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posted: 10/20/2013 12:14 AM

Do a little extra digging to find the right contractor

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Q. Two of my neighbors are having work done by different contractors. I see a little progress for a day or two, then nothing for a few days to a week. Is this the way construction is usually done? We are planning to have an addition built and are wondering if we have to expect this?

A. No, it is not the way remodeling should be done, but unfortunately, it is too often the way some small contractors operate. They chase after jobs and to get them, they promise to start very soon. Because they are not well-organized or not upfront, they start one job, do a few things so the customer is stuck with them, and then they start a second job, repeating the cycle.

There is no reason for you to put up with this. Once you have selected the two or three contractors from whom you will be asking bids, ask all of them to give you the names of at least 10 references of jobs they have completed in the last two years. The list should include jobs recently completed and jobs now in progress.

Call everyone on the list and ask how the work was performed and how satisfied the clients were with the progress, the quality of the work and its completion. If there was a need for some adjustments, known as "come backs" or "call backs," were they done in a timely fashion?

If you are having the addition designed by an architect, have him or her arrange for the bidding and the selection of the best person. This should never be just the contractor with the lowest price, as this may spell disaster in the long run. Architects have a list of contractors they have worked with satisfactorily, and that is the best insurance you can have. Architects will also often include in a contract a penalty clause for delays caused by the contractor. Good luck.

Q. I am going to put siding on my house. I like cedar shakes when they are new, but I don't care for them after they have aged and turned dark. I stopped at a house that had aluminum cedar shakes on it. The present owner didn't know anything about them, since the previous owner had done the work. I couldn't find anything conclusive about them after searching the Web. Can you tell me where to find some information about them and give me your opinion of them? If they are more expensive than I can afford, do you have any solutions to keep wooden shakes looking new?

A. The simplest way to keep real cedar shakes looking like new is to treat them with Amteco TWP, You will find a choice of tints on its website and descriptions of its various products.

It is best to stain the shakes on all sides before you install them, and to install them over a rain screen, which you can easily obtain with a variety of products available. One such product is Benjamin Obdyke's Home Slicker, which comes by itself or with integral Typar housewrap, if you need to put a housewrap on.

The advantage of a rain screen is that it allows a drainage plane behind the siding, as wind-driven rain and pressure differential often force water behind it. It also provides a breathing space for the back of the siding to dry, preventing it from cupping, curling and cracking.

I generally recommend a natural wood product as better than aluminum, steel, cement board or vinyl because I believe that it adds value to a house, but wood requires periodic maintenance. There are exceptions, of course, in which the man-made products are preferable.

I am not aware of aluminum cedar-shake imitations, but CertainTeed has a line of vinyl cedar-imitation siding products. Its Cedar Impressions line is quite attractive. You can check it out at

Q. Please help. I am at a loss as to what type of flooring to get with my two dogs. We have carpet in the living room, but the little dog has accidents and I cannot get the smell out of the carpet. The larger dog gets the water from her water bowl on the laminate flooring in the kitchen and it bubbles up if I don't wipe it in time.

Is there a product that can be put over laminate flooring to make it more waterproof or a wood-looking type of flooring that will hold up to the little dog peeing and the big dog's nails? Since I live in a wooded area in Pennsylvania, I do not want my whole first floor to be ceramic tile. Thanks so much for your column.

A. I do not know of any product that can be put on laminate flooring to protect it from water not immediately wiped up. Laminate flooring is a floating, synthetic product made of fiberboard and melamine resin with a photographic applique over which a clear protective layer is applied.

Any hardwood flooring, including bamboo, with a tough finish should withstand your dogs' abuse. Oak with several coats of a gymnasium-type finish is probably the best and can easily be maintained and recoated as needed.

Q. We recently moved into a newly constructed home in which the foundation was poured back in March during a period of some rains. We closed on the home in the middle of July. When we took possession of the home, the basement floor was still quite damp. The building superintendent said this was "normal." We have been running a dehumidifier and several fans continuously for a month, and the perimeter of the floor is still damp. Should new construction take this long to dry out? None of the other new constructed homes have had this severe of a problem. Is this "normal," or is there something else we should be doing to speed up the drying process? We want to seal coat the floor and have delayed it because of the dampness.

A. New construction generates a lot of moisture, which may take as long as two heating seasons to fully dry out, depending on where you live and whether you use central air conditioning in the summer or natural ventilation. You'll find out if this is the case during the coming heating season, which may manifest itself as condensation on any exterior glass surfaces, exterior doorknobs, etc.

However, what you describe does not sound normal if it affects only your house, and there may be several causes. The perimeter of the floor may be damp because the outside perimeter drain, if there is one, may be plugged, which prevents the evacuation of any subsequent rain. This often happens if the drain and the backfill were not completed, or if the final grade was not properly sloped away form the foundation prior to the spring rains. Another possibility is that the drain's stone bed was not properly protected by geotextile fabric during its construction.

If there is no perimeter drain, the backfill against the foundation may be heavy native soil and so saturated that it has not yet dried after these several months; it may also be kept wet by subsequent rains.

Another possibility is that the final grading is too flat or negative (sloping toward the foundation), either because it was finalized that way or rain has caused the backfill to settle. This may allow any rain to penetrate deeply and keep the soil from drying.

All these scenarios need to be checked out, and it sounds as if the builder may not be the best one to do so, judging from the comments the superintendent made to you. A professional engineer or experienced home inspector may be able to determine what is causing this persistent dampness. Hopefully, this may be corrected without having to dig up the soil and redo or install a new foundation drain.

Meanwhile, you are doing the best you can to dry the basement floor, and I am assuming that you keep the windows closed in order to keep summer moisture out.

Q. A couple of weeks ago, you wrote a column on cleaning stainless steel and suggested a product that you also noted could be used for cabinets with great results. Unfortunately, the paper was discarded before I had a chance to write the name down. I seem to remember it starting with an M? Would you please write me the name? I need a good cleaner for my kitchen cabinets.

A. This miracle product is Milsek. We have used it for years and I have mentioned it frequently in this column. Many readers have written me with raves after using it on floors, cabinets, leather, etc.

A reader's endorsement: Following the recommendation of a reader, I mentioned using cypress mulch to prevent artillery fungus on house siding, especially if it is light colored. Artillery fungus is caused by the decomposition of most organic mulch in the spring and the fall when the temperature is right for its formation. The black dots of artillery fungus explode with such force that they can reach 20 feet in height. They attach themselves to any siding and are very difficult, if not impossible, to remove without causing serious damage to the surfaces to which they attach themselves. One reader commented:

"In your column, you ended by asking if anyone has had success with cypress mulch for a whole year. We have used cypress mulch exclusively on three sides of our sided house for 16 years now. (The house had light-colored aluminum siding, and now has yellow vinyl siding). I have yet to notice any significant problem with artillery fungus. Over the years, I've seen a few small spots, but nothing particularly noticeable or bothersome. (Of course, I've never tested another type of mulch, so I don't consider this proof that cypress mulch prevents most artillery fungus -- we could be just lucky.)

"Previously, I used cypress mulch around our house in central Iowa for five years without any artillery fungus issues. (That house also had light-colored siding.)"

My thanks for your input. It sounds quite convincing. Rubber mulch is also an alternative and is permanent.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via email at

2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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