Hammer Time:

Perhaps you just finished your spring cleaning and were reminded how lackluster your place is. Or maybe you've been inspired by a Trading Spaces marathon on TLC. Whatever your reasons for tackling a summer home improvement project, you realize full well you're not Bob Vila, and like the rest of us tape-measure-challenged amateurs, could do with some direction when it comes to shaping up the homestead. Read on. This Planet writer has fixer-uppered with the best of 'em and made plenty of mistakes worth learning from.

The most fun part of a project, the planning stage, is generally where all the mistakes are made. Your imagination can run wild as you look through the glossy pages of Home & Garden or stroll the aisles of Lowe's (sidetracked in the power tools section when you've come to buy light bulbs). The danger here is starting something spontaneously that you don't really have the drive to finish. For instance, I have a stack of African slate that's been sitting for six months because, apart from not having access to a wet saw, selecting the tile was infinitely more fun than it will be cutting, mortaring and grouting it.

Even well-planned projects can't account for things breaking, spilling, getting lost, etc. Just be prepared to go over budget — because you will — and put a one in front of however many trips to the home store you think it's going to take. Don't be intimidated, though, by projects that are generally left to the pros, such as installing a light fixture, replacing a stud or putting up drywall. Sure, pros go to trade schools, but there are some great Web sites and books on all manner of home improvement that provide step-by-step instructions.

That said, I don't recommend going it alone on any do-it-yourself job.

Painting, probably the most common home improvement, is also one of the most easily botched. You can't make the mistake of thinking that just because a paint swatch looks cool in the store that it's going to look good on your walls. This summer, I plan on helping a friend repaint a room that she recently painted a tomato juice-shade of red. The best tip I know for painting over a vibrant or dark surface is to not only put on two coats, a primer and a finish, but to have the primer tinted the same color as the finish. The tinted primer will help prevent the surface's old shade from bleeding through and will strengthen the desired look.

A second mistake people often make is rushing when they prep a room for painting. Try to be patient in taping around windows and edges; the clean lines you get when you remove the tape are worth it. On the subject of tape, I prefer regular masking tape to the expensive painter's tapes. And I'm not cheap when it comes to paint. I like Benjamin Moore and don't mind paying $20 a gallon. If you'd pay that much for a DVD you'll watch once a year, might as well spend the same on walls you look at every day.

If you live in an older Florida home (or anywhere other than a brand new condo), then you know the joys of living in a bug-infested, sauna-like state with subdivisions built on bulldozed swamps. Homes that have settled are especially plagued with cracks, everywhere from window frames to baseboards that let in cucarachas and heat. The handiest remedy for these cracks — and a satisfying summer chore — is simply to seal them with acrylic caulk. You'll see if and where the bugs are coming in once the summer rains hit and they begin to swarm. A little caulk in any crevices can keep the bugs out and maybe even keep in some of your air conditioning.

There are a lot of things you can do to brighten up your pad. Whitewash some old wooden furniture. Make a mosaic from broken china plates. Take down those tacky Venetian blinds and hang a curtain rod and some actual curtains. Get out a hammer and nails and put up that sentimental piece of art your friend made that you've been meaning to hang.

My latest project, which is halfway completed, is laying a brick path from my front deck to the driveway. Tools required: tape measure, shovel, bricks and an able lower back. I kept the project simple. I measured a width of three feet (centered on my deck's bottom step), marked out seven feet and dug the area at a shallow depth equal to the thickness of my red bricks. I then set my bricks snugly against one another and packed the dirt back in on either side of the path. The next step is to make the turn for the driveway. I'm sure I'll get to it sometime this summer — on a day when the sun's not too hot, the bugs aren't out and I'm all psyched up after watching quarried granite laid as flooring for a back porch on This Old House.

The following are some great Web sites for exploring project ideas, getting started and, most importantly, getting the job done right:

www.lowes.com — Lowe's is the mother of all things home improvement. Their site features a store locator and an interactive how-to library that includes buying guides, project calculators, online tools for moving, tips on home safety and solutions for conserving utilities.

www.benjaminmoore.com — BM's site features a dealer locator, a paint chooser that helps determine the right primer and/or finish, a paint preview, a paint calculator, tips on paint application and info on proper paint disposal.

www.thisoldhouse.com/toh — This old site features columns on all manner of home repair, restoration and improvement, with links to the TV series, magazine and books.

www.hgtv.com — Like the TV channel, the site's focus is varied, from building to decoration to real estate finance. However, the site has excellent how-to instructions on a number of common projects, with tools needed, steps to follow and photos.

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