Recently, homeowner James Dozier heard one squeak too many coming from his hardwood floors. Frustrated, he turned not to his workbench or local hardware store, but to his home computer.
"How can I stop my hardwood floors from squeaking?" Dozier typed on the screen and sent by way of a computer and telephone hookup to a network of fellow do-it-yourselfers. "My entire upstairs is made of hardwood flooring and I absolutely love them but would like to stop some of the squeaking. . . . Any advice is appreciated."
That evening, the Memphis man logged on and found an unusually detailed reply from the professional staff of the public television show "This Old House."
"Most squeaks in floors come from subflooring that is no longer firmly attached to the joist below," the response said, in part. "Do you have access to the underside of the floor from a basement? If so, have someone walk on the floor while you stand below and search for movement in the subflooring. If you locate any gaps, tap a wedge into the space between joist and subfloor. . . . Good luck."
Dozier is among a growing number of homeowners across the country who are looking to personal computers for solutions to their home-repair problems. Computer users are now linking themselves to electronic bulletin boards and exchanging information on a limitless variety of topics, from weatherproofing windows to cleaning pet hair off a sofa.
No longer just for computer "techies" or hackers, bulletin board systems are now readily accessible. "The level of technical sophistication required is little more than that necessary to operate an automatic bank teller or your own computer," telecomputing expert Michael A. Banks writes in "The Modem Reference." "The only physical requirements are a home computer, a modem, the appropriate software and a telephone line."
The number of bulletin boards has more than doubled over the past two years, to an estimated 44,000 today. Experts attribute part of this growth to the increase in specialty bulletin boards that focus on a single topic, such as home repair.
"Thematic systems tend to attract national callers who are passionate about a subject," observed Jack Rickard, editor of Boardwatch magazine, which reviews bulletin boards. "People from all over the country dial in to a Boulder, Colo., BBS, for example, that is devoted entirely to the discussion of exotic birds."
Bulletin boards fall into two categories--private bulletin board systems and commercial on-line services. The majority of private BBSs do not charge a fee and are typically a hobby or labor of love of the developers. One such board is called HouseNet.
Last May, Gene and Katie Hamilton, syndicated columnists and authors of home-repair books, started this free on-line service with several hundred how-to files about improvements. Many of these are taken from articles they have written and are based on their own experience renovating 14 homes.
What are their bulletin board participants most concerned about? Some topics, such as painting and wallpapering, are perennial favorites, while others tend to be seasonal.
"In March, everyone is interested in refinancing and taxes," said Katie Hamilton. "Come April, the interest shifts to decks and fences. Then around September, as the weather becomes a factor, people become concerned with insulation and heating."
One of HouseNet's more popular conference areas, "Money Pit," features both horror stories and triumphs in home improvement and remodeling. "It's the kind of talk you would hear at a cocktail party," said Katie Hamilton. "A lot of people have had trouble with a contractor and want to share what they learned."
HouseNet is actually bigger than its 1,600 members would indicate, since it also exchanges messages with RIME, a network of about 1,000 other private bulletin boards. The Hamiltons also make available software that allows users to pick up mail and read it off-line, saving long-distance phone charges. "The software duplicates the bulletin board and puts answers back in the same conference areas," explains Gene Hamilton.
Retired aerospace worker Dick Kinsman of Chatsworth is a House-Net regular. "I've downloaded software on putting in a new countertop and repairing a faucet," Kinsman said. "But mostly I go through the messages. Even if the messages aren't directly applicable to me, they are still interesting to read. A lot of people back East, for instance, are restoring historic homes."
Besides private bulletin boards, commercial on-line services such as Prodigy, GEnie, CompuServe and America Online, feature home-improvement conferences. These services typically require membership and charge a monthly rate and hourly usage fee. On-line services provide added features such as multiple-user, real-time conferencing, news services and guest experts. Whether the services are called forums, round tables, clubs or conferences, the bulletin boards usually have an expert moderator or host who manages the exchange of ideas.
GEnie's "Home and Real Estate RoundTable" is the brainchild of Paula Gilbert, a Baton Rouge, La., real estate agent. Gilbert estimates that she has a steady base of 7,000 homeowners and professionals.
GEnie offers software programs that allow users to make floor plans and inspection checklists. In the conference area, guest experts such as electricians and builders answer members' questions in real-time conferences. The "Mr. Fix-It" area contains dozens of topics from how to repair a leaky bathroom to choosing a wood stove or a fireplace.
"If someone wants to talk about something that's not listed, they start a new topic by asking a question," Gilbert said. "Three years ago, I just opened the category of home repairs and users came in and asked questions."
America Online offers a real estate conference with home-repair topics hosted by author Peter Miller. CompuServe's Crafts Forum contains a woodworking category that focuses on cabinet and furniture making. Prodigy, the largest commercial on-line service, offers the Homelife Bulletin Board, which includes home renovation and housekeeping topics. The staff of "This Old House" supplies a weekly column for Prodigy and answers member questions. In a typical month, 150,000 notes are posted on the bulletin board.
"Besides the experts, the best resources are the members themselves who come up with answers," says Prodigy news manager Kirsty Hamilton. "People get a lot of support, as well as information."
Recently, Prodigy member Lisa Skorzewski wrote for information on how to sponge-paint. Four hours later, fellow homeowner and stippler Sam Papalia supplied her with a detailed response on getting started. "Hi Lisa, I've been stippling for decades. My father taught me when I was a boy. It's very easy to do and gives a wallpaper-like finish. . . ."
What accounts for the growing popularity of telecomputing? "It's hypnotic," said author Banks, who logs on to bulletin boards in his spare time. "It's sort of like the old-time explorers who kept going west and wanted to know what's over the next hill. You want to see what's new today and you become an information junkie."
According to Banks, bulletin board systems offer homeowners an immediate payoff in terms of practical solutions in a social format.
"Everybody congregates around a specific interest like home repair, and people really work the bulletin boards for suggestions," Banks said. "The fact that there's someone on the other end just like you who makes typos adds to the allure. People want to connect with people of shared interests."
Next: The Wired Gardener.
The following networks offer home-improvement topics:
--American Online, Vienna, Va., (800) 827-6364, with 190,000 subscribers. Real Estate Conference. Cost is $7.95 a month plus usage fees starting at $6 an hour.
--CompuServe, Columbus, Ohio, (800) 848-8199, with more than 1 million members. Crafts Forum. Cost is $7.95 a month plus usage fees starting at $12.80 per hour.
--GEnie, Rockville, Md., (800) 638-9636, with 300,000 subscribers. Home and Real Estate RoundTable. Cost is $4.95 per month plus usage fees starting at $6 per hour.
--HouseNet BBS, St. Michaels, Md., (410) 745-5859, with 1,600 users. Free.
--Prodigy, White Plains, N.Y., (800) PRODIGY with 1.8 million subscribers. Home Life Bulletin board. Cost is $14.95 per month.