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Is Home Depot Your Pusher? November 17, 2007E-mail this story E-mail this story
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DIY Addicts
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Most homeowners do a little tinkering around the house, paint a wall or two. But some take it to a new level, obsessively remodeling their homes for years upon years and spending tens of thousands of dollars to do so. When does the urge to fix up your house become a mania? When does handiness become addiction? We explore the mind of the obsessive remodeler and how it relates to the rapid growth of hardware giant Home Depot.

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Ron Jelaco has his weekend all planned out. It will be the same as all his weekends. Tools, supplies, home remodeling.

"We bought the house in 1980," he says, "and we've been working on it probably from the day we bought it."

His projects have included jacking the house up 13 feet to put in a new foundation; installing a new kitchen; installing new floors; new everything, really.

I couldn't ring the doorbell when I came to their house. It had been ripped out. There's a Skil saw on the porch.

Inside, seated beneath several half-completed projects, the Jelaco's daughter Louisa says, "It's really like normal to me. Like, I don't know how I would do in a house that was like finished. I don't know. I'm really comforted by the smell of like wood beams in the wall."

Though she laughs it off, it pains her father.

"It's actually one of the things, in fact it is the thing that gives me the greatest anxiety in the whole thing, the fact that Louisa is now 17 and she's never lived in the house when it wasn't a project. I would just like to have it done."

Jelaco is at Home Depot this weekend. It's where he is every weekend. Home Depot had three locations in 1979. It now has over 2,100 worldwide and $90.8 billion in sales last year. And that's because of guys like Ron Jelaco and their credit cards.

But hammers and plywood were around before 1979. How did Home Depot get homeowners to give them so much money and expand so rapidly?

John Gordon of Home Depot says customers developed an incremental dependence.

"You'll start with something small and you'll have some success," he says. And you'll say okay that was really good. That turned out well and I'm ready to try something bigger. And then you'll do a bigger project and that'll turn out well and then you'll do a bigger project. And we almost created like, I don't want to say an addiction."

Chris Roush is a professor at the University of North Carolina's journalism school and author of the book, "Inside Home Depot." Roush says the store was not launched in response to an already existing market.

"I think they created that demand," says Roudh. "If you go back to the 1960s, 1970s, if you wanted repairs done on your home, you were hiring the local carpenter or the local electrician to come do that work on your house. And what they've created is this psyche that, hey, this kind of stuff is easy to do."

And so they make a profit and you spend your money. Still, Roush says, the tangible benefit to the homeowner enhances the popularity of obsessive remodeling.

"Overall," he says, "the housing market today, the stock of houses that we have, are in much better shape than say the housing market 40 years ago-pre-Home Depot-because the average homeowner is more likely to be concerned about the upkeep of that house and want to make those repairs."

Richard Yalch is a professor of marketing at the University of Washington, specializing in consumer behavior. He says the incentive to improve that which you can see can be more enticing than more abstract forms of investing.

"The uncertainty of the stock market," says Yalch, "particularly at the beginning of 2000 with the collapse, is that people began to see real estate as a better investment, a safer investment than stocks. So the nice thing about investing in real estate in your own home is that you get to enjoy it on a day to day basis as well as expecting to gain some profit when the home is sold."

And does Yalch have granite countertops in his own kitchen? "Of course," he says. "I did a very large remodel a couple of years ago just to make the house more how I wanted it to be."

The Jelacos are aware that they're making an investment but they're not all that scientific about it.

"Well," says Courtney Jelaco, "we probably initially put $10,000 into it. But I would say I bet we put in about 150."

"We have no idea how much we've put into this house and I have no idea how much time I've spent," counters Ron Jelaco. "We can sit and speculate how much that is but it's completely a worthless exercise."

So are they addicted to remodeling?

"I think that's actually not a bad way of explaining it," says Ron Jelaco.

Across town from the Jelacos, Josh Moore and Jenny Hitch are working on their basement.

"I guess in my mind I'm thinking," says Moore, "we get to this point and that's when we're going to stop. And then it will be back to what Jenny said, the fixing and keeping up of things."

So he can quit any time he wants?

"Right. I can walk away from the table with my chips but I'm just gonna play this one more hand."

Moore is 32, Jenny Hitch is 33. They bought their house two and a half years ago, then promptly moved into Jenny's parents' basement for eight months while launching a massive preemptive remodel. Josh thinks it's cost them about $35,000. Hitch says it's more like $60,000. Last winter, baby Jonas arrived, meaning they spend even more time at home, which leads to more projects started if not necessarily finished.

Many factors fill that Saturday parking lot at Home Depot: generational shifts, economic uncertainty, an urge to connect to something tangible in a high tech world. There's also a feeling of independence and self-reliance that's brought about by total dependence and reliance on Home Depot.

"As far as this question of when we'll be done, I think the first answer to that is that we'll never be done," says Moore. "I think we'll be to a point that it's like the Golden Gate Bridge, right? Those guys start on one end and paint the whole thing. And then they get to the other end and start all over again."