Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hair Gel, Change Orders, and Trust

One day, I went to get my hair done at a popular “upper scale” salon that shall remain nameless for the purposes of this blog (If you ask me in person, I’ll tell you all about it).

I looked great. She cut my hair the exact length, she offered the perfect amount of pointless conversation to take my attention off her strangely applied eyeliner, and I walked up to the counter feeling spiffed up and ready for the rest of my day.

She, extending the camaraderie (or so I thought), walked with me, chatted with the cheery receptionist, and commenced to pull bottles off the shelves. She placed them in front of me, “you’re gonna’ love how easy this style is to maintain.” She waved at the clerk and bounced off to her next victim client.

And there I stood; buying bottles of junk I didn’t want.

I walked to my car, convincing myself I had not just been duped, but I knew better. She employed a tactic that worked on me, and probably a lot of other people as well.

You know the one. It’s the one where the customer unwittingly buys a bunch of stuff they didn't plan on buying.

Last week, I was talking to another contractor who had recently lost a bid to a competitor. The competitor bid low and planned to make up the difference in change orders. It’s sad to say, but this is a standard practice for many builders. Unfortunately, clients don’t talk about it much, because no one likes to admit they feel cheated.

After I got my hair cut, my friends all complimented me. Do you think I told them the truth about my experience? No way. I told them the name of the stylist and pretended like her up-sale at the end of the transaction was normal.

But it wasn’t. And it didn’t have to be.

If she wanted to style my hair in a way so I would have to buy bottles of goo, she should have told me, and I would have probably been on board – maybe even excited about the change. I definitely would not be writing this blog.

The fact is every sales transaction involves a level of trust. I will not return to that stylist. Not because my bill was too much, but because of the surprise at the end of the process. In essence, no matter how good the cut was, I do not trust her to work in my best interest.

So what about contractors who work with this surprise at the end philosophy, and do so successfully? Why do they get away with it? Why do people still use that styling salon?

It goes back to not wanting to be the person who was taken advantage of.

As contractors, this is frustrating. We are professional, we know how much something costs, and to have another “professional” under-bid to get the homeowner to sign the bottom line is just plain dishonest. But, there is little we as contractors can do about it.

However, there is a lot you, as a customer, can do.

The builder wants you to trust them. Make them earn it. Call their references, and keep in mind, like me not telling my friends about how I was duped, people do not want to think they have been taken advantage of. They probably won’t admit it if they went with the lowest bid and their finished project cost them more than the highest bid. Ask specific questions that go beyond if they liked their experience. Questions like:

-How many change orders were there in total?

-What was the dollar amount of change orders?

-What was the reason for the change orders?

-How much did you spend on your home outside of your construction loan?

-Were the contractor’s allowances realistic for your goals?

-Did your appliances go over your allowance?

-Did your flooring go over your allowance?

-Did your landscape go over your allowance?

-Did your lighting selections stay within the allowance?

-Was the decorating and painting budget sufficient?

-Did you feel like you had the option to reject change orders, or did you feel forced into them?

-After you reflected on the allowances you were given, did you feel like they met your original expectations?

A $50.00 haircut is not exactly what I would call low cost, but it still was a lot less than I ended up paying for the privilege of the experience.

How much will you pay for your experience? Has your builder earned your trust?

We pride ourselves on our honest approach, and yes, sometimes our numbers might sound a bit high. That’s because we will bid what you ask for and nothing less. If you want an expensive faucet, you will find it in your bid, and not buried in an allowance that does not get close enough to paying for it. On the flip side, if it turns out to be more than you wanted to spend, we will help you trim your budget in a way that will not come back to bite you in the end.

Working with unrealistic allowances cheats the homeowner, the builder, and everyone involved. At Degnan Design Builders, we design to your budget. That means you have to power to control your costs, and can be assured we will not suddenly raise prices at the end of the transaction and leave you walking to your car, wondering what just happened, and why your $50.00 haircut turned into a $100.00 experience.

Oh, and ask me for the name of my new stylist…she’s fantastic.

By: Cara Luecht - Office Manager

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Energy Improvements for the 30 year old home

For the next few blogs, we will continue the discussion about energy improvements, using home age to focus in on what might need to be done to your home in order to bring it to today’s energy standards.

This week we will discuss a home approximately 30 years old. This home, built in the early 1980’s, can actually be one of the best as far as energy improvements go. Much older, and factors like lead remediation and asbestos removal come into play. Much newer, and the function of the home may need to be improved, but the form may still be acceptable to the homeowners, meaning the improvements may offer less of a “wow” factor when complete.

