Choosing Home Improvement Products


Last week, we featured a post about repair and restoration scams after storms hit. We wanted to warn homeowners about so called “storm chasers”–businesses that prey on desperate families who have had their homes destroyed by natural disasters. With help from our experts, we came up with the biggest warning signs and best protection strategies to ensure that the professional you choose is always on your side. This week, we wanted to continue protecting homeowners by asking about products.

Why We’re Asking

Dangerous, scam-ridden, low value, poorly constructed, overpriced products line the shelves of every big-box home improvement store. For most homeowners, knowing which items to choose is a bit of a lottery. While product recalls and online reviews help, they aren’t always available. We want to find out how homeowners can protect themselves in the checkout line.

So experts, it’s time to weigh in:

What products should homeowners be warned about?

What products should homeowners be warned about?
Are there some companies that homeowners should avoid?
Are some companies to be trusted in full?
Are there any chemicals or materials on the market that should always be avoided?
Are online reviews the best place to check for honest reviews and information?
What are some of your favorite bad products?
Are there any websites that are particularly useful for checking out the safety and effectiveness of home improvement products?

We’re looking forward to getting the lowdown on the worst stuff in home improvement. Check back later in the week to see what advice our experts have to offer.

Experts, post your answers in the comment field below!


  1. I can assure you that most tankless water heaters bought at home centers and installed by homeowners for energy/cost savings have actually cost the homeowner more than they have saved. The cost of the correct installation is high in a retrofit situation. If endless water was the goal, it’s now being delivered and that costs more. The savings on the tankless units are rooted in zero standby heat loss, but the unit stills heats up with a 200,000 BTU burner instead of a 36,000 BTU burner. Because most homeowners do not have training, I consider most DIY installs unsafe as well.
    If your motive is to get endless hot water, your average shower length will increase, meaning more water and more gas energy to heat it. Not to mention, hot water sandwiching (the extra 10-15 seconds it takes tankless heaters to deliver hot water). All these factors add up to water wasted and higher energy costs.

  2. Two of the products I don’t like to see my clients buy from home improvement stores are drapery rods and laminate flooring. The flimsy drapery rods they carry are just not adequate. Often people wil buy two sets of rods and double them one inside the other for strength, when for less expense they could order good quality rods from a designer or drapery shop.

    There is also a very big difference in performance between discount laminate flooring and the name brands, such as Quickstep and Pergo. The best brands are manufactured in a way that makes them much more resistant to moisture. I have seen so many cheap flooring products delaminate, peel and fade after just a few years. It is definitely worthwhile to buy the best flooring your budget can afford, and unfortunately the details of what makes for quality flooring products are not available from the staff at a big box store. Also, their installation prices tend to be higher than necessary, offsetting any savings gained from using the cheap materials. See a flooring industry specialist retailer to be able to compare products and get the most for your budget.

  3. There are a lot of products and installations that look good on paper but are what I consider just more of our short sighted propensity to follow trends that add to our throw away society mentality. As an award winning green designer and long time conservationist, I would prefer that designers, installers, construction companies, etc. stick to natural, renewable, long-lasting products.
    I also see problems with such installations as in floor heating with circulating liquids–it is one thing to have a leak in a wall, another in a concrete floor. And the efficiency compared to cost is debatable.
    The same is true for heat pumps. In many climates–those with extreme temperatures–they just do not heat or cool in those extremes and you need backups. Most people would save the same amount of energy and more money by just turning off the AC or heating on temperate days and using energy efficient traditional heating and AC on extreme days.
    Possible my biggest fear is when I see joists and beams made of wafer wood laminates. Wafer wood sub decking for roofs was a disaster–the industry now assures us the bugs are worked out. However, having some roof decking deteriorate is one thing–having structural elements fail is a bigger mess.
    And the list goes on.

