Archive for January 2014

7 Crucial Questions to Ask Before Starting a Remodeling Or Home Addition Project

The last thing that a law-abiding homeowner needs is to be taken advantage of by anybody, let alone on such a large investment.

Especially in the current economic climate that we're experiencing, every dollar and every decision matters.

1. Are you licensed?

This may seem obvious, but you wouldn't believe the number of smart, well-to-do homeowners that actually forget to ask this one very important question.

EVERY contractor engaged in "home improvement" (defined below) is required to be licensed.

Home improvement work includes alteration, remodeling, repair or replacement of a building or part of a building used as a residence. Home improvement also includes work done on individual condominium units. Home improvement does not include work done on commonly owned areas of condominiums or buildings that contain four or more single family units.

So let's suppose you ask a potential contractor that you're interviewing whether they're licensed or not, and they tell you "Yes". Should you stop there?

Well you could, but it's not advisable. How hard is it to tell a one-word lie? True, it is harder for some than for others, but the perpetrator may consider it to be a "white" lie. Perhaps they're in the process of applying for the license, or they've already applied, and just haven't been accepted yet, or they have a friend who will "cover it" with his license... I've heard a lot of little white lies around this question.

How to check to see if a contractor is licensed

To inquire about the licensing status of any individual or company, a homeowner may call their states Home Improvement Commission.

Exceptions (i.e. individuals or companies that DON'T need a state license) include architects, electricians, plumbers or heating, ventilation, air-conditioning (HVAC) contractors, but they are still required to have their own appropriate licenses.

Definitely ask any potential contractor if he is licensed and also to see a copy of his license. Be sure to check the expiration date and that it is in good standing. If the contractor has trouble producing the license, it's probably because they don't have it. Feel free to give them a chance to produce the physical licensing, but hiring a contractor that cannot show you their license is generally a bad idea.

Why it's important to use a licensed contractor?

Intuitively, you know it's important to use a licensed contractor, but is there really a difference? Well, yes, actually there is.

First of all, states make individuals and companies pass certain criteria and jump through certain hoops, if you will, to receive state licensing. This in and of itself, is a good indication that the company or individual is serious. It indicates that they are not a fly-by-night operation that engages in chronic fraudulent behavior.

Additionally, states investigate complaints by homeowners, awards monetary damages against licensed contractors, and prosecutes violators of the home improvement law and regulations.

Most states have established a Guaranty Fund. This Fund compensates homeowners for actual monetary losses due to poor workmanship or failure to perform a home improvement contract.

But here's the kicker, the Fund applies only to work done by licensed contractors. Each licensed contractor is covered by the Fund for up to $100,000 for all claims. Unlicensed contractors are not covered by the Fund.

2. Do you have general liability insurance?

Equally as important as having state licensing, every contractor should have general liability insurance. This insurance is in place almost primarily for the reason of protecting you, a contractor's customer.

In the event that something happens where your property is damaged, having proper general liability insurance will cover the costs of the damages, so that you don't have to pay for it!

Again, this is something that should be discussed on the first meeting. The contractor might not have a copy of the policy with him, but you should insist on seeing it before hiring him.

Just these two questions, if asked every time by every homeowner, probably would've saved the majority of them from the hardships they experienced.

3. Do you guarantee your work?

Again, a very important question that is (surprisingly) mostly overlooked.

It makes sense (again, definitely on an intuitive level) that contractors should guarantee their work! Considering that a remodeling or additions project is a long-term type of thing, the guarantee should be for at least one year. In fact, it's actually a licensing requirement in the state of Maryland that contractors guarantee their work for a year.

Some contractors (mostly the good ones) will have extended warranties.

You should open up a dialogue and talk in-depth with your potential contractor about their stance on the guarantee. In general, when a remodeling contractor is very confident with their guarantees, it will shine through in the way the act when you're talking about it.

You can tell when somebody is unsure, anxious, or nervous.

If you sense any hesitation or any doubt when you are discussing the guarantee with your contractor, that can be a strong indication that they're not confident in their work. An unconfident contractor is like an unconfident surgeon-not good news.

4. Can you provide some references?

This seems like another obvious one, but literally, about half of homeowners don't even ask. And of the ones that do, most will settle for written references.

