Archives for October 2011

We're Back To Where We Were In 2007


Hard to get too excited about this economic accomplishment, but it’s certainly better than the alternative.

Thanks to yesterday’s solid Q3 GDP report, the U.S. economy is finally back to where it was before it cratered four years ago. (After adjusting for inflation.)

And now for the caveat:

Yesterday’s Q3 GDP report was the first of three. The next two will be revisions. And they might be revised downward.

And then there’s the bad news: We’ve regained the lost ground in GDP, but, thanks to corporate downsizing, we’re producing that output with about 8 million fewer jobs

Cures for the Creaky House

ghost flying out from an old radiator on a moon-lit night

Illustration:  Edwin Fotheringham

What’s That Noise?

If you jump awake at every little late-night squeak, pop, and knock, don’t call in a ghost hunter. Your house just needs a little TLC. Check out these five common noises and the best way to silence the sounds for good.

More scary house stuff here.

Article: Dream House Turned Nightmare

Which Professions Need Coffee the Most

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Furniture Flashback: 30 Vintage & Retro Fits for Rad Homes

Forget futuristic: from quirky styles to implausible color combinations, the past has plenty of daring-enough decor ideas for those with an open mind about furniture, furnishing and fixture design.

Some of these objects are built from actual antiques, hacked classics or recycled trash-found treasures, while others draw on historic styles in combination with new materials.A quick hover above will reveal more images and details on each item or idea and its respective designer.

A few snapshots for the skeptics: wall-hanging art frames turned into live ant colonies, on the one hand, and hand-stitched carpets from historic rug scraps on the other.

Of course, the standard caveat applies: what looks groovy to one house-decorating diva may be appear appalling (and best left in the landfill) to a more-ordinary homeowner – so buyer (and browser) beware!

Microsoft’s Home of the Future

Walk through Microsoft’s Home of the Future with Next blogger Steve Clayton to see what your home may soon look like.

Even in His Home, Steve Jobs Embraced Smaller as Better

AppleLogoSteveJobsProfileApple innovator Steve Jobs embraced small-is-better kitchens ahead of his time.

Looks like Steve Jobs was an iconoclast when it came to homes and kitchens, too.

Although Americans lately have embraced smaller homes, shrinking their average size by 5% from 2007 to 2010, Jobs thought smaller was better even 18 years ago, according to British kitchen designer Johnny Grey, who worked with Jobs in the mid-1990s.

Steve Jobs and his wife Laurene almost had one of my kitchens. We’re going back 18 years to the autumn of 1994 when they contacted me through a mutual friend. I am sad to say they did not in the end go through with the kitchen, but I worked productively with the two of them as far as the production drawing stage.

Snapshot of design for Steve and Laurene\'s kitchen.

Remarkably, for one of the world’s richest individuals, Jobs lived in modest style. He and Laurene were in their mid-to-late thirties when we met but did not seem interested in setting themselves up with bourgeois comfort and display. Instead, despite having two children, they lived a bit like self-disciplined students: the first things you saw inside the front door were a plumbed-in washing machine and a dryer (temporarily located there during building modifications). This was in Palo Alto in what they called their cottage, which they preferred to the big house down the coast in Woodside. They liked to think of the cottage as English. It was vaguely Arts and Crafts in style, a relaxed-looking interior somewhat under-furnished with Persian rugs and freestanding pieces. Unmissable was their love of music with piles of CDs, records and guitars about the place, the only objects that might amount to clutter. Unlike a real English cottage the house was light and spacious.

I went on to design a kitchen, utility rooms and some furniture. The kitchen brief was to keep a modern Arts and Crafts look in mind, with plenty of space for prepping and a circular central island. A walk-in cool chamber was an innovative feature.  The Jobs were staunch vegetarians, Laurene having set up a vegan food business. The kitchen was where they lived, albeit inherited from a previous owner, and consisted of boring white units with tiled tops and wooden edges. Nevertheless, it was the setting for the kind hospitality they showed to me, most of it on a cramped table in the corner sitting on chairs with wobbly legs.

As members of the Whole Earth Catalogue generation, vegetable gardening and self-sufficiency were important to the Jobs. We talked about redesigning the garden to provide more privacy for the house. Steve’s love of gardens was not generally known. We discussed creating outdoor rooms with borders, wild flowers clustered together to ensure plenty of color, with privacy from the street. I spent time helping him find an English gardener.

During the following three years I saw Steve and Laurene at their home when I visited to polish up the design. We once met in London at the Savoy hotel during one of his rushed, but highly publicized European trips. His comments, as you might expect knowing his track record at Apple, were brief and to the point, mostly in the direction of simplifying the design, staking out a more severe, monastic approach. Shaker simplicity was often his default position. I suspect he became more of a modernist in the late nineties.

