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Fix your home without breaking your wallet

When the toilet starts to leak, the cabinet door falls off or the tile starts looking simply too shabby, it's not just a nuisance. It's also an expense.

Owning a home is supposed to be a good financial move. But suddenly it seems like a financial minefield as the plumber putters around, charging you for every minute of his time. Well, what if you could take care of some of these problems yourself?

You probably can do many of these jobs, and with the investment of a few evenings of your time in a home-repair class, you can easily save hundreds to thousands of dollars in contracting costs.

Back to school for home improvement
Across the country, community colleges and continuing-education programs offer low-cost classes in home repair -- and the classes are so popular that many have waiting lists year after year.

"A leaky toilet is a basic repair job," says Howard Jeser, a remodeler and home-repair instructor at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., for the past 12 years. "So is repairing cracks and holes in drywall, installing new sinks and doing a basement remodeling project."

How much would that cost with a contractor? A simple crack along the joint in drywall will run $100-$200 to repair, and a contractor will charge a minimum of $75-$100 to come over to a home to cover his time, even if it's a minor repair. After taking a class, you could deal with that crack on your own.

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"I've had a lot of friends and neighbors who've been taken by contractors, charged outrageous amounts of money for jobs they could do themselves," Jeser says. "One of the reasons I started teaching this course was to teach first-time homeowners, widows and elderly people jobs they can do on their own."

For many remodeling projects, you can save 25 percent to 60 percent of the cost of the contract by doing some of the simpler labor yourself.

"A lot of contract expense is demolition work. So if you do the demolition and present the contractor with a clean space to work, you can save a lot," says Jeser, who is a carpenter registered with the union hall in Elgin.

"You can find a contractor who's willing to work with you" and take on only the parts of the project that require specialized skill and experience, he says.

Knowledge is power .. and money
Home-repair courses generally meet in the evenings or on weekends, and the cost ranges from $25 for a six-week plumbing or electrical wiring class at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City, Iowa, to $49 for one day's instruction in basement remodeling at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., to $115 for a new-home repair course at Holyoke Community College in Holyoke, Mass.

North Seattle Community College charges $75 for a basic home repair course and $65 for a woodworking class, and administrators there say the classes always have waiting lists.

Most classes in individual topics are less than $150, while some extensive home-repair series that cover everything from plumbing to installing ceilings can run around $250. But does the cost of the class pay off?

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-- Posted: Feb. 10, 2003
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See Also
Best home improvements for saving energy
Remodeling rules of thumb
Computing your home's basis
Financial advice glossary
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