Archive for October, 2012

Building a Home – Drywall

Posted on: October 28th, 2012 No Comments

Recently hung drywall. I wasn’t there to see this step, just the final product.

After the insulation had been blown into the walls, the next step was to hang the drywall. Drywall sheets come in various sizes and compositions, but all of ours were 10′ x 4′ white board. The thickness varied depending on the application: ceiling panels were 5/8″ and vertical walls were 1/2″ (ceiling panels were thicker to prevent sagging). It took the drywall crew less than a day to hang all the drywall. It seems the most useful tool for hanging and finishing drywall are leg stilts. These allow the drywallers to operate at an elevated height without constantly coming on and off a ladder or other stationary platform. Video of drywaller getting onto stilts.


Drywall crew member on stilts finishing an inside corner. You can see a length of drywall tape hanging from his belt.

The crew returned the next day to apply joint compound to the drywall. Joint compound (aka plaster, mud) is used to fill gaps, joints, nail holes and otherwise create a smooth surface over the drywall. When going over a joint (where two or more edges of drywall come together) or inside corner, the crew would use a dense, fibrous paper called tape. When the joint eventually moves, the tape helps to reduce or eliminate cracking in the dry joint compound. The crew brought two specialty tools that helped them expedite the mudding process. The first, an automatic drywall taper, looked like one of those water cannon squirt guns that you see kids play with, except this device was made of metal and had a drywall tape holder at the end. Though I didn’t see it in action, it lays down a thin layer of mud over which it also lays tape. Another worker can then followup with any number of other tools to remove the excess mud. Video or automatic drywall taper in action. The second device was an inside corner mud applicator. This device greatly reduces application time by allowing both sides of a corner to be finished at once. Video of inside corner mud applicator in action.

Various finished surfaces including inside and outside corners, joints and nail holes.

The outside corners of the walls were finished with rounded corners. Corners are traditionally done at a 90 degree sharp edge. Advances in technology have allowed rounded corner molds (called “corner bead”) to be made relatively cheap. The advantage of a round corner is that they are less prone to visible dings and dents. Video of round corner bead being installed.



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Why Citizens Insurance is a Mess

Posted on: October 24th, 2012 No Comments

To understand the problems facing Citizens Insurance, it’s important to first understand how insurance is supposed to work. Insurance is simply the transfer of the risk of loss from one entity to another in exchange for a payment. The entity accepting the risk is the insurance company. The entities making the payments (premiums) are people (the insured) looking to protect an asset (jewelry, cars, boats, homes, etc.). The insurance company must maintain sufficient capital to pay a large number of insured persons in the event of an exceptional level of loss, otherwise known as “catastrophic loss”. If the insurance company is unable to maintain that level of capital, it must either increase the premiums for new and existing policy holders or eliminate coverage for a large group of insured.

Citizens currently does not have an adequate level of capital for the amount of risk they’ve taken on. They are unable to charge significantly more for insurance being issued because the Florida Legislature has set limits on how much premiums are allowed to be raised. And they can’t stop issuing new policies or reduce the number they already have because, as a state sponsored company, they must provide insurance when private companies decline to. Unfortunately, private insurance companies have been avoiding Florida like the plague because the premiums are too low to cover the risk and Citizens has been forced to fill the void.

Therein lies the messy part: state sponsorship has a cost and we haven’t had to pay it yet. Almost seven years have gone by without a major hurricane making landfall in Florida. When one eventually does, who will pay for the damage? On one side of the argument are people with homes in high risk zones, i.e. coastal communities, who don’t want or can’t afford to pay more for their homeowners insurance. On the other side are taxpayers who want off the hook for the former’s potential losses.  Because those taxpayers haven’t been made to feel financial pain yet through higher taxes, they go about their daily lives with little interest in the matter. Homeowners insured under Citizens’ policies, however, have a keen interest in not seeing their monthly insurance premiums raised. And their legislative representatives act accordingly, which is to say they maintain the status quo.