He was a very private person and reluctant to have any building work done, powerfully disliking noise, mess and invasion of their home. Steve recommended that I open a showroom in San Francisco, and I duly did in 1999. He said Americans needed to employ more serious design skills in their kitchens. The Jobs still live in the same house today. I noticed fans were scrawling messages on the pavement in front in a news clip today

He re-enforced a myth I grew up with, that America was the future, and that its technology was going to lead the world to a better place. We will be poorer off without him.


Do you have any memories of Steve Jobs? Have you ever designed a project that you didn’t construct?



This extravagant and beautiful contemporary home is situated on top of a cliff in Phuket, Thailand. The amazing property has an area of 1,597 square meters and features five bedrooms, games/cinema room, two elevators, two kitchens, and a 17-meter infinity pool with breathtaking views over the Andaman Sea. Steps meander down from the villa to a small private beach. The house is now on the market for $5,542,850.





Repair a Leaky Washer Type Faucet

leaky_faucetIf you’re not into water torture, then you probably can’t stand the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet. Fortunately, you don’t need to call a plumber to save you. These steps detail how to fix the leak in a washer-type faucet in no time. Washer-type faucets work with a rubber or composition washer that closes onto a metal washer seat When the washer becomes hardened, worn or the washer seat wears, it causes the faucet to leak. You can close the faucet tighter to stop the leaking temporarily, but this increases the internal damage to the faucet. Here’s how to fix it.

Turn off the Water: If there’s a shutoff valve beneath the fixture, turn off the water at that point. Otherwise, turn it off at the main house shutoff valve in the basement, utility room, or crawlspace. Turn off the hot water supply at the water heater.


faucetTake the Faucet Apart: Start by removing the handle (this may not be necessary on some older faucets). Loosen the Phillips-head screw, which usually is beneath a decorative cap in the center of the handle. The cap either unscrews or snaps off when you pry it with a knife blade. Next, lift or pry the handle off its broached stem. Unscrew the packing nut beneath the handle, exposing the rest of the stem. Remove the stem by rotating it in the "on" direction. It will thread out. Reinstall the handle if you have difficulty turning it (Fig. 1). Clean chips from the faucet cavity, but do not use harsh abrasives or a file. • Tip: If you must use pliers on decorative faucet parts, pad them with electrical tape or cloth to protect the finish. And take special care with the plastic parts found on many modern faucets.


Examine the Stem: If the threads are badly corroded or worn, take it to your retailer and get a new stem to match. Clean the stem if it’s dirty.


faucetCheck the Washer: The washer is located on the lower end of the stem and held in place by a brass screw. If the washer is squeezed flat or has a groove worn in it, replace it – this should stop any dripping. Take the washer to your True Value store or dealer to ensure an exact match in size and style. If the brass screw is damaged, replace it with a new brass screw. • Tip: It’s important to install the correct type of faucet washer (Fig. 1, bottom). A swiveling washer (C) is preferable to either A or B. To install washer style C, file the shoulder off the end of the stem, drill out the threads of the screw hole. Instead of rubbing against the seat as it closes, a swiveling washer closes with a straight-down, frictionless action – this allows it to outlast fixed washers.


Look at Washer Seat: Any faucet that needs frequent washer replacement usually has a damaged seat. The washer seat is located inside the faucet body. The seat should either be refaced with a seat- dressing tool or replaced: Replace Washer Seat: Some washer seats can be unthreaded and replaced. Check the faucet body with a flashlight to see if it has a square or hexagonal hole through its center or is slotted for a screwdriver; if so, it is replaceable. (However, if the seat simply has a round hole through its center and no slots, it is not replaceable. In this case, reface it with a seat-dressing tool.) To replace it, you’ll need a faucet seat wrench, which comes with a combination of square and hex heads to fit most faucet seats. Turn the washer seat counterclockwise to loosen, clockwise to tighten. Add a little silicone rubber sealant (RTV) or pipe joint compound around the threads of the seat before you install it to make it easier to remove during future repairs. Reface Washer Seat: A seat-dressing tool is not costly and every home with washer-type faucets needs one. Use the tool according to the manufacturer’s directions, placing it in the faucet along with the packing nut. Then rotate until the seat is smooth, and blow out the chips.


faucet_2Put Back Together: Following this seat and washer service, your faucet should be like new. Put the parts back together in the reverse order of taking them apart. Spread a bit of petroleum jelly or silicone grease on the threads of the stem to lubricate the faucet’s action.


If Faucet Leaks Around the Stem: If your faucet is leaking around the stem rather than from the spigot, install new packing. You may want to install one of the newer nylon-covered or graphite-impregnated packings – their lubrication allows the faucet handle to turn more freely. Wrap one turn of this packing around the stem just beneath the packing nut. Use three complete wraps if you’re applying string-type packing. Some stems use O-rings, rather than packing. For these stems, replace the O-ring with a matching one to stop a leak. Hand tighten the packing nut, then tighten it another half-turn.

