Living in a Handyman Special

Is living under construction worth the hassles and inconveniences? Only you can decide, but it’s always worked for us through various stages of our lives, whether we were a young married couple teaching school, self-employed writers and entrepreneurs, employees of a large corporation, or a couple phasing into semi-retirement.

Our first properties were small, and we learned by doing, either tackling home improvement projects ourselves or looking over the shoulder of the plumber or electrician that we hired. When we had stopped teaching and were working on houses full-time, our permanent residence was usually in the process of being renovated, and we usually had a project house under way. Yes, this could get very complicated and unsettling at times, but as long as we had a few rooms that were complete and livable, we seemed to take it in stride.

In retrospect, we were often more concerned about the condition and storage of our tools and equipment, which became considerable when we started working on houses full time. A garage became a key feature when we looked at houses to occupy, because we needed a safe, dry storage space for the tools and gear we were accumulating.

Kids Are a Real Concern

Living with children in a house that is under construction is another issue completely. It can be daunting and even dangerous to have little ones scampering around unfinished floors and playing in less-than-ideal circumstances. And, of course, there are real dangers of lead poisoning and asbestos in an older houses that is being remodeled.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a pamphlet called “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home” and others available through the National Lead Information Center (800-424-LEAD). The agency’s Web site,, includes information about lead, asbestos, and mold in the home, where it may be found, and what should be done about it. If you’re considering a major rehab and you have children, do some research before you make a decision.

All children and most adults appreciate structure in their lives, and the unpredictable nature of rehabbing can be very stressful. If rehabbing takes you from one house to another, consider the effects on kids changing schools – this can be unsettling. Many families get around this by narrowing their scope of investment properties to houses within a particular school district so that their kids don’t have to change schools.

A Second Job

We think of a house that we are living in and working on as a second job that costs us money in the short term, but in the long run generates a substantial profit. It provides a place for us to hang our hats (and store our tools), and at the same time requires either our time or our money or both. But if we choose the property wisely and improve it with care, our investment will pay off. That’s true for a single owner or two married wage earners who have full time jobs that can support the cost of improvements when they are required. If you’re considering buying a house to renovate but are strapped for time, consider buying the house with a long term plan and letting the value of the property rise over time. When writing about home improvements led us to building an online business, we stayed where we were and turned all our time and energy to the business instead of completing the house and buying another one. We converted bedrooms to workstations and worked at home until we found an office, all the while letting the home slowly grow in value. If the economy is strong, that’s a strategy that works. But if the real estate market cools off as all markets eventually do and, during this time your job forces you to move, you’re vulnerable – not a good position to be in. Experience has taught us that you’re in control if you don’t have to sell and can wait out adverse conditions so that you can take advantage of a seller’s market that will eventually return.

Excerpt from Fix It and Flip It by Gene and Katie Hamilton, McGraw-Hill

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June 18 is Dad’s Day – Here are Gift Ideas for a DIY Dad

Is your Dad a handyman who likes do-it-yourself projects, puttering around the house and working in the lawn and garden? Then he’s sure to like any of these useful gifts for Father’s Day. Plus everytime he uses them he’ll think of you!

The new Dremel Velocity Kit VC60 is a tool that bridges the gap between an oscillating tool and rough-cutting tools. It’s for a hands-on guy who knows his way around remodeling and home repairs. The tool can make long accurate cuts in panel material and be used as an oscillating tool for any cutting, scraping, sanding, grinding or grout removal jobs. We found it at Lowes for $180.

Who doesn’t need to get organized? Clever Crates are space saving storage crates made of recyclable material and lightweight and collapsible. These useful crates sell for under $20 and come in various sizes.

If Dad’s a gardener here are two nifty gifts for container plants. Drain-Smart makes container drainer discs that fits into a container and encourages faster drainage and prevents root-rot. (3 pk of 3×12-inch discs $20).

Pot Risers are invisible pot feet that support containers and statuary. They elevate a pot to prevent staining and rotting of decks and patios and promote better drainage. A 6-pack of risers for 4-5 pots is $14. Both products are made of recycled material.

The  Black +Decker Garden Cultivator efficiently breaks up soil to allow water and nutrients to reach plant roots while counter oscillating tines prevent weeds from tangling. The soft grip, adjustable handle and upright design provide comfort and limit fatigue when cultivating. Works to easily prepare bare patches in your lawn before seeding, too. ($90) True Value, Ace and others.

If he likes painting projects consider any Handy Paint Products. Choose from a variety of painting aids $3-$15.

Another painting aid that Dad will appreciate is an easy way to cover up a wet brush or roller in an airtight container until it’s time to paint again. The handy Paint Brush Cover ($5) and Roller Cover make stopping in the middle of a paint project easy to do.

