Chic, contemporary home improvements can be found online

Chic, contemporary home improvements can be found online

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Shopping for home furnishings on the Web can be daunting for a novice. Here are some tips to help you get started.

• Finding inspiration: The single best source is Houzz.com, which was started by a couple who wanted to transform their 1950s home and got tired of clipping photos from magazines. The Web site now has more than 1.5 million photographs, which can be easily searched. The iPad app is also terrific. A new feature, the Houzz Real Cost Finder, provides product and remodeling costs according to ZIP code.

• Getting the best price: Once you find a product you like, stick the name or item number into Google and also Google Shopping, because the results are sometimes different. You generally can quickly find merchants who sell the product and compare prices. Many stores have flash sales with additional discounts, especially around holidays, so it might be worth waiting for those sales events.

• Shipping: Most Internet merchants will offer free shipping, though you may have to reach a certain total, such as $100. (Google Shopping has a search feature that displays sites only with free shipping.) We almost never paid for shipping, which we accomplished by juggling the purchases across different sites to reach the right threshold.

• Return policies: Carefully read the fine print before you place the order. We tried to avoid merchants that had a restocking fee (such as 20 to 30 percent of the value). We also avoided merchants that, after providing free shipping, would deduct the shipping charge from your refund.

• Check reputations: Before buying from an online merchant, Google it to find out if there have been customer reviews or complaints. Check the Better Business Bureau rating in the state in which the merchant is located. Good Web merchants will cite their BBB membership. When we had a dispute with one such merchant, we filed a complaint with the BBB and quickly reached an amicable settlement.

• Ordering from overseas: It is best to stick with a U.S. merchant, but sometimes that one item you want can be located only in Europe or elsewhere. Confirm that it will be well-packed and accept the fact that you may have little recourse if it's not what you expected.

Shopping for home furnishings on the Web can be daunting for a novice. Here are some tips to help you get started.

• Finding inspiration: The single best source is Houzz.com, which was started by a couple who wanted to transform their 1950s home and got tired of clipping photos from magazines. The Web site now has more than 1.5 million photographs, which can be easily searched. The iPad app is also terrific. A new feature, the Houzz Real Cost Finder, provides product and remodeling costs according to ZIP code.

• Getting the best price: Once you find a product you like, stick the name or item number into Google and also Google Shopping, because the results are sometimes different. You generally can quickly find merchants who sell the product and compare prices. Many stores have flash sales with additional discounts, especially around holidays, so it might be worth waiting for those sales events.

• Shipping: Most Internet merchants will offer free shipping, though you may have to reach a certain total, such as $100. (Google Shopping has a search feature that displays sites only with free shipping.) We almost never paid for shipping, which we accomplished by juggling the purchases across different sites to reach the right threshold.

• Return policies: Carefully read the fine print before you place the order. We tried to avoid merchants that had a restocking fee (such as 20 to 30 percent of the value). We also avoided merchants that, after providing free shipping, would deduct the shipping charge from your refund.

• Check reputations: Before buying from an online merchant, Google it to find out if there have been customer reviews or complaints. Check the Better Business Bureau rating in the state in which the merchant is located. Good Web merchants will cite their BBB membership. When we had a dispute with one such merchant, we filed a complaint with the BBB and quickly reached an amicable settlement.

• Ordering from overseas: It is best to stick with a U.S. merchant, but sometimes that one item you want can be located only in Europe or elsewhere. Confirm that it will be well-packed and accept the fact that you may have little recourse if it’s not what you expected.

Not long ago, a homeowner looking for the airiness of a Noguchi lamp or the clean lines of European-style cabinetry would be forced to journey between the handful of modern furnishing stores they might be fortunate enough to have in their area — or head to New York City. In what our children still regard as the summer from hell, my wife, Cindy, and I once spent weekend after weekend fruitlessly in search of new front doors that would bring a contemporary edge to our 1960s-era split-level home in McLean, Va.

Now, thanks to the Internet, time-strapped contemporary lovers who feel trapped in staid and traditional homes can outfit those homes without ever leaving their couches.

Cindy and I stumbled into this discovery more out of desperation than design. But once we realized the vast array of goods available with a click of a mouse — including custom-made doors, flooring, lights and even fancy toilets, often at deep discounts — we were able to obtain a large chunk of the materials we needed for a recent expansion of our house.

The expansion would allow us to enlarge the tiny, 1960s bathrooms, add a study, increase the size of the master bedroom, install three walk-in closets, elevate the ceiling and even add a second-floor balcony off the bedroom.

We wanted a clean and contemporary look, to match the modern spaces we had created in the entrance and living room. And at first, we had no intention of designing the expansion, much less sourcing the materials ourselves. We thought our lives were much too busy and wanted someone to guide us. But after the well-known build-design firm we had hired came to do precise measurements, the owner suddenly announced there was no way he could do the renovation for the cost of his initial bid and pulled out of the project.

It turned out to be a stroke of luck. We went with Saba Construction &

Design. Owner Bahram Saba did not know much about contemporary design, but he was willing to learn and was flexible. We were on our own — but now we could pursue our own course.

For design ideas, we turned to the Web site Houzz, which has more than 1.5 million photographs featuring every type of style. )

Once the plans were set, we still needed fixtures and furnishings. But between our jobs and our children, we didn’t have enough time to go trudging across the metropolitan area. Instead, with rare exceptions, we found what we needed on the Web.

We had had luck with the Internet before; we had finally replaced our front doors after I discovered a company in California called Neoporte that made stainless steel doors with contemporary glass enclosures. Once we had crossed that Rubicon — ordering our front doors without ever seeing them in person — we were ready to try anything.

Cindy, for instance, saw a door with an unusual design on Houzz that she thought would work well as a sliding door to the walk-in closet. That door had frosted glass, which was too heavy for our purposes, but then I located a company called Cherry Tree Design in Bozeman, Mont. They were willing to custom-make the same design, in cherry wood, with a Shoji screen.

We had also been looking for a pair of 8-foot-tall doors for the master bathroom, which we had designed to hang on exposed barn door hardware, so they could slide open. Cherry Tree re-created the same design as the closet door in wood, with a special modification for the barn door hardware. The hardware came from a small company in Oregon.

We became adept at triangulating among Internet suppliers, grabbing the lowest possible price for a particular item. Of course, we did not just order willy-nilly from any Internet store. We always made sure to double-check Better Business Bureau ratings, blog posts and other sources of information about reliability.

With rare exceptions, we ordered only from places that offered free shipping. The quality of the service was generally excellent, with items in stock as promised, well-packed and swiftly delivered.