Kitchen Remodel: Lessons from the Veterans?

HulaGalJJanuary 12, 2011

Hi, I'm about to embark on a major remodel with the kitchen as the centerpiece. Contracts to be signed in the next week or so. Scary-exciting!

Although I've done two kitchens before, it seems I learn new things and make new mistakes each time! Will those of you who have completed your projects weigh in on the top 2 lessons learned, mistakes to avoid or similar for those of us justing beginning the process?



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I am linking a recent thread called "Biggest Regret?" that should help you.

Here is a link that might be useful: Thread Called Biggest Regret

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 11:26AM
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For many people, including us to a some extent, it is buying materials too soon, as evidenced by the "oops" thread.
In our case, the bigger regret is we got stuck with an architect that came along with the original contractor we were going to use. We were able to dump the contractor but the architect has been a nightmare and the system is such that we can't just dump him without it costing us much more. With hindsight, it would have been worth dumping him earlier and starting over. He has cost us time, money and a whole lot of stress.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 11:33AM
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alwaysfixin-Thanks. I'm going to check it out. (I did a search before I started this thread, but couldn't find anything. Not sure if it's me, or if it's hard to find what you're looking for on GW)

dianalo-Good tips...I too have made mistakes in contractor selection. Sorry to hear of your troubles. I hope things are back on track for you.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 12:43PM
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Make sure you know exactly what appliances you're getting before ordering cabinets. People changing out a fridge (with a different height) has bitten me more than once. Not my fault, especially after I asked "These are your appliances for sure?", but I still feel bad when a customer has to eat a cabinet.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 1:19PM
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You have said you are remodeling and that includes more than the kitchen. Therefore you must think about the whole house layout. This above all.

Joists, ceiling heights, location of P trap and exhaust duct, number of circuits, all the facts.

Traffic flow, placement of doorways and entranceways, general feeling sought, sight lines desired, things not to see (block views), etc.

One of the 1st steps: layout, floor plan, general trend for esthetics.

One of the later steps: specifics like stuff to buy. Many people post about appliances because they are easy to focus on. Avoid getting into this or, once you do, step back out of it and refocus on the "Big" picture. In a recent thread that went to 142 posts, people entertained the OP talking about fridges and ovens at the same time the layout was far from settled. Even moving doorways was not raised until like the 125th post.


    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 2:00PM
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I'm with HulaGalJ -- can't find stuff easily. Can someone post the link to the 'oops' thread? I'd really like to avoid the "in progress" kind of mistakes.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 2:10PM
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Excellent advice from davidro1--absolutely keep all structural components in mind when making decisions. The "behind-the-scenes" stuff like wiring, and electrical boxes, joists, the stuff you don't see, can come back and bite you in the butt if you don't plan ahead. Plan for work involved with the current or near future renovations, as well as for renovations further down the road. This can eliminate or at least cut down on oopsies or being boxed out of making your preferred choices.

Rule A-Number one: Take pictures! Lots, and lots, and lots of pictures. Pictures of walls open, walls semi-closed up, etc. etc. You will need these at some point. Rule Number 2: look at those pictures before hammering a single nail into your walls. Don't even ask how I know this....! :-)

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 2:33PM
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Lesson #1: Recording decisions.
I can't find an old rant of mine about the spiral notebook to record ideas and decisions, so here it is in a nutshell....

Currently, I've got a set of original blueprint drawings (revised in pencil over and over again), a construction permit plopped in a window sill with a set of drawings and important papers rubber-banded to it), a set of PDF drawings for original plan of cabs (revised in pencil ove nd over again nd missing a crucial drawing that was considered so simple no one bothered to draw it), a mass of vendor pamphlets + check stubs+ ideas mags, + etc. all thrown into folders within a laundry basket. They have labels such as "home improvement loan" "doors and woodwork" "colors." Trust me--this is a lousy system. One of the problems is that there is no chronological order to it. Another problem is that it can be so burdensome to dig through the dross for the gold that we just punt and make guesses about what we told the worker or the clerk, which can cause a cascade of errors.

I wish I'd kept a working notebook. In it, the original designer (and DH and cabs man and everybody else who makes decisions) would have to sign off every time a change is made or a new decision is made. It's not good enough for you to say "I want it to look like this" and hand the guy a picture and he nods. Instead, you write out a description and paste the photo into the notebook. Once you are all agreed and clear about everything, the guy and you and spouse all sign.