We all know why it's important to get references, but the actual process of getting the references can be more or less effective, depending on how you do it.

For instance, do you settle for written references? What if they were fabricated?

Do you ask to speak with individuals over the phone? What if they were somehow fabricated?

I hope this doesn't sound like there is a general idea that builders and contractors are liars. We are designers and builders ourselves and we would never in any way imply that our colleagues are less-than-honest.

But at the same time, this is a lot of money that you are investing in this project, and if a little due diligence can dramatically increase the chances of making a better decision, you owe it to yourself to spend the time in this area.

Typically, if you ask for references, a contractor will probably furnish some written ones. It is very highly suggested to ask for names and phone numbers of 3 recent customers and also 3 customers that have had their work done at least 3 years ago. This way, you will get ideas from customers that have just finished their projects and you will also get a sense of the satisfaction of customers that have had their projects completed for some time.

And (this part is important) be sure to call them! As you're talking to them, ask them as many questions as you can think of (while being respectful of their time, of course). Record their answers to the questions, and also the general feeling that you get the customer had with the contractor.

Be sure to make sure that the previous customer's situation was somewhat similar to your own. For instance, was it the same project size with a similar scope of work? Was the property roughly the same age as your property? Did they live in the same neighborhood as you? Results can vary pretty widely and be somewhat misleading if you don't have much in common with the previous customers.

5. Who will be in charge of the job?

Throughout the construction process, there are going to be a lot of questions, comments, concerns, and a general need for solid communication between all parties involved.

There will likely be many different workers actually doing the physical labor. You don't want to have to go to one of them to ask your questions. It is ideal, therefore, to have a project manager who will be your primary point of contact.

Ask your contractor whether there will be a dedicated project manager, or a dedicated point of- contact, who is well-familiarized with the job. By "well-familiarized" I mean that they know you, they know your neighborhood, they know your house, they know your budget, they know your goals, and they know your expectations.

It's a simple question, "Who will be in charge of the job?"

On the same note, you should get some details. What will the lines of communication be? Is that individual going to be here physically? Will I have to call them on the phone to get information? Will they be responsive to email?

Another important question regarding the actual leadership of the engagement is, "Are there going to be any pre-planned meetings?" For instance, many clients have pre-construction meetings to properly set expectations of what the construction process will entail, and what types of disruptions are to be expected.

Additionally, there is often-times a meeting about mid-way through to discuss the progress of the job, any surprises that have come up, and any adjustments to the timeline of completion.

Is your contractor planning on having such meetings?

6. What about things like dumpsters, hauling trash, port-a-potties, and general clean-up?

This topic, another important one, is rarely ever discussed in interviews that I've witnessed. It is one of those things that is a very fine detail to have to think about when preparing to embark on a large job, such as a home addition.

But the fact is that it is very important in terms of your overall experience. Do you want a big pile growing like bacteria on your property? Do you want to have to remove the trash yourself at the end of the job?

Of course you don't. And you shouldn't have to.

Bring this up frankly and discuss it with your builder before the job starts. Then throughout the course of the project, check to make sure the builder is on track with what you agreed on.

Since no two jobs are exactly alike, it's difficult for us to tell you specifically what to tell your contractor. But just the fact that you read this and that these details are now at the front of your mind, should help you avoid most potential problems.

The last thing you need is a big pile of trash to take care of before going inside and enjoying your new living space.

7. Do you offer any financing options?

Having been in this business for as long as we have, we have naturally developed several banking relationships with the ideal types of lenders. You should expect the same from your potential contractor.

Talk to them about it before-hand.

Many banks want to lend you money. What we have found over the past twenty years is some are a lot better than others at doing it. We have relationships with several banks that have had offered our clients great options and service.

This should be one of the easy parts of doing a renovation, we will guide you through the process.

Home Interior Design - How to Start

Getting into home interior design is not necessarily for the faint of heart, as it can get very complicated and expensive. There is much more to home interior design and just slapping paint on the wall or doing some basic repairs. While virtually anyone can do those sort of tasks, designing an interior from scratch is quite another matter.

However, there is something quite wonderful about having everything in your own hands and having complete control over how you design your house. Obviously, all these sort of things start with a plan. To begin with, this plan might just be a rough sketch on a piece of paper and then it evolves from there.

