Ten techie homeowner tips for Jason's new house

Ten bits of wisdom earned the hard way: from making mistakes and learning from them.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

All projects: DIY-IT Project Guide
This project: Small business tips

Jason Perlow, our very own TechBroiler, has been telling us recently about his preparations to move from New Jersey to Florida.

Since I've already done that once, and since I recently moved into a fixer-upper and fixer'd it up, I figured I had some wisdom I could share with Jason about how to make the process run more smoothly.

Here then, are ten tips on the occasion of Jason's new house.

Tip 1. Buy a magical measuring machine

Without a doubt, the single most valuable tool I had in my most recent move was the Bosch DLR130K Digital Distance Measurer. I used it to develop a very carefully put-together floor plan in the new house, and everything fit to the centimeter.

There's a difference between this device (which is about a hundred bucks) and the measuring devices that say they use laser. Most cheaper measuring devices use a laser LED as a pointer, to tell you where you're measuring to, but use sonar (i.e., sound) to render the actual measurement. Sound can be easily distorted in a home, and so the measurements, if accurate at all, could be off by an inch or two.

This device measures through the actual refraction of the laser beam, and I found it to be astonishingly accurate. The proof was when five moving people had to unload a very tightly positioned set of shelves that turned a corner, and every single piece fit.

Tip 2. Visio for floor plans

Speaking of floor plans, I found Microsoft's Visio to be just the right tool for preparing floor plans.

Visio is a lesser-known component of Microsoft's Office suite, and while it's not a CAD system in its own right, it proved to be perfect for floor planning. You can define objects, set dimensions to them, use layering, and more.

What I did was create a layer for the outer walls, another layer for the inner walls (we moved some of these), another layer showing where each wall socket and (eventually) CAT5 drop would be, a carpet layer, and then a furniture layer. This allowed me to independently move things around, until we found layouts we liked.

As it turned out, this was hugely valuable, because while we thought we'd want the gym in one room, once we put together the floor plan, we realized it wouldn't work. So I moved it to another location, and then relocated the office, and after a few rounds of this, we wound up with a floor plan on "paper" that we could use to direct the movers.

This proved doubly important because setting up the gym is not a simple task. Putting together the universal machine is a full-day operation, and if we'd put it together and hated it, we'd have had a huge effort on our hands to change it up.

As it is, we've been in the space for a year now, and love it. A good part of that is because of careful floor planning. Which leads me to Tip #3...

Tip 3. Measure each piece of furniture

By this time (we hadn't yet had the movers come), my wife started to think I'd gone a little off the bend. I was carefully measuring each piece of furniture, and if the furniture opened (like the couch), I measured it in opened and closed mode.

Our desks are strangely-shaped polygons, and I measured each angle and segment of the desks, to create a small Visio object for each.

I measured every object that would have a footprint on our floor, whether it was 8-inches square of six feet long.

Then, I created a Visio object for each. I now effectively had a workable home design kit inside Visio. I could move each furniture item independently, and if I wanted to see if a bed would fit in a side room with all those bookcases, I could do so in a minute.

Like I said earlier, this level of floor planning proved invaluable on moving day.

Tip 4. Doorways exist for a reason

While we're on the subject of floor plans, let me point out a new homeowner lesson I didn't learn before I moved: doorways exist for a reason.

Here's the story. Our kitchen is long and thin, and it ends with a nice counter that opens on an angle. There's just one-person width of space to get into the kitchen when you want to get by the counter.

When we bought the house, it did not have a refrigerator. This is the first important fact you need to know. The second was that near the back of the kitchen was an ugly sliding door that opened onto what was once a patio, but was now an enclosed room that would become our gym.

Our kitchen didn't have a lot of wall space and in my floor-planning frenzy, I realized that if we closed up that sliding door and made it into a wall, we'd have great wall space in the kitchen, a lot more room for storage, and it would be an altogether nicer kitchen.

So we hired a contractor who closed in that wall.

And then, we decided to buy a fridge. Do you know how the previous owners got their fridge out of the kitchen? Yep. Through the sliding door we'd just turned into a wall.

Do you know how we managed to get the new fridge into the kitchen? Yep. it was ugly. Multiple tries, teams of moving people, counters damaged, stove handles disassembled, and more. My wife was a hero managing it all that day -- and I learned a powerful lesson that I now pass on to you: doorways exist for a reason.

Tip 5. Use Angie's List

We used a lot of contractors in this recent move. A lot. For almost six months, there were at least two contractor trucks on the property at all times, and some days when I'd pay a visit to the work site, there'd be ten or twelve people working at once.

Like I said, we bought a fixer-upper.

It's hard to find good contractors, especially when you don't know too many people in the area. We turned to a resource I'd had my doubts about, but which worked out really well: Angie's List.

Angie's List is a consumer-vetted contractor database. While, in our area, anyway, it's often somewhat sparsely populated, there are usually two or three contractors listed for any specialty. More to the point, there are contractor reviews, so consumers who had a good experience can share that, and consumers who didn't can share that as well.