If you later think that the contractor or the designer or the cabs man has made a secret decision with your spouse without your input, you can prove it.

When a vendor calls you to say he made a measuring mistake and he's sending new drawings, you note the date and time and tell him that nothing goes forward until he guarantees in writing that you two agree on the resulting compromises, which in order to win your acceptance, he is to write out in full sentences and you both sign.

The notebook would be a good check on you also--DH can point to your signature on a decision and say "you agreed on this day and now it's not fair to throw this back into my face after we committed to it." Would keep you honest as well as the other guys.

You can also use a portion of the notebook to record phone numbers, suggested resources, paint color names, model numbers of appliances, visions and ideas, whatever. And the name of any guy and the date when he assured you that if you did X, it would meet code.

Much better than digging about in a construction site for "I know I saw that slip of paper somewhere" stuff. Even if there is a central place where the notebook is kept, if you choose a notebook with a garish cover it can be more easily found visually if buried in sawdust or tucked under a packing box.

The notebook would be a working record of the whole project.


Lesson #2 Just in Time or Store it?
On one of those Oops or Regrets threads, I talked about the tension between "buy it now" urgency and "bought it too early and now it's confined us" OR "bought it too early and now it's in the way" troubles.

Here's my new understanding, which might not apply in future years...
Generally, the availability and good price merry go round goes round and round and round so it's not a good thing to let sale prices dictate your schedule.

The construction industry is so unhappy right now that they're making up new marketing strategies to fit the economy. The old Sears "Friends and Family" sale occurs more often now--and you can get appliances there. "Buy 3 get one free PLUS free shipping" is no longer a once year phenomenon to celebrate the founder's birthday. Paint companies run regular sales. Black Friday-Cyber Monday are only one of many special deal days online. And so on.

Yes, the Craig's LIst or bargain clearance item are still bolts out of the blue, but generally, you can wait for a good moment to buy.

[Except of course DH, who didn't have time to shop with me for doors two weeks ago when there was a good deal on special orders and so he's now had to order four full price interior doors to assure they'll be here in time for the sacred hunter's game dinner...sigh. ]

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 2:54PM
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We only did our kitchen, keeping all walls, doors, windows, and plumbing intact. But with respect to kitchens in particular:

1) Pay attention to the Sweeby test and planning your zones and storage early in the design process (see the Read Me newbies thread early on the forum if you don't know what I mean). I didn't really appreciate these until later in the process and they would have been very helpful earlier as guides.

2) It's hard to imagine a wide range of possibilities and the biggest help is observation, either literal or in pictures. I rejected a granite we had settled on after seeing it in someone's kitchen and realizing I did not like it writ large though I had liked a small sample. Similarly, I chose our eventual granite after watching the slideshows on the Finished Kitchens Blog for a long time and noticing the patterns in kitchens I liked and did not like. (It's much easier to realize that I like one element, e.g. marble counters or white cabinets, than to work out how the total feel will be.) So go ahead and become a kitchen addict because you will be learning from all that observation.

3) (Sorry, I just had one more thought.) When you catch yourself thinking "oh, who cares anyway?" or "how important can this really be?" then STOP making decisions or signing contracts and give yourself a mental break. I only did this a few times but I always regretted it later. I care! and it can be important! I was just sick of shopping and consuming and making a zillion decisions at the times I had this impulse.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 3:07PM
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We just did a whole-house reno and moved back into our house in September and I would say
BE PREPARED. BE PREPARED. BE PREPARED. For everything. Are you 100% confident/committed to your GC. So many people write about difficulties with them.
Are you confident with the vision of your space - especially the style of it.
Don't be afraid to speak up if you don't like the way something is being done - even if you made the original decision. We stopped the job for two weeks because of the quality of the floor that was being put down. The problem was rectified and everything carried on.
AND Don't let trends dictate your decisions - which is something that is really easy to do. We could have moved our kitchen to get the "required" island but it would have disrupted the traffic flow for the whole area and it wasn't worth it - so no island and I'm glad we changed the floor plan.
The one lesson we probably learned from previous jobs which we took to this one is we didn't cheapen out on things. By that I mean - our reno wasn't high end - we don't have european, imported from italy cabinets but we have very good quality ones with soft-close and all drawers, we went with good quality craftsman ship on everything.

