- The Washington Times - Friday, September 25, 2009

While some homeowners have put off home-renovation projects, others are tackling the tasks themselves. Experts say that folks are curbing their spending on home improvements by rolling up their sleeves to maintain, update or expand their living space.

According to the Home Remodeling and Repair Index by ServiceMagic Inc., for the second quarter of 2009, homeowners seeking professional help were not requesting large-scale improvements, such as finished basements and additions. Instead, there is more interest in smaller projects, such as countertop replacements.

“People living in Montgomery County, Fairfax County and Northwest Washington still have a fair amount of money,” said Mark Scott, president of Bethesda-based Mark IV Builders Inc. “But there’s a ton of general reluctance to spend money on anything.”

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In addition to people being reluctant to spend, industry professionals say it’s become harder for homeowners to tap into home-equity lines of credit to finance improvement projects.

Large home-improvement stores Lowe’s Cos. Inc. and Home Depot Inc. offer clinics to show customers how to make common repairs and improvements. Popular workshops include how to install laminate flooring and build/refurbish a deck. Home Depot even has a free “Home Improver Club” where people can sign up online (www.homeimproverclub.com) to get access to special savings as well as schedules and registration for workshops.

“We’ve definitely seen more homeowners taking on do-it-yourself projects to help save money in this economy,” said Bryan Dennison, store manager for the Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue in the District.

He said that the attendance of their weekly how-to workshops has increased and that he’s seen more customers who are first-timers taking on projects. The most popular home-improvement projects are painting and tiling, according to Mr. Dennison.

“They’re both relatively inexpensive, easy to learn and can make a big impact in the look of a room,” he added.

Mr. Dennison said that customers aren’t only doing more things to beautify their homes; he’s also noticed more interest in learning how to perform home repairs and maintenance projects, such as fixing leaky faucets or broken toilets.

When it comes to making homes more comfortable, kitchens, bathrooms and family rooms are the most often revamped areas in homes, according to Elisabeth Salchow, a Realtor with RE/MAX United Real Estate in Upper Marlboro who’s been in the business for 30 years. She said that kitchen remodels can range anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000, and she agrees that owners are reluctant to take out improvement loans now.

“Owners look to take on the renovation on their own, often with the assistance of relatives or family friends who know what they’re doing,” said Ms. Salchow.

However, she said that licensed contractors are usually hired to avoid dangerous and costly mistakes when it comes to things like plumbing and electrical work. Finishing a basement, for example, can be a major job, and Ms. Salchow has seen owners attempt to do it themselves - but give up at the framing stage. She says the major obstacles for homeowners finishing a basement themselves are adding ventilation, HVAC equipment, a bath, electrical work, hanging drywall, and installing ceilings and floors.

While Mr. Dennison said there’s not a perfect formula to figure out whether doing it yourself is the right way to go, some factors to consider are cost, safety, time and convenience. He said the projects better left to professionals include installing countertops, cabinets, windows, water heaters, roofing and retaining walls.

“These projects are difficult and, if done incorrectly, could present major issues,” added Mr. Dennison.

Mr. Scott has received calls from homeowners who have started projects and needed his help to finish once they realized that it was too complicated and that they are in over their heads. He doesn’t like to take on this type of project because it typically involves a lot more time and includes fixing the work that was started incorrectly.

Another trend in remodeling is to make over homes so they are more energy efficient. Replacing the windows is the first thing people think about when it comes to living green, Mr. Scott said. As a trained energy auditor, he said that adding insulation and caulking is much more important than new windows and will make a noticeable difference.

“The first things that owners should try to do themselves are the simple things,” said Mr. Scott, adding that things like caulking the windows and air sealing the attic will get the best bang for your buck.

Mr. Scott said that there a lot of things that reasonably capable people can do, however, he added that people need to know that “a house is more complex than it used to be, especially with the push to save more energy, because the house works as a system now rather than a group of parts.”

Professionals agree that making their homes more energy efficient is one of the things on most homeowners’ minds when it comes to improvements.

“Projects that help save customers money in the long run have gained popularity,” said Mr. Dennison. “For example, customers are planting veggie gardens and making their homes more energy efficient - the first helps save money on grocery bills and the second on energy bills.”

Some homeowners would rather hire a professional willing to do the job within their budget than risk the hassles involved with doing it themselves. Judy Kogod, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Bethesda, said she has noticed more homeowners contracting for additions and renovations because contractors are hurting for jobs.

“This is an economy in which you can get really good bids from contractors desperate to pay their subs,” she said.

Ms. Kogod said that she can tell the difference between a harried homeowner job and a professional one. She usually advises homeowners not to tackle certain projects themselves unless they are very handy and have some experience.

She asks, “Would you do your own dentistry to save money?”

Ms. Salchow said that she’s often shown houses with “finished” basements that were obviously not done by professionals and that it can lower the value of the house significantly.

“It also may flag the problem that the owner did not obtain a county permit for the work and there was no professional inspection,” she adds.

This has become a growing problem with home improvements, deck installation and additions, according to Ms. Salchow. A new owner will inherit not only the substandard workmanship, but also potential legal problems.

Some of the most common projects that Ms. Salchow easily recognizes as the work of the homeowner instead of a professional include things like painting, caulking, installing fences and replacing doors. She said that these seemingly simple tasks can be a challenge to inexperienced homeowners trying to do the work themselves.

Industry professionals agree that homeowners should know their limits before starting a home-improvement project and not think they can do everything.

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