Sun Room Is the Cat's Meow

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years

As any cat lover knows, our feline friends have refined tastes. So it is telling to note that Wheels, a long-haired black cat, has two favorite spots in Sally Mosher's Pasadena home.

One prime bird-watching post is on a table in the "great room," which Mosher added onto her house nine years ago. And Wheels' other--and now most favored--station is in the sun room, which Mosher added to her home late last year.

Mosher shares her kitty's preference for the airy sun room. It opens from the home's original living room and offers expansive views of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Mountains through large windows, which cover three sides. To give the bright room a grounded feeling, and to help it blend with the rest of the house, it has an open-beamed redwood ceiling and a red-tiled floor.

"This is the best space in the house," said Mosher, a lawyer and musician. "Whether you want to have morning coffee or curl up at night and watch PBS, this is the place to be.

"And like all good ideas, you wonder why you didn't do it sooner."

For Mosher, remodeling is almost a way of life. It began when she moved into the house in the 1960s with her late husband, Jim Mosher, an electrical engineer who had built the then-modern house in the '50s. At some point, the couple had to decide: Do we mow the house down and start over? Or do we fix it up?

The couple took the latter path, which Sally Mosher has continued on her own. Her first major project was adding the great room in 1988.

Mosher had heard of T.A. Russell Remodeling & Restoration in Glendora from a business partner who was known for being very fussy about details, costs and cleanliness.

After checking out the company thoroughly, Mosher met with its principals. Co-owner Bruce Mason brought a presentation book and a list of past clients. Eventually Mosher hired the company to build the room from her drawing. She was careful to replicate the sloped, redwood ceiling in the original part of the house.

Over the years, the construction company did a few more projects at the house, including turning a carport into an enclosed garage, adding security gates in the front and building a patio and lap pool.

In thinking about the sun room, Mosher was partly motivated by the deterioration of an old wooden deck where the room now stands. Another factor was that the great room had become a music room, filled with two harpsichords and a synthesizer.

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When Mosher decided to add the sun room, she called in Mason to begin the process. At the first meeting, Mosher didn't have a definite idea of what she wanted, other than lots of glass.

Mason hired Glendora architect Bob Carter, who drew up sketches of several possible room designs. Mosher's task was to point out what features she liked on each design, and these were then integrated into the final project.

A primary concern was designing a roof line on the sun room that would complement the original house and look, as Mosher put it, "like it was always there."

Mason agrees: "If you can look at a house and say, 'that's an addition,' then in the design phase they failed."

Although the cost of building the sun room was not cheap--$60,000--the original estimate was even higher. When Mosher asked that the price be brought down, the opening transom windows were removed, saving more than $15,000. The transom windows have fixed glass but, because glass doors on either side of the room open wide, there is plenty of airflow.

For both Mosher and the construction company, careful planning in the beginning was a key to success. As the company explained to her before the first project, changing orders during construction are what drive costs up and drag the building time out.

Mosher's experience with previous remodeling projects also helped this one go smoothly. She's familiar with building terminology, understands the cost of design and construction and can anticipate the order in which the work is done.

And, when ladders were up during the most recent construction, she climbed up on the roof six times. "Now," she said, using roofers' terminology, "I know why you would hot mop rather than torch a roof."

Once demolition and construction began, Mosher tried to be around the house as much as possible to make small decisions that weren't foreseen during planning stages. An example: The tile setter said Mosher could have a border of cut tile either near the opening into the house or on the far side of the room. She chose the latter.

The construction company's penchant for cleanliness made it easier for Mosher to be in her house during the project. Not only are the subcontractors--electricians, plumbers, tile setters, etc.--instructed to clean up after themselves, but the company often sends a worker to the site at the end of the day to vacuum and make sure protective plastic sheeting is hung between the project and the rest of the house.

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Cleanliness was also important to Mosher's neighbors, who pass by her house and the site of the sun room on a narrow, twisted road. "My neighbors couldn't believe how neat the construction was," Mosher said. "My neighbors couldn't believe how quickly it was done."

