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Did It Myself

Kristine Hayes

I PURCHASED MY first house almost 30 years ago. To call it a “fixer” would have been an understatement. It was 800 square feet of neglected space in desperate need of repairs and updating. Being fresh out of college and working at a job that paid less than $20,000 a year, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on improvements. But I had the energy and enthusiasm of youth.

Over a five-year period, I learned how to hang sheetrock. I figured out how to tear shingles off a roof. I became educated in how to run electrical wire, fix water leaks and refinish hardwood floors. Even though there were days when I wished I could have hired someone to complete a project, I was confident my sweat equity would pay off. When I walked away with nearly $60,000 in tax-free profit from the sale of that first house, I was hooked on home improvements.

My continuing education in renovation and remodeling has been going on for three decades now. I’ve owned four homes so far and each has provided me with the opportunity to increase my knowledge. I’ve learned—often through trial and error—what I can and can’t do. All that experience has provided me with a wealth of tips for other home improvement wannabes:

Give yourself plenty of time. If the vendor of a home improvement product tells you a project should take four hours to complete, double the estimate. If it’s a project you’ve never attempted before, consider tripling the number. Be sure to factor in the possibility of having to make multiple trips to the local home improvement warehouse store to purchase miscellaneous items you hadn’t anticipated needing.

Evaluate your return on investment. When it comes to necessary repairs, such as fixing a leaking toilet, your return on investment isn’t likely to factor into your decision to proceed. But when it comes to upgrading your living space, it’s important to ponder what will pay off in the long run. Painting is an inexpensive way to dramatically change the look of a room. It’s also a project most people feel comfortable attempting. Assuming you stick with a palette of neutral colors, it’s probably the single most cost effective way to add value to a home

Know your limits. I recently paid to have a fence built. I knew that, between the slope of the land and the tree roots that were present, it was a project beyond my skill level. I was, however, not hesitant to tear down the old fence. The contractor who built the new fence was happy to haul away the debris and charged me less for the project since he didn’t have to spend time doing the demolition work.

Find local specialty retailers. Big box home improvement stores are great for a lot of things, but for some projects smaller is better. When the shower valve in our guest bathroom failed, I went to a local plumbing supply store. I whipped out my cell phone and showed a photo of the fixture to the salespeople. They immediately recognized the brand and the model—and, $27 later, I had all the parts to repair it. They also recommended a particular YouTube video to learn how to perform the repair. With those warmups completed, the project was done half an hour later. I figured I saved at least $150 by not hiring a plumber.

Have the right tools. Tools make a huge difference in how smoothly any project will go. They also add to the cost. Renting, rather than buying, expensive power tools can pay off if you don’t plan on doing frequent home improvement projects. On the other hand, if you’re bitten by the home improvement bug, purchasing a set of quality tools is likely the way to go.

I’ve learned that, in the tool world, new doesn’t necessarily equate to better. I recently inherited a set of professional grade power tools from an electrical contractor. Even though the tools had been used for several years, the quality was considerably better than the consumer grade items I already owned. Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are often good places to go hunting.

Educate yourself. Books, online courses and home improvement magazines are all great ways to learn the basics of repairs and remodeling. And don’t overlook the usefulness of videos provided by retail stores and on YouTube. Many provide step-by-step instructions for a variety of common home repairs.

Kristine Hayes is a departmental manager at a small, liberal arts college. Her previous articles include While at HomeAttitude Adjustment and Few Absolutes. Kristine enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and their dogs.

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R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago

Good tips for the DIY inclined. I always admire people who can and do projects around the house. Two of my sons are great at all that, one even becoming a licensed contractor part-time. On the other hand I am so inept that I have been banned from all DIY except changing a light bulb and even that has on occasion gone badly.

wtfwjtd
wtfwjtd
1 year ago

Good insights here Kristine. Like you, my wife and I have learned a few things over the years about home improvement, and then leveraged this knowledge by developing an eye for improvements that add value to a home, and which ones were merely catering to our personal whims and tastes, without adding much value. In this way, if one shops carefully for a house, you can often pick up a bargain property that’s ripe to add value to with just a little TLC and not a great deal of cash. It’s almost like adding real estate to your investment portfolio, and you get to enjoy the benefits of that investment at the same time. Knowledge really is power, and great for peace-of-mind.

bart37064
bart37064
1 year ago

I did the same thing in 1984 and after finally selling that house in late 1986, I said “No more”. I did have the requisite skills, but lacked the money and the time. I assumed everything would take two weeks and only cost $200. This was rare.

Lessons learned:
-Carefully estimate the scope of the project and decide if you really can do it.
-Understand you will make mistakes, have waste, and the scope may increase (time and money)
-Do one and only one project at time, as much as possible. Finish it, then move to the next one.
-Pray (a lot) that you don’t get overwhelmed, frustrated, doubt yourself, sheet rock the cat behind the wall, or worse.

UofODuck
UofODuck
1 year ago

I bought my first house in 1975 and moved in with no furniture, $65 in my pocket and 2 weeks till the next payday. I also had no idea as to the condition of the house, but learned quickly that it needed work, and the only way I could afford to get the work done was do it myself.

Over the course of the next few years, I rebuilt the entire kitchen, repaired dry rot under the stucco on the side of the house, rebuilt the rear deck and backyard fence. I laugh now thinking of all the days I drove home from the lumber yard with pieces of wood that I had to have cut in order to fit in – or on – my car as delivery charges were expensive.

The same was pretty much true for our second home. When our son went down for a nap, my wife and I were busy with whatever do-it-yourself project we currently had underway. Fortunately as time went by, we could afford more help and now, in our 70’s, realize that our do-it-yourself days are over.

There’s nothing unique about our experience as most of our friends did the same when they were younger. I don’t fault those fortunate to afford having work done by others, but I learned a lot of skills along the way and have a really nice garage full of tools to show for it.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
1 year ago
Reply to  UofODuck

It sounds like we have similar home improvement stories, as well as a love for the state of Oregon ;-). I’m in my third house right now and each one has needed remodeling. Thankfully, with each move up in housing, the projects that need to be tackled are getting easier and smaller. The house I’m in now mostly needs paint and other ‘cosmetic’ fixes. The first house I lived in needed electrical, plumbing and roof work. The next move my husband and I make will be to a retirement community in Arizona. Our house down there (purchased last year) is mostly good-to-go, but of course I can’t help but tinker with it every time we go down to visit.

David J. Kupstas
David J. Kupstas
1 year ago

That’s very impressive. I can’t do any of the stuff you’ve done. I believe one has to get some joy out of it in order to try it. In my case, I’d probably get it wrong the first time and would need to redo it, or would damage something, so it’s better for me to pay someone or just don’t do whatever it is. Also, my wife is in charge around here and doesn’t let me do much.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
1 year ago

My husband doesn’t enjoy home improvement projects as much as I do. He’ll do them, but reluctantly. I enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, even if the project doesn’t turn out quite as nice as I hoped it would.

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