With one or two exceptions, we found that all the contractors we used through Angie's List were great. We had one guy who did rather exceptional work, but had some family problems and vanished one day, leaving a project unfinished. Fortunately, it was close enough to the end that we were able to wrap it up anyway.

Now, you should know there are some disadvantages to Angie's List. First, like with Yelp, some subjects of Angie's List (the contractors) hate it with a passion. After all, anyone with a negative review doesn't enjoy it. Angie's List appears to charge contractors for some level of presence on the list, which also ticks off some vendors.

Then there's the amount that Angie's List will hassle you. It's almost comical. Angie's List operators call all the frickin' time. They'll try to upsell you and, in particular, try to get you to rate contractors. I guess this is how they manage to get their customers to do their part in ratings, but after a while, it became almost enraging to get so many calls.

Fortunately, Jason and I both have a solution to this part of the Angie's List equation: Google Voice. If you plan on using Angie's List, get Google Voice and ONLY give the Google Voice number to Naggie's List (oops, I meant Angie's List).

If you do this, you can then block the Angie's List calls on Google Voice and they'll never bother you again.

As an aside, this is a serious problem with the Angie's List model. While I'd normally be a huge proponent of the service, you'll notice I couldn't recommend them without the caveat. Worse, the company won't accept "please don't call me again", which makes dealing with them even more frustrating.

Had I not been able to filter their calls, I would not have renewed their service. Oh, one last thought: Angie's List tiers their pricing based on the size of your community. For us, it was $15 for the year. For someone in New York City, it could well be a hundred bucks or more. Your mileage may vary.

Tip 6. Walls are meant to hold power and CAT5

I'd always lived in rental property, so I never experienced the joy of deciding just what I wanted in my house and where. I'd always wanted quality power in each wall and good networking connections.

In the new house, I got my wish. We had to rewire the electrical system anyway (when you turned anything on, something shorted, and the entire breaker box made a squealing sound before tripping). Since we had to rewire, more power was my mantra.

I put four individual 20 amp circuits in the wall behind my desk and another four dedicated, individual 20 amp circuits in the wall behind the entertainment center. No longer would we ever have the situation of the vacuum cleaner overloading a shared circuit and crashing a computer. Hah!

Even better, I decided I much preferred the rock-solid, reliable speed of a GigE network over WiFi. WiFi worked and all, but once you sent data over a certified GigE cable, man, that's living.

So I had a GigE jack installed in every single wall of the house, including some closets (for servers, of course). With one or two exceptions (walls where they'd actually have to tear down a part of the house to run a jack), I now have a GigE tap in every wall.

Okay, except the bathrooms. My wife drew the line there. For now.

We have a GigE tap in the kitchen, and even one in the garage. We have two in the gym, two in the bedroom, one in every wall of the living room, studio, my office and so forth.

I tied them all together with a 24-port router, and now there's GigE everywhere. I can not begin to tell you the joy of realizing you want to hook up another machine and knowing, yeah, there's a jack for that!

Special kudos and thanks go out to electricians Jerry and Vince who lived in our ceiling for three straight months in the Florida heat, wiring all this up. To this day, I still think Vince gets a look of fear on his face whenever he hears my name.

Tip 7. Consider finishing and cooling your garage

When we bought this place, the garage was kind of a dump. It was dark, dingy, had a nasty, moldy old workbench in it, and one incandescent bulb. In short, it was like many garages out there.

It was also almost 15% of the entire house's floor space. If it was a room, it'd be the second largest room in the house.

The thing is, in Florida (and in New Jersey, for that matter), garages are essentially unlivable for major portions of the year. Here, they're too hot, unbearably so. Back in New Jersey, they're both too hot and too cold.

But I kept thinking of all that floor space and realizing that I wanted to be able to use my garage, year round. I also wanted to be able to go into it, spend time there, get things organized, and not avoid the place or turn it into a dumping ground.

So we finished it. We didn't do a huge, fancy job, but we did a few simple things. First, I put in an epoxy floor like they have in race car garages. You can not believe how much nicer a garage is once it has an epoxy floor. Not expensive, either.

Second, we fixed the drop ceiling, patching the holes. This is important, because a patched ceiling provides better insulation. I had four cheap fluorescent fixtures put in, which gave us tons of great light. I also had the walls and ceiling painted, which gave the room a clean, finished feel.

Finally, I installed something called a Mr. Slim "mini-split" air conditioner in the garage. This unit is very energy efficient, and I can turn it on and off only when I need it. Sometimes, I just turn it on when I go into the garage, but if I know I'll be working there for a while, I'll turn it on an hour or so before.

It makes what would otherwise have been an unbearable environment nicely tolerable.

So here's the thing: all told, finishing our garage cost about $5,000. For more than 15% more usable space in the home, that turned out to be a very wise investment with both a potential home value ROI and an immediate usability ROI. There's probably no other way you can add another major room to your house for $5K, and I'd recommend it to any new homeowner.

