Friday, February 28, 2014

Desitin diaper cream

Desitin diaper cream originally started out as a product for covering the exterior of industrial buildings. Impressed by its ability to repel moisture, a worker brought home a tub of the stuff to use on his new born baby who had diaper rash. The rest is history. In fact, the cream is still sold in the same tubs. True story.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Interviewing contractors

Since I'm new to this game, I have no idea what something costs. Plumbers, carpenters, electricians are all paid much more than I am as far as hourly rate goes, and in my mind, since I am decently handy, if I didn't have a day job, I could be doing many of the tasks I am having to farm out. I would do it more slowly, perhaps not as well, I would need to buy tools and materials at a premium, but I would get it done.

Things like major plumbing and electrical also require licensing. In some cases this is important, since there are complex codes - some of which make sense in terms of safety - that need to be followed.

Some things, like insulating an attic, are quite doable on your own, especially since there are many instructional videos out there, including recommendations from the federal and state governments.

When I need a contractor for a job, I've been looking up "yelp" for reviews to get clues to how the contractor operates. I then like to ask them questions of how they will do something, having first tried to educate myself on the steps, techniques and materials needed for the job. I especially like to see if the contractor as a plan for certain details of the job (e.g we have a chimney, when you are insulating the attic how will you deal with the chimney).

The contractors I have dealt with are fairly opaque with pricing. They quote a total cost including materials which I don't like but that's how things are. What I like best is hourly rate x hours worked + material cost).

I then try and speak with at least one other contractor. By getting two price quotes I can get an idea of whether one of them is trying to take advantage of my inexperience. The more quotes the better, but there are practical limitations to that.

The spread on the quotes can be surprising. I would have expected a 25% or so difference amongst contractors, but for the two big jobs I have had, my quotes have spanned a 4x range.

There are the usual caveats about going with the lowest bid, but in general, once you speak with more than one contractor you will have a hunch as to what sounds fair and what sounds like being taken for a ride.

Be especially wary of contractors that look for things that are wrong and suggest that something is not code/illegal and must be fixed, or who want to do something in a complicated (and more costly way) than your common sense dictates. If they can't explain exactly why they want to draw a new line or upgrade an old installation, get a second opinion.

One thing to keep in mind: when a contractor responds to you, or you set up a time for a consultation, clarify with the person if they are going to charge you for it. I had an interaction with a contractor (incidentally, the one who gave me a quote 4x the other ones) where I declined to go with them for the job and they sent me an angry email asking for money for the consultation. Some companies explicitly say that they will charge to come over to take a look and sometimes roll the charge into the work if you go with them, which sounds fair.



Thursday, February 13, 2014

Stork Craft Tuscany 4-in-1 Stages Crib

This is a convertible, full size, crib. It requires a moderate amount of assembly and at one point (where you attach the mattress board onto the frame) it helps to have two people, but I could do it by myself with some creative positioning. We got the natural wood version which looks very nice to us.

The construction of the crib is very good and the design is well thought out - with special consideration because it is meant to be modified at different stages of the owner's life. The main frame members are made of a solid but somewhat soft wood. Each piece is thick and strong, but fairly easy to dent, so care must be taken when working around it with metal tools or moving it. The pieces are joined using metal bolts. The bolts screw on to metal nuts embedded in the wood, allowing for repeated disassembly without wearing down the wood.

The wood was not aired out sufficiently at the factory and gave off a rather strong smell of varnish when we opened the package. I would say it took one month in a decently ventilated room (it was winter, so we kept the windows closed at night) for the odor to vanish.

The width and shape of the crib requires that it be disassembled before moving through standard sized doors.

One thing, which we did not consider, is that the baby will not need this crib in the first few months. We ended up using the crib as a rack for clothes and a place to put toys while the baby slept in the bassinet.


