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Grandpa Could Fix Anything. A Lot of Us Are Still Trying.

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By Mike McClintock
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 8, 2000; Page H01

There have always been legions of do-it-yourselfers who tackle home repairs to avoid paying a professional. And lots of homeowners spend weekends painting, wiring, plumbing and woodworking because they enjoy the challenge and the sense of accomplishment.

For some, hours spent puttering around the house are pure therapy. For millions of others, sweat equity pays off by nurturing small investments in modest homes into retirement nest eggs.

These days, D-I-Y isn't necessarily easier than it used to be--houses and appliances are generally more complicated than in the old days. But there is a wider choice of materials, more ready-to-assemble kits, handier tools and a deluge of how-to help from magazines, books, television and the Internet.

"There is quite a boom in home-improvement activity," says Brett Martin, a spokesman for the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), based in Alexandria. According to NARI and other industry groups, both do-it-yourselfer and contractor expenditures are rising, and D-I-Yers now account for almost one fifth of the $150 billion spent annually on home repairs and improvements.

Enthusiasm for do-it-yourself rises and falls with economic and social changes. Early American colonists imported glass, nails and other manufactured goods at first, then eventually began making their own. Pioneers moving west had to know how to build their own houses if they wanted a place to sleep. Splitting logs, drilling wells and building furniture was the norm for many Americans until the turn of the century.

Gradually, machines took over jobs people had always done by hand, freeing homeowners to tinker where once they toiled. Magazines such as House Beautiful and Better Homes & Gardens began carrying home-product advertisements directed at consumers instead of tradespeople.

During the Depression--and during recessions since then--interest in doing it yourself surged as homeowners tackled jobs they might have paid a contractor to do in flush times. Increasing home ownership and the first home-improvement loan--a 1934 payment of $125 by the newly formed Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to a Minnesota man who needed to fix his roof, install a water tank and paint the house--got more people interested in home-improvement skills.

These days, the FHA is better known for low-rate home mortgages. But between 1934 and 1937, one in eight American homeowners had an FHA home-improvement loan. The average amount of about $400 was applied to some very basic improvements: The 1940 U.S. Census found that 31 percent of American homes had no running water, 35 percent had no flush toilets and 44 percent had no bathtubs.

One of the most comprehensive approaches to doing things yourself was initiated by Frank W. Kushel, a manager at Sears who was supposed to close down the unprofitable building-materials mail-order division. Instead, he took a chance on rebuilding the business with a line of 22 precut houses priced from $650 to $2,500. The packages included all materials aside from the foundation, even the nails.

Many buyers subcontracted excavation and masonry work, then assembled the remaining 25 tons of materials by themselves. They could handle the job, even before the widespread use of power tools, because every part of the house was premeasured and precut.

Between 1908 and 1940, the Sears collection grew to include 450 architecturally detailed houses that represented every twist on mainstream American architecture. More than 100,000 were sold, and many still exist today.

World War II brought shortages of consumer goods, but when the soldiers came home from the war (and women home from the war plant), VA mortgages and a housing boom spawned a corresponding boom in do-it-yourself. A standard 40-hour workweek left two full days for weekend fix-it warriors. Popular Mechanics magazine illustrated step-by-step projects that helped to attract 250,000 new subscribers in one year. In 1951, Better Homes & Gardens published its "Handyman's Book," which became a bestseller. Business Week magazine asserted that this was "the age of do-it-yourself."

Oil shortages in the 1970s fueled a renewed burst of D-I-Y activity, with homeowners insulating, caulking and installing energy-efficient appliances.

Today, most D-I-Yers still buy their repair and improvement supplies from a single source--the home center. Two of the most successful chains, Lowe's and Home Depot, had modest starts and have grown in size and number at staggering rates.

Lowe's started out 54 years ago in North Carolina as North Wilkesboro Hardware. Then C.H. Buchan bought out his partner and brother-in-law, James Lowe. Now, it's the nation's 18th-largest retailer, with 589 stores and more than 100,000 employees in 39 states and annual sales in excess of $15 billion. Some stores present 150,000 square feet of retail space and stock more than 40,000 home-improvement items with special-order programs for 400,000 more.

The first Home Depot stores opened in Atlanta in 1979. They were attached to Treasure Island stores and stocked around 25,000 products. Within five years, there were full-fledged stores in Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Alabama. Now, Home Depot is the world's largest home-improvement retailer, with almost 1,000 stores in the United States and Canada, Puerto Rico and Chile, more than 200,000 employees, and annual sales approaching $40 billion. Stores present from 105,000 to 115,000 square feet of retail space plus a 15,000- to 25,000-square-foot garden center and stock 40,000 to 50,000 kinds of building materials, home-improvement supplies, and lawn and garden products. The company is currently on an expansion program designed to nearly double the number of stores in the next three years.

