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Helping hands How-to classes put household projects within reach

The Mitschangs agreed they would be able to buy new furniture if they could do the much-needed tile work themselves in their Town of Tonawanda home.

"If we install the tiles ourselves, we'll be saving a lot of money, and then we'll have money for the furniture," said Mark Mitschang.

But Rene Mitschang was a bit nervous about the multiroom tiling project. Sure, there would be thousands of dollars saved, but she had never installed tile before.

To address her concerns, the couple attended a recent how-to-tile clinic at the Home Depot store on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst.

For an hour, the Mitschangs observed as two instructors gave step-by-step directions -- from laying the mortar to sealing the tiles -- with the entire process demonstrated with all the materials and tools needed for the job.

"I'm more confident now," Rene Mitschang said after the Saturday morning class. "Watching them do it -- and not just reading about it, but seeing them do everything in perso -- was really helpful. I'm ready to start tiling now."

"You'd be surprise how easy it is to do this," instructor Henry Costello said to the group of about 20 people gathered for the clinic. "If you do it yourself, it's so much more rewarding. You're beautifying, saving money and increasing the value of your home."

The Mitschangs, empowered by the clinic, began work just days later on the first of three rooms they plan to tile. They will be tiling the floors of the front hallway, dining room and kitchen.

Mark Mitschang said, "Our whole house is a work in progress, so we'll be back to take other classes." Their two-story, 1950s house also could use new drywall, recess lighting, moulding in the basement and ceiling fans. The couple plans to learn how to do these projects themselves by attending future Home Depot clinics.

Home Depot offers free in-store clinics and workshops at its stores nationally, covering many areas of home improvement -- from lawn and garden to installing a ceiling fan to updating a small bathroom. The classes are held on weekend mornings and afternoons. Some of these projects also are covered in how-to videos on the company's Web site.

"A lot of our customers are do-it-yourselfers," said Sherri Calandra, the specialty assistant store manager at the Niagara Falls Boulevard store. "They really look to us for solutions for their home improvement problems, and we really help them with our clinics."

Home Depot is one of many businesses where people can find help when embarking on do-it-yourself home improvement projects, and save money in the process.

Lowe's, another national home improvement chain, also has instructional videos on its Web site to provide assistance at any hour of the day you want to tackle your project. The how-to videos cover a wide range of projects -- from building a deck to flooring.

"The great thing about it is that you can access these videos while you are working on the project, even after hours," said Abby Bufford, a Lowe's spokeswoman. "And if you have a problem, all you have to do is rewind and watch it again."

Locally owned hardware stores also have helpful staff members behind the counter and in the aisles to answer your questions. They can suggest the best materials and products for what you are doing, and advise you on how to do the work. No one should be shy about asking questions.

"[Customers] explain what the problem is and we try to help them," said Delmar Morris, a floor manager at the Valu Home Center on Elmwood Avenue. Do-it-yourselfers often come in for assistance when painting, or when trying to fix electrical or plumbing problems.

"We try to do the best we can to satisfy the customer," he said.

Bill Devereaux, a manager at Dibble True Value hardware store on West Ferry Street, said customers come in all day searching for direction on their home improvement projects. He has helped property owners install faucets and flooring, seal toilets and repair hot water tanks.

Kathleen Chandler, a Buffalo homeowner, has turned to the staff at Dibble a few times while working on a project.

"They are very good at talking you through a project and doing the best they can to keep the price within budget," she said.

She stopped in last week for help in replacing the sink, which had rusted and corroded pipes, in a bathroom of her 1914 house. Chuck Hollenback, a manager at Dibble, help her get the right size PCV pipes. But Chandler still had trouble getting the pipes to fit. Hollenback then filed them down, free of charge, and the problem was solved.

"I like to save people money, and I earn their trust that way," Hollenback said.
For committed home handymen and women, taking a longer course may be in order.

The Buffalo Public Schools' adult education division offers 13-week vocational courses on various aspects of home repair and upkeep, with tuition starting at $175.

John Suchy, coordinator of the courses, says one of the most important aspects of the program is keeping novices from getting injured.

"They really concentrate on safety so somebody doesn't go and hurt themselves," he said.

Common injuries involve electrical cords, nail guns and ladders -- the Consumer Product Safety Commission reports nearly 200,000 emergency room visits last year from ladder injuries alone.

But with a little caution and common sense -- and a good pair of safety goggles -- doing projects and basic home repair can be rewarding, financially and personally.

This fall's offerings through the Buffalo schools are electrical wiring, which covers repairing and installing wall switches, outlets and other projects; plumbing, which includes lessons on transitioning to a modern, plastic plumbing system; floor covering, teaching how to install carpeting, tiles and other flooring; and overall home improvement, which gives an overview of 10 areas, including carpentry, floors and electrical.

And when you're done?

"You'll be able to repair almost everything on your property," said Suchy. "This course is everything you would want to know about fixing your home."

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