Hail the god of home improvement

Suddenly the air is filled with the traditional sounds of an Easter Bank Holiday weekend – the whine of a drill, the rhythmic thuds of a hammer, the labouring rasp of a hand-held saw, and the raucous curses of a job gone wrong. Britain’s DIY army is on the move.

Over the holiday break an estimated 26 million Britons will flock to B&Q, Homebase, Do It All and Wickes to buy electric drills, sanders, countersunk screws, tiles, bathroom fittings and paint. And many of them will end up in casualty departments alongside the walking wounded from the sports field.

The Government is so concerned it has published two million safety leaflets as a health warning to all those venturing into the dangerous world of DIY. Around 70 people are killed and 250,000 injured each year as they tackle DIY projects, according to figures published by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Consumer Affairs Minister Kim Howells lays at least some of the blame on the plethora of TV home and garden shows, saying that viewers thought they could imitate the likes of ‘andy Andy from BBC’s Changing Rooms and a host of other experts carrying out ambitious home transformations. He said: “People assume it is easy and think they can do things as easily as the experts.”

Over the holiday period, hundreds of millions of pounds will change hands. And many will buy things that will end up in the back of a cupboard – a hammer drill with obscure extras, piles of tiles complete with spacers, vats of grout, and jar after jar of sundry screws and nails.

The nation divides into those who are competent at DIY and those who are not. Both groups, however, are active in the marketplace. Some actually use what they have bought, others simply get someone in to do it all for them.

David Sinclair, a London tiler, remembers being called in as if he were a paramedic to deal with the aftermath of a bathroom fiasco. The wife had wanted an elaborate mosaic pattern, which involved fixing blocks of tiny tiles to the wall whose front sides were held together by sheets of sticky paper. The idea was that after the job was finished water would be applied to the outside surface, washing off the paper and revealing the glories beneath.

“What had happened was that the husband had glued the tiles paper-side to the wall so that they faced out back-to-front. When he washed the wall with water, the whole lot fell into the bath. It cost a small fortune to put right.”

Nick Child, a Surrey-based builder and decorator, blames TV and self-help promotions. “People think they can pick up all they need to know about plastering or roofing from a 30-minute video,” he says. “But it takes years. The cowboys are the same. They’ve done a bit at home themselves and they think they can move straight into the business. Most of them are appalling – but people love cheap quotes.”

Stephen Robinson, marketing director of B&Q, remains a defender of the home work ethic. “Even though DIY is taken on by more people as a result of TV programmes, magazines, demonstrations and inspiration in our own stores, there are still millions who could be taking on more adventurous projects,” he says.

At Homebase, the emphasis is less macho. “Just the thought of installing a bathroom can be daunting,” says the publicity. “But Homebase can help by providing the advice you need and arranging for our qualified fitters to carry out the installation.”

The mania continues to grow, or at least seems to grow. Last week, Wickes (131 stores) dismissed as “ludicrously low” a £285m bid from rival Focus Do It All (209 stores) which, if successful, would create Britain’s third biggest DIY chain.

B&Q in the last financial year enjoyed sales of more than £2.3bn. The company is to open 12 more warehouses this year, bringing the total to 125, as well as three more super- stores. In all, it has 300 outlets and provides 22,000 jobs.

At Homebase, part of the Sainsbury group, sales rose 10.4 per cent in the first quarter of the year. Only continued competition from rivals made this increase less meteoric than that of previous figures.

But though it is criminal what some people do with a trowel and a plumb line, the only victims are the bodgers themselves. The professionals love it because they are the ones who are called in to put things right, and they charge mightily for the privilege.

In the “real” DIY economy, in which customers are as likely to buy a new kitchen as a new toilet seat, the greatest skill lies in finding the right man at the right price to do the job properly. So the advice might be: select what you want, get out the calculator rather than the orbital sander and watch as a real handyman struts his stuff.

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