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Our fix-it fixation

Armed with some know-how from websites and classes, thrifty homeowners are joining the ranks of do-it-yourselfers in growing numbers.

September 17, 2006|Marty Graham | Special to The Times

CHANGE a switch? Install a fan? Pack spackle? Almost anyone can do it.

"There's a lot of stuff you can do yourself, and there's a lot of good help out there to show you how," said Lou Manfredini, Ace Hardware's do-it-yourself advocate and a former licensed contractor who works on his family's suburban Chicago house. "No disrespect to the fine contractors and handymen out there, but you can save so much money -- the cost is mostly labor."

Start with simple projects -- painting or changing doorknobs and kitchen hardware -- and build confidence, Eden Jarrin suggests. "It's not rocket science," said Jarrin, who helped found www.bejane.com, with its trademark slogan: "Empowering home improvement." "A lot of people are surprised by how much you can do."

Homeowners spent an estimated $155 billion on home improvements and repairs during the last four quarters, up 2.8% from the year before, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. That included do-it-yourself projects that some experts estimate would have cost consumers about six times as much to have someone else do.

A typical household, either owners or renters, spent an average of $2,465 on home-improvement products in 2004, an amount that has been increasing by about 10% a year, according to the Home Improvement Research Institute. But no one knows exactly how much do-it-yourselfers save on projects, according to Richard Johnston, a senior research analyst for the Florida-based institute.

"It's really hard to get an accurate look at do-it-yourself versus" the cost of hiring a contractor, Johnston said, "since the more expensive projects are ones the homeowner doesn't want to get involved in.

"I can tell you that if a do-it-yourselfer did something themselves, they spent an average of $774, but when they hired a professional they spent $9,000."

Labor remains the single highest cost in professionally completed work, Johnston said, and this is where the do-it-yourselfer can save.

Installing a new faucet, for example, usually costs from $60 to $150 for parts. Hiring a handyman to do the work -- assuming there aren't any problems with the plumbing and sink -- will raise the price by $75 to $200 in labor, whereas a plumber may charge as much as $250 for labor alone.

Redondo Beach resident Brooke Coe replaced the faucets in her home by herself. "My kitchen faucet didn't have a pullout sprayer and I wanted one," she said. "I replaced the faucets in the bathrooms for aesthetics."

Coe said the first try was a little scary, but everything went well, and now she's very comfortable doing the work.

"It's really just unscrewing the old one, and then closely follow the manufacturer's directions for putting in the new one," she said. "The kitchen faucet was a little more awkward because the garbage disposal is under there, but the bathroom ones were really simple."

Topping the list of the most popular DIY projects were painting, minor plumbing and landscaping, according to survey results released in March by Roper Reports, a New York-based company that tracks consumer attitudes and behaviors. Beyond the potential for savings, do-it-yourselfers are motivated by pride in their workmanship, the Roper survey found.

The survey results suggest that DIY is a lifestyle, with do-it-yourselfers generally leading more active lives than average.

Respondents said they got ideas and advice from lots of sources but that home-improvement TV shows led the way.

Raised on remodeling

Generation Xers -- who came of age watching HGTV and remodeling expert Bob Vila's "This Old House" -- are the emerging force in the do-it-yourself boom, the study found. That age group, about 30 to mid-40s, accounted for 41% of all do-it-yourself home-improvement spending, compared with baby boomers' 26%.

The do-it-yourself market segment is also attracting more women. It makes sense since unmarried women made up about one-fifth of home buyers last year, according to Jarrin, who is one of the two Janes at Be Jane Inc. The site, aimed at getting more women involved in DIY projects, has a message board where staff experts answer questions that other members haven't already helped with.

"Our message is that you can take on these projects yourself," Jarrin said.

Researching the project, rounding up the right tools and thinking about safety precautions will produce the best results, the experts say.

"Some jobs, it's as easy as reading the instructions that come with the fixture or faucet," Manfredini said. Larger jobs may require more preparation.

"We always suggest that people consult with a contractor before they take on something big," Jarrin said. "Ask them how they would do the job and think about if you can do it."

That's exactly what Ave Pildas did when he bought his Silver Lake house, knowing it needed serious foundation work. Over the course of the two-month job, he learned how to apply for and get permits, pour concrete and other skills while he rebuilt the foundation.

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