How I learned to stop worrying and love DIY

“Oh good,” Kim said when I rolled out of bed yesterday morning. “I’m glad you’re up.” She gets up at 5:30 for work most days, but I tend to sleep in. Especially during allergy season.

“Huh?” I grunted. It was 6:10 and I was very groggy. My evening allergy meds kick my butt. Plus, I hadn’t had my coffee yet.

“Something’s wrong with the bathroom sink,” she said. “Look. It’s leaking. The floor is soaked.” She wasn’t kidding. The bathmat was drenched. When I looked under the vanity, I was greeted by a small lake.

“Ugh,” I grunted. This wasn’t how I wanted to start my day.

Kim kissed me goodbye and hurried off to work. I pulled on a pair of pants, poured some coffee, pulled out the vanity drawers, and got to work.

I was worried that I might have caused the leak when I replaced the sink’s pop-up assembly last month, but no. The problem was obvious: The hot water line to the bidet (which I installed in October) had worked itself loose. (By the way, I love my bidet. Too much information, perhaps, but it’s some of the best sixty bucks I’ve ever spent.)

The water line to the bidet

Fortunately, the fix was simple. I reattached everything, then added a light layer of tape to prevent similar problems in the future.

Note: As a safety measure — to make sure I wasn’t missing anything — I took photos of the issue and made a trip to the hardware store to ask their advice. They told me everything should be fine.

This might seem like a small thing to some folks but it’s a big deal in my world. You see, I’ve never really been a DIY type of guy. I used to get overwhelmed by home improvement. I felt unprepared, incompetent.

More and more, though, I’m learning that I can do it myself. It just takes patience and perseverance. And the more projects I complete, the more confidence I gain.

Learning to Love DIY

When I was younger, I avoided do-it-yourself projects whenever possible. As a boy, I never learned how to be handy around the house. I could program (or build) a computer. I could write. I could do accounting or analyze literature. But I couldn’t replace a broken window or repair a leak.

My ex-wife and I bought our first house in 1993. Fortunately, it was in great shape. During our ten years in the place, there weren’t a lot of things that needed to be repaired.

And when things did need work, they were obviously beyond our abilities. The water heater exploded on Christmas morning. The electric wall heater caught fire. We discovered an infestation of carpenter ants. These were problems I was never going to fix myself. We hired experts to solve them for us.

In 2004, we moved to a hundred-year-old farmhouse. The previous owner had lived there for fifty years and had done a lot of lazy repairs himself.

Because buying the place tapped nearly all of our financial resources, we were forced to handle some of the repairs and remodeling ourselves. We hired somebody to hang drywall for us, but we tore down the old walls ourselves. To fix the faulty wiring, we asked an electrician friend to help us find problems and make repairs. And so on.

Still, I didn’t feel completely comfortable with DIY projects around the house. I did them when I had to, but mostly I tried to put them off — or to pay somebody else to solve the problem.

After our divorce, I deliberately sought a place where I did not have to deal with home improvement. I bought a condo. All exterior work was handled by somebody else. Sure, I was on the hook for problems inside my unit, but those were easy to foist on contractors. For five years, I completely avoided home repairs and home improvement.

When Kim and I bought our current country cottage, we had a chat. “You know you’re going to have to do lots of DIY projects,” she said. “There’s a ton wrong with the house — and that’s just the stuff we know about.”

“I know,” I said. “But I’m older now, and I’m actually looking forward to developing my DIY skills. I have a better attitude. I think I’ll be fine.”

You know what? I have been fine. After paying a small fortune to get the major things handled — roof, siding, floors — we’ve deliberately been taking on the day-to-day stuff ourselves. It’s much slower this way, but it’s also cheaper. Plus, it’s more satisfying.

