- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

Today’s homeowner doesn’t think twice about grabbing a saw and a paintbrush, thanks to the influx of do-it-yourself resources. It’s common to see homeowners alongside professional contractors at area home improvement store purchasing supplies.

This trend is popularized as DIY for do-it-yourself. Cable television offers home improvement programming around the clock, prompting anyone and everyone to tackle home projects. Results are mixed.

Professionals advise homeowners not to rush into projects without first taking the time to thoroughly research the skills needed, time involved and the required permits.

It saves time, effort and protects a homeowner’s investment in his home.

The pros say they’ve been called more than once to finish a job that has been botched or just too frustrating or time-consuming for an inexperienced homeowner to wrap up.

Yet eager homeowners, hoping to save money and have bragging rights, continue to account for a large portion of the growing home improvement market.

Low interest rates have combined with rising home values to drive home improvement projects, putting more money into homeowners’ hands. And homeowners are willing to sink the money into their biggest investment. Some 75 percent of homeowners nationwide have done some type of home improvement project within the past year, says Richard Johnston, senior researcher at the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI).

Do-it-yourselfers accounted for about 20 percent of the billions Americans spend each year on home improvement and repair projects big and small, according to Census Bureau figures.

“Some homeowners are becoming mini-general contractors,” says Margeau Gilbert of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Laurel. “The most intrepid will tear down walls, build additions on their houses, erect gazebos or waterfalls and decks. DIY projects are definitely in vogue right now.”

Painting the interior, improving the landscaping and replacing the plumbing were the top three DIY projects, according to HIRI’s recent survey, while the bottom three were adding a room or garage, adding or remodeling a bathroom and replacing the siding.

“The faux painting techniques are definitely number one. The results can be incredible when done correctly because painting is the least expensive way to make a change. It’s also probably the easiest and most innocuous of DIY projects,” says Ms. Gilbert.

Home improvement stores offer a wide range of free classes catering to DIY enthusiasts.

Major home improvement retailers such as Lowes and Home Depot draw a crowd during workshops in which customers can learn how to do everything from decorating with crown molding and paneling to organizing a garage to building or refurbishing a deck.

“Our most popular clinic is the one on how to install laminate or hardwood flooring,” says Joe Miller, operations manager for Home Depot in Alexandria. Mr. Miller says men and women of all ages take part in these clinics, which he says have become more popular over the years.

“Some people come in not knowing what to expect and see that the project is not as difficult as they thought,” says Mr. Miller.

Avid DIY-er Opal Hawkins of Fort Washington says she and her husband often attend weekend training classes at a nearby home improvement store. She initially started learning how to build, fix and repair items around the house when she was single and decided that she couldn’t afford professional help.

“Home and Garden Television was my best friend. I learned a great deal about home repairs as well as gardening tips,” says Ms. Hawkins.

Five years ago, Ms. Hawkins and her husband purchased some investment properties and say they choose to learn how to fix items around the property in order to avoid spending their profits on costly repairs.

But a class can’t take the place of experience.

Experts warn against unrealistic expectations when taking on a home improvement project.

“Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing,” says Ms. Gilbert, who worries that the proliferation of DIY information has given some homeowners a false sense of security.

“They look at a program, take a class or read something on the Internet and think they can do it,” says Ms. Gilbert. She adds that while it’s wonderful that all of these newfound resources are inspiring homeowners to do more themselves, sometimes the results aren’t the kind of improvements the homeowners were looking for.

It can be a windfall for the experts.

Rahul Parkh of Mr. Handyman in Millersville, Md., says he has received calls from homeowners who started projects but didn’t have the time or skills to finish them.

“Some people realize in the middle of the project that it’s not going to work,” says Mr. Parkh, who has come to the rescue of several DIY projects gone wrong.

The Hawkinses’ biggest DIY project was finishing their basement.

The couple initially thought they could pull it off, but the job became overwhelming and they called on a professional to finish it.

Other projects that seem small can also be deceiving, Ms. Hawkins says.

“Crown molding is more difficult than most people realize. But $250 worth of crown molding later, I realized that I needed to take a class to learn how to miter the ends correctly to fit the corners.”

Ms. Gilbert says it’s common for people to attempt a DIY project and never finish it.

“I can’t tell you the number of clients I’ve had who have started a DIY project and promised to finish it by the time their home is sold. It rarely happens,” she says.

Building sheds and play gyms, installing ceiling fans and faucets, and repairing siding are some of the common requests Mr. Parkh says he receives.

“With the housing market boom, we also get a lot of calls from people wanting window treatments,” says Mr. Parkh.

He adds that although Mr. Handyman performs many odd jobs that homeowners don’t have time to do, the firm shies away from major electrical and plumbing work.

And homeowners should do the same, according to industry experts.

Many in the industry say that certain projects — such as performing any kind of electrical work other than installing switches, outlets or light fixtures, major plumbing work, making structural repairs, or replacing a roof — should be left to the professionals.

Any of these jobs done incorrectly can have serious safety implications, not to mention an impact on the value of a house.

In addition, real estate agents say they often run into proud homeowners who believe prospective buyers won’t be able to tell their do-it-yourself project from the work of a professional.

“I’ve seen DIY projects that look like kids’ play, yet the homeowners are so proud of themselves they can’t wait to show you,” says Ms. Gilbert. She says some people are naturally creative at whatever project they attempt. Others aren’t so blessed.

It takes finesse, tact and diplomacy to inform a homeowner that their work is going to be a problem for resale, she says.

DIY projects can add or detract from the value of a home, depending on the project, cost, materials and most of all workmanship, says Ms. Gilbert.

Some projects like plumbing or electrical work can actually affect the home warranty, she says.

Real estate agents say another concern is insurance.

“Insurance companies are wary of insuring DIY projects because many aren’t up to code, have inferior materials, or were the product of unsafe shortcuts,” Ms. Gilbert says. “I’m not saying that people who do DIY projects are purposely doing this, I’m saying that mistakes can be easily made.”

Before tearing down walls or installing that fence, the professionals advise homeowners to check local and state building offices. Doing so will reduce the chance of having to perform pricey repairs to bring the work into compliance.

A building permit is usually required for additions, decks, fireplaces, basement renovations and electrical or plumbing work.

Experts also say to pick your battles. Some maintenance or renovation projects that homeowners attempt are actually less expensive if done by a professional.

If you’ve done your homework, taking on a DIY project can be rewarding.

“I have tackled many projects and I love seeing the transformation from the ‘before’ to the ‘after,’ and realizing that I did it with my own hands,” says Ms. Hawkins.

“Above all, know your limits,” says Ms. Gilbert. “If you’re handy around tools and have a real comfort level reading manuals written in arcane language, then by all means, have fun.”

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