Before you grab a slab of drywall ...

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Whether you're a fine cabinetmaker or you barely know which is the business end of a hammer, you've probably heard of the Public Broadcasting Service series "This Old House." Entering its 22nd season, the program offers a look at the process of home renovation and improvement.

Guiding viewers through each episode for the past 12 years is the show's host, Steve Thomas, a master craftsman in his own right. In this era of labor shortages in the trades, Mr. Thomas offers sound advice to homeowners considering tackling a renovation project.

The following are some excerpts from a recent interview:

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On going it alone:

"People [should] become familiar with the services of professionals - whether they are kitchen-and-bath designers, architects, general contractors, carpenters, cabinetmakers, plumbers, electricians, and so on - and know when to use professional services and what types of jobs to take on themselves.

"An average homeowner with a fairly moderate skill set can learn to do painting and decorating, yard work, landscaping. [But] the most important skill for any homeowner to develop, when contemplating a renovation, is to become a manager."

Ways to pitch in:

"Most people don't have the time or the skills to take on a full renovation. They could reserve certain portions of the project for themselves. If you're going to act as a subcontractor, then you are going to have to act on the same schedule as any other subcontractor, or else you're going to hold up your own job.

"Most people just don't have the time to get in there and perform that task when it is required in the sequence of the job.

"Another thing you can do is make sure the whole job site is clean - the trades really appreciate that - it makes for a more efficient job."

Being available:

"In any job there are a hundred little questions: 'We can't put the faucet exactly where we specified because of certain field conditions, so we have to put it an inch to the left, or an inch to the right, or an inch back; which way do you want it?'

"If they get answered as they come up, it keeps the job flowing, and job flow is critical. Jobs develop a certain momentum and once you get that momentum, you want to keep it going."

Refining the design:

"Make sure that your design is quite refined before you go to a contractor ... all cabinets just where you want them and the specification of products: type of flooring, type of sink, the model number of the dishwasher, the model number of the faucets.

"With that, you have a level playing field. You can get a bid from several contractors, and you know they are all biding on the same project.

"A project that is still in flux is liable to undergo changes as it is built out, and that adds to the costs and to the frustration."

Cooling your heels:

"Here in the Boston area, the good contractors are booking a year in advance. And if [a contractor is] not, you have to wonder why, because the market is so robust right now. Use that time to refine your design and make sure it is exactly what you want.

"If you don't want to wait a year, there is a lot that paint and paper can do. A lot of times, redecorating - which is something you can do yourself - will give you the facelift you need to get you through the time you need to wait."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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