While the first home centers offered basic building materials and a limited array of tools, they now carry just about everything do-it-yourselfers (and most contractors) could need.

As stores have changed, what's stocked on the shelves of those stores has changed too as tools moved from manual to electric, corded to cordless, and became lighter weight and easier to use, particularly for women. Many new products were targeted at the novices embarking on a first foray to tile a foyer, attach cabinet hardware or install a bay window.

Some of the biggest changes have come in the tool department. At Sears, for example, many stores now feature an area called Tool Territory, where competing brands of drills and saws are available for a trial run. Such innovation has made it possible for customers to discover first-hand some of the most beneficial design changes in basic tools. On drills, for example, hours of frustration were saved by the invention of the keyless chuck that allows you to attach bits by hand.

Although air-powered tools have made only modest inroads in the home shop, they have added commercial capacity to many how-to projects. Start with a compressor and an air hose, and you can operate many different types of tool heads, from paint sprayers and socket wrenches to sanders and nailers.

The latest innovations have been tools that take some of the guesswork (and errors) out of projects, such as laser line levels that emit a visible beam of light and swivel so you can accurately mark any level location. Some models emit multiple beams to handle simultaneous plumb, square and level marks up to 150 feet away. The formerly commercial-duty tools have come down in price (under $200), which puts them at last on the fringe of home use. Many over-the-counter power tools have become so reliable that NASA, which used to design and build its own tools, now uses many stock tools in space.

Another high-tech development has been software designed to sketch out a deck or lay out new kitchen cabinets. Paint colors can be changed, wallpaper tried out and furniture rearranged with the click of a mouse. Do-it-yourselfers have never had it so good.

Once a male-dominated field, the do-it-yourself industry now targets millions of women are as well. Almost 60 percent of single women now own their own homes, according to the Census Bureau. How-to shows on radio and television often have an equal split of men and women in their audiences.

Home Depot reports that 50 percent of its customers are women. A recent survey commissioned by the chain found that 37 percent of women said they would prefer to spend weekend leisure time working on a home-improvement project than shopping. Favorite jobs were painting, gardening and wallpapering, followed by tiling a floor, installing ceiling fans and lighting fixtures, and putting up window treatments. Fifty-four percent of women said they were currently in the process of planning a home-improvement project, compared to 51 percent of men.

Along with changes in what we buy and where we buy it have come changes in where we get advice on how to use it. Most D-I-Yers need practical help, the kind of one-on-one hand-holding we used to get at neighborhood hardware stores and lumberyards. Now that many local outlets have been swallowed up by mammoth home centers, it can be difficult to find someone to tell you what kind of caulk to use around the bathtub.

Many of the chains have sought to improve customer service by offering in-store clinics, decorating help, computer-aided design and other practical advice. In Home Depot's customer survey of female customers, most said they check first with a family member or friend before tackling a project where they are short of experience. But 68 percent said home-improvement stores were the next best place to turn for help, ranking the big retailers higher than magazines, books or the Internet.

How-to books have long been a staple source of step-by-step advice. Magazines can help you zoom in on specific projects with picture-caption sequences, but the circumstances they show often don't match the ones you're facing. That means you often have to fill in a lot of blanks.

The practical disconnect can be even more apparent on how-to television programs. The shows tend to be more entertaining than instructional. You can get a lot of good ideas watching a deck go up in 30 minutes of edited videotape. But when a subassembly of stairs begins with the stringers already in place, watching won't translate to doing.

The latest tidal wave of advice is rolling in on the Internet. Type in a few keywords--frozen pipes, leaky roof--and you will be swamped with information sites. Most have something to sell.

But more and more commercial Web sites have realized that advertising alone won't keep people clicking back; do-it-yourself help will. Large manufacturers in every field now have how-to services on line--and maybe a toll-free line as a backup.

Trade associations have chimed in. The National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association (www.nofma.org), for example, offers information on new products, tools, estimating, grading, a buyer's guide and, among other useful features, an illustrated guide to finishing hardwood floors. The Asphalt Roofing Manufacturers Association (www.asphaltroofing.org) has a rundown of every type and use of roofing material.

You may be a modern D-I-Yer who likes to shop on line for products and advice, or a traditionalist who will accept a more limited selection in exchange for the knowledgable service of local stores. However you go about it, you'll find that doing it yourself can pay off in increased home equity and the satisfaction of making your own repairs and improvements.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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