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Home Improvement Special Coverage

Upscale but Simple

While interior-design trends in homes can be slow to change — and, in many ways, have been, as evidenced by the white and grey colors that still dominate — the way people are using their homes did change somewhat over the past year. That, and a growing desire among older homeowners to age in place, has influenced what people are looking for in kitchens and bathrooms — and they have no shortage of options to achieve their vision.

By Mark Morris

 

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

 

 

While homebuyers want to put their own stamp on a new house, Scott Keiter said, when it comes to kitchens, they tend to think alike.

In fact, the owner of Keiter Builders currently has six new homes under construction, and for every one, the owners want kitchens that provide plenty of light, an airy feeling, and enough room for people to gather.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space,” he said.

In many cases, the anchor to this space is the kitchen island. While islands have been popular for years as a way to provide more counter and cabinet space, during the pandemic, they saw increased use for food preparation as people ate more meals at home. The island also served as a desk for many who suddenly found themselves working from home. As a result, Keiter said, islands have become more multi-purpose, and the kitchen is now seen as a multi-use space.

“On top of the normal cooking and food prep, we’re seeing a movement to make the kitchen a more communal room. It’s becoming a place to work from home, as well as a place for guests and friends to congregate.”

While the kitchen is becoming more of a gathering place and its form and function are changing, Dave Lloyd, manager of Budget Cabinet, said every customer looking to remodel that space shares one objective: convenience.

“While new houses allow for bigger islands, we do a lot of remodeling projects where people are limited by the footprint of their house,” he said.

Whether incorporating an island or not, one trend that addresses convenience and improved function is what Lloyd called “drawers over doors.” Many cabinet designs offer wide and deep drawers to store bulky or heavy items. That way, instead of making someone reach overhead for heavy dishes in a cabinet, a waist-high drawer allows for easier access — which becomes more important as people age.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space.”

Aging in place also comes into play in bathroom design, said Lori Loughlin, manager at Frank Webb Home. These days, she noted, handheld shower heads are the choice of nearly every bathroom renovation. Also popular are shower fixtures that combine a handheld with a rainfall feature.

“We work with many people who want to age in place, so we stress that a handheld shower is more convenient to use and clean the shower stall,” she explained.

Converting old bathrooms to accommodate a lower-threshold shower for the aging or physically challenged isn’t new, she added, but the styles are changing. “There are things we can do to make a shower safe and functional without it looking institutional. For example, there will be a seat and grab bars, but they are done with more style, so the result looks more like a spa.”

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Aging in place also affects kitchen design, where islands are available in multiple levels, with a lower level constructed to accommodate seniors or people in a wheelchair.

Because everyone is more aware of touching surfaces, touchless bathroom faucets and a toilet that flushes by waving one’s hand over a sensor are available as well. While once considered gimmicky, sophisticated toilet seats that have a warmer built in, along with a bidet, are growing in interest. Loughlin noted that these more premium seats also contribute to aging-in-place considerations by allowing people who might otherwise need assistance to take care of themselves.

Such bathroom renovations might seem like an indulgence, Lloyd said, but the result is a space that provides easier access and convenience, again, allowing people to live in their homes longer.

During this boom time in home building and renovations, BusinessWest caught up with several professionals who shared what their customers are looking for in their kitchens and bathrooms — for both their present and future needs.

 

Form and Function

Lloyd noted that today’s kitchens emphasize designs that are high-functioning and less ornate, and tastes are trending toward cabinet designs with clean lines such as the Shaker look, as well as simpler cabinet hardware.

While the overall trends haven’t changed much over the years, he added, colors have seen some changes. “Translucent cabinet stains are becoming popular because it gives you some color, but you can still see the grain of the wood. Whites and grays — both light and dark — are still very popular color choices.”

Lloyd said his customers want interesting but not ornate designs in kitchen backsplashes, while upscale appliances remain very popular in kitchen remodels, with stainless steel a popular option and black stainless on the rise as a trend.

Black may become the new neutral, Loughlin said, noting that touchless and black faucets are currently big sellers in kitchens. “For the next couple of years, I think we will be seeing a trend of faucets with mixed metals, such as black and gold,” she noted, while faucets with a black finish are trending in the bathroom as well.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

While white farmhouse sinks remain popular, she said they are now available in black and other colors to better match darker shades of quartz and granite countertops. Speaking of which, quartz has passed granite as the most popular stone countertop material.

“People are spending more time in their kitchens, so they are getting what they want,” she explained. The styles that resonate most with her customers include the contemporary farmhouse look and industrial chic, where faucets and lighting have a stylish but industrial look to them.

Lighting also reflects black and gold color schemes, with open fixtures creating an airy look. Pendant lighting, which once featured small pendants suspended from the ceiling, have grown into larger pendants that fill more space and provide more light.

Kitchen floor upgrades were once limited to hardwoods or tile floors made of ceramic or porcelain. Eclipsing both of those choices, the current most popular trend in flooring is LVT, or luxury vinyl tile. Resembling wood planks, LVT floors click into place and are known in the industry as ‘floating’ floors, so named because they are not glued down. Jake Levine, manager of Advanced Rug and Flooring Center, said the waterproof properties of LVT make it a best seller in his store.

