Reducing your energy costs

Sylvia Porter

September 28, 1990|By Sylvia Porter | Sylvia Porter,1989 Los Angeles Times Syndicate Times Mirror Square Los Angeles, Calif. 90053

Energy prices are on the rise and may rise even more. Making improvements that will increase your home's energy efficiency is a consideration that takes on more urgency this year. You are merely typical if you are seeking to reduce your consumption of fuel. Will you replace storm windows? Replace an inefficient heating system? Add insulation? Install new windows that hold in the heat? Whatever you plan, beware. Crooks disguised as home-improvement contractors are on the lookout to make a killing. They could reduce the size of your bank balance within weeks unless you act with caution.

What are some of the matters you should consider?

* How long do you plan to live in your present home? In northern climates it takes five years or more for your investment in energy-saving improvements to be amortized, which is to say for your savings to equal the amount of your investment. The precise time varies, depending on the price of energy.

* Do the improvements increase the value of your home? In some cases, being able to show low fuel and utility bills is a plus if you're planning to sell.

* A good long-term strategy might be as simple as planting tree around your home. They provide shade in the summer and can act as a wind break in the winter. A consideration is the variety of trees you plant.

* What are the most cost-efficient things to do? Adding insulation to an attic crawl space can be relatively inexpensive -- especially if you're handy enough to do it yourself. Replacement windows or a more efficient furnace or burner cost more and require the services of a professional.

If you choose a course of action that requires the services of a contractor, choose your supplier with care. Here's a procedure you may want to follow:

* Seek out several contractors. Ask around for recommendations: The chances are you have friends and neighbors who have upgraded their heating and cooling systems or installed replacement windows. Find out who did the work, how it progressed, and whether the finished job was satisfactory.

* Get bids in writing from these contractors. Advertising claims that you get a free window for each two or three purchased are of little interest, as are offers of free color televisions and the like. If you want a television, go buy a television. What you're seeking now is a bottom-line cost for the job you wish to have done, and done properly. You want the proposal in writing, and you want specified exactly what is to be done and what materials are to be used.

* Discard bids that are ridiculously high or ridiculously low.

* Ask for references. Talk to people who have employed the contractor you're considering. Find out if there were any problems.

* Conduct your own investigation. Call the Better Business Bureau and local and state consumer offices. Find out if there are complaints outstanding against the contractor you're considering.

Once you've decided upon a contractor, there are a few other things you should do before signing the contract. The first is to negotiate a time by which the work will be done. Make sure that this is in writing (in fact, make sure any agreements or adjustments are in writing). This protects both you and the contractor. If you are not sure what a particular passage in the contract means, ask a lawyer. Paying a lawyer to read a contract is much less expensive than signing a contract that obligates you to pay for less work than you desire.

Before work begins, it's worthwhile to phone your insurance agent to make sure your liability coverage is what it should be. While contractors have their own insurance, a situation could arise where you would be held liable for injury to a worker. Whether you are at fault does not always matter -- and in any case, it's better that your insurance company deal with it.

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