Our mantra was that we would rather do without than sacrifice quality. So we don't have a steam oven or double wall ovens - that money went into new insulation, we don't have fancy body jets in our master shower - that money went into new plumbing for the entire house, we don't have a $5000 range (the GE cafe range is what we have and it is great)- that money went into a really good quality lighting plan. Our GC was made aware of that right from the beginning and was on board with it as well.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 3:20PM
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To add to florantha's advice about a notebook: I'm reading a book about the dos and don'ts of renovations and one recommendation is to use a composition notebook to keep track of decisions AND because you can use it in court since pages cannot be ripped out (w/o it being obvious).

Not that I ever want to be in position where my only option is to sue. Ugh.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 3:51PM
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Get what you want and stick to your guns. No detail too small and let nothing slide.

I am trying to remember that as I am doing a new kitchen now.

My biggest regret in the kitchen I did eight years ago was using granite when I wanted white honed marble. The experts said no. Hrmmmph.

And I learned I was right last time to stick to my guns and lay out my kitchen my way. I didnt do a triangle and the last KD was aghast. But I had fridge drawers directly across from my range and sink, and that was where I kept produce and meats ... the large fridge was close to the seating area. I was right! It worked great.

They also told me an 18" long uninterrupted counter would look "like a bowling alley". I stuck to my guns and it was one of the prettiest and most useful elements of my old kitchen.


    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 4:30PM
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Try to have as clear a vision as possible of the new kitchen before you start and don't get sidetracked. Look at lots of picture and publications, decide what you want, and then go find what you have identified. This isn't 100% possible because materials look different depending on what you juxtapose them with, and also depending on the light. So everything should be looked at in your kitchen before committing. But try to keep the discipline of the whole, the big picture, as others have said.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 4:46PM
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The age of the house can be a significant cost driver.

Opening up old walls often reveals all sorts of issues that need to be addressed.

I have worked in houses that appeared to have all updated DWV, until the wall was opened for some electric wiring and the 50+ year old galvanized steel lines were revealed.

Another old house still had lead DWV lines in the walls.

Steel supply lines are also often not visible if changes have been made over the years.

Even electric circuits can need replacement if some of the older wiring methods are found.

I have been in many soffits above cabinets that turned out to contain wiring and plumbing that was not known until demo started (and try to warn clients, and even have bore-scopes to look if allowed -holes are about 1/4 inch diameter for the smallest).

Newer house tend to have fewer changes so there are fewer surprises but they are not immune.

I had a less than 4 year old house that had an entire duct section in a kitchen wall the owner wanted to demo.
It turned out it was not connected to anything and could be removed, but it took a while to determine it was not hooked up.

Making sure you have at least some cash in reserve is a good idea, more for an older house.

You can add a 'per hour' cost in the contract to at least bound the hourly charges.

I have had work cone to a complete halt, and then sit for months when significant issues were found buried in the walls.
I didn't like it, the client didn't like it, but they did not have any other source of money to fix a structural problem.
I did work with them to get a section of counter installed with a sink (it was lying around in my garage), a stove, and the DW.
It looked like hell with a counter on 2x4 framing and all sorts of wall sections with plumbing and wiring exposed in holes and such.
The client was actually very apologetic about not being able to fund the work immediately, but we kept them running for a few months till we could finish up.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 5:27PM
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I agree with brickeyee. It would help if you told us a little about the project. Age of house. Current condition of kitchen. What you hope to accomplish. Budget limits. Who's in charge of the job (GC?). Using a kitchen planner too? Etc. I've redone 2 kitchens in high rise condos - and planned the kitchen in our house (which we built). FWIW - I found it easier building from scratch than doing the renovations (nothing like an architect's plans that call for pulling down a wall that has a structural column in a high rise building). There can be a lot of surprises doing a renovation. Heck - I'm just replacing a wall oven now - and removed the old one before ordering a new one to make the new one would fit.

FWIW - if I were dealing with a house I hadn't built - especially an older one - I'd tear out everything first before deciding what to do. Just so I'd know what's hiding behind all those walls. If up north - start in the early spring - hope to finish by winter. Learn to cook meals on the BBQ . Robyn

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 7:55PM
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You've gotten great advice so far. Mine would be not to neglect the lighting and make sure you have enough. You can always turn it off or dim it, it is VERY expensive to add more later.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 11:31PM
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Speaking of lighting...I get a weekly email with lots of idea books from One of them was "Get the Lighting Right: 8 Mistakes to Avoid" (I'll link it below).