Some thoughts on photography

The most important tool

Online I read a lot of advice about lenses being the most important component of a photographer's kit. Good, fast, glass was the refrain. Which translates to 'Expensive'. Then, I read several articles where people suggested that was old advice from the days when cameras were just light boxes. In the digital age cameras have a lot to say about the quality of photos, from the sensor resolution to the RAW conversion and of course the flexibility of the controls. Then there are the people who say that it's the photographer who mostly determines the quality of the art.

Here's my opinion. All this is true. But I think the most important tool is light. It's possible that most people posting on line are studio photographers who have full control over light, so they are past that and worry about other things, but for me, I like shooting in natural light and in natural situations and the right light beats equipment any time. In this way, I agree with people who say it is the photographer, because it takes the taste that comes with experience to realize and use the right light and to have a sense for it.

However most photographers are also drawn to the field because of the technical aspects. Photography has always been a technophile's paradise and it's only gotten better with time. We now have over a century's worth of evolution of tools to capture and freeze light. So even though in the end it's the photographer's ability to see the light that makes the fantastic photograph, I completely understand when people talk about gear. That's the other half of the fun!

Some differences between film and digital

The folks over at photo.stackexchange.com are extremely knowledgeable about photo stuff. This is a short collection of some not so well known differences between film and digital cameras/system/technology

Pixel vignetting

All lenses produce optical vignetting: the corners of the image are slightly darker than the center. A detailed description of this common type of vignetting is available here, and in short, it is due to the structure of the lens acting as a collimator: rays coming from the edges of the scene are shadowed by lens elements while rays from the center are not. Pixel vignetting is an interesting thing that happens only on digital cameras. The light sensing elements on the sensor chip are located inside a well, surrounded by other electronics and mechanical scaffolding. Thus each pixel is at the bottom of a collimator which reduces the mount of light that can strike the sensor at oblique angles. For cameras with a relatively large distance between the sensor and the end of the lens (DSLR design) the rays from the lens strike the sensor fairly perpendicularly. However, for mirrorless cameras the rearmost lens element is located closer to the sensor and this is a greater problem. Pixel vignetting is accounted for by software when the raw sensor data is converted to an image. Also, some sensor designs have tiny lenses above each pixel that guides the incident light down the well onto the sensor, improving light transmission.

Ghosting with older lenses

Film is less reflective than digital sensors. Older lenses were not coated with anti-reflective coatings on the reverse side. Lenses that worked perfectly fine with film may turn out to have a bit more ghosting when used with digital cameras because the sensor is reflecting more light, which is then bouncing off the lens rear elements and forming a ghost image on the sensor.

Photographer's websites

Other links

Monday, February 10, 2014

Chasing the ceramic soap dish

So, the bathroom has a ceramic soap-dish and it has fallen off the wall and broken. All it needs is a new one, some liquid nails (or grout) and some caulk. Easy peasy, no?
Well, apparently the ceramic soap dish has gone out of style. My neighborhood hardware store did not have it. I went to home depot. They directed me to bed bath and beyond. Bed directed me to home depot. Target did not have it. Another neighborhood hardware store directed me to a tile company. They did not have it. I did find it on Amazon but it was going to be shipped, and I wanted it soon. I finally found it at Lowes but in the flooring section.
I used grout to attach the soap dish. I lathered it liberally on the back and on the green board. I also took this chance to touch up the grout on the tiles, but I think I'll have another go at the tiles. My only tip is to have a plan for holding the dish in place before you slap it on the wall. It can get awkward otherwise ...

Adventures in hiring plumbers

We had a neat 1" hole on the underside of in an exposed 4" cast iron pipe in the basement. The hole was just before a coupling. The pipe was coming from the kitchen upstairs and came down through the floor boards and then bent round and traveled horizontally just above the basement door before heading into the main stack.
 