So the silent majority (tax payers on the hook for tremendous risk) is being usurped by an extremely active and vocal minority (people with homes in hurricane zones). In the not so distant future, catastrophic losses will occur in Florida that exceed the capital reserves Citizens maintains.  Only when taxpayers are forcibly made to cover claims for which they received no payments will this situation be resolved.

UPDATE:  For a breakdown of how a catastrophic loss would be covered, check out this piece from Florida Realtors.



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Building a Home – Gas Lines

Posted on: October 22nd, 2012 No Comments

The gas line installation was pretty straight forward. We had a ventless gas fireplace, as well as a professional gas range. To my surprise, the installation also included a line into the laundry room for a gas dryer if we decided to go that way. Outside the home, they provided a gas supply for a gas grill. There was also a crew that came to the house, along with a city gas line inspector, to tie the house into the city gas supply line in the road.  After being hooked up to the city gas line, the crew that installed the black steel gas lines in the house came back to check the joints for gas leaks. Everything checked out fine.

Video of gas lines being run through the ceiling

Video of gas lines being run through wall

Video of gas lines being cut and threaded

Video of gas supply line from road to house being buried

Video of attaching house to city gas supply


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Building a Home – Security

Posted on: October 22nd, 2012 No Comments

Signing the paperwork for our monitoring service with SafeTouch rep Chuck Rollings.

Specifications for our home included security system wiring. Since the security system ran through some of the exterior walls, it needed to be wired before the insulation was blown in. Our general contractor recommended that we explore companies to monitor our home security to make sure the wiring would be adequate for their needs. Several people in my real estate office recommended SafeTouch Security. For the sake of due diligence, I also called ADT and Georgia-Florida Burglar Alarm. SafeTouch scheduled a consultation for the next day with one of their sales reps. Messages to two different Georgia-Florida reps weren’t returned. When I called ADT at a number listed for a local office, I got a phone sales rep who told me “Today’s your lucky day, we’re running a special. Do you have $119 to put down today to lock your rate”. I told him I had some technical questions, was there anyone I could talk to about that? His sales pitch stopped and he lost interest, not even bothering to give me the number of someone I could contact about my questions.

Subcontractors wiring the home for security.

I met the SafeTouch rep the next day at the site. He was there to sell me a system but he was also very knowledgeable about his product and the system requirements. He said the wiring being done by my builder would be adequate for the security monitoring. He suggested we also get fire detection since it wouldn’t cost any more for monitoring. Also, most homeowners insurance companies provide a discount for fire monitoring which would eventually pay for the equipment cost. All told, Safetouch would monitor security and fire on a cellular connection for roughly $60 per month with a three year contract. After 3 years, our monthly cost would drop to $38. The installation cost was $475 and included:

SafeTouch technician Brian running “fire wire”.

I signed the paperwork the next morning. While shopping insurance  a couple days later, I found we would save $80-$90 a year on homeowners insurance for having security and fire monitoring. That puts the payback on our installation cost at six years. The rep said that the technician, Brian, would be there in the afternoon to wire the smoke detectors. When Brian arrived, he gave the security wiring that the subcontractors had installed a quick glance. He said they had done a bang-up job, going so far as to wire the master bedroom for a control keypad and mark each of the wires going back to the control panel as to which door or window they monitored. Brian only had to install two wires for the smoke detectors.




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Building a Home – Insulation

Posted on: October 22nd, 2012 No Comments

Cellulose bails on the insulation truck.

Before discussing insulation in new construction, it’s important to understand how it works. Insulation is used to limit the transmission of heat across a distance. For example, we try to limit how much heat is transferred into a home from the outside during summer months. Likewise, we try to limit how much heat we lose from inside a home during the winter. The thermal resistance of a material such as insulation is expressed in something called an R-value. The higher the R-value of a material, the better it is at limiting the transmission of heat. Video of insulation being blown into walls.


