Professional Decorators Can Light Up Holidays

It's the most wonderful time of the year, unless you're the one assigned the task of untangling the lights, balancing on the ladder and spending hours hanging and rearranging your home's exterior holiday decorations.

Sure, a lot of folks actually look forward to taking care of the outside??adornment duties themselves. But for those of us with limited handyman skills, and even less time, there's not enough egg nog around to make decking the outside of our homes a joyful experience.

If you're in the latter category, then this might be the year to give yourself the gift of hiring a Christmas lighting pro. But make your decision soon.

uReport: Send Us Photos of Your Holiday DecorationsAnd be sure to budget for the brilliance to cover both installation costs and your electric bill. Depending on just how large a display you want, hiring a holiday decorator could eat up a big part of your Christmas savings.

A Growing, Growing Business

Many holiday decorating companies evolved as offshoots of landscaping enterprises looking to expand business year-round. Since they couldn't mow or fertilize or plant in the dead of winter in most places, holiday decorations seemed like a natural next step. The popularity of holiday lighting, however, has prompted some companies to focus only on that service.

Brad Finkle began decorating houses as a hobby while still a teenager. When he saw the amount of neighborly interest in his handiwork -- "They'd say, 'You know what? I can't get my husband outside to do anything. Would you mind?'" he says -- he knew it could succeed as a business.

He was right. For 25-plus years, Finkle's Creative Decorating has been a full-time holiday lighting company in Omaha, Neb., and a busy company at that. "We hang close to 1 million lights each season," says Finkle. And in the off-season, there's removing the lights, inventorying, repairing and storing them and consulting with others who want to start similar businesses.

Christmas Decor also lends wannabe decorators a hand, says marketing director Brandon Stephens. The Lubbock, Texas-based company opened in 1986 as a winter component to an original lawn-care business but now specializes in holiday lighting displays for homes and businesses. It began franchising in 1996 and now has 375 operations in 48 states, Canada and Bermuda.

Anthony Minotti owns a landscape business in Austin, Texas, but not a run-of-the-mill lawn service. Got Lights concentrates only on landscape lighting, and when Minotti started the company a decade ago, holiday lighting was part of the plan from day one.

Timing is Everything

While holiday decorating operations may vary in origin, size and location, they all tend to offer some basic services. First and foremost, they put the stuff on and around your house.

The most common decoration is lighting attached to the edge of your roofline, or fascia, to outline the structure. This is the task that usually prompts people to call in a pro, especially in chillier climates.

"The most frustrating things about decorating," says Stephens, "is it's dangerous and you get up there, work in the cold and dark and come down -- and it doesn't look as good as you'd hoped."

If you want to avoid such hassles, then put in a call to a holiday lighting company soon. Finkle started scheduling existing customers in early September, with installations starting at the end of October. That's also the time calls start coming in from potential new customers. "Most of the new ones wait until Halloween is past then start thinking about Christmas," he says.

Minotti's crews began working on Austin homes in mid-October, with all lights up by early November. Around Thanksgiving, his company puts up wreaths and garlands. "Then the customer can just flip the switch whenever they're ready," he says.

Stephens says Christmas Decor operations nationwide tend to book up by mid- to late November. Since the companies have a limited time to get decorations in place, if you wait much later than that, chances are you'll be up on the roof yourself again.

Additional Decoration Options

In addition to roof lighting, companies usually install lights around windows, in trees and in shrubs, and some offer specialty displays. But just how much latitude you have in creating the design varies with the company.

Minotti works with clients to meet their design wishes.

"When I go to the front door, I ask if they have suggestions or if they are open for suggestions," says Minotti.

Finkle takes a similar approach. "We work individually with people to come up with designs, and no two homes are exactly alike because of different trees and landscaping," he says.

Since Christmas Decor offers its services through franchises, its design options are more structured to guarantee a companywide continuity via various packages. "We do the design," says Stephens, "but we present the homeowner with options. There are several different parts, and they take as little or as much as they want."

