OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – Most Americans who adorn their homes for the holidays still wrestle with extension cords and balance on ladders to put up wreaths, icicle lights and Santa figurines.

But for a small yet growing number of homeowners, it’s easier to hire professionals to festoon their homes for the holidays – design, install, takedown and storage included – starting at about $1,000, with no limits to speak of.

Enter companies like Omaha-based Brite Ideas Decorating, with 254 franchises nationwide and lights on about 40,000 homes, according to founder and president Travis Freeman.

Freeman, 35, says his business is growing about 30 percent annually, with 50 new franchises added around the country every year.

Mike Head has hired a Council Bluffs, Iowa-based company to decorate his house each holiday season the last three years. He said professional decorators can do things he’s not willing or able to do.

“I’m not the most handy man in the world,” said Head, 48 of Omaha. “So one, I’m afraid of heights. Two, I’m not the most mechanically inclined. And three, because of work and other commitments I had a limited amount of time.”

Head said his decorations cost an average of about $4,000 per year with everything included.

Travis Kuster, the owner of Christmas Decor by TK LLC, who decorated Head’s house, said another client paid $12,000 for decorations this year.

Freeman said about 3 percent of his customers spend $10,000 or more per year to spruce up their lots – one customer paid $73,000 this year for mostly custom-built pieces to display.

An LED-animated scene of three elves putting a star on a tree costs $3,900 according to the Brite Ideas Web site. Santa on a motorcycle costs $1,950. Combining displays for neighborhood bragging rights can quickly run up the price tag.

After all, it’s hard keeping up with new decorations, neighborhood aesthetics and an ever-increasing holiday spirit.

“It’s definitely the high end market, where people want something new and unique and they’re willing to pay for it,” Freeman said. “They just want to stand out.”

Americans will likely spend more than $16.5 billion on decorations for all holidays in 2006, compared with $15.8 billion last year, according to Pam Danzinger of Pennsylvania-based Unity Marketing which tracks consumer holiday spending. In 2005, Americans spent $8.5 billion on Christmas decorations alone.

The number of households hiring Christmas decorators is less than 1 percent, and are concentrated in the country’s richest neighborhoods, Danzinger said.

Freeman said while his business is growing, the market for professional decorators is largely untapped.

For some amateur decorators who decide to do it themselves, holiday decorating becomes a year-round cycle, with the costs incalculable, ongoing, and pricier than any other hobby.

“I don’t want our yard to be a carbon copy of everybody else’s,” said Debbie Hansen, whose La Vista, Neb. house display includes Peanuts figurines, moving animals and about 36,000 lights – including about 15,000 hooked up to a sophisticated system that uses a computer program to coordinate the lights to music.

“You can’t just go out and look at Christmas lights anymore,” Hansen said. “They have to be doing something.”

Professional displays can also dance and dazzle, but aren’t as unique, according to Marc Hansen, Debbie’s husband.

“It kind of loses the home feeling,” he said. “It’s still a very beautiful display, there’s no doubt about it. But we try not to duplicate too many things, we actually make some of the things ourselves, which makes it real fun.”

To accommodate their annual display, the Hansens work year-round planning, take time off of work to assemble the display, and have even made modifications to their house to accommodate Christmas stuff they’ve acquired over the years – including extra hardware and items that get rotated in and out of the yard.

Head said his professional lights help build on a limited tradition from his own childhood, without the yearly hassle.

“They would be the old-fashioned big bulbs – I don’t know if you remember those days – but we would put some of those out on the porch, but we didn’t put them on the roof,” Head said. “My mom didn’t want my dad getting up on the roof.”

AP-ES-12-15-06 1143EST

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