The Web Can Be Handy For Home Improvements

The Web Can Be Handy For Home Improvements

My husband and I had never given much thought to home repair. That changed this summer when we bought a 70-year-old house in San Francisco.

Although the house is in great shape, we still have repaired our sprinkler hose, cared for our banana tree and tried to find a contractor to replace a picture window with a rotten frame. And in each case, the first item on our home-repair checklist was: Take a look at the Web.

For home improvements large and small, the Internet combines the resources of a public library and the knowledge of a jack-of-all-trades neighbor down the street. But while it’s possible to find advice on something as simple as changing a light bulb or as arcane as finding a vendor for solar-power panels, the Internet will take you only so far down the home-repair path. You still have to do the hardest part offline. Only time and sweat equity see the repairs to their completion.

Consider the daunting task of finding a contractor. Like so many other important searches, the Internet can provide a useful substitute to friends or family in searching for service people. And because the best sites have systems for screening their referrals, they’re good at directing you to reliable people, says Rob Enderle, an analyst at the market research firm Giga Information Group, Santa Clara, Calif.

A handful of sites help locate home-repair contractors. Microsoft Corp.’s MSN Web network offers an area called HomeAdvisor, which lets Internet users find information about home-repair projects and locate repair specialists. Other sites offer referrals and other information for services from pest control to plumbing, heating, electrical and appliance repairs. MyHomeKey.com, for instance, asks you to indicate your appliance brand, age, model number and the nature of the problem. The site gives you an estimate of the cost of the repair and lets you schedule appointments. Home-improvement sections of such popular search engines as Overture, Dogpile, Google and Yahoo! also have links to contractor-referral sites.

Finding Help

My husband and I went online hoping to find a contractor who could replace the front window and frame in our house before we were scheduled to move in, 3 1/2 weeks later. We chose ImproveNet.com, one of the earliest and best-known contractor-referral Web sites in the Bay Area. The Redwood City, Calif., company got its start in 1996 and expanded nationwide through the Internet in 1997.

At the ImproveNet site, we typed in the kind of project we were interested in, the approximate square footage involved, our budget and information about the house. The next day, ImproveNet sent us an e-mail assigning the project a number and telling us it was contacting possible contractors in our area. The company keeps a national database of about 30,000 contractors that it prescreens for credit and legal histories, insurance coverage and comments from customers. It forwards the customer’s contact information to professionals in the area. Then, the first four contractors to contact the customer and request a meeting are charged a small fee and receive the rest of the information about the job. The contractor who wins the project pays a fee to ImproveNet equal to a small percentage of the job’s total cost.

Long Wait

Unfortunately for us, everything after the initial registration took a very long time. Indeed, almost immediately we seemed to go from Internet speed to contractor speed. For starters, it was 18 days before we heard from an interested contractor. He sent us an e-mail asking us to contact him within three days to discuss the project. We exchanged phone calls and agreed he would come a week later to inspect our window and draw up an estimate.

The contractor came, checked out the window and then told us it would take as long as six weeks to come up with an estimate. He explained that the job involved a half-arch window and he needed to talk to window manufacturers to get prices.

Our hopes of having the job done before we moved in were, well, out the window. And what’s more irritating, the contractor still hasn’t gotten back to us with the estimate — 10 weeks later.

We could have asked our project manager at ImproveNet to prod the contractor along, or to get us someone else who could do the job more quickly. ImproveNet used to assign a project manager with such duties to each customer looking for a contractor. But so few customers called on their managers that ImproveNet says the service was discontinued when the company reorganized Oct. 1.

Of course, we also could have called the contractor ourselves to track down the status of our window estimate. But instead, we decided to let the window languish while we took care of more pressing jobs.

When it comes to projects you can do for yourself, the Web can replace a whole library of home-repair guides. Yahoo offers handy calculators in its “Living” section for jobs like painting, where home-improvement types can plug in wall measurements and find out how many gallons of paint they’ll need. There are calculators for concrete, tile, wallpaper, drywall and lumber, too, all of which allow people to better estimate the quantities they need to buy at their local hardware stores.

I found the Web sites operated by well-known retailers like Home Depot Inc. and Lowe’s Companies Inc. very helpful. Home Depot offers calculators to determine things like the air-cooling capacity needed to cool any room in a house, or a how-to instruction guide for repairing a deck, including time estimates. The Home Depot site also lets shoppers buy as many as 20,000 items online, and search for merchandise by SKU, or stock-keeping unit, number. Consumers can track the delivery of their package on the Web.

The Lowe’s Web site offers a how-to library that can be searched by topics such as home and garden. When my husband tried his hand at weeding, he punctured our sprinkler hose, which sprung a leak near the side of the house. Lowe’s Web library presented a section on choosing and repairing garden hoses, which offered us tips on patching the holes. Lowe’s informed us that specially designed hose tape or simple electrical tape can do the trick. My husband used electrical tape to seal the two small holes. It worked perfectly. We haven’t had any leaks since then.

General how-to Web sites such as eHow.com and About.com can provide helpful information, including how to install everything from sheet laminate to cabinets. Are fluorescent light bulbs really more efficient than incandescent bulbs? (Yes.) How long have cockroaches been roaming the Earth, let alone your kitchen? (More than 400 million years.) How do you remove crayon stains from walls? (Spray area with spot-stain remover; brush area with toothbrush).

We Have Bananas

The Web even helped us with our banana tree. We have a wonderful mature banana tree in our front yard, but the leaves have started to look torn up and yellowed. We worried that the tree might be sick, particularly after one of the branches bent near the base and drooped on the ground. The Home Depot site told us the best way to trim the branch. And for more information on how to care for the tree, we searched the Web for “banana tree care” and found several discussion groups, including one at Raingardens.com.

There we found a question from a fellow banana-tree owner whose tree had the same problem as ours. The person wanted to know what caused the lower leaves on his tree to turn yellow.

Another participant had replied that the yellowing on his tree apparently had coincided with a very cool week in April when air and soil temperatures had dropped at night. The reader said the cool soil slows the nutrient uptake, and one of the symptoms of nutrient deficiency is yellowing lower leaves. The person answering went on to explain that the tree required a regular monthly supply of a fertilizer and that the yellowing would disappear as temperatures warmed and growth resumed.

The advice certainly sounded reasonable and helped reassure us that our banana tree might be experiencing a short-term problem that we could solve with palm or citrus fertilizers.

We’re still in our first year as homeowners, but already the Internet has helped us in a surprising number of ways. A Web browser, it turns out, can be a pretty handy addition to your toolbox.

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