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Handy Women: 'I'd rather do it myself'

Leeann Long was trained as a graphic artist but switched careers to start her own handyman (woman) business when her former employer went through a major downsizing.

GRAND FORKS -- Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and it's also why so many women are learning to fix their own plumbing, build their own furniture and do hundreds of other fix-it and do-it-yourself jobs that used to be largely part of the male skill set.

Demographics and dollars are other reasons that numbers of handywomen are growing. More women than ever own their own homes. And it's expensive to call a plumber or a contractor every time something breaks down.

Irene Berndt was the single mother of five boys when the basement of her Grand Forks house took 6 feet of water during the 1997 flood. Even though she had almost no experience in home repairs, she and her sons gutted and restored the basement, including hanging sheetrock, putting in floors, installing a new shower, and lifting and fixing the toilet.

"I just learned," Berndt said of how she did it. "After the flood, I had to make do. I didn't have flood insurance. I had one child in college and four younger ones, and I just had to do it."

Kelly LaPlante of Crookston can build and fix things, a skill she learned growing up in "a creative home" with parents who never hired out for home jobs because her dad was handy and skillful enough to build their home.

She's good at building things, too, like the high-top table she constructed out of the top of an old electrical spool and other salvaged wood.

"I stay away from the electrical," LaPlante said. "Although, I have built floor lamps for my daughter -- my husband does the wiring."

Handy Helpers

After being laid off from her job as a graphic designer, Leeann Long of Grand Forks founded a business called Handy Helpers, falling back on the repair and building skills she learned working for a contractor when she was in college.

"The first six months, I didn't get a phone call," Long said. "But I've built up a clientele."

Today, she does jobs from painting and drywall repair to cleaning gutters, and installing floor tiles, door knobs, sinks and vanities, toilets and tubs. She has installed windows and doors, done trim work, crown molding and cabinets.

"I really enjoy doing this work," Long said. "It's hard work, but I like the physical aspect of it, although sometimes in the winter, it's not the most fun."

Many people still think of a handyman rather than a handywoman when they think of home repairs. "There have been calls that I've gotten where they've asked, 'Is your husband around? Can I talk to him about the job?' And then I have to tell them I'm the one who will be doing the job," Long said.

The increasing number of women who can fix a leaky faucet or hang a ceiling fan is yet another sign of the crossover between so-called men's work and women's work, and how that is pushing trends. For instance, there are nearly twice as many single female home buyers as there are single male home buyers, according to the 2011 data from the National Association of Realtors.

Even if there is a man around the house, not all men want to or know how to make home repairs. Yet, that broken light switch or clogged drain isn't going to fix itself.

Many home improvement stores today sell pink tool kits with pink pliers, hammers, drills and utility knives. Online, websites such as Pinterest and blogs such as (by a wife and mother) offer information and advice geared toward women about home improvement projects. There are a growing number of books for handywomen as well, such as the bestseller, "Dare to Repair: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Fixing (Almost) Anything in the Home."

Long said there are some limitations to what she can do.

"I'm short and most average-size guys are taller than I am," she said. "They can carry things that I couldn't carry. I try to stay within my limits. I'm not skinny by any means, but I can haul pretty big stuff. Mental wise, women can do anything that the men can do, if they have the knowledge. And you have to build the experience."

LaPlante can fix things, but what she's especially good at is re-purposing and repairing things that others might overlook or even pass over as junk. A graphic artist who works three days a week at Ye Olde Print Shoppe, she's part of a group of seven handy and crafty girlfriends who call themselves The Charmed Circle. They meet at each others homes to work and share ideas. Sometimes, they get together to sell the things they've made.

"I like projects that I can make for my home," LaPlante said. "I've gotten discarded couches and reupholstered them. It's the actual doing of the project that I enjoy." Her projects range from scrapbooking to making Christmas wreaths and building furniture.

LaPlante and her husband, Marc, who have two grown children, collaborate as well. When she made a table from discarded wood and an old ice cream stool, Marc did the welding for her. Marc buys her tools for Christmas and birthdays. She has two miter saws, a band saw, a table saw, drills and a drill press.

Making something out of nothing

Handy and creative women like LaPlante take pride in their ability to make something out of nothing. The spool-top table she made came from an electrical spool she salvaged after her aunt's barn blew down in a tornado. The other materials were salvaged as well, and she sanded and stained it herself.

"The only thing I bought were the lag bolts to attach the legs to the apron part of the table," LaPlante said. "I had all the screws and the stain and the varnish. So, all I bought was the lag bolts for two or three dollars."

Learning on the job, or from friends and family members, is one way to acquire home repair skills.

"I had a friend who was a co-worker and she had tools, and she taught me how to use the other ones which I didn't know how to use," said Berndt, a long-time licensed practical nurse at Altru, who now is a social worker in a Veterans Affairs community based outpatient clinic.

Long after the 1997 flood, Berndt is still doing her own home repairs, as well as other woodworking projects.

She made a bench as a present when one of her sons married. Currently, she is refurbishing her grandmother's rocking chair for an expected grandchild.

"I was raised on the farm and then we moved into town and my mom and dad bought a motel," Berndt said. "So, we were always taught to do things by ourselves, to figure things out."

Home repairs are not as difficult as most people think, she said. You take it step-by-step, learn as you go, and ask for advice when you need it, she said.

"I get gratification out of knowing I didn't have to have someone else to do it," Berndt said. "I learned to be much more independent after my divorce. I can ask someone for help, but I'd rather learn how to do it myself."