Good-Bye Martha Stewart, Hello Bob Vila


By Toddi Gutner If you're a single woman and have thought about buying your own home, you've got lots of company. After married couples, single women are the second-largest segment of home buyers. They're buying homes at twice the rate of single men, 18% to 9%, according to 1999 data from the National Association of Realtors. "Women now have the financial capability to buy a home and want to make that purchase for themselves" rather than wait for a man, says Cathy Whatley, president-elect of NAR and a real estate broker in Jacksonville, Fla.

And these women aren't just buying condos, co-ops, and town houses. The majority, 63%, are buying single-family detached homes. But along with the security and tax benefits of home ownership come the twin responsibilities of repair and maintenance. Fixing a leaky faucet or repairing a faulty light switch isn't as simple as calling the condo board.

MORE THAN A MARKETING PLOY? The publishing industry has noticed this growing demographic. Amazon.com alone offers nearly a dozen home-repair and maintenance books targeted to women. I was skeptical that these books were anything more than a marketing ploy. Isn't regrouting your bathtub or installing a ceiling fan the same whether you're a man or a woman?

But I wasn't even remotely qualified to answer that question. To call me a home-repair beginner would be generous. Since my husband, Neil, and I bought our first home two years ago, we've taken on very distinct roles. He has been responsible for home repairs, and I've taken care of the more superficial needs, such as decorating and buying linens.

Eager to see if I could be more Bob Vila than Martha Stewart, I logged on to Amazon.com and bought a few "women only" home-maintenance and repair books to compare with non-gender-specific manuals. While I was at it, I thought I'd do a few needed repairs around the house, relying on the directions from these books.

Unfortunately, a couple of the projects weren't covered. I wanted to patch a few holes in our walls -- one at the bottom of the stairs where we removed the baby-proofing gate, another made by a misguided cable repairman, and the third from a shelf-hanging mistake. Our antique wooden kitchen chairs were in need of repair because the rungs kept slipping out of their grooves. And since Neil has been talking about replacing our master-bathroom showerhead with a "sunflower style" that shoots thicker streams of water, I thought I'd tackle that, too.

The following is a list of the books I consulted and a brief review of each. With the exception of The Virgin Homeowner, each covers the basics of home repair, from what a tool kit should contain to how to shut off the water and electricity or change a lock. But the books differ in the level of detail they offer, including the usefulness and availability of diagrams. This was a problem, because as a beginner, I needed all the help I could get.

The Woman's Fix-it Book by Karen Dale Dustman ($14.95, Chandler House Press). This book is divided into sections that include electrical projects, such as replacing switches and adding telephone jacks; plumbing projects, such as unsticking a garbage disposal and putting in lawn sprinklers; and mechanical and decorative projects, such as fixing a sticky patio door and installing closet organizers. There's also a section on repairing damage from accidents, such as a broken window.

Overall, the book isn't comprehensive enough for me. For example, when hanging a heavy picture, the book says, "Drill a small hole." Well, I've never held a drill in my life and needed more guidance. It would've been helpful to have some basic information about which bits to use for which type of hole and how to treat different types of surfaces, such as brick and drywall. And the painting section is very vague: "...expect to use about 1 1/2 gallons of flat to paint an average-sized bedroom." What's an average-sized bedroom? The diagrams were helpful, but there weren't enough of them.

But this book does have helpful instructions for replacing a showerhead. It tells me what tools I'll need and includes a step-by-step guide on taking off the old head and putting on the new one. Among the tips I didn't find elsewhere: "If your water pipe has a ball on the end after you remove the showerhead, you'll have to either replace the showerhead with a similar type of fixture or replace it with one that has threads as the end." Alas, there is no diagram, which I could've used.

There are minimal instructions for patching holes -- the book basically says fill the hole with spackle and let it dry. And it has nothing on repairing furniture.

The Woman's Hands-On Home Repair Guide by Lyn Herrick ($17.94, Storey Books). Of all the women-only books, I like this one best. It's extremely comprehensive and has plenty of well-drawn diagrams and detailed descriptions of how things work. For example, I like being able to understand the anatomy of a home water system before I start fiddling with turning off the water to change the showerhead.

The author covers other topics, such as electricity basics and central-heating systems, with the same attention to detail. The best part is the chart at the beginning of each chapter describing the repair problem, the cause, and the remedy, and telling you on what page you'd find the actual instructions.

And not only does the book tell you what tools you should have on hand but it also has diagrams of each and descriptions of what they're used for. A detailed chart has drawings and the names of more than 50 nails, screws, and anchors, and a ruler.

Besides the main sections on plumbing, electricity, heating, and cooling, the book also covers repairing appliances, including the dishwasher, washer, dryer, and refrigerator. All the other books advise calling a repairman when your washing machine isn't draining or your electric range has a faulty burner. This book gives you reasons why the washing machine may not be draining -- a blocked drain, a loose or damaged hose, a cracked agitator -- tells you how to diagnose the cause and explains how to fix it.