Here is a link that might be useful: Get the Lighting Right: 8 Mistakes to Avoid

    Bookmark   January 12, 2011 at 11:59PM
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melaska, thanks for the link! Very timely as I'm planning now.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 12:34AM
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You are very welcome - can't wait to see what you come up with in your house :) I'll link another site I found...

Here is a link that might be useful: The House Designers - Lighting for your Home

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 1:24AM
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The #1 and #2 most neglected items in a kitchen redo are venting and lighting.

Venting costs can be almost as much as that prosumer range you may be considering. That's especialy true if there is only a recirculating vent there now and will need to create new penetrations into your home correctly. Most in a northern climate will require the use of makeup air and an ERV to make sure you're not exhausting that expensive conditioned air to the outside. Those costs aren't something that folks think about on the front end, and they become an expensive surprise that eats up any contingency very quickly. Be sure to consult a good HVAC firm to handle the details in conjunction with a knowledgable appliance salesperson who can guide you on the needed CFMs your cooking appliances will need.

Lighting is often neglected. The absolute worst form of lighting in a kitchen is a single central fixture, but because many have a big honking fluorescent in that spot that puts out hospital glare, they think they have lighting covered. You need a mix of task (undercounter) general (recessed) accent (pendant) and "mood" (all dimmable) to be able to see all of the beautiful details in your kitchen and to be able to safely work in that space. If you think it looks too bright, then you've probably added enough! Our eyes need much more light as we age, and what's "enough" at 30 isn't at 50, and is positively dim by 70. So, if everything is on dimmers and is airport runway bright, then you or any future buyer will be OK aging in place without modification to the lighting scheme.

The third thing that most people don't consider enough is their budget. Materials costs and transportation costs are up for most manufacturers and contractors. Most appliance makers have just had a price increase. Translate that to all suppliers. Even if your area is in a "down" cycle for remodels, don't expect that to be reflected too much in any quotes you may get. If you've got a guy willing to give you a quote for 40% less than another, then he's probably not a good enough businessman to be able to be around next year at this time or he's deliberately misstated his "allowances" to be falsely low and you'll end up paying tons of change orders to upgrade.

FInally, there's one quote I want to leave you with. It's from Richard Trethewey, the master plumber that works on most of THis Old House's projects. He said, "Comfort is invisible, and it's not sexy." And that's so true! Many people get excited about the pretty granite countertops and quarter sawn oak trim, and the hand forged knobs, but it's really hard to get excited about upgrading your electrical panel or increasing the insulation in your ceiling. Those details are boring. But they are those invisible "bones" that everyone talks about. Finishes are easy to upgrade later. You can put in that granite countertop later and settle for a laminate one now if that means you are able to actually put in a usable ventilation system into your kitchen. Those are the type of unsexy tradeoffs that will keep your home clean and comfortable long after that $150 per gallon paint has had to be changed out because you don't like the color anymore.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 10:39AM
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Don't pay anyone in advance. That cost me over a hundred thousand.

If an emergency strikes (long hospital stay etc) stop all work and wait until the issue is over. You may even lose your spot with the contractor, but. He can bump you and then take you back. You never want work going on while you are not in the game 100%. Continuing work while we were in hospital cost me more than my first issue above.

Don't settlle. We had so many little oopppssss over a whole house remodel and while it was tempting to leave the light three inches off wasn't that obvious, I knew I'd see that every time. Don't settle for the smallest issue! Another week or even month won't be much in the space ogpf your life.

Be on site daily.

If a contractor has issues at the start it won't get better later. Halt work, fire them and take the time to find another. Sucks big time, but it's better than continuing with a flake in the long run.

Do you drink? Now is the time to start! And definitely not the time to quit.

Pack a wine opener and two nice glasses on the top of your moved stuff so you can get to them easily!

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 10:43AM
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Live Wire, well said!

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 10:45AM
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Wow, I wish I had thought to ask this question 6 months ago! This should be kept on page 1!

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 10:54AM
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Have a marriage counselor on retainer...

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 11:50AM
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I'll second the advice to take lots and lots and lots of photos (I think we took well over 1,000 by the time we were done). I've been amazed at how many times I've been glad that I could look back and see where pipes and wires and junction boxes are inside the walls.

