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 Home, Attitude Adjustment and Few Absolutes. Kristine enjoys competitive pistol shooting and hanging out with her husband and their dogs.