In the past eighteen months, we’ve:

  • Painted several rooms in the house, and have plans to paint the others.
  • Installed new molding and trim in several rooms.
  • Painted the kitchen cabinets and installed new hardware.
  • Replaced the kitchen faucet (on Super Bowl Sunday).
  • Repaired the bathroom sink pop-up assembly.
  • Replaced our only toilet.
  • Installed a bidet attachment on the toilet.
  • Built out the inside of a Tuff Shed to make it my writing studio.
  • Built a porch for the writing studio.
  • Stained our new back deck (which we did not build ourselves).
  • Begun work on a fire pit for summer gatherings.
  • Installed raised beds for vegetable gardening.
  • Removed a cedar tree and planted a small orchard.
  • Hung lighting in the laundry room.
  • Installed a car stereo.

Some of these projects (the writing studio, for instance) were major. Some (like the laundry-room lighting) were minor. All of them have helped me gain confidence that yes, I can do things myself.

It’s still no fun when I wake up to find that a leak has flooded the bathroom. But at least now I don’t feel overwhelmed. I’m able to pause, think about what needs done, and then tackle the job. It’s a totally different feeling than I had even three years ago. Three years ago, stuff like this would overwhelm me. Now, I almost love these DIY projects. (For real!) Maybe it’s because I’m old.

Nine Steps to DIY Success

Yesterday as I was crawling under the bathroom sink, I thought about how I’ve learned to love DIY, how I’ve shifted from viewing these tasks as chores to viewing them as opportunities to learn.

As I fixed the leak, I made a mental list of the things I’ve learned over the past couple of years, the guidelines I follow to make sure my home-improvement projects are productive and fun instead of something I dread.

I believe these nine “rules” have helped me embrace the do-it-yourself mindset:

  • Read the instructions. This point is obvious enough for some folks that it ought not even be listed. But for others, this is a vital first step. I know too many people who rush into DIY projects without bothering to read the directions that come with the parts, tools, or kits that they’re using. Instruction sheets and manuals are tedious, yes, and they don’t always make sense when you read them without context, but they also provide a vital framework for the project you’re about to undertake. Don’t skip this step!
  • Tap your social network. While you may have never tackled a particular project, you probably have family or friends who’ve done something similar in the past. Draw on their experience and expertise. Ask questions. Seek advice. While replacing our kitchen faucet, I texted Mr. Money Mustache for help. When installing my car stereo, I asked my brother lots of questions. (He’s an audio nerd.) When Kim and I work in the yard, I often ask my ex-wife for advice. And, of course, I’m not shy about posting to Facebook to draw on the power of the hivemind.
  • Practice patience. DIY projects can be long and tedious. They can be frustrating. When I replaced our kitchen faucet, I was stymied from the start. The space was small. Tools didn’t work or didn’t fit. We had plans with the neighbors that put a time limit on the project. The old me would have been angry and irritable. The new me stayed calm. I forced myself to practice patience, to pause and think about the situation from a variety of angles. I had to make three trips to the hardware store. Ultimately, my patience paid off. I replaced the faucet and made it next door in time to watch the big game.
  • Be methodical. Another reason DIY projects used to frustrate me stemmed from my lack of organization. As I disassembled things, I put them in a common pile. When it came time to put things back together, I was lost. Nowadays, I’m smarter. I put small parts in ziploc bags and label the bags so I know what they are and where they go. If it’s not obvious what large parts are for, I label them too. At each stage of the project, I take photos with my phone so that I have a reference when I put things back together. I take notes in the manual to provide clarity in the future. Then I store the manuals in a drawer. Being methodical makes the process so much easier.