Close up of cellulose insulation.

Different materials have different R-values. Ideally, you want to balance the cost of the insulation material with the energy savings. In our case, the best application was also one of the most economical. Cellulose insulation consists of flame retardant organic fibers (i.e. recycled newspaper). Its thermal resistance isn’t quite as high as fiberglass or spray foam, but it is quite a bit less expensive. Cellulose is also very practical in the sense that, unlike rolled fiberglass insulation, it can be wetted and blown onto vertical walls and will fill small voids that rolled insulation can’t. Video of insulation being vacuumed and blown.


An exterior wall with blown cellulose insulation.

Insulation is only necessary in exterior walls (i.e. walls exposed to the outside of the house), though it may be desirable in some interior walls for noise reduction. Cellulose insulation comes in 18 pound bails. The bails are fairly compact and rigid, so they’re fed into a “grinder” that breaks down the bail and fluffs up the cellulose. It’s slightly wetted in the grinder so that it adheres to the vertical wall spaces as well as other cellulose particles. It exits the grinder into a hose from which it is blown out. After it’s blown into the wall, a crew member would run a scraper down the walls so that the insulation was even with the wall studs.  The particles that are scraped off the wall or don’t adhere are vacuumed and sent back to the grinder to be recycled. Video of insulation being scraped.

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Building a Home – HVAC

Posted on: October 21st, 2012 No Comments

Diagram of HVAC system.

You’ve probably heard the term HVAC before. It stands for Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning. Essentially, the system consists of a blower, evaporator, compressor and condenser.  When the system is running in “cool” mode, heat is transferred from the inside of the house to the outside. When it’s in “heat” mode, heat is transferred from the outside to the inside. There isn’t a separate unit for heating and cooling. Think of it like this: when you’re running your system in heat mode, it’s simply the air conditioner running in reverse. As a home owner, that’s all you really need to know about HVAC.


HVAC conduit being pulled up into the attic.

It took the crew installing our HVAC less than a day to do so. Most new construction has the air conduit installed in the attic. As such, it’s necessary to insulate the conduit so that your cool air isn’t being transferred into the attic. It was amazing to see the amount of insulation surrounding the conduit. A 6″ conduit actually measured about a foot in diameter with the insulation wrapped around it. Not only that, but the outside layer is a radiant barrier foil. All this is necessary to keep the HVAC system as efficient as possible. Video of air conduit being joined together.


A 6″ air conduit surrounded with insulation and radiant barrier.

The coolant for the system runs in an approximately 1″ copper line from the air handler in the attic down through the walls and out the back of the house to the condenser. Running the copper coolant line was probably the most technical part of the whole job. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to get pictures of the air handler going up in the attic. The unit is too big to fit through the rafters pre-assembled, so they put it together on a platform in the attic. Similarly, if and when we eventually replace the unit, an HVAC specialist will have to disassemble it in the attic to get it out.  Video of coolant line being rolled out.

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Building a Home – Roof

Posted on: October 11th, 2012 No Comments

Though I wasn’t there to see it, I think the shingles were put up on the roof mechanically. Otherwise, it’s safe to say someone has a worse job than you.

About the same time the house was being painted, roofers were scurrying around trying to get shingles on both buildings. The shingles being used on our house are dimensional (a.k.a. architectural) shingles made by Tamko. Unlike traditional three tab shingles in which each of the shingles is evenly spaced, architectural shingles consist of two layers of shingles bonded together with random notches removed to expose the bottom layer. This gives the roof a richer, three-dimensional look. More practically, it offers an additional level of protection (two layers vs. one) to stand up to high winds and hail. Video of tar being applied on top of roof flashing.


Vent guards. They have a “check valve” that prevents air from flowing back in from the outside.