Tip 8. Think carefully about the order of your projects

This almost caught me up a few times. Make sure you think about what should come first, second, and third. For example, take the epoxy garage floor.

This could be something done at any time, but if we decided to do it after moving in, we'd have to remove everything from the garage. Since the epoxy takes nine full days to dry completely, we would have had to leave our garage contents outside or scattered throughout the house for a full nine days.

But because we did it first, with enough time before the movers were coming to do the move, treating and finishing the epoxy floor was a snap. And, as I mentioned earlier, had I moved the new fridge in before sealing up the kitchen doorway, my life would have been much easier.

Oh, speaking of order, we did one thing first. Even before making an offer on the house, we put in a cable modem. During our evaluation period (this is when you have a home inspector check out the house and do due diligence on the purchase), I had the cable company put a working cable modem. I did repeated speed tests and ping tests on the line, to make sure the line was solid and connectivity didn't drop.

If we couldn't have gotten good broadband, we wouldn't have bought the place. By doing this early on in the process, I knew that the most important factor for the new house (my ability to earn a living) had been fully tested.

Tip 9. Everything takes a little longer than you expect

Every programmer knows this tip by heart, but it applies to moving into houses as well. My wife was initially convinced I was over-reacting when I wanted to get the house buying process started eight months before our lease ended. But I'd been a project manager for many years and knew things took longer than you'd expect.

Our roofer came three weeks after he'd promised. Our wiring project took a month longer than it should have. Because of my little wall-where-a-door-was fiasco, getting the kitchen finished took an extra month. We wanted the new windows to be installed in March, but they didn't have an opening until early June.

This is the case with any move, and you need to plan for contingencies. Have backup plans in place, know your order of events, make sure you know what you'll do if a contractor fails to complete, and so on and so on and so on.

Oh, before I forget: a tip within a tip. I'd never encountered the permit process before since I hadn't owned a home. But, at least in our town, everything (and I mean everything) requires a permit from the town. Getting the permits is easy, but waiting until the inspector comes to move the process along can take a while, causing other parts of the project to slip.

And, finally, when it comes to taking longer than you think, nothing is more heinous than movers. When we moved down to Florida in 2005, we had all our stuff picked up in New Jersey, drove down to Florida, and were supposed to meet the moving truck. Nobody was there.

It took a bunch of phone calls, but we eventually found out they weren't planning on driving down to Florida for another few weeks. Of course, they hadn't told us this when we put all our belongings on their truck! It took a lot (a LOT) of yelling on my part, but they eventually loaded the truck up and brought it to us, but in the meantime, we were without everything for almost three weeks.

I'm not alone. My neighbor just moved in and tells us his moving company has had his stuff for almost four months. It took bringing in an attorney to get them to load up and take the trip down to Florida.

And, lest you think we used podunk services, both of us used large, well-known, well-established famous national firms. And yet, these firms were perfectly comfortable knowing we were incredibly uncomfortable, for weeks, without even a bed to sleep on.

Which leads me to my tenth and final tip...

Tip 10. Walmart is your friend

I know. I know. Walmart is controversial. But I have to tell you, especially when we moved down to Florida from New Jersey, Walmart became our first and best friend here in the Sunshine State.

There are four factors that become essential for the newly stranded resident: Walmart is inexpensive, open 24/7, has a huge selection, and has a 90-day return policy.

The night we arrived, having spent a big part of our budget on hotels on the trip down, we realized we'd have to spend thousands more if we waited for the movers. But while I can sleep on the floor for a night, I certainly couldn't work effectively after two or three weeks of floor sleeping.

Two inflatable king-sized beds: fifty bucks each. Oh, here's a tip. Get two inexpensive comforters per bed. Put one under you so the plastic of the bed doesn't stick to your skin.

We didn't have any kitchen chairs (or table). Two inexpensive stools for the kitchen island, less than $40.

We didn't have a desk or chair for working (I work from home). A small rolling desk and two secretarial chairs, about $120.

Now, I mentioned Walmart's return policy. I don't recommend returning things just because you use them for a while. That's just nasty. We still have the beds (in the garage, in case of guests), and the stools and desk (now living in the studio and used all the time).

But when you move into a home or are fixing it up, you're never exactly sure what will fit where or how it will work. We found we'd do a Walmart run (usually at 4am), buy a whole pile of possible supplies, try out each to see what worked the best, and return the rest.

One of the reasons Walmart has such a generous return policy is for this reason: make it easier for customers to make a buying decision.

While you certainly can't find everything at Walmart, I can tell you that having a fully-stocked store, open 24 hours, is one heck of a resource for a newly-minted homeowner -- and this applies just as well to a small business owner. Walmart is definitely your friend, in this case.

Have a great trip and a successful move!

So there you go, Jason. Ten bits of wisdom earned the hard way: from making mistakes and learning from them.

Have a great trip and welcome to Florida.

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