Chip Wade is the host, designer and contractor on the HGTVseries “Elbow Room,” specializing in renovation, landscaping, construction. and customizing spaces. The Atlanta native joined staff writer Jura Koncius for The Washington Post’s Home Front online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: My husband and I are just finishing the renovation of a rowhouse. The backyard was not included in the renovation, so we’re starting from scratch. The space is long and narrow, and we’ll need to park a car there, but there is definitely space for an eating and lounging area, too. Any advice on where to start?
A: How you start a project might be the most important part. Whether you’re dealing with an interior or exterior space, it’s best to start with a scaled drawing. This doesn’t have to be created from a fancy computer program, but it does need to be accurate. Having correct dimensions is the best way to figure out a starting point for the best layout. From there, you can get more creative.
Q: At what temperature should you leave your house in a hot climate if you are going to be away for two weeks? Should you leave your air conditioning on?
A: I recommend leaving it on but turning it down to save energy. In hot climates, setting the temperature to no more than 85 degrees will save you money but won’t allow anything to be damaged while you are gone.
Q: Our backyard is concrete, and cracks have formed where moss is growing. How can I patch them without it looking bad?
A: The best solution for cracked concrete is a concrete resurfacer. This is a thin, half-inch layer of reinforced concrete that makes it look brand new. However, this works only if the concrete is not displaced. If the concrete cracks are not level with one another, there is no solution but demo and replacement.
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Q: I’m buying a home that doesn’t have a deck or patio. Instead, I have an asphalt driveway that wraps around to the backyard. We don’t need to park in the area that wraps to the back, and it’s the perfect spot for a deck. The asphalt is slightly sloped away from the house and looks to have some tree roots bulging up underneath. Can we build a deck over the asphalt, or do we need to rip that out and start from scratch? If it’s better to rip it all out, I may need to delay the project for a year.
A: Though there’s no problem with building a deck over the top of asphalt, the asphalt is not sufficient for the structural support of the columns that hold up the deck. The asphalt might actually keep critters at bay and keep weeds from growing up. You will just need to dig out enough of the asphalt where your post columns will sit and dig a proper footing and fill with concrete.
Q: We are halfway through a master-bath renovation, our first big project. Is it customary to tip anyone on the team at the end? Frankly, we’re already paying a lot for the labor! We’re not generally home during the day, so I don’t know how many people have been working on the project. Is this one of those situations where a positive review and offer to be a reference is more valuable?
A: How gracious this question is. It’s not one I typically get asked. I would say that no, it is not customary to tip trades for their work. Professional trade work should have adequate profit built in. If you think the job was so above and beyond and you feel that the value was far-skewed in your favor, then that can be left to your discretion. I would certainly say that providing a positive review and asking where you might be able to post it (to their website, Google business reviews, etc.) would be the biggest thank you, and referrals, of course.
Q: We recently installed pull-down attic access in our 1939 home so that we could use a small portion of the space to store seasonal items and old files. The attic is not finished and has blown insulation. We plan to put a few pieces of plywood down, but there are gaps around the door frame that will let out the air conditioning. What is the best way to seal the entry?
A: I typically use a rigid foam insulation on the backs of an attic door if there is room. The best seal will come in the form of a vinyl or rubber seal (like weatherstripping) that is placed on the part of the attic door that hits the frame when it closes. I suggest using the type of seal that nails on instead of the adhesive strip, as those typically let go in areas of frequent use.
Q: We purchased a home last July in North Carolina that has about six overgrown Leyland cypress trees that screen along our neighbor’s fence. During the hurricanes this past winter, we lost three of them because of high winds and ground saturation. We would like to replace the trees with something that is more durable but will still provide screening over time. Any suggestions of trees or shrubs that would work?
A: This is a very common problem. The large varieties of arborvitae and cypress can become very fragile and prone to disease when they get large.It’s best to take the rest down and start from scratch so you have a screen that matures evenly over time. I am a big fan of the larger cryptomeria varieties as well as some of the larger holly species. I use a variety called serviceberry quite often. They’re very cost-effective and robust and reach a mature height of about 15 feet.
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Q: I need to replace my gutters. They are old and regularly fill with the detritus from my neighbor’s pine trees. I’m very confused by the options of gutter guards. Do they really work? I’ve always cleaned my own gutters but am now of an age where doing this is not wise.
A: This is a super common problem, and yes, gutter guards do work, but not all of them. The less-expensive screens are not effective for pine needles, though. The needles just go right through, and the screens just hold them captive, causing more of a dam. Look for the more solid, full-coverage gutter guards; those are worth it.
Q: Deer eat all my flowers, but I have shrubs they don’t touch. Are there any annuals or perennials that will add color to the front of my house that deer won’t eat?
A: A lot of yards and gardens struggle with hungry deer. Deer really like narrow-leafed evergreens. They do not, however, like plants with strong fragrances or ones that have a toxicity. Plants that are beautiful and have strong toxins include foxgloves, daffodils and poppies. Plants with a strong fragrance such as herbs and rosemary are great choices.
Q: Part of my house has vinyl siding, and power-washing doesn’t really get all the mold off. Any other ideas?
A: You need to apply a cleaning agent to the siding before trying to blast it off with a pressure washer. The cleaning agent will help with the mold and mildew stains. You can even use a mild homemade vinegar and water solution to do pretty much the same thing.
Q: All the rain this spring has sprung a leak in the basement of my 100-year-old house. It’s just a little trickle when it really rains hard. Do I really need to get a sump pump?
A: A sump pump is never a bad idea, but it is treating the symptoms of the real issue. I recommend finding the source of the leak and correcting it. The best choice is to prevent the water from coming in.
Q: What’s the best-looking, longest-lasting wood fencing?
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A: This is very much a personal choice, but I love the look of cedar post fencing. There are also some new products out made of aluminum that last forever, are lightweight and look just like wood.
Q: My pressure-treated deck no longer repels water. I am planning on re-sealing it with a colored stain. How should I clean it beforehand so that the finish will last?
A: The best solution is to sand it down to raw wood with a floor sander. Everything else is a Band-Aid. It’s not hard at all; just go rent one from the rental center. Make sure all the nails and screws are down first. It’s important that when you re-seal, you do the top surface as well as the underside. Wood is a natural material and performs way better when finished uniformly on all sides.
Q: We need to redo the exterior of our home and want to give it a more mid-century vibe (it’s from 1951 but kind of bland). Aesthetically, Hardie board seems to give us more of the vibe we want than the vinyl options we’ve looked at, but I’m not sure how I feel about committing to a product that would have to be painted every now and then. What do you think?
A: If you can afford it, I would go with cement siding (Hardie) over vinyl, no question. When properly primed and painted, it can last for 20 or more years without maintenance. Plus it looks substantially more high-end.