When I was a kid my family lived in an 80-year-old farmhouse out in the country. My dad loved the rustic charm of that old house, but I think he liked the $500 price tag even more. Yes, the house cost $500–that should tell you right there just how much work it needed. My dad wasn’t a general contractor, he was more of an engineer. But it seemed like every weekend he was working on some kind of home improvement project around that place.
And I know that he thought he had to work on the house a lot. He was making minimum wage when I was 3 years old, and I’m the oldest of 7 children. There was an element of surviving mixed in with the desire to spend so much time working on that old house, at least in the early years of my childhood.
I would help him out when he needed it, but looking back now I would say that I gained exposure to DIY projects rather than true experience or knowledge, because I didn’t remember a whole lot of what I’d learned.
So once I started to purchase my own houses I always bought them with improvement projects in mind. Kitchens and baths, paint, plumbing, tile… these were just part of the home ownership deal, in my mind. I wasn’t too particular when it came to inspections, because I knew I could “take care of that” without having to have an expensive contractor come out. But if any of you have ever tackled home improvement projects, you know that they are always more difficult than you thought they would be, and they always take longer than you think they will.
Here’s a quick list of some of the DIY projects I remember doing over the last 9 years, just off the top of my head!:
- Replaced wood paneling with sheet rock
- Removed part of a back deck
- Removed busted pool
- Rewired LOTS of electrical outlets and switches
- Removed linoleum flooring from concrete
- Tiled 2 kitchen floors
- Tiled 4 bathroom floors
- Removed wallpaper from several rooms
- Painted kitchen cabinets in 2 houses
- Laid laminate flooring
- Stained 3 decks
- Repaired 3 vent boots on roofs
- Painted, painted, and painted
- Stripped/sanded and polyurethaned hardwood floors in 2 houses
- Installed brand new hardwoods in 3 rooms
- Stained the brick all over the exterior of a brick house
- Installed 10+ ceiling fans
- Painted/epoxied bathroom tile
- Replaced several bathroom and kitchen sinks
- Installed granite island countertop
- Built a brand new pantry beside a kitchen
- Repaired busted water main running under front of house on December 24th
- Build a 10 x 10 storage shed using a Lowe’s kit
- Installed hundreds of feet of shoe/toe moulding and other trim
- Installed a couple of bathroom exhaust fans
- Entire bathroom demolition and rebuild
- Floor joist repair (after jacking the floor up)
If I asked my wife to help me I have no doubt she could double that list in 5 minutes. But that’s not the point.
The point is that I’ve had plenty of experience from the DIY side of things at this stage of my life (32 years old). And the older (wiser?) I get, the more I question whether DIY projects are really worth the time.
Time Is Valuable
You’ve heard the expression “time is money”. That definitely enters into my thinking these days, because I’m sure I could increase my income substantially if I were willing to work long hours every day.
But time is also a precious commodity that we have a limited supply of. And when you’ve got 2 little ones running around (and a desire for more) you don’t want to be spending all of your time trying to make money! My kids are only going to be young once, and I desire to make the most of the time we have together. Maybe that sounds backwards to some of you reading this blog, since I’m obviously trying to achieve FI as soon as I can. And it’s true, the time I spend “investing” into my children won’t come back to me monetarily. But I’m OK with that, because my family is actually a higher priority than my financial goals.
What Is A Skill Worth?
On the other side of the argument is the skill set we build when tackling DIY projects ourselves. When I look at my house there are a bunch of little projects I’d love to tackle. And when we get to that point those projects will actually be kind of fun! My wife and I are looking at covering our laminate countertops in the kitchen with new laminate (changing the pink ones that were already in this house for something a little bit more modern).
I know that typical laminate countertops run around $300-$500, then you’re going to pay that again for the installer to put them in. I have a week off of work coming up in December, I have most of the tools I need (or can borrow them from my dad or a friend), and the sheet laminate I need only costs about $90 for the whole kitchen.
Now, I’ve never actually installed countertops before. But I have applied oak wood veneer to an old desk before (which came out great) and I see several how-to videos on YouTube, so I have no doubt I can take care of it. Plus, it will be another skill I’ll be able to look back on and put to use in the future.
That’s worth something! Not just in saved money, but in my overall repertoire of life skills. If any of you have ever read Your Money Or Your Life (my favorite FI book of all time), that’s a key concept in there. The more life skills you have, the less dependent you are on professional help and expensive replacements. You’ll be able to achieve financially independence much earlier, because you’ll be able to keep more of your hard-earned money (think “fixed income”).
So What’s The Answer?
Earlier this year I contracted a fence guy to build a brand new privacy fence around my back yard. Total cost: $3,000. This was necessary for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was my wife’s sanity (kids need to be able to run around outside in relative safety.) I could have built that fence myself. I probably would have saved $1000 or so. But I don’t regret the decision at all! I saved about 8 weekends of my spring, I have a great looking fence, and it was put up in a matter of days!
Now, I’m not about to pay someone to come in an paint some walls or replace some light switches for me. Those are not only easy projects, they are more family oriented, where kids can be running around playing right beside you and see their industrious father hard at work. But I’m learning more and more that DIY is a trade-off just like anything else in life, and the right balance of time is a moving target.
What’s more, it’s a different balance for everyone, depending on your skill set and your ability to bring in income. If I were underemployed I would have all kinds of spare time to work on DIY projects. And if I didn’t have any confidence in my ability to make a project turn out OK, I would have a tough time even starting it.
So my current stance is that I’m more than willing to tackle small DIY projects that bring energy and satisfaction to our lives. Larger, more time consuming ones that are an energy suck are either going to get put off altogether or they will have some professional help. I’d love to be able to tackle all the projects myself, but at this point in my life that’s just not the best thing for me or my family.
How about you? How do you determine what the right balance is between “doing it yourself” and having outside help? Is your decision more financially motivated, or time motivated?