Replacing the toilet

  • Think outside the box. Sometimes you’ll encounter situations where the instructions don’t apply. Normal solutions don’t work. When this happens, you’ll have to be creative. You’ll need to think outside the box. Using the kitchen faucet as an example again, none of the recommended methods would work to remove the old faucet. It was stuck, and there was no space to work with typical tools. In the end, I had to purchase a Dremel and cut into the collar, then hammer at it for five minutes before it came loose. It took a long time (and was frustrating), but it worked.
  • Decide on rules for buying tools. The unfortunate reality of DIY projects is that they often require specialized tools. When I replaced the kitchen faucet, I needed a basin wrench. Then I needed a Dremel. When Kim and I re-seeded our lawn, we needed an aerator. Sometimes it makes sense to simply buy the tool(s) you need. (I know I’ll use the Dremel again in the future.) Other times, it makes much more sense to borrow or rent. (I’m never going to need a $1500 aerator again, so I rented.)
  • Do things right. It’s tempting to cut corners when you do projects yourself. It’s tempting to skip steps, to not work to code, to do the minimum required to get things working right now. Please, do your future self a favor: Do things right the first time. Yes, it takes longer and costs more, but it also means you shouldn’t have to repeat the project. Plus, it’s nicer for whoever inherits your work. The folks who owned our house before us seemed to live by the motto, “Why do something right when you can do it half-ass?” Kim and I inherited a stack of shitty fixes that have made life miserable for the past two years.
  • When you’re stuck, take a break. One reason I’ve avoided DIY projects in the past is that I inevitably get stuck. I reach a tricky and/or confusing step and become frustrated. This used to be a disheartening deal-breaker. Now, though, I accept this as part of the process. When I do get stuck, I take it as a sign to slow down — or stop. I go do something else for a while. I do more research on the interwebs. I re-read the instructions. I contact somebody I know who has done a similar project. I give time for the frustration to fade, then return to the project with fresh eyes.
  • Have fun. Most importantly, enjoy the process. Accept it for what it is. Yes, you’ll have moments of frustration. Yes, it sucks to make repeated trips to the hardware store. Yes, most jobs take two or three times longer than anticipated. Once you agree that this is part of what DIY is all about, you’ll have a better attitude and be better able to enjoy the work instead of resent it. Plus, remind yourself that each time you tackle a task yourself, you’re building a library of knowledge that can be applied to future jobs.

Here’s another guideline: Keep the end in mind.

Home repair and home improvement can be annoying because there are other things you’d rather be doing. You could be hanging out with friends. You could be reading a book. You could be playing a game. The last thing you want to do is replace a broken window.

I’ve learned to consider the reason I’m doing the work. I know that when I replace the kitchen faucet, we’ll no longer have to worry about leaks. Plus, we’ll have a better, more attractive fixture. After we’ve spent six hours staining the deck, we’ll get years of enjoyment from the space. Once I build out the writing studio, I’ll have an ideal space to work in.

Don’t focus on the drudgery of the moment. Remind yourself of the ultimate payoff.

Text conversation about sink repair

Choosing DIY Just for Fun

Last weekend, I tackled a DIY project for fun (gasp). I installed a car stereo.

Three months ago, I bought a 1993 Toyota pickup for projects around our little acre. Fittingly for the era, the truck came with a tape deck. Unfortunately, I don’t own any tapes. I purged the last of them over a decade ago.

Still, I couldn’t resist an indulgence. “I wonder if you can get Taylor Swift on cassette,” I thought to myself. I checked Amazon. Sure enough, if you’re dumb and determined like I am, you can order Reputation on cassette for 30 bucks. So I did.

When the tape came, I was disappointed to discover that while the radio worked fine, the tape player was busted. What to do? What to do? Should I write off the T Swift tape as a $30 loss? Or should I go all in, take the risk of buying a new tape deck?

I think you all know the (irrational) course of action I chose.

I found a $70 tape deck on Amazon and ordered it. Last weekend, as a birthday present to myself, I spent an entire day installing the thing — despite having no clue what I was doing.

The project was fun! (Frustrating but fun.)

I got to take apart the truck’s front console, puzzle out the messed up wiring (a previous owner had spliced new speakers incorrectly), connect the new tape deck, then put everything back together. On my drive to work at the box factory Monday morning, I cranked up the Taylor Swift. The dog was unimpressed but I had fun.

The old tape deck in my Toyota truck

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There are 19 comments to "How I learned to stop worrying and love DIY".

