By Dan Rafter
Special to the Tribune
Contractors have a name for those homeowners who dive into major home-improvement projects without first understanding the scope of the work they're tackling: They call these do-it-yourselfers "weekend warriors," and it's not a nickname contractors use in a positive way.
"Some of the worst calls we get are from the weekend warrior types," said Dave Yates, president and chief executive officer of F.W. Behler, a plumbing, heating and air-conditioning company based in York, Pa. "We'll get a call from them at 11:30 at night on a Sunday. They're in a panic because they started a project that they can't finish. They need someone over right away because now their family isn't going to have any water. Everyone in this business has gotten calls like these."
Most people either know a weekend warrior or are guilty of being one. A weekend warrior might plan to renovate a kitchen in a single weekend, build a deck on a Sunday afternoon or upgrade a home's plumbing on a day off. Unfortunately, a weekend warrior might be unaware of the potential pitfalls involved with installing a new kitchen floor, or may not realize how long it truly takes to build a back-yard deck.
And on Sunday night, a weekend warrior might end up sitting in a mess of nuts, bolts and pipe as the rest of the family demands to know what happened to their home's water supply.
Fortunately, there are ways homeowners can safely and smartly tackle home improvement projects. And the best news? Even those homeowners who have never been handy can learn to make basic home repairs without making a mess of their residence.
Arm yourself with knowledge
Today's do-it-yourselfers have something their predecessors didn't: lots of information. Homeowners can read books and magazines devoted entirely to home repair. They can watch television programs that outline the steps for minor and major projects. And they can log on to the Internet to find a seemingly endless supply of home improvement Web sites.
"I always tell people who want to become handier to use what wasn't available 20 years ago, the wealth of information that's out there," said Lou Manfredini, spokesman for Evanston's OurHouse.com, a Web site devoted to home improvement. "There is no reason now, with all the information out there, to go into a home improvement project without the knowledge you need to do it right."
Manfredini, also known as Mr Fix-It on the WGN radio show he hosts, points to the Internet as the best resource for today's do-it-yourselfer. A simple search on such key words as "home improvement" and "handyman" prove him right. Homeowners can log onto such sites as Popular Mechanics (www.popularmechanics.com/homeimp.html), Hometime (www.hometime.com), Build.com (www.build.com), Home Improvement Plans (www.home-improvement-plans.com) and, of course, OurHouse.com (www.ourhouse.com) to find information to help them complete most any home-improvement project.
Some Web sites provide not only do-it-yourself tips, they also allow visitors to ask questions of actual contractors and handymen. Examples of these sites include Online Handyman (www.online-handyman.com), The Natural Handyman (www.naturalhandyman.com) and BOB's Weekend Handyman (www.weekendhandyman.com).
Yates, from F.W. Behler, also recommends that homeowners visit the Web sites of home improvement stores and those belonging to the manufacturers of tools and equipment.
Homeowners also shouldn't forget the old-fashioned telephone. Many manufacturers include "800" phone numbers with their products. The people staffing these lines are another good resource for do-it-yourselfers with questions.
Take a class
Sometimes, reading about a project doesn't give homeowners enough confidence to tackle it. Fortunately, homeowners don't have to look hard to find another resource, home improvement classes.
Many hardware and home improvement stores offer classes designed to help the casual do-it-yourselfer tackle home repair projects. And stores don't even have to be giant, national chains to do this. The staffers at Woodland Windows & Doors in Roselle have been holding home improvement classes for 25 years.
During the classes, store staffers discuss the proper way to install a window or door, explain how homeowners can tell the difference between quality and non-quality materials and even offer tips for using window decorations to change the atmosphere of a room. Rano Mariotti, one of the store's owners, said that as many as 50 people attend each of his shop's classes. These people range in age from their early 20s to late 70s, he said.
"Even those people who aren't handy can learn," Mariotti said. "If someone has the basic knowledge, tools and interest, we can work them through the steps where they'll be pleased with their work and feel good about the results."
Home Depots across the country, and in the Chicago area, are now offering their own home improvement classes. Titled "Home Depot University," the classes cover everything from outdoor exterior painting to installing low-voltage lighting. Casey Usmani, vice president of operations for Home Depot's Midwest Division, based in Arlington Heights, said that customers who attend the store's classes gain the confidence needed to tackle all but the most complicated projects.
"In the vast majority of circumstances, the situations most homeowners face are easy do-it-yourself projects," Usmani said. "Most things are not that complicated. It's just a matter of gaining the know-how. By participating in a class, our customers get that know-how. We've had great successes. I've talked to homeowners who've told me they've built their own decks. They say they didn't even know which end of the hammer to pick up before taking our classes."
For more information on Home Depot classes, homeowners can call their local store.
Use the right tools
All the information in the world, though, won't help homeowners if they don't first buy the right tools. Anyone attempting a home-improvement project with outdated or improper tools is doomed to fail.
"Beg or borrow good tools," said Los Angeles resident Karen Dustman, author of "The Woman's Fix-It Guide." "Good tools make your job easier. Find out before you start if the tool you are planning to use has enough power, if it has enough safety features."
Homeowners should also remember that the most inexpensive tools are not always the best buy, Dustman said. The small wallpaper steamers homeowners can buy at home-improvement stores do work. But those owners who instead rent the larger and more powerful models will save themselves both stress and time, she said.
Don't forget the neighbors
There's one resource homeowners often neglect to tap: the skills and knowledge of their friends, neighbors and families.
"I have a father-in-law who has fixed everything. I often ask him for his input on projects," said Dustman. "You might have a handy friend or neighbor. Help them do a project. Or trade services for them. Maybe you're an accountant. You can help your handy neighbor with taxes if the neighbor agrees to show you how to tackle a home-improvement project."
Dustman also recommends that do-it-yourselfers take a trip to their local hardware store where they're sure to find some skilled home-improvement buffs.
"There's always that one guy at the hardware store who has seen everything and fixed everything," Dustman said. "He's a great resource."
Dustman also recommends that homeowners volunteer for home-improvement projects with groups such as Habitat for Humanity or at their local churches. This, she says, is a great way to learn home-improvement skills while performing a good deed.
Home improvement experts have a final piece of advice for do-it-yourselfers: Don't try to do too much too soon.
"The best way to do it is to start small and work your way up," said Chris Pfaus, vice president of marketing at Chicago-based Skil Tools. "That way, you can grow your confidence. The key to any home improvement project is in gaining the confidence that you can do it."
Rookie homeowners often make the mistake of attempting a major project before they have the home improvement skills and know-how they can gain from taking on smaller jobs first, Pfaus said.
"They start a big project and then they realize that they're not going to get it done by the end of the weekend. This gets them frustrated," Pfaus said. "For instance, when people try to put a deck outside their home, they often have no idea how much work goes into doing it. They don't realize that someone who's never done it before will take much longer to finish it than will someone who has done it. We all hear the nightmare stories of people starting on projects on a Sunday morning and then thinking they'll have it done that evening. They don't realize that some major projects take a couple of weeks to finish."