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About the Editor

Melanie Zoltan writes the Boston Home Improvement Blog for HomeStars.com. She lives in the metroWest Boston area and enjoys the Big Dig, putting a chair on the street to mark her parking spot during snow storms, driving on 128 during rush hour, and rotaries. Contact Melanie

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Boston Home Improvement Blog

Cool products that make your home just work better. Home improvement tips. Boston gossip. Read what our Boston-area blogger has to say about home improvement and home-related issues ranging from cool chic to prison upholsterers to walkability to sports-yes, sports! Can't have a Boston blog that doesn't mention sports (or coffee, but I digress...).

Monday, March 31, 2008

New EPA standards for lead paint removal; grants and loans for Boston and Massachusetts



What's in your window sill?

New lead paint rules have been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency concerning proper procedures for removing lead paint in the U.S.

Gulliford said the EPA's new standards for renovations are estimated to protect 1.4 million children, once the requirements are in full effect with an average additional cost of $35 per renovation project.

He said the rule won't go into effect until 2010 to give contractors time to comply.

Contractors will have to be certified. "A renovator failing to comply could potentially have their certification revoked or face a standard Toxic Substances Control Act penalty of $25,000 a day," said EPA spokesman Timothy Lyons.


Lead as an additive in the house has a history stretching back to the Roman Empire. Used in cups, coins, pitchers, metal weapons, and even cosmetic face powders, lead's presence in plumbing (the word "plumbing" comes from the word "plumbum," the Roman word for lead) has been blamed by some historians on the Empire's downfall. Symptoms of lead poisoning can include cognitive delays, hyperactivity, neurological impairment, and poor coordination, among others.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s in Europe and North America, lead was used in teething powders, indoor plumbing, and common surface coatings such as paints and varnishes. Before 1920, however, many European countries began to ban lead in indoor paints. In the United States, anti-lead crusades began in the 1930s, though lead in indoor paints was not officially banned until 1978.

While the number of children with high lead levels and lead poisoning has dropped significantly since 1978, hundreds of thousands of children still have lead levels that exceed established safety levels.

My older son has high lead levels and is part of the "hundreds of thousands." We read these statistics and the numbers go in and out of our heads until the moment a doctor pulls out a lab sheet and your child is now part of the statistic.

In many cases of high lead levels in children, no obvious culprit can be found; lead is common in older homes, and there are recorded cases of children being exposed to high lead levels simply from taking baths in tubs with lead in the ceramic. Note: yet another surface to test with a lead testing kit if your bathtub is from the 1970s or earlier.

Simple lead test kits can be found at any hardware store for testing various surfaces; deleading a house is a serious undertaking and requires a well-trained specialist. Read one parent's account of her family home's deleading here.

The new EPA procedures will require all lead removal experts to undergo retraining to learn the updated methods.

The City of Boston and the state of Massachusetts both have grant and 0% interest loan programs to help with deleading; learn more at Grants and Loans for Deleading.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Friday, March 28, 2008

Free admission: Residential Design and Construction show, April 2 and 3

The Residential Design and Construction show, with more than 240 exhibitors and two days of specialized workshops, is in Boston at the Seaport World Trade Center on Wednesday, 4/2/08 and Thursday, 4/3/08:

What Sets RDC Apart from a Home Show ?

RDC is your chance to experience the residential design and construction industry from an insider’s perspective. Come to RDC to meet architects and interior designers and to view hundreds of exhibits featuring new products, new technologies and both traditional and cutting-edge design.


The Exhibit Hall is FREE and open to the public on Wednesday from 4pm-8pm and Thursday from 4pm-7pm. Exhibitors will demonstrate new products, processes, and features. And it's in our backyard! Learn more: Residential Design and Construction

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Used tools = low prices, and perhaps cash

It's springtime, and the tool itch kicks in for the home improvement enthusiast. But if you need a band saw and don't want to drop big bucks, where do you go?

There's the classified section of the newspaper, eBay, and Craig's List, and then there's The Tool Shed in Worcester.

