What was wrong with the purple Anaglypta that was on the ceiling before?

It costs us a fortune and does nothing to increase the value of our homes. But so what - we're addicted to DIY.
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The Independent Online
Visit any branch of B&Q on a fine weekend and you'll find it hard to get into the car park. The great British preoccupation with do-it-yourself is once again booming as the housing recovery becomes more firmly established.

Last year pounds 5.6bn was spent on DIY, and if Halifax mortgage customers are indicative of the general population, nearly half of home owners indulge in this pastime. The Halifax recorded 44 per cent of its customers last year undertaking home improvements.

Do-it-yourself retailers are seeing a return to the days of the 1980s housing boom, and are expecting to see further growth as people find more money in their pockets from building society windfalls.

Why do the British want to spend so much time, effort and money on their properties? It is a fact that what you spend on your house is unlikely to be recouped in the sale price, unless it substantially increases the accommodation, such as providing an extra bedroom. So this home improvement is more than adding value. Keeping up with the Joneses perhaps? More than that, unless you constantly invite them in for a look around. The home is the focal point of family life, and an area in which we can have total control. As well as improving our standard of living, DIY gives each of us the chance to create our own unique environment. Suburban semis may look similar at first glance, but varying doors, windows, roof slates, garages and drives give each its individual style.

Leisure time and leisure money is spent on DIY - with 70 per cent of financing coming from personal savings, compared with 14 per cent from an increase on a mortgage, according to the Halifax's Home Improvements survey.

Go elsewhere in Europe and you'll find the citizens spending their weekends visiting friends or family, promenading in the park, or simply sitting in a bar with a beer. But in Britain, we really know how to enjoy ourselves - down at the local hardware store. This comparison with Europe has much to do with the number of home-owners; the rental market in British cities is only around 10 per cent compared with around 80 per cent in Europe.

"Shopping is a trial for all but the most dedicated DIY enthusiasts," according to retail consultants Verdict Research. The evidence says otherwise. Many weekend family outings seem to be trips to the local DIY superstore.

When Texas was having its massive cut-price sales prior to its takeover by Sainsbury's Homebase, customers were buying up the stock in multiples. Lightbulbs I can understand, but who needs four step ladders, or eight sets of security lights?

The DIY revolution began after the Second World War - a combination of lack of money and the move to home ownership. Before the war some 70 per cent of the population were in rented accommodation. Now an Englishman's home is his castle so he'll spend all weekend making those arrow slits.

You can often spot the ex-council house among the still council-owned houses. It will have a Georgian-style front door, possibly with pillars, ornate plasterwork (if you can peer through the leaded light windows), and maybe even a conservatory.

Despite the belief that when the housing market slumps people will spend more on DIY, the reverse proves to be the case - growth in both markets went hand-in-hand during the boom times of the late 1980s, with the DIY market also dipping after 1989. There is no mystery here as rocketing interest rates had much to do with the housing slump, and consumers had less money all round. And no-one facing imminent repossession is going to enhance his home.

But, even as the housing market takes off again, the Halifax survey reveals that home-owners still carry out improvements to raise their standard of living rather than purely to add value to their home. B&Q reports paving slabs to be its biggest seller by far during the first six months of this year. Presumably, these aren't for floors indoors, and gardens don't significantly increase house prices. But maybe this is changing, as we experience milder weather and prefer to spend our time in the back garden rather than venture out. Garden improvements have risen to second place (behind double glazing).

A fitted kitchen, a garden, a modern bathroom, double glazing and a garage are considered necessary by over 50 per cent of home-movers, with a conservatory, burglar alarm, security lights, garden improvements and fitted bedrooms deemed desirable. So even if improvements don't greatly add to the value they may add to the appeal and ultimately to a quicker sale.

B&Q also reports huge sales in the DIY basics - wallpaper paste, paintbrushes and white spirit (most of us can manage moderate redecoration), with building sand and bricks also being well up in the top 20 (plenty of budding builders out there, then).

B&Q is still the market leader. This is probably due to its competitive pricing, because it seems that service often leaves much to be desired. As Verdict Research points out: "Some improvements have been made in customer service but there remains much that can be done to turn from a Do-It-Yourself service culture to a We'll-Help-You one." B&Q have an equal opportunities policy - admirable - which includes employing the young and the old - very admirable. But when you require expert advice, as you often do, it may be lacking.

The meteoric rise of the superstores, particularly B&Q and Sainsbury's Homebase, is taking its toll on local hardware stores, which is a shame because it is here where customers will receive advice and opinion from reliable sources.

But there are books and magazines galore, evening classes in central heating installation, and in-store leaflets with step- by-step guides to fitting a new bathroom. The local tradesman hasn't become redundant due to mass production. He's lost out to the DIY-er.

Fitted cupboards come complete, flatpacked with every necessary screw. Wallpaper is ready pasted, and the range of paint is mind-boggling, mixed to any colour or shade. Paint can also give you almost any finish you desire. Gone are the days of either gloss or matt. We now have eggshell, satin, antique and wood finish, with a range of colours that never existed in my school physics spectrum - burnt sienna, white china, crystal mint, coriander. And tools from the humble hammer to an electric concrete mixer.

But if DIY is on the increase, so are the accidents. According to the Consumer Safety Unit at the Department of Trade and Industry, 1,000 people need hospital treatment each month as a result of falling off step ladders, with around 50 deaths per year. Half-a-million people are injured in gardens every year, with hands, feet and heads being most at risk.

The use of a Residual Current Device (RCD) is strongly recommended when dealing with any electrical equipment. The device will automatically disconnect the power supply if the cable is inadvertently cut or broken.

And always use the correct tools for the job. An ardent DIY man in Newcastle discovered that what he had been using to bang nails in for the past 20 years was a live Second World War hand grenade. Says a spokesman for Newcastle police: "This gentleman seems to have been rather fortunate. It could have exploded." Home improvements would certainly have been needed if it had.

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