What if the customer wants more lights than a home's electrical system will allow?

"That's one of the big things that homeowners face," says Stephens. "They don't know the power rules." The lighting companies know precisely how much power is necessary and will call in an electrician if necessary.

Depending on the company, the electrician fee is an added cost, but as Finkle says, it's better than having a display turn into "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" with 18,000 plugs in one outlet, blowing out the house's circuitry.

Buy vs. Lease

Companies take different approaches regarding the decorations themselves.

Finkle's and Minotti's customers buy lights and other decorations from the respective companies.

Christmas Decor offers its clients a leasing program.

"If they own the lights, they have to buy them again when they wear out," says Stephens. "Some people might tend to stretch them, and it could become a safety issue. As part of the new program we launched this year, when the product wears out, we replace it automatically."

Taking Care of the Rest

Once your display is designed and installed, there's the maintenance. Most holiday decorating companies offer at least a limited repair guarantee. This is a big appeal for those who've spent hours trying to figure out which light blew out the entire string or had to climb back up on the roof to right a wind-toppled sleigh.

"We have such a short time frame, a lot of these lights are only on for 30 to 60 days, so we want to make sure they're working every day," says Finkle.

The maintenance might also include some troubleshooting.

"The worse situation I ever saw was this woman who had an outlet tied into her microwave," says Minotti. "Every time she turned it on, the lights went out." A little detective work and examination of her dinner schedule helped them correct the connection and keep the lights on for the rest of the season.

In January, the companies return to dismantle the displays and, in most cases, stow them. If storage is important to you, be sure to check with the decorator. Not all offer off-site warehousing.

Costs of Keeping up With the Holiday Joneses

So what's all this attention to your home's exterior decorating going to cost you?

Your utility bill obviously will be a bit higher. Minotti estimates that the typical Austin-area customer sees an average electric bill increase of around $30 a month.

As for the decorating itself, expect a minimum-order requirement, generally around $200 to $500. Because of the popularity of the services and the limited time to install holiday lights, companies don't want their lighting technicians spending a lot of time on relatively small projects.

Finkle says the average cost for customers in the Omaha area ranges from $800 to $1,500. "The first year is more expensive because of the cost of buying the decorations," he says. But costs also can go up later, he says, if someone starts out small and decides to expand his decorations in subsequent years.

Stephens says his company's average installation across the United States is $1,300 to $1,500. Of course, you can spend as much as you'd like, especially if your Christmas spirit and the desire to be the neighborhood holiday showcase converge. "People really like to decorate for the holidays," says Stephens. "Once they get rolling, some don't stop. We've seen some residential installations run in excess of $50,000."

Finkle wouldn't divulge what it cost one of his more extravagant customers to decorate their place. He did say, though, that Creative Decorating installed 100,000 lights on a Nebraska house. "It was a stone home, so we used hot glue to put them up in the mortar between the stones," he says. "When we take everything off it's January or February, and nice and cold, so the hot glue is hard and the lights just snap off."

When Marci Henna's family moved into their new Austin home, they didn't go to that extreme, but they did want to make the residence's inaugural Christmas a spectacular one. Got Lights wrapped the Henna homestead in 7,500 lights.

"We went whole hog," says Henna. "You could have seen us from Mars."

Extraterrestrial snooping aside, the decked-out house was a great way to showcase the new abode and served as complement to the numerous holiday parties the Hennas hosted for local charities and business clients.

Judy and Wally DeRoeck cite seven reasons they've hired Longhorn Lighting, the Austin-based Christmas Decor franchise, to decorate their home's exterior for the last five years. "We have seven little grandchildren, and they love it," says Mrs. DeRoeck. "It's not inexpensive, but it's very much worth it."

And as for their neighbors, Mrs. DeRoeck wishes they shared the same holiday decorating spirit. "My neighbors should not be jealous," she says. "My neighbors should be doing it, too. It's just so festive and fun, I just wish everyone would decorate."