“Because LVT handles water so well, it is replacing other more expensive alternatives,” he said. “LVT is also 40% warmer to the touch than a tile floor, and it’s not prone to chipping, also an issue with tile floors.”

Installing a hardwood or tile floor takes real expertise, Levine explained, noting that LVT floors can be a do-it-yourself project because they allow more room for error.

“If you don’t like the direction of the planks, you can unclick them and reinstall,” he said. “I’m not saying everyone will get the same results as a professional, but a capable DIY-er can do it.”

For customers who prefer a tile look, LVT is available in 24-by-12-inch pieces featuring stone patterns that click in place similar to the planks. This style and its waterproof properties make it a good choice for a bathroom, but Levine said most people still prefer porcelain or ceramic tile.

“For many people, the word ‘vinyl’ suffers from an old stigma of linoleum floors that discolored and peeled,” he said. “The click floors are very good for bathrooms because they are designed for areas that get water.”

As Western Mass. is known for its many older homes, a bathroom renovation can often involve converting a spare bedroom into a larger, more modern bathroom, usually adjacent to the master bedroom. Lloyd said this is a popular renovation among empty-nest couples.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

“People who want to stay in their home are figuring out how to use the same square footage, but improve it,” he explained. “The idea of living space is changing, where people will give up a bedroom for a luxury bathroom with better lighting, better shower, and more storage in the cabinetry.”

While many bathroom renovations replace the tub with a more upscale shower, Loughlin said that decision is usually driven by personal preference.

“There are bath people, and there are shower people,” she noted. “People who like to take baths will spend whatever they want for a bathtub, while those who only want a shower won’t even install a bathtub in their master bathroom.”

 

As Seen on TV

For those considering upgrading a kitchen or bathroom, popular media such as the HGTV cable network and social-media sites Pintrest, Instagram, and others offer endless examples of what’s new in design and accessories.

“Every customer who comes in has at least one Pinterest photo on their phone, or they reference something they saw on HGTV,” Lloyd said, adding that houzz.com is another influencer.

Meanwhile, Levine credits HGTV shows with increasing the awareness of LVT flooring. “The vinyl plank is now common knowledge thanks to them.”

Loughlin said the Frank Webb showroom carries several kitchen sink styles that appear on HGTV because customers often have a vision that is influenced by the network. While helpful most of the time, however, these shows can also contribute to outlandish and unrealistic expectations.

“Some people think they can redo their house in 30 minutes; it just doesn’t work that way,” she said. “It’s not unusual for the timeframe to surprise people, especially now, when hiring a contractors is more difficult because they are all so busy.”

While new trends emerge in kitchens and bathrooms, older ones are meeting their demise. In new homes, Keiter noted, people still want bathrooms that are upscale and functional, but use less space.

“Real estate is so expensive now, some people are reassessing where they want to spend their money,” he said. “Instead of a 250 square-foot bathroom with a whirlpool tub, they are opting to lose the whirlpool and reduce the overall size of the bathroom.”

Instead, he said, customers are spending their money in the kitchen or a sunroom, where they spend far more of their time.

In the spirit of simplicity and a clean look, Lloyd said the recent trend of glass cabinet doors is on its way out because “people like to put things away and not have to keep looking at them.”

He also noted that counter space for wine bars is starting to give way to dedicated cabinetry to house an emerging trend: coffee bars. “Wine was big for a while, but coffee has become bigger of late.”

Though tastes may differ, kitchen and bath professionals all agree that customers these days have plenty of options.

“Manufacturers are expanding their product lines to accommodate many different tastes and needs,” said Loughlin, giving people the opportunity to follow their vision or create their own style.

Insurance Special Coverage

Are You Covered?

By Mark Morris

Christine Fleury

Christine Fleury says making alterations to the home — a common sight during the pandemic — could change insurance needs.

Call it the great migration indoors.

When the pandemic first hit, many people were forced to quickly convert their homes into offices, schools, and entertainment centers. Some in the insurance industry predicted this might lead to more homeowners insurance claims. In reality, it didn’t.

Similarly, as people spend more time in their homes, they also depend more on their water, electrical, and heating systems to work. While some insurance claims have been filed due to these systems failing after increased use, the increase has not been notable.

In fact, Christine Fleury, Personal Lines manager at Encharter Insurance in Amherst, said companies have actually seen a decrease in severe claims from homeowners. “As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

Corey Murphy agreed, noting that, because people are home, they are noticing and taking care of seemingly minor problems like leaky gutters.

“As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

“As people pay more attention to fixing the small issues, they prevent the larger problems from ever happening. A little preventive maintenance goes a long way,” the president of First American Insurance Agency in Chicopee noted.

Most homeowners insurance claims are the result of severe weather incidents. When COVID-19 first hit, winter was ending, and warm weather soon followed. Bill Trudeau, executive vice president and partner at HUB International New England in Agawam, said the mild winter this year has helped keep claims down.

“Other than a couple isolated wind events, the weather has behaved itself, and that means claims have tended to be in line with company projections.”

The pandemic has thrown a few wrinkles into the home-insurance picture this year, however.