You can get used tools at reasonable prices and you can unload your own used tools for cash on the spot. Be careful, though--you'll probably turn right around and spend it on a "new to you" tool. Between the Building Materials Resource Center in Roxbury Crossing and The Tool Shed in Worcester, you can reduce, reuse, recycle and renovate - for less.

Check out The Tool Shed at: The Tool Shed

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Free window and screen repair clinic at the Building Materials Resource Center

You can't do better than free: the Building Materials Resource Center is offering a free window and screen repair clinic on Saturday, April 5, from 9am-10am. Bring in your broken window or screen and learn repair techniques.

Actually, you can do better than free: free, and supporting a good cause, while repairing an item that might otherwise have gone into a landfill.

The Building Materials Resource Center is a non-profit organization that accepts donations of recycled building materials, then sells those materials to low and moderate-income individuals and non-profits. To learn more, click here: Building Materials Resource Center.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Grants in Boston to pay for exterior paint for your home

The City of Boston will help homeowners and condo owners with painting and exterior improvement costs:

PaintWorks Plus offers:

* Cash rebates of up to $1,000*
* 1% APR loans of up to $10,000 from Citizens Bank to match your investment
* Free home improvement workshops with the North Bennet Street School
* Discount prices on materials from local hardware stores Step-by-step guidance throughout your project

What can I do to my house?

Exterior painting and/or repairs which are visible from a public way, including but not limited to:

* Shingle and clapboard repairs, fencing, rebuilding of front porches and/or stairs
* Masonry work, including foundations, retaining walls, driveways and walkways
* Repairs to chimneys, garages, roofs, gutters, windows, and shutters
* Debris removal, and much more


Who qualifies for the subsidized-paint program?


Who Can Participate?

* Owner-occupants of 1 to 4 unit residential properties in the City of Boston (Limit: one rebate per property address)
* Condominium associations of up to four units where all owners meet guidelines
* Individuals with a maximum annual gross income of up to $68,400, or up to $99,100 for a household of two or more persons


How do you apply?

For more information and an application, view our application packet, or call 617-635-0600.


The program offers $250 as a rebate for every $1,000 you spend, up to a total rebate of $1,000. In addition, participating stores offer discounts and home improvement workshops.

Check out our listings for paint and exterior professionals in Boston. It's the perfect time to make plans for late spring/early summer. Book paint contractors now before their schedules fill up.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Monday, March 17, 2008

Pharmaceuticals found in U.S. drinking water. What about Boston?


According to the Associated Press:

An array of pharmaceuticals - including antibiotics, anticonvulsants, mood stabilizers, and sex hormones - have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans, an Associated Press investigation found.

'We recognize it is a growing concern, and we're taking it very seriously,' said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the federal EPA.

The concentrations of these pharmaceuticals are tiny, measured in quantities of parts per billion or trillion, far below the levels of a medical dose. And utilities insist that their water is safe.


Boston is one of 34 major metropolitan centers that have not been tested for the presence of these pharmaceuticals. Municipal water professionals across the country have issued statements concerning the safety of public water supplies.

Learn more about having your home water supply tested here.

According to the AP and many water specialists, reverse osmosis systems are the only water treatment process that can eliminate the trace pharmaceuticals from home water supplies; you can find information on water filtration and purification specialists here.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Boston the third "greenest" city in the U.S.


According to Popular Science Magazine, Boston is the third greenest city in the United States, edged out only by Portland, OR and San Francisco. Massachusetts has some strong residential tax credits for alternative energy, which helps Boston's rankings.

How the Rankings Work:

We used raw data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Geographic Society’s Green Guide, which collected survey data and government statistics for American cities of over 100,000 people in more than 30 categories, including air quality, electricity use and transportation habits. We then compiled these statistics into four broad categories, each scored out of either 5 or 10 possible points. The sum of these four scores determines a city’s place in the rankings. Our categories are:

Electricity (E; 10 points): Cities score points for drawing their energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power, as well as for offering incentives for residents to invest in their own power sources, like roof-mounted solar panels.

