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Home Improvement Boom Suggests America Is Getting Handier Around the House : Doing It Yourself


Sure, you might have put a decent Soap Box Derby racer together when you were 10, and your dad thought that ashtray you made in shop class was pretty great, even if he didn't smoke, and that birdhouse you built might still be holding up if the cat hadn't pounced on it. Yeah, you know how to drive a nail all right.

But replace a garbage disposal? Paper a wall? Lay kitchen tile? Install a door?

Ideas like that give you the shakes.

Or at least they used to. Because, if the proliferation of hardware supermarkets and mega-home design centers is any yardstick, America is becoming a lot handier these days.

More and more, people who used to call in a professional to oil a squeaky hinge are adding the nomenclature of sandpaper grit, socket wrenches, saw teeth, screw threads, nail size--even the specialized descriptions of pipe fittings--to their daily vocabulary.

It's no accident that the most popular program on PBS has been "This Old House." The motivation, said Bill Pena, the senior vice-president and general merchandising manager of the Fullerton-based Home Club, is love and money.

"I think there are a lot of people who love to work with their hands as well as a lot of other people who are conscious of the dollar," he said. "There's more awareness of do-it-yourself than there's ever been. Especially in times like these, when people are concerned about the economy, that (the) family who's thinking about buying a home may decide, instead of buying a new home, to fix up or add to their current home, maybe replace cabinets, upgrade the bath area and its fixtures, put in new toilets and faucets."

Also, said Pena, manufacturers and retailers of hardware and building materials are trying to demystify the process of do-it-yourself home improvement and repair.

"Probably the primary reason people are doing more on their own today," he said, "is that there are new products that continue to come out on the market and the manufacturers are coming up with good packaging, good point-of-purchase material. So a lot of people who would have hesitated in the past are starting to think that certain jobs aren't so big anymore, that they're able to do it. Before, they may never have tackled putting in a garbage disposal or putting up kitchen cabinets. Now they will."

And they have lots of help available to them.

Small libraries of do-it-yourself books, generally categorized by subject, such as plumbing or cabinetmaking, are available, as are a growing number of do-it-yourself videos. Many community colleges offer continuing education classes in home repair and PBS continues to lead the way with a handful of regular home improvement-oriented programs.

And there's always the time-honored method of trial and error.

"That's how I did it," said Beverly DeJulio. "It was out of necessity, the seek-and-find method. The school of hard knocks."

But it paid off.

Today DeJulio is known to the viewers of ABC's "Home Show" and to radio listeners in Chicago as Ms. Fix-It. She parlayed a growing competence with work around the home into a kind of status as an expert adviser.

A dressmaker and dress designer by training, DeJulio grew up "in a home where we never had repair people come in. I had a very handy father, and mom would put in switches and light sockets and things like that. I grew up with the mentality that you did for yourself."

Still, DeJulio didn't become truly skillful until circumstances forced her hand. On her first day of single parenthood, she said, the sump pump went out in her basement. "A lot of things went awry along the way," she said, but eventually, with persistence and advice from neighbors, the job got done.

"My 4-year-old son looked at me and said, 'Mommy, you fixed it.' It made me feel so good," DeJulio said. "It gave me a lot of self-confidence when my self-confidence and self-esteem were very low."

She kept watching and learning. As a single parent on a more limited income, she said she had to "save up money for a long time to have a repair person come in when something went wrong." So, when they did come in, she observed and asked questions. And on one visit, a repair person recommended the "Reader's Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual" as a reference.

As she watched, read and learned, DeJulio said she eventually got to the point where she did major repairs on appliances. "It all comes in steps and stages as you build up your confidence and your skill level," she added.

Today she takes on such complex tasks as installing basement walls or drop ceilings.

"Where most of us learn," she said, "is by helping each other. You should never be ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help from friends or neighbors who may know about plumbing or electricity, for instance."

But the acid test is actually getting down to the work with your own hands, which is how many current do-it-yourselfers gained confidence.

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