Ms. Fix-It

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Women drive the home improvement market.

Instead of slaving over a hot stove or fighting the crowds at the mall, many women are opting to get down and dirty in their gardens or take a hammer and nails to their homes in their free time.

The Home Improvement Research Institute's biennial Product Purchase Tracking Study shows that more women are tackling home improvement projects and buying an increased percentage of fix-it supplies.

According to the study of 2,602 U.S. homeowners, total home improvement product purchases by men have declined, while women's have increased. Women's fix-it-yourself purchases jumped from 32 percent in 1997 to 37.6 percent in 1999. And of 17 home improvement project categories, 12 showed an increase in participation among women between 1997 and 1999, while only three showed growth for men. For example, just 7.7 percent of women remodeled a bathroom in 1997, but 19.2 percent did in 1999, and the number of women who planted a garden grew from 50.3 percent in 1997 to 59.1 percent in 1999.

In fact, according to a recent Home Depot/Yankelovich Partners study, women picked home improvement over shopping or cooking as their preferred leisure activity. Thirty-seven percent of women say they would prefer to spend their weekend leisure time working on a home improvement or outdoor project, 28 percent prefer shopping at a mall, and 25 percent prefer cooking or baking. Thirty-three percent of men say they prefer spending their leisure time doing an outdoor home improvement project, 15 percent like shopping at a mall, 12 percent like cooking or baking, 16 percent would rather do an indoor home improvement project, and 21 percent chose none of the above. Surprisingly, 54 percent of women say they were in the process of planning a home improvement project, compared with 51 percent of men.

Of these handywomen, 32 percent say a painting project is in the works, 32 percent are gearing up for landscaping or gardening, 21 percent want to tackle wallpapering or putting up a border, 15 percent tiling of floors, 13 percent installation of ceiling fans or lighting fixtures, and 11 percent installation of window treatments.

So what's behind women's increasing interest in sprucing up their homes? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 57 percent of single women are now homeowners - compared with 53.6 percent in 1990 - leading them to take an active role in making purchases for their indoor and outdoor home decor, says Carol Schumacher, vice president of public relations at Home Depot. The number of single-woman owned homes is projected to increase from 16.4 million this year to 17.2 million in 2005.

"Typically, people's greatest asset is their home, so there is a natural inclination to improve their investment and make their investment grow," says Schumacher. "Also, because the economy is really strong, there are fewer contractors available, so if you want to do home improvements, you have to compete with others for the same contractor, or do it yourself."

Women say they enjoy do-it-yourself projects for a variety of reasons. Eighty-three percent relish saving money, 83 percent are pleased by improving the look of their home, 78 percent feel a sense of accomplishment, and 67 percent like working with their hands.

Although women are taking on more home renovation projects, they would be doing more if they had more time, money, and know-how. About 7 in 10 cite time and money as obstacles to increasing the number of home repair projects, while about half say lack of knowledge or skills prevents them from picking up their drills and rakes more frequently.

Home Depot and other home improvement stores, such as Lowe's, are honing in on female consumers by making their retail outlets more "female-friendly." For example, Schumacher says Home Depot offers design services, and has revamped some stores with carpeting, and organized decor areas to be more comfortable and insulated from the more "hardcore" areas, such as the lumber department. Lowe's has made its appeal to women by making stores brighter, better decorated, and stocked with appliances.

Get ready for more Ms. Fix-its. In a separate 1999 Yankelovich Monitor study, 44 percent of women and 41 percent of men said they planned to do an interior painting project in the next two to three years, 32 percent of women and men planned to landscape their yard or put in a new garden, and 42 percent of women and 40 percent of men planned to replace flooring or carpeting. Overall, 65 percent of women and 64 percent of men planned to do a home improvement project in the next two to three years.

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