Find the cost of hundreds of improvement jobs and compare the cost of doing it yourself with hiring a contractor at

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June Home Checklist

A007This is a busy time of year with graduations, family events and change of season chores, but use this list of 10 items – basically cleaning, maintaining and inspecting – to get off to a good summer of enjoying your home.

Some of these items are quickies, like giving the well-used garbage cans a good washing or replacing an AC filter or checking to see electrical cords are in good shape. Others take a little time, like power washing the siding and cleaning out the garage. These chores will keep your home and all its systems running smooth and efficiently throughout the season.

* Replace air conditioner filter
* Clean out and organize the basement
* Wash bedspreads and blankets
* Clean garbage cans
* Inspect electrical cords and plugs for signs of wear
* Check the color of the flame on gas water heater and range
* Inspect exterior exposed pipes for leaks and corrosion
* Clean dirty or mildew-covered siding and deck with a power washer
* Inspect and tune up garage door and opener mechanism and rubber seal gasket on bottom of the door
* Maintain lawn and garden beds by watering, mowing and weeding

Visit us at to find the cost of hundreds of home improvement jobs and compare doing it yourself with hiring a pro.

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Social Media – Step-child of the BBS

Back in the 1990s we ran a BBS (bulletin board system) and whenever we attended a BBS conferences were often asked “People pay you to learn how to fix their leaky toilet?” Our HouseNet BBS was about the cost of home improvements, a spinoff of our syndicated newspaper column Do It Yourself or Not. Along with content HouseNet featured message boards for subscribers – contractors and homeowners – to communicate with each other. When we gave contractors – electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters – free membership, they agreed to answer questions of our homeowners perplexed by the choices and challenges of owning and maintaining a home. Sounds a lot like what we call social media today.

At that time a BBS was commonplace in the world of business when companies used a BBS to communicate with branch offices, to order parts and services, and initially by U.S. government agencies who developed the software. It didn’t take long before entrepreneurs recognized the value of creating an online community of special interest boards and charging users a monthly membership fee to participate. All they needed was a modem and phone line. These niche groups evolved into thousands of boards people paid to join. Not surprisingly, some of the most lucrative were those with illicit material like porn. Of course, at the slow speed a BBS operated there was no live content, just downloads, often very slow downloads.

Early software was not well protected so it was easy to copy making the focus of many boards commercial software to download. Another popular type of software was called shareware; great fully functional programs that authors hoped people would buy if they liked it. Following that the mass amount of pirated software available created the phenomenal growth of software how-to books that took over bookstore shelves. What good was the software without the instruction manual to use it?

The BBS conferences attracted 500-plus attendees – board creators, software producers and the tech pioneers of the digital revolution that made the exchange of information unlimited. The budding industry of simple ANSI and ASCII screens led to more processing power, but the leap to 56 kbit/s modems led to dial up Internet services forecasting the end of bulletin board systems. Before that many BBSs became the first ISP services (Internet Service Providers).

This explosive growth of the Personal computer and the BBS industry supported three magazines with news of software and developments. A behemoth Computer Shopper, an 800-page monthly tabloid with listings of thousands of special interest boards, soon became a doorstop replacement for the Yellow Pages.

Was the BBS the beginning of social media or was it the WELL, an early online community, or America Online? While many attribute the beginnings of social media to college boys rating their dates, I suggest the real genesis was the bulletin board system, which led to AOL where chat rooms encouraged users to talk to each other. In the mid-1990s HouseNet became AOL’s Home Improvement channel as part of their Greenhouse Program with other newbies to the online world like The Motley Fool and The Knot. was sold to a large publishing company but its humble beginnings in an extra bedroom – like many other bulletin board systems – evolved into a major content, commerce and communication site.

Does what we call “social media” today have its roots in a bulletin board system? I think so and I doubt the phenomena might have happened without the early coders and developers in the tech departments and communities of the U.S. government and universities and of course, the homegrown tech-heads looking for a challenge.

Katie Hamilton, columnist Tribune Content Agency Do It Yourself or Not

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Ageproof a Bathroom for Lifelong Living

Wouldn’t it be nice to remodel a bathroom so the design is ideal for every family member – whether it’s a rambunctious 8 year old or a refined 80-something? You may be giving a baby (or a dog) a bath or making it easy for an injured athlete to take a shower – whatever the situation, your remodeled bathroom will be a success if you incorporate universal design concepts.

Here are suggestions to consider if you’re remodeling a bathroom that will make it convenient and safe for everyone who uses it.

Access to a bathroom: Expand the width of the door entrance to 36-inches to accommodate a walker or wheelchair. And replace a door knob with a Level Style Handle so it’s easy to open and close.