First, before you do anything, think about having an energy efficiency test to see where your biggest challenges are. Most likely, you will find some surprises. Let’s face it, making improvements to your home investment can be expensive, so it’s nice to know your effort will pay off with lower utility bills. Replacing your windows may not do much for your energy bill if an infrared camera shows the air infiltration is from around the window, where it may not have been properly insulated. You could think of an energy improvement assessment as an insurance policy…it means what you hoped to accomplish with your improvements will be what gets done.

Not only that, but with an energy audit, there is a system of checks and balances, with more accountability on your contractors part to perform to the standards.

Getting back to the 30 year old home, the list of improvements often includes a new roof (if it has not already been installed), windows, and siding replacement. These are big improvements, but when making these changes, being cognizant of the energy impact of your choices can lead to a big payoff in energy savings.

The roof:

As long as you’re up there, you might as well take a look at the insulation in the attic. Chances are it could use some sprucing up. If you have ever noticed ice damming, it is definitely time to climb around the attic to see what is going on. Your home should never have ice dams. They shorten the life of your roof, can cause leaks into your attic, and in severe cases, might damage drywall. They are often a source of mold growth, possibly affecting the health of your family. Luckily, proper insulation along with air sealing can rid your home of ice dams for good. An energy audit will expose each small problem spot in detail so they can be tackled with efficiency.

The Siding:

If that old aluminum siding is faded and dented and just not up to par, there are many energy improvement options available when the new siding is installed. Some 30 year old homes may already have a 1” layer of foam, but many do not. A 1-2” finished layer before t the siding with PROPERLY installed housewrap will help to increase the comfort of your home tremendously. (As a side note, the plan to incorporate foam should be coordinated with the window installer as it will add thickness to the outside wall and change the size of your window jamb.)

Another place for improvement is adding a 2” layer of foam to the exposed areas of your basement foundation. A significant amount of heat loss takes place here, and a foam surround at the foundation is now considered standard in today’s homes. This is not a difficult, nor is it an incredibly expensive improvement, and your siding installer would probably be more than happy to help you with this.


Oh, the windows…so many choices, so many options, so much information (for fun in your spare time, count the number of advertisements for window installers you see in one day).

Here is the lowdown with windows…you get what you pay for in quality and installation.

Cheap windows will yield meager energy savings. Expensive windows will feel like you have no window at all. But, each homeowner needs to find their balance, and if the top of the line window is not in your budget, you still have options.

One thing is essential…quality installation…it will make a huge difference, especially with the less expensive varieties. The challenge is, not everyone knows when the installer is doing all they can to make your home more than aesthetically pleasing. One thing is for certain though, energy efficient improvements need to be intentional. This is where your energy audit comes in handy.

Armed with knowledge, you can be an advocate for your home and demand the windows be properly insulated, the siding and housewrap be properly installed, and the attic be properly sealed.

Of course, you could call us, and we would be more than happy to coordinate the project from beginning to end.

Functional, Beautiful, Efficient….Designed for your Life.

Friday, April 15, 2011

LED Lighting Becoming Mainstream

With prices approaching affordable, LED lighting is finally becoming mainstream.

Recently, we’ve tested 3 different brands of 5-6 watt, LED MR16 lamps. They range in price from $12 to $20 each, and have a life span of 20,000-30,000 hours. We’ve done the math, and if used about 40 hours/week, this can be well over a decade of illumination.

In comparison to the LED options, MR16 halogen bulbs (20 and 35 watt) cost around $5 each. They last about 5000 hours (if you are lucky), and have around 250-300 lumens. In our office environment, the LED bulbs appear slightly brighter than the 20 watt 250 lumen halogen lamps.

Beyond brightness, if the color of light is a concern, the LED’s are available in 3000k (Kelvin degree) warm white or cool white options. Typically, lower k temps mean a warmer color of light. But we found while halogen bulbs can be anywhere between 2800k to 3200k, they do appear slightly warmer than the LED’s in color, no matter the source.

There are two main factors to consider when comparing LED, halogen, xenon, or fluorescent options: 1. Duration of use; 2. Cost of replacement. The question is how long will the lights be on each day? The more they are used, the quicker the payback in energy savings. You can expect an LED lamp to last 4-6 times as long as a halogen. Keep in mind that while the purchase price of an LED bulb might be 3 times that of a halogen, an LED lamp can boast over $100 in savings over its 50,000 hour lifespan. When you add to these factors the cost and trouble of going to the store, finding the right bulbs, and replacing them; the decision in favor of the LED bulb seems fairly simple.

