Handywomen Hands on: Women have become a major segment of the do-it-yourself, home-repair market. One major retailer says women account for 50 percent of his weekend business.

November 24, 1996|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

They know the difference between an emery board and an emery wheel, are as addicted to buying tools as they are to shopping for shoes and are far too knowledgeable to ever believe a stud finder is something to take out with them on a Saturday night.

They are "handywomen," for lack of a better term -- and their numbers are growing.

Chuck Jacobson, administrative manager of the Home Depot store in Towson's Perring Plaza shopping center, said women shoppers typically make up half of the store's weekend rush. Women undertaking repairs on their own account for about 25 percent of the store's annual business, he said.

Fueled in part by a rising number of women purchasing their own homes, females with a flair for the industrial arts have moved beyond trend status to that of nationally recognized consumer. You see them in the mega-hardware and building supply centers such as Home Depot, Hechinger and Lowe's, their carts brimming with lumber, caulking compound, pipe fittings and wallpaper.

Some were born into the world of do-it-yourself, their weekly and biweekly trips for supplies a family tradition. Mollie McCormick, 31, of Mount Airy, fondly remembers trailing behind her father as he strode through the aisles at Hechinger and then at home getting a firsthand lesson in basic household repair.

Other women were forced by circumstance to enter what has traditionally been a male domain.

Allegra Bennett, a free-lance writer and former reporter for The Sun, tells how, after her divorce from a 23-year marriage, the garbage disposal in her home broke down yet again and began splattering shrimp heads all over the basement.

With her ex-husband no longer around to fix it, and reluctant to part with $75 for a plumbing company, Bennett says, she figured out the problem and repaired it herself -- permanently.

The resulting sense of accomplishment sent her straight to Sears on a tool-buying spree, she said.

Five years later, Bennett -- a self-proclaimed home-repair ignoramus for most of her 50 years whose oft-repeated words were, "Honey do -- honey take care of it." -- is the author of a home-repair guide. "Renovating Woman: A Guide to Home Repair, Maintenance and Real Men" is due out this spring from Simon & Schuster.

Though she's a superhero for many women -- sort of an industrialized Martha Stewart -- Bennett insists she hasn't accomplished anything that another woman (or man, for that matter) couldn't do. "An expert is no more expert than you,

except they have a few more jobs under their belt," she said.

According to Bennett, handywomen -- who know that Black & Decker makes more than cooking appliances -- are armed with confidence and bravado in their battle against the elements that threaten to turn the average home into a bottomless money pit.

"When you discover these things aren't all that mysterious, you wonder, 'Why did I wait so long to get curious about this stuff?' " Bennett said.

Robbie Baranoff's interest in the industrial arts began as a student at what is now Deer Park Middle School, in Randallstown, when she looked for an alternative to the home economics class. "I already knew how to cook and I didn't really care to learn how to sew," Baranoff, 29, explained, so she enrolled in a shop class and made a lantern that still sits at her mother's house.

By high school, Baranoff was handling pesky household jobs from installing the cable television jack to putting in light fixtures. In her mid-20s, two of her closest friends presented her with a birthday gift she still cherishes -- a power drill.

Baranoff's red metal toolbox holds an assortment of hammers, pliers, screwdrivers and wrenches -- all of which came in handy when she and her husband, Aaron, 30, decided to refinish the basement of their Ellicott City townhouse earlier this year.

The couple began construction at 5 p.m. on the day they settled. Two weeks later -- with help from relatives and friends -- the cinder block and concrete shell had been transformed into a family room, spacious office and laundry/storage area. The only task the Baranoffs didn't undertake themselves was laying the carpet.

They insist they worked as equal partners in everything from the floor plan to framing the walls, with each one's lack of knowledge in a specific area supplemented by the other's expertise. The only casualty of the project was temporary -- she couldn't wear her wedding ring for a month because her hands were so swollen from hammering.

"I think next time we'd rent a nail gun," she said.

Learning from mistakes is common for do-it-yourselfers, but there's no reason an error in judgment should discourage a woman from plugging ahead -- with or without the help of a boyfriend, spouse or father, says Linda Hammer, a Home Depot salesperson at Perring Plaza.

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