There wasn’t much prep work for the roofers to do. The decking was new as was the underlayment, so all they had to do was put down flashing, vents, and shingles. Flashing redirects water from vertical surfaces, such as vents, back onto the roof where it will eventually find it’s way to the ground. They put flashing along the entire roof edge first. Then they put the first row of shingles down along the bottom edge of the roof and started working their way up. When they encountered a vent, they put a vent guard over it to prevent water from finding it’s way inside the house. Video of first shingles going on roof.


Roofers making their way up the roof. They use sofa cushion to sit on so they don’t slide down the roof.

When the framers put down the roof decking a week earlier, they left a roughly 3″-4″ gap at the ridge to serve as an escape for hot attic air. When the roofers got up to that point, they put down a raised piece of plastic called a ridge vent, which they then overlayed with several pieces of roof shingle for aesthetic purposes. After a couple days, the roof was completely done. Video of shingles and vents going on the roof.

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Building a Home: Exterior Paint

Posted on: October 11th, 2012 No Comments

Acrylic latex caulk and painters putty were used to fill gaps.

Things were starting to happen quickly again. The last piece of siding had barely been hung when the paint crew arrived. They brought painters putty and a couple cases of acrylic latex caulk, no paint. They went about filling all the holes, gaps and crevices that might give water access to wood. As I found out, preparation is 90% of painting (5% is spent chain smoking). Filling holes, clearing surfaces of loose debris, putting plastic over windows takes time. In all, they spent two days just preparing the house to be painted. Video of house being prepped to paint.

The paint was delivered in three – 5 gallon buckets and two – 1 gallon cans. One of the buckets was opened and a paint sprayer went in. After a couple hours, the entire house had been painted. They would spend another whole day painting the trim around the windows, doors and columns. The color we used was called White Umber. We had seen it on another house our contractor was building and it had just enough black in it that your eyes didn’t hurt to see it in full sunlight. White is also good in hot, sunny climates because it’s highly reflective and helps keep energy costs down. Video of house being painted.

17 gallons of paint.

Siding gaps filled with caulk.

Paint sprayer







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Building a Home – Windows and Siding

Posted on: October 5th, 2012 No Comments

Windows being installed in the screened porch.

The windows and siding were all delivered on the same day. The framers were also the ones who were to put up the siding and install the windows. Several windows had been installed by the time I got there. “New construction” windows have a nailing fin around the exterior face of the window. Workers would first run a heavy bead of caulk around the inside of the window frame. Then they would place the window in the frame and nail the fin from the outside to secure it. Finally, they ran a weather-proofing tape over top of the fin to further seal the window. (Our general contractor would later say that the homes being built nowadays are so airtight that an external air supply is necessary for gas fireplaces to work properly, else they consume all the oxygen in the house). Video of window being installed.


The horizontal red chalk lines aren’t visible in this shot, but they help guide the workers see the siding is even.

Our siding is made of Hardie fiber cement. It’s extremely durable, weatherproof, paint-ready, and carries a 30 year warranty. To prepare the home for siding, the crew ran chalk lines horizontally so that each piece of siding would be level along each face of the house.  Next, they trimmed all the corners and edges with a thick board-like version of the Hardie material. They then installed the Hardie lap siding, starting at the bottom of the walls and working their way up. The whole siding process only took a couple days to complete. Video of siding being hung.



You can see the metal strap at the base of the post. They had to jack the porch roof up several inches to finish the job.

The only thing that had been holding the porch roof up to this point were four 2x4s, so I was happy to see the 1/2″ thick fiberglass pillars being pulled out of their boxes. The pillars come in a standard size and are then cut down to the proper length. (Video of pillar being cut with a skill saw). Before they can go up, however, a strap must be installed to hold the roof down in high winds. They drilled a hole in the concrete in the four locations where the posts were to go, then bolted down the metal straps with long concrete screws. The straps were then threaded up through the pillars, wrapped around the porch header and nailed down. Video of pillars being put in.





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