But other options, such as undercabinet lighting or recessed lighting could introduce variables that would sway your preference. This winter, thinking about efficiency and life span, I purchased LED undercabinet lighting from a MABA member (previously, I had used Xenon lights but was disappointed by the inordinate number of bulbs that quickly burned out). The reflective nature of the countertops created an unexpected consequence. Polished granite, it turns out, reflected the individual dots of light. Therefore, florescent T5 undercabinet lighting, due to cost and energy use (and the fact that it does not reflect off the granite) turned out to be a winning product for this application.

Compact florescent bulbs in recessed can lights are a viable option depending on your usage. LED’s currently win out in life span and energy savings, but when adding the extra cost of trim rings, and taking into account how often you use the lights, they may not be optimal for every situation. However, if you want to be able to dim the lights, the LED’s are the way to go.

Candelabra-base bulbs are another challenge, but we have tested a couple of products from former MABA member EFI (Energy Federation, Inc.) as well as The Home Depot with pleasing results. While not dimmable, there are some 5, 7 and 9 watt CFL’s that provide great lumens with a color similar to that of a traditional incandescent light.

For more product details, please follow the links below.

EFI candelabra base, 40 lumen/watt rating, with the flame-tip decorative style: http://bit.ly/f9vR9v

Home Depot Product comparison:


Home Depot - highest lumens and least expensive:


These are the 3 MR16 LED's that we've found:


This is the brightest lamp we tried:


Most efficient, least expensive, and bright:


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Demystifying Energy Improvements

If you look out your window in the morning and see this on the neighbor’s roof, you know something is not quite up to par with their home’s energy efficiency.

Besides causing you to wonder if your own roof has tell-tale spots (you may want to put on your robe and take a look while the frost is still on the roof, or better yet, ask your neighbor what they can see over their morning cup of coffee), signs like these reveal the lack of knowledge that homeowners, and even many builders, have in regards to performance expectations.

The dark spots on the left side of this picture reveal areas where heat from inside the house has escaped to melt the frost off the shingles. This is concerning for three reasons. The first is the potential of ice damming and the resulting damage. The second is the transfer of heat to the outdoors, which reduces efficiency and increases utility bills. The third, and possibly most concerning, is the evidence that for this home, energy efficiency may have been an afterthought, and along with the keys, the homeowners may have purchased an abundance of missed opportunities and unrealized potential savings.

Last week, I (Cara) crawled into an attic with Anthony as he taught some local maintenance technicians how to make their apartments more efficient. Going into the project, I thought I knew a fair amount about building with efficiency in mind. What I learned, however, is unless efficiency is a priority of the builder, it simply does not exist. The spots on the roof should not be there. They are easily preventable, and planning their prevention, or in this case, their correction, is essential to a well performing structure.

Over the next few weeks, we will work to demystify energy efficiency. We will describe what the term means, the modern expectations for an energy efficient home, and how these expectations are realized.

Watch our upcoming blogs for hints on how to make your home more efficient, including a list of projects, some approximate costs, what improvements can give you the most bang for your buck, and advice on what you may or may not want to tackle on your own.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Given the small area of most bathrooms, and the number of elements that need to be included, it is no wonder why remodeling can be such a challenge. However, breaking the obstacles down to their most honest form reveals a much simpler challenge, and fortunately, simple challenges usually have simple solutions.

No budge in the budget ...

Let's face it; the budget dictates your project. Even if it's a generous budget, it's still the deciding factor in not only the choices you make, but also the options you have to choose from. In fact, the only thing more important than creating the budget is sticking to it - and in a big-box-world of choices, sticking to a budget isn't easy…

…and the solution is not always about cutting back.

It is about making smart choices. Educating yourself about the available options is a good place to start, but the information is only as good as the source, and if you are counting on a teenager standing in the tile aisle of your local big box as your main source of information, then you may be placing your project in the hands of someone with very little practical knowledge. This assistance is probably fine for choosing paint colors, or a cool new lamp, but surely not the best source when considering plumbing and electrical code. In order to make the most informed decisions, you need a professional who is familiar with your home’s intricacies.

Your one defense against budget breaking choices are the experts you rely on. Yet for some reason, when attempting to control the budget, professional design is often the first item scratched off the list.

Design takes into account all of the elements: plumbing, electrical, traffic movement, ventilation, storage space, and aesthetics. A good design means that you will have a convenient place to plug in your blow dryer. It means that your door will close properly. It also means that the toilet is not the first thing you see when you walk past the bathroom.