For instance, many homeowners were motivated to invest in substantial improvements to their homes. Home construction and improvement contractors point directly to being cooped up in the house as the main motivator for people choosing to make improvements to their property.

What impact does all this renovation work have on the homeowners insurance carried on the house? The answer depends on what improvements are made and what kind of coverage is already in place.

Everyone BusinessWest spoke with agreed that, for small or cosmetic improvements, there is no need to contact an insurance agent. Some larger projects, however, may require altering or increasing a home’s coverage.

“Adding square footage to your home, doing a full remodel, or building a garage would all be reasons to consult your agent to make sure you have enough coverage,” Fleury said.

Even if they are not taking on home improvement projects, Trudeau advises people to call their insurance agent at least every couple of years so they understand the coverage that’s in place and whether they may need additional coverage.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator,” Trudeau said. “It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

With the lifestyle changes wrought by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make sure the home — and everyone in it — are protected. Here are some key factors to consider.

 

Home Work

While they may not have set foot in the office in months, people who work from home are still protected from on-the-job injuries by workers’ compensation coverage. Office workers tend not to get injured on the job, but the coverage is in place if there is an incident.

“There has never been a distinction between whether employee actions emanate from an office at the company or from an office at the person’s home,” Trudeau said. “Because this coverage is broader in scope, COVID did not force us to make changes to workers’ comp plans.”

Bill Trudeau

Bill Trudeau says claims have been kept in check recently by a mild winter.

It’s not unusual for people working from home to have a computer, monitor, and even a printer that belongs to their employer. Murphy said some jobs may require employees to have additional business assets in the home, so it might be wise to make sure everything is covered. “Most policies will pay a little toward assets being home, but it’s usually a minimal amount.”

With homes serving as business offices and classrooms, more people — and their pets — are home at the same time. According to Trudeau, homeowners’ insurance policies consider any issues with an animal as a “strict liability event,” meaning there is no way to defend the action.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim,” he explained, adding that, as people acquire more pets, the likelihood of claims increases. Most insurance companies keep a list of dog breeds they will not cover because those breeds have higher incident rates.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator. It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

Murphy encourages pet owners to speak with their agent because these restrictions can vary widely among insurers. “Just because one company doesn’t want to cover your breed of dog, check with another company; it’s not a universal list.”

Whether they have pets or not, Fleury advises her clients to carry personal liability coverage, commonly known as an umbrella policy, that supplements both homeowners and auto coverage.

“When we write home and auto policies for a customer, we always recommend buying personal liability coverage as well because it gives you that additional safety net,” she said. A typical umbrella policy costs less than $200 but can provide up to $1 million in additional liability coverage when the limits of homeowners or auto coverage are exceeded.

While dog bites and leaking water pipes are obvious reasons to carry homeowners insurance, it can be much harder to detect a leak when personal data is compromised. A significant increase in identity theft has motivated insurance companies to begin offering identity-theft protection as part of their homeowners policies.

“With everyone at home and increased online activity, it’s more important than ever to safeguard your privacy from someone getting into your system and doing real damage,” Trudeau said.

Apart from identity-theft insurance, he advises everyone to follow best practices such as using multi-factor authentication. For example, when working on an important account online, a code is sent to the user’s personal phone that must be entered to gain access.

Corey Murphy

As people pay attention to small issues in the home, Corey Murphy says, they can prevent larger issues from ever arising.

When fraudsters accesses online bank accounts, they often add a payee into the account. Trudeau advises customers to check with their bank to make sure it uses multi-factor authentication to prevent an outsider from accessing their accounts and to make sure it’s turned on at home.

“If someone has logged into your computer and they don’t have your phone, they can’t get that code,” he said.

Fleury said her agency includes identity-theft coverage in all its homeowners policies. “We feel it is important insurance and recommend at least $5,000 worth of coverage for identity theft.”

 

From a Distance

The pandemic has changed the insurance business in other ways. Typically, when a homeowner files an insurance claim, an adjuster will visit the home and walk through to personally inspect the damage. With COVID-19 concerns, that’s happening much less often.

“In some ways, COVID is moving insurance companies along the digital side of things,” Murphy said. “They are allowing homeowners with a claim to submit photos and even have video calls if the insurer is set up for it.”

The trend toward relying on consumer photos rather than a visit by an adjuster follows what’s been happening on the auto-insurance side for some time.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim.”

“Many auto insurers have created apps where the person making the claim takes a photo of the damage, uploads it for an adjuster to review, and then the payment is processed,” Fleury said.

The move toward more digital interaction is no surprise to Trudeau.

“Long before COVID, people e-mailed pictures and documents to us,” he said. “Companies have simply accelerated the move to modernization by using many tools they already had.”

Murphy likes to remind customers that every insurance company offers something a little different that their competitors. That’s why it’s important to put some thought into selecting a homeowners insurance policy.

“People need to assess what they have, in terms of their house and what’s in it, and then speak with an agent about what needs to be covered,” he said, adding that it’s about matching a person’s situation with the company that can best provide coverage for their needs — especially at a time when those needs, and demands on the home, are still in flux.

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