Basic Home Improvement Terms Every Homeowner Should Know

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Adam Helfman

Adam Helfman

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What did your contractor just say? Don't get overwhelmed with the fancy words and check out this guidebook we put together for you!

Whether you are new to home owning or a veteran, we know that some of the terms that your contractor throws out can be confusing. So we took the time to gather some of the most common home improvement terms and created a helpful guide for you. We break down the home improvement language in alphabetical order, take a look!

Allowance(s): An amount of money set aside to purchase a particular item. It is common in kitchen and bath remodels, where there are a ton of selections to set “allowances” for cabinets, tile, fixtures, hardware, etc. It is the contractors best estimate of a reasonable cost for the item. If you stay under the allowance, you will have a little extra cushion. Go over, and you will have to make up the difference with your contractor.

Building Code: This is a set of rules developed by national, state, local and private sector stakeholders to determine MINIMUM trade practices. Building codes are the MINIMUM that needs to be done to ensure safety and longevity of the structure. 

Change Order: A written document that alters the terms of amount of a contract. Used often in remodeling and renovation when unexpected issues are found.

Condensation: When water vapor changes to liquid after coming into contact with a surface of a different temperature.

Contractors: General Contractor, Subcontractor, Specialty Contractor

  • General Contractor or G.C: Responsible for the execution, supervision, coordination of a project. May also perform some or all of the tasks.
  • Subcontractor: A professional tradesman, such as a carpenter or painter that a general contractor hires to execute part of the contract/scope of work.
  • Specialty Contractor: Certain trades require special licensing. Mainly Electrical, Plumbing and HVAC - Since the licensing requirements are stringent, rigorous and difficult to complete, most General Contractors do not hold specialty licenses and instead subcontract this work out. Specialty trades also require separate inspections. 

Convection: Air naturally circulated by differences in temperature. Cold air falls lower and warm air rises. Especially prevalent with large windows or large spans of uninsulated surfaces in houses.

Crawlspace: The area underneath the first floor subfloor of a house and the ground.

Curing (Paint): The process of paint bonding to a surface and reaching 100% hardness.. Curing and drying are not the same. Latex paint will dry to the touch in 2-4 hours, but can take up to 4 weeks to cure. Oil based paint will be dry to the touch in 6-12 hours, but will take 90 days to cure.

Curing (concrete): A chemical reaction in cement based materials - the longer cement stays wet, the stronger it is. This is not the same as “setting” which allows for you to walk on it. Setting generally occurs within 24-48 depending on weather conditions, and the mix of the concrete. Curing is an ongoing process, but at 7 - 10 days, it will reach 65% -75% strength, and at 28-40 days will have reached 95% strength, which is considered fully cured.

Deck: Has multiple meanings:

  • The layer of plywood on top of your roof framing, roof deck.
  • The layer of plywood on top of floor joists, also known as a “Subfloor”.
  • A wood or composite framed structure, often attached to the back of a home to create an outdoor living area.

Diverter valve: A plumbing device that changes the direction of water flow. Used most commonly in showers. Most diverter valves are unique not only to the brand of fixture (Kohler, Delta, etc.) but also to the model of faucet. They are generally NOT interchangeable.

Downspout: A pipe or section of gutter for draining water from the roof gutter system, also called a leader.

Drip Edge: A material used along eaves of homes to help direct water into a gutter system, or away from the structure.

Dry Rot: A condition that develops when wood is exposed to moisture and poor air circulation for a long period of time. The condition is caused by a fungus. 

Drywall: A board designed to finish interior walls. Also known as; Gypsum Wall Board, GWB, Sheet Rock or Plasterboard. 

Eaves: The horizontal overhang of the non sloping edge of a roof beyond a vertical wall.

Estimate: The anticipated cost of labor, materials and other associated costs to complete a scope of work.

Expansion Joint: A joint that allows materials to expand and contract with the water. Used in concrete, wood flooring and many other projects.

Exposed Aggregate: A method of finishing concrete that washes the cement mixture into the top layer of the aggregate, usually gravel. This exposes the small pebbles and rocks for variation in color and texture. Commonly used as a decorative enhancement for driveways, patios and walkways.

Fascia Board: A piece of wood that is nailed to the end of the rafters when framing a home. Most gutter systems are attached to the fascia boards. Sometimes referred to as wood trim.

Flashing: Sheet metal or other building materials fitted to the joint of any roofing intersection or penetration to prevent water leakage, used for chimneys, walls, vent pipes, etc.

Footing: The below ground base of a structure’s foundation.

Forced Air Heating: Heating system where air is heated in a furnace and them distributed through a system of ductwork to various areas of the home.

GFCI Outlet: Ground Force Circuit Interrupter, these outlets are important because they can shut off a circuit when current is flowing through the wrong path. Basically, it reduces the risk of shock or damage from faulty cords or wiring.

HVAC: An acronym for Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning. It refers to your home’s heating and cooling systems.

Interior Decorator: Comes in after construction is complete to decorate and stage completed projects.

Interior Designer: A professional who designs spaces for houses or commercial buildings and in integrated into the entire building process. Usually does not require licensing, but a considerable amount of either school, professional certification or both. Takes space planning, aesthetics and decoration and use into consideration.

Joist: Framing member that runs perpendicular to a beam. Floor joists support the sub floor and flooring, ceiling joists hold the ceiling drywall.

Lintel: A horizontal supporting framing member installed above a window or door to support the weight of the wall above it.

Load Bearing vs. Non-Load Bearing: Non-load bearing walls can be removed with no impact on the the structure. Load bearing walls are just that, bearing some of the load of the structure and integral to the strength. Load bearing walls CAN be removed, but that should only be attempted by a licensed builder who can engineer the correct weight re-distribution. Load bearing walls usually run perpendicular to the floor joists and are typically stacked on top of one another. Consult a contractor, architect or engineer to know for sure.

R&R: Used mostly in insurance repair - it means to remove and replace. You may also see it in some contractors scopes of work. It should be taken to mean the location of that item is not moving. (R&R cabinetry, light switch, etc.)

Remodel: Giving something new purpose - like adding a bathroom into a basement, turning a dining room into a family room, etc.

Renovation: Making something that is old new and improved - think replacing all fixtures and tile in a bathroom.

Restoration: Returning something to its original state. Used mainly when talking about repairing damage after an insurance loss or when talking about historical housing.

Rough-in: A term used usually when referring to plumbing, electrical or HVAC in a remodel or renovation that will be behind a wall when the project is finished. Most projects will require an inspection when the “rough-in” is complete, so the inspectors can make sure the infrastructure is installed correctly and according to code. This can be up to 4 total inspections - rough building, rough electrical, rough plumbing and rough HVAC.

Stick Built or Stick Framed: Structures that are built on site using conventional lumber.

Do you have any terms that you would like to add to this list? Let us know!

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