Doing It Yourself

More and more people take on chores that they used to pay others to do

March 17, 2009 

Beth Rogers is taking the family's finances into her own hands — literally.

The 35-year-old from Fayetteville, Ark., ditched her weekly housekeeping service and now mops her own floors. She and her husband, Stanley, work in the yard after canceling their lawn care contract. She cooks at home instead of the family eating out, and she told her husband to iron his own shirts rather than send them to the cleaners. Total savings? About $10,000 a year.

"It made me feel embarrassed, because I realized the things we were hiring out was just me being lazy, or things I could do for myself," said Rogers, a stay-at-home mom who made the changes after business began to slow at her husband's car wash company.

Across the country, people are taking on chores that only a year ago were hired out to someone else. They're dyeing their own hair, shoveling their own snow, washing their own cars and taking up paint brushes to brighten their living room walls.

The do-it-yourself trend has hurt some businesses and created opportunities for others. While every shirt ironed by 35-year-old Stanley Rogers is one fewer for the local cleaners, it also means the Rogers family will be buying more detergent and fabric softener.

Multiply the chores the Rogerses are doing by the millions of people like them who are changing their habits and the future looks bright for the do-it-yourself market.

Experts say that area will be among the first to recover once the nation's housing sector regains steam. The research firm Mintel International, which follows a narrow segment of the market from tool rentals to building and decorating supplies, predicts the sector will make steady gains over the next two years, ultimately growing to a $15.1 billion market in 2013, or about 50 percent over a decade.

Home improvement stores Lowe's Cos. Inc. and The Home Depot Inc. reported stronger sales of snow blowers this winter as people stopped paying for snow removal service. And they expect gardening and house cleaning items to be among their best sellers this spring and summer — a time when overall store sales traditionally are so strong that it's likened to the industry's Christmas.

"We sense that people kind of want to get their hands dirty," said Home Depot Chief Financial Officer Carol Tome. "There's something to be said about playing in the dirt right now when you're feeling miserable about everything else."

Tome said she may even scrap her own family's lawn mowing service because it might not be worth the extra expense.

Lowe's says its customer surveys show more shoppers in the past six months who say they're willing to try doing home maintenance and repair projects themselves, rather than hiring someone.

More time to notice grime?

Procter & Gamble Co., which makes Swiffer dusters and Mr. Clean cleansers, expects an increase in sales of its cleaning products.

But the company doesn't see it as evidence that maids are being fired. Instead, it's a sign people are spending more time at home and noticing the grime, said Marie-Laure Salvado, a spokeswoman for the Cincinnati-based company.

Fertilizer company Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. expects more people to take care of their own lawns this year, and also build gardens and grow some of their own vegetables, said Jim King, a spokesman for the company, which is based in Marysville, Ohio.

Daniel Rothermel, the vice president of Green Giant Lawn and Tree Care in Fleetwood, Pa., said he's planning to continue business as usual once the spring thaw comes, and hopes his customers will find spreading their own lawn seeds and fertilizer too onerous.

But he also acknowledged that luxury services like his may be some of the first things cut when household budgets get trimmed.

"It's certainly not a necessity," he said. "And if it's a choice between putting food on your table or getting your lawn fertilized, that's a decision that's going to be pretty clear."

Still, do-it-yourself efforts can come with their own steep price tags when projects get botched.

DIY can backfire

Chicago handyman Rich Escallier said that over three decades of helping homeowners he has been called to repair a wide range of work started by well-intentioned homeowners — from ceiling holes cut too large for speakers to crumbling cement that wasn't properly mixed. His business is down for now, but he expects it to pick up as homeowners feel more comfortable paying for professional help or get in over their heads.

"The economy isn't going to stop a sink from leaking," he said. "You certainly don't want to, as a novice, go after redoing electric. You don't want to be playing with live wires."

Meanwhile, people like Beth and Stanley Rogers continue to do work themselves.

So far, the biggest consequence has been for their former maid, who calls monthly and is still looking for work, and the man who maintained their lawn.

"I know they're struggling and I feel really bad about that," Beth Rogers said. "I think that's the hardest thing, just knowing that I'm not helping the situation. I know I need to be supporting the economy and keep it going, but I just can't."

Her husband, who admits letting his clean-but-unironed shirts stack up in the closet, admits to having second thoughts, though.

He's contemplating a change to wrinkle-resistant cotton.

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