Frugality in Practice: Do-it-Yourself Home Maintenance

I hate plumbing. Whenever a faucet begins to leak or a drain clogs, my stomach sinks. I know it means hours of frustrating work. It's not that plumbing is difficult — it's just that I'm not well-versed in the ways of home-improvement. Somehow I missed that part of Manhood Training.

Despite my apprehension, over thirteen years of homeownership, I've made it a point to do as much repair work as I'm able. It has saved me a lot of money. And while I'm a ball of nerves going into a project, I get tremendous satisfaction when I finish something and know that I did the work with my own hands.

Yesterday we woke to find water on the floor of the upstairs bathroom. When we couldn't immediately locate the source of the leak, we debated calling a plumber. Because it was the weekend, and because we're trying to save money, Kris and I decided to tackle the problem as a team. While she buried herself in the Readers Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, I took the toilet apart. Ultimately we diagnosed the likely culprit: corroded fasteners connecting the tank of the toilet to the bowl. We drove to the hardware store, picked up replacement parts, and then put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

We were able to repair our toilet for $6.49 and an hour of time. Had we called in a plumber, it would have cost much more. This is how home repairs usually seem to play out for us: some initial frustration, a Eureka! moment, a trip the hardware store for a $10-$20 part, and then a final repair.

Here are some things we've learned when dealing with home repairs:

  • Don't panic. A zen-like state is important for repair work. I don't mean this in any mystical sense, but it's helpful to be calm and relaxed when doing this sort of thing. Rash actions can turn a small problem into a disaster.
  • Act quickly. Don't put off repairs. While you don't want to charge blindly ahead, you do want to take care of the problem as soon as possible. We once put off fixing a small leak in the roof. You can guess how that ended during a rainy Oregon winter.
  • Use a reference. Google is your friend. We've found lots of answers on the internet. As I mentioned above, though, Kris and I find it convenient to have a book on hand. In 1994, we paid about 20 bucks for a copy of the Readers Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual. The book has literally saved us hundreds of dollars.
  • Work methodically. When you take something apart, neatly set the pieces someplace safe. Label them, if appropriate. Be orderly. Follow instructions. Measure twice, cut once. If you have a digital camera handy, take pictures of how things were assembled before you dismantled them. These sorts of careful steps make repair work run smoothly.
  • Don't make assumptions. Some of my most frustrating do-it-yourself experiences have come when I've made assumptions about a problem, only to be proven wrong. Here's an example from my days as a computer consultant: I once spent several hours trying to fix a software problem that had caused a printer to stop working. As it turned out, it wasn't a software problem at all — the power cord had gone bad. Boy did I feel stupid. Don't assume things.
  • Pay attention. As you work, try to notice details. You never can tell what piece of information will be important. Are the electrical outlets you're replacing two-prong or three-prong? How big were the screws on that gizmo, anyhow?
  • Be safe. Some tasks are dangerous. Electricity can kill you. So can a chainsaw. I have a friend who accidentally wired his outside power for 220 instead of 110. The first time he plugged in his Christmas lights, it was like the fourth of July! When one of our trees fell into the neighbor's yard, I had my first experience with a chainsaw. I learned quickly that even a small tree has a great deal of mass.
  • Know when to call in an expert. Not everyone can fix every problem, of course. Some things do require a specialist. But there are many nuisances around the home that can be solved with patience, research, and elbow grease. Don't be intimidated by replacing a light fixture or a garbage disposal. But call an electrician to replace the knob-and-tube wiring in your attic.

Home-improvement can be intimidating if you don't have much experience with it. But with time, you can develop the confidence and the basic skills necessary to perform many common household repairs. If you're interested in developing further competence, take classes from your local community college, or attend seminars at a home-improvement store. (I've also learned a lot by shadowing contractors as they work on our home. I always ask permission first, though. Some are happy to explain what they're doing, but others are nervous to have an observer.)

Next on my home repair agenda: Diagnosing why the light in our guest room sometimes switches on, but mostly doesn't.

More about...Frugality, Home & Garden

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Wesley
Wesley
13 years ago

Glad to know someone else missed that manhood training class. While I can handle drywall and wiring, plumbing is a foreign concept to me. I didn’t know about the DIY manual…thanks for the link!

