REPAIRS : Homeowners Tap Into On-Line Resources for Scads of Advice
It’s the type of house that first-time buyers such as Jerome Vivona and Michelle O’Steen tend to choose: It’s older than they are and needs new paint throughout, along with renovations of the bathroom and kitchen.
Money is tight, though, so the engaged couple decided to do much of the work themselves. But before they picked up a hammer or a paintbrush, they went straight to their personal computer, which they say has become their most useful tool for home repairs.
When they need information about products, plans and services, or they just want to talk to people who have gone through projects they’re wrestling with, they turn on their Compaq, log on to America Online and click into Homeowners Forum.
There are hundreds of entries on electronic bulletin boards about cutting ceramic tile, choosing an architect or contractor, the latest on window replacements and dozens more relating to home ownership.
The people who send each other e-mail or place questions and comments on bulletin boards are neophyte do-it-yourselfers, professional contractors and all categories in between.
Most of the pros are not paid by the on-line services, although the contractors get free use of some premium services in exchange for being available at certain times of the day or week to answer questions.
“You just feel like you always have some help,” Vivona said. “There always is someone who has gone through what you are going through.”
So far Vivona and O’Steen have found answers to questions about the types of paint that resist moisture, cover certain stains and clean easily. They’ve also obtained information about repairing kitchen cabinets and replacing countertops.
“It’s like having a friend in the business who’s willing to talk to you at any time of the day or night,” Vivona said.
Such a ringing endorsement brings a smile to Albert Clark, vice president of United Homeowners Assn., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit lobbying group for the interests of homeowners.
Since launching Homeowners Forum on AOL in early May, United Homeowners has averaged about 900 connections a day from on-line users, Clark said.
What began as an idea to boost the association’s membership has turned into a huge feeding trough for homeowners starved for information and discussions about how to keep their homes in shape.
The three other big-time players in the on-line information competition, GEnie, Prodigy and CompuServe, have offerings similar to the United Homeowners forums on America Online. And each reports that usage regarding home renovation and repair has grown consistently in the past year.
All that networking by remodelers has not escaped the attention of publishers eager to sell information to the on-line companies.
The Family Handyman, a monthly do-it-yourself magazine published by a division of Reader’s Digest Assn., formed a partnership in January with CompuServe to offer the expertise of its contributing editors, some of whom are professional contractors, and its library of information and building plans.
“It seems to be a nice combination of serving a need and a fun thing,” said Ken Collier, an associate editor at the Family Handyman and the magazine’s chief liaison with CompuServe.
Hachette Filipacchi, publisher of Home Magazine, has linked up with America Online to offer home-building plans that can be retrieved electronically by homeowners with PCs.
Eustace L. Greaves, a Brooklyn insurance broker, goes on-line to find information for clients who don’t have a PC.
The Prudential broker recently tapped into a CompuServe data bank for detailed plans to build a back yard deck, then gave the plans to a client.
Greaves uses his PC to publish a free newsletter for clients, and he often includes information he has obtained on-line.
Gerard and Judy Saydah bought a 70-year-old Dutch Colonial a year ago. The couple have spent many hours ripping out walls, tearing down paneling, pulling up carpets and laying tile.
“I can’t quantify how much money I’ve saved by going on-line, but it has cut way down on the aggravation I would have had to go through if I didn’t go on-line,” Gerard said.
While replacing wallboard he discovered a Rube Goldberg-style plumbing arrangement that needed immediate attention.
“I got on-line, described what I was faced with, and within hours I had all kinds of responses on Prodigy,” said Saydah, a commercial photographer whose do-it-yourself ability has grown steadily during the past year. “There is a camaraderie out there. It’s the guy from Texas, whom you’ve never met, getting on-line with a guy from Jersey to offer the benefit of his experience in the same kind of problem.”
A self-described “regular guy who is not a professional remodeler,” Saydah has come to rely as heavily on his PC as he has on anything in his toolbox. Going on-line has become a necessity because the couple, who bought the house in a foreclosure auction, couldn’t afford to pay a contractor for all the work that was needed.
Vivona and O’Steen, both in their 20s, also had little hands-on experience with repairs. He is a cast member of “Guys and Dolls,” playing on Broadway. She begins a stint with the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in the fall.
“We saw all this information, and decided that if we could get help at any time of the day or night, we should try it,” Vivona said. “It kind of becomes addicting.”
And it’s not just the people asking the questions and looking for ideas who get hooked.
In Allentown, Pa., Bruce Arnold has spent 22 years running his businesses--one specializes in ceiling repairs, renovations and restoration, the other in fence installation. Nearly every day he logs on to Prodigy’s Home Repair bulletin board to offer free advice.
In a recent e-mail correspondence, he said answering questions “recharges the cranium” after hours at home dealing with record-keeping and other business routines.
He said that providing advice to homeowners is a way to “repay all the people who have trusted me and placed their most prized possession--their home--into my hands without knowing for sure if the completed project would be a thing of beauty or their worst nightmare come true.”
For all of the apparent popularity of the bulletin boards, there is much potential audience growth. Of the estimated 25 million U.S. households with personal computers, only one-fifth are using an on-line service.
“We have a lot of traffic on-line, but we’re not hugely popular yet,” said Mac MacLachlan, a manager of GEnie’s Home Improvement Roundtable.
“Nobody in this business really is yet. A lot of people don’t know about us. I don’t think it has hit the public’s mind yet. But it keeps growing, and people will find out.”