Last weekend, I decided to attack our family room hearth with vengeance and a paintbrush. Living with its exposed red brick for the past seven years left me with the itch to give it new life. I figured that, while our house was in demolition zone and covered in drywall dust with the renovation of three bathrooms, a couple of cans of Benjamin Moore and some brushes would not only fit right in with the boxed sinks and faucets in the middle of our front hallway; it would instantly lift both the wall-and my spirits-for spring.

A mere half-hour into it, I wasn’t positively sure if I needed to paint the brick and the grout, or just the brick. A quick call to my artist girlfriend confirmed that yes, if one is painting brick, that nasty paint-sucking grout needs to get a couple of coats, too. So as we briefly chatted on the phone about this massive weekend project of mine, she half-joked about the fact that she was standing at her sink scrubbing dried-on concrete from beneath her fingernails. While I was painting my ten foot wall of bricks, she was re-tiling her pool. And our husbands? Mine was at the shooting range; hers was at the golf course.

Now, while I admit to enjoying the whole renovation thing and the many shopping trips to hardware stores and design centers that necessarily accompany these projects, I happen to like it when my husband likewise engages in the process. Tackles the hard stuff. Does all of the heavy lifting. I’m happy to plant the flowers if he’ll dig the beds. Happy to change the light bulbs if he’ll hang the chandelier.

But here I was: six-foot ladder at my toes, paintbrush and primer in hand, ready to reinvent my family room wall. And my girlfriend, who could certainly afford to hire a pool man to unearth loose tiles, was picking concrete off her manicured nails. And both of our husbands were AWOL. What was going on here? Are women taking on more of the tough home renovation projects in this economic recovery? Are we renovating more in lieu of switching out of our homes altogether? Taking more initiative in getting our homes just right? While I understand that two women do not a trend nor sample size make, it left me with one of those “What’s wrong with this picture?” pauses. So I decided to look at the numbers.

Indeed, with current market conditions, homeowners are looking for ways to not only add value to their homes, but to get more enjoyment out of them as well. And women are taking the lead. Even before the Great Recession, in a 2005 Home Improvement Research Institute Survey, women initiated 45 percent of all kitchen remodeling projects and 43 percent of all bathroom projects, compared to 34 percent and 36 percent, respectively, for men. (1) In my own case, my husband insisted that our bathroom renovation was not only initiated by me, but that it was being done “to satisfy me”-not him-until he saw the beginning stages (new tile laid, shiny faucets in place, old Broadway lighting removed) all shockingly more magnificent that the twenty-three year-old products with which we had been living since we bought the house seven years ago. His later confession revealed that these down-to-the-studs bathroom renovations were not only true value-add’s to our real estate, but that they would bring him immense satisfaction as well when all was said and done.

It seems that women are becoming increasingly comfortable in this role of House CEO, or, as I prefer to call her, “SheEO.” There are now even renovation books and renovation magazines written explicitly for the female audience. And tool lines devoted to us, too. The data supports this trend: After married couples, single women are the largest group of home buyers in the U.S. In this year, the number of women-headed households is expected to rise to nearly 31 million, representing about 28% of the U.S. total, according to a 2003 Fannie Mae study. (2) Big box retailers Home Depot, Lowes’s and Sears are all jumping on the female home renovator bandwagon. In a 2004 survey conducted by Sears, 83% of 603 female homeowners polled said working with tools makes them feel independent. Apparently, these same women said that they “admire women proficient in home repair.”(3)

From my own point of view as a Financial Advisor, I enjoy tackling projects which will yield points in favor of my bottom line over those that do not. I’d rather paint my fireplace hearth than hire someone to do it for me. It was not only emotionally and physically satisfying; it rendered just that much more money in our retirement nest egg for me to enjoy later.

Ditto for the project I took on over Memorial Day weekend, when I antiqued a reproduction country French chest that I bought for our master bathroom. A weekend of sanding, painting, staining and waxing saved me more than two thousand dollars in not having to commission a cabinet maker to build me a custom vanity. And a simple retrofitting of sinks and faucets will give it a look that no one else will be able to replicate.

