Monthly Archives: February 2014

How Hard are Hardwood Floors, Really?

How Hard are Hardwood Floors, Really?

Just  the other day I was at a home inspection (representing the sellers) and the buyer’s home inspector was commenting on the Brazilian Cherry floors in the Study, telling the buyers that “this wood is very soft, so you’ll want to be very careful when you walk on it.”

Having grown up in the household of a high school shop teacher, I’ve had a great education in woodworking and made lots of projects with my Dad.  Over the years I’ve worked with Brazilian Cherry and for a fact I know it is a very, very hard material.  It takes forever to sand and holes for fasteners have to be pre-drilled very accurately and sized correctly. But I kept that knowledge to myself and decided to share it with you instead.

Many woods are used for flooring and although today’s design trends and color schemes often drive the choice of materials, over time the most popular woods for this area of the country, are: Brazilian Cherry, Mahogany, Pecan, Maple, White Oak, Red Oak, Walnut, Teak, Pine, and Fir. Of these, Red Oak is the most commonly used (it’s considered the most color-neutral and affordable of the woods) and thus it is considered the standard or benchmark in wood hardness.

If you Google hardwood hardness you will inevitably encounter the Janka Hardness Scale. It is the industry standard for judging the ability of woods to withstand the beating that wood takes from normal wear and tear: denting, gouging, pet scratches, heavy furniture, etc. Janka measures the amount of force in lbs-force that it takes to push a half-inch diameter (okay it’s really .444 inch) steel ball half of its diameter down into the wood. While this gives a general sense of the wood’s hardness, there are many factors that also contribute to a wood floor’s hardness and durability, including how it is cut from the log and how it is finished.

How the tree is cut has an effect on its hardness and suitability as a floor covering. Hardwood flooring is produced by milling wood from trees. There are three basic ways to cut a tree into lumber, called “plainsawn”, “quartersawn” and “riftsawn”.

“Plainsawn” wood is just that, the log is sliced lengthwise from one side to the other in a series of parallel cuts, sort of as you’d cut a block of cheese. This gives the best yield from the tree but for flooring it tends to result in a very inconsistent grain pattern and tends to expand and contract in unpredictable ways. Wide-pine floors (found in many Antiques and Antique Reproduction homes) are the typical example of “plainsawn” wood that most of us will encounter.

“Quartersawn” wood is the most common way that flooring material is made. In this method, imagine that the log is cut down the middle, then both halves are cut down the middle, and the boards are then cut from the “quarters” with the point facing straight down (a series of parallel cuts starting perpendicular to the centerpoint of the tree). This gives consistency to the grain of the boards (as consistent as any natural material can be) and a predictable stability that makes it perfect for flooring. For the purposes of this blog, I am using hardness factors derived from “quartersawn” wood.

“Riftsawn” wood is the absolutely ideal material for consistency of grain and stability but is very hard to find because it is so expensive to manufacture. In this method, the log is cut into a series of wedges that are perpendicular to the rings of the tree. The wedges are then sawn into boards and the excess material becomes waste. Because of the low yield per tree the cost per board foot is very high and you will probably never see “riftsawn” flooring unless touring a mansion or a castle. By the way, there are a couple of specialty sawmills in the Sudbury area that will produce “riftsawn” boards for you, but hold onto your wallet.

As mentioned earlier, the finish also has an effect on the hardness. I am not qualified to comment on what finish is harder or better (best to ask a flooring expert) but I can tell you that the typical finish penetrates into the top ¼” of the wood, at most, so logic would have it that finished versus unfinished wood would be harder but much beyond that I can’t really say.

So how hard is my hardwood floor?

Below is a list from softest to hardest:

FIR
  • Latin: Abies sp
  • Other Common Names: White Fir, Balsam Fir, Fraser Fir
  • Janka Hardness: 400

WHITE PINE

  • Latin: Pinus alba
  • Other Common Names: White Pine, Eastern White Pine
  • Janka Hardness: 420
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 1.05 times harder

SHORTLEAF PINE

  • Latin: Pinus echinata
  • Other Common Names: Southern Yellow Pine, Shortstraw Pine
  • Janka Hardness: 690
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 1.725 times harder

AMERICAN CHERRY

  • Latin: Prunus serotina
  • Other Common Names: Black Cherry, Cherry, American Cherry
  • Janka Hardness: 950
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 2.375 times harder

TEAK

  • Latin: Tectona grandis
  • Other Common Names: Plantation Teak, Burmese Teak
  • Janka Hardness: 1000
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 2.5 times harder

WALNUT

  • Latin: Juglans nigra
  • Other Common Names: Black Walnut, Eastern Black Walnut
  • Janka Hardness: 1010
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 2.525 times harder

HEART PINE

  • Latin: Pinus palustris
  • Other Common Names: Long Leaf Pine,
  • Also Commonly from: the Center or ‘Heart” of Yellow pine
  • Other Notes: mostly from recycled or underwater harvested, swamp trees
  • Janka Hardness: 1225
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 3.0625 times harder