Our best guess was that someone had poured drano or some other corrosive chemical down the sink and then not flushed with water and left it for quite a while.The corrosive chemical had accumulated in the dam formed where the coupling met the pipe and eaten away at the pipe.
I had an interesting experience with plumbers trying to get this fixed. The first guy I contacted was a contractor for a big plumbing company. He took a look at it and gave me a written estimate for $650. I looked on yelp and found another, local, plumber. I like to get multiple estimates so I can get an idea of where things are. If the estimates are similar I like to go with local, small businesses.
I had a very, very odd experience with this second guy. He looked over the job and then became very cagey. When I asked for an estimate he said it was hard to estimate how much. He said the access was bad, he would have to cut the floor board, then depending on how things went, perhaps he would need to open up the cabinets in the kitchen (we have built in cabinets) and it could run between 1000 and 1500 dollars.
While he was telling be this he was looking at me very closely, as if he was trying to read my face. I did not like that. My first thought was that he was trying to figure out how much the market (me) would bear. As a condition for my insurance binder I needed a written estimate of the repair costs and so I asked him for it. He became very evasive and refused to put anything in writing.
His next response was very odd. He sided up to me in a conspiratorial air - "Are you trying to buy this place?" He asked. "Are you trying to get some money back from the seller?" I just didn't go there. I said no, it was nothing of the sort, I just wanted to get it fixed. But that immediately put me off him. The implication was that he would inflate the quote to 'help' me out. A dishonest person like that is not to be encouraged.
Then he started to become very aggressive. He got in my face and said "See, I'm looking you right in the eye when I tell you the price. Would I lie to you? If any one tells you a different price he's full of beans" This went on for a while and then I showed him the door. I had taken off from work for this and it turned out to be a wasted half day.
I got the first guy back, he did the job for what he quoted and it was an overall pleasant experience. This was a bigger, national, plumbing company, but I realized that the plumbers were local and were basically contractors. Any how, buying a house made us realize the importance of interviewing and getting to know the contractors who will be doing the work.
As a side note, the plumber fixed the hole by replacing the whole horizontal section of the pipe. He used compression joints (I later found they were called flexible couplings, no-hub/hubless couplings or shielded couplings) and that was the first I had ever seen those. The job was indeed a little tricky: the access to the pipe was hindered by the floor joists and the edge of the foundation. The plumber was good and cut out the pipe sections without damaging the joists or cutting into the floorboards.



How much space do I need?

Leo Tolstoy's grim conclusion is that we need about six feet. Now Leo's line of grim thinking led to the Soviet Union and we know how THAT turned out, so perhaps we can give ourselves a little more lee way and luxury.
The US census tracks the size of dwellings (ain't that a quaint word?) classified as single family homes. They've put up a readable summary of the data here but you can get the raw data in spreadsheet format on this page (it's this 'Median and Average Square Feet by Location' spreadsheet). Your tax dollars at work folks!



Our homes have been getting fatter with us! I doubt the number of people per family has been rising like this. (That fit is amazingly good, by the way. It's almost like the National Association of Single Family Home Builders has a chart for how large a home should be with year).
Does government legislate how much space a person needs? I could not find a federal number during my brief websearch (though I found mysterious references to the existence of guidelines, presumably passed on orally in some secret ceremony amongst government officials). On this page, we find that the city of Sacramento has put down 90 sq. ft of sleeping space for two tenants (the Fed allows two people per bedroom) and 50 sq. ft. per additional person.
Beyond this, the suitable size of a home is completely subjective. In my own experience, when I first saw the home we finally bought the rooms seemed gigantic (we were coming from a one bedroom apartment). On every subsequent visit over the next month (to take measurements etc.) the house seemed to get smaller (but cozier). When I first saw the house, my first reaction was that the house was too big for us. It gradually shrunk to be a smallish home, in my mind. Human beings get used to things so quickly.
In the end, like some other things in life, it's not the size of your house, but how you live in it (how you adjust and make the most of things).

