Sunday, December 14, 2014

Renovation advice (Part 2 - Buying household fixtures)

My second part of renovation advice continues...
Household fixtures refer to anything which is mounted and not movable. The list below is not exhaustive. For a start, you may consider the following when you do your shopping. As you can see, the list is rather long, so be prepared to give yourself enough time (up to 6 months) complete your shopping.

Do not ask your ID to buy your lights. They invariably take commission from your purchase and you will end up paying more than you should. Lights are a matter of personal taste.  But if you do go shopping on your own, do note that there are a few less reputable lighting shops along Jalan Besar and balestier who may sell you faulty or broken lights. You may google reno forums for a list of such shops. I bought most of my lights from where the price is reasonable. Whereever possible, choose LED or energy saving lights instead of halogen lights which are longer lasting and save electricity. Once your design plan is confirmed, you should start shopping for your lights. On a side note, ask your ID to what type of switches are included in the contract - MK switches give a noisy click when you switch it on. I prefer Legrand switches.

If you decide to mount your TV on the wall, you will need to buy the bracket and give the dimensions to your carpenter. You also need to discuss with your electrician where to site your powerpoint. As a rule of thumb, install more power points than you anticipate you will need - you may need to plug in your SCV,  your modem, your CCTV, your bluray player etc. You can shop around Courts, Best Denki and Harvey Norman for various models of TV. Most people buy LCD TV which consumes less electricity and produces less heat. If you use a Samsung phone then you might consider a Samsung TV which does mirror screening seamlessly.

Ceiling fans are compulsory. Do not leave it out and buy tower fans which take up extra floor space. Ceiling fans cool a living room rapidly and creates a natural breeze. Buy one for living room and one for bedroom. Do note that installation costs money and it is best to ask the fan shop to send his own electrician for their installation. If fans are not installed properly, they may cause a lot problems. Several lighting shops sell ceiling fans as well. The most expensive haiku fans are stylish to look at and costs around 1k each. Do note that you can get them cheaper at certain lighting shops.

As mentioned earlier, most ID will insist that you to use their aircon installer. If it is not way out of your budget, I suggest to use their installer. This is because they have to coordinate the laying of the pipes with your false ceiling workers and tilers. Most will return for a separate trip to install the blowers and compressors at a later date. Some ID will not like it if you use your own aircon installer and blame you subsequently for delays in work.

Kitchen appliances
You need to get your cooker stove, chimney hob, fridge and ovens (microwave, steam and baking) for building into your kitchen carpentry. Do not wait until the last minute to purchase these items. A good place to source for discounted electronics is Goh Ah Bee (name of the shop in Hougang). However you need to shop around in the malls to get the model numbers and ask for a discount from the retail price. You may also get a washing machine and dryer at the same time.

Kitchen sinks and taps
One major mistake I made is to buy a low quality kitchen sink from Ikea. It leaves behind water stains and requires frequent cleaning. Not all grades of stainless steel are the same. Buy good quality taps. When you hold the tap it should feel solid and heavy. Kitchen sinks may be top or undermount. Most showrooms have undermount sinks because they look nicer but you cannot remove them later. Top mount sinks are replaceable, but you will see strips of silicon at the sides and water may seep into your carpenty over time. Choose a double bowl sink so you have adequate space to soak and wash your dishes. If you are getting a water filtration system (I use swisspro), you need to tell your ID early on so that they factor this in the design of your carpentry.

BLUM kitchen hinges
These hinges provide soft closing and automatic opening (some are run by powerpoints). However, not all carpenters have the skills to install BLUM hinges and it is best to look for someone who is familar with it. There are also different hinges to support different size drawers. Your ID may charge you extra for installation.

Toilet fixtures and accessories
If you buy good quality ones, you will spend a lot of money here. Not all tilers are familiar with designer floor traps - metal ones with tile inserts. You need to purchase early and let your tiler know before the actual work begins. Some of these traps require thicker cement screed so it will be too late to do a retrospect installation later. For taps, shower heads and toilet bowls, check out Toto, Grohe and Hans Grohe showrooms for inspiration. If you like a bargain, purchase the same items from shops along Jalan Besar or Balestier. Most of these shops are happy to provide you with discounts if you buy several items together.