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Plumbing makes me tense. I can’t even begin to convey how much I loathe it. And yet I always come out okay in the end. I wanted to share more examples of how repairing things myself has saved money, but the post was running long. Instead, I’ve decided to tuck them here in the comments: * When we moved into our current home, the electrical outlets downstairs were in bad shape. The old guy who owned the home before us had wired them himself, and had done a poor job. Many were not grounded. The polarity was reversed at one… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

J.D. I think a lot of people are surprised when they find out how much money they can save by doing little repairs around the house. And many times, the problem is an easy fix – but like you said, you just have to know where to look and be in the right frame of mind.

And don’t worry, I think most people in our generation missed that class. But at least a lot of people are smart enough to go back to school! 😉

Leslie
Leslie
13 years ago

My dad has helped us fix a lot of things around the house (with my husbands help so he could learn how to do these things on his own someday). Dad had to learn how to do all these things on his own through trial and error too. They just repaired some split boards on our deck actually. However, we currently have a pipe in our attic that vents outside that is leaking. The seal around it has disintegrated and water is running down the sides of the pipe and we now have a water spot on our ceiling in… Read more »

Bellen
Bellen
13 years ago

Years ago, 40 to be exact,as a wedding gift a friend gave us a Better Homes & Garden DIY Repair book – and it has saved us lots & lots of money over the years. We liked the book so much we gave it as graduation from college & wedding gifts with perhaps the addition of a few tools. Everyone, after using the book once, told us how grateful they were for that particular gift.

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Because we live in an old house, I think a lot about this subject. I realize that I forgot an important caveat: don’t be too cheap. The old man that lived here before us was beyond frugal. He was cheap. He did all of the work himself, no matter what it was, even if he didn’t know what he was doing. That’s one of the reason the house has so many problems. We’ll have contractors come over to work on things beyond our ken (like replacing the electrical panel), and they’re just in awe of how poorly things have been… Read more »

Bob
Bob
13 years ago

Do yourself one better when DIY’ing around the house: if you can get an estimate (or at least the hourly charges) for a professional, “pay yourself” the same amount and put it away in a savings account.

Not only will it help you realize just how much you’re saving by purchasing parts and doing it yourself, but after not too long, you’ll have a nice sized fund to celebrate with (or pay for a real professional if a job gets too big).

daybyday
daybyday
13 years ago

“I once spent several hours trying to fix a software problem that had caused a printer to stop working. As it turned out, it wasn’t a software problem at all – the power cord had gone bad. Boy did I feel stupid. Don’t assume things.” ME TOO!! Not once but twice. The first time it was a bad power cord. The second time it was a power cord that was not COMPLETELY, and I mean COMPLETELY plugged in. On my printer there is a little green light on the cord itself–if that light is not lit, the cord isn’t plugged… Read more »

DMann
DMann
13 years ago

My wife gave me the BH&G “Big Book of Home How-To” when we moved into our first house. The book covers a mix of beginning and advanced topics. For the more advanced topics (like tiling) I usually get a book concentrating on that topic, but for most quick fixes and small projects the Big Book has more then enough information and illustrations.

I even tackled adding a recessed light over our shower a couple of weeks ago. Using the book I was able to determine what parts to buy and how to install the light safely and to code.

dingbat
dingbat
13 years ago

I was one of two daughters, and Dad taught us to do damn near everything around the house because we were the only help he had in trying to keep a 150-year-old farm house in workable shape. My husband didn’t get the same sort of “manliness” education, so I have to take the lead on projects, but hey, at least there’s one of us. It’s not really about the skills Dad taught us, but about basic mechanical and electrical principles, and that zen-like state you mention–assuming from the beginning that there’s nothing magical about the problem, and if you inspect… Read more »

Dickey45
Dickey45
13 years ago

I always thought that if you buy an old house, you’d better tear it down to the studs and redo everything correctly – hiring professionals is simply more costly than you will ever get out of the house. My boyfriend finally go inspiration to finish his house (actually we pretty much redid everything, even some of the subfloor: http://kathyandcalvin.com/kitchen-progress But it was well worth it. If you figure hourly wage, it is probably pretty low for how much extra we will get in selling the house. But I figure it is cheap compared to a monthly gym membership or just… Read more »

Mommy
Mommy
13 years ago

I’m all for self reliance on home improvements. That’s probably how I ended up in my pajamas, holding a wrench, covered in mud last week… anyway…

I draw the line at electrical. I’ll install a new ceiling fan or replace a thermostat, but, remember that electricity can be dangerous. I lost an uncle to a home repair electrical accident. To be fair, the electricity didn’t actually kill him; the fall from the ladder did, but my point is the same. Be careful!

rhbee
rhbee
13 years ago

I know you have probably mentioned this elsewhere but this same DIY mentality can and should be applied to other tasks that we sometimes in our haste to live our lives turn over to others. Car repair comes to mind.