  1. Victoria says 27 March 2019 at 09:06

    Very studly *swoon*

  2. Jason says 27 March 2019 at 10:17

    Nice work! The confidence inspired by those first project is pretty awesome. This article reminded me a some things I learned on our DIY path.

    Youtube. Pretty much completely changed all DIY. The web (and internet before that) was still pretty useful, but man, watching videos at 1.5x speed has saved us so much money on labor it’s insane.

    3-2-1 rule. This is an important lesson. A project will ALWAYS:
    Take at least 3 times as long as you expect.
    Cost at least 2 times as much as you expect.
    Require at least 1 more trip per day to the hardware store.
    Once we accepted the 3-2-1 rule my ranting and cursing as I drive to home depot for one stupid little vital thing has really reduced. 🙂

    Do it right. Spot one. Full ass always, never half ass. Beyond the immense time you save not doing it twice (the second time in the future finally doing it right), there’s a pretty cool sense of pride knowing things are solid.

    Try to keep it to one project at time. This is surprisingly difficult. But I’d much rather have one project finished than have 3 or 4 projects started.

    Have FUN!

  3. Dave @ Accidental FIRE says 27 March 2019 at 12:02

    Your shed is sweet, I’d love to have one of those. I mostly suck at DIY but I’ve learned to just dive in and try. Recently I cut a pane of glass for the first time and fixed a broken single pane on one of my old doors. Had to refinish the moulding and all that jazz. I only bled once 🙂

    • J.D. says 27 March 2019 at 12:13

      You bring up a good point, Dave. Sometimes you have to embrace the suck. You’ll never get any better at DIY stuff unless you try…and fail. On my writing studio, for instance, I learned a lot. The ceiling was one of the first things I did, and it’s a mess. I didn’t know enough to end seams on studs. Seems obvious now, but it wasn’t eighteen months ago. So, my ceiling is all floppy and wavy because the thin plywood ends in the middle of nowhere. Learning from that, I did cut my wall planks so they ended on studs.

      For the porch to the writing studio, I made another mistake. The porch is a series of 2x6s nailed next to each other. I did what seemed sensible: As I laid a new 2×6, I measured from the previous one. What I failed to consider, however, is that each board has unique warping. Plus, nothing gets nailed perfectly straight. As a result, I had what I call “cumulative error”. By the time I reached the last board, things weren’t very straight. It’s not so bad that you notice unless you look for it, but I see it every time. I know now that what I should have done for every board is measure from the origin, the starting point. Things would have ended up straighter.

      There have been plenty of DIY projects where I’ve messed things up, too. I’ve cut my last piece of quarter-round in the wrong spot and had to drive out to get more, etc. These things happen. They’re frustrating. And it’s these frustrations that used to keep me from doing the work. Now, I just accept them as part of the process. I expect them. As Jason mentioned above, I realize that things will take longer than I expect. If they don’t (as yesterday, when the leak repair only took a few minutes), I see that as a bonus. It’s a gift. That’s a small change of frame — seeing short projects as a blessing instead of long projects as a curse — but it makes a big difference.

  4. Jason B says 27 March 2019 at 12:34

    Great article, J.D., but my big takeaway is that a Taylor Swift cassette costs $30!

  5. Marc says 27 March 2019 at 15:21

    With an old house, I have found the principle of “Chesterton’s Fence” to be invaluable. When renovating or repairing NEVER rip something out if you don’t understand why it is there. I, of course, learned this the hard way (not that bad, but I kicked myself for the extra work). With an old house, you almost always find something that looks like it has no purpose.

    • J.D. says 27 March 2019 at 16:31


      Marc, I’d never heard of Chesterton’s Fence until you mentioned it. I googled it. I love the principle. It’s applicable to so many situations. (For some reason, the notion has been co-opted by one political persuasion in the U.S., but there’s nothing inherently biased about the idea.) Certainly it applies to strange things in old houses, but it’s also true with laws, policies, social norms, and even websites. 🙂

  6. Donna Freedman says 27 March 2019 at 16:39

    When helping my daughter rehab her rental unit, I found that pouring a bucket of mop water into one of the two kitchen sinks caused a flood. The sink drain pipe and the waste pipe had come apart.

