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Ms. Fixit : In O.C. Classrooms, Supply Stores Women Find the Right Tools to Be Handy Around the House

July 01, 1994|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Single mother Diane Thompson says she does a lot of things with her 17-year-old son these days--shooting hoops, helping with homework and replacing the rubber flappers on the toilets in their rented Huntington Beach home.

The plumbing may not be the most enjoyable activity the 34-year-old computer technician shares with her son, but it is a necessary part of living in the '90s for Thompson and many other women who, for reasons of pride and economy, choose to tackle their own household projects and repairs.

"I like to fix things," said Thompson, who has done everything from minor wiring to re-plumbing the mobile home she used to live in.

"It makes me frustrated when I can't do it myself."

With half of American marriages ending in divorce and more than 19 million mothers in the national work force, the women of today are fast replacing yesterday's handymen. And most claim that being the "lady of the house" today is a loftier title than it used to be, with a resume containing a list of domestic responsibilities longer than just decorating and hanging drapes.

This new breed of tool-toting handywomen comes from all economic strata--from the young divorcee who owns a $2 million home in Anaheim Hills to the Santa Ana nurse who just wants to improve her modest surroundings.

They say they're tired of being taken advantage of because they don't understand the details of home repair. They're also driven to save money as many struggle to raise children alone. More and more men are also content to let their mates do the handy work while they do other chores.

"I replaced the hose on the washing machine," boasts Costa Mesa mother Kim Anderson. "I like to do it myself," she said. "You know it's done right when you do it yourself."

Anderson says that in addition to a couple of preschoolers and a tight budget, her husband Jeff's 50- to 70-hour workweek has a lot to do with her role as Mrs. Fixit.

"I do everything around here because my husband works so much, and we can't afford to have someone else come out and do it."

Jeff Anderson says he is both amazed and relieved by his wife's abilities. Her efforts save them a lot of money on costly labor, he says, while giving her a sense accomplishment. The couple is currently painting their home, a job they do together when he's not working.

"I'm really proud of her," he said. "She's always doing something."

Loreen Erdtsieck says she's an example of a modern-day divorcee who can afford to hire someone to fix leaky facets and make minor repairs but has come to enjoy doing it herself. With a Porsche and new Ford Explorer in the garage of her Corona del Mar house, the mother of 10-year-old twin boys says her reasons for doing her own household repairs isn't financial. Ironically, she says she credits her ex-husband with her ability as a handywoman of sorts.

"We lived in a 12,000-square-foot house in Anaheim Hills, and I did everything because he wouldn't do anything to keep it up," Erdtsieck said. "Now, I don't mind it at all, because I'm doing it for myself."

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Home Depot reports that about half of the 1 million annual customers that come into each of the chain's 281 U.S. home improvement stores are women.

"It's not unusual to see women being self-reliant, and we see that in our stores," said Home Depot spokesman Jerry Fields.

Irvine-headquartered Home Base reports a similar presence of women in its do-it-yourself chain.

"Five years ago, the 'weekend warriors' were men," says John Lang, manager of Home Base's Santa Ana store. "That's completely turned around now. You find yourself dealing a lot more with women, and they're doing the jobs themselves."

While giving a Saturday afternoon demonstration on how to lay ceramic tile, Home Base design specialist Carla Parga looked down at her own hands and smiled at the customers gathered around the table.

"My hands aren't women's hands; they're working hands," she said, trying to keep her long hair back as she smoothed the white grout over the tile.

Parga, who has more than one home-improvement store on her resume, says that "women can do anything, especially if they have the attitude."

Carmen Blas held a fistful of how-to pamphlets and watched the demonstration from beginning to end, often asking common first-timer questions. She said she became interested in doing more things around the house after buying a fixer-upper in Santa Ana a year ago.

"I want to learn to know more about it," she said, "The people you hire, they charge you money and cut corners to take advantage (of you)."

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Female do-it-yourselfers say the attitude toward them is beginning to change, but all have tales of being overlooked or patronized in neighborhood hardware stores.

"Sometimes, if you ask for a tool, they treat you like you're getting it for your husband or some other man," said Thompson, recalling a time when she was told a plumbing project she was working on was too dangerous for a woman.

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