Ah, homeownership. It's the American Dream.
Sometimes, though, you wish you were only dreaming. When the sink backs up or the furnace conks out, the cold, hard reality (colder at this time of year than others) is that there ain't no landlord to call anymore.
In the first year of owning a newly constructed house, people spend about $9,000 on furniture, appliances, decoration, improvements and the like, according to research by the National Association of Home Builders; for an older house, they spend about $6,500 in the first year. That's on top of mortgage payments.
Still, homeownership rates are at their highest ever -- 68 percent of all households. That's about 107 million owner-occupied units, according to the experts at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.
With housing appreciation soaring and mortgage interest rates at record lows, about 9 million families have taken the plunge since 1997, say the Harvard researchers. And 1 in 4 Americans plans to buy in the next three years, says Fannie Mae.
That means there are a lot of new homeowners around, and they need a lot of stuff -- but they probably invested every nickel they have in the down payment and closing costs. The holidays offer an opportunity for sympathetic friends and relatives to lend a hand.
In the spirit of Christmas, Kwanzaa and (belatedly) Hanukah, we offer this simple list of gifts for beginners:
* A good home-repair book, written in plain English, with color photos or clear illustrations, is a must.
There are scores to choose from, but some are classics, such as the "New Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual" ($35) and "New Fix-It-Yourself Manual" ($35) from Reader's Digest.
A new entry that's gotten solid reviews is "Dare to Repair: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home" (HarperResource, $14.95) by Julie Sussman, wife of a CIA employee, and Stephanie Glakas-Tenet, wife of CIA Director George Tenet.
The National Association of Home Builders offers "Caring for Your Home: A Guide to Maintaining Your Investment" by James Gerhart (Home Builder Press, $24 from BuilderBooks.com). Other possibilities: "Home Maintenance for Dummies" by James Carey and Morris Carey (John Wiley & Sons, $21.99), Black & Decker's "The Complete Photo Guide to Home Repair" (Creative Publishing International, $34.95) and "Consumer Reports' Best Buys for Your Home 2002" ($9.95).
* Cordless power tools. Must have cordless power tools.
That's a new homeowner's plea, and the hardware manufacturers of America have heard it. The options run from intro level to mega-monsters.
For a beginner, a combo drill/screwdriver can't be beat. (It's great for hanging shelves, which were against the rules at the old apartment.)
For those with bigger budgets, try a super combo kit with saws, a drill/screwdriver and a flashlight. It costs about $200.
Home Depot, which is marketing heavily these days to single women, says a popular seller for that demographic is a Ryobi drill/vac set, which includes a cordless drill/screwdriver and a hand vacuum.
Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse says its holiday survey shows nearly 4 in 10 female homeowners wanted a home-improvement-related gift more than any other gift this year. When asked which tool they can't live without, 59 percent of those polled said hand tools.
* A good hammer is essential and cheap. The standard is a 16-ounce, curved-claw model.
Experts recommend that consumers buy a hammer that feels good to hold, so the gift-giver might want to drag the homeowner to the store for this item.
A suggestion from one chronic do-it-yourselfer: the AntiVibe Forged Steel Rip Claw Hammer from Stanley ($18.79 at Home Depot). The company claims the product "has three times better vibration reduction." It also has an ergonomic handle.
* The new homeowner learns quickly the value of a toolbox to carry everything from chore to chore -- and to cut down on arguments about who put the wrench where. Because the variety of tool carriers is almost endless, a cautious shopper can find one at just about any price range.
Lowe's recommends filling any toolbox with the following: a power drill/screwdriver, hammer, set of screwdrivers (both slot and Phillips head), wrench, hacksaw, utility knife, tape measure, bubble level and pliers. It takes a tough tape measure to do tough jobs, says one weekend warrior. He suggests a Stanley Fat Max 100-Foot Measuring Tape ($19.97 at Lowe's).
* New twists on old reliables include electronic stud finders, for finding nails inside walls (from $10 to $40 at most hardware stores), and combination laser level and stud finders, which not only detect studs but use lasers to automatically level ($69.91 for a Black & Decker version at Lowe's).
* A wet-dry vac, or shop vacuum, is worth its weight in gold when you're suddenly swimming in water. The trick is to buy one that's big enough to handle most spills without spending way more than needed.
The options run from a one-gallon portable option, suitable for little spills, to giant 22-gallon contractor versions. But new homeowners might most treasure the ones in the middle (they run from $35 to $50).
* There's nothing like six inches of snow to remind everyone why you need a good snow shovel. Not only is it polite and safe to shovel your walk, but in many areas, it's also legally required.
