a square row-house, three levels, roughly 450 square feet per level. The existing electrical outlets are few and far between, and are mostly two-prong types. We'd love to get those two-prongs converted to grounded three-prongs, and would like to move some of the outlets and also add some overhead lighting.

Is this a big deal? We'll most likely outsource it. Are there permits/codes involved in this sort of work, or is that only for major additions to houses and that kind of thing?


Mike McClintock: Codes have changed so much since the 50's that it amounts to wiring the house from scratch. You need an electrician who often works in existing homes, as the hard part is snaking new lines doing only minimal damage to existing surfaces. A guy who's really good with a fishtape (long metal line with hook that you snake in one end, then hook with another tape on the other) is what you need.


Shepherd Park, Washington, D.C.: Mike, thanks for taking my question.

This is a follow-up to a question I submitted a couple of weeks ago. I'm afraid I didn't explain the problem fully enough.

The big (4') fluorescent light in my kitchen is not coming on when I turn the switch on, but another compact fluorescent on the same circuit lights w/o difficulty. I can eventually get the light to come on by turning it off and on, but it usually takes a while for this to work. However, once the light has been on and warmed up, I can turn the light off and back on after a short time with no problem.

I have replaced the ballast and the wall switch, and neither has helped. What should I do next?

Mike McClintock: Before you ditch the fixture replace the starter.


Gas Stove Question: I own a gas stove. It works even though the oven temperature doesn't correspond with the temperature gauge on the stove. Heat doesn't "leak" out of the oven, I checked. It has been suggested I replace the element. What is the element? Would it be cheaper to get one or get a new stove?

Mike McClintock: "the element" generally means the burner on an electric stove. Sounds like the only problem is that the oven temp doesn't read thee real temp. So you could replace the thermostat ( a lot cheaper than a new stove) or just figure out the differential and set to 300 when the recipe says 350.


Alexandria, Va.: We have a problem with a rotten outside window sill under an average-sized kitchen window. Clearly the bottom sill needs to be replaced, and perhaps the two side pieces as well. We received a quote of $700 for this. Doesn't that sound like a lot? The window itself won't be replaced. What would be a reasonable price for that kind of work?

Mike McClintock: Buy a new window, as that price is probably too high, although replacing side jambs and sill is a problem. I probably would take it out, then try to match the wood, glue and screw and maybe epozy, then flash and reinstall; be there one day at most. But it will be less to go all new.


Alexandria, Va.: in a few years my husband and I will build and upscale log cabin on land we own in West Virginia -- I have heard that kitchen cabinets do not hang well in log homes. True?

Mike McClintock: If it's manufactured logsm no problem; they're consistent diameters. If it's just log logs, trick is to mount the cabinets on furring strips that even out the wall, then scribe end pieces to neatly close off the ends. On a day like this your cabin must be calling, specially if there's some water nearby. It's calling me.


Very Late!: I'd like to insulate my cellar ceiling to make the noise traveling between the basement and the upstairs dampened. What's the best, and most cost effective way to do this?

Could I just use regular insulation?

Which way should it face?


Mike McClintock: Use insulation with no vapor barrier. You could fill between joists and then drywall the ceiling, or hang a dropped ceiling (tiles ) that leaves more room for more insulation and still offers access to pipes, ducts and all.


Mike McClintock: Flew by today so here's the final posting


Recent FBI data (for 2001) indicates that after a decade-long decrease in major crimes, burglaries and nonviolent property crime against homeowners and renters rose 2.6 percent.

1. The largest increase was in: cities or towns?
Cities--- The largest percentage rise in major crime nationwide (3.9 percent) was in heavily populated cities, the smallest (0.8 percent) was in communities with a population under 10,000. The FBI Crime Index also broke down major crime by suburban counties (up 2.4 percent), and rural counties (up only 0.6 percent).

2. Most home burglaries are committed during: the day or the night?
Day--- The Burglary Prevention Council says most communities experience a 10 to 18 percent increase in home burglaries during the summer, particularly in August, and that about 60 percent are committed during daylight hours.

3. The burglary rate is higher: for owners or renters?
Renters-- Justice Dept reports say rented households were burglarized at rates 79 percent higher than owned households, also that households living in rented property had almost twice the rate of motor vehicle theft than those in owned property.

4. What percentage of burglaries are successful: 25 percent, 50 percent, or 75 percent?
75 percent-- At least, as the most conservative estimate (made by the Justice Dept) says 72 percent of all burglaries are successful, while some other agencies say the success rate is closer to 85 percent.

See you next time


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