Weekend wasters struggle with DIY home-repair jobs

Special to The Times

When her husband decided to fix a leaky pipe in the bathroom in their West Hills home, Ethel Brook, 78, watched his progress with chin in hand and furrowed brow. As one weekend rolled agonizingly into two, the retired market researcher gently suggested for the 450th time that her husband of 20 years hire a professional.

Undaunted, a determined Leonard Brook, 79, "sweating and hunched over," his wife recalled, plodded onward in his quest to fix the bathroom pipe.

Meanwhile, Ethel, desperate to get her bathroom back and save her husband from another lost weekend, called Rick Hill, owner of a House Doctors handyman franchise in Santa Clarita. Within a day, Hill fixed the problem and repaired the wall damage.

"Things got a little out of hand," Ethel recalled. "It was too big of a project for my husband. He couldn't repair it. And I couldn't take it anymore."

Used to hearing statements such as, "We just don't have the time," "We've been at this for eight months now," and "My husband will never put that handle on the door and it's driving me crazy," Hill said he's seen a lot more do-it-yourself projects started than finished.

Hill, who started his business in 2004 after more than two decades in the construction industry, estimates that nearly a third of his 25 monthly house calls involve a failed do-it-yourself project.

"I get calls almost every day, especially with kitchens and bathrooms, where there's something they can't tackle," Hill said.

Affordable financing costs and strong property values fueled remodeling projects and propelled home-improvement spending to record levels in 2006, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. But experts say last year's slower housing sales, tightened credit and smaller equity buffers encouraged owners to pull in their purse strings and look for ways to cut repair and remodeling costs.

And although shows like HGTV'S "Weekend Warriors" have made do-it-yourself pro- jects look like child's play, firms such as House Doctors and Handyman Connection report that increasing numbers of homeowners are struggling to finish projects and calling the pros for help.

Rich Panitz, president of Orange County-based Handyman Connection, said a bad experience with a contractor or remodeling professional is one reason homeowners may start projects themselves. Overambition and cost-cutting are other driving forces, he added.

But both Hill and Panitz said lack of time is the most commonly cited reason for not finishing them.

Chapel Hill, N.C., contractor Chuck Solomon, who created ContractorHired.com, a referral network founded in 2006 to link homeowners nationwide with contractors, said many people simply bite off more than they can chew.

"These DIY shows make it look too easy," Solomon said. "And that isn't always the case."

So before you get too excited about replicating that do-it-yourself-in-no-time-flat ceramic-tile showcase at the home-expo extravaganza, be sure you know what you're getting into, experts say.

If ceramic tiling is a skill you would like to learn, Solomon said, do some research. Get a book on ceramic tiling. Attend a class or a seminar at your local remodeling store. Find out what tools you will need to buy or rent to do the job and what the tools cost. Determine the cost of the overall job. And start small.

Instead of tiling the whole kitchen, start with a small area that's out of the way, such as a closet or laundry room. "That way, if you mess up, there is less mess to fix," Solomon said.

Don't just jump in. Factor in safety, your skill level and your time.

And be realistic and honest about your limitations.

"If you're pressed for time, even a simple toilet installation can be overwhelming," said Hill, a House Doctors franchise owner.

In addition, consider the degree of difficulty involved. If a project involves something structural such as plumbing, heating or electrical work, for instance, or you don't even know what "structural" means, you probably need to hire a licensed professional, Solomon said.

As a general rule, when choosing a DIY project, stick with what you know you can do.

"Some demolition work is OK if you know it's not a load-bearing wall," Solomon said. "And painting is a good DIY project."

Panitz said about 10% of the 200 home-repair jobs his firm handles each month are DIY projects gone bad. Still, if you decide to go it alone and get stuck along the way, Panitz advised, don't be afraid to hire out the difficult portion of the project.

"We don't have to have the whole project. We will work the job with the homeowner at any given level. So you can just order what you need," Panitz said.

"I know most people don't want to pay someone $100 or more to do something quick . . . like a simple plumbing job . . . but fixing a mistake can be really expensive," he added.

In many cases, said Dean Herriges, secretary for the National Assn. of the Remodeling Industry, the cost of correcting a mistake often exceeds what a homeowner would have spent to hire a professional in the first place.

In the meantime, the homeowner-caused damage may not surface until it's time to sell the home.

The home inspector may not say anything about the crooked tile on the bathroom floor, for instance, but that botched plumbing job may hold up a sale and have to be replaced at great cost.

So know your reasons for doing the project, Solomon cautioned. "And if you're just trying to save money, you may be better off in the long run hiring a professional," he added.

A homeowner whose DIY plumbing repair failed while he was away wished he had, recalled Hill of House Doctors. "The leak flooded the whole house, and two weeks later, when he got home, that leak had become a major insurance job."

Attorney Kelly Duenckel, 41, knows that even a simple job can go completely wrong.

When Duenckel wanted a medium-sized decorative pinwheel -- the kind with a plastic head that spins on windy days -- installed in the frontyard of her Burbank home one Sunday, her husband, Tim Melnarik, 41, offered to do the job.

Melnarik, an English professor at Pasadena City College, attached a plastic pipe, intended to hold the pinwheel, to a spike, drove the pipe into the ground and hit the main water line.

"We heard this hiss. . . . Tim looked at me standing in the doorway with our newborn. I looked at him. And all of a sudden this 20-foot geyser shot straight up in the air," Duenckel recalled.

As the couple's two older boys ran into the water with delight, Duenckel called a plumber, and $384 later, the family had a very expensive pinwheel and their water restored.

Sadly, Duenckel said, the pinwheel blew away in the recent winds. "But the pipe is still there."

While installing a waterline to the new refrigerator he purchased for his mother's Big Bear home, Melnarik broke the cap to the waterline and accidentally flooded the kitchen.

Melnarik said the couple laughs about both incidents now.

"Tim is banned from doing any water-related home repairs," she said, adding, "but we didn't have to go into counseling."

Michelle Hofmann can be reached at michellehofmann @earthlink.net.

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