By Stephen Singer -- AP Business Writer
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Motivated as much by frugality as machismo, Tim Longua recently replaced a thermal coupler on the furnace in his Chicago home.
Instead of spending what he estimated would be a few hundred dollars, Longua, 39, an eighth grade algebra teacher, chose to tackle it himself. He said he watched a previous repair on his furnace and figured replacing the sensor wouldn't be that big a problem.
"I don't have $200 to throw around," Longua said.
Still, before jumping in he sought some guidance by paying $9 to consult an online expert on Justanswer.com. The replacement part cost just $11, so his bill was a mere fraction of what it could have been.
"It's a little bit of a male ego kind of thing," Longua said. "I can get it fixed."
But it's not just a guy thing. As consumers pull back in the worst recession in decades, homeowners are embarking on do-it-yourself projects and flocking online for advice on technical questions. They're aiming to do everything from fixing appliances and cars, to even handling their own legal work to save money.
Consumers are finding help from an array of Web sites. Justanswer.com, for example, matches consumers with experts who answer questions by e-mail in real time about taxes, legal and health questions and other issues.
Similarly, Fixya.com links consumers with other users and experts by e-mail to repair digital cameras, printers, cars, iPods and the like. "The best person to help a consumer with a technical problem is another consumer, not the manufacturer," said Yaniv Bensadon, the Web site's chief executive and founder.
Do-it-yourself projects are rising as demand for home improvement professionals has fallen since 2007, according to the Home Improvement Research Institute in Tampa, Fla.,
"Just recently we started to see a little less work done by the pros and a little more by do-it-yourselfers," spokesman Richard Johnston said. "People are only doing what they can do themselves."
Dennis Smith, a retired home contractor in Davenport, Iowa, serves as an expert on Justanswer.com. In his experience, many of the questions submitted relate to repairing previous do-it-yourself projects — such as laminate floors that have buckled, broken or cracked tiles or discolored tile grout in floors and walls. From his perspective as an expert, he responds with questions to determine a homeowner's ability to finish large projects, and may advise those seeking help to consult a contractor.
"People who work on the stock market all day probably aren't the best ones to put down a new driveway or a patio," Smith said.
Sometimes, a project is harder than it seems.
Paul Rucker, a NASA inspector who rewires B-52 bombers, said trying to fix a broken ice-maker in his freezer was tougher than working on multibillion dollar warplanes.
"I don't know diddly about ice-makers," the El Paso, Texas, resident said.
Within minutes of submitting his question he received a text message on his cell phone from an expert who concluded, following back-and-forth e-mails, that the ice-maker was beyond repair and needed to be replaced. Rucker found one online, paid less than $70, including the cost of shipping, and installed the new freezer component himself.
"I like ice," he said jokingly. "It kind of works on a hot day in Texas."
Pressed by the recession, consumers are looking for ways to avoid the cost of a service call. It can be as much as $80 plus labor and parts, said Tom Johnston, the online expert who helped Rucker figure out the problem with the ice-maker.
About a quarter of callers will decide that a problem, such as fixing wiring, is beyond their ability and will call a technician, said Johnston, who is an appliance repairman in Oshawa in Ontario, Canada. But they're in the minority.
"A lot of the times when I'm in someone's house I'm thinking they could have done that themselves."
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By Stephen Singer -- AP Business Writer