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Fix your home without breaking your wallet

Jean Brandon, 42, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, took a class in plumbing at Kirkwood Community College with another divorced woman friend who was also a homeowner, and eventually added a second bathroom to her home for a total parts cost of $500, saving herself several thousand dollars. When Brandon later remarried and sold her home, that second bathroom more than paid for itself.

"By the time I was done with the plumbing class, I had enough confidence in home repair to approach the bathroom project," she says. "I broke up the concrete, put in pipe, put in tile, the toilet, the sink and the shower."

Her son helped with some of it, but she did most of the work herself. "It was work, but it was fun," she says.

Though Brandon hasn't been doing any plumbing repairs lately in her new house, "It's nice to know that I could," she says.

Brandon's instructor, Karl Ebert of Iowa City, Iowa, has been teaching the course for seven years. He says that even if students do not undertake projects themselves, after familiarizing themselves with some of the terminology of plumbing and the workings of a toilet they have a better chance of getting a fair price from a professional plumber.

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"It's a lot harder to get snowed if you know what's happening," Ebert says. "When a contractor comes in, if you ask what they're doing, and mention you've taken some home-repair classes, or you know what the problem is, or you know the nomenclature, they might be more honest with you. If you have no idea what they're talking about, you're much more vulnerable."

Ebert's students can take care of small jobs that plumbers may not want.

"Homeowners always mention toilets," Ebert says, "and those are such a small job that the plumber would be reluctant to come out. It could be $50 or $60 dollars to change a flapper or a valve, and you could go out and get the pieces for $5 or $10 and do it yourself."

In general, the price of the course will be less than the price of a single visit from a professional, so if you do just one minor repair yourself, the course will more than pay for itself.

There are projects that homeowners should not tackle alone, Ebert of Iowa City says. For example, anything involving gas is definitely not for amateurs. Putting in a primary power line and dealing with cast-iron pipes are also not for beginners. But most instructors will walk you through the city code and help you decide what you can and can't handle at your ability level, which may make your massive, costly project into a more financially manageable possibility.

"A lot of homeowners want to do a remodeling job, but they can't afford the whole thing," Jeser says. "Especially in this economy, students want to know how much they can do themselves."

He's even seen a couple in their seventies who took the class and then remodeled their home. So the next time you decide to install new lights in your home, at an installation cost of $75 to $200 per light, you may want to go back to school first.

"A person of average ability can do it," Jeser says. "Installing light switches, outlets, ceiling lights and fans -- these are all projects many homeowners get involved in, and these are all projects they can handle themselves."

The construction industry is also helping do-it-yourselfers, he says. In the past 25 years, pipe has gone from cast-iron to plastic, making it doable for amateurs, and other materials are easier to handle.

"It's a growing trend in our country," he says. "Construction is so much more user-friendly. With books and home stores, it's a lot easier than it once was."


-- 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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