The plan is the most important thing in fact because it gives you an overall impression of what the end result is going to look like. Before you start spending money and time, you need to have a good impression of what you are in for. There are a number of ways to achieve this.

If you have any knowledge of computer aided design, then you can truly work wonders with today's modern and super fast computers. Though these order programs do tend to have a rather steep learning curve, computers these days are ultimately capable of creating photo realistic designs which you can fly through to see everything how it would look in real life.

However, if you are not into computers and you just don't have that knowledge, then you can also do quite a lot just with a pen and paper. Creating some two dimensional plans as to whether furniture will go is a start. You will also need to be good at meditating however, as you are going to need to visualise without a picture how your room is going to look.

Of course, you can browse the Internet to find lots of pictures and see if you can find something that inspires you and while you might be able to compare it to the room that you want to redesign, it is not going to be particularly accurate.

Once you have a good idea of what you want to achieve, you can start getting to work. There are various guides available which can teach you the basics of home interior design but you are going to be required to be practical and a general knowledge of basic maintenance is almost essential.

Many of the aspects of home interior designer quite easy to teach yourself. Pretty much anyone can do the basic jobs of painting in preparing services but he gets a bit more complicated if you want to do any plasterwork or install tiles. Nonetheless, there is no reason why you can't learn and you can also save a lot of money if you do learn. Hiring a professional interior designer is extremely expensive and it could be argued, that they wouldn't do the job exactly how you wanted it anyway.

Also, if you just want a simple redesign, you can experiment a little and the job will also be far simpler. There is nothing complicated about repainting the room and getting somebody had that a new carpet in for example or even doing it yourself.

Financing A Home: Improving Your Credit Score

Today there are many homes for sale with low prices and low interest rates. Housing is more affordable now than it has been in many years. Considering the current market, why isn't everyone snapping up homes? The truth is, many first time home buyers are jumping into the market and getting in on this affordable housing opportunity. Real estate investors are also very active as they see this unique opportunity to build their wealth. The unfortunate reality for everyone right now is that even though homes are more affordable now than in many years, lenders are very picky about who gets a loan and who does not. And your credit score is one of the primary indicators of whether or not you will get approved for a loan and what your interest rate will be.

Just a few years ago a borrower with a credit score as low as 500 could buy a home. Today that score needs to be a minimum of 620 to 640. And to qualify for the best interest rates you better have a credit score in the 700's. No matter what your credit score is, you should know it. If it is not close to 750 you should resolve to get there and here are some easy tips to help improve your credit score.

Let's take a look at what information on our credit report determines your score, then we will give suggestions on how to improve in each of those areas

35% or your credit score is attributed to your payment history which not only includes actual payments to your creditors, but it includes things such as collections, judgments and tax liens. With this in mind you always want to make sure you make your car, credit card and loan payments on time. Many lenders also require verification of rental payment history, so you will want to make sure you pay your rent on time as well. By the way, a payment is considered on time if it is paid within 30 days of the due date. If you have collections, judgments or tax liens on your credit, you will have to provide proof that these were paid. If there are unpaid collections you can in many cases negotiate a settlement for less than what is owed. From a credit scoring standpoint this is almost as good as paying in full as long as it is reported as satisfied in full on the credit report.

In addition, you can make a payment arrangement for tax liens and after 12 months get those rated for your credit report which will help. Judgments are required to be paid in full at the close of a loan, and you will need to get it paid and the credit report updated in order to improve your credit score. In many cases with a history of late payments we have to say, time heals all wounds. In other words, it may just take a year or so of making your payments on time to get the credit score you need. If you have items on your credit report that are incorrect, then you can dispute those items to get them corrected with the credit bureau.

30% of your credit score is attributed to how much you owe on your credit card as a percentage of total credit limit. Let me give you an example: If you have one credit card with a $1,000 limit and you owe $750 on this card, your percentage of credit usage is 75% and your available credit is 25%. The lower the usage percentage the higher your credit score will be (all other factors being equal). There are 3 ways to improve this number. You can accomplish this by paying your credit card down as soon as possible. You can request an increase in the credit card limit. And you can also open up new cards. For the last two, you will need to exercise some caution however.

