Homeowners Turn Remodeling Sessions Into House Parties

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Cocktails and power tools don't mix. But they sure do mingle.


As the housing market cools, homeowners looking to save money
on renovations are hosting parties where they invite friends over for an evening
of ripping out walls and laying floors. But when novices who've had a few drinks
get a hold of crowbars, drills and Sawzalls, the results are sometimes less than

Cocktails and power tools don't mix. But they sure do mingle.

As the housing market cools, homeowners looking to save money

on renovations are hosting parties where they invite friends over for an evening

of ripping out walls and laying floors. But when novices who've had a few drinks

get a hold of crowbars, drills and Sawzalls, the results are sometimes less than

satisfactory.

One reveler near Chicago hung a sheet of drywall backwards,

while a partygoer in Seattle messed up the host's bathroom floor by installing

the tiles crooked. During her recent "Martini Bash" renovation event in Toronto,

Debora Beam wandered upstairs to find one of her friends halfway through

sledgehammering out the wrong wall. "I was kind of like 'oh my God,' " she says.

Sometimes the problem is inexperience, not alcohol. Although

she missed her friends' official "Demolition Party" in Columbus, Ohio, Suzanne

Cohan, a 38-year-old massage therapist, dropped by later to pitch in. She was

trying to yank a piece of lath from an exposed wall with a crowbar when the wood

snapped and popped her between the eyes. Ms. Cohan, who'd taken off her safety

goggles, had to go home and put a bandage on her face. "I violated the safety

code, so it was pretty much my fault," she says.

Contractors say these parties have become a marketing

opportunity. Orange County, Calif., handyman Paul Maceyka says a couple in their

30s recently paid his company almost $4,000 to undo a mess their inexperienced

friends had made with a paint sprayer. "There were beer bottles everywhere," he

says. Georgia electrical contractor Bill Boots says he's been hired to repair a

light fixture one partygoer bashed with a hammer and to restore power at another

home after one reveler with a Sawzall -- a power cutting tool often used for

demolition -- mistakenly clipped some electrical wires. Johnny Herbert, a

general contractor in Nashville, Tenn., has begun offering to supervise these

parties for $40 an hour.

In the last year, William Durkin, an emergency-room doctor in

Salisbury, Md., says he's treated about five patients who had hit themselves

with hammers or fallen off stepladders during home-renovation parties or

gatherings. "One of them was a little drunk," he says.

"These parties are invitations for disasters," says Dean

Herriges, secretary of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. His

advice: Don't open the bar until the work is finished.

Something Everybody Can Do

Amid the housing slump, spending on home improvements is

expected to rise just 3% in 2007 and remain constant through the first quarter

of next year, according to Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. At the

same time, rising prices for construction staples like concrete, fiberglass, and

asphalt roofing helped raise the average cost of professional remodeling

projects this summer by as much as 18%, according to a forthcoming report from

publisher Hanley Wood's Remodeling magazine.

Slower home sales (existing home sales in August fell 12.8%

from last year, according to the National Association of Realtors), a tightening

credit market and shrinking home equity are conspiring to force homeowners to

look for cheaper alternatives. "It's not that fewer people do projects. They

just figure out ways to scale the cost of their projects down," says Kermit

Baker, a senior fellow at Harvard's Joint Center.

Last November, Julia Denise Fuller, a 47-year-old saleswoman

from Tuscaloosa, Ala., handed out invitations to 10 neighbors for a "stripping"

party. By her calculations, using friendly labor to rip out the plaster walls

and ceilings on the second floor of her new home saved several weeks and at

least $3,500 in contractor fees. Besides, she says, demolition "was something

everybody could do, even children."

Blame television for making home renovation an acceptable party

theme. HGTV and DIY Network currently air 61 home improvement shows, a 20%

increase in two years. Many such shows, from the Learning Channel's "Trading

Spaces" to DIY's "Man Caves," aim to make home improvement look fun. In a coming

episode of HGTV's "Over Your Head," for example, members of a wedding party

donned black tuxedo T-shirts to help the groom build a backyard firepit and

flagstone patio just in time for a pre-wedding cocktail party.

"In all of our shows, you do see groups of people doing

projects together," says Kathleen Finch, general manager of DIY Network. "One

person tackling a project alone is going to make a kind of sad television show."

