Dale Cumberland’s tenacity and style breathed new life into her Victorian-style house in the Riverside area. But while most people can’t wait to finish their home improvement projects, she’s happy if the work never ends. Highly energetic and enthusiastic, she is the consummate DIY home improvement master. Petite, almost elfin, she is a far cry from the stereotypical “handy man.” This DIY maven is a real estate entrepreneur with 16 rental apartments, who does nearly all of the remodeling and maintenance herself.

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“Everything I do is an expression of myself,” says Dale, who is always eager to experiment with new projects.

Home remodeling has reached a $500 billion industry, according to Forbes magazine, since homeowners have been staying put for several years and updating their homes to accommodate lifestyle changes and rebuild equity.

“I think it’s the power of Google,” Dale says. “You can go far with that useful resource, plus a good home repair reference book and occasional expert advice.”

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Dale brought a contemporary look to her house with unique chimney work and a hot pink retro modern kitchen, which has a backsplash of paper-faced mosaic tiles and Paperstone countertop made of recycled paper. It features a vintage 1960s Frigidaire Flair, popularized on the Bewitched TV program, with oven doors that open upward and a four-burner slide out.

James Cumberland, her husband of three years, marvels at her ingenuity.

“My wife is one of the handiest people I know, and I know a lot of guys,” he says. “If there’s something broken I just go get her. She’s great at it.”

He loves to brag about his wife, especially to the customers in his tattoo shop, which she remodeled. Having the first name of Dale, sometimes people might “assume they’re going to meet a man,” he says, “and then she shows up.”

Dale has learned best from her mistakes. Impetuous, she tends to jump into a project and start taking things apart so she can see how they’ve been put together. The mortar bed at the foot of the fireplace is a good example. She stripped it down thinking that would reveal how to rebuild it. Wrong.

“This is much harder than it looks,” she says, noting that she didn’t account for the concrete and mesh needed to give the tile a surface to bond to. She had to redo that project a few times.

“She always seems to pull through,” her husband says. “She doesn’t give up. She wants to figure things out, she wants people to see that she can do it herself.”

A woman of many talents, Dale used to be a hairdresser. She also did accounting work and owned several businesses, including an ice cream parlor. She said she feels more respect and acceptance as a handywoman than she did in previous work places.

“People are so willing to teach me,” she says. “They’re very interested in helping me do it myself.”

She came to home improvement after buying the partially-restored Victorian home in the late 90s and remodeling it with her mother and father. The downstairs was nearly completed, but the exterior was in terrible shape and the two upstairs apartments had been stripped down to the studs.

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One of three girls, Dale had never shown an interest in her father’s carpentry workshop while she was growing up.

Remodeling the Victorian house with her parents “was the first time I was doing this stuff,” she says, noting it started with simple projects like replacing the washers in the sink.

Eventually she built confidence in her skills, learning basic plumbing, replacing water heaters, doing dry wall, plaster repairs, replacing tile, building kitchen backsplashes, making laminate countertops, and replacing cabinetry.

Want to learn how to be a Mr../Ms. Fix it? Check out our list of books to get you started.

“I definitely loved it once I started doing it,” she says. “It was very empowering.”

Years later, she bought another house, an apartment building owned by her previous landlord, and then purchased a third building with her parents.

“That’s when it all came together,” she says.

While the remodeling and maintenance has become a full-time job, it doesn’t feel like work. She has fun adding distinctive personal touches to her apartments, like chandeliers and penny round tile on bathroom floors, but knows when to call in professional plumbers and electricians.

We asked Dale to share her list of must-haves for the DIY maven.
Here are the 13 tools she can’t live without:

  1. Screwdriver set  (Phillips and flat), each having at least two sizes
  2. Measuring tape, preferably 25 feet or longer
  3. Carpenter pencil (flat pencil)
  4. Small level
  5. Adjustable wrench
  6. Socket set
  7. Claw hammer of a good weight (heaviest that feels comfortable)
  8. Putty knife
  9. Utility knife with extra blades
  10. Electric drill with drill bit set
  11. Safety goggles
  12. Stud finder
  13. Teflon and electrical tape