How To Not Suck… At Deciding When To DIY

Considering how expensive home repairs can be — and how dang easy they make fix-it jobs look on TV — it can be incredibly tempting to save some money by doing it yourself. But DIY isn’t always the less-expensive option when you figure in the costs for all the things that could possibly go wrong.

If you’ll allow a personal anecdote…
When our youngest child was a mere babe in swaddling clothes, our furnace decided to call it quits. In the middle of a very cold winter. At about 9 p.m.

I called our regular fix-it guy, but he was doing emergency repairs for all the other homeowners whose heat called it quits that night. We’d be lucky to see him in about 48 hours.

So I did one better. I took advantage of my brother-in-law, a contractor by trade. Even though he lived more than two hours away, I sent him digital photos of the burner’s innards, and he talked me through some online diagrams. He diagnosed the problem, I asked my husband to buy the $20 part we needed on his way home from work, and we fixed it, saving hundreds of dollars (though who knows how it would have gone without the over-the-phone guidance of the bro-in-law).

My husband and I never feared do-it-yourself projects. To be sure, we’ve had success with many, such as my hubby’s awesome bookcases and a refinished antique dining room table.

But over our 14 years of homeownership, we slowly decided that for the most part, DIY isn’t for us anymore. We’d rather spend our free time doing what we want rather than being chained to spackle, nails and deck stain.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Indeed, we recently called a handyman to change a broken stove-top fan, fix a stubborn and jiggly toilet paper holder and replace a fallen closet shelf. Sure, we could do it, but we’re busy. We have other priorities. (At least we realized that after the new closet shelf spent several months untouched in the garage.)

“My handy days are behind me,” my husband told the handyman.

That’s right. We’re proud to say we’re no longer DIYers — mostly. We don’t own a lawnmower, but we shovel our own snow. We’ve fixed our garbage disposal several times, but we don’t do grout. We’ve taken down wallpaper borders and painted, but we’ll never do that again.

To make up your mind about your own prospects, ask yourself two questions: are you qualified, and is it worth your time and effort?

PICKING THE RIGHT JOB

There’s no doubt that most DIY projects — small and large — will save you lots of money in the short term. The biggest cost for most home repair jobs is labor, so by doing the work yourself, you’re only paying for supplies.

Of course, many contractors get discounted supplies, so it’s possible you’ll pay more for materials than would a pro. Still, saving on labor could make DIY the smart move.

Unless you muck it up, of course

If you’re inexperienced, you could do more harm than good and end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to have a pro come in to clean up your mess.

So before you start, choose wisely.

*Entry-level: Landscaping, painting, installing trim and redoing closets are great jobs for first-timers. They don’t require a ton of skill to do a passable job and the odds of you doing something disastrous are minimal (assuming you don’t have some crazy, Edward Scissorhands hedge sculptures in your yard).

*DIY at your own risk: Hanging interior doors, wallpapering, patching drywall, kitchen and bathroom tiling, cabinet and drawer repair… These are all jobs that many homeowners will attempt at some point, and at which they might have some success. But they are also the types of DIY projects that, if they go awry, could leave an eyesore that will remind you of your ineptitude for years to come.

*Don’t try this at home: If it involves hard-core plumbing, electrical wires or gas lines, skip it and call a pro. It’s not worth blowing up your home, flooding your basement or administering your own electrotherapy just to earn another DIY badge for your collection.

If you hire a pro for a doable DIY job, consider paying attention to how she does the work so that you can see how it’s done properly for future reference.

If you decide to give it a go, and even if the job seems simple, take the time to research the correct materials and surf the web for tips and instructional videos. There are seemingly countless sites offering home repair advice, instructions and videos, like DIY Network, PlanItDIY and of course YouTube.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING
DIY projects can bring great satisfaction. There’s nothing sweeter than looking around your home and seeing what your own hands have created.

That is, unless you hate working with your hands.

Before you pick up a tool belt, consider your skill level and motivation to get the work done. If you’re itching to get your hands on some power tools, you’ve passed the first test. If you’re on the clumsy side, you may want to step back. And if you’re a procrastinator (remember my closet shelves?), you may be better off with a pro.

Next, estimate how long the job should take. If you want to redo an entire bathroom, expect months of weekends and late nights. If you want to plant a few shrubs, it will only take a few hours.

When you know how long a job should take, consider how you want to spend your free time. If you’d rather be riding bikes or playing FIFA soccer on the XBox with your kids, call in a pro. If you’d enjoy creating a masterpiece to call your own, go for it.

Don’t forget the money. Yes, you’d save by doing-it-yourself, but what is your time worth? Go back to that project time clock. Compare how many hours a project will take (including shopping for supplies, renting or buying tools, learning how to perform the task — then add some padding to go along with your learning curve) and compare it to your hourly wage.

If you estimate a job would take 10 hours and you earn $20 per hour, that’s $200 of your time to do the work, not counting the lifestyle cost to you.

Then, try this “What’s Your Time Worth” calculator for another perspective.

Could a pro do it faster, and for less?

You might be surprised.

You can read Karin Price Mueller’s stories for The Star-Ledger at NJ.com, follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter @kpmueller.

PREVIOUSLY ON HOW TO NOT SUCK:
How To Not Suck… At Getting Out Of Debt
How To Not Suck… At First Year College Budgets

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