In a fix

With the economy in a downslide, homeowners are rising to the challenge of do-it-yourself repair and remodeling projects

January 31, 2009|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

On a freezing Saturday morning, with snow flurries in the forecast, a handful of people braved the weather to watch Stephanie Kirchner give a clinic on tiling at the Home Depot in Cockeysville.

At a small demonstration area in the middle of the store, surrounded by buckets and wet saws and mixing compounds, Kirchner ticked off the pros and cons of three types of tile: ceramic, porcelain and natural stone.

While natural stone, the priciest of the three, is the Taj Mahal of the tile world, even that has a few negatives, she said.

"It's very beautiful but more difficult to install," Kirchner said. "It needs lots of treatments. Also it's difficult to clean."

Looking on with rapt attention was Mary Sturm of Upperco, who had just bought a condo in Bethany Beach, Del., and was interested in fixing up its two bathrooms.

"In order to afford the condo and do the [repair] work, too, I have to do some of the work myself," said Sturm.

With more consumers feeling the effects of the economic downturn - which shows no signs of lifting soon - the popularity of clinics and classes in home repair and home maintenance seems to be on the rise.

"What [we're] getting is a lot more of the do-it-yourselfers," said Corrie Grammer, specialty manager at the Home Depot.

He recalled a conversation a few days earlier with a couple who planned to install laminate in a powder room in their home.

"They said: 'If times were better, we'd have somebody else do it,' " Grammer said.

Instead, he continued, "they bought all the products they needed from start to finish" and headed off to plunge into their project.

Home Depot, the country's largest home-improvement retailer, offered free clinics this month on energy efficiency in the home, tiling floors and walls, closet organization and hanging drywall.

Its February clinics will be on painting, tiling, small-bath updates and installing interior lighting.

And while corporate spokeswoman Jennifer King said, "We don't track attendance of regular clinics," she added, "I definitely think we see an increase in people doing projects themselves or inquiring about projects they can do."

King said Home Depot's "do-it-herself workshops," started in 2003 for women do-it-yourselfers, have also been popular.

"We wanted to give women an environment where they could feel comfortable asking questions ... and learning with other women," she said. "It's been really successful."

Lowe's, Home Depot's chief big-box rival, does not offer in-store clinics, but does offer an extensive online library of home-improvement topics for customers to tap into.

"Our customers have said they prefer having information online so they can have it easily available as they plan their own DIY projects or do research for projects they plan to hire [for]," spokeswoman Karen Cobb said in an e-mail.

But despite the economic meltdown of the past few months, Cobb said Lowe's hasn't seen a dramatic shift in the types of projects people are undertaking.

"Our research shows that, with the exception of bigger-ticket projects such as kitchen remodels, consumers are interested in the same types of home projects they've been tackling for many years," she said.

Gardening and landscaping, interior painting, replacing lighting fixtures, replacing plumbing fixtures and front-entrance enhancements are the top projects of interest to Lowe's customers, Cobb said.

As for the reasons for taking on such projects, Lowe's research shows that 92 percent of its customers say they're interested in replacing old or worn-out materials, 44 percent want to clean up or freshen the look of their homes and 41 percent plan to decorate or redecorate.

At the Community College of Baltimore County, 14 home-improvement or do-it-yourself classes were offered in the continuing-education program last fall, including cabinetmaking, electricity, woodworking and home maintenance and repair.

This spring, 18 different classes will be offered, including several new classes such as "Power Tool Use" and "Basic Home Systems," "Introduction to Plumbing" and "Choosing Kitchen Products," said Louise D. Slezak, director of community education.

"Since the economy is in a downswing, we are anticipating interest and enrollment in these courses to increase, since residents may be choosing to do the work themselves," she said in an e-mail.

Back at the Home Depot, Sturm wandered away from the clinic to walk up and down Aisle 7 looking at various types of tile.

She sounded optimistic about being able to handle the tiling of her condo bathrooms.

"I think I can do this," she said. "You have to start someplace to see if you have the courage to do it."

Meanwhile, back at the clinic, Janelle Johnson of Parkville watched Kirchner trowel mortar, a tile adhesive, and then demonstrate how to lay the tile.

Johnson took a turn spreading the dark, gloppy substance. Then she tried her hand at aligning the tiles, using spacers to set them the proper distance apart.

"I have an island [counter] for my kitchen and I'm trying to tile the top of it," she said. "That's why I'm here. I like doing these kinds of projects anyway. And it saves money.

"And the difference in what I save could mean a vacation for me."

before you diy ...

Katie and Gene Hamilton, a St. Michaels couple who write a do-it-yourself syndicated column and have written a number of books on DIY projects, offer these insights:

Do-It-Yourselfers' Mistakes:

* Scheduling a big project before a holiday or family event.

* Tackling too large a project.

* Neglecting to prepare family members for the inconvenience (no electricity means no hair dryer).

* Not budgeting enough money to eat out.

* Losing their sense of humor.

Don't Do This at Home:

* Install drywall

* Install roofing on a two-story house

* Sand floors

* Take on plumbing projects that require a building permit

For more information, see the Hamiltons' Web site, diyornot.com.

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