Once again, there's a wide range of options. Home Depot offers an ergonomically correct version (can there be such a thing?), with an angled handle for $17.92.
* You have to have a garbage can with wheels. Lugging the trash to the curb is a whole new world from carrying it to a garbage chute.
* Other good bets: smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors; painting equipment and indoor sprayers; and cleaning products and mops and brooms (though the latter may be just too practical to give as gifts!).
* Yards may be eye-openers for some first-time homeowners. If you have one, you need a lawnmower -- or a goat. And, yes, you will need ways to control pests and keep things growing, either naturally or chemically.
Because so much of gardening is personal, a gift-giver might want to stick to standards, such as a good sturdy English soil rake ($32 from Smith & Hawken) or a sturdy leak rake ($16.97 for a True Temper 24-inch leaf rake from Lowe's).
Bulb planters range from a basic $2.48 steel-and-plastic version at Lowe's to a long-handled, forged-steel version on sale for $47.99 at Smith & Hawken. Washington Post gardening editor Adrian Higgins says a sturdy long-handle round point shovel is also a good gift.
Those with bigger budgets might consider a composter (see Gardener's Supply Co. at Gardeners.com). Or spring for garden hoses and sprinklers, or hose reels.
To make sense of a yard, a novice homeowner might dig a good, basic gardening book. Higgins sometimes consults the 1,008-page Botanica's Gardening Encyclopedia (Laurel Glen Publishing, $19.95). The key, for most homeowners, is a reference guide that not only offers good photos but also discusses what kills different plants, when to trim them, where to plant them and when they'll bloom.
The Home and Garden Information Center of the Maryland Cooperative Extension offers a bunch of common-sense publications about growing plants, poisonous plants, landscaping and lawn plants, deer damage and native plants.
The extension service's Soil Test Kit, which costs only $5, includes instructions for taking soil samples and a bag for mailing soil. The test provides information about soil texture, pH, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium, and the center provides a basic fact sheet.
* For those just about to move in, a great gift is Redi-Shades, temporary window shades that can be installed quickly. The accordion-pleated shades don't require any hardware. They just stick to the window. They're available in 36-inch and 48-inch widths, both six feet long ($4.27 each at Home Depot).
* Because new homeowners quickly become overwhelmed with paper, a gift-giver can't go wrong with filing or storage containers. The options range from accordion folders for keeping monthly bills to fireproof boxes for storing "really important documents" to a small safe.
A good journal, documenting what's being done to a house or what it's doing to a homeowner, is also useful.
* For insurance purposes, every homeowner should get a Polaroid camera with lots of film or a video camera to document all that's valuable inside the house.
Insurance companies are sticklers when it comes to documenting losses in fires or natural disasters. (Again, though, you have to keep the photos or computer CDs in a fireproof location.)
* For those who have just bought a house themselves and therefore have no money, a good gift is to volunteer to help. Cleaning gutters, painting walls, raking leaves -- those all have to be done by someone.
* One freebie that can save a newcomer mucho money and headaches is a list of reliable, licensed contractors or handymen in the neighborhood. Then, when things go wrong, the new owner doesn't have to waste time or money. And a personal reference always beats the Yellow Pages.
* Of course, a check is always a suitable present. "You can't beat a check; everybody likes money," economist Robert Van Order, of Freddie Mac, said recently when asked for his opinion on a good holiday gift.
To others, though, a check seems too impersonal. They prefer gift cards. According to one survey, 51 percent of people say they're giving gift certificates, gift cards or cash as gifts this year, up from last year's record 39 percent.
* For those who haven't bought yet but are seriously considering it, the two best gifts might be money toward a down payment and a course on home buying. Classes are available from a variety of sponsors. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has links by state to local programs at www.hud.gov/buying/localbuying.cfm. HUD, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and some nonprofit groups also have publications on how to buy.
* If you're looking for the right present for a spouse or significant other who has entered the home-buying adventure with you, try looking under Comedy in your local video store.
Check out "The Money Pit" -- a harebrained 1986 romp with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long. The movie, directed by Richard Benjamin, is "for anyone who's ever been deeply in Love or deeply in Debt." Typical dialogue, from Hanks (before he was a big-time star): "Here lies Walter Fielding. He bought a house, and it killed him."
Or, if you prefer something classier, try the novel the movie is based on, "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," by Eric Hodgins (Simon & Shuster Inc., 1946), about city folk building a country house. Or look up the 1948 movie of the same name with Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas.
As those with their own spaces know, the first thing you need is a sense of humor.