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Endangered British Species: the DIYer

By Mark Rice-Oxley / March 28, 2007



When Paul Wootton needed to put up some shelves in his new Brighton seaside apartment, he figured there were two choices: Get out the power tools and start making a mess or call Dad.

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"I could have tried, but it's a new place so I'm less willing to give it a go and botch it up," says Mr. Wootton, who confesses he has been calling on his dad's handyman skills for the best part of 20 years. "I'm always saying to him, 'Can you teach me how to do it?' but he just bangs them up quickly and is very good at it."

Give Wootton some credit, though. He is not totally hopeless when it comes to home improvement, or DIY (Do It Yourself) as it is universally known in Britain. He's erected some flat-packed furniture from Ikea and chalked up a minor triumph the other day by successfully hanging a picture. "There was already a nail in the wall. I just hung it on."

Fifty miles up the road, Laura Richards confesses she's not much handier around her flat. She can change a light bulb, she says, "though not the tricky halogen ones in the kitchen." But when it came to bookshelves, she paid a carpenter to do install them. Her generation, she says, has "too much money, too little time, and it's easier to pay for it than to do it ourselves."

Whatever happened to do-it-all Brits and their DIY pride? Where are the men with the full set of spanners (wrenches) alongside the masonry drill bits and screwdrivers in the tool shed? Where are the women happy to roll up the sleeves and get stuck into the wallpapering?

Surveys and data from the home improvement industry indicate that they are become British anachronisms.

Profits at big home improvement stores slumped last year; executives blamed the growing tendency of people to get tradesmen and handymen to do their dirty work for them. A survey last month found that more than 50 percent of people did not know how to wire a plug and more than three-quarters of people did not know how to wallpaper. The Ideal Home Show survey found that 62 percent of people were no better than Wootton when it came to putting up shelves.

And all this despite a flurry of television shows ("DIY SOS," "Grand Designs," "Changing Rooms," "House Doctor," to name just a few) in a country perpetually obsessed by home ownership and property prices.

One third of people surveyed blamed their DIY deficiencies on being too busy. "We're all a bit time-poor, so perhaps we value our Sundays off more," says Wootton. "Personally, I'd rather pay the money and get someone in than spend my whole weekend cursing and botching it and then having to pay someone to come in and clean up the mess."

DIY, it would appear, has become DFY – done for you.

The arrival in the past year of thousands of tradesmen from eastern Europe, most notably the ubiquitous Polish plumber, may have accelerated the trend by convincing some to hire cheap immigrants rather than have a go themselves.

For the local handymen and women, it is of course good news. Demand has shot up, creating a shortage that entrepreneurs like Bruce Greig are only too happy to fill.

He runs a firm of handymen who help with everything from fixing curtain rods to stopping a dripping tap. Revenue is growing 30 percent year on year. His employees? Drawn in the main from the generation of 50-somethings who have "a lifetime of handyman experience doing stuff for friends and family."

"People get us in to tap a nail in the wall or change light bulbs," Greig says. "One customer even wanted us to cut a chopping board in half so it could fit in the dishwasher."

He says lack of time is only half of the explanation for the DIY decline. "It's also because communities are less closely knit, so you are less likely to have people to help you out in the neighborhood," he reasons.

Richard Nissen, another businessman cashing in on the DIY skills gap with his plumbing company, says there are more factors at play.

He cites new legislation which forbids homeowners from messing around with electrical installations. Result? They have to get experts in. Better housing nowadays moreover means that generally there is less need for DIY. And smaller housing – old Victorian or Edwardian mansions subdivided into flats for example – mean there is less space for elaborate carpentry or even a stack of shelves.

Mr. Nissen is trying to do his bit by offering a plumbing course to orientate hapless new homeowners. "Some of them have no idea at all," he says. "They don't know what the hot-water cylinder is, how to change a [faucet] washer. A lot have never used a spanner before."

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