Foldable toilet doors
PD doors are very in vogue. These doors allow you to slide and push open so that you can save space. But do note that they are prone to damage if you do not know how to use them properly. If you have kids and elderly at home, avoid PD doors. Some guests may break your doors by forcing the mechanism if they do not know how to close a PD door. But you may use them for balconies or other areas because they open fully and provide unobstructed view. Also make sure your ID includes cost of shower screens and wall niches (holes for holding your shampoos) - these are often hidden costs and can cost 1-2 k depending how many toilets you have.

Hafale wardrobe systems and lighting
These are extra nice things to have. Visit Hafale showrooms for inspiration on wardrobes. Again, the fixtures cost money and make sure you tell your ID who may charge you money for installation. The lights switch on when there is movement or when your wardrobe door opens. There are also other inbuilt smart storage designs at the showroom. Try to avoid exposed open pole systems because they look clutter over time and your clothes will be subjected to mildew if your walk in wardrobe is very near your toilet.

Mounted safes
Do not forget to ask your carpenter to install lockers for your drawers and leave a space to mount a fireproof security safe. Look for various models of Yale safe with both key and digital locks.

If you are not fussy, buy ready made ones from Ikea and get your contractor to mount curtain rods. Custom made curtains cost quite a bit of money. An average size window will cost around $300 depending on the fabric you choose. If you decide to make both day and night curtains, it will cost more. Again, the ID will introduce you his own subcontractor to earn commission. If you have the time, shop for curtains on your own. You can even install the curtains after you have moved in.

Your main door and bedroom doors
Most quotation will not include changing these doors. However if you do want to change these doors, choose solid and fireproof wood doors for your main entrance and light veneer doors for your bedrooms. A door closer is a good add-on if you have small kids at home as this prevents the slamming of doors. However, some door closers need you to custom make your doors, especially those with hidden mechanisms. I use dorma door closer for my main and bedroom doors. You may also consider install biometric digital locks for your main door. Most of the door contractors will be able to provide you with appropriate advice when you select your doors.

So good luck on your renovation journey! If you have any queries, please feel free to drop a comment below.

Renovation advice (Part 1 - Selecting ID)

After renovating 2 homes in the last 10 years, I have accumulated some experience in the tricks of this trade. Throughout my journeys, I have made several mistakes and fallen into some traps. This post is meant to share my experience as well as to give you a brief overview of what to look out for and what to avoid.

Let me start with selecting a good interior design company for your reno works. As you may be aware, renovation doesn't come cheap. So you must be prudent in your selection or else your reno will end up in a mess. When selecting ID, do not walk into reno fairs and sign a contract blindly. Do not trust recommendations from online forums - some of these posters are the company staff who posted positive reviews about themselves. Some of these popular IDs receive enough fame on forums and start to produce shoddy work in recent times.

Most ID companies are main contractors in disguise. They are not really designers. The young chap sitting in front of you is usually a sales person who has no formal training in design. Do not be afraid to ask for someone senior. Ask for previous project designs and the number of years of experience he has. A newbie who has just started work may quit halfway or screw up your renovation because of poor coordination.

Beware of another type of contractors - who are middle aged and seasoned in their trade. Some will outsmart you by giving you a very low quotation and then add back the amount subsequently because he would say this is not included or that is not included. For example when renovating toilets, they will deliberately omit the cost of building shower kerbs and tell you later it costs $120 per kerb. If you have 3 toilets you would have to fork out $360 extra. There are many hidden costs in quotation, so it is best to compare a few. Installation of lights, electrical appliances and toilet fixtures all cost money. If they are not written down, it means you would have to pay for these later. Or they may jack up the cost of aircon installation to recover the money. It can be quite a substantial amount.