A good design ensures the room will last. It alleviates mold and mildew before it starts to grow. It allows for plumbing accessibility in case of a malfunction. A good design means you only remodel once, the right way, with the right elements, chosen with the help of someone who knows which faucets will last, which tile is too slippery, and how to save you money without sacrificing value.

Consider this: over the past three years of projects, 100% of our customers surveyed reported that they were satisfied with how we handled their budget. We attribute this to the planning that takes place in the design phase, and more importantly, the resulting low incidence of change orders and surprises during construction.

When was the last time you talked to a friend who remodeled, and they reported their project actually stayed on budget?

If remodeling choices are truly about money, and they always are, the question is not if you can afford to use a design/builder, but rather, if you can afford not to use one.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Man Cave

Every time I surf through the home building networks on TV, I seem to run into a “man cave” episode. So, with my curiosity piqued (and ignoring the potentially sexist implications), I decided to fire up the search engine and type it in.

One website, boasting the best of the best, caught my eye and I found myself scrolling through photos of rooms that look like hotel fantasy suites minus the hot tub. Star Wars rooms (including a life size 3CPO), and Star Trek rooms (let’s not get the two confused), popped up on the screen. The website promoted theater rooms with walls textured like an actual cave, garages with wet bars, spaces designed to look like a NFL locker room, and even a room built around a pole (yes…you know the kind). After the initial smirk and eye roll, I was impressed by the detail that went into these spaces, and especially the level of craftsmanship displayed. After all, taking a basement block wall and turning it into the Starship Enterprise, and doing it well, is not an easy task. There’s electrical to run (a lot of it for those control panels), and plumbing for the wet bar (where was that on the bridge?), and a good deal of well planned audio and visual equipment. In short, design and planning cannot be taken lightly for a well done “man cave."

If you have dreams of a “man cave” of your own, and you want it to be a place you are proud to invite your like-minded friends, give us a call. We will make sure your space consists of more than a big screen hanging on a painted block wall, attached to a giant orange extension cord running the perimeter of the room. In all seriousness, we would design it so every square foot is utilized to its fullest potential. Non-standard lighting choices, the perfect fixtures, and carefully selected flooring all influence the comfort of your “man cave”. We could even create a wet bar in the place where the replicator should be (as we have not perfected that yet). Or, add that fantasy suite hot tub back in.

Of course, if you are looking for a room that blends with the rest of your decor, we could design that as well, paying close attention to the details that will make your remodel or addition feel seamless and comfortable.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2011 Parade of Homes

Are you ready to save $25,000 building your new home? We have 2 different homes, 2 different lots, and 2 different price ranges -- ready to go, both with $25,000 in Parade of Homes savings and ready to occupy after the Parade of Homes in June 2011.

If you are ready for your dream ranch, with an open floor plan, great room, 2 fireplaces and room for everyone, see Lot 35 Rivers Turn. There are 4 bedrooms, views to die for, and a garage that you just won't believe -- room for 6 cars, or all your toys! Quit paying storage fees for your boat or hobbies and buy this home. Entertain in the open great room and kitchen, enjoy holiday dinners in a semi-formal dining room that is still comfortable for your weekday dinner. A 1/2 acre lot with a private back yard leads you to the Yahara River conservancy -- and no back yard neighbors! Notice 3 sets of patio doors that connect you to that back yard. Views from every part of the house -- even across the street there are no homes.
Front view of 35 Rivers Turn
Rear view of 35 Rivers Turn

Looking for an open 2-story plan at a modest budget? Then Lot 66 Rivers Turn is for you. We have options to build with 3 or 4 bedrooms, and it has an exposed basement for future finishing. On the main level, find a REAL mudroom with room for all your stuff, a home office, and living room with a fireplace that is open to the kitchen and dining area. Windows make the difference -- take in views of the conservancy from your large living room and master bedrooms. Notice the large 10 foot patio door off the dining area. And again, a 3 car garage with extra depth to store the fun things every family has!
Front view of 66 Rivers Turn
Rear View of 66 Rivers Turn

With Degnan Design Builders, the differences are in the details and in the design. Our homes are tested to prove their energy efficiency using Home Performance with ENERGY STAR and the Focus on Energy New Homes Program. What were your heating bills this winter? In my own home, the most expensive month this year is $133, including our heat, hot water and a gas dryer used for 5 family members in a 2800 square foot home. Thanks to the Intelligent Wall construction methods, we can produce the same results for you.

For more information, you can call Abe at 846-5963, or Ted & Tammy Krez at Lakewood Realty.