Transportation (T; 10 points): High scores go to cities whose commuters take public transportation or carpool. Air quality also plays a role.

Green living (G; 5 points): Cities earn points for the number of buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, as well as for devoting area to green space, such as public parks and nature preserves.

Recycling and green perspective (R; 5 points): This measures how comprehensive a city’s recycling program is (if the city collects old electronics, for example) and how important its citizens consider environmental issues.


How did Boston do?

3. Boston, Mass. 22.7

Electricity: 5.7 Transportation: 8.7 Green Living: 3.4 Recycling/Perspective: 4.9

CASE STUDY: Grass Power
Boston has preliminary plans for a plant that would turn 50,000 tons of fall color into power and fertilizer. The facility would first separate yard clippings into grass and leaves. Anaerobic bacteria feeding on the grass would make enough methane to power at least 1.5 megawatts’ worth of generators, while heat and agitation would hasten the breakdown of leaves and twigs into compost.


It's fitting to congratulate Boston for being so green as the city celebrates the 108th annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in South Boston today.

p.s. In addition to state tax credits, federal alternative energy tax credits can shave 30% (up to $2,000) off the cost of a residential solar set-up as well.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Friday, March 14, 2008

Free legal aid in Boston for homeowners facing foreclosure

Boston and the suburbs are all about housing news these days. We're past peak, but how far past peak? Sudbury homes are selling at higher prices than last year while the median sales price in Framingham dropped 6.8% last quarter. Have prices bottomed out? How about foreclosures? Are there many in your neighborhood?

Foreclosures in the northern part of the Boston area tripled in 2007, from 361 in 2006 to 1,007.

According to the Boston Globe:

Hardest hit are cities such as Chelsea, Haverhill, and Lynn, where the foreclosure crisis threatens the stability of old neighborhoods. Foreclosures of two- and three-family homes soared 202 percent, to 353 homes in 2007 from 117 in 2006, the data show. Foreclosures of condominiums, the source of new housing growth in cities, increased 192 percent, to 216 units, from 74 the prior year. Foreclosures on single-family homes rose 177 percent, to 471, from 170 in 2006, according to the data.


Boston has announced a new program to provide free legal aid to residents facing foreclosure:

The city's Department of Neighborhood Development will refer homeowners threatened with foreclosure and tenants facing eviction to attorneys with the Boston Real Estate Bar Association. The attorneys, who have agreed to work pro bono to help city residents whose incomes are 80 percent of the median income or lower, will help them sue lenders, refinance their loans, file bankruptcy, or take other legal action.


You can call the Department of Neighborhood Development at (617)635-3880.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

40-50% of property tax appeals are successful

Let's talk about property taxes. Every few years, property taxes go up; if you coasted through a few years without being reassessed, you know the pain of seeing your assessment jump 20-30% (or more) at once, and the property tax bill as well.

Few people know that there are 7 basic ways to trim the property tax bill in Massachusetts towns and cities. According to the City of Boston, the following can qualify for "personal exemptions":

1. Surviving spouse (widow/widower), minor child of a deceased parent, elderly - clause 17d
2. Blind - clause 37A
3. Veteran - clause 22
4. Elderly - clause 41C
5. Hardship - clause 18
6. Tax Deferral - clause 41A


The personal exemption request can be filed with the city, and if approved, lightens your property tax bill. For more information on these exemptions, visit: Personal Property Tax Exemptions.

Many towns outside of Boston offer similar exemptions; contact your Town Clerk for more information.

7. Incorrect assessment. Housing prices are falling (as we hear repeatedly in the news), and while a home that was assessed at $400,000 in 2005 might be worth 10% less, property taxes could be based on an outdated, inflated value. What can Boston-area homeowners do?