Flooring: The durable surface should be slip-resistant, textured, and light in color with a low glare. And of course it should be easy to clean and maintain.

Cabinetry and Faucet: Raise a standard height vanity to about 34-inch high. Consider a Wall Mount Sink because it is more accessible, but don’t forget to add storage. A single lever faucet is easy to use, or choose a Hands-free Faucet that senses when to turn on and off.

Shower: A low or no threshold curbless base makes it easy to enter a shower and a slip-free surface makes it safe. Consider built-in seating or a bench for comfort and a Shower Hose Bar that adjusts easily.

Toilet: If you’ve ever recuperated from an injury you know how low most toilets are. Choose a Toilet with a comfort height of 17-inches to 19-inches.

Lighting: When possible use natural lighting and incorporate multiple sources over a bathtub, shower and vanity. A LED Night Light Receptacle with a sensor assures there’s always light in the dark plus provides a receptacle outlet.

Electrical: Make it easy to turn on lights with rocker-style (not toggle) switches installed at a convenient height. Add easy-to-reach Rotating Electrical Outlets for applianaces with bulky plugs where they’re most used. And a Towel Warmer is a luxury touch in any bathroom that provides additional heat.

Grab Bars: Choose double-duty grab bars like a Shelf and Grab Bar and install them in three locations: near the toilet, along the showerhead wall and the back wall of a tub/shower.

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Garage Sale, Yard Sale, Whatever You Call It – It’s a Good Idea

Gene and Katie Hamilton

Gene and Katie Hamilton

The thought of having a yard sale can be overwhelming but the end result is worth it – getting rid of stuff you no longer want or need. You’ll experience a sense of cleansing and renewal, not to mention the reward of found money along with being bone tired from the actual physical work involved.

So it’s not a question of should you have a yard sale it’s when. In our neighborhood the spring and fall are the most popular, and of course, when someone puts their house on the market for sale, there’s no better time to purge a household of its castoffs.

Friends of ours who are veterans at having yard sales schedule their sale with an annual community event which draws a lot of lookers. Then they take any unsold items to a thrift shop because they don’t want the stuff back. They’ve had the best success selling small items by displaying them on a table with a sign “Take any 4 for $1”. Before the sale they collect bags, boxes and newspapers to wrap breakable items and quarters and $1 and $5 bills for making change in a money box. Since there are two of them they tag items with different color dot stickers so they can identify and credit the seller. They say if you really want to get rid of something price it 80% below the original price.

Visit us at to find the cost of hundreds of home improvement and repair jobs and compare the cost of doing it yourself with hiring a contractor.

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Inside Story: A Visit to Home Depot

Husky Flashlight Working Frozen in Ice

Recently we were part of a group of 80 home improvement editors, writers and bloggers in Atlanta at a Home Depot press event. We visited the massive office complex and toured the Testing & Innovation Lab where their private brands are tested. We saw a Husky ratcheting tie-down, designed to secure loads to a truck or trailer, being put through a test. The tie-down is rated to hold a 500 lb load in place; so to assure it is up to the task they test its breaking strength in the lab. A machine stretches the tie-down until it breaks, which in this case, took over 1500 lbs, more than three times the rated load. In addition to product strength they test for consistent materials to assure the tool meets specifications. The type of plastic and metal used in the tool is tested with a device that does a spectrum analysis of the material.

Everything is tested, the strength of a fabric tool bag was filled with a load of weights weighing many time its rate capacity. All interesting stuff. We joked that the lab resembled the armament lab in an old James Bond movie. We heard the bang of belts snapping, and packages being crushed and dropped from all corners of the lab.

We took a walk through the HD Museum dating back to the late 1970s when Bernard Marcus, Arthur Blank and Pat Farrah, brought new meaning to the term “big box” . The story is that Marcus and Blank were fired in 1978 from Handy Dan’s Home Improvement Centers in California; the next year in 1979 they opened their first Home Depot in Atlanta. Today there are 2,200+ stores in three countries where the orange apron is their familiar icon.

Another day we attended the ProSpective Immersion Tool Event where tool manufacturers like Husky, Ryobi, Milwaukee, Rigid, Makita, Dremel and many more displayed new hand and power tools with hands on demos. Each tool group was in a space framed out in 2x4s where vendors told us about the latest innovations and new design features. We picked up tools, used them and caused quite a ruckus getting a feel for what the tools can do. This was not a quiet event with powerful drills, saws, sanders and grinders working out. And the smell of freshly cut lumber, sawdust and sanded wood added to the buzz creating a realistic workshop atmosphere.

We came away impressed that the Depot is more than a mega hardware store. Their behind-the-scene testing gives them the confidence to stand behind their products.

Visit us at to find the cost of home improvements and compare doing it yourself with hiring out the job.


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