  4. Home Improvement retailers have done a great job of convincing owners that they can do everything themselves. They even sell books on how to wire up new receptacles and build your own decks. The problem with all that is that it undermines the labor industry in that there truly is a difference between professional grade work and DIY level installations. I have seen too many homes reduced in value due to poor installations of wood (or laminate) flooring, homespun tile, cabinets, build it yourself furniture, shaky plumbing, or improperly grounded electrical work. Any good home inspector will flag these kinds of items during an appraisal and it will cost you far more than it saves you. In addition, I would never put my own family at risk by doing things myself that should be done by professionals. When I see homeowners buying their own electrical breakers or forms for deck footings, it makes me nervous. Also, the quality of the products often found at big box stores is not that great so that also shows when you install the things you buy there. The best thing that you can do is educate yourself on the difference between how professionals do things and how you would do it. Then you can make the best decision as to whether or not DIY is a good idea.

  5. Home improvement projects are a daunting task that all smart home owners should undertake with caution. A great place for honest reviews is Angie’s List. A resource for many types of reviews, we have found that their reviews of home improvement companies are spot on! They also provide product reviews – definitely make sure to utilize this resource!

    Additionally, Grand View Builders has a beautifully redone design center. Our experts there can consult with you in order to help you create the home of your dreams! Whether you’re looking to remodel your cabinets or flooring, our trusted partners only work with chemicals and materials that allow each of our homes to be ENERGY STAR certified.

  6. What products should homeowners be warned about?

    Spray foam insulation. There is a big hype about it. We installed
    Icynene and now we are scraping it out. Apparently something went wrong
    with both of our installations
    performed by two different companies. Both bad, the foam smells very
    strong like a chemical. We are currently removing it again after also
    having a condensation problem with t.

    Are there some companies that homeowners should avoid?

    All types of ‘inspectors’ and installers. Get references before hiring

    Are some companies to be trusted in full?

    Never, even with referrals. During our renovation we learned to
    supervise all the time for various reasons. For example, a roofing
    company sent people over who didn’t know how to install roof
    underlayment and we had to call the owner several times. The brand new
    roof still ended up leaking!

    Are there any chemicals or materials on the market that should
    always be avoided?

    We had the worst experience with some paints and spray foam insulation.
    The off-gassing does not always occur as stated in the documentation.

    Are online reviews the best place to check for honest reviews
    and information?

    Any kind of review we approach with caution. A lot of material published
    anywhere (whether online or not) is often paid for / advertisement in
    disguise of a review.

    What are some of your favorite bad products?

    Weed trimmers. For example there absolutely no reason why electric
    trimmers can’t use commercial trimmer lines. The stores make you buy a
    gas trimmer instead.
    Why would you want a gas trimmer as a home owner when you can get the
    same performance from an electric motor? However, no electric trimmer is
    offered with the same
    strength as a gas trimmer and the homeowner is left with no choice other
    than buying a gas trimmer.
    A good example that it’s possible to get gas trimmer performance even
    with battery is a new company called Core Tech (they call their trimmer
    ‘gasless’). It has the performance (and price tag) of a gas trimmer but
    works on batteries.

    Another class of bad products:
    Windows. The U.S. is probably the richest country in the world with the
    worst windows. To get a decent window you can easily spend over $1,000
    for a standard size, when in Europe you get a perfectly insulated
    tilt-turn window with integrated hurricane shutters for less than $300.

    The experts on Windows, in my opinion, are Germans. German window
    technology is probably decades ahead.

    Are there any websites that are particularly useful for checking
    out the safety and effectiveness of home improvement products?

    We think that forums are good, particularly when looking for bad
    reviews. A lot of ‘top ten’ websites are scams, we don’t think much of
    ‘consumerreports’ either.

    Some government websites are helpful, especially those that discuss
    different ways to save energy. They usually don’t mention product names
    but discuss the various technologies available on the market.

  7. Energy Upgrade California in Los Angeles County promotes the home performance industry. This means that the truly “Best” way to reduce your utility bill is to look at your home as a system: how does your insulation effect your air conditioner, how does your recessed lighting effect your electric bill, etc?

    The only way a homeowner can find out how healthy or “sick” their home may be, is to hire a contractor that specializes in whole-home performance. They will perform a BPI ( or HERS II assessment of your home, document your home’s performance today, and then simulate your home’s performance with different combinations of renovations.