Jesse Harris
Jesse Harris
13 years ago

For all of its customer service failings, The Home Depot publishes some great how-to guides. As an all-in-one reference, the Home 1-2-3 book has helped me with everything from installing a new kitchen counter to replacing electrical outlets. I can’t imagine how much I would’ve paid to have a professional do all of that work. That said, try and at least have a cursory understanding of national, state and local codes. The last thing you want to do is save money yourself and end up doing it wrong. The previous “do it yourself” guy that owned our house seemed to… Read more »

Brian
Brian
13 years ago

This is one of my favorite articles on GRS yet. I think the point is, no one was ever taught the man-skills. It just seems that people of my parent’s generation taught themselves how to be manly by, as mentioned above, trial and error. Whether it needed to be or not, my house became my own fixer-upper. There have been a few projects that scared the heck out of me going in (ceramic tiling comes to mind) but in the age of the internet and diy books everywhere, it just takes a little research time and a willingness to give… Read more »

James
James
13 years ago

“At 7 p.m. on the night before we were scheduled to leave for vacation (in August 2004), the hot water faucet gave out on our bathroom sink. The water ran constantly. Obviously, this wasn’t something that could wait until we returned from vacation.” I think this problem actually could have waited until you got back. On the outside of your house should be a main water shutoff valve. My dad always had us turn this off any time we went somewhere for an extended period of time. Just imagine if a leak had occurred while you were gone, you could… Read more »

Kevin Baker
Kevin Baker
13 years ago

I really think people underestimate how dangerous electricity is. Even installing a light fixture or receptacle incorrectly can have deadly consequences. I actually just finished a course today going over all the new standards many companies are making contractors follow when they come and do electrical work. All of the test videos showing how major even a small error could be. This was also accentuated by some video and photos of serious injuries caused by what are normally minor issues.

I love DIY as much as the next person but safety should be your #1 concern

Dani in NC
Dani in NC
13 years ago

I have fond memories of reading an old copy of the Readers’ Digest DIY Manual when I was little and bored. I still can’t do any home repairs but I think that is where I developed my fondness for reading manuals.

This Damn House
This Damn House
13 years ago

Thanks, I enjoyed reading this. I, too, am a reluctant but satisfied do-it-yourselfer. I just finished spiffing up my bathroom — less than $500 and I get a bathroom that looks like a several thousand dollar remodel.

I’ve been chronicling our home improvement process in my own blog. Come check us out sometime!

Mikael
Mikael
12 years ago

nice post, thank you for sharing

perry degener
perry degener
12 years ago

Loved the reference to your wife’s using the Reader’s Digest book of Repair. I have three or four of them, and I have saved much money and grief when I read (not making assumptions) first and repaired later.

Jake
Jake
11 years ago

Is there something like this for cars? I have the Chilton’s guide for each of our cars, but would like a more braindead “This is how the car works, and when it does this bad thing, you should check $foo”

pearl
pearl
11 years ago

Ah! the education of learning the mistakes of others. I bought a 1947(?) shotgun house in a very rural area. The basic structure is well made, good and true wood,I must buy 2 x 6 to repace a 2 x 4, the house was built from wood on the property Inheritance and a repair impaired one tried to modify the home was ill prepared. I have had to learn how to jack up the roof so the top plate can be replaced, the wiring is – who knows. I will call on a licensed friend to rewire, I can replace… Read more »

Maisha Judson
Maisha Judson
9 years ago

When we hear the term home security, alarms are what we might think of first. Whether wired or wireless, home security alarm systems are a major deterrent for criminals. They monitor points of entry, such as doors and windows, or they monitor for motion when the home should be empty.

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