When you'd need a screw loose to play the DIY card

To revive a flagging market, home improvement stores are dangling special offers. But be careful how you pay

DIY is in the doldrums. The slowdown in the housing market has been blamed for struggling sales at the likes of B&Q and Homebase, with fewer moves meaning less demand for home improvements.

Consumers, worried about high levels of debt, have also been tightening their belts.

Meanwhile, the glut of property makeover shows on TV has caused viewer fatigue, and the DIY market is also having to contend with the popularity of services like 0800handyman, which let you hire DIY experts from £20 an hour to improve what you've got, rather than spend on big projects.

But DIY's difficulties have led to plenty of cut-price offers from the big retailers. The Easter break is one of the most popular times of year for giving our homes a facelift, and anyone thinking of doing so should be able to find a bargain.

Before you stock up on paint and planks, though, make sure you know how best to pay - or you might need to carry out some DIY on your wallet.

One danger is stumbling into the expensive in-store finance available at some of the big home improvement chains. With these credit deals, you need to watch out for extra charges and check the small print. Store cards, usually linked to special offers, are advisable only if you can afford to clear your balance every month, as most levy annual percentage rates (APRs) much higher than on a regular credit card.

Interest rates on the store cards of the four big home and DIY chains - Ikea, Homebase, B&Q and Focus - vary from 12.9 per cent to more than double this figure.

Although Swedish furniture retailer Ikea provides the best- value store card, with an annual percentage rate (APR) of 12.9 per cent, you will be penalised for using your own credit card at its branches. An extra 70p is levied at the counter or over the phone to cover administration costs imposed on Ikea (and every other retailer) by Visa and Mastercard.

"Ikea claims that this extra charge means it can reduce product prices further [for every shopper], but it appears to be one of the only providers to do this," says Robert Kenley of the price-comparison website moneysupermarket.com.

Shoppers at B&Q have a choice of two store cards. The first, Homeplan, has an APR of 14.9 and you are allocated an "open-to-spend period", which is four or six months depending on your credit limit. During this time, you can buy as many items as you like within your limit, and you won't accrue any interest or have to make any repayments.

The choice is nothing to pay for up to six months on spending limits of £2,000 and over, or for up to four months on limits of between £500 and £1,999.

B&Q says the idea is to give you the time to complete your DIY project before you begin to make repayments. At the end of the allocated period, consumers have the choice of settling the debt in one lump sum with no interest to pay, or making repayments at 14.9 per cent until the balance is cleared.

It's a better deal than you'll get with B&Q's alternative "You Can Do It" store card. This can be used at a network of other stores, including Comet, but it has an APR of 26.8 per cent.

"Other cards to watch are those at Focus and Homebase ," says Mr Kenley.

"Headline APRs are 25.9 per cent but both offer various grace periods if you spend specific amounts - though make sure you adhere to the criteria to avoid heavy interest."

Cheaper deals are on offer if you qualify as a particular kind of target shopper. At Focus, both the over-60s and home movers can apply for a 10 per cent discount card.

However, the over-60s can get the discount only on Tuesdays, while home movers receive their 10 per cent discount on any goods, any day, for six months.

For many people, a big home improvement project is better funded in other ways.

"Despite the efforts we put into making our homes stylish, we still aren't doing the same in getting a good finance deal," says Claire Alvey of Alliance & Leicester. "By signing up to retailers' deals, consumers could find themselves painted into a corner and heavily out of pocket."

Cheap personal loans for those with a decent credit record start at 5.6 per cent (see the tables on page 23), and another option for raising funds is remortgaging.

With low home-loan rates, you will almost certainly pay less interest than you would do using a credit or store card - as long as you don't take too long to pay back the advance.

"If you're on your lender's standard variable rate and can remortgage to a cheaper deal at the same time as raising extra cash, you could well end up paying less money - even though your [overall home] loan will be bigger," says Mark Harris of broker Savills Private Finance.

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