Life insurance = sleaze

I get auto and home insurance from a particular company. I like the company because of their reasonable premiums and decent customer service. I recently decided to add on life insurance. Naturally, I went to my existing insurance company. Instead of dealing with the central office, I was sent to an 'agent'. "The agent writes the policy" was what I was told. This turned out to be significant later.
So I got on the phone with the agent. The agent spent a lot of time with me. I think I wasted about 30min on that call. I got NO useful information and got the distinct feeling the agent was trying to ingratiate with me, asking me about my family, name of my children ("Oh, those are beautiful names!"). And the rates quoted were much, much higher than that on the website ("This is the cadillac plan.). This was a completely different experience for me, from when I bought their other products.
After the call I did a web search for life insurance. I found some interesting things that I had never considered. Life insurance is a very different beast compared to auto or home or any other kind of hazard insurance. I think the product in my head when I thought about getting life insurance is what the companies call "Term life insurance". You pay a fixed premium for a fixed number of years (10,20 or 30) and if you die before the term your beneficiary gets the money (unless they weasel out of it, which is another can of worms)
The very fact that companies bundle investment products in with life insurance is an indication of the amount of misdirection involved. I suppose that this is due to the fact that there is no law requiring you to have life insurance (Law requires you to drive insured, and mortgage lenders require insurance on the house). This means that companies have to push harder to get people to buy it (especially since no one plans on dying) and they sweeten the deal by adding in an investment component
The investment component gives a lower return than a comparable straight investment, probably because it's a misdirection. The advice that I read, and made sense to me, was to buy term life insurance and invest separately. The complexity in the other products hides the fact that you are, effectively, paying more for your insurance.

Refrigerators

When purchasing a refrigerator keep in mind that
  1. It will have the large surface exposed to everyone, perhaps two surfaces (front and side) - pick a finish that you like. We've gotten used to the wooden cabinet/metal appliance look, but plain old white works fine. Black adds a level of heaviness to the kicthen, but all this is very personal.
  2. People will be touching it very often - matte white is the most resistant to this. Silver finish needs to be wiped down often to hide fingerprints.
  3. The door will swing out very often - the side-by-side design is interesting, but I find the regular single door the best. Locate it where the door doesn't block an entrance way when you open it.
  4. It will be sitting in a place (e.g a dine-in kitchen) where the family might gather to do work or talk - attention to the noise the fridge makes when starting and running is in order. In general, however, one gets used to fridge noises very quickly.
  5. It will work 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, gulping electricity. Look for energy star compliant ones. Also, this page suggests:
    1. Buy top-mounted freezer type (i.e. the plain old type). This makes sense as the Freezer compartment is the coolest, and the cool air from the freezer will settle down, making cooling the regular compartment more efficient. You don't get this benefit with bottom-freezer or side freezer designs.
    2. Consider 4-6 cubic feet per-person. Which comes to a 18 cu-ft size for a family of three and 20-21 cu-ft size for a family of four.
    3. Ice-makers and dispensers - because they make a break in the door insulation - make the fridge less efficient.
    4. Random fact - the most energy is consumed when the compressor starts.

Title Insurance

Title insurance protects you against challenges to the title to property by forking over legal fees and in an extreme case, compensating you for lost property. The boston.com article gives an estimate of $3.65 per $1000 of home value (which is somewhat steep, but it is a one time fee). You can get direct estimates of title insurance costs from insurers websites, e.g. First American. This Boston.com article says that even though Title Insurance is not regulated in Mass, the rates across companies are fairly uniform. A large chunk of the premium is apparently kick back to the lawyer. It's an annoying, big-ticket item - the cost of title insurance for both lender and buyer add up. We got it, but it felt like a scam.

GFCI

A lot of old houses have fuses and regular two prong outlets. GFCI sockets are a boon to a no fuss DIY rewiring of the house to make it much safer. A nice description of GFCI sockets is given here (In general stackexchange is awesome and I would recommend joining). A nice description, with pictures, of how to rewire a GFCI socket is given here.
The GFCI protects against ground faults. This means that if there is some problem with the equipment you plug in and any part of the wiring becomes, effectively, exposed, you are protected against getting a shock from that. However, nothing can protect against a deliberate touching of the live and neutral lines.
GFCIs are cool because you can use them for two prong outlets (with no ground). You still need three prong outlets for surge suppression - the surge suppressor redirects the surge to ground (which is basically a fat, extremely low resistance line, allowing the surge to flow past the equipment and into the ground beneath the house).
The typical recommendation is to have GFCIs for any outlets with any water nearby - kitchens, bathrooms, basements and the outdoors. They are more expensive than regular outlets, but there is no harm in replacing all outlets with GFCIs.
Note: Equipment you will need when replacing outlets
  1. Electrical tape
  2. Non-contact tester
  3. Electrical tester
  4. Insulated screwdriver
  5. Outlet tester