RED OAK

  • Latin: Quercus rubra
  • Other Common Names: Northern Red Oak
  • Janka Hardness: 1290
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 3.225 times harder

WHITE OAK

  • Latin: Quercus alba
  • Other Common Names: Old Oak
  • Janka Hardness: 1360
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 3.4 times harder

MAPLE

  • Latin: Acer saccharum
  • Other Common Names: Rock Maple, Hard Maple, Hard Rock Maple, Sugar Maple
  • Janka Hardness: 1450
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 3.625 times harder

PECAN

  • Latin: Carya illinoinensis
  • Other Common Names: Hickory, Satinwood
  • Janka Hardness: 1820
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 4.55 times harder

 

MAHOGANY

  • Latin: Swietenia mahagoni or Swietenia macrophylla
  • Other Common Names: West Indies Mahogany, Honduras Mahogany, Genuine Mahogany
  • Janka Hardness: 2200
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 5.5 times harder

BRAZILIAN CHERRY

  • Latin: Hymenaea courbaril
  • Other Common Names: Brazilian Copal, South American Locust,  South American Cherry, Jatobá or Guapinol
  • Janka Hardness: 2350
  • Hardness Compared to Fir: 5.875 times har
Stand Up and Buy Right!

Stand Up and Buy Right!

If, like all of us, you want to get the best house you can for the least amount of money, you need to make sure you are negotiating from a position of strength. Price is only one element in the negotiations and not necessarily the most important one. Often other things such as the financial strength and your down-payment or the closing date are just as important to a seller. That being said, it’s useless to be “pre- qualified” by a lender. This means that you have spent a few minutes on the phone with a lender who asks you a few questions. Based on the answers, the lender pronounces you “pre-qualified” and issues a certificate that you can show to a seller. Sellers agents and their sellers are aware that such certificates are not worth the paper they’re written on because the information has not been verified. The way to make a strong offer today is to get “pre-approved”. This means that all your financial information has been checked and verified by a qualified loan professional and a lender finds that if nothing changes they will lend you the money you need to purchase a home. That’s what you want.

Listing agents place ads to get you to call them – they want to handle both the seller and buyer end of a deal. When reading an ad know that what is not mentioned in the ad is usually more important than what is. For example, many homes have some drawback that any good agent will never mention in an ad, such as traffic noise, power lines, or outdated plumbing and electrics. Remember that the person writing the ad is representing the seller. When you look at a house with the seller’s agent they will not critique the property or point out any drawbacks you should know about – it’s up to you to find them out on your own.

Get a Buyer’s Agent. Your buyer agent looks out for you and your best interests during negotiations on price, inspections and contingencies. In Massachusetts a seller’s agent can work with you as a buyer agent for the property they are listing but they must disclose that in the event of any conflict of interest they work for the seller and look out for the seller’s interests above yours. A buyer’s agent doesn’t cost you anything … and they’ll look out for your interests above the seller’s.

Did you also know that many homes are sold without a sign ever going up or an ad ever being put in the paper? These “pocket listings” or “whisper listings” are often great deals and go to the clients of buyer’s agents who have their finger on the heartbeat of the market. When a buyer’s agent hears a great house will come on the market they call their client who is looking for that type of house and just might get them the exclusive. So in order to get the best buy and to save time not looking at unsuitable properties I always recommend that you hire your own buyer’s agent and if they’re good stick with them. (shameless plug for myself)

Your agent should show you everything available that meets your requirements. Don’t make a decision on any house until you feel that you’ve seen enough to pick the best one. Especially if a town is new to you, it is a good idea to get a feel for the town and its neighborhoods. A good agent has the patience and experience to work with you until you find the right house. Having said that, however, there are two circumstances where you may need to make a fairly quick or bold decision. There are times when a home comes on the market and as your buyer agent, as soon as I see it I know it is what you have been looking for – a reasonably priced house in a good location in great shape. This one won’t last and when I call, if you think you’d like it you should be willing to look at it now and make a decision quickly.

The other situation is that it’s your first or second weekend looking at houses when you find “the one”. It’s great – just what you were looking for. But….you’ve only seen five other houses and what if you find one weeks from now that you like more? Sad to say, I have had clients in this situation and who weeks or months later were saying, “Gosh I wish we had jumped at that house…. it was just what we wanted.” Sometimes the right one is one of the first few you see. Trust your gut if it is.

Here’s a list of my current BEST PRACTICES for BUYERS:

1. Arrange for your mortgage financing up front before you even start to look for a home. Your mortgage broker will help you focus on your ideal price range, your maximum loan and whether there are any credit issues you should correct before buying. They will also prepare a “pre-approval” letter … which you will provide the seller when you are ready to make an offer.

2. Familiarize yourself with the purchase contract details and ask questions. Ask your agent to explain the process of negotiating and counter offers.

3. Use buyer representation. It is important to have an agent who owes his total loyalty to you. Discuss your representation options with your agent. If you are purchasing one of your agent’s company listings  make sure you understand what your agent can and cannot do for you.

