When the condenser fan on Patti Hulsey's refrigerator died a few weeks ago, $400 in groceries, including steaks, pork chops and ribs, started to thaw.
Hulsey couldn't locate a replacement part for her side-by-side refrigerator at any local retailer. The manufacturer couldn't send a technician for five days. Meanwhile, ice cream puddled on her kitchen floor.
Panicked, Hulsey turned to the Internet for advice.
"I was getting desperate," Hulsey said. "I was going to lose everything in the refrigerator and the freezer."
After typing the manufacturer's name into a search engine, Hulsey came across http://www.RepairClinic.com, where she entered the 10-year-old refrigerator's model number. Minutes later she ordered a condenser fan and had it shipped overnight to her Burbank home.
From a spot-removal index for stubborn carpet stains to a course in toilet repairs to tips on how to remove dust from silk flowers, there's a wealth of home maintenance and repair information online for do-it-yourselfers anxious to save time and money.
These sites are part of a larger home improvement category on the Internet looking to cash in on the $165 billion homeowners spent at home improvement retailers in 2000. Only one in four homeowners hires a contractor today to complete a job, according to the Tampa-based Home Improvement Research Institute.
Home maintenance and repair Web sites not only promise to save consumers time and money, but they also offer free advice for those who need guidance before they tackle a home maintenance project--or hire someone else to do it for them.
"It's so common in the repair business for people to overpay for repairs because they didn't know what was wrong," said Chris Hall, president of RepairClinic.com.
The year-old Web site offers parts and repair advice for ice makers, microwaves and other appliances manufactured under 77 brand names. The Canton, Mich.-based firm ships parts at retail prices and has appliance technicians on staff to answer questions by e-mail.
Hulsey paid $40 at RepairClinic.com for her condenser fan and shipping, a significant savings over the $110 Whirlpool quoted her for the part alone. This was on top of a $50 charge just for a technician to show up at her house, she said. Hulsey's husband installed the part for free--and she didn't spend hours waiting for a technician.
RepairClinic.com's Hall, a former appliance repairman, said about 10,000 people visit his site a month. This number would be higher, he says, except for the fact that homeowners out of habit turn first to the Yellow Pages when their appliances conk out.
But about 75% of the time, homeowners can fix their appliances themselves with common hand tools, he added.
With so much home maintenance information now available on the Internet, how can homeowners gauge its accuracy?
Do-it-yourself information, such as basic electrical codes, or the way to repair a concrete foundation or stop a leaky faucet, hasn't changed much over the years. But the way consumers access this information has evolved from books and magazines to the global computer network.
"We haven't seen that much misinformation, but we have seen some [sites] use too many shortcuts," said David Goldsholle, founder and president of Mill Valley, Calif.-based DoItYourself.com. "There are tricks of the trade that are acceptable and some that aren't."
Retired contractors moderate discussion groups at the 5-year-old site to ensure consumers aren't swapping inaccurate repair tips. Goldsholle, a former home improvement store owner, said what troubles him about the booming home maintenance category online is that some sites don't answer users' questions.
Goldsholle says his staff answers all the questions they receive--at least half of which are from women. The average user at Goldsholle's site is a woman from 35 to 48 years of age.
"Women will ask questions more frequently than men will--it's the same thing as directions," Goldsholle quips. "Or a man will use a woman's name--we've caught some of them using their wives' accounts."
Visitors to DoItYourself.com most often request information on electrical jobs and plumbing problems.
Kay Keating knows all about leaky toilets. There's plenty of plumbing information at Keating's Web site at http://www.toiletology.com/index.shtml.
The Bethesda, Md.-based resident said she started teaching a plumbing clinic at her local water department after plumbing surfaced as a major issue in a home maintenance class she taught for the Montgomery County Department of Recreation.
"Every time we offered the class, 1,500 people would sign up," Keating said. "Toilets were definitely the major problem."
Keating took instruction materials from this class and posted them on her 4-year-old site. The site includes a course in "Toiletology 101," which dictates the "basics of indoor plumbing and toilet repairs" and includes a primer on how toilets work.