Interior modeling software

Google sketchup - at least the free version - is not as great as it once was. I found an open source tool called Sweet Home 3D that is pretty elegant to use. It does not let you do multiple stories at the same time, but is really really good.

Oliver

You want to know about OLIVER. This is Massachusett's GIS tool which is long form for magic. Basically you can find various pieces of information about the land, zoning, buildings and infrastructure. I would have really liked a sewer map, but I could not find it. What I used the GIS for was to find the plot plan for our property. I went nuts looking for it in the assessors documents and then in the ministry of deeds (or whatever they call that place) and found references to maps that were 70 years old. I finally found the plot plan on this website.

A Dishwasher in an old kitchen

We have an old kitchen that does not have a built in dishwasher. There is an existing disposal, so from what I read on This Old House that makes it a little easier to install a built in dishwasher. However, we would still need to run a 15A breaker circuit to the kicthen. A call to Gray's appliances resulted in advice that we would need a plumber and an electrician to take care of the water and power aspects of this. However, the sales rep continued, we could consider a portable dishwasher. I had seen this, and indeed the spouse suggested this, but I wavered thinking that the capacity was smaller. The rep said that the capacity was the same as a builtin, and we only needed to hook it up to the sink and the regular power outlet.
So I looked a bit into portable dishwashers. From this page from Sears we have:
  • Modern portable dishwashers have the same capacity and cleaning power as built-in ones and cost about the same. (From my brief search, however, the cheapest builtin was about half the price of the cheapest portable)
  • The portable dishwasher adds counter top space
  • You can't really use the sink when the dishwasher is running (but if you, like us, run the dishwasher at night it's not that much of a hassle)
  • When you sell the house the buyer might expect a builtin.
All in all, I still think we will go with the built-in but we will have a higher initial cost, because we will have to have electrical and plumbing installed. From a quick call around to Appliance stores it turnes out that they just sell, deliver and maybe hook up the appliance. Initially I thought I would have to get an electrician and a plumber separately for the hookups but I found a Kitchen Remodeller who will do this for us.

UPDATE: We went with the regular sized builtin dishwasher (not an 18" apartment sized one, or an under sink one) and we are very glad. The 18" would have been annoyingly small. It cost $800 for the electrical, plumbing and adjustment to the cabinets.

What to look for on a tour

A random list of objective things to pay attention to when looking at a house. This is completely different from how the home looks. Now, we are emotional creatures: even if the house is beat up, out of code and a fire hazard we might fall in love with it. You should do what you feel, since you only live once, but it is good to know all the warts of the house, since you'll be the one writing the checks and standing in knee deep water with a pair of waders.
  • When was it built? If it was built in the 1900 beware of lead paint. If it was built in the 1960s there may be lead paint in the trim and the outside. If paint is peeling in scales, be careful. It it is very recent (2000s) is it built well enough? Can you find out anything about the company that built the house?
  • Is it copper wiring or aluminum wiring? Some houses built in the 1960-1970s had aluminum wiring. This by itself is not a problem, but mixing copper and aluminum can lead to a fire hazard. Look into COPALUM for ways to interface safely with aluminum wire.
  • Fuses or circuit breakers? Insurance sometimes makes noises about fuse boxes.
  • Is the plumbing lead, cast iron or PVC? A home inspector will be able to identify this. PVS is the modern piping of choice. Cast iron has  along life. Lead is dicey, especially for the intake pipes, which means you'll have to use a filter on the tap for drinking water.
  • If the heating is oil, has the furnace been serviced yearly? What is the state of the oil tank? Is there gas service?
  • When was the roof last replaced? A roofer or a home inspector may be able to give a guess as to the condition of the roof.
  • Are the down spouts from the roof draining far enough from the foundation? Downspouts should go about 3' away from the foundation
  • Is there efflorescence (white chalky stains) on the foundation? That is an indication of water seepage into the basement.
  • Are there tree branches hanging over the roof - that will lead to leaves in the gutter and you have to clean them out more often.
  • Poke your head into the attic, just to get a feel for the hidden part of the house. Does it smell damp? Moldy?
  • Follow the home inspector around and ask questions. It will be a very educational experience. If the home inspector does not like that get a new home inspector.
  • If there are plants very close to the foundation consider moving them further out enough that a person can get between them and the foundation. I really like using plants to cover the ugly concrete of a foundation. Some plants have shallow root systems and those are good for the foundation.

