Q: When I watch those TV reality shows about room makeovers, I wonder if there is anything “real” about them. Can you really do a complete makeover in two days with $2,000? – Gayle K.

A: Yes and no – and therein lies the problem with some of these phenomenally popular reality home improvement shows such as “Trading Spaces.”

On the positive side, these shows can provide viewers with a tremendous wealth of information and ideas for redoing rooms that they might not have the carpentry experience or the design background to come up with on their own. If, for example, you’re looking to give a complete new look to a bedroom through the addition of some interesting new paint colors, new window coverings, some moldings, the revamping of some existing furniture and maybe the construction of a simple bookshelf, that is indeed possible to do in two days with $2,000.

On the other side, it’s almost certainly not possible for the average homeowner.

First, there’s the time element. The kind of accelerated pace depicted on these shows requires that absolutely everything has been thoroughly planned in advance and meticulously organized; that every necessary tool and workspace is lined up ahead of time, and that all of the materials have been pre-purchased and are sitting on-site. 

Second, there’s the budget. I think people overlook the fact that the money allocated for the makeover is for materials only – often purchased at heavy discounts – and that the very expensive fees, salaries, and services of the on-site decorators, the highly-skilled carpenters, the supervisors and coordinators, the delivery services, the cranes, the rental equipment, the professional shoppers, and all the rest of the vast network of other peripheral people and companies are not coming out of that money.

Reality home improvement shows are great – I happen to enjoy both “Trading Spaces” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” – but viewers really need to realize that this is not reality. For example, the average homeowner certainly will not have a building inspector standing by to blitz through (or waive) inspections on a moment’s notice, and they won’t have access to all of the hundreds of off-camera personnel and donated tools and materials that these shows rely on.

One of the problems with society today is that we have come to expect – indeed, almost to insist upon – instant gratification, and these shows play into that. They raise false expectations of what is possible for contractors and especially do-it-yourselfers to accomplish. And, while I think the average homeowner understands that they won’t be able to have a crew of 75 people re-roof their house in an hour or get the local fire department to fill their swimming pool, they probably don’t always understand that many of the other instantaneous makeovers they see materialize on-screen are virtually impossible in real life as well.

I would strongly advise homeowners to enjoy these shows for their entertainment value, and for the lessons they provide in how colors interact, or how a simple bookcase or the rearrangement of some furniture can make a huge difference in a room’s flow. But don’t take these shows as a glimpse of reality, and don’t expect that you or your contractor can perform the same feats of magic without a very extensive – and very expensive – infrastructure to back you up.

Q: I would like to have insulation blown into my exterior walls. What can you tell me about compaction and settling, and about the lack of a vapor barrier? –Gilbert M.

A: Most of the information and studies I have seen on this subject has shown a good success rate for retrofitted wall insulation, providing the installation is done properly. The most common material used for this process is cellulose, which is dense enough to completely fill the cavities without sagging, but does not tend to get hung up on nails and other obstructions inside the wall the way blown fiber materials such as fiberglass and mineral wool might do. 

As to the vapor barrier, in the average home the application of a semi-gloss paint or a specialized vapor barrier paint or primer on the interior walls is typically enough protection. Talk with an experienced paint store for recommendations on paints with low vapor permeability – in other words, ones that form a film that will not allow moisture to pass through it easily.

Finally, if you are considering having this done, be sure and look for a licensed and bonded insulation contractor with specific experience in retrofitting wall insulation, and check on their references.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at paul2887@direcway.com.

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