When you request an increase in your credit card, you should ask your credit card company if they can do this based on the merits of your payment history with them. If not they will create a credit inquiry which can lower your score just a little bit. In my opinion it would probably still be worth the credit inquiry deduction from your credit to get your credit limit increased. I believe that in most cases you would have a net gain in credit score, but there have been times when I've seen it drop at least in the short term. By the way, do not increase the balance on your credit card when your limit goes up or you will have just undone the improvement, but now you owe more money and still have a low credit score. Similarly, when you open up a new credit card, you end up having a couple of strikes against you which is the credit inquiry and the new credit account. More about both of these in a moment.

15% of your credit score is attributed to your length of credit history. So Let's have another example: Let's say you have 2 credit cards. You have had one of the credit cards for 5 years and the other card for 3 years. So on average your credit cards are 4 years old, and so your credit score will reflect this 4 year average length. Now if you open a new card, you reduce your average down to about 2.7 years from 4 years. So initially at least this can have the effect of lowering your average length of credit and reduce your credit score accordingly. That is one of the reasons that opening new credit is not a quick fix for bumping your credit score up. However lets take a look at it a year from now. In one year from opening the new credit card your average length would be at 3.6 so if this is part of a longer term strategy then it would probably be a good strategy to follow.

10% of your credit score is attributed to new credit, so once again you can see that opening a new credit account not only lowers your average length of credit, but it also counts against you on a stand alone basis as well. This is also why an inquiry affects your credit score as well. When there are inquiries, it is "assumed" by the system that you are acquiring new credit whether you are or not. For example, if you had your car at the dealership to be fixed and while you were waiting you were taking a look at a new car and ended up making an offer which the dealership knows you will be financing, they will make sure to run your credit (with your permission of course). So even though you end up not buying the new car, the credit inquiry is on your credit report and will slightly lower your credit score. By the way, all inquiries reported in a 30 day period from similar companies will be treated as one credit inquiry. So if you are going to be buying a car or shopping for a mortgage, try to get all of the inquiries put in within 30 days to lessen the effect of multiple inquiries.

The last 10% of your credit score is attributed to the types of credit used, or what we call credit mix. It is good to have both credit cards, car loans, mortgages and installment loans on your credit report. For most people it will take time to accomplish all of these, but beware that someone who always uses high interest rate, high risk lenders will have lower credit scores as well. I cannot mention them by name of course, but it is the lenders who would be considered a finance company, and makes high interest rate and unsecured loans for household goods that will decrease your credit score. Now it is not bad to have an account with this type of company. Many of them work with stores to offer no interest, no payments for 90 days or longer. As long as you are not using them with regularity. Once established you should be able to qualify for reasonable rate credit cards or even an installment loan at a bank or credit union with a competitive rate as well. So bear in mind as you build your credit and credit score that these factors all contribute to your overall score.

A couple of other thoughts for you. Many folks ask me what this or that will do to your credit score and unfortunately no one can tell you exactly as credit scoring is somewhat like Kentucky Fried Chickens secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices. It is a closely guarded, highly sophisticated set of algorithms that combines all the above stated factors and reduces them down to a simple 3 digit number that is supposed to represent your likelihood of paying back the loan or credit card you are applying for. You may want to connect with a lender who can assist with guiding you through the process of improving your credit score. There are also a large number of companies who will, for a price, work on your credit score for you. There are no guarantees with these services and in addition, they are usually fairly expensive and many of them are just plain rip offs, so you would need to approach this avenue with a great deal of caution.

Finally, as a consumer of credit services and possibly as someone who want so purchase a home, you should make it a priority to take control of your finances and your credit score and find out what your credit score is and work hard to bring it up or maintain it.

Decorating And Contemporary Furniture For A New Home

It is important to get some basics that will last and are needed, a good sofa, armchairs, a dinning table, chairs and a good and comfortable bed. But there are plenty of more to have to make an interior look perfect. But do not rush, an ideal and cosy home should be built slowly in the same way we build our lives. It is a process that require time and different views on making choices and decisions. A quirky piece of furniture that is the latest trend on every magazine it is the must have of today but do we really think it will become a timeless piece for us to treasure? It will surely tire us after a while. To me the perfect home is that which is a reflection of a journey, our life.

