Ambitious homeowners flex their DIY muscle

Here are some factors to consider before you pick up a hammer ... or a phone. You'll be working overtime either way: Would you rather make a mess and clean it up, or put in extra hours at your job to pay for the project? Do you have the tolerance...

Here are some factors to consider before you pick up a hammer ... or a phone.

You'll be working overtime either way: Would you rather make a mess and clean it up, or put in extra hours at your job to pay for the project?

Do you have the tolerance for a project that will take at least 20 percent longer because you are helping in your spare time?

Are you willing to piece together all the sources of materials, supplies, fixtures and finishes from catalogs, local retailers, big-box superstores, hardware stores and chain stores that carry everything from faux finishing kits to reproduction shelf brackets to custom tiles?

Are you willing to make numerous calls to find contractors who are enthusiastic about working with you side-by-side on a project, with you as an assistant (doing grunt work, errands and cleanup) or as an apprentice (learning the skill)?


What was the outcome of your DIY projects to date?

Was there an outcome of your do-it-yourself projects to date? If you pooped out, and if you're considering a kitchen or bath project that affects the core functions of the house, do you have a reserve fund set aside to hire a contractor if you bail out?

Can you test your can-do abilities on a smaller project before tackling a major project?

Are you and your contractor able to break out each phase of the project into line items so you can see where you can save money (by trading down fixtures or finishes) or by doing specific parts of the project yourself?

Will your contractor rearrange the phases of the project so that you can do it in stages over several years to avoid a huge one-time expense?

Will your contractor help you redesign the project so that you can install some cheap finish materials that are easily removed and upgraded in the future? For instance, painted drywall backsplashes and stock laminate countertops can easily be replaced later with tile backsplashes and granite counters. Low-grade vinyl flooring can easily be taken up later and replaced with tile or hardwood.

Do you know how much it costs per hour for your contractor to take over a ready-to-assemble project if you get in over your head? One Milwaukee-area contractor says it costs $65 an hour for his crew to assemble such cabinets.

Are you willing to make substitutions in materials to get the look you want at a lower price? For instance, cherry-stained alder cabinets look a lot like costly cherrywood.


Do you understand that DIY is not the same as "free"? You can do the demolition yourself, but you could pay at least $300 for a Dumpster to legally haul away the debris.

Do you have a firm grip on what actually adds value and functionality to your house, or are you hoping that a cosmetic upgrade will distract potential buyers from a poor layout, decrepit plumbing or outmoded wiring?

ILWAUKEE -- When it was time to take out some walls in the 1960s-era ranch house that Rhett Bainter bought from his parents, he and his friends were the ones who swung the sledgehammers and hauled the mess out to the trash bins.

When the tile guy working on the bathroom floor needed someone to hand him the next square, Bainter was there.

When it's finally time to paint the brand-new kitchen, he'll be the one wielding the brush.

"If I'm not working, I'm here helping," said Bainter, 26, a mortgage broker.

He's not sure exactly how much he's saving on the $150,000 project, which includes adding central air conditioning, replacing windows and expanding the garage. But he figures it's thousands of dollars.

When renovation aspirations outstrip the budget, grit and hard work can bridge the gap.


The DIY -- do-it-yourself -- category is picking up some of the slack in the renovation market left by lower home sales, say national home improvement retailers and suppliers. New materials and products are making it easier for even shop class dropouts to achieve passable results.

The moribund residential real estate market is likely to be a boon for aspiring DIYers, said Justin De Santis, a consumer marketing analyst with the Chicago office of research firm Mintel International who recently wrote a forecast of the $460 billion DIY market.

Local hardware stores and national home improvement chains are likely to push their products, classes and marketing to DIYers, he says, and stores in urban markets will see "more of a focus on smaller projects that urban apartments are more likely to focus on, such as wallpaper and flooring, bathroom sinks and upgrades."

The homeowners most likely to strap on tool belts are middle-class types who have enough money to pay for high-quality materials and who would rather put in sweat equity than have a contractor install cheap stuff, said Chris Jensen, executive editor of the trade magazine Hardware Retailing.

Many municipalities require that licensed professionals do plumbing and electrical work, and that structural work must comply with local building codes, but that still leaves a lot of room for ambitious homeowners.

Painting and staining walls and woodwork is the No. 1 do-it-yourself project, Jensen said. That's partly because it's easy and partly because it's easy for a pro to rescue a botched job.

Installing wood or tile floors, finishing basements and adding crown molding are top projects nationally, says Yancey Casey, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Home Depot Inc.

He reports a burst in tools and innovations that make it easier for homeowners to tackle more complicated parts of their projects. The MultiTASKit, for instance, is a "third hand" tool that enables a DIYer to install crown molding alone. Traditionally, it's a two-person job.


Ready-to-assemble cabinets started to take off this year, say retailers and researchers. The sides, top, bottom and interior shelves -- the box -- come as a kit, with doors provided by the manufacturer or ordered separately from a cabinet shop.

Custom Service Hardware Inc., a wholesaler of ready-to-assemble cabinets, is selling twice as many cabinets now as it did a year ago, reports CEO Frank Rasmussen. Midrange contractors are ordering them to save time and money on projects. The company also is beginning to market to consumers, hoping that they will ask their contractors about the cost-saving kits -- or maybe put them together themselves.

John Knaak installed 78 of the cabinets in a $300,000 renovation and expansion of his Ellison Bay, Wis., retirement home.

The $33,000 he spent on them was more than the $29,000 price for top-of-the-line stock cabinets available through Home Depot, but he believes the completely custom-made maple units he bought from Scherr's Cabinet & Doors Inc., of Minot, N.D, were higher quality.

"I've never (before) assembled all the cabinet boxes -- the carcasses, we call them. They're very simple to put together, but each box took me about half an hour," he says. "For the average size kitchen you could do that in (a) day."

Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings company, renowned for its clean designs, low prices and expectation that customers will assemble what they buy, has been rapidly expanding its assembly services. It provides a range of services from assembly of the cabinets to Ikea-friendly local contractors who will incorporate Ikea products in a renovation.

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