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Young homeowners often repair-challenged

With low interest rates allowing more young adults to buy property, many inexperienced homeowners are desperate for advice when the furnace goes out or the roof leaks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The staff at his neighborhood hardware store can spot John Carter from a distance.

He's the slightly befuddled guy who often comes in declaring, "I have no idea what I'm doing. Can you at least get me through tonight?"

The 26-year-old Chicagoan, who's been slowly rehabbing the condo he bought last year, is part of a generation of young homeowners who admit they often have no clue how to handle home projects.

For them, shop class was optional. It also was more common for their parents to hire contractors, leaving fewer opportunities for them to learn basic repair skills.

With low interest rates allowing more young adults to buy property in recent years, many inexperienced homeowners are desperate for advice when the furnace goes out, the roof leaks or when a home project that seemed like a no-brainer goes terribly wrong.

"They know they've got to buy real estate; they know it's a good investment. But that doesn't help you when you swing a hammer and hit a pipe in the wall," says Lou Manfredini, a Chicago hardware store owner who gives do-it-yourself advice on local radio and nationally online and on TV. "Unfortunately, homes don't come with an instruction manual."

Contractors say it's not unusual for them to get frantic calls from young do-it-yourselfers who get in over their heads.

Sometimes, the mistakes are silly.

Michel Hanet, who owns a door replacement business called IDRC in Scottsdale, Ariz., has arrived at homes to find doors hung upside down. He's also discovered more than one sliding pocket door that won't open because someone nailed a picture on the wall and into the door.

"The younger generation are more likely the ones that are getting into trouble," Hanet says. "The baby boomers have the money to do it, so they just call and say 'I don't like my doors; just come and replace them.'"

Kirsten Pellicer, the 30-year-old vice president of Ace hardware stores in Longmont and Boulder, Colo., sees many young customers looking to tackle projects on their own, often to save money.

"We rarely get requests for 'Do you know a good handyman?' from the younger set," she says.

For Carter, the young Chicagoan, it's all about being brave enough to try — and sometimes fail.

With the help of a buddy who has rehabbing experience, he's put in hardwood floors, knocked out a wall and completely remodeled his condo kitchen.

In the process, he's also managed to nearly flood the kitchen after forgetting to completely seal off a refrigerator water line; had a sliding closet door he was installing shatter a light bulb over his head and crash on top of him; and been fined by his condo association for a couple of other mishaps.

"The one thing about home remodeling is that it is intimidating. But in the end, you find it's definitely worthwhile," says Carter, whose day job is at a large accounting firm where he secures computerized financial data. "You just have to accept that you're going to screw up."

Dave Payne, a 26-year-old condo owner in suburban Atlanta, knows what he means.

Payne made the mistake of trying to spackle over wallpaper in his condo bathroom, leaving uneven chunks where the wallpaper pulled away from the wall.

"There were just times when I wanted to pull my hair out and hire someone when I looked at my ruined walls," he says.

But after hours of "spackling, sanding, spackling again, sanding again, then priming," he's hoping no one will notice.

Increasingly, hardware professionals and others are addressing the need for know-how.

Some community colleges and stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot offer classes in projects from changing a faucet to tiling and putting in a dimmer switch.

"It gives them some exposure, so if they want to do it on their own, they have a starting point," says Peter Marx, a remodeling contractor who teaches home repair at North Seattle Community College.

Others find help online, including at the Ace site, where Manfredini — the Chicago hardware store owner — answers questions.

Home-centered television networks, including HGTV, are also in vogue. HGTV executives say shows such as "Design on a Dime" and "What's Your Sign? Design" — a show that builds on the unlikely combination of astrology and home decorating — have helped boost its recent ratings among young adults.

While 27-year-old Amy Choate occasionally goes online or watches TV shows to get home-improvement ideas, more often she uses a resource closer to home: her mom.

Among other things, mom showed her how to fix wall cracks in her Chicago condo.

But Choate has no intention of tackling an upcoming kitchen rehab. She'll leave that to a professional.

"I'd probably do it wrong," she says, "and end up paying twice as much."