August 16, 2005


Look who's handy now: single female home buyers

A story published today in the Christian Science Monitor says that Jeryldine Tully never expected to join the ranks of single women homeowners. But five years ago, after a series of what she calls rental "disasters," she bought a small brick ranch in St. Louis. There was just one catch: Although the two-bedroom house was structurally sound, the interior needed work.

Tully's list included ripping up shag carpeting, removing wood paneling, replacing metal kitchen cabinets, plastering a ceiling, and stripping garish floral wallpaper in the bathroom.

"I didn't know what I was getting into," says Tully, public relations director for St. Louis College of Pharmacy.

She has plenty of company. Single women now purchase 1 of every 5 homes, while single men buy just 1 in 10, according to the National Association of Realtors. By 2010, single women - unmarried, divorced, widowed - will own 28 percent of all homes, Fannie Mae estimates.

As they assume mortgages and settle in, many of these women find themselves tackling repairs and renovations once considered the province of men. Already two-thirds of women say they do minor home repairs themselves, while one-quarter do major projects, according to a Home Depot survey.

"It's really important for women to understand how to do small things," says Sarit Catz, who writes a how-to column called "Hammer Glamour" for Dish Magazine. "You can save a lot of money by putting sweat equity in your home. With a little bit of knowledge and the right tools, you'll be surprised how many things you can do around your own house."

Some women handle routine maintenance themselves, such as changing filters or caulking bathtubs, but hire professionals for bigger jobs. Others learn how to deal with emergencies - a clogged sink the night before Thanksgiving or a balky furnace in January. Still others, like Tully, take on long-term renovations.

In the process, these homeowners are creating a growing market for workshops, books, websites, and even tools designed to increase women's skill and confidence. Home-improvement programs on television that once showed women simply handing tools to male experts now feature women doing repairs. In addition, Home Depot's "do-it-herself" workshops have attracted 240,000 women in three years.

For many single women, who may have less disposable income than men, a do-it-yourself approach is a necessity. "When it comes to home repair, we need to be smarter about money," says Lynda Lyday, host of a home-improvement show on the DIY Network. "We need to figure out what we can do ourselves."

For Tully, the need to save money kept her working from 6:30 p.m. to midnight for nearly two years. When she needed advice, she often drew on the expertise of the retired men working at Home Depot.

Eager to maintain her femininity as she wielded power tools, Tully wore earrings, Chanel perfume, and lipstick. She even drew red lips on the white breathing masks she wore while power-sanding. "It made me laugh every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror," she says.

Many women need all the humorous moments they can find. Recalling the time and effort involved in creating her "hip and modern" interior, Tully says, "There's definitely satisfaction, but the work got pretty old."

Mary Edsey, a writer in Chicago, has been rehabbing a century-old frame house for 18 years. She has taken classes, read Reader's Digest repair manuals, and watched "This Old House."

Yet she knows there are times when hiring a professional is best. She once spent a whole day trying to repair her washing machine. Finally she called a repairman, who fixed it in less than an hour.

"When it comes to things I don't have the muscle power for, I hire someone or borrow one of my friends' husbands for a few minutes," Edsey says.

Many women draw the line at plumbing and electrical work. They hire tradespeople.

Edsey knows it is easy to underestimate the time a project requires. "I never knew in a million years it would have taken this long. The problem is, you don't always have the time and the money simultaneously."

Whatever the project or the budget, experts stress the importance of having the proper equipment. "The tool makes all the difference," Catz says. "It's not about being strong enough. It's about (having) the right tools."

Some women like lighter tools designed for a smaller grip. Catz prefers the regular size. "I don't recommend getting a 10-ounce hammer," she says. "If you've ever picked up a child or a gallon of milk, you can pick up a 16-ounce hammer. It's easier to nail the nail with it. You have more force."

Lyday takes a different view. "I have spent 20 years in construction going through tools that were too big for me," she says. She plans to market a line of smaller tools and specially sized work clothes for women.

Despite women's impressive gains in home repair, some experts see challenges ahead. Nearly half of women age 50 and over are concerned that they might not be able to keep their homes up in the years to come, according to a study by Sears.

Women are not the only ones needing more confidence.

"There are just as many men who feel intimidated by repair as women," says Robin Hartl, former cohost of "Hometime." "Men are afraid to go into Home Depot and tell someone, 'I don't know how to do that.' Women walk into Home Depot and Lowe's and Ace Hardware all day and say, 'Will you show me how to do that, show me the right tool and what I need?'"

Asking questions is high on experts' list of advice for women. "Even if you're not going to do the repairs yourself, if you're somewhat knowledgeable, the workers you hire will treat you with more respect," Catz says.

As more women buy homes, they will help to demystify repair, experts say. "The biggest mistake women make is that they've been told this is a guy's thing," Lyday says. "A lot of women have bought into that. If you can understand complicated recipes, you can understand how something gets put together. Then you can do it."

Tully, drawing on her experience, adds, "Hiring out home repairs is sort of like having a nanny raise your child. You'll never really understand the intricacies of its makeup or operation until you've rolled up your sleeves and dealt with it all firsthand."