Ten Tips for Do It Yourselfers in the Making

diy paintingIf you own a home, you probably already know that maintaining it costs a lot more than you expected it would when you bought it. Even if you are not living in the first home that you bought, every house I have known has cost me more time and money than I anticipated. Every time something breaks, shuts down or backs up, you face a decision – should I fix the problem myself or hire someone to do it for me.

When I first moved into my current home, I was busy with a job that demanded a lot of my time. If something broke, my first reaction was always to bring in a contractor to fix it. I worked at home so it was always easy to answer the door when the contractor arrived and then to pay him as he left. Sometimes the charge was less than a hundred dollars and sometimes it was more than $300. Regardless of charge, however, I noticed that rarely did a contractor ever spend more than an hour at my house.

Over the past few years, I have tried, more and more to fix problems on my own. I have succeeded in just about every instance – although I readily admit that when it comes to electrical matters I still bring in an expert. Becoming my own handy man has taught me a lot of lessons about maintaining my house and made me truly realize how much money I wasted by bringing in contractors to do jobs for me in the past. I still do not have the ideal workshop in my garage (although someday I hope to have it!) but I can now usually get household jobs done on my own (or, more typically, with a bit of prodding from my wife!). If you are not doing a lot of your own work around the house, you may benefit from the lessons that I have learned. You probably already have a hammer, screwdrivers and pliers but if that is all you have, read on!

Examine a Problem Before You Try to Fix It

When something goes wrong in your house, do not assume that you cannot fix it and do not assume that you know what to do to fix it unless you have done it before. If something breaks down, examine the problem until you can see what likely is causing it and how it can be fixed. Three or four minutes is often all that it will take you to review a problem, but you cannot assess your ability to remedy the problem until you know what it is.

One of the first contractors I brought into my home after we moved here was a plumber to fix a broken toilet flush mechanism. He was here for less than ten minutes and he charged me $65 – I remember the amount because I was annoyed that the fee was that great for a ten minute job. A few months ago, the flush mechanism on a different toilet in my house broke. Recalling my experience with the plumber, I took the lid off of the back of the toilet and saw that the problem was a broken chain. I also saw that the mechanism was very easy to attach to the toilet. I went to my local hardware store, bought the mechanism for less than $7 and repaired the problem in about 3 minutes. If I had not taken the time to look under the lid, I probably would have spent about $75 (allowing for inflation) to get a plumber to do what I had done in a few minutes.

Don’t Buy a Tool Unless You Know Why You are Buying It

There are a lot of really cool tools and machines that can save you time and money if you know how to use them. The key, however, is that you really know how to use them and whether a specific tool is the right tool for your needs.

About three years ago, I bought a garbage disposal for my kitchen. I assumed that all garbage disposals could dispose of all of the organic products that my kitchen might produce, especially citrus rinds. After all, I knew that the garbage disposal in my kitchen as a child could handle everything so why shouldn’t “modern” garbage disposals handle the same? Clearly, I should have done more research because the garbage disposal that I purchased was not intended for citrus rinds and it broke down about two years after I had purchased it. If I had researched the subject more completely (as I now have), I would have purchased the correct tool the first time around, and saved myself a few hundred dollars in product costs and installation charges.

Buy a Good Pressure Washer

Whether you live in a subdivision that requires you to pressure wash your driveway, walls or roof, or you just want a clean house, you need a good pressure washer. When I first moved to my home, I hired a fellow to do some pressure washing for me. He did a good job, but at a cost of $700! A few months later, I had to hire a different person to do the pressure washing. This time the cost was over $600! I was flabbergasted, as my driveway needs to be pressure washed at least once every quarter or it turns black.

I went to Lowe’s and bought a pressure washer without doing any research and came home with a washer that shot water at a rate of 1800 pounds per square inch (psi). The pressure washer was barely able to get half of the grime off of my driveway. After a year of futile effort, I bought another pressure washer, again without doing sufficient research; I came home with a washer that still was not up to the task. Finally with my third pressure washer, I had what I needed. It cost me more than the other two washers cost me in the aggregate but it does the job.

If I had listened to my own advice, I never would have hired anyone to do my pressure washing and I would have researched pressure washers much more thoroughly before I purchased one. If I had followed those two steps when I moved to my house, I would have saved well over $4000 in costs over the past 8 years!

Buy a Good Ladder

You need a good ladder. Not a step ladder. Not a little six foot painter’s ladder. You need a ladder that can get you to the roof of your house, to your gutters and to most of the tree branches that you likely want to trim. Without a ladder, you will need to hire people to (i) trim your trees and tall shrubs, (ii) clean your gutters, (iii) fix your roof, (iv) hang holiday decorations, (v) clean second story windows, and (vi) change a lot of light bulbs. All of these tasks are relatively simple but they all require a ladder. Don’t wait until you really need a ladder to purchase it. You need to have it ready when the need arises. I have 3 ladders of different heights and designs and they make it very difficult for me to feel the need to hire contractors to do a lot of simple tasks around my home.

You Need a Lot of Wrenches

If you are going to be handy around the house, you need both a full socket wrench set and a large combination standard/metric wrench set. Furniture and plumbing use a variety of bolts of different sizes and if you do not have the necessary wrenches in your tool chest, your attempts to fix a lot of things will be seriously hampered. If you had to do so, you might be able to improvise a hammer or a screw driver, but you certainly cannot improvise a wrench!

Don’t Mess with Wiring!