4. Review the seller’s disclosure before you make an offer. Your offer should reflect your knowledge of the condition of the property. The seller’s disclosure will tell you of  any known repairs or conditions that would affect what you would be willing to pay. You should know this before you decide on an offering price. If you are unsure go back with the agent and look at the home after you have reviewed the disclosures. Also note, not all brokers use seller’s disclosures … doesn’t make sense to me but there are no state/national laws requiring disclosure. If they don’t use disclosures it doesn’t mean they are hiding anything but you would be wise to assume there are problems not readily visible on a quick walk-through and adjust your offer accordingly.

5. Ask the seller to provide a home warranty when you write the offer. This will cover you for some items that malfunction during the first year of ownership. Cash used for down payment, closing costs, and other home necessities can deplete your cash reserves. A home warranty will reduce the risk of a future drain if a warranted item needs repair that first year.

6. Get the property inspected by a licensed professional home inspector. They will let you know the true condition of what you are buying. Follow the inspector’s advice if he/she recommends that you have another expert inspect a troublesome item. During the inspection you should also ask your inspector to explain how to work or maintain appliances or systems in the home, they are a wonderful resource to help you learn “how to drive the house”.

7. Ask your buyer’s agent to prepare a market analysis of the property before you make the offer. A seller’s agent cannot do this for you. You should know what similar properties are selling for so that you don’t overbuy. Also, if the seller remains firm on his price, you will be able to tell if the value is really there.”

What’s the Big Deal With Mold in Houses?

What’s the Big Deal With Mold in Houses?

Mold is ubiquitous in nature, making up approximately 25% of the earth’s biomass, and thrives in many outdoor environments.

Molds, yeasts and other certain related forms constitute the organisms (microbial agents) known as fungi.  We have all seen fungi growing on rotten fruit, bread and damp leather.  They may by green, black or white and may appear to be fuzzy or sooty. Fungi are plant-like & many consist of two parts – hyphae, which are fungal filaments that form the body – and spores, which are seed-like structures than can be used for reproduction.  Some spores contain mycotoxins and have been termed “toxic mold”.

 Fungi must subsist on organic matter such as wood or paper products.  In order for fungi to thrive, the following conditions are necessary: An ambient temperature range of 40-100 degrees F; a humid rich environment, generally greater than 60% humidity though usually greater than 70%.

Why is mold in real estate a potential concern?
I was once at a home inspection with noted indoor air investigator, Jeff May, and he gave me a copy of his book entitled “My House is Killing Me”. In it he says that mold causes four main types of illnesses in humans: allergies, irritation, infectious disease & toxic effects. Microbial agents may serve as irritants to the respiratory tract causing an increase in mucus flow and other types of symptoms.  These agents may cause infections in two manners: pathogenic infection – this can develop in a relatively healthy individual with a normally functioning immune system; and opportunistic infection – this can develop in an individual with a compromised immune system or those with or on chemotherapy, diabetics, asthma or antibiotics, HIV or AIDS, physical or mental conditions affecting the immune system.  Some factors responsible for the concerns are the ability of the agent becoming airborne in sufficient concentrations and the ability of the agent to be respired by the susceptible host.

Are there any buildings more vulnerable to mold growth?
Any dwelling with a history of current water infiltration problems as well as those structures with consistently high indoor humidity levels or those with poorly designed components such as inadequately vented attics and crawl spaces, as well as poorly designed or maintained HVAC systems.

How do I know if mold is present within a dwelling?
Mold growth should be suspected when surfaces are discolored i.e. “mildew” or if damp mildew odor is present which can represent mold by-products such as – microbial volatile organic compounds (or as I call it eau de mold). This is especially true on organic natural materials.

If mold growth is suspected what should be done?
A trained indoor environmentalist or mold remediation specialist should be consulted to determine the presence of mold, its cause and cure.

Are there any threshold limits in which mold is a concern?
Because all individuals have varying degrees of sensitivity to mold there are currently no threshold limit values.

What is toxic mold?
Toxic mold refers to certain mold species that have spores that contain mycotoxins such as stachybotrys, also called Black Mold.  Mycotoxins are opportunistic pathogens and may be a greater health concern for certain individuals.

If mold growth is confirmed within the indoor environment what should be done?
Depending on the amount and depth of the mold growth, the solutions may range from removing surface mold via HEPA vacuuming and washing.  To the extreme of removing and replacing all effected material, it is strongly suggested that only those with specific training and experience conduct any mold remediation work.

How can mold growth be prevented?
Mold requires several conditions to thrive.  An organic material (wood or paper), oxygen, appropriate ambient temperature, a high moisture content and/or a high ambient relative humidity of 60% or greater.  The most controllable factor of these conditions is the moisture content, which is usually controlled by removing moisture sources (water infiltration) and reducing and maintaining the indoor ambient humidity level to below 60%.

Need an expert?
Call me, I can recommend several.

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