I too kept a construction journal in a spiral notebook. I kept track of who showed up when, what was being worked on, what discussions took place and what agreements were made, when I made phone calls and left messages, etc. Inside the front cover, I wrote down the phone numbers of the contractor, architect, plumber, and anyone else that I needed to reach regularly. One additional benefit of the notebook, at least for me, was that when the project felt like it was dragging on forever without progress, I could look back and see that, in fact, lots HAD happened in the last week. It really helped keep me sane.

In addition to the construction journal, I had a portable file box with folders for appliances, tile, windows, contracts, etc., whatever categories make sense for your project.

Double check everything. Don't assume that even good contractors will do it all right, the way you want it.

One more thing, plan in advance for being without your kitchen for a while. Make meals ahead and freeze them. Figure out what you'll be able to cook with what equipment you'll have. And ditto what igloochick said about wine.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 12:10PM
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What igloochick said x 2.

Everything, but everything in writing! Even simple things. Make sure they agree to the written version and understand that no changes are acceptable without FIRST obtaining your sign off.

If you know the way something should be done, don't accept answers like "that's the way I've always done it" or "I've been in this business xx years" when they aren't doing it the way you want. If they don't have actual reasons and refuse to consider another way - add that to the "I should fire them" pile.

I have some knowledge now about how trying to be nice actually creates resentment - the person's work wasn't good enough and he lied to us and lied about his time on the job. We found out later he also did drugs. He was also a Vietnam vet and could be personally charming. But I resented every minute of those lies and having to explain WHY he needed to redo what he did, separately keeping track of his time on the job, his no-shows and excuses.

I have very complicated emotions about not firing someone who completely deserved it. I should have. We lost a lot of time and some money. If that wasn't enough, after he quit on us, he built up a string of drug arrests and committed suicide 3 months ago.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 12:27PM
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Others have covered many good points here.

My umbrella advice - SUPERVISE , SUPERVISE!

Supervision will solve most of the vents/rants you see on this forum. I know we hire and pay professionals for doing the job but supervision during important stages of the remodel will alleviate hours of agony. e.g granite templating and installation. Take the day OFF. It is a must otherwise you end up with he said/she said aggravation ;)

SUPERVISE, please.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 12:28PM
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Get multiple bids. Then get more bids. Then more, and more, and more.

It isn't unusual for the least expensive guy to be half the cost of the most expensive. And it is not true that you get what you pay for. Just because someone doesn't want to hoover up your entire bank account doesn't mean he's incompetent, or won't be in business next year. That's B.S. promoted by the industry. Our best bets were contractors with accents. Because they are less polished, they have trouble getting jobs from the kind of dumb rich people who like to overpay so they can brag to their friends about their-big name contractors. Since they can't land the fat cats, they have to do more jobs, which means they have to charge less to get higher volume. In my house, all the best work was performed by people born in some other country, some of which I still can't find on a map.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2011 at 2:10PM
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I'm the OP. I lost track of this thread for a few weeks. Thanks for all the additional comments! I've learned a lot from your posts.

Brickeyee/Robyn: I'm terrified what we'll find in the walls of our 1896 home. We've got 15-20% in reserve. I just hope it's enough. I've heard of 50% in overages. Yikes!

mealaska: thanks for the info on lighting. That was an area I couldn't find good info about and I don't think my architect really has a good handle on it.

live wire: venting. It seems like another area that is hard to get good info on. The appliance guy is very blithe, the KDs also, and the various GCs we've consulted differ on where and how to vent based on code. With your comments, I don't have a good feeling about this...

igloochic: I'm sorry about your troubles. That stinks big time!

bmorepanic: Ugh. That's a tough one, esp if one tends to be very compassionate.

pharaoh: I've heard that from many friends, and that's my biggest worry. I would be there every day if I could, but with small children it may be every other day (when they're in school). It makes sense that a knowledgeable omnipresent owner can catch errors before they're made or snowball into a series of errors that will cost $$$ to fix.

marcolo: I agree with you. The highest bid is not always indicative of the highest quality. Some contractors have higher overhead for example. One GC we considered was a high-end restoration guy. I think he would have been excellent, but he and his 3 person crew are full-time, one-job at a time. That meant they needed to make 4 salaries on our job over 5 months. That math just didn't work for me. There is also no room for him to make up any estimating screw-ups on his part with someone else. I know the common wisdom is to use the GC that does one job at a time, but if you do, realize you are going to pay more (a LOT more) for that luxury.

Thanks again to everyone who posted!

    Bookmark   February 1, 2011 at 10:21AM
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