The last type of IDs to avoid are those who have graduated with some arty farty design diplomas or those who won so and so awards. These group of people are difficult to work with. They often advertise themselves or their services in ID magazines, so it's pretty tempting to hire them. For basic designing, they will charge you a premium and then subcontract your works to third or even fourth parties. If your budget is less than 100k, I suggest you give them a miss. It's really not worth it paying them a premium unless you are earning gold bars. And even if you do, there are better ways to spend your gold bars.

So who should you approach? Ask for recommendation from your friends who have had worked with specific ID or contractor. Do not look for those who are overbooked and have no time to even meet you for a discussion. I had encountered one who replied my SMS only 3 days later so I dropped her immediately. Look for someone who is sincere and you can get along with. If the person is too pushy or trying to force you to accept his designs, drop him. Ask questions to find out if he or she is familiar with the trade. For example, show him your floor plan and tell him roughly what you want to do. Ask him how long the renovation would take. An average apartment will take at least 2 to 3 months for complete renovation, provided you have confirmed your designs within 2 weeks. Give some allowance for you to shop for your tiles, paint colours, toilet and kitchen accessories. Think through what he tells you and judge whether he is sensible and gives you good advice.

For my first home, I engaged a main contractor who gave me simple and decent design. However I felt that a lot of things he did does not make sense or was simply done for his own convenience. He hired old fashioned workers who placed my power points right on top of my kitchen back splash - major design flaw as my wires would all run down when I plug in my appliances. He also brushed me aside when I asked him if his carpenters could do round corners for me. He simply told me it was not feasible to do. So he was not the ideal contractor to work with because I demanded more complicated designs for my second home.

For my second home, I changed 3 IDs/contractors. One of them over promised and failed to deliver his stuff. He was also perpetually on his phone and not listening to me. Several times he cancelled our appointments at the very last minute, leaving me with a very short time to complete my project. The last straw came when he altered my cabinets without telling me about the change. The other company was not any better - it was an established award winning company and they sent me a sotong designer who doesn't know what she is talking. I knew she screwed up another owner's house cos I overheard her conversation on the phone. I took leave for a one day job - tiling a particular wall. The tiler came and told me he needed 3 days to do it and the carpentry should be done up before tiling. The sotong didn't show the tiler the design before engaging his services. So you must imagine how angry I am when I wasted one day staring at an empty wall. Like most companies, they hire Malaysian workers. These workers took a long time to cross the causeway each morning. By the time they arrive, it is past 12 noon and they start fruitful work only after 2 pm. On some days, only one worker appeared. Around 6 pm, he would pack up his tools and bade me farewell. I complained to the ID that these people are wasting my time but to no avail. How much can you achieve in 4 hours of work a day? My reno was delayed for weeks and months.

The carpenters also work differently. The first company applied the laminates at the factory before bringing them over. This speeds up the installation. The second one had to do the cutting and glueing at my home, and this takes a very long time. Some of the wood grained laminates are not consistent and not well aligned. I had to ask for rectification works which again took time. So if you are selecting wood grained laminates, decide whether you want them to be vertically or horizontally placed. Tell them you want the joint lines to be perfectly matched. And the coloured interior PVC lining used for drawers have to be closely matched to the laminates too. It would be best to select the colours yourself. These coloured interiors bear additional costs to your carpentry but it makes your cupboards nicer to look at when you open your doors.

Visit enough showrooms to have a feel of how modern kitchens and toilets look like. For a start, I suggest going to Toto and BLUM showrooms. Shop for appliances early, especially your kitchen stoves, hoods, ovens and toilet fixtures which have to be factored in your design plan.

Certain models of induction kitchen hobs require high electrical power points (greater than 13 amp). So if you are doing a HDB renovation, choose only 2 rings instead of 4 rings. Always check with the store and your electrician before you purchase. Else you ended up with no power point for installation. Induction stoves are fast to heat up and there's no danger of the wind blowing out the flame. I prefer induction over gas or electric stoves.

Do note that when you are looking for toilet bowls you need to measure the distance between your wall and the center of your hole. It can range from 4 to 12 inches and certain toilet bowls come in specific dimensions. All these advice should be given to you by your ID. If he didn't tell you, then he's not worth your money.