The book covers all of my repairs, and overall, I found it the most helpful. It was especially useful for replacing my showerhead because there was a diagram of one taken apart with all the pieces labeled and the order in which they're put together. Believe me, I needed that diagram once I started unscrewing it with my new pipe wrench. While The Woman's Fix-it Book has more detailed information on unscrewing the showerhead, the diagram in this book is much more useful.

It tells me what I need to purchase to patch my wall -- spackling compound, a putty knife about one-inch thick, and fine sandpaper -- and assures me I can get them at a discount hardware store. No trip to the superstore for this project! I followed the five-step instructions to the letter and successfully filled the holes. It's also the only book that describes how to secure chair rungs and gives a good tip to buy Woodmate's Mr. Grip furniture-repair kit, which has several aluminum-gripper strips with teeth. I found the kit at Home Depot, and thanks to the diagram and simple instructions, it was easy to tighten the loose chair rungs.

The Modern Woman's Guide to Home Repair by Joan Sittenfield and Jeni E. Munn ($14.95, Perigee Books). Even if the book didn't tell you, it would be easy to guess that it was written by two divorcees. These two take-charge women dis men from the very start, beginning on the book's cover: "How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None."

Combine that condescending tone with constant sexual references, and you get a book that's different from the others. The authors didn't think female homeowners would be drawn to the subject of home repair unless it was tied to sex. Their goal is to "...combine the unknown and formidable task of home repair with something that was familiar and enjoyable to women in general and to themselves in particular: SEX." The chapter headings alone let you know what you're in for: "An Introduction to the "R-Rated Guide to Home Repair," "The Big Screw, or There Must be Fifty Ways to Use Your Hammer," "Taking the Plunge, or Fondling Fixtures." (These are among the tamer ones.)

If you can get past the double entendres, the information is actually quite good. The authors give detailed descriptions of basic home repairs and throw in a lot of their own personal experiences. There's also a useful section on setting up and wiring a VCR and stereo and one on do-it-yourself projects (like building a bookcase or redesigning closets).

I learned a lot from their primer on drills, drill bits, and drill uses -- now maybe I'll tackle putting up shelves -- but the usefulness is diluted by more gratuitous sexual references: "There is nothing worse than having your drill sputter and die.... To give you an idea of what it would be like, remember what happened when you and your significant other were going at it, hot and heavy...."

There are plenty of diagrams, but unfortunately they're hand-drawn, and the names of the parts are written in an unreadable cursive. As for my repairs, I found excellent information on filling the holes in my walls. For example, the book suggests that after you press the spackle compound into the hole, use the utility knife at an angle but keep the edge flat against the wall. That way, all the lumps smooth out. I found this advice useful since I couldn't get my spackle to lay flat after I applied it. There's a comprehensive section on furniture refinishing but little on the other repairs I needed to do. The book touches on installing a new showerhead, but there's no diagram or step-by-step instructions.

Home Improvement 1-2-3: Expert Advice from the Home Depot ($34.95, Meredith Books). I used this book, purchased a couple of years ago at Home Depot by my husband, as a point of comparison to the women-specific repair books. This may be the bible of home repair. It covers everything from the real basics of plumbing and electrical work to how to remove a wall or build a ceramic countertop. For each repair or improvement, there's an estimate of how long each job should take according to skill level (beginner, intermediate, and experienced), and a list of the tools and materials needed. The colorful, descriptive pictures accompanying each step of every repair are the most useful feature.

The book covers my showerhead replacement and hole patching. I ended up using this book the most because the colored drawings basically showed me what to do. But I wouldn't be able to use this book alone. I like to know what has gone wrong before I attempt to fix it, and the book only goes into detail about the repairs.

I also perused Home Maintenance for Dummies and Home Improvement for Dummies because I'm a big fan of this series. Of the two, I thought Home Improvement was better. But the books didn't give as much detail as I would like, and they are a little short on the diagrams I found so useful in most of the other manuals.

So, is regrouting your bathtub (which I also did!) or installing a showerhead the same whether you're a man or a woman? Judging from the books I read, I would have to say yes. I don't think significant differences exist between the women-targeted repair books and the others. Your best bet: a comprehensive book that covers a lot of repairs and is appropriate for your skill level.

Personally, I like diagrams, and the cause-and-effect approach of The Woman's Hands-On Home Repair Guide worked really well for me. Female homeowners may enjoy reading about other women's home-repair experiences. I sure did, because knowing that the woman who wrote the book could do the job gave me the confidence that I could, too. Gutner is an associate editor at Business Week. Her twice-monthly Hers.Online column for BW Online complements Gutner's Hers column in Business Week magazine.

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