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DIY home improvement projects you can do in the winter

These days, even homeowners who may have hired someone before are taking on more tasks themselves. Here are some things you can do over the winter.

Ernie Leone has become a handyman for his three young adult children. He built custom bookshelves for his daughter at her home in Berlin, N.J.
Ernie Leone has become a handyman for his three young adult children. He built custom bookshelves for his daughter at her home in Berlin, N.J.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Ernie Leone’s happy place is the workshop he created in the basement of his Hammonton, N.J., home.

His three adult children, who are in their own homes, have lots of requests for Leone’s skills on an ongoing list of projects. From the customized oak table he made to fit into his older son’s narrow townhouse to the painted white bookcases for his daughter’s living room, Leone, who is retired, is finding plenty to do during a pandemic even as the weather grows chillier.

“She had a blank wall and wanted bookcases with a cabinet and butcher block countertop,” Leone recalled. “I had to drop the ceiling because she needed lights over the countertop, so I had to do some Sheetrock and electrical work.”

The materials cost him about $400 for a unit that would easily have run a couple of thousand if she’d had to hire a pro, he estimated.

The pandemic has changed the way Leone works. He makes fewer trips to the hardware store and goes only during off-peak hours. “I’m not big on buying stuff online because I like to touch it and visualize how it’s going to fit,” he said. “But I will sometimes because it does make everything so much easier and safer.”

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Some people, such as Leone, have long had a passion for home improvement projects. But today, even homeowners who may have hired someone before are taking on more tasks themselves.

“The remodeling market is bouncing back from the initial shocks caused by the pandemic, as homeowners continue to spend significant time in their home and are adapting it for work, school, and leisure,” said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. “The surge in DIY and small-project activity is lifting the remodeling market.”

In a report released Oct. 15, the center projected national quarterly spending on home renovation and repair to rise to $337 billion by the end of 2021, from about $332 billion today.

How do you know when you can tackle a home improvement job yourself?

“It really depends on the individual’s know-how and experience and comfort level with tools,” said Tim O’Hara, owner of Rittenhouse Handyman in Philadelphia, who highly encourages DIYers to take advantage of YouTube videos for instruction. “Start there, watching somebody else do it, see what tools they are using, and how hard it appears.”

Practice, practice, practice

Practice first, he said. For example, get a piece of drywall to practice putting on a patch before trying to fix the hole in your wall. Repair work is not for everyone. If you’re overwhelmed or don’t have the tools or interest in buying them, you’re better off calling a professional.

There are jobs that all homeowners can attempt themselves, O’Hara said, and the winter is the best time. Start with jobs that involve weatherizing, such as adding weather stripping around doors to prevent drafts, caulking windows to shut out air and moisture, and stuffing holes behind ovens or in basements with steel wool to keep out rodents. It’s also a good time for routine preventive maintenance, including changing HVAC filters and smoke and carbon monoxide detector batteries.

O’Hara has many clients, especially now, who are building garden boxes to be put outdoors come spring.

“Maybe to get into the habit of growing some of your own food for a couple less trips to the grocery store and a couple more bucks in your pocket,” he said. “You’ve got to get the lumber, make the cuts, and lay it all out. Grade the bottom properly so water drains out where you want it to drain.”

Painting is a great introduction to do it yourself, said Rebecca Celhar, whose blog Hello Central Avenue is dedicated to DIY projects on a budget.

“Try refreshing the color in a room and touching up chipping paint and baseboards that have been scuffed away,” she said. “For a kitchen or bathroom update, they now make paint for your backsplash, tile and laminate flooring. You can paint your laminate floor and stencil on top of that, and it ends up looking like stenciled tile.”

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If you haven’t painted before, Celhar recommends getting a good 2-inch angled paintbrush for cutting in around the woodwork and for painting the trim, a roller with a thin nap for painting walls, and a drop cloth.

“If you are someone who has the patience for painter’s tape, I would definitely buy it for around the window panes, ceiling and floors,” she said. “If you don’t have the patience, one secret for windows is using your angled brush to paint the woodwork around the window panes, then use a razor blade to scrape off any excess paint that got on the glass. It comes off so easily once it’s dried.”

Painting furniture can also completely update a room, and products today make the process easy and affordable. For instance, a newer water-based product, chalk paint, dries to a matte finish that gives furniture an aged, distressed look.

“I like chalk paint because it goes on really well, and once you apply the wax and it cures, it’s a solid covering,” Celhar said. “I have run into issues with latex paint because you have to make sure you sand your furniture and it’s clean, whereas with chalk paint you don’t have to sand at all.”

Replacing old drapery rods, curtains and shades is another project that homeowners can handle themselves. Online videos explain how to best install them, whether you need wall anchors or can screw the hardware directly into the wall. Changing the height of the rods can change the whole look of a space, Celhar said.

Winter is a great time to organize closets and drawers. “It might take a little bit of time, but it can make a great difference in a space,” Celhar said. If installing a prepackaged organizing solution, be sure to follow the accompanying directions.

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Sometimes you need a pro

O’Hara cautions homeowners not to underestimate work on plumbing and electrical systems, which may require a professional to be done correctly. He also discourages folks from taking on roof work — anything involving heights and ladders. “You should hire someone with training and safety equipment and harnesses,” he said.

More than once, he has been brought in to clean up a DIY job gone wrong. In one instance, the client didn’t use the proper Teflon tape to seal the connections when installing a new faucet. It took months for the slow leak to work its way through the ceiling and walls, appearing as a spot on the ceiling about eight feet from the bathroom.

“It wasn’t evident until we opened up the ceiling and traced the water,” O’Hara recalled. The repair cost about $2,000 because so much drywall needed to be replaced, patched, and painted. Had O’Hara installed the faucet in the first place, it would have cost $135 for labor plus the cost of the faucet.

Repair pros are busier than ever these days, which has pushed some homeowners to try projects themselves, said Mitchell Cohen, owner of Cohen & Co. Hardware in Queen Village.

“Contractors are backed up three, four, five months,” said Cohen, who spends a lot of time answering customers’ how-to questions.

People who may not have taken a vacation due to the pandemic are using that money and time to work on their homes. “They are paying attention to little things," Cohen said, “like changing the screws to the brass door knocker outside or reconnecting a detached shutter.”

Leone has discovered that how-to videos are a good source for different opinions on how to tackle certain jobs.

“There are always surprises — something’s a little bit off and you have to adapt and improvise,” he said. “To me, that’s what makes it fun. How are you going to solve that problem?”