Also, some fanciful shower heads design from Hans Grohe are not suitable for hdb installation. The rain dance shower needs a specific water pressure to work beautifully. For private properties this is usually not an issue. The Hans Grohe staff will usually check with you before your purchase. But if you are buying from a third party (shops along Jalan Besar or Balestier) some may not bother asking you.

More to come for my part 2 - Buying household fixtures.

Dinner at Jamie Italian

Croaky has been telling me his colleagues often had lunch at Jamie Italian because the food is healthy and tasty, so yesterday we decided to try it out for dinner.

We headed down to the outlet at Vivocity on a Saturday night. The restaurant appeared packed with people, however we didn't have to wait for a table since we arrived past 9 pm. The lighting was rather dim and it took us a long time to read the menu.

I ordered a small prawn linguine and he ordered a black squid ink pasta with flash fried Asian greens. During the order, Croaky asked me; "sure you want a small size pasta?". Hmm... I thought small would be good since it was getting late and I didn't want to stuff myself.

But when the portion came, I was quite disappointed. It was a tiny serving fit for a midget. The prawn linguine cost $17! And the prawns were chopped in tiny pieces (check out the photo below). We shook out heads when we saw the flash fried Asian greens... It was a measly plate of long beans that cost $7.50.

We ended our dinner with a half empty stomach and went to eat dessert somewhere else.

Verdict: Sauce is tasty. Pasta was cooked al dente. But portion was too small for its price. And place was too dim for our liking.

Monday, December 8, 2014

My Gumtree experience

Gumtree is very popular way of selling your pre-owned or used items online. I have tried to sell a few used things myself - from handbags to electronics to furniture. Here are a few tips I would like to share with you.

Post your selling price higher
Most people on gumtree likes to bargain. So if you intend to sell your item at $80, indicate your asking price is $100. There are several low ballers on gumtree who will ask you for bigger discounts - ignore them. It would be best to indicate on your ad that you prefer to fix your price and do not allow further negotiation.

Take many photos of your item for your ad
Buyers like to ask for additional photos. So try to pre-empt that buy taking a few more extra photos and post it online. It doesn't guarantee that your item will definitely sell better but it helps you by saving your time to send these photos to individual buyers.

Expensive items are slow selling, if they sell at all
The buyers on gumtree are looking for a good (or cheap) deal. If you are selling expensive watches or handbags, I suggest you to post elsewhere. Anything above $300 will have difficulty looking for a buyer. I tried posting a piece of furniture for $400 and only manage to find a buyer after a very long time; and after putting up a small ad fee of a few dollars.

Paying for top ads may not be useful
I tried paying for top ads for my more expensive product. But when I check out the website, there are tons of "top-ads" around so it takes quite a few refresh clicks for me to see my ad. In the end, it was my not-advertised cheaper items which manage to find buyers. So, you decide for yourself whether you want to invest on a few dollars for that ad.

Do not give your mobile number freely on the ad
Unless you are working as a housing agent or financial advisor who doesn't mind receiving phone calls from people at weird hours, it is best not to disclose your mobile number until you are very sure this is a sincere buyer and is ready to pick up the item. I have had one buyer waking me at 7 am to make enquiry on an item.

Ask the buyer to arrange own transport for cash and carry of bulky items; or provide delivery to their doorstep at a fee
Generally you are selling cheap stuff. So it would be better for your buyer to pick up the item on his own transport, unless you would like to deliver it for them. It can get pretty frustrating if your buyer request a huge discount and expect you to deliver the item to their doorstep.

Buyers can back out at the last possible moment
It's very disheartening to meet this type of buyers. So just beware. Some do not even bother to message you to tell you that they are not coming - this is the worst type! If at all possible, ask the buyer to meet you somewhere near your workplace and arrange a flexible timing for them to pick it up. That way, you do not need to inconvenience yourself to make an extra trip.

I must admit that it can be quite a hassle to get your stuff sold on gumtree. Afterall, you just make back a little amount of money of what has been paid for in the beginning. So in conclusion, don't buy things on impulse and regret it later. If the item remains unsold on gumtree and is relatively new, give it to your friends or relatives or send it down to salvation army.