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Fixing up the castle

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Call them weekend wood warriors, fair-weather fixer-uppers, amateur remodelers. Call them whatever you want, just don't call them late for a sale at Hechinger.

This new breed of do-it-yourselfers (a.k.a. DIYers) take their home improvement projects seriously.

They spend much of their leisure time scouring home improvement centers looking for deals, sitting in on how-to clinics, watching "This Old House" on PBS and swapping tips with other DIYers at the checkout counter.

"The time people used to spend at the country club or in the bowling alley, they're now at home working on projects," said Arthur Rooze, senior editor of The Family Handyman Magazine, which has a circulation of more than 1 million. "Do-it-yourselfing has become a different thing than it was 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

"It used to be a down and dirty sort of thing. Only people who couldn't possibly afford professionals would think about doing it themselves. Nowadays, there's high-priced executives who think nothing of coming home and strapping on their tool belts."

A decade ago, people dabbling in home improvements might have been happy to paint and wallpaper, maybe build some bookshelves in the den.

No longer.

Today, DIYers are ripping out bathrooms and redoing them, remodeling kitchens, building decks and patios, even adding entire rooms.

Home projects veteran Alex Solomotis of Columbia thinks nothing of knocking out a wall to expand a room, ripping out old drywall, replacing a bathtub or wiring new overhead lights.

Mr. Solomotis, who owns a direct-mail advertising business, drew the line at cutting a hole in his townhouse roof to install a skylight. He called in professionals for that.

But just about any other home improvement project -- and he's tackled dozens, from remodeling bathrooms to building a 1,000-square-foot deck to installing attic steps -- is fair game.

"It's a form of relaxation. It's a hobby for me," he said.

His current and most ambitious project is adding a breakfast nook to the kitchen, which he also remodeled, installing new cabinets, tiling and grouting counter tops and bringing in new appliances.

The project has required knocking out the front kitchen wall, building new exterior walls and a roof and installing a door, three skylights and seven windows. He's getting ready to install maple wood flooring next, after removing linoleum from the original kitchen floor.

Nell Parker, spokeswoman for Home Depot, said many Americans want to fix up their homes and "stretch the dollar" at the same time. "Most people who try one project come back to do another, which says a lot about American resourcefulness," she said.

Statistics from the Home Improvement Research Institute, based Lincolnshire, Ill., show that Americans will spend almost $131 billion on home improvement projects this year alone. Homeowners will complete about 70 percent of all projects, with professionals doing about 30 percent -- a breakdown that has remained fairly consistent over the years.

What's changed is the level of difficulty in projects DIYers are willing to tackle and the amount of money they are willing to spend. From 1985 to 1995, consumer spending for DIY projects increased from $53.1 billion to $91.5 billion, a 72 percent increase. Over the same period, dollars spent on professional projects increased by 55 percent.

Sally Courtney, general merchandise manager for Hechinger, said the do-it-yourself market is so hot that retailers and manufacturers will do almost anything to cater to DIYers, remodeling stores to appeal to homeowners, providing free in-house classes and computer-assisted design services and staffing departments with former tradesmen.

The proliferation of do-it-yourself books, manuals, magazines and videos have all helped nonprofessionals gain skills and confidence, she said.

"All you have to do is look at the boxes to see how this trend is going," said Ms. Courtney, walking through the lighting and ceiling fan section of the huge Hechinger Home Project Center in Laurel. "All this stuff used to come in plain brown boxes. The assumption was you'd hire someone to install it. Now, all the boxes have photographs showing how to do it step by step."

A. J. Forner, a Baltimore custom homebuilder and cabinetmaker, said another factor is the availability of sophisticated power tools for weekend remodelers.

"A lot of people didn't do these projects because they didn't have the tools," Mr. Forner said. "When the baby boomers first started doing this stuff, they started going to suppliers to get the tools. Now they can get them anywhere."

Not only can they get the tools, but they also get expert instruction in how to use them. In November and December alone, Hechinger has scheduled 17 how-to clinics.

Tools for the bride

Retailers said one of the fastest growing segments of the DIYer market is women, who are being wooed with attractive home decorating sections featuring wall-coverings, window treatments and other home accessories.

At Home Depot, one of the innovations is a bridal registry, available at 375 stores. DIYer brides can register for 2-by-4s, power tools and light fixtures.

Christy Bartlett, who owns a three-bedroom, 1950s Colonial with her husband, Dirk, in Towson, said she has always liked working with her hands.

"When you grow up on a farm, you learn to do things for yourself," she said. "I've always figured if you can do it yourself, why hire somebody." After living with a tiny, outdated kitchen for two years, Ms. Bartlett came home from work one day and took matters into her own hands.

"I took a sledgehammer and started knocking out walls," she said. "I got a screwdriver, took out these cheap cabinets and threw them all on the deck."

She didn't stop until she reached the sink and stove. Her husband helped her remodel the kitchen over the next few months, reclaiming space that had gone to a tiny den.

Since then, they have finished the basement, retiled a bathroom, replaced damaged drywall, enlarged a doorway, refinished a backyard shed and pulled up shag carpeting throughout the house, refinishing the hardwood floors.

Kay Thomas-Collins of Columbia got so tired of looking at worn, outdated fixtures in her upstairs bathroom that she tore the room apart one day while her husband was at work.

She had gotten estimates of $3,000 to $4,000 just to take the existing bathroom apart. Although she and her husband, Marc, ended up paying someone to do the drywall, electrical and plumbing work, she still saved about $3,500 on the project. Since then, she has also removed carpeting and installed hardwood floors.

Industry experts say homeowners have a variety of reasons for tackling home projects. No. 1 is saving money. Experts estimate homeowners can save 25 to 50 percent by buying the materials and doing the work themselves.

Family project

Others say baby boomers are "nesting," spending more time at home. When they're not at work, they want to use their time turning their homes into their castles, one weekend project at a time.

"When they're home doing something, at least they're with their families, maybe the kids are even helping," Mr. Rooze said.

He added that many homeowners believe that they can get a better result doing the work themselves. "It's often hard to get good craftsmen," he said, "There's a lot of sleazy work out there, and people think, if I can do it, I can do it just as well."

Most DIYers talk about the pride they have in accomplishing something tangible.

"It's the satisfaction of coming home and saying, 'Wow, I created this,' " Mrs. Bartlett said.

But there's a downside to the fixer-upper game as well.

Larger jobs are time-consuming. When a homeowner works elsewhere during the day, a job that would take a professional crew days or weeks might take a DIYer months.

"You have to have the stomach for it, to be able to live with the

mess over a long period of time," said Mr. Solomotis, who started his deck one fall and didn't finish until the following summer.

And not all jobs turn out exactly as planned. Sometimes, homeowners get halfway into something and discover they're in over their heads.

Such was the case with the Collins' deck. After they poured concrete footings and got supports and joists up, they could see the structure swaying.

They bailed out.

"I was not going out on that thing, so we hired someone professional," Mrs. Collins said.

Reflecting on her foray into do-it-yourselfing, she said: "I really do get some enjoyment out of it. But I think if I had all the money in the world, I'd hire someone else."

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