Lead

Lead paint is a scary topic, especially in Massachusetts where a lot of the housing is old. Lead paint is also a complex topic. Because the effects of lead paint on children and adults are dire and since many children have suffered permanent disability because of exposure to lead paint, state and federal governments take a very proactive and cautious stance regarding lead paint. The authoritative sources are your state and federal websites dedicated to lead paint issues (some links are below).
Apparently lead was added to paint because it enhanced its longevity and was government sanctioned. This same website states that the dangers of lead paint began to be realized in the 30s and 40s and in 1955 paints that were to be used in home interiors were restricted to less than 1% by weight of lead. Lead paint was also expensive and used mostly for living rooms and window sills and other locations where durability and quality were important.
From the EPA and state materials (which, again, are the materials you should refer to) it seems that the biggest risk is from chipping and peeling paint which can be eaten by children (they like the sweet taste) and dust from lead paint released from windows and door jambs. If paint is in good condition it is of lower risk and can be painted over and encapsulated as far as I could understand. Again, this is a complex, thorny topic with the health of children at stake, so even though it takes time, please go through the official documentation.
A common question is trying to judge the risk of lead paint based on the age of the house. The most common cut-off is 1978. Houses built before 1978 are assumed to have lead paint and there are some rules that govern the purchase and sale of such houses. Before 1955 paints contained as much as 50% by weight of lead. This was reduced to 1% by weight in 1971 (by the Feds) and then, since 1977, the limit is 0.06% by weight. Massachusetts uses 1950 as a criterion for 'old' houses as far as lead goes. This EPA page has a rough graph showing the percentage of homes having lead paint by year of construction.
Resources:

Sunlight

The only way to judge natural lighting in a house is to go there at different times of the day and at different days of the year. Houses rarely stay on the market that long (but in this market ...) and realtors might get annoyed at the 10th or 20th showing. In general, if you like the house in winter, you'll probably like it in summer. Also, in our Northern Hemisphere, and in these Northern latitudes "South Facing" is a good bet. The sun spends most of its time shining from the south east to the south west and those are the rooms that get most of the sun.
There are a few tools, however, that can give you an idea of sunlight in a location. One of these is NOAAs Solar Calculator. This website allows you to see the direction of the rising and setting sun for different dates. You can't enter an address directly and you have to zoom in to your location. Another tool that looks remarkably like NOAA's calculator but allows you to put in an address directly is Vladimir Agafonkin's SunCalc. I used both these tools to get an idea of where the sunlight would be at different seasons. This, of course, does not give you an idea of the brightness of a room, which depends on the foliage outside, the color of the neighboring buildings and the color of the interior walls.

