Classes in home repair offer more than great ways to save on contractor bills — they give you courage.
The first time Joice Wright saw her 1890 brownstone in the
Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn, New York, she had eyes for only a floor-to-ceiling mahogany china cabinet in the back parlor. All else vanished. The four-story house's crooked windows, broken-down kitchen and garish yellow living room walls barely registered. "I just knew I had to have this house."
That was 13 years ago. In the seasons since, Wright, a junior-high
school art teacher, has tried bit by bit to banish the horrors inflicted on the grand old building during its decade as a rooming house. She might be further along had she not grown up in rental apartments, used to leaving repairs to someone else. Wright didn't know the first thing about patching a hole in the wall, fixing a plumbing leak or evaluating the safety of wiring. "My husband knows how to do those things. He just won't do them," Wright says. She laughs, then adds: "I am the biggest starter of things. But I never get them done."
She needed a coach, and she found one in Neighborhood Housing Services of New York City, a not-for-profit organization that teaches homeowner basics. In a ten-session course that meets three hours a week in five locations, about 300 people a year learn to fix toilets, lay tile, frame walls and replace windows. Banks donate most of the classrooms and pay for some of the instructors' fees and other program
expenses—an innovative way to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977,
which requires lenders to serve low-income communities where they
operate. Other businesses also support the program; Home Depot, for example, provides materials such as nails and wood. The students pay $100 per course.
When Wright's husband, Milford heard about the program, he suggested she give it a try because she was always coming up with projects for him. Wright and her daughter, Joyce Williams, who lives in the upstairs apartment of the house, took the beginner classes together, they signed up for the intermediate—and talked a niece into following along. "Most of what I learned was after class," Wright says. "A lot of people in class were brownstoners. We all had the same problems."
One classmate was so excited after a lesson in patching plaster and
drywall that he went home and fixed several holes where doorknobs had
slammed into walls. When he finished, he punched more holes—just for the pleasure of patching them—and called friends, asking if they had any holes to patch. Each repair had saved him $200, the price a contractor quoted.
The instructor asked whether others had ever received estimates for
patching walls. "We all sheepishly said, yes, we were paying $200 a
hole," Wright recalls. "We'd had people in the house doing work for us, but we couldn't really evaluate what they were doing. When we took the class, we saw we were wasting money because the repairs weren't being done well."
With her newfound knowledge, Wright discovered she could screen jobs before tackling them: "I decided that fixing sweating pipes is not for
me. And I'll leave electrical repairs to a professional." But perhaps the most valuable lesson was learning how to focus, she says. Instead of simultaneously starting projects throughout the house, Wright worked last summer solely on turning the front downstairs room into the family's everyday dining room. (She's leaving the parlor with the china cabinet for entertaining.)
The dining room will get a lot more use once she finishes the kitchen.
It's a disaster now—the ceiling is falling in, and only one stove
burner works. But Wright and her husband can't agree on how to redo the room. So for now, the kitchen remains—as her teachers taught her to think of it—a project for another day.