    Once your Participating Contractor sits down with you and goes over the scope of work and the opportunities, there are thousands of dollars in rebates available, through the Energy Upgrade California program, to help you recover some of the costs associated with doing the upgrades and lowering your utility bill 30%, 40%, or even 50%!

    This is a far cry from the window salesman who unrealistically claims that just by replacing your windows, you can save 35% on your electric bill. I have never seen that come to fruition here in Southern California. In addition, the HVAC industry has been going door to door selling new air conditioner units without any regard to the cracks in the ductwork, the leaks and openings in the attics and walls allowing cold air to escape or hot air to come inside. On top of it, they don’t offer enough if any rebate dollars through Southern California Edison or the SoCal Gas Companies to help pay for the new units.

    Instead, they will offer you the same size system that you already have, meeting the basic level of building code, and now you are stuck paying the bill without even knowing how this new system will affect your overall electric use.

    These two industries, in my opinion, are not telling the whole story to their customers. In many Energy Upgrade California projects, by sealing the air leaks in the building shell and insulating the attic area, many houses didn’t need such a large air conditioning/heating unit, and they were actually able to replace the unit with a 1 or 2 ton smaller unit, saving them thousands of dollars on the new equipment. A stand alone air conditioning salesperson will never tell you that.

    Finally, performing energy efficiency improvements on your home lowers your entire energy usage needs, and if you’re even thinking about putting solar panels on your roof, you may not need as many panels as you needed before, lowering your cost of installing solar. I don’t think all of the solar companies are telling you the whole story about “efficiency first”.

  8. When researching a company for any of your home projects. There are a few key places to look.
    1. Go to the Better Business Bureau webiste and look them up! This is an easy way to see how long they have been in business and if they have had any complaints and how they were handled if so. This information cannot be deleted or falsified. Google “BBB” and search by company name.
    2. Ask the company what affiliations they are a part of and look into them to verify they are members. There are multiple online lead generation services such as Angies List and Service Magic and the reviews that are posted can not be changed or deleted. Look at the number of reviews the company has and the time they have been members. If they have a ton of reviews and they are primarily good reviews then you should gain some confidence. For instance, our company has 157 reviews on Service Magic that are good, unbiast reviews. We have 60 or so reviews on Angies List that are good as well. These online leads are valid ways to check on a company.
    3. Check the state board website to make sure that the company you are dealing with is properly licensed to handle the scope of work that is involved for your project. You can search online at the applicable boards webiste or call the board and inquire via phone. This is something all consumers should do to verify a company.
    4. The final key to verify a company and one of the most important is to ask for proof of insurance. If they pause, there could be a problem. If they have a laminated sheet showing insurance, great! However write the info down and verify that their insurance has not lapsed and is valid.

    In closing, there are many ways to verify a company and their character and the above noted ways are just a few but they can all be done in a matter of minutes and they can help you determine if you should hire that specific contractor or not. Always be weary of the contractor that comes knocking on your door after a storm, typically there are many established contractors in your area and they are ready to help or if they are swamped they can usually bring in backup to attend to you and still stand behind their standard company policies.

  9. A Product that we do not like to use is ABS Drainage Pipe and Fittings. We do not see it that much but the fittings are hard to get and the wall thickness of the product is not one we like to work with. The color of the product is black and comes in all sizes.

    We enjoy working with PVC Pipe and Fittings. The success we have had with this product is good. The only time I have seen this fail is in large condo buildings it will crack and split if the building settles. This is not due to the product but from the way the building is installed.

    We enjoy our rating on Service Magic as we have over 240 and our on line ratings is the way we get to trust with our clients. The BBB is the other way you can check a company out. If they have awards you can see that they have won that would be a way of seeing if they are the real deal. Paradigm has been blessed to win two awards 2009 Market Place Ethics from the BBB and Small Business of the Year award in Hooksett from the Kiwanis Organization in 2011.

    A simple way I like to get a professional in my house is simple just ask a trusted friend for a referral. I seem to have good luck this this as I have many friends who do business with some of the best in the business.

    Good Luck and happy shopping:)

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