Tools and Materials: • Smooth-jaw adjustable wrench • Screwdrivers, standard and Phillips • Pliers • Faucet washers • Brass screws • Stem • Silicone grease or petroleum jelly • Seat dressing tool or Seat & Seat wrench • Silicone rubber sealant or pipe compound • Socket wrench • Packing • Cleaning cloths • Hand cleaner

A guide to administration's new mortgage-refi plan

low-interest-refinance-mortgages-works-for-the-borrower-esBy DEREK KRAVITZ, The Associated Press

Two big questions loom over the Obama administration’s latest bid to help troubled homeowners: Will it work? And who would benefit?

By easing eligibility rules, the administration hopes 1 million more homeowners will qualify for its refinancing program and lower their mortgage payments — twice the number who have already. The program has helped only a fraction of the number the administration had envisioned.

In part, that’s because many homeowners who would like to refinance can’t because they owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth. But it’s also because banks are under no obligation to refinance a mortgage they hold — a limitation that won’t change under the new plan.

Here are some of the major questions and answers about the administration’s initiative:

What is the program?

The Home Affordable Refinance Program, or HARP, was started in 2009. It lets homeowners refinance their mortgages at lower rates. Borrowers can bypass the usual requirement of having at least 20 percent equity in their home. But few people have signed up. Many "underwater" borrowers — those who owe more than their homes are worth — couldn’t qualify under the program. Roughly 22.5 percent of U.S. homeowners, about 11 million, are underwater, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data firm. As of Aug. 31, fewer than 900,000 homeowners, and just 72,000 underwater homeowners, have refinanced through the administration’s program. The administration had estimated that the program would help 4 million to 5 million homeowners.

Why did so few benefit?

Mainly because those who’d lost the most in their homes weren’t eligible. Participation was limited to those whose home values were no more than 25 percent below what Home-Mortgage-Loans-bgthey owed their lender. That excluded roughly 10 percent of borrowers, CoreLogic says. In some hard-hit areas, borrowers have lost nearly 50 percent of their home’s value. Another problem: Homeowners must pay thousands in closing costs and appraisal fees to refinance. Typically, that adds up to 1 percent of the loan’s value — $2,000 in fees on a $200,000 loan. Sinking home prices also left many fearful that prices had yet to bottom. They didn’t want to throw good money after a depreciating asset. Or their credit scores were too low. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan acknowledged that the program has "not reached the scale we had hoped."

What changes is the administration making?

Homeowners’ eligibility won’t be affected by how far their home’s value has fallen. And some fees for closing, title insurance and lien processing will be eliminated. So refinancing will be cheaper. The number of homeowners who need an appraisal will be reduced, saving more money. Some fees for those who refinance into a shorter-term mortgage will also be waived. Banks won’t have to buy back the mortgages from Fannie or Freddie, as they previously had to when dealing with some risky loans. That change will free many lenders to offer refinance loans. The program will also be extended 18 months, through 2013.

Related: White House tries new tack on housing

Who’s eligible?

Those whose loans are owned or backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, which the government took control of two years ago. Fannie and Freddie own or guarantee about half of all U.S. mortgages — nearly 31 million loans. They buy loans from lenders, package them into bonds with a guarantee against default and sell them to investors. To qualify for refinancing, a loan must have been sold to Fannie and Freddie before June 2009. Homeowners can determine whether their mortgage is owned by Fannie or Freddie by going online: Freddie’s loan tool is at; Fannie’s is Mortgages that were refinanced over the past 2½ years aren’t eligible. Homeowners must also be current on their mortgage. One late payment within six months, or more than one in the past year, would mean disqualification. Perhaps the biggest limitation on the program: It’s voluntary for lenders. A bank remains free to reject a refinancing even if a homeowner meets all requirements.

Will it work?

For those who can qualify, the savings could be significant. If, for example, a homeowner with a $200,000 mortgage at 6 percent can refinance down to 4.5 percent, the savings would be $3,000 a year. But the benefit to the economy will likely be limited. Even homeowners who are eligible and who choose to refinance through the government program could opt to sock away their savings or pay down debt rather than spend it.

How many homeowners will be eligible or will choose to participate?

Not entirely clear. The government estimates that up to 1 million more people could qualify. Moody’s Analytics says the figure could be as high as 1.6 million. Both figures are a fraction of the 11 million or more homeowners who are underwater, according to CoreLogic, a real estate data research firm.

Who will benefit most?

Underwater homeowners in the hard-hit states of Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada could be greatly helped. Many are stuck with high mortgage rates after they were approved for mortgages with little or no money as a down payment and few requirements. The average annual savings for a U.S. household would be $2,500, officials say.

When will it start?

Fannie and Freddie will issue the full details of the plan lenders and servicers on Nov. 15, officials say. The revamped program could be in place for some lenders as early as Dec. 1.