When choosing furniture and making a wonderful home this is my advice:

- Go for quality well made pieces, the important is to select furniture which will become, after time timeless, classics on their own. It does not matter you go for a classic style or modern, timeless applies for both, like the word contemporary. Contemporary might well be used for modern furniture but also for classic.

- Do not rush on your decisions, visit furniture showrooms, internet stores, magazines, blogs,… Make a list of possible options and go through it several times in different days. What today might seem the perfect choice, in a couple of days it is not.

- When buying furniture it is also very important to know the space possibilities of your home. Dimensions need to come first.

- This also applies to the access of each place. Some furniture pieces won’t get to your flat if corridors, doors and windows are too narrow.

- Auction places, second hand websites and antique markets are perfect places to find unique pieces at affordable prices. And do not be afraid of mixing. In fact ‘mixing’ is what makes a home interesting with that personal touch that we all aim for.

- To conclude, do not rush with it as if everything has to be ready at the same time. If you want that to happen you will find it exhausting and stressful and eventually you will hate it. Let things go with the flow and slowly your place will take another dimension.

First Time Home Buyer's Guide, Part 2 - 4 Things To Do Before You Go And Look For A Home

Before Looking for a Home

Buying a house can be a new and exciting process; it can also be very confusing and stressful. Becoming educated about the house buying process and being prepared can reduce a lot of this stress and confusion. Anyone buying a home should take the following steps before they even step out to look at a house.

Check your Credit History

The moment you decide that you are ready to buy a house is the moment you need to get a credit report. When pulling your credit report, be sure to use a service that provides you with copies of your credit history and score from all three credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Not all credit information is reported to each bureau, and lenders do not all check the same credit bureaus to determine your credit score so it is important that you get a copy from each bureau.

Obtaining a credit report early on in the home buying process is important because if there are discrepancies on your reports you must write to the bureaus and request that they are corrected. Depending upon how busy the bureaus are, this process can take up to months. Fixing errors on your credit history can result in a higher credit score and improvements in your credit score may qualify you for a lower interest rate. A loan with even a .25% lower interest rate can save you thousands of dollars over the course of your loan.

It is also important to note that pulling your own credit report will not lower your credit score in any way, this only happens when companies, like banks pull your history in attempt to approve you for items such as loans and credit cards.

Research Potential Loan Programs and Lenders

A house loan is often the largest and longest term of a loan that many individuals will ever receive in their lifetimes. Therefore, time should be taken to review potential lenders and loan programs that you may qualify for. For example, if you have a not so perfect credit history or need a low down payment you might want to see if you qualify for a FHA loan. If you are a veteran you may qualify for a Veteran's Administration loan, which among other things allows individuals to put no money down without having to pay Private Mortgage Insurance. Some lenders offer special rebates, promotions, and programs for home buyers that ease the expenses involved with buying a home. Individual lenders vary in the interest rate they charge and the fees involved in the loan process. Even the nonrefundable application fee for some banks is upwards to $500, so it is important to research a bank and become satisfied with the loan programs they offer before you apply.

Get Prequalified/Preapproved

There is a big difference between getting prequalified and preapproved for a loan. When you get prequalified for a loan there are generally no fees involved and the bank gives you a rough estimate as to what they would give you for a loan based on the information you've provided them. It is not completely accurate and many sellers will not accept offers from buyers who are only prequalified. When you get preapproved for a loan you will have to provide more documentation and pay an application fee. When you are preapproved the bank generally states that you are eligible for the exact amount of your preapproved amount, granted that all the information you have provided to them is accurate.

If you've decided that you are ready to buy a house one of the very first steps you should take is to get prequalified for a loan. Before going out to look at houses that may potentially be out of your price range, get prequalified for a loan so you know what houses you should be looking at. If after getting prequalified you find that you qualify for a lot less than you anticipated for, ask the lender what you could do to qualify for a larger loan. You may discover that your debt to income ratio is too high or that the length of your credit history is too short. You may then decide to reduce some of your debt or if you are satisfied with the amount you may decide to get preapproved for a loan.