    Called my dad for advice and he said “Teflon tape.” So I searched YouTube for “Teflon tape” and watched a couple of videos. Then I bought the tape and a small doodad (to use the technical term) to fit inside the waste pipe. The fix took about two minutes after that, and I was so pleased with the leak-free result that I ran far too much water (it’s the desert, after all) just for the joy of watching the pipe NOT leak.

    As an apartment house manager in Seattle I was called on to fix various little issues. Some I already knew how to do; others required some quick research. I saved the building owners SO much money by not having to call in a handyman. Definitely earned my free apartment!

    When my daughter was a teenager she and I replaced the toilet and I also tore up the rotted subfloor and patched it with scrap plywood. Back then I had only the Reader’s Digest home handyman book. Having videos available makes these jobs much, much easier.

    I think most people would be surprised to learn how many things they can do themselves.

  7. Grg says 28 March 2019 at 05:54

    My house celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and I consider myself as one in a (surprisingly short) line of incompetent craftsman/homeowners. I realized this when my mission to replace stucco on the detached garage turned into a rescue mission and an emergency wall reframing (we knew the place was treated for termites, but not that the garage was being held up by stucco).

    Once I got over the fear of screwing up–I could see where previous owners missed a few studs while nailing things up–I adapted pretty quickly. YouTube is your friend here.

    Also, always buy two wax rings for the toilet. You will likely **** up the first one.

    Building an outside office shed is my next project (possibly, I’m hoping my path to early retirement includes a telecommute phase).

  8. Michael says 28 March 2019 at 06:43

    Like the others above, once you figure out the problem, the next step should be Youtube. No matter what your problem is, you can probably find someone in the know who has done the thing before, and oftentime it is a licensed individual or a dealer of the product you are trying to fix. I thankfully have not had to do too much actual DYI on the house (other than replacing toilets, painting, etc. but I already knew how to do those things) since the previous owners took pretty good care of the house.

    However, I have had to repair or do annual maintenance on my tools/equipment. I dont know who writes instruction manuals but I often find them to be ridiculously complicated or simply not helpful. However, I have found videos on chores like replacing snowblower blades (not hard but ridiculously fiddly especially if you dont know the tricks), dropping the deck on a lawn tractor to replace/sharpen blades (the dealer who openly said to ignore the instructions because they are confusing), or cleaning the dishwasher (also fiddly to take apart to reach the screen) that have saved me so much time and effort. For example, from what I can tell online, places charge almost $200 to replace the snowblower blades and about the same to replace lawnmower blades and change the oil. These are both things that cost me about $40 in parts and an hour of time…although I am getting faster with the lawnmower as I do it more often.

  9. FoxTesla says 28 March 2019 at 07:24

    There’s an aspect of DIY that bothers/discourages me that I don’t see mentioned in the article – quality (above and beyond the “to code vs. half-assed” briefly mentioned).

    In my experience, any task I have done myself, even when done properly, does not look good or function as well compared to work done by someone hired. This ranges from the mundane (replacing a light switch/outlet…after replacement it will be flush with the switch cover or will be sturdy, but never both) to the involved (for me, that was building a new gate for our backyard, which is already coming apart after 6 months vs the 10 years it should last).

    This all comes even after years of home ownership and “knowledge/skill capture”, so I keep wondering when the process will become joyful, or when jobs will become easier, or when the finished product won’t stick out like a sore thumb, because so far they never do.

  10. Joe says 28 March 2019 at 07:41

    I think you missed a step – search for the DIY video on YouTube. There are a ton of resources on YouTube now. Nice job with all the DIY. Did you pressure wash the deck and sand before staining it? We need to do that this summer. The deck is green and slippery in the winter now. It’s not safe.
    Last week, I routed the cable from the basement to the first floor. Cutting into the drywall was scary, but it worked out. Whew!