The Drywall Incident

Jason and Jennifer La Fleur of Oak Park, Ill., are renovation

party veterans. They've hosted more than a dozen in the last two years,

including a New Year's demolition event called the "Wallbanger's Ball" during

which they served vodka cocktails and distributed sledgehammers. At about 2:00

a.m. during one bash, Mr. La Fleur noticed that a piece of drywall had been hung

backwards. Partygoer Scott Jackson, who owned up to the mistake, mentioned

several possible factors, including the dim lighting and the fact that he's

colorblind. "There might have been a couple of beers at that hour," he adds.

During his two recent alcohol-free renovation parties in

Sacramento, Calif., Jim Vanderveen, a 44-year-old computer programmer, narrowly

averted disaster twice -- once when a guest nearly fell off the roof and a

second time when he noticed that his brother-in-law was about to use a power saw

to slice through a wall that was supporting his house. "I tried to yell, but he

couldn't hear me," says Mr. Vanderveen, who raced over just in time.

For her demolition party, Jessica Banis, a video editor from

Bourne, Mass., sent invitations modeled after work permits to about 20 friends.

They said: "Permit is void if permit holder or friends do not get drunk and

disorderly." Although Ms. Banis rented a Dumpster and provided dust masks,

burgers and beer, she forgot something rather important: a tarp. It took six

months for her and her husband to finish hauling away debris created by their

enthusiastic hammer-wielding party guests. "When I vacuumed the last of it up, I

was so thrilled," Ms. Banis says.

The idea of friends and neighbors coming together to work and

socialize stretches back to Colonial barn-raisings. Today contractors say

they've never seen so many homeowners passing these events off as parties, with

invitations, decorations, food, drinks and even party favors like cordless

screwdrivers and laser levels -- not to mention enlisting this sort of help from

people with no discernible carpentry skills. Evite, the online party-planning

service, says the number of remodeling events customers sent invitations for

rose nearly 40% in April, May and June over the same period two years ago.

Dara O'Neil, 35, an education-policy analyst and her husband,

Kyle Knight, 41, a furniture maker, were planning to have their house bulldozed

to make room for a new one, but still decided to invite friends over for an

evening of beer and aimless vandalism. The couple had planned to save one

drywall section to put in their new house as a memorial, but by the end of the

night there wasn't any left. "It just turned into everyone with two hammers in

their arms going crazy," Ms. O'Neil says.

Partygoer Payback

Both guests and hosts say it's generally understood that

mistakes are bound to happen and when they do, there's really no need for an

elaborate apology. "I just thought, 'This is the cost of free labor,' " says

Roland Dandy, the 44-year-old postal worker who knocked down the wrong wall at

Debora Beam's party in Toronto.

Some partygoers are getting tired of the tradition. Gabe

Taylor, 33, a geologist in Olympia, Wash., says he's already helped one couple

build a split-rail fence and a gazebo in the last year and has since skipped

about half of their party invitations. When he's ready to renovate his new

house, Mr. Taylor says, "I'm going to try to sucker them down to Olympia with

the promise of a good time drinking and listening to music and then when they

get here, I'm going to hand them a shovel and a paint brush."

Marketing executives at Home Depot say the company has noticed

that women are holding do-it-yourself work parties, and has incorporated that

concept into a new promotional campaign. Producers of the HGTV show "Over Your

Head," which helps people fix their botched renovation jobs, say they're already

getting two or three submissions a week that involve mishaps made at renovation

parties.

After her do-it-yourself renovation plan went awry in Toronto,

Ms. Beam contacted producers from a TV show called "Save Our House, Save Our

Family," which sent a contractor (and a camera crew) to help her patch things

up. The episode airs on the AmericanLife TV Network in November.

Ken King, a 35-year-old Seattle advertising manager, says he

didn't get too frustrated when his brother-in-law, Jonathan Cook, laid a floor's

worth of crooked tiles in his bathroom at a party in 2002. The free labor was

worth the inconvenience. But he says he did learn a lesson: For his next

renovation party later this year, he plans to assign only menial tasks or, as he

puts it, "things you kind of can't screw up."

Among them, breaking concrete and moving rocks for a backyard

wall. "Grunt labor is what I'm looking for," he says.

Copyright © 2007 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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