File an appeal. According to the City of Boston, there are four reasons why property owners file for abatements:

1. Overvaluation - the assessed value is considered too high.

2. Disproportionate assessment - (pertains to entire property classes, not any individual unit or development)

3. Improper classification - for example, a property is classified as commercial when it is actually residential.

4. Statutory exemption - the property qualifies for exemption from taxation based on its ownership and use.


For information for the City of Boston on abatements, please click here: Property Tax Abatement Procedures.

For your specific town or city, contact the clerk's office and ask about "real estate property tax abatement procedures". You may need to spend some money to file an appeal; an appraisal by an independent house appraiser (see here for a list of active appraisers in the Boston area) may help to determine current market value vs. past value if your reason for appeal is an incorrect assessment amount.

Most basic town and city appeals for abatement do not require legal assistance; the process is designed to be used by the average person. However, should complications arise, it's best to consult an attorney to better understand the law.

If a request for property tax abatement is unsuccessful, your next recourse is the Appellate Tax Board, which handles property tax appeals beyond the town level. For more information, call the Appellate Tax Board at 617-727-3100.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Monday, March 10, 2008

Low cost upholstering at your local Boston...prison?

The first time I drove past MCI-Concord shortly after moving to Mass, I asked a friend, "Why does the telephone company need barbed wire around it?"

MCI, I quickly learned, stands for Massachusetts Correctional Institute. What does prison have to do with home improvement and home-related issues?

As Gail Friedman notes, in her Boston Globe article chronicling her desire to fix a gifted, broken chair:

Fabric Place in Woburn estimated the job at $640 (including $60 in new springing); Calico Corners in Acton wanted $775 (including $75 worth of tacks). And those were without fabric.


Enter Masscor, Massachusetts Correctional Industries:

Before bringing in a chair, a customer must send a photo and dimensions to Masscor, which then provides an estimate. My estimate: $226, plus tax. I picked up fabric at a half-price sale for about $10 a yard. (Masscor had told me to bring 5 yards, but I brought 8 because Fabric Place had estimated the job would take 8½. Masscor returned more than 4 yards of unused fabric.)


So for less than half the cost, a newly-repaired, reupholstered chair. In order to use the service, according to Masscor (Massachusetts Correctional Industries), to request an estimate for your furniture:

Send photos and measurements of each piece you want reupholstered. Please include a front view, back view, and side view. Be sure to include a telephone number where you can be contacted. Send this information to:

MassCor
P.O. Box 188
Norfolk, MA 02056
ATTN: Reupholstery

Or e-mail this information to caayers@doc.state.ma.us


If you accept the estimate, you then make arrangements to deliver the item to Masscor's offices in Norfolk (not at the prison).

Sleep sofas, recliners, and leather furniture are off the list of acceptable items, and reupholstery jobs can take longer than the typical tradeperson's work.

We have had two items reupholstered, neither through Masscor; read my review here. Our Morris chair has held up well (I'm sitting in it right now).

Masscor's programs help to give prison inmates marketable skills, skills that can help them as they transition out of prison life and into society. Masscor has two showrooms open to the public, at MCI-Norfolk and MCI-Shirley, open 9-5 Monday through Friday.

With prices like $5.25 for a 3-piece towel set, or $47.50 for a dozen fitted full sheets, it might be worth a visit.

Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Saturday, March 8, 2008

Is your basement flooded right now?


Anyone else need an ark?

Boston averages about 42 inches of rain and 41 inches of snow per year.

But does all the rain have to fall right now?

We've experienced two basement floods while living in the area: in 1998 and 2001. In 1998 we were living in a basement apartment in East Cambridge. We went out in the driving rain for a lovely trip to the Burlington Mall. Came home to a dark apartment and as we walked down the cement stairs to the living room, we confronted about 3" of water in the 400 square foot room.

And no dog. Where was the dog?

Our landlord had gone into the basement to do laundry and discovered the flood. He entered our apartment to find the poor dog whimpering and hopping from the couch to the coffee table. The awesome landlord took our poor dog upstairs to his apartment for safety.