If you make a mistake when you are repairing a wall or hanging a picture, you will make more work for yourself. You might even create such a big problem that you have to call in an expert. If you make a mistake when you are working on electrical matters, you might kill yourself or someone else. I learned early on that I would not try to work with wiring because I am not a trained electrician. Any money I save in fixing a wiring problem on my own will be minimal by comparison to the costs I incur if I burn down my home. Don’t assume that just because you can regrout a tub or spackle a hole in a wall that you can also rewire your home. Sometimes the best financial decision is to hire a contractor.

Never Hire a Painter

House painting, in my humble opinion, is the greatest scam facing non-do-it-yourselfers today. When I was growing up, I did not know anyone who hired someone to paint their home. My parents painted. My neighbors painted. Everyone painted. When I moved into my first real home, I noticed that there were painters trucks in my subdivision every day. When my wife decided that she wanted to paint the entire house, we went with the flow and hired a painter. We suffered through his poor service for three months before he finished the job all while billing us for insanely expensive overcharges (which, in retrospect, we foolishly paid).

Last month I painted our master bathroom. My wife helped with the trim and I handled the rest. It took me four hours and cost me all of $60 – the cost of the paint and the brushes. I looked back on what we paid that first painter – about $3500 for my entire house (interior). Looking at the square footage of my bathroom, I think I can safely estimate that it will cost me about $500 to paint the my entire house so I wasted about $3000 by hiring someone the first time I wanted a new coat of paint on my walls.

Take the Time to Organize Your Tools

As I mentioned, I do not have my dream tool bench yet. Someday, there will be a corner of my garage devoted to my tools. Now, all I have is a large, 4 level storage rack, but my tools are all neatly arranged on it. I can find all of them when I need them and that ensures that I can do my jobs when I have the time to do them.

In the past, I have been less organized and thus got less done. After a while, so many jobs would pile up that we would have to bring in a contractor just to get back to square one.

Don’t Undertake Tasks that Cost You Money

There are some jobs that I could do but that I still contract out because the contractor makes it worthwhile for me to do so. The best example I can offer is that of Tony, the fellow who does my lawn. He charges me $100 per month and for that, I have my lawn mowed, edged and trimmed every week and all of my garden beds weeded. His charge includes all of his costs so I pay a flat $100 per month regardless of what he needs to do in my garden beds or with the lawn. If I were to do what Tony is doing for me, it would take me about three hours per week and I would need to purchase a lawn mower and other equipment. Considering that I pay about $25 per week for Tony’s service and given that I can earn more than $25 in the three hours that it would take me to do my own lawn, I do not see any way for me to take over my lawn care duties until I am retired and have a lot of time on my hands!

Buy a Wheelbarrow

If you are going to work outside, a wheelbarrow should be among the first items that you purchase. Whatever you are doing in your garden, chances are good that you will need to move heavy items from one place to another. Unless you are Hercules, trying to move things without a wheelbarrow will be both difficult and likely to cause injury – both reasons to find someone else to do the work for you. Buy a wheelbarrow and you will find that you have fewer excuses to justify paying a contractor to spread mulch or lay down sod in your yard.

What tools have you found that have saved you money in your home? What tasks do you feel anyone should be able to do without hiring a contractor? What tasks simply are not worth the time and effort?

Image courtesy of bradjward

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6 Responses to Ten Tips for Do It Yourselfers in the Making

  1. hap says:

    While I basically agree with your comments about electrical wiring, there are a couple of areas where I disagree. First, now that many of us have GFCI outlets, we tend to find out that those fail. Replacing an outlet is a reasonably safe and simple procedure that will cost you $15 and some time compared to who knows how much for an electrician. Second, replacing lighting fixtures is rarely a problem. In both cases, just turn off the appropriate circuit breaker. Use whatever device you want to double-check the line. I have a little device that beeps when it is near electrical current.

    Check your local codes, though. Who knows when you might have to call in an inspector for something that seems minor.

  2. Debbie M says:

    I’ve been surprised by how often I use a drill, especially for window treatments.

    Of course a hammer and a couple of screwdrivers are good.

    I have this metal spatula I use for scraping all kinds of stuff.

    I made a copy of my house plan showing which circuit all my outlets and light switches go to. I am always pulling this out, even when I call over a handyman.

    I agree with hap about those two electrical jobs. (Also about ceiling fans if you have someone to hold them up for you while you connect the wires.) I once called an electrician to install an outside lamp because I couldn’t figure out what to do with the third wire. He just stuffed it in the hole. Grr. I really hate when someone you hire because you feel incompetent does a worse job than you would.

    Thanks for these tips. I think I’m going to put a big, good ladder on my list now. (Any recommendations?) Thank goodness I don’t need a pressure washer in my neighborhood.

    I totally agree about organizing your tools and keeping them handy. That way when you spot a problem (or finally get annoyed enough to actually do something), you can just go directly to the tool and actually do it.

  3. David Mitchell says:

    Hi Debbie — Thanks for your comments. I have a Werner ladder which I really like after I have it set up. Unfortunately, it is a bear to set up because it is incredibly heavy. Based on experience, I would say the best advice I can give about ladder buying is to make sure, before you buy it, that it is not to heavy for you to maneuver it!


  4. Laura says:

    OMG, where was this site when I purchased my first home?? Great information..

  5. berna says:

    this is one of the best article i;ve read…As a DIYselfer, i find this article useful..by the way, i;ve got a reaction to “Never Hire a painter.” In my opinion, this job entails expertise.we dont just paint but we create. we have to make sure thatbthe paint wwont worn out easily..and these are the jobs that sets painters to DIY.

  6. Pingback: It’s Time to Get Your House Ready for Sale - SavingAdvice.com Blog

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