Picking a home inspector

In Massachusetts the home inspection is mandatory before you sign a purchase and sale agreement. I'm sure you could waive it, but you should not. At this time (2013) a home inspection costs around $500. Your realtor will probably suggest a home inspector for you. Even though your realtor is a buyer's agent it is probably wise to arrive at your choice of home inspector independently. Like picking any other service provider, you should put yourself in the position of an employer and do a short interview and get a feel for what the person is like. If you 'click' I would say pick that person. To get ideas about what to ask during the interview you can do a web-search for "picking a home inspector".
I did go through those websites to get an idea of what to look for, but when I phoned up the inspector I asked questions that I had when I toured the property I was looking at. So, I asked very specific questions about plumbing and electricity as I saw the fixtures in the house. I ended up going with a person I was on the phone with for 15min from whom I got complete, direct and easy to understand answers. At the end of the interview I made sure I got that person during the inspection and not some one else.
One thing that I did not expect was for the home inspector to give me maintenance tips about the house and clear explanations of why these tips were needed. This turned out to be very educational and interesting. You could add a question like "Will you take me through some brief tips about home maintenance while you do the inspection". Also, I made sure the inspector was OK with me tailing them and bombarding them with questions through out before I hired them.
Also, this was a little delicate, but I arranged that I could speak with the inspector in private, without even my buyer's agent in the room. The inspectors I spoke with all said that they did not care, their report would be the same regardless of who was in the room, but people can have subtle effects on behavior.

Property and Privacy

Interestingly, in Massachusetts you can find out the (fairly) complete property records for any address. This includes the names of the owners, sale price and sale history. I'm split by this transparency and efficiency in government. On one hand it is a great way to judge if the price of a home is within reason (by comparing it to similar homes nearby). It also allows you to trace the provenance of a plot of land (in the particular case I was handling the trail ended in 1949) which gives some indication of how clear the title is.
However, this looks to me like an alarmingly public release of very personal information. No one has any business knowing how much you paid for your home, or in fact, going to an address and figuring out who lives there. At the very least you should be required to give up YOUR identity to the authorities and the owner of the property should be notified that somebody is looking them up - openness should work both ways.
In California, interestingly, you can look up the assessed price of a property but you can't see sale price or owner information, which I think is the proper thing to do. You can still get this information by making a request for it, but that leaves a paper trail, which is slightly better. While it is true that sale prices usually exceed assessed prices it still gives you a relative idea. If you got to some commercial websites, however, you can get the complete records.
Usually a web-search with the term "assessor's office" will turn up the relevant websites. Individual cities can have different ways of allowing you to search for data. Malden, for example, is the most sophisticated and easy, allowing you to search along many different parameters, including owner name, property type etc etc. Malden allows you to find plot plans, sale records - basically all legal documents. Melrose only allows you to search by property address.
In Massachusetts all land records (deeds of sale, affidavits etc etc) can be searched for here. This I think is fine, because lawyers can search such records and if lawyers can do it, you should be able to too.

Central Vacuum Systems

We have a Nutone range hood and need to replace/repair some parts. I was looking over the Nutone website and I came across a reference to "central vacuum systems". A quick web search (with images) caused jaw drop. 

In case you haven't caught on already (or have caught on but are thinking, "No Way! They got people to install this in their home?") , this involves installing a powerful vacuum motor in the house and then running a system of vacuum ducts into different rooms terminating at vacuum outlets. You then attach a hose to the outlet and vacuum the rooms.

Of course, you could do this. Is it genius? I think it's genius that you can get people to install yet another set of ducts in the walls of their home. Another set of ducts that can clog up, needs maintenance and, when things go wrong, as they will, dry wall cutting and replacement and repainting.

What are the benefits of doing this? Well, you could install an amazingly powerful vacuum motor that you couldn't otherwise use on a portable vacuum (but would you want to?). You don't have to lug that heavy vacuum around anymore. And potentially, you are insulated from the motor noise.

The downsides? Well, you got yet ANOTHER set of outlets in your walls now. And you need some kind of switch at every outlet (I'm sure the vacuum motor is not on all the time) so you need to run more wiring from your rooms to a central location - yet more stuff to go wrong. And everytime you vacuum a room this POWERFUL motor ramps up - even more electricity being eaten. And what happens when everyone decides to vacuum at the same time.

I know, I know, 20 years later I'll be put on the same pile as those guys who laughed at electricity being piped around in homes, or who laughed at modern plumbing  ...