    • J.D. says 28 March 2019 at 08:27

      D’oh! I totally forgot to mention YouTube and Google. I am not a video guy, as anyone who knows me can tell you. I’ll watch some video for DIY stuff, especially if I can’t find clear instructions. Mostly, though, I find self-help videos annoying. There’s too much extraneous info that I can’t skip and often I have to watch five videos to find the one that actually applies to my situation.

      For the car stereo, I couldn’t find any videos that helped. But I found a terrific website that explained step by step how to take apart the pickup’s console, which was what I needed to do to access the stereo guts. It was awesome.

  11. Jim Wang says 28 March 2019 at 09:24

    I love DIY too and for a lot of things, I think it’s usually a lot faster. We had our A/C go out a few years ago and to get a company to come out would’ve taken them five days (I called three places, fastest was 5 days) AND cost a $99 call fee. I watched some Youtube videos, figured the only thing I could fix (replace the capacitor) and had it working that night. It was a little bit of a pain because I had to get the part and it took longer than a technician would’ve taken (they have the part on the truck), but it was far cheaper and faster to get it up and running. Capacitor cost like $8.

  12. Joe says 28 March 2019 at 09:33

    I’ve been a homeowner for 20 years, and I was always handy and have built up a fair body of DIY skills.

    That said, I hardly ever do anything major myself these days. The opportunity cost just isn’t there. I don’t enjoy doing the work, and when I can spend a couple of hundred dollars to instead spend some quality time with my kids (precious) or myself (even more precious), great. Perhaps when the kids are grown and I have more spare time in my life, I’ll feel differently.

    This goes double when it’s something that (as another commenter pointed out) I won’t do as well as a professional, and might very well end up worse than when I started (such as the time I drove a nail into a pipe installing baseboard).

  13. WantNot says 28 March 2019 at 09:45

    “I had to make three trips to the hardware store.”

    This made me laugh out loud. And as noted upthread (a great post) there are always multiple trips. No matter how you plan, more than one.

    My hardware guys so used to hearing me say this that he asks me….”Is this trip #1, 2 or 3?”

    There’s something about a house that you’ve DIY’d . . .so satisfying! And loved seeing your Writing Shack. Good going!

  14. Steve says 28 March 2019 at 10:21

    Why did you install a tape deck instead of CD player?

    • J.D. says 28 March 2019 at 10:57

      I have no logical reason and asking for one will get you know where. The only answer I can give you is, “I wanted to because it seemed like fun.” To me, CDs are just as much a dead technology as tapes are, so there’s no real difference between the two. That said, I do still have some CDs, so that would seem to make more sense. Now, though, I get the joy of finding tapes at garage sales and estate sales and thrift stores. I already know I want a Neil Diamond tape, a Rick Springfield tape, an Asia tape, a U2 tape, and “Grand Illusion” from Styx.

      I guess the only semi-rational thing I can say is that this is a 1993 pickup and it feels like something from my childhood (although I would have been 23 when it came out), and a vehicle from my childhood should have a tape deck. 😉

  15. El Nerdo says 28 March 2019 at 18:48

    Or you could use comparative advantage and trade with the plumber, and both of you profit.

    I find that as I specialize in a line of work the value of DIY is more learning to understand what I’m paying for, and how to negotiate and identify a good tradesperson. I.e. more educational than practical.

    I was a homesteader for 5 years, and when my self-installed outlets stared arcing I figured for that for the kitchen stove installation I had to call a professional electrician. It was the right call with a 40 amp circuit.

    (Eventually we’re keeping the cabin, but being a total DIYer means you spend *a lot* of time just procuring food…)

    There’s an opportunity cost curve hidden there somewhere… don’t have time to plot it but I grasp it intuitively.

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