Determine How Much you Can and Want to Spend

Now that you have checked your credit history, and have gotten prequalified or preapproved for a loan you must determine how much you can really afford to spend. Do not blindly assume that you will be able to afford the payments your lender says you can. Keep in mind that lenders often push the limits of your loan to the outer boundaries, in order to get you the biggest loan possible and to make more money. If the mortgage payment you qualify for is a lot more than your current mortgage or rent payments look at the new value realistically. Can you REALLY afford that payment? Can you live comfortably with that much less money per month? If you are used to renting, keep in mind that you will now be responsible for repairs, yard work, insurance, and taxes. Do not tell yourself that you will give up certain activities or change your lifestyle in order to afford your new payment.

House buying should be an exciting and stress free process. If you educate yourself about lending processes and take the steps above you will be more prepared than many other home buyers.

Finding a Lender for Your Remodeling and Home Improvement Project

Finding a Lender for Your Remodel

If you've been dying thinking about how wonderful it would be to have your home remodeled in the image of your dreams, then the next step will be how to get an appropriate lender for your needs. For those new to the lingo, it would be very easy to get lost amidst the sea of terms and concepts related to lending - and we haven't even gone to which lender would be best for you. So if you are new to the lending biz, here are a few tips to help guide you on your way.

Explore your options, make sure you have a list of credible lending institutions to choose from when refinancing. It would do well if you had a list of institutions followed by the pros and cons plus the terms to each lending institution.

Many financial institutions will offer some sort of credit product especially tailored for home buyers and homeowners who seek to remodel. The best place to start looking is your local bank. Not only are they legal, they are also stable, and will prove to be the standard by which you make your financial decisions.

Your Bank: The First Stop On Your Lending Adventure

Try exploring the loan plans of the bank you deposit with. They will usually give you better interest rates than other banks. When visiting your bank for this purpose, it will do no harm to seek customer service personnel who can explain to you the various loan products and services their bank offers and the ins and outs of managing such agreements. Good banks will also offer advice on what course of action would be best for such situations, having had much experience with such.

If you have applied for other loans before, then this experience will not be any more painful than before. Many of the terms and rules applicable to them are applicable to your refinance loan.

Make sure you understand every detail of the loan. Do not gloss over some parts because you think they are not important, or that they can be omitted or referred to later. Some of the decisions you will have to make regarding your loan must be made with these terms in mind.

Your Mortgage Broker: The Loan Middleman

Mortgage brokers have the advantage of having more loan sources than other people. They will typically be more informed of the ins and outs of the lending business. However, the main issue against them is trust. You will want to associate with mortgage brokers that are trustworthy and honest. Try checking with people you know to get in touch with such brokers. Those of your friends who have had experience with these brokers can give you tips about, feedback on, and references to good mortgage brokers who do their job well.

Finding a mortgage broker is best when you are getting a second mortgage, or refinancing, or a FHA 203(k) mortgage.

Contractors: Last Line of Lending

Some contractors will also offer lending plans. However, finding a good contractor - and one that offers a good loan at that - will be doubly difficult. Their plans may also be a lot trickier to deal with. You will need to approach this option with a lot more caution than with the other options.

When considering their terms, take careful note of the monthly payment they require. If they put too much focus on the monthly payment instead of the total bill, you will have to be very suspicious of their plans.

Your Rights as a Borrower

The federal Truth in Lending Act, Article Z protects you from some of the more ostentatious scams in lending. It states that lenders must disclose their interest rates, costs, plus the total APR along with the terms of the loan for it to be legitimate. If they don't do so, then you must scoot away from these institutions - but not after refunding your application fee (which is another one of your rights). You can use this information when comparing lenders and choosing from among them.

You should also be aware of the upfront fees which could typically cost anywhere from $50 to $300. Most reputable lenders will keep this fee low, if they charge too much or if they state that these fees are nonrefundable, you would do better with other lending institutions.

Selecting the Right Contractor For Your Home Improvement Project

Your home is most likely the largest investment you will ever make. The value of your investment can often be positively impacted by strategically selected home improvement projects. Some projects are conducive for DIY weekend warriors and home improvement hobbyists. However, other projects require hiring experts in order to ensure the job is done right, especially when trying to get the greatest return on the resell of your home. A salient example would be hiring a contractor to rewire electrical outlets.

