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.)
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.
- 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.
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.