The customer who knows "just enough to be dangerous" now has a new weapon in his arsenal.

In late September, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), with funding from the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH), rolled out NEST, an online tool that allows homeowners to compare materials to find the most cost-effective home improvement solution for their home. Well, sort of.

As of now, NEST -- National Economic Service-life Tools -- consists of two features. The first is "Nest Builder," where homeowners enter information such as age and size of the house, ZIP code, and structural and material details. Once that step is completed, the homeowner moves on to the "Durability Doctor," which calculates how long the existing components (roof, windows, doors, and siding) should last. The program then provides information on which types of products would be cheapest and which are the most durable. Homeowners are able to customize the simulation, exploring the cost and durability of different materials.

NEST was designed to allow consumers to make more-informed decisions, but it appears to have its problems. Most important, the prices are a bit on the low side, so consumers using the program may have unrealistic expectations when it comes to how much their home improvements will cost -- bad news for remodelers. The program also doesn't take into account certain subtleties that can make windows, roofs, and siding more or less durable.

Laura Schultz, a NIST economist, says that the data NEST provides come from within the industry and that the program can and will be fine-tuned as new information becomes available.

Plans are in the works for other NEST tools, including a replacement calendar and risk assessment calculator. Schultz says a new tool should be available every six to nine months.

Glen Salas, senior engineer with PATH, says the site got more than 2,600 hits in October, its debut month. The program was also featured in a Washington Post article, so the word is getting out. To see for yourself what your customers might be doing, go to