The success of your home improvement project is highly dependent upon hiring the right contractor. The vast majority of contractors within the home improvement arena are honest and reputable. Unfortunately, as with any profession, there are unscrupulous contractors who can turn your home improvement dream into a construction nightmare. It is imperative for homeowners to take the requisite steps in order to prevent hiring the wrong contractor.

Referrals from family and trusted friends are the best route to selecting the right contractor. Researching each potential contractor's record with the Better Business Bureau is also strongly suggested. Shoddy operators most often have a poor rating with the BBB, but most homeowners fail to take this basic due diligence step which can help prevent you from making the same mistake as others before you.

Reputable home improvement contractors are willing to give you a written estimate broken out between materials and labor prior to initiating a job. Insist upon this written estimate, and avoid any contractor who refuses to provide this prior to any work commencing. Obtain several quotes when interviewing contractors, and follow up with direct questions should any quote be far less than the others. This can often be a sign that the contractor is planning on pocketing your money without fully completing the project.

Although no contractor has a crystal ball and unforeseen circumstances can arise delaying a job, always get a written estimate outlining the schedule and targeted completion date for the project. Failure to do this often leads to subsequent disagreements over what the projected time frame was and corresponding frustration on the part of the homeowner.

Starter Guide to Self Improvement : A 7 Step Process

I seem to lost count on how many times I've read and heard of celebrity marriages failing almost left and right. Not that I care (and personally I don't), it seems strange that we often see movie and TV stars as flawless people, living the fairytale life of riches and glamour. I suppose we all have to stop sticking our heads in the clouds and face reality.

There are many ways to lose your sense of self-esteem despite of how trivial it could get. But whatever happens, we should all try not to lose our own sense of self.

So what does it take to be a cut above the rest? Here are some of the things you can think and improve on that should be enough for a week.

1. Know your purpose
Are you wandering through life with little direction - hoping that you'll find happiness, health and prosperity? Identify your life purpose or mission statement and you will have your own unique compass that will lead you to your truth north every time.

This may seem tricky at first when you see yourself to be in a tight or even dead end. But there's always that little loophole to turn things around and you can make a big difference to yourself.

2. Know your values
What do you value most? Make a list of your top 5 values. Some examples are security, freedom, family, spiritual development, learning. As you set your goals for 2005 - check your goals against your values. If the goal doesn't align with any of your top five values - you may want to reconsider it or revise it.

The number shouldn't discourage you, instead it should motivate you to do more than you can ever dreamed of.

3. Know your needs
Unmet needs can keep you from living authentically. Take care of yourself. Do you have a need to be acknowledged, to be right, to be in control, to be loved? There are so many people who lived their lives without realizing their dreams and most of them end up being stressed or even depressed for that matter. List your top four needs and get them met before it's too late!

4. Know your passions
You know who you are and what you truly enjoy in life. Obstacles like doubt and lack of enthusiasm will only hinder you, but will not derail your chance to become the person you ought to be. Express yourself and honor the people who has inspired you to become the very person you wanted to be.

5. Live from the inside out
Increase your awareness of your inner wisdom by regularly reflecting in silence. Commune with nature. Breathe deeply to quiet your distracted mind. For most of us city slickers it's hard to even find the peace and quiet we want even in our own home. In my case I often just sit in a dimly lit room and play some classical music. There's sound, yes, but music does soothe the savage beast.

6. Honor your strengths
What are your positive traits? What special talents do you have? List three - if you get stuck, ask those closest to you to help identify these. Are you imaginative, witty, good with your hands? Find ways to express your authentic self through your strengths. You can increase your self-confidence when you can share what you know to others.

7. Serve others
When you live authentically, you may find that you develop an interconnected sense of being. When you are true to who you are, living your purpose and giving of your talents to the world around you, you give back in service what you came to share with others -your spirit - your essence. The rewards for sharing your gift with those close to you is indeed rewarding, much more if it were to be the eyes of a stranger who can appreciate what you have done to them.

Self-improvement is indeed one type of work that is worth it. It shouldn't always be within the confines of an office building, or maybe in the four corners of your own room. The difference lies within ourselves and how much we want to change for the better.