I believe it is this take-charge desire for mastery, combined with sheer determination and motivation to move towards independence in a variety of areas, that is driving the most impact for this new generation of women. Desiring to understand how things work, particularly in traditional male-dominated bastions like the corporate boardroom and the construction workroom, we women want to play in these same sandboxes and come out ahead.

My mother-in-law gave me only one piece of advice on my wedding day: “From the front door to the back door: that is Carolina’s. Everything else, that’s Ernie’s.” Old-fashioned advice as it was, it has served us well in our twenty-eight year marriage. Alas, painting the hearth was clearly in my territory and I grabbed it. The bathroom renovations, too. But that pergola I’m dying to construct on my back deck? It’s Ernie’s decision. And he doesn’t want it. Sadly, he wins. It is Father’s Day, after all.

Thinking of Painting Your Own Brick Hearth? Here’s How

    • First make sure that your bricks are positively clean and free of dirt and dust. Take a sturdy, thick-gauged wire brush and whisk over the bricks with as strong a force as you can muster, going from left to right and top to bottom across your hearth. Vacuum all the dirt and dust that has now fallen to your hearth floor so that your work surface is as clean as possible.
      • Next, take a cloth rag and give those bricks one more hard wipe, freeing any spectacles of stubborn dirt and dust in final preparation for painting.
        • Standing on a tall, sturdy ladder, with paint in a smaller can or in a rolling tray, apply the paint to your bricks with either a large brush or a roller, whichever tool you feel the most comfortable using.
          • Paint from left to right, starting at the uppermost left bricks and moving across and down. The bricks will suck up the paint quickly, since it is such a porous material. Move quickly, and re-paint over bricks where you desire a heavier painted look. Paint the grout, too! It will also absorb the paint almost as soon as it is applied. Paint over it until you get the look that you want.
            • Vary the degree to which you apply paint. Do not paint all the bricks to the same degree, otherwise they will look too “matchy matchy” and you will undoubtedly not get the desired effect. Some bricks should look very worn, the effect you will achieve by applying thinner or fewer coats of paint; others will look less worn, achieved by applying more paint.
              • Feel free to use a rag to finish up the project, applying second and even third coats of paint unevenly across your hearth until you get the look and feel that you desire.
                • Use soap and water to clean brushes thoroughly.
                • Stand back and admire your work. It is a tiring job, and you will feel muscles that you did not know you possessed! But if you did it well, congratulate yourself on a project that yielded money in your bank account from doing the job yourself, as well as the internal satisfaction for adding beauty to your home environment that you will enjoy for years to come.

                NOTES: 1. Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate LLC, 2010, 2. Tsao, Amy, “Special Report: Marketing to Women,” BusinessWeek Online, (2005: Feb 14) 3. Ibid.

                Carolina Fernandez works as a Registered Independent Advisor in Private Wealth Management. She holds the Series 7; Series 66 (63 and 65); Life, Accident and Health Insurance Licenses, including Long Term Care; and Alternative Investments and Guided Portfolio Management Certifications. She primarily works with Art & Entertainment Professionals and entrepreneurs in the creative communities. She holds her licenses with Source Capital Group, a boutique independent investment bank and brokerage headquartered in Westport, CT. Previously, she worked at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Merrill Lynch, and Dupree & Co., a municipal bond house in Lexington, Kentucky, where she cut her teeth in the industry in 1983 selling municipal bonds and government securities to institutional clients.

                The author of two books, ROCKET MOM! and Country French Kitchens, she is currently working on What Color is Your Handbag? This book will be the first to explore the roles of gender, personality and neuroeconomics and hopes to explain money in language so that every woman “gets” money. A contributing writer for more than sixteen years, her articles have been syndicated by more than 60,000 unique online sites, blogs and newsletters. Her work has been quoted by Parenting, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Nickelodeon, NewsDay, BottomLine Personal and Advertising Age and featured on dozens of radio and TV programs nationwide, including the FOX Business News program Your World with Neil Cavuto.

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