After the apartment was drained, the basement needed to be cleaned and sanitized, carpet removed and new installed, and our poor dog was afraid of even small puddles for a while.

The second flood was simpler, and involved our home purchase in Leominster, MA: read about it here.

See basement restoration companies if you're facing water in the basement right now: http://www.homestars.com/ma/boston/basement-renovation

In the meantime, a few Boston flooding tips:

1. Keep an eye out on the news or on Weather.com for flood watches and warnings.

2. Clear the sewer drain in front of your house or apartment. Leaves build up and cover the drains, and that water can back up and cause building damage if your home is close to the street.

3. Check your basement frequently. Even if you hear the sump pump running, it might not catch all the water, so don't rely on sound. Perform a visual check.

4. Elevate anything that is on the floor in your basement to prevent loss.

5. Here's a timely movie to rent this weekend.

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Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Fireplaces and contingency plans


Got a light?

We have a small wood stove in our house. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 10 million wood stoves are used in the United States. We use ours as back up in case our power goes out, and most older New England homes have a wood stove in them for the same reason. Anyone who lived through the BLIZZARD OF '78 (caps required when discussing the BLIZZARD OF '78, along with a wise nod) knows how important that wood stove or fireplace was.

A few weeks ago we received a town robocall warning us of a snow emergency. Off to Whole Foods we went, to stock up on basic food and overpriced produce. We found a box of Java Logs at the store's entrance. Coffee? Burn coffee grounds in the fireplace? Was this just over-priced tripe ($17.99 for a box of 6 small logs for 12 burn hours, $23.99 for a box of 6 large logs for 18 burn hours)?

According to the manufacturer:

Java-Logs produce significantly fewer emissions than firewood:

8x Less Creosote (Safer for Chimney & Clean Burning)
Source: OMNI Consulting Services, Inc.

5x Cleaner Particulate Matter (Less Air Pollution)
Less Carbon Monoxide (Less Air Pollution)


If you've had to hire a chimney sweep to clean your chimney, you know that the less creosote, the better. So we fired up the Java Log and prepared for the house to smell like Simon's.

No coffee odor. The log burned clear and clean. Very little ash, and easy.

We're converts. The Java logs aren't as cheap as wood (especially free wood), but in a pinch they'll do.

So the big question: if you live in the Boston area and you don't have a wood stove or fireplace as a backup heat source, what do you use? Or where will you go if you lose heat during a storm like the BLIZZARD OF '78?

Answer in the comments.

p.s. Yes, that is a strawberry-flavored marshmallow on the stick. Yes, it tastes as disgusting as it sounds.

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Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

It's 61 degrees in Boston today


It's 61 degrees in Boston today, and 53 here in metroWest Boston, as you can see. Yes, we actually own and display that clock/thermometer, thanks to my brother-in-law, whose toddler is getting an electronic drum set from us next year.

This has nothing to do with home improvement, home-related retailers, DIY Gone Wrong, or anything connected to the HomeStars community.

I just enjoy saying that it's 61 degrees on March 4 in the Boston area. How often can you say that?

It's almost enough to make you think about landscaping, isn't it? There are still a good six inches of snow on the ground here in metroWest Boston, but the steady drip of melting snow from the roof makes me think about whether my gutters are clean, what flowers to plant, and whether we should have found a set of cheap airline tickets and flown down to Ft. Myers to watch Red Sox spring training after all.

For this first post of the Boston Home Improvement Blog on HomeStars, let me ask you to do four things:

1. Register at http://www.homestars.com and write a review of a Boston-area business. You don't want New York to have more reviews than Boston, do you...?

2. While you're at it, Tell a Friend about HomeStars. Grow your neighborhood. Our current Boston users tend to cluster in the South End and metroWest Boston.

3. Bookmark this page (or subscribe via RSS).

4. Check back every day. You never know what you might find. What does coffee have to do with fireplaces? Are you a "Rotten Neighbor"? How walkable is your neighborhood?

Come back and learn more.

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Posted by Melanie Zoltan
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