One Woman's Story: A Warning to All DIYers

Wednesday, December 31, 2014
The end-of-the-year holidays are bittersweet for Heather Von St. James.

Nine years ago, on November 21, she sat in her doctor’s office and listened, in shock, as he delivered the message that would change her life. She had malignant pleural mesothelioma, a lung disease similar to cancer with a typical life expectancy of 15 months.  

She was 36, married, and with a new daughter just a few months old. She had everything to live for.

Today she is a spokesperson working to eliminate this devastating but preventable disease. She contacted me because she knows that DIY home improvement projects can expose people to the dangers of breathing asbestos fibers – the cause of mesothelioma.

Heather lives today because she underwent surgery to remove one lung, plus radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Many who are diagnosed are not so fortunate, and live shortened, compromised lives.

“I was exposed to asbestos as a child. I would wear my father’s work coat to do chores around the yard. Little did I know the coat was chock full of asbestos fibers and I was inhaling them daily.”

Heather’s dad worked in construction. Many homes built before 1970 contain asbestos products. It can take 20 years for you to show symptoms of mesothelioma to appear after a period of prolonged exposure, such as working assorted projects in an old house for years. Don’t put yourself or your family at even minimal risk, however. 

When asbestos fibers enter the lungs they stay there and cause inflammation, scarring, and fluid retention. In time, this can lead to lung cancer, tumors and cancers in other organs.
You can't tell whether a building material contains asbestos simply by looking at it.

If you are planning any remodeling projects that require disturbing the structure (walls, flooring, cabinets, ceilings, insulation, roofing, siding, ductwork) be aware that asbestos may be present.

If the home was damaged by storms, water, fire, or simple aging, materials containing asbestos may now be compromised to make the fibers breathable – not what you want!

The best way to deal with any existing building material that contains asbestos is to leave it undisturbed. Once the fibers become friable -- the way they would if you begin removing things like old popcorn ceiling, asbestos floor tiles, exterior asbestos siding, or old heating ductwork – you are in danger of inhaling or ingesting the invisible asbestos fibers.

If you are buying a home built before or refurbished prior to 2000, especially if you plan to do home repairs or remodeling, get information about possible asbestos products in the home from a home inspector or  from your real estate agent, and the from the present home owner.

When asbestos is a possibility, you should hire a professional asbestos inspector or an industrial hygiene firm to determine where, how much, and how stable the material is. He will advise you on remedial actions to take.

Here is a very short list of just some of the common places a DIY home improver will come across asbestos.

  • Vinyl wallpaper
  • Spackling and glues
  • Cements and plaster
  • Floor tiles, wall tiles, acoustic ceiling tiles
  • Heating ducts, furnaces
  • Roofing felt, shingles, stucco, siding

You can see the complete list of asbestos-containing material used in home construction at this site.

The Environmental Protection Agency does a concise and helpful job of spreading the word about the problems of asbestos. It’s a must read if you are a homeowner.    

If the asbestos can’t be contained or otherwise encapsulated, you will have to have certified asbestos removal professional remove the asbestos product, or find a way to leave it in place and safely cover it. For example, you can lay a floating laminate floor or carpeting over asbestos floor tile. You can put vinyl or wood siding over asbestos exterior shingles.

What we once thought was a wonderful product because of its insulating and fireproofing qualities has become a toxic substance. Don’t stay in the dark. Please educate yourself about this issue, because there is a right and a very wrong way to deal with asbestos!  

Staging the Christmas Mantel: Four Pointers for Success

Thursday, December 04, 2014
No matter where you live, a fireplace is an asset.

Is yours staged for the season? Make it the room's focal point and make it reflect the tone of the season.

Here's my simple formula for staging a mantel that calls attention to the fireplace without taking over the whole room.


Set the stage so people touring your home immediately imagine themselves enjoying the fireplace.

I love to see a table and chairs in front of the fireplace, as though this were the perfect spot for a romantic meal.

Or you can position a loveseat or couch facing the fireplace. If a couch takes up too much room, place chairs flanking the hearth either facing outward or towards the fire.


Don't let the black hole of the firebox be the black hole in the room. You can create distractions on either side of the opening that bring the area to life.

I made a pyramid shape tree of grapevines wrapped around an inverted wire tomato cage topped with a golden angel. On the other side of the hearth, I added a shabby Rudolph planter who makes an appearance at our house every year.

Greenery in vessels is always a winner for softening the dark hole of the fireplace. Other seasonal props you might have available are vintage toys, wrapped gifts, a basket or bucket of kindling or pinecones, a rack of logs ready to burn, or a fancy screen. Just be certain to place your d├ęcor so it does not pose a fire hazard.


Hit all the bumpers. Combine glitzy props with natural elements. This is your chance to expand the appeal of your home to more than one demographic group. Some of your elements will be nostalgic and some will be trendy. Some will be high-end style and some will be dollar store cheesy. This is the one time of the year when (almost) anything goes. You can tone things down again in January.


Repeat colors and shapes. Start with some kind of color scheme, and everything will flow. In this room, I veered towards the browns and greens plus white and silver. You can't go wrong there. I also repeated the conical shapes of evergreens as well as the sphere shapes of ornaments and beads.

If you follow these simple guidelines, I know you'll stage a fireplace that helps sell your home. Be sure to read my post, Seven Steps to a Gorgeous Fireplace Mantel from two Christmases ago! And for more ways to prep your home for the real estate market, be sure to download my $4.99 eBooks.

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