With the sun room project still a fresh memory, Mosher is "not up to" another big project. But while she was up on the roof, she imagined what the house would be like with a second story containing a "fabulous" master suite with views of the city, a large bathtub and a walk-in closet.

She smiled. "I could put up with that."

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The Project

Add sun room to '50s homes.

General Contractor: T.A. Russel Remodeling & Restoration, Glendora

Architect: Bob Carter, Glendora

Cost: $60,000

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Keys to Success

The homeowner:

* Checked out the contractor thoroughly, finding a company as fussy as she is.

* Made major decisions during the planning process and stuck with them during construction.

* Knew the ropes--how much things cost, how long things take, etc.--from experience with other projects.

* Developed a relationship with builder during first project and trusted the company with subsequent projects.

The contractor:

* Has been in business for 19 years.

* Made careful plans with the homeowner, listing every product specification in detail on the bid. This cut down on misunderstandings.

* Has a reputation for being "neat freaks" and for hiring only subcontractors who clean up after themselves. The company rule for subcontractors: "You make a mess, you clean it up."

* Is a big-enough company to have an estimator-planner, construction supervisor, lead carpenters, a bookkeeper and a secretary. In a one-person operation, by contrast, a contractor's attention may be diverted by the need to do sales and accounting in addition to the construction.

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What Causes 'Nightmare' Remodels?

Perhaps no one knows better why a remodel failed than a company that is called in to fix the mess.

Bruce Mason, co-owner of T.A. Russell Remodeling & Restoration in Glendora, which has been called in to fix many failed remodels, gets fairly animated when asked what went wrong with these jobs.

"The first thing I say to the homeowner is: 'Well, did you check this guy [the contractor] out? Did you call the Contractors State License Board? Did you check his jobs, both in process and finished?' "

Usually, the answer is no. Either the homeowner hired an unlicensed handyman or, if the contractor claimed to be licensed, the homeowner didn't check and see if the license was valid or if there were any complaints about the contractor on file.

According to Mason, these are some steps to take in checking out a contractor:

* Ask for the contractor's references and then call them. If you can, go look at finished and in-process jobs. But be aware that you will be given only the names of past clients who had successful jobs; you will probably never learn from the contractor about the disasters.

* Call the Contractors State License Board in your district to verify that a license is good and to ask about complaints or suspensions of the license. (For office nearest you, see accompanying list.)

* Visit your local building department, which has probably made permit inspections on jobs done by the contractor. Although desk personnel cannot ethically recommend a contractor to you, they might respond casually to a question about a particular builder. Mason suggests you tell them who you want to use and then ask: "What can you tell me about the company?"

* Use a contractor you feel comfortable with.

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Local Contractors Board Offices Local district offices of the Contractors State License Board, which investigates complaints against licensed and unlicensed contractors:

Central Region

411 N. Central Ave., Suite 525

Glendale 91203

(818) 543-4731

Southern Region

7001 Village Drive Road

Suite 260

Buena Park 90621

(714) 994-7430

Van Nuys District

6150 Van Nuys Blvd., Suite 300

Van Nuys 91401

(818) 901-5168

San Gabriel Valley District

729 N. Azusa, Suite 2B

Azusa 91702

(818) 815-8468

Inglewood District

One Manchester Blvd.

City Hall, Suite 603

Inglewood 90301

(310) 412-6395

Long Beach District

245 W. Broadway, Suite 145

Long Beach 90802

(310) 590-5331

Santa Ana District

28 Civic Center Plaza, Room 351

Santa Ana 92701

(714) 558-4086

San Bernardino District

1250 E. Cooley Drive, Suite 200

Colton 92324

(909) 370-4583

Moreno Valley District

12981 Perris Blvd., Suite 208

Moreno Valley 92553

(909) 485-6011

Ventura District

1787 Mesa Verde Ave.

Ventura, 03003

(805) 654-4515

San Diego District

5280 Carroll Canyon Road

Suite 250

San Diego 92121

(